2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning
3.2 Teachers continue to learn
Student choice in the classroom program is important to me, a vital element of my teaching and learning pedagogy. Why? And how did this come about? When I first began teaching in the early 1970s, the English program operating in the school to which I was appointed consisted of a comprehension lesson, a composition lesson, a novel lesson and a lesson devoted to a choice of poetry, drama or short story. You kept a teaching record book, checked each week by your senior master, and regularly checked by the headmaster or his assistant. It's a long path from such beginnings to the classroom I choose to operate today, and even I am not sure of all the steps that led to the change; it has been a process of evolution rather than revolution.
Perhaps the most significant comment made to me about students 'negotiating' the classroom program came in the mid-1980s when I was part of a group trialling negotiation strategies in mixed ability English classes. Some of the teachers participating in the program expressed doubts about giving students choice and a degree of control over the classroom teaching and learning program. Came a voice from the group: "Well, in my opinion, students have always negotiated; they just don't do it in appropriate ways, because we don't recognise their needs." When questioned further, the participant put forward that students frequently requested to go to the toilet in the middle of the poetry reading, passed notes around at any stage of the lesson, or, disgustingly, had spit ball competitions on the ceiling when your back was turned!
Reviewing my practice
Time to stop and reflect. I had, of course, seen such signs of disengagement in my classrooms, reluctant though I may have been to declare so in a public forum. I had always treated such incidents as behavioural management issues, not as ones related to teaching and learning. Now I began to consider things a little differently. I was prepared to try an alternative planning method, using the action-learning model where a group of teachers trialled an idea, supported each other, reflected on changes, and evaluated the effects.
Negotiation with Year 10
So, in my mixed ability Grade 10 class I embarked on a unit teaching Shakespeare, using the Jon Cook model of negotiation: What do we already know? What do we need to know? How can we find out? How can we show what we have learned? I evaluated this unit in a paper titled "He used to write plays, but now he's dead", a comment taken from one student's response to the first question in the Cook model. The unit was a success, not because each student was intrinsically interested in Shakespeare and valued the opportunity to learn about him and his works, but because students did feel that they had at least some opportunity to have input into the classroom program, and to learn at least one or two things of their own choice.
Small beginnings, but ones that were to change the shape of my teaching forever. In Tasmania at the time, new criterion-based syllabuses were being developed, and negotiation and student choice were proposed as central elements of the English syllabus. Indeed one module for study in Year 10 was an Independent Negotiated Study, in which students were encouraged to choose their own area within the English curriculum for 15 hours of close study. Given the opportunity, students undertook a diverse range of projects, including the production of children's picture books, dictionaries on areas of personal interest such as skateboarding, author studies and scripting and producing their own short videos, among a variety of other projects.
The classrooms were dynamic, if at times chaotic. Students were responsible, with teacher mentoring for the planning, time management and successful completion of the agreed task, and process and product were regarded as equally important in the assessment of the project.
Negotiation crept into other areas of the syllabus too. In Novel Study, rather than attempting a whole class novel in a mixed ability group, I began to focus more on Individual Novel Studies, so students were reading anything from Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo to Jude the Obscure. Monitoring and record keeping (not my fortes) became paramount necessities. I moved from the role of teacher as imparter of skills and knowledge to more of a coach and facilitator. Explicit teaching was still important to me; I too needed to be acknowledged and valued in the classroom context! But as well as leading discussions on "What is poetry and what makes a good poem?", I also taught task definition skills, monitoring and assessment skills, self and peer assessment skills and other skills essential to successful negotiation.
Reflection and evaluation
In these instances, the degree of student input was actually quite limited; generally I had chosen the topic, most of the resources and materials that would be used in the classroom, the negotiation model that would be used, and in truth I probably even shaped considerably the "What we need to know?" question. However, in their evaluation, students stated that they felt more engaged and enjoyed the units. On reflection, I think the main achievement on my part as the teacher was that students understood the purpose of the units and the learning intentions much more explicitly.
Some teachers are able to allow a wide range of student choice in their classroom, almost the 'thesis research model' of learning. I am still a long way from that stage. In classes of 25-30, one has to be pragmatic. Student engagement is essential, and a degree of choice is paramount in making students feel a degree of control over their learning. Today in my classroom the program is based on a set of outcomes, usually selected from the criteria established by the syllabus. I ensure that students are well informed about the criteria and their associated expectations. I plan a sequence of work that will allow students to meet those outcomes, and then I establish where the opportunities exist for flexibility and student choice. Sometimes students can choose the research focus (for example, in an issue study), at other times they can choose the method of presentation of finished product, or whether they work individually, with a partner, or in a group. In other words, they can negotiate as appropriate in accordance with the learning intentions of the unit.
Negotiation with Year 12
This year I have learned that even in a Year 12 pre-tertiary syllabus with an end-of-year examination attached, there is still plenty of room for student negotiation, thanks to one of my colleagues. She decided that instead of choosing the one novel from the six on the text list for whole class study, she would introduce all six to the class via a close reading of their first chapters, and then allow the students to choose the novel which seemed most appealing. She then organised the class into small novel study groups, and offered tutoring, guidance and support to ensure that students gained the insights and understandings expected by the course.
Following her example, I have since trialed the same process with my two pre-tertiary classes. Initial student feedback, via student and peer assessment, showed that students were very tentative with the arrangements, several even stating that "It's easier when the teacher just tells you what you need to know and writes it on the board." However, both the product and the final self and peer assessments give an entirely different perspective; the depth of understanding shown through the completion of tasks set and undertaken by the students in negotiation with the teacher is heartening, delightful even. As a teacher, it has given me real insight into students' abilities and understanding, to a depth no other activity has given me. Students have a very sound knowledge of the text, and can articulate in detail ideas about the main issues, themes, writing techniques and so on. Students' final self assessments express pride and accomplishment, as well as confidence, quite different to the usual feedback at the end of the novel unit.
Of course, the more prescribed the course or the syllabus, the more difficult it is to negotiate, but there are always aspects that lend themselves to a degree of student input and negotiation. The experience of this teacher is that student focus, engagement, and time on task are all greatly enhanced if the classroom