Friday, November 18, 2011

In the Zone: Characteristics of Scaffolded Learners

I have always like the expression 'In the Zone'. A statement that refers to a flow of actions or thinking where each is done in an optimal if not peak performing way. Sports people are often described as 'in the zone' when they are performing on the field, court or track consistently at their best.

The best example of this was game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals for Basketball in 1994. The New York Nicks vs. The Indiana Pacers. After each team won the home games from the first two matches, The Pacers visited The Nicks at Madison Square Garden in New York. The game looked to be going the Nicks way until the Pacers star man Reggie Miller got 'in the zone'. He scored 39 points in the game but 25 of them came in the 4th quarter to give the Pacers a 93-86 victory. With Reggie in the zone he was scoring from all over the court, particularly with every long 3 point throw going through the hoop. There is one moment where he intercepts the ball and in a split second turns and steps out of the area in order to shoot (and score) 3 points.

How does this translate to learning? The expression 'in the zone' evokes thoughts of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. This zone represents the edge of a child's learning; the limits of his or her constructions of what they understand of the world. If children are taught with this in mind the content of a lesson is planned to where the child is at. A child's personal learning is considered. Learning is scaffolded to support and fit around the child's developmental zone of proximal learning.

What does a child look like when they are learning in their zone?

Characteristics of children 'in the zone'

  • are excited and on task
  • have a clear understanding of what they are learning
  • feel comfortably challenged
  • are able to act independently of the teacher
  • can identify the relevant skills or knowledge they already possess that relates to the learning experience
  • know how to find support to parts of the learning that is difficult
  • are 'in the zone' in relation to the stage of development they are at
Teachers who want to create learning experiences for a child to work in their zone must do so from where the child is at. This means that they must make assessments. Sometimes formal but often informal verbal and observational,frequent quick assessments can ensure that learning is facilitated at the right level or in the right place for the pupil.

I suppose in the analogy with Reggie Miller 'in the zone' then surely that makes Spike Lee the bad teacher?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Schools of Tomorrow: Part 2 - Group Roles and Collaborative Learning

    Group roles in the classroom is something that has interested me for a long time. Two weeks ago I used grouped or collaborative learning in my ICT lessons and had some of the best lessons I have had in years.

    Using collaborative learning in the classroom has many benefits:
    • Active learning that engages a range of intelligences and learning styles
    • A motivating and powerful learning environment due to peer and teacher influence
    • Develops cooperation and other social skills whilst learning content 
    • Real life relevance that shifts emphasis away from academic focus (although it doesn't remove it)
    • Optimises classroom resources (particularly technology)
    The roles consisted of a leader, a timekeeper, a scribe and a computer technician. Although my lesson had a room of 26 computer workstations, I limited each group to the use of one computer. I started by explaining each of the roles. A showed the importance of the timekeeper in tracking the different tasks, ensuring that their group completed each part and finished everything on time. The computer technician was the only person allowed to touch the computer. They did the typing and clicking and I didn't let the other team members touch the computer, giving the computer technician the kudos for the role. I spent some time highlighting the different dimensions of the leadership role. The role required the leader to keep all the other roles doing their jobs - the timekeeper keeping time, the scribe scribing and the computer technician teching. I also warned that if the group wasn't doing what they should be doing then I would take the leaders to task about it. I said it was their job to ensure the group worked. Further I said that at the end of the lesson, instead of highlighting students that I was particularly impressed with, I would say well done to the leader of the team that had worked well and it was their job to in turn say well done to their team.

    The task revolved around the websites that each of the children had been building on Weebly for the previous five weeks. I had reached a point where I needed the children to look at what different levels of attainment meant in developing their websites. We had a list of criteria but the children were not really motivated to include the relevant parts. I had spent the previous weekend trawling the 120 fledgling websites and I had picked out the best 3-4 out of each class. I linked them to my Class ICT websites as current examples of good practice. The group were tasked with going to each linked website and identifying the items that had been developed on the website. We called this looking at good website practice. I gave the children twenty minutes to do this and it was the job of the timekeeper to ensure the group looked at enough websites. All of the children became engrossed in the task. As the twenty minutes went by, I reviewed the progress of the groups to ensure they had a list long enough for the next stage of the lesson.

    I found that a couple of groups (and far from being the usual suspects) had not made enough progress. As I had warned at the beginning of the lesson, I told the leaders of the groups that it was not good enough and their group had to improve their progress. The result of this was fantastic. Each group stepped up and ensured the tasks were completed.

    As I surveyed each of the classes that I had that day, I could see every child engaged. Some children took me completely by surprise and chose roles that led to do things that they would not normally do. A child, who I'll call Acer, chose to be the scribe and I could see him with his head down for the duration of the lesson, listening to the others and writing what they had to say.

    The Timekeepers then signalled to each of their groups to switch task and they moved on. The end task was for the children to review each of the websites in their group. Then use the list of 'good practice' that they had compiled from reviewing the example websites to give each member of the group a target for their website. Even the tidying up went so much better with every leader being told it was their responsibility to ensure their area was left spotless.

    At the beginning of this post I identified reasons for involving children in collaborative learning. One of those reasons was the optimisation of resources. Particularly in this modern world where we encounter new technology every month, I want to be able to use these things with my class. The latest meaningful trend is the tablet for the classroom. If you are trying to provide for every child or even every pair of children, it can mean buying at least fourteen new computers. Not a budgeting figure that means schools can react to the latest technology. But if you consider the use of the technology in the above group roles scenario,  a class of twenty-four could have six teams of four. Six teams would need only one tablet per team. Six iPads or Samsung Galaxy Tabs is a budgeting figure that is far more easily considered.

    Group learning or collaborative learning can transform any classroom. It can bring an energy and direction that involves every child in the classroom. I found that once it was under way, I was able to work with individual children on their key skills. I demonstrated tabbing for speeding up the task and went through adding favourites with a couple of groups that had obviously not picked it up when I had taught it previously as a whole class exercise. It will be how I will approach the planning for the next half term.

    I started to think about what other roles would be of use in the classroom. The role of  presenter is a natural addition to the group. It would have been good to have one child present their groups findings. I thought that four in a group worked very well so therefore I would be left with the conundrum of which person to take on the extra role. This problem arose a number of times during the day and I had a number of groups of three. I had thought that the timekeeper role would double up with the computer technician as the clocks we were using were on the computers but the children had other ideas. I recognized that this was a decision taken far better at group level.

    You can find my developmental ideas below:

    And can be found at:

    Although an ongoing project, one area that I am going to develop further is the use of stock phrases. For the children to take on the role, they need to speak in that role. This doesn't come naturally so scaffolding the speaking, by providing a bank of stock phrases that can be used, will be important. You can see in the diagram where I have started to add them. Also you will find links to the research websites and resources I have come across. If you have any resources that I could add you could contact me through twitter or comment below.