Essential Tools for Learning

I've been thinking a lot about tools and space lately. What digital tools work well in my class? What analog tools are necessary for chemistry? What teaching tools work the best to communicate concepts to my kids? All of these questions led to: "What tools are essential for learning?"

Ira Socol and I have had some interesting discussions in the past regarding technology. I remember one of our first discussions was over what "technology" is. I focused on the digital alone. Ira came with the belief that everything we use, tables and chairs, pens, notebooks, are all a form of technology. Truth be told, I left that discussion feeling frustrated and a little irked that he focused so much on the "boring" stuff of schools. To me, the difference between a pen and pencil as tools made zero difference.

As I teach longer, I continually add tools to my arsenal. I'll learn or develop new functions of spaces in the room. I'll re-purpose my walls or my spare pencil box. We'll use blogs rather than writing on paper. Or, other days, we'll pull some paper out and write with pencils. The line between digital tools and analog tools is blurring every day. Which ones are essential? Which ones simply make the learning process more streamlined?

I have some thoughts:

  1. No single tool is essential - I can teach with or without a whiteboard. I can make adjustments on the fly if need be. No internet? No problem...let's sit in groups and discuss why water is neutral. The day we begin to rely on a single tool in teaching is the day we close our minds to improvement.
  2. The space is more critical than the tools - I'm not saying all of our classrooms need to look like Will Chamberlain's. (On a side note, you should really check his class out. It's awesome.) But, our spaces need to encourage learning. Varied seating arrangements are a big plus. If your desks can move, then move them around. Don't let them get stuck to the floor from immobility. Encourage kids, even high schoolers, to fill the walls with art and their own work. Give them room to fail with dignity and learn with support.
  3. Supportive environments are more critical than space - While the space is important, I definitely recognize that some spaces are not flexible at all. Instead, build an environment that celebrates breakthroughs in learning. Emotional and physical safety are extremely important, but I think we forget about cognitive safety. So many kids are afraid to take guesses because they've been trained to be right. all. the. time. It's unrealistic and any teacher worth their salt knows that. Foster a cognitively safe environment so students can see the value in being wrong once in a while.

Don't get me wrong, I definitely have some favorite tools that really make teaching easier and more fun. Changing class up with digital and/or analog integration is a responsibility, not a gimmick. Don't get too bogged down, though, by relying too much on your bag of supplies.

I'd love to hear about what you use in your teaching in the comments.

photo credit: Double--M via photo pin cc

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2 thoughts on “Essential Tools for Learning

  1. Kerry Cule says:

    I agree Brian. I had a tough time answering your question “Are there tools you consider essential for learning?”. I teach online, so I require my virtual classroom tool (Zenlive), but little else. I can work without many of the other tools! I do, however, need a space for students to share information with each other (and me) and I need to be able to establish relationships with my students (especially since I don’t see them face-to-face).

  2. I love this: “Give them room to fail with dignity and learn with support.”

    First year flipping/mastery, passing back a quiz where many students did not score proficient on one or more concepts. One student was asking about tutoring, saying how he was struggling, and you could tell he wasn’t USED TO struggling. I had he and two neighbors get together, I got one of them to tell me how they SHOULD have done one section of problems and they all reworked them correctly. I also noticed he was the only one on this side of the room to get another topic proficient. I asked if, while he was working with others, I could use his quiz (that section) as an example to show another couple what to do. He beamed. Then when another student nearby needed help with that section I asked him to teach her (and asked her to check their work on the section I just went over with them.) I think they all started to get the way this is supposed to work and are more ‘on board’ with it.

    I’m struggling with them being careless. Not ‘attending to precision’. SO many, even when re-quizzing, do simple things that show they GET the topic I’m teaching, but if this were something used in some context, they’d be totally wrong. (ie: leaving a negative off of an answer, not simplifying a fraction when asked, not rounding as asked or at all) I need to convey that:
    -no, I’m not counting ‘close’ answers as proficient
    -yes, that answer is still wrong
    -yes, I want you to try again but I want you to THINK before you turn the next one in.

    Without limiting the number of attempts at mastery, they’re turning in junk the second time around. I’m trying to get them to see “the value in being wrong”, and we’re having good conversations. But it’s often not resulting in the next go-round being right.

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