Friday, 11 March 2016

While We Teach, We Learn

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How often have you heard the phrase "the best way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else" or "to really check your understanding of something try teaching it to someone"?   An article that I've just read for one of my M.Ed topics looks at this very idea and unpacks which component of teaching is actually the helpful one.  The article suggests that that whilst preparing to teach something can be helpful in short term learning, it's the act of teaching (explaining, defending and discussing) that leads to long term learning (Fiorello & Mayer 2014).  Which makes sense right? If we know that we're not going to have to actually deliver anything on what we're learning then our engagement levels and motivation will be somewhat lower than if we're going to have other people looking to us for the explanation.

It's such a simple idea isn't it? And I don't know about you but I can really relate to it.

Let me share a little tale... (Settle in because as you can probably correctly predict: I'll take a little while to get to my point.)

I consider myself to be a reasonably literate person. I came through primary school, however, during an era when teaching grammar was not particularly fashionable. Verbs? Articles? Parsing sentences? That was for chumps - we had whole language! (Or maybe we didn't, I could read and write very early so maybe the other kids were doing that while I was allowed to skip it?) I eventually learnt about grammar through studying languages other than English later on. (For which I will be eternally grateful because there are thousands of Australians around my age who still don't know why ending that last sentence with 'on' leaves a slightly acrid taste in my mouth.)

Our current curriculum requires students to understand much more about grammar than I was ever taught, and from the very beginning.  Even in year one students are expected to:
Explore differences in words that represent people, places and things (nouns, including pronouns), happenings and states (verbs), qualities (adjectives) and details such as when, where and how (adverbs) ACELA1452
Investigating & categorising
 types of adverbs
So the other day as I was preparing to teach a lesson about adverbs I realised that whilst I could explain, with a reasonable degree of confidence, a broad definition of an adverb (and the fact that in English that can be placed before AND after verbs) I couldn't really go a great deal further. Eeeeeek! I pulled out my books, swiped frantically on my iPad and pretty quickly learnt more about adverbs than I thought humanly possible for late on a Sunday afternoon.  I designed a learning flow and was actually a bit excited to share it.

The following morning my new learning was settling in my mind like slightly set concrete... I was a bit worried that it wasn't quite strong enough to hold up any questions that might land on it but, of course - and you knew this was going to be the case, because you know that I like happy endings - as I delivered the lesson the concrete set harder and harder. And today, nearly a week later,  I feel confident in my new understanding of adverbs.

What does this mean for me as a leader of learning? How can I incorporate more opportunities for my students to use this strategy meaningfully? How do you use it in your learning environments?

Fiorella L, Mayer RE. (2014). Role of expectations and explanations in learning by teaching. Contemporary Educational Pyschology2014;39(20):75-85
As I was reading the article for the first time, I had to chuckle.  I can say that whilst I do genuinely enjoy my uni reading (y'all already knew I was a nerd!) and always take it very seriously, this particular article - without a shadow of a doubt - was getting more attention because it's the one assigned to me to 'teach' the rest of my group. Talk about life imitating art... Or science... Or research... Or whatever we're calling this.  

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know students and how they learn
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning

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