Dynamic Classroom Strategies

At our September 2014 Staff Meeting we explored the strategies described in Peter Johnston's book Opening Minds.

We started with these texts and discussed which quote we connected with the most as a learner and as a teacher:

  • Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yossei said, One who studies in order to teach will be able to study and to teach. One who studies in order to practice will be able to study, teach, observe, and practice. --Pirke Avot 4:5
  • Ben Zoma said, Who is wise? One who learns from everyone, as it says, ‘From all who would teach me, I have gained understanding…’ (Psalms 119:99) --Pirke Avot 4:1
  • It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.  --Albert Einstein

In Peter Johnston’s book Opening Minds he teaches the idea of dynamic-learning frame and fixed-performance frame.  People who feel learning is dynamic believe that they can grow as learners, whereas people who believe learning is fixed believe that it doesn’t matter how hard one tries, they will not grow as a learner.  We discussed: How does a dynamic-learning frame support our efforts to create a sense of Jewish community within each class and within Torah La’am?

Here are notes from our discussion on using dynamic learning strategies from Opening Minds in our classes:

  • focus on effort and process, praising specific effort not ability, ask teachers to list examples: “You did this, so this happened.” “Look how you figured that out together.  You made a plan, you listened to each other, you made a chart…I don’t think you would have figured it out without doing that.” This provides students with the strategies that made their success happen. 
  • Plan a collaborative activity and talk to the students about how they all benefited from working together.  Talk about the process of working together—what strategies that small groups used that included everyone, where everyone contributed and felt positive about the experience.
  • Ask students to write down something they learned from someone else today.  Prep them for this so they are listening during the class to know what to write.
  • Conversations to help students notice their process include “How did you do that?” “How did you know that?” “Could you think of other ways that would also work?” (invites children to imagine alternative strategies, building flexibility) “Ask your partner how s/he did that.” This last one encourages peer learning.  “[You did this] and if you [tried this], then [it would have this effect].” 
  • role model how to provide specific feedback so that students learn how to provide each other with feedback.
  • share with the students how much they have learned in the past month or so.  We feel better about this topic than we did last week, and next week we will be able to do even more. (Affirm that learning takes time and work, but intellectual change happens.  The more you learn, the smarter you get.)
  • discuss the process it takes to solve a problem.  Have students discuss their plan with their small group before they get started—fuels optimism to focus on getting to the goal rather than focusing on end result which may seem unattainable at first.
  • encouraging discussions in which students listen to each other
  • allowing a safe place for children to take risks
  • role model a dynamic-learning frame by sharing how we make mistakes and learn from them.  Show that we are constantly learning.  Sharing how we took a risk to learn something new.
  • by taking a real interest in students’ work, take their work seriously
  • ask questions and follow up questions--“Say more about that” to encourage students to share their ideas. By asking questions that bring out greater depth, the student learns depth and intellectual probing is most important, and that you genuinely care; all this, without setting up a dynamic that leads the student to look for praise. The work itself becomes the reward.
  • validate their learning by referring back to it in class and having students repeat what a student said to nurture the skill of listening to one another.
  • Self-worth is a constant—the class cares for and respects them at all times—even when they are unsuccessful or make poor decisions. We assume that they will try to fix their mistakes and make better decisions next time (teshuvah).
  • Offer students strategies to improve

What are things we should avoid that could promote a fixed-performance frame?

  • Faint praise
  • external rewards
  • highlighting what one knows vs another
  • labeling students
  • NO “good girl” “perfect” “nice job” “I like the way you…” implies that the point of the child’s efforts is to please you.
  • Don’t use person-oriented feedback, use process-oriented feedback.
  • If we say, “I’m proud of you” when they are successful, they infer our disappointment when they are unsuccessful.  When we make personal judgments of children, whether through praise or criticism, we teach them to do the same.  They learn to judge themselves and others.  They develop a sense of contingent self-worth—that they are only able, good, and worthy when they are successful. Opening Minds, p.38-9

More quotes from Opening Minds:

Self-esteem is a way of experiencing yourself when you are using your resources well. –Carol Dweck, p.46

Ask what is the purpose of feedback?  “The purpose of feedback is to improve conceptual understanding or increase strategic options while developing stamina, resilience, and motivation—expanding the vision of what is possible and how to get there.” p.48

How can we incorporate dynamic learning during a discussion of a Torah character?

  • Not labeling characters in a fixed way—Jacob wasn’t a bad person, but made poor decisions.  He also learned from his mistakes, and grew as a person.  Jacob apologized to his brother.
  • Sharing their interpretations with each other, seeing that they can learn from each other.

Helping a student connect socially:
Help the student see the steps to gaining friends—help someone else in class, ask someone about their day, share with the students connections they have with this student, honor the student’s ideas in a discussion to show you value that student.

Helping a student who is struggling with reading Hebrew:
Pointing out the progress that they have made, talking about the strategies they used to figure out how to sound out a word.  Having the student help another student with what they know.  In a lesson, highlight what that student shared to highlight what the student knows.

Powerful study described in Opening Minds, p.12-15:
5th graders were given an easy test.  Some were told that they must have worked hard and some were told they must be smart.  Then they were asked to choose the next text they took—an easy one like the first one, or one that’s hard but you might learn something from it.  Which kids do you think chose to do the hard one and learn—the ones who were told they worked hard or the ones who were told they must be smart?  Only about a third of the “you must be smart” group chose to struggle and learn.  90% of the “you must have worked hard” students chose to take up the challenge and learn.  
Then the kids took an easy test like the first one.  The “worked hard” students did better than they did on the first test, and the “smart” students did worse.  In a fixed performance world, there is nothing to be done about one’s learning.  When these children encounter failure, they become helpless.  Even if they encounter a problem they already solved, they believe they might not be able to solve them a second time, and don’t do as well as they did previously. 
Students classified as having learning disabilities are more likely to adopt a fixed frame. They view increased effort as demonstrating their lack of ability.  Children need to understand that each time they learn something new, their brain literally grows new cells.

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