Building a Community for Learning

Yesterday,  a student asked me for help setting up a reflection page in the class wiki. As I sat beside him, he muttered, “I need to get some work done. I need to get marks in this course.”

I bit my tongue.

I am working very hard to build a community for learning in my courses this year. I really want to say that “we” are working hard to build a community for learning, but that isn’t the case…yet. In spite of establishing a consistent framework for the learning that embeds student choice and minimizes the teacher’s voice, considering the roles and responsibilities of the student, of the teacher, and of the room, and generating our community expectations for all the usual things like leaving the room and helping each other, the reality is that students are too deeply entrenched in the institutional side of education to actually be active participants in their own learning.

There are students for whom the game of school is about grades, increased opportunities to access higher education, and garnering a certain cachet as a top student.

Although Ontario students aren’t racing for the top, they are playing the game of school as well as any of their southern peers. Here you can listen to Kourosh Houshmand, a grade 12 student with the Toronto District School Board in 2012-13, being interviewed by The Agenda’s Steve Paikin. In response to the question, “How well do you feel that this public school system has prepared you for whatever is going to come next?”, Houshmand replied, “If the future consisted of life-long membership in the national regurgitation academy, then I’d be greatly prepared (22:35).

There is another game of school going on though that has nothing to do with high marks or the honour role. This

Learning Community Expectations

is the game of “just tell me what to do, so that I can get this credit.”  You can see that game embedded in the “expectations” the students generated.  In spite of small group discussion around some alternative classroom/community expectations (mistakes are signs of learning, take initiative, be actively involved, bring passion, engage) only those all too familiar rules that teachers list in their classes from grade 1 to well, this is grade 11, made the list (as the holder of the pen, I added “Take Risks” and “Practice Self-Regulation”).

What’s the next step?

To continue the conversation with the students in whole class setting and in one-on-one conferences. To lead them to intellectual engagement through the inquiry process, and yes, for some, through the newly acquired classroom technology. To have the students regularly write from a metacognitive stance. To provide them with lots of timely and constructive feedback. To continually look for ways to help students ask  themselves”What do I need to learn next?” rather than to ask the teacher, “What do I have to do next?”






Filed under Teaching

4 responses to “Building a Community for Learning

  1. Brendan Murphy (@dendari)

    May I suggest reading some back posts on these blogs.

    you also might consider exploring Standards based grading or competency based grading as it is sometimes called.

    good luck

  2. msjbalen

    Thanks for the links and suggestions Brendan. Ontario has an assessment policy that is criterion referenced. The Achievement Chart that accompanies all courses makes assessment clear. The learning skills (self-regulation, independent work, initiative, for example) are assessed, but not included in the student’s grade.

    What I am most interested in is the ability of students to be self-directed students. I am aiming for a stance that considers students’ learning rather than my teaching. This position flies in the face of conventional practice as teachers regularly claim that they ‘must’ teach a certain novel (ie content). My thinking is about how can students be co-creators of content so that they might be more intellectually engaged.


  3. Brendan Murphy

    I really love the idea of competency based education. I don’t have to cover, instead I have to determine if my students understand.

    • msjbalen

      Right. What I am thinking about then is when the students themselves want to ‘cover’ the curriculum. Many put up great resistance to the idea that they are in charge of their learning. Metacognitive work is slow to take hold with students who want to respond to assessment as learning prompts the way they think the teacher wants them answered. I have recently taken to saying “This is not ‘a guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ question” to remind students that it’s their thinking that I am after.

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