The classroom community matters

Interesting research on brain activity suggests that students’ brains will synchronize when they’re all paying attention together…. and that students will be more “in tune” with one another based on some contributing factors.

Article: How sitting through the same class gets your brains on the same wavelength (Smithsonian Magazine)

One factor noted in the article is student personality – the more you like being part of a group, the more you will think like the group. Double-edged sword, there. (So “groupthink” really is a neurological thing.)

Second factor is face time: students who interacted with another classmate before the learning session began were more in sync during class.

My takeaways: the culture of the learning community is really important. A harmonious classroom encourages joint attention. Allowing students their between-class minutes for socializing without begrudging them that time may pay off in better attention (though with teens, I’ve found that interpersonal stress destroys attention).

A question: As teachers, when and how should we use brain-sync to enhance learning, and when might it become a liability?





Give students a place to air grievances

A good piece by John Warner about methods he uses to give students a place and time within his classroom to air their issues with the course, the process, the assignments, even the grading structure. When students have a say in the process, they are much more invested.

More importantly, this kind of teacher-student dialogue builds trust if the teacher is willing to listen and change. That takes humility – always a good trait.

The Airing of the Grievances (Inside Higher Ed)

Finding the Power of Two

It is easier to teach reading and writing, which are solitary undertakings, than to teach listening and speaking, which always involve human interactions.”

From this article on authentic assessment in the workplace: Replacing the Performance Appraisal

Growing up and into my college years, I heard people dump on the ideas of collaborative learning. My education was pretty traditional, and we didn’t do many group projects. You sank or swam by yourself. Sure, you were surrounded by a whole lake full of drowning students, but learning was an individual affair.

As I gain experience and maturity in life, I gain a deeper appreciation for the difficulties of individualism.  While there’s something to be said for peace and quiet to think, most of us perform better in a free exchange of ideas, goals, problems, and feedback. 

A mechanized, industrialized educational system that rewards outcomes rather than true development never has time to build the skills that really matter. 

So how can a teacher build listening, speaking, and collaboration skills in the classroom?  
My experience lies in middle and high school classroom teaching, but I think these principles can be applied up and down the scale of ages.

  • Be willing to give up the control that an individual approach offers — and for many of us, “control” = “safety.”   It just seems easier to control a classroom, to guide a lesson, to assess learning when everyone is neat and tidy and quiet. But that quiet can mask boredom, struggle, or smug overconfidence. Instead, find your comfort line and decide to push past it a little at a time until you’re able to manage the more busy pace of a collaborative room.
  • Model collaboration strategies. Don’t just expect students to know how to work together. It’s a learned skill.  Talk through your thinking processes; join their groups (drop in and out); ask them to explain their group dynamic and analyze its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Recognize that not all collaboration carries the same effectiveness or value.  Just because students are working near one another in groups doesn’t mean they’re actually collaborating. You may need to be proactive in sorting students into groups to get the balance right.  A healthy collaboration will include discussion and disagreement but also developing leadership, creativity, brainstorming, and failure (on the path to success).  
  • In fact, failure is a necessity. So relax, and give your students the mental space to fail without feeling like a failure. They need to try ideas and be ok with many of them not working. In fact, quickly landing on an idea before considering other options is a mark of immature thinking.
  • Build feedback, discussion, and questioning into your classroom flow for everything.  Any project, test, or unit should become a springboard for a post-mortem evaluation: “How did that go? What did you try that worked? How was your group dynamic? Looking back, can you see ways that you helped/hindered the project as a whole? What skills/knowledge do you need to gain before we try this again?”
  • Do projects more than once. I think the biggest waste in our classrooms is the one-shot project/activity.  All the cognitive work poured into learning how to do a task, and that’s it. The project ends, and students move on.  You’d be amazed by what people will learn if your circle back to a particular kind of project/assignment after a few weeks, and remind students to apply past lessons to the current task. 

Social Media & Education: Maintaining Healthy Relationships

Everytime I talk to a new teacher, the conversation always drifts to the question of student relationships and social media. Do we friend students on Facebook or Twitter? How do you maintain the proper “distance”? What about all those new laws in states like Missouri, banning students & teachers from online contact?

I wrote about it on my blog and I think it’s worth sharing in case other educators are wrestling with social media policy in a Grace-education context:

Social Media & Educators

A Better Social Media Policy for Educators

Education As Relationship

[Part 2 of a short series on education for the New Covenant Church newsletter]

Part One: Teaching is More than Information Transfer

“No man is an island.” Thus the 17th century English poet/pastor John Donne summed up the human condition. My individual actions ripple effects into the lives of everyone around me for good or ill. The social nature of human beings, one aspect of our imaging God, profoundly affects the task of education. This major concept in the developing NCS experiment in Grace-based education builds on the core truth that humans were created for community, not hyper-individuality.
I guess it’s no surprise that a nation founded by people who left their own countries to start a better life far from everyone they knew would turn out a nation full of individualists. We reward individual effort and accomplishment far more than we value group unity. In public life, group cohesion breaks down as soon as an individual scents the opportunity to exploit some weakness to his advantage. I’ve heard plenty of complaints both in person and in print from folks who think cooperative learning is foolishly new, unfair to their kid’s accomplishments, and wasteful of time and resources.
I’m not saying that individualism is wrong. I give grades to my students for their individual work. Each of us stands before God individually either condemned by our own sin or redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ.
But a hyper-focus on individualism weakens the unity of the Spirit that binds together God’s people. The Covenant is a communal grace.
Within the Trinity, God Himself enjoys perfect unity and community. When He created man in the Garden of Eden and stamped His image upon us, God made us to beings-in-community. God didn’t leave Adam alone for long – soon Eve provided the companionship that God always intended for His creatures.
Yet the Fall affected even the expression of God’s image in man. Sin destroys community. Immediately after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve “felt” the breach in their relationship with the Creator. Isolation has dogged our path ever since.

How does this relate to education?
I submit that effective education must take place within “community”: within a set of nurturing relationships. The nature of education itself, the stamp of the image of God on both teachers and learners, and the pattern we see from Christ Himself all support “relational teaching.”
No teaching relationship in Scripture exists in a vacuum. Parents are to write God’s law upon their children’s hearts through daily, patient, commonplace conversations. Christ mentored His disciples for three years, living among them. Paul instructs experienced men and women to teach the younger, implying that there’s more at stake here than simply passing around a Life Manual. God Himself enters into a personal relationship with His people, individually shepherding His flock toward glory. No one is in this alone.
It is our nature as image-bearers to be social. Teachers and learners exist in a community, and an educational institution must recognize the value, gifts, and abilities that each student and teacher brings to the table. Whether I recognize it or not, my classroom at NCS is a small microcosm of the Body, each member vital to the healthy functioning of the whole. Relationships are at the core.
As a teacher and a Christian, my lessons aim for the deeper levels, down in the heart where students pay allegiance to their real gods. I mentioned Dr. Bill Davis, of the Covenant College philosophy faculty, in my previous article. In his lecture in one of my classes about worldview as it relates to education, he told us that true education takes place not in the intellect, but at the worldview level. As a teacher, I am not so concerned with my students’ ability to conjugate verbs as I am about their core beliefs. Either we educate Christianly, or we create smart pagans. Education cannot take place in a philosophical vacuum. [Facts may be neutral, but humans aren’t.]
“If your teaching does not reach a student’s worldview presuppositions, then the education is essentially ineffective,” Dr Davis said. His next thought hit me between the eyes: “A student will allow only one type of person to effect lasting change in her worldview beliefs: such instruction must come from someone she loves. And students will love those people who truly model Christ’s love for them– ‘We love, because He first loved us’ (I Jn 4:19).”
A loving, Christlike teacher can affect the deepest regions of a child’s heart and mind, operating as a partner with parents in the Covenantal upbringing of their children. Those deep waters stir slowly and the effects appear years (decades) after the student leaves the classroom.