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Thursday, January 23, 2014

How do you know what students need to learn? #RHIZO14

Mr. Dave Cormier raised me a question via twitter. Actually, two questions.

Literally scratched my head...

Here I am, reading and discussing with my gradschool classmates about Learner-Centered Teaching and the question posed to me made me stop and say... "Good question". Am I really qualified to earn the degree on being a "Master" in Learning in Teaching? heh.. These questions ARE related to learning & teaching.

I raised these questions to my gradschool classmates and told them that even if it wasn't about our comprehensive examination review topics, we should try to answer the questions on our own to prepare ourselves in practicing taking an exam. Exercise some critical thinking and test-taking skills.

Tests bring out all sorts of emotions, anxiety, pressure. I myself hate taking exams. The reason I loved college because my undergraduate degree barely didn't have final examinations. Most of my courses required research outputs or other types of paper work. I remember during finals week, my block would run wild and free while the rest of the university was stressing on reviewing notes and feeling all the anxiety.

There's something about exams that give me anxiety, probably the pressure of sitting in a chair for a couple of hours and forcing ourselves to create and squeeze out information from our minds. With the pressure of being "graded". I should probably take advantage of my excessive talking, rationalizing and over-thinking as an advantage for my compre. *Metacognition in the process here*

How do you know what the students should learn? 
After much thought, I realized this is in relation to Maryellen Weimer's "Function of Content". How do we know which content to remove in our syllabus and which ones should stay? She stresses that in the practice of Learner-Centered teaching, we should "use" content to promote learning and not to focus too much on "covering" it. In Teacher-Centered instruction, the focus of teachers is always on covering all the topics which results to competing with time and compromising the learning experience of the students.Which leads us back to the question, how then do we know what the students should learn?

I'm going to go into the practice of using Grant Wiggin's Understanding by Design. In UbD, the whole idea is to start with the "desired results". At the end of your topic or unit or semester, what is your desired result? The guide question in UbD asks "What kinds of long-term independent accomplishments are desired?"

It begins with... Students will independently use their learning to....

This practice is helpful because you're able to think of a standard that students should be able to do and it should be long-term. The "big" picture. What do you want students to be able to do? This gives purpose in what you are doing. It's like a Mission-Vision thing. Remember the saying "Vision without mission is merely a dream, mission without vision just passes the time. Vision with mission can change the world"

Your desired result is your vision. If you don't have a vision... then your just "passing the time".

So when you already have a desired result... you go down to asking, "In order to achieve the desired result, what should they understand?

Students will understand that...

As well as thinking, "In order to achieve the desired result, what essential question should be always raised?"

Students will keep considering...(in question format).

And then, we go into identifying "What knowledge and skills do students need to have in order to achieve the desired results?"

Students will know...
Students will be skilled at...

When you have identified all these... it will be easier for you to think of "learning activities & learning assessments" - and there you would incorporate the various teaching and instructional and assessment practices. Hopefully, your practices aren't teacher-centered because remember Weimer's advice... Use content to promote learning, not cover it. Your learning activities and assessments should be aligned with what you have identified above. What should students know? What skills should they develop? That is the whole point of identifying those things, to serve as a guide.

I guess.. to give a short answer from Dave's question "How do you know what students to need to learn?" - You first think of what your desired result is. Your vision, so that you're not just "passing the time".

Do they all need to learn the same things?
I think the key word here is "need". Well, no, they don't need to know the same things but I guess they all need to know the basics. The things you have identified under "knowledge & skills". Some will definitely learn more than others. As long as they all achieve the desired results, then I think you've achieved success - you have achieved your vision. 

So again, it all boils down to your "desired results". 

What is your vision?

Kinda like a lot about life huh? It all starts with a dream.

***updated: A comment in Rhizo14 facebook group mentioned something about the common core standards, in Understanding By Design, it actually starts with "unpacking" the standards... I just didn't discuss it here because I was thinking of learning as a whole (not restricting myself with formal education) - like seminars maybe, or MOOCs :) ***

On a personal note: This is so crazy. I'm collaborating with PhDs and professors from other parts of the world. And here I am, an overstaying M.A. student who just overcame the "quarter-life" career crisis. They are out of my league. But I feel like I have tons of mentors where I can learn from.

I do have a habit of extending myself and reaching out to people. I have this inner drive thinking I can do more than what is expected. I remember during my undergraduate year (2006), for our first research course I contacted a guy who worked on test anxiety and he mailed me stuff via postmail! manuscripts and even a copy of his instrument (for freeeee). He was Charles D. Spielberger. I was so delighted as an 18 year old having contact a busy person from abroad and was helping me out, a mere undergrad. I wasn't publishing or anything, we were just going to do a simple research as partial completion of our course subject. Hmmm... I should definitely try contacting him again, last time I talked to him I told him I was taking masters. lol I should probably tell him "well... I'm still taking it" ha. But he was one of those key people in my undergraduate experience that made me more enthusiastic about educational research. - ohh maybe Dr. Spielberger has twitter :)))

And now, I've finally found what my key interest is and it basically falls under online learning (or e-learning, still need to decide on that). And I'm finding more and more people to draw inspiration from. Mr. Dave (and his wife, Ms. Bonnie) to begin with. I kinda figured out in the long run that they were a couple. And I think I find it cute because they both share the same interest. It's always nice that you have somebody to talk to that can relate with what you're talking about. Sometimes, when I'm with my friends.. I think if they were honest enough they would tell me "Toni, stop talking about your research and your MOOCs because we have no idea what you are talking about and we also don't give a damn." Well, I think that's what they are thinking. So as a result, I try not to talk to them so often. Don't wanna bore them to death. :D

*RHIZO14 is the hashtag for the "Rhizomatic Learning" MOOC provided by Dave Cormier via P2PU (Peer 2 Peer University) 

Related Post Re: examinations see previous post on Cheating is a Skill: Redefining Cheating & Thoughts on Learner-Centered Assessment =)

***updated: OMG!!!!!!!! I typed Charles Spielberger on twitter in hoping to reconnect with him and turns out he died LAST YEAR June 12, 2013 (see link) I feel so sad!!!!!!! And I wasn't even able to update him to tell him the "good" news that I'm almost... finishing my masters... (Though he'll probably say, What took you so long, dear?)

BUT THIS IS SUCH. sad sad sad news :( 

R.I.P Dr. Charles D. Spielberger.. Thank you for mailing me a free copy of your Test Anxiety instrument which gave birth to my love and enthusiasm with educational psychology research. 


  1. I was struck by a lot of what you wrote, and when you were mentioning your dislike of the exam part of learning, I was thinking: "I know. Just think about the little kids now being stuck with hours of standardized testing." In some ways, exams never really bothered me. I still found ways to be creative and be thoughtful (even if it was doodling in the margins).
    Nurturing independent thinkers should be easy, right? We give support and let them go. But that has become almost in contrast to the ways that frame our teaching practice -- you will do this in this way in this time frame.
    As a teacher, I struggle with this. I appreciate the post, and the difficulties you are having in juggling the academic environment and expectations with your own interests and curiosity (#rhizo14 and more)
    Good luck on your journey.

  2. Heya,

    Just to follow up on what Jaap was saying in facebook. You have created a framework for answering my question, but maybe haven't made it all the way there. Students will independently use their learning to... what? How are we to know what they actually need to learn.

    Further... can you actually know what they know?

    These are the questions that led me to Rhizomatic learning in the first place. I never know what someone is going to know before they get to my class. I don't know what might help them get further along the path until i meet them (and often not them). If we are actually student centred, how can we possibly decide what we are going to teach BEFORE we meet the students?

    1. Hi Dave! Your challenge is really tough!

      I still have no idea what all these Rhizomes are and what Rhizomatic Learning really is. Yeah I'm getting bits and pieces about it. But the bits and pieces are causing cognitive dissonance with things I'm studying right now. BUT I am pretty sure that they have a link and I have a sense that they're not far from each other. Or are you trying to say they're different?

      I will think about your follow up questions. It sounds so philosophical. But then again, there are a lot of questions about teaching and learning that has no definite answer.

      I will find a way to link these ideologies.

    2. Video response :)