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Teachers use the power of social learning

Students at École Robb Road Elementary School in Comox benefit from the power of social learning. - Photo submitted
Students at École Robb Road Elementary School in Comox benefit from the power of social learning.
— image credit: Photo submitted

COMOX — The École Robb Road Elementary teaching team uses the power of social learning to engage all students and deepen learning experiences.

Julia McCoid is a learning assistance teacher at École Robb Road Elementary, where Al Johnson is a vice-principal and teacher.

They share the teaching of a very dynamic and energetic Grade 5 class.

McCoid found her students’ unique dynamism was quite a natural disposition.

“I have tested these students and they are mostly kinesthetic intelligence learners,” she stated.

McCoid is referring to Howard Gardner’s (now widely-known) theories on intelligence, where he describes people’s tendencies to prefer one or more types of intelligence.

Gardner describes intelligence preferences such as logical/mathematical intelligence — where a student learns best using sequential, logical reasoning — and interpersonal intelligence, in which the student might best figure things out by talking them through.

Gardner describes several types of intelligence, but the one that McCoid refers to is a tendency to gravitate toward movement as a form of processing information and personal expression.

And in observing this Grade 5 class in action, there is indeed a preference for movement.

Traditionally, a group of kinesthetic students might have been deemed troublesome by old-fashioned standards. A student’s continual tapping of a pencil or inability to concentrate while sitting still might have been viewed as problematic to a traditional, lecturing teacher.

But, an understanding of the student’s needs and making adaptations for what works for the students can generate a focused energy that can be quite awe-inspiring, as witnessed one Wednesday in Johnson and McCoid’s classroom.

This teaching team chose to use the school district’s Google Apps service to help students work collaboratively and create learning scenarios that provide more relevance to real-world skills.

In attempting to generate more interest in a subject matter that can be quite dry, such as the reasons for the formation of British Columbia, McCoid chose to have students collaborate on their research, using shared online documents, where students add to each other’s knowledge in an organic and dynamic manner.

Johnson wanted to take the students to the next step toward real-world collaboration, with the co-publication of material to an online Wiki. Here, students work in teams to generate presentations that are published to the class website.

Both teachers look for ways to generate interest and relevance to Ministry of Education-mandated learning outcomes that can sometimes seem dry and disconnected from the students’ lives.

These teachers’ plans required that the students have specific, and sometimes complex, technical skills. But, how do you teach a group of students the skills they need when their preferred intelligence types and learning styles do not fit a traditional lecture/practice format?

Not only do differing learning styles and intelligence preferences make a one-size-fits-all approach ineffectual, but each student learns at his or her own pace, so the odds of the teacher not going too slowly or too fast for the students is slim.

The key: Don’t teach them at all.

A massive, six-year study was completed in 2009 by Project Tomorrow (www.tomorrow.org), which involved the “largest collection of authentic, unfiltered” stakeholder participation in any known similar study, with the involvement of 1.85 million K-12 students in more than 23,000 schools and including 26,312 parents and 38,642 teachers.

The study report revealed three “essential elements” for effective, 21st-century education:

• socially-based learning helps students process and personalize their learning

• un-tethered learning allows students to not have to rely solely on teachers for information, and

• digitally-rich learning enables students to access and process material in a variety of ways, as well as driving productivity.

These are the very tenants that McCoid and Johnson embodied when they chose to not teach their students the skills they would require. Instead, they generated teams of students in their computer lab, made the team members responsible for each other and provided a list of the skills they would need to demonstrate to complete the projects.

The students worked together to “figure things out” and questioned each other and taught each other.

These skills seem far more relevant to real-world scenarios than focusing on remembering facts.

The result was nothing short of fantastic.

The focused energy in the room was not only palpable, it was overwhelming. If you did not observe what each student was doing and watch their focused attention, you might have thought that you were witnessing a party.

A list of skills that might have taken several classes to teach and practice was worked through in just 75 minutes. The teachers moved around the room observing and questioning.

“The room is full of energy, but you can see that every student is focused and engaged,” remarked Johnson. “I love seeing students helping each other, teaching each other. Very cool.”

“They love working together like this,” agreed McCoid.  “Look at them moving, so excited. And they are learning so much.”

Avi Luxenburg is a teacher at North Island Distance Education School.

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