General Concerns

1. “How can I make understanding accessible to all students given the great diversity student ability in my class?”

The students in most classrooms are very diverse in terms of prior knowledge, ability, motivation, and interest. Teachers are naturally concerned whether all students can learn from in collaborative and active-learning environment. Teachers use several strategies to address this issue that don’t involve reducing the expected learning outcomes for some students—everyone in a class is expected to achieve the same learning outcomes. One important strategy is to let students work in small groups rather than always teach them as a class. Working in groups, students can ask help more easily and make positive contributions to the work, and they also see better models for performance than their own (e.g., better thinking by a group member). It is important that the teacher does not always cater to the strengths ands weaknesses of specific students, for example by always asking the strongest student to be the group leader and the weaker students to play an assistive role. All students need to be encouraged to develop beyond their current capability. It also is important for students to work with many different students, so that the benefits and challenges average out over time.

Although all students can learn from collaborative learning this does not mean that the diversity is eradicated. We may find that the weaker and stronger students learn at similar rates so that the gap between them remains roughly constant. What this means is that the weaker students need more practice and more time on a topic to reach the level of the stronger students.

Concept mapping is one type of activity that can help students consolidate their ideas. This can also be done collaboratively. Concept maps can help students to think logically and discover the interrelationships between concepts. Students with different abilities can be asked to form groups and those with higher abilities can even deepen their understanding upon teaching others.

2. “What does it mean for students to be self-regulated learners?”

It does not mean that students have to discover difficult content on their own, without guidance or teaching from the teacher. What it does mean is that students have a very active role in the learning process—a role that goes far beyond completing a task that has been set by the teacher. Students assist the teacher in what the learning goals require. Even if the goals are stipulated by a curriculum, students need to be aware of the gap between what they are expected to learn and what they know. Students cannot do this on their own, but nor does it have to be done completely by the teacher. Moving from that, students can help to design a suitable learning path, evaluate if they are staying on that path, and evaluate whether they have reached the learning goal. When the students are young and new to a subject this is very much collaboration between the teacher and the students, but as they mature students take greater control of the process. An important aspect of self-regulated learning in a social context is student’s ability to learn from others (e.g., listen to the ideas of others) and to regulate others (e.g., make useful suggestions or be helpful). In self-regulated learning students also are aware that they need to consolidate their ideas with authoritative sources. For example, in science it is not just a question of coming to an agreement, but students need to consider critically what science texts say about the question at hand.

3. “How do I keep students engaged during classroom assignments?”

There are several things a teacher can do to keep students engaged. Students usually are willing to work on a task if they understand the goal of the task and the task presents a challenge that is neither too easy no too difficult. If the task is too difficult students may not think they can accomplish it and give up; if it is too easy students may not work on the task seriously. In neither of these cases do students feel a sense of satisfaction. It also is important that students feel that the task is authentic. A task may not be authentic if it is only peripheral to the syllabus, so tasks must help students improve on the desired outcomes somehow. A task can also be more or less authentic depending on how related it is to their everyday life experience. Adolescents may be interested in social issues such as how to develop a more democratic society, but younger students are not thinking about such issues as much and may respond less to a debate task.

4. “How can I use the various teaching strategies to help my students learn?”

Some teachers believe that once they become a constructivist teacher they can no longer instruct students. This is not right; it is fine to let students struggle with challenging problems on some occasions, alone or with others, but instruct students how to carry out a procedure on others. It depends on how much prior knowledge the students have. If students are introduced to solving quadratic equations for the first time they should first be shown how a few can be solved and practice solving similar ones. But after this, it is useful if students can explore, finding different ways to solve the same problem or try to apply the learned the techniques they have learned to unfamiliar problems. In so doing, they can gain knowledge about the limitations of the techniques they have learned, and the variety of methods for solving the same problems. If they don’t discover new techniques, then at least they are prepared for learning them from the teacher—the new method will make sense because it helps students out of the dilemma of not being able to solve a certain kind of problem.

It also is not true that collaborative learning is always better. Some learning tasks can be accomplished very well when students work independently. Collaborative learning should be used when the task is too difficult or laborious for one person. Having more students work on the task can then lead to better performance by the group than any individual student could achieve alone. Collaborative learning can also be used to help students develop social skills, even when this does not lead to better academic learning outcomes. Here, the development of the social skills is the point of working together. With collaborative learning it is also important to consider whether students have sufficient prior knowledge or the social skills that are needed. When students don't know very much about a topic, discussing their ideas with others may not help much. If they have not developed the necessary social skills they cannot collaborate effectively and are less likely to achieve the academic goals. Thus a teacher should expect that when a collaborative strategy is tried for the first time, it may not go very well—perhaps the collaboration is quite chaotic and the learning goal has to be revisited. However, after such an initial experience we can expect that students will learn to use the new strategy effectively so that the results will be better after a few experiences. Finally, some strategies that may not seem to produce deep learning are still useful in some situations. “Drill and practice” can be useful for learning practical skills, such as tying one’s shoelaces. The positive and negative reinforcements can help students gain some awareness of successful strategies. However, this type of learning is less useful in conceptual domains. In summary, it is important to recognize that what is the best teaching method depends a great deal on the learning goal, the nature of the learners when they embark on the learners, the extent to which the goal has to be achieved, and so on.

5. How can we embed formative assessment to BOTH keep track of students’ progress and promote deep understanding?

New developments in the learning sciences emphasize the importance for students to be aware when they understand and when they need more information. One way to foster such awareness in students is by questioning and purposeful class discussion that helps students set and internalize the learning goals. For example, One teacher led her class to evaluate samples of student work from previous years, such as laboratory reports, concept maps, essays, and projects. “Is Report A an example of good work?” If yes, why?” “How did Report B reflect what the student learned?” “What might have happened if this factor had been changed?” “What information would this student need in order to be able to improve the work?” Analyzing anonymous samples of work by other students makes the discussion less personal. Students are then more willing to speak up as they construct rubrics and internalize the learning goals collaboratively.

The interactions between the teacher and students, and among the students, are is as important to much to teach as to assess as students’ understanding. They also form It also forms the basis for of peer- and self-assessment, which contribute to reflective and deep learning. To implement For this kind of formative assessment to implement well, it is important that: the goal of the lesson or the task must beis clear to the student; the student is provided assistance in helped to understanding the gap between how far his/her current understanding and the understanding targeted by is from the goal; and feedback is provided to point out where did the student make made an errors and or what action he/she can take to achieve the goal. (Response from Miss Au)

6. " I have a tight teaching schedule. I feel insecure if I don’t present the content directly to students."

Teachers are facing bloated curricula, tight timelines, and diverse student populations. In order for teachers to teach and students to learn effectively, it is crucial to arouse students’ interest and to encourage them to think logically and consolidate their ideas. Teachers address these constraints in several ways. Exploratory inquiry activities can engage students in small-group discussions and then set the stage for the teachers’ instruction. Teachers may provide a model explanation, but build up these explanations from the ideas and partial explanations worked out by the students. These teachers feel that it is fine for students to meander a bit during their exploratory talk but that it is essential that students remember the salient and important elements, and not the ones that tuned out to be blind alleys. Teachers may also use extracurricular time, during which students carry out investigations. In this, although the work students are doing is carried out after school, it is important that the teacher brings it back to subsequent lessons. If the inquiry is just extra work, students will not see its relevance to the syllabus and their interest and effort may diminish. Teachers may also use computers to simulate or visualize phenomena that would require too much time to investigate using real materials.

7. Except the report card at the end of the term, how can I keep parents informed about their children’s progress?”

The use of a learning portfolio is a good way to keep parents informed about their children’s progress. For example, Mr. Mak provides a list of expected learning outcomes and explains them to his students at the beginning of the school year. The students will paste it onto the inside cover of their portfolio file and show it to the parents for a signature. This way, parents are informed of the learning outcomes their children are expected to achieve during the year. The students keep their work in the portfolio. It may include designs for experiments, laboratory reports, posters, essays, concept maps and so on, together with the relevant assessment rubrics, feedback from teacher or their peers, and their child’s own reflections. From time to time, Mr. Mak asks his students to identify evidence of learning in their collection, such as growth in understanding of a concept, demonstration of creativity, and any other area of improvement. The students tag the pages where the evidence is highlighted and add annotations. This way, Mr. Mak makes his students accountable for their own progress, and reduces his own workload. He does not need to read every page of the portfolios. When he finds sound evidence of learning in the portfolio, Mr. Mak acknowledges it with specific feedback and encourages the students to bring it to the parents for a signature. Some of these good works will also be displayed in the laboratory or posted on board in the school campus. During parent-teacher conferences, Mr. Mak remains silent when he meets with both the parent and student. He just bears witness to the student’s improvement as the student reports on his portfolio.

8. “I could not make things change all by myself.”

A teacher cannot make change alone. When students leave one teacher’s class and go to that of another, they may find that the hard work to understand things deeply is no longer expected. Students know that although they learn as a community they won’t have that community when they sit for examinations. It is well-known that if changes are to be made in the classroom that emphasize such things as self-regulated learning, collaborative learning, and learning with technologies, then these changes must be understood and supported at all levels of the educational system—the department head, principal, and beyond. Without that, the teacher does not really have the freedom to develop new pedagogical strategies in a systematic way. If a teacher tries to implement self-regulated learning but the principal who evaluates that teacher only sees disorder, noise, and a teacher who shuns his responsibility to explain new content well, then the teacher has little chance of succeeding. Much dialog is thus needed across levels in the educational systems to gain a shared understanding of what is being tried and how it is working out.