Immersive Learning: Deeper Teaching

Just because we are teaching, it doesn’t mean they are learning…

Immersive Learning

How can we maximise the learning in our lessons?

I learn best when I am completely engrossed, or immersed in a subject. By ‘best’ I mean with speed, depth of understanding and creating a long-term change. This ‘change’ could be in perceptions, level of confidence, skills, or even just the ability to retain knowledge. This is what many teachers would truly define as ‘progress’. So how can we use Immersive Learning to increase engagement and deepen understanding for our students?

Simple.

Remove as many external distractions as possible. Replace them with a wide variety of ways for the student to engage with the content, no matter which way they turn. This is what ‘Immersive Learning’ is and it can truly accelerate the progress of your students. Let’s see how it works!

Question: How do we implement ‘Immersive Learning’ for our students?

To really develop a student’s understanding of a topic, they need to be fully ‘immersed’. Let’s compare two French students – one who studies only in the classroom and one who goes to France for a month during the summer. Who do you think will develop a greater understanding of the nuances of language use? Who will pick up variations in language use between sub-cultures, genders, etc? Who will have a better ‘working knowledge’ of the language and be able to creatively play with words? Of course, it will be the student who has been completely immersed in the culture. Perhaps more crucially, they will realise that they must learn very quickly how the language operates. The stakes are raised if students depend on learning the language to order their food!

Ok, but what if I can’t take all my students to France?

Obviously, you can’t always take your students out of the classroom. The good news is that you can completely immerse students in any setting, providing you plan for it. Take Religious Studies, for example. If you are teaching about a religion that students are not familiar with, then there is no better way to develop a deeper understanding than to get them to celebrate a festival, simulate a place of worship or mix with people belonging to that religion.

I find that watching a film or a documentary can be a good ‘gateway’ exercise to this – but it must never be a stand-alone task. The reason? Your students might mistake the scripted and staged scenes that they see on screen with real-life! Any use of media, whether fiction or non-fiction, must be followed up with analytical and evaluative exercises. They should compare perceptions created by the media with real life in a community. Remember, the whole point of Immersive Learning is to encourage a deeper understanding, not to give a superficial understanding. But I digress. The takeaway here is that Immersive Learning is possible in ALL subjects.

Immersive Learning
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Here are three Immersive Learning strategies to get you started…

1. CSI-style problem-solving activity

Set up your classroom so that when the students enter, they immediately have to make sense of a situation, they are directed to solve a problem and there are clearly defined success criteria. For example, in a Science lesson, students could enter the lab to discover that an explosion has happened. There could be a variety of materials nearby (either real or not real – just stay safe!) that may or may not have contributed to the explosion. Students must use their knowledge of those materials to decide upon the most likely cause.

You don’t have to rely on prior learning, as you could also have information about the materials ready for the students to discover. Make the materials as interesting as possible help ensure the students become as engrossed as possible. Don’t just use information sheets. Try using YouTube videos on iPads (you could even upload your own!). I’ve found that this works brilliantly for students at all ages. Personally, I favour a Flipped Learning approach in order to immerse students quickly, as they will have studied some material in preparation for the lesson, allowing more challenging concepts and skills to be taught in class.

2. Simulate a celebration event

Teaching students about the importance of the Seder meal in Judaism can be livened up by actually holding a Seder meal in the classroom. Organise for the students to each contribute something to the meal. Have them design their own special plate to use, showing relevant symbolism or aspects of the Passover story. To increase engagement further, have someone from the Jewish community, be they a Rabbi or a lay-person, to help celebrate the meal and discuss its importance to Jews. Students will certainly remember this event for far longer than if they had simply done some paper-based tasks on the topic.

3. Contribute to a real-life campaign

Last week in my blog post Homework: What’s the Point?, I mentioned that I recently challenged students to create a viral video. Many of them created such fantastic content, that when it was shared via social media they created quite a stir! They loved contributing to a campaign (in their case it was on the ethics of animal testing). However, the students also developed an incredibly deep awareness of the issues, as well as a wide variety of people’s reactions and perceptions. The students were challenged to re-evaluate their own positions on the issue, as it had become a ‘real’ part of their life, rather than simply a theoretical task. Immersive Learning had a profound impact on the students that day.

Two more tips!

Parental engagement

This can have a massive effect on the depth of the immersion. Have parents contribute to your lessons, by engaging them to interact with your students as part of a homework task. Students could be challenged to debate with their parents on a given topic and record their conclusions. At the start of term, parents could even be given a list of activities to do or places to visit, that would complement the learning that takes place in school.

Make the common theme in a lesson sequence more obvious to students

Try to move away from stand-alone lessons and instead move towards a sequence of ‘joined-up’ lessons, so that students can better understand the links between the various topics. If the students can see the common theme running through a scheme of work, they will be more likely to feel ‘immersed’ and will be less likely to forget the reasons why they are studying a given idea.

Ok, so what now?

These tried and tested Immersive Learning methods have been proven to be extremely effective. They challenge students, encourage creativity and build cross-curricular links. Your challenge this week is to take one of these methods and try it. You’ll be surprised at how incredibly effective they are.

As usual, let me know how it goes!

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Homework: What’s the point?

Homework Project

Does Homework Matter?

Ok, time to get your homework planners out.” [Groans are heard around the classroom].

Is this a familiar scene? Was it just the same when you were at school? As a teacher, do you give the same types of homework tasks over and over? Are your students bored by this? I’ve started introducing some homework tasks that are slightly different to what they’ve been used to. Things that take the students out of their comfort zone.

It’s making a difference.

This week I’m looking at homework – what we do, why we do it and why we should view homework differently.

What exactly is the purpose of homework?

1. Link between lessons

When we plan a sequence of lessons, there should be a common thread running though them. Good sequences of lessons flow naturally from one lesson to the next. Students should be able to understand why one lesson follows from a previous one. Setting homework can ease this transition. It gives the students the opportunity to see the wider context of the topics they are studying.

For example, if planning a lesson on global warming, followed by a lesson on natural resources, you could bridge that gap, helping the students to see why they are interconnected. In this example you could set a task that encourages the students to consider how the causes and effects of global warming could be mitigated by different factors and specify the use of natural resources as one of these factors to consider. This introduction to the topic will show students how the topics are linked and will also improve the starting point for each student the following lesson, enabling progress to develop further and quicker.

2. Opportunity to go into detail without time constraints

Students are required to learn in ever increasing levels of depth and breadth, to satisfy the requirements of exam boards and government targets. However the amount of lesson time that can be devoted to this is not increasing to cope with the demand. Homework is the most obvious solution. But there are so many questions to consider here. How should we use homework? Should we just give more homework? Should we change the type of homework we give? Should we do both? When? For which student groups? When? The list goes on…

In my own experience, there are some specific areas that we could devote weeks of teaching-time to, but we only have days to work with. Effective homework tasks are far better than higher volumes of homework. Not only because they place less pressure on students and teachers (we need to leave time for quality marking too remember!), but many tasks we use are slow to achieving our learning objectives. My advice here (again from my own experience) is to select a niche in a very specific topic area and to ask an open question to the student (e.g. “analyse and evaluate the effectiveness of…”, “how does x compare to y?”, etc).

You could give further support to scaffold the students’ responses if they need it (sub-questions, particular areas to look at, sentence-starters, etc). The open question will enable higher level learning to take place, whilst the support makes the depth of learning accessible to students who otherwise might not develop further. I’ll be writing about Effective Questioning in a future blog post. Subscribe so that you don’t miss it!

3. To ensure progress across a sequence of lessons

Progress is not linear. I’ll repeat that: PROGRESS IS NOT LINEAR! I make this point regularly to colleagues who feel that lesson observations and data points throughout the academic year should be used to monitor quality of teaching. To put my point quite frankly, lesson observations as a way of measuring student progress are a blunt instrument and should be abandoned immediately. More on that in a future post I think! Progress happens at different rates, at different times in the course, for different students. In order to ensure progress over the long-term (the true purpose of education?) students must be able to go beyond what is taught in the classroom. Some topics require much greater depth of understanding, or a broader range of ideas to be considered, before progress can really be ‘achieved’. Independent learning and homework are two solutions to this.

Blogging Homework

Use project-based tasks to deepen understanding and develop skills further

I recently began setting my students longer, more project-based tasks. This meant that they could take time to develop depth and breadth in the knowledge and skills that I wanted them to focus on. One task was for students in small groups to create a “viral video”  on the ethics of animal experimentation (on either side of the debate). I wanted students to develop their responses, but also to try to convince others to side with their view. The students not only improved their argument skills, but they also developed a greater awareness of how others perceive their arguments, how to use language to convey meaning and how to use technology to raise awareness and increase engagement of an issue. These skills will be invaluable to the students in their exam, but also after they’ve left school to work in a whole variety of industries.

Getting students to create or contribute to a blog is another method. In doing so, students begin to develop a long-term approach to the way they present their information, redrafting, responding to feedback, etc. You could create a blog for the class, or you could have the students (individually or in groups) create their own.

Practice independent learning

With so much pressure being put on students and teachers to raise achievement in exams, it can be very tempting to “teach to the test”. The result? Students achieve good exam results, but they have little ability to do anything else – things that would be useful in the “real world” once they leave school.

We deal with this, not by ignoring the teaching of exam technique, but by supplementing what students do in class with guided independent tasks. I’ve seen good examples of this amongst my colleagues, from wider reading lists, to homework menus, to term-long homework projects. The common theme throughout is that the student retains some autonomy over what sources of information they use. They can use as much or as little as they like and they can present their findings via a method of their choosing. The result? Higher levels of engagement, more creativity, the students retain the information for longer and they develop “real-world” skills.

Opportunity to learn outside of the limitations of the classroom

The last thing we want to do as teachers is to limit our students in any way, I’d certainly be horrified by this, as would many parents. However, we often don’t think about the ways our students can be limited. A classroom limits learning. By its size, by the resources available, by the students present and by the teacher leading the learning within it. Homework allows for students to free themselves from these limitations. They can access resources not available to schools, they can free themselves from peer-pressure when doing things their own unusual ways. The depth of student responses improves, as does the breadth of their studies.

But perhaps even more importantly, it can contribute to the teacher’s understanding of what the students are capable. This will influence how the teacher leads the learning of other students, now and in the future. Setting “the right” homework enables students AND  teachers to develop in a significant way.

 

There are tonnes of other ways that homework can raise achievement in our schools, far too many to mention here!

I’d love to hear of any methods you use to increase engagement and deepen learning. As usual, drop me a message!

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Raising Achievement Using Teamwork

Raising Achievement

Question: What do the most successful performers in ANY industry have in common?

Answer: Teamwork.

No man is an island. Not only that but in a world where  teachers connect with each other 24/7 over email, social media, etc, we no longer work in isolation. This week’s blog post is something I’ve been considering for a while now. We work in teams, so how do we make the best use of our colleagues in order to raise achievement?

What does a successful team look like?

If you want to see what phenomenal teamwork looks like, just watch a pit crew in a Formula 1 race. Teams in education are no different and the most successful all have the same essential attributes:

  • Every member has a pre-defined job
  • They all do their jobs extremely well
  • They trust each other
  • They hold each other accountable
  • They hold themselves accountable

Now ask yourself: do the above points accurately describe the teams you belong to? If not, then what can you do to improve your team and to raise achievement?

Teamwork

Five simple ways to improve your team and raise achievement:

1. Know your job

It’s crucial that you know exactly what you are personally responsible for and what others are personally responsible for. Without knowing this, how could you begin to raise achievement? If you are unsure then a useful exercise is to sketch out a hierarchy (most if not all schools are hierarchical), showing the different levels of responsibility of team members from the very top to the very bottom. That way, it will be much easier to hold yourself and others accountable for the whole range of responsibilities. Once all the jobs are defined, you can begin to collaborate more effectively.

2. Actively work with each other

When designing a scheme of work, or contacting a student’s parents or planning a trip, do we actively involve others in the process? Not only is it useful to share workload when completing complex tasks, you will also benefit from colleagues’ experiences too. In their roles, they may well have encountered similar issues to the one you are busy solving. I always find it helps to see things from a different perspective – it also pays dividends to learn from other people’s mistakes!

3. When analysing your own performance, focus on the important details

It’s very easy when things don’t go to plan, that we can make excuses. Studies show that this happens even more often when others are observing – some people just don’t like to take responsibility for things that THEY could have done differently. For instance, a particular cohort of students may have a real issue with completing homework on time and to a good standard. Is this a behaviour issue? is it their organisation skills? Is there a knowledge deficit? Do they lack engagement with their subject? It’s vital to determine the correct cause of the issue, or else you will waste energy trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, whilst the real problem keeps rumbling on.

4. When holding others accountable, ask the right questions

The same studies that show our unwillingness to hold ourselves responsible also show that we prefer to blame others. Teachers MUST hold each other accountable. Without this, we won’t be able to maintain and drive up standards. However, this can be done in a positive, developmental way, or it can become punitive and lead to decreased motivation. When asking colleagues to evaluate their own performance, ask questions that generate practical and useful answers. Framing ‘problems’ as ‘opportunities to develop specific teaching methods’ is another proven strategy. Another popular one is the ‘feedback sandwich’ – give one piece of positive feedback, then one way to improve and then another positive. Remind colleagues that they have more good points than bad, but don’t shy away from being totally honest. Over the long term, it’s important to make sure that colleagues feel supported and encouraged. Even teachers who are completely honest in their self-evaluation won’t feel motivated to fix problems if they feel their positive attributes aren’t valued.

5. Keep in regular contact with each other

This one is my own particular failing (hence why I put it at the end!) but it makes a huge difference when I get it right. Far too easily we can become engrossed in a never-ending checklist of day-to-day tasks. It’s important, now and again, to let others know what you are up to. Also to engage them in a conversation about how they could participate, or how you could help them. In my own experience, it prevents problems down the line, where I’ve ended up duplicating the work a colleague had already done, or where I could have offered help before a problem reared its head. One very short email every week or so is all it takes and the shorter it is, the better!

Success

Call to action!

The best teachers will always act on advice, even if they only focus on one tiny snippet at a time. Don’t get left behind! Take one small step from those outlined above and spend no more than five minutes on it TODAY. You know fine well if you leave it until tomorrow then it will never get done. Be outstanding and raise achievement NOW!

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Disrupting Education

Disrupting Education

When should we rock the boat?

Disrupting education is essential to bring schools into the 21st Century. Why? Schools are old. Really old. The system isn’t much different now to how it was during the Industrial Revolution. The aim of schools back then was to create a population fit to work in a variety of factories. Subjects were taught in isolation from each other, with no differentiation. Today, we have differentiation, but largely the same model. Only now, we are moving people out of factories, as robots are moving into them. We aren’t needed in factories anymore! Schools need to address this urgently, or we will become irrelevant.

Why is disrupting education the solution?

Ask yourself: Do we maintain the status quo in education because we already have the best possible model? Or are we afraid (or just unwilling) to change the current model because the new one might not work?

I like the word “disruptive”. When something is disruptive it focuses our attention on it. We think about it properly and act on it. When was the last time we properly considered disrupting education, eg. how and why we plan our school buildings, timetables, technology and lessons the way we do? I think we should. I believe we should completely revolutionise what a school’s purpose is, who it is for and how it operates.

Last week when looking for something to read this summer I came across founder of Wired magazine and “Futurist” Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly). In his new book, The Inevitable, he discusses some of his ideas about how the future is likely to look in 10 to 30 years time.

We already know that there will be new devices that our lives will revolve around, like mobile phones today. These devices probably won’t even be invented until a few years time. We also know that Artificial Intelligence will be so sophisticated, cheap and widely accessible, that much of today’s “education” in schools will be largely redundant. The result? We won’t need to learn things that computers will do automatically and much more efficiently for us.

I always remember my Maths teacher telling me that I should put my calculator away because I’m not going to have one in my pocket at all times when I’m older. Ha! So, is new and emerging  new technology already making some of our subjects obsolete? Let’s see…

How do we use technology already?

1. Google Translate: can translate languages at the click of a mouse

In Modern Foreign Languages lessons, we learn how to spell, pronounce and understand different languages. We do this primarily because if we didn’t, then it would be difficult to communicate with others around the globe. What if technology removed that barrier? Would we still teach and learn other languages? Would there be any point? My heart is saying yes, but my head is saying no (for the vast majority of students). Would it become a luxury rather than a necessity to be able to speak fluent French in future?

2. Augmented Reality: apps can project holograms of the people you are speaking to on Skype

What if we didn’t teach students from our catchment area, but from around the world instead? Imagine each student, from countries around the world, sitting in your classroom (if a physical classroom is even needed), in holographic form. It sounds far-fetched, but there are companies all over the world who are already adopting this technology for holding meetings and training events. AR is already disrupting industry. It will disrupt education. I think that AR will become a feature of top performing “global schools” at some point in our lifetime. As teachers, we need to begin thinking about how we can best utilise this technology, although perhaps on a much smaller scale at first!

3. Virtual Reality: can simulate practical learning environments in standardised and measurable ways

In many industries where the work is physically demanding, involves an element of risk, or requires a detailed and standardised analysis of techniques used, we use simulators to train workers. These simulations used to take place in huge physical machines – think of the flight simulators you see at fairgrounds. Nowadays, simulators rely less on machinery and more on software to simulate the ‘sensation’ of our physical environment. Consider this: some schools in our inner cities have little in the way of outdoor space for athletics training. What if we could train students on a physical technique in a classroom environment, where a ‘virtual’ javelin was used instead of a physical one? Data could be gathered and analysed immediately using inbuilt software and could give personal feedback, in real time, to 30 students at once. No marking required!

Future Technology

My question to you:

If we could implement any of these (or other) technologies now, at no cost, how would it change the way you taught your subject?

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Independent Learning: Three Top Tips

Independent Learning

Why is independent learning so important?

Top students often go beyond what they’ve been asked to do when it comes to producing extended pieces of work, especially if given the chance to conduct research. It’s a virtuous circle, helping students become top students and then because they are top students they continue to learn independently as that is now their new ‘normal’ expectation. Depth and frequency of independent learning typically lead to better results in formal assessments. So the question is, how do we get the rest of the students to conduct independent learning?

Below are three handy tips you can use to encourage students to engage in independent learning.

Checklist

1. Guide your students

Most students don’t use independent learning to complement the required tasks they are given. Sometimes they just can’t be bothered. However, many students don’t bother because they haven’t the foggiest idea where to start. One thing you can do for them is to provide a simple and unintimidating list of sources they can use for specific topics. Break it down to page numbers and even paragraphs if need be, just to get them started. You could give the students this menu of options at the beginning of each topic, each term, or as I’ve done, at the beginning of the year to glue onto the inside cover of their folders. I give a copy of a Wider Reading List to my A Level students at the beginning of their final year. They should aim to use at least one of the sources in addition to the textbooks and other materials they receive in class when they submit an essay. I also encourage them to add a source to the list, to demonstrate even greater independence. The list offers guidance to those who don’t know where to go for information, but allows them to be independent learners too.

Independent Learning - Wider Reading List
Wider Reading List

Choice is important too. If the students feel as though they can pick whichever source they like, they will feel a greater sense of ownership over their learning. This is a well-documented way to boost engagement. Not only that, but once students are offered a choice, they are able to consider a range of alternatives before finally deciding upon a source to use. Their skills of source-selection and evaluation become more refined, allowing them to be even more independent in the future.

2. Choose your sources carefully

If independent learning is not a common feature of your class, then ease yourself into it. Don’t pick a stack of weighty titles from the bookshelf, or the top ten ranked pages on Google – the students won’t thank you for it and will most likely just not read it.

Instead, choose two or three easy-to-access resources and not necessarily written ones either – YouTube is brilliant, so are Vimeo and Slideshare. Students who have conducted independent learning before are much more likely to do it again, compared with students who have never done it before. Remove the barrier to starting independent learning by making it less demanding first round.

3. Set your expectations and monitor them

Students must know that independent learning is not an optional extra, but a required part of the course. Those of you operating a Flipped Learning model will understand how homework can be used to gain huge advantages. Here, the student gets to choose what, when and how they use the independent learning material. They choose how much advantage they want to take and in what direction.

How do you know they’ve done it?

At the bottom of the options menu, create a box where students can write down each time they’ve used one of the sources. You could even give a termly reward for those who have made the best use of the menu, or for those who have shown the most progress. Make it meaningful to students and they will adopt it.

 

I would love to know how you promote independent learning in your classes. Send me a message!

Also, if you want to see an example of a menu that I’ve used then leave your email address below and I’ll send you a free copy.

Enjoy!

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