Developing a Community of Thinkers

Milla Heart Building Blocks

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Tobias Mikkelsen

I honestly believe that if we support our students to develop into a “community of thinkers”, we have provided them with a skill that will work for them beyond tests, exams and school.

I also believe that if we foster these same skills in staff, we will have a group of lead learners with developing growth mindsets at the centre, which will have a beneficial impact on student achievement.

In a previous post Will the Grade Make a Difference? I explored the idea that through feedback and providing opportunities for students to improve their work we can foster a growth mindset. Now I want to look at how we can develop skills in students to provide feedback to others. We know that students value each other’s opinions and ideas. In most cases, they enjoy working with one another.

If we guide students to develop skills to give and receive suggestions, valuable ideas and compliments from peers, it will encourage continual improvement. It also moves some responsibility for learning and improvement from the teacher (all wise and knowledgeable) back onto the student and their peers.

To do this we need to provide opportunities for students to critique each others work throughout the learning process. For this to succeed, we need to establish some guidelines and modelling to ensure feedback is constructive not destructive.

Professor Garfield Gini-Newman identifies three factors for feedback to be constructive:

1. respectful and never condescending or insulting

2. must be warranted, not petty and trivial and they must be specific

3. advancing, must provide opportunities to move the work forward

Ron Berger simplifies these same ideas:

Be kind:  All comments should focus on the work not the person. There should never be sarcasm or put downs.  The comments can be challenging but the recipient should feel that the feedback is about the work and how it can be better.  Hard on content, soft on people.
Be specific: Comments should identify exactly what needs to be worked on (like a set of instructions) which the student can simply take away and use or do.
Be helpful: If the comments don’t benefit the work, the learning, the learners or the class, don’t share it.  Every piece of feedback is there to help improve the work.

Giving critique should not just be a learning opportunity for the student whose work is in question, it should also be a chance for others to learn from the strategies or skills that have been utilised.

Being specific about what makes the work “good” or “great” can model how others can improve their own work, or adapt their approach.  If we don’t identify what is “good” about the work or the strategy, then kids may associate the student with the “goodness” not the effort or the process. “Sally is just good at math”, “Ben is just a really good writer” or “Connor is just a great artist”. Sally may have a strategy for problem solving that others are yet to use, Ben may regularly draft his writing and seek feedback and Connor may use a specific strategy he learnt for shading that he could explain to others.

Let me give you another example.

Recently we completed passion projects and each student had an opportunity to present their learning. One of our students made an iMovie. After each student presented we spent some time giving feedback. The students noticed how the music faded gradually each time he used his own recorded voice in the movie. If we did not distinguish why this made his movie quality better and how he achieved this, most would continue to ignore the benefits of “ducking” when developing their own iMovies.

1. opportunity to identify positive/negative aspects “it was good how the music faded when you started talking”

2. identify how was this achieved/what was missing “this was done using ducking in iMovie on the Mac”

3. Clarify the strategy or process that was used or neglected “You go into the audio settings and click the ducking box and drag the volume to where you want it. You might have to do it a few times until you get it right”

What this does for others, is allow them to see what it was that made this student successful, and not just assume that he is just “good” at making iMovies.

It would be naive to believe that we could provide extensive critique for each piece of work, however once we skill students to give constructive feedback we hope that it eventually permeates the class culture and students increasingly seek opportunities to receive and provide ways to improve.

Wouldn’t it be great if we heard students asking things like…..

Am I on the right track?

What am I doing well?

What improvements can I make?

I truly value this process and went to my amazing team and suggested we could devote time to developing these practices. As of next week, we are committing time each day to develop this critical feedback in small groups. I am also in the process of developing some clear visual aids/infographics to support both teachers and students remember the key aspects.  If anyone has anything they currently use or refer to, please let me know!

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