You thought they were paying attention, but …

By

Jennifer Priest Mitchell

When students take notes in their own words, including a few related doodles in the margin; as they discuss ideas with peers and maybe even argue about which response is best, that is when learning occurs. These students are not just paying attention or appearing active. They are being generative and collaborative, as explained by Michelene Chi, the Dorothy Bray Endowed Professor at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She shared the levels of learning that typically occur in classrooms and gave ideas for how to best inspire students to absorb new material during her presentation at the Fall 2016 Snell Conference: Practicing the Art and Science of Teaching. Sponsored by the Center for the Art and Science of Teaching, this was the inaugural conference of this new center at ASU, and it brought together educators from across the state to learn together and from one another.

Chi’s research focus is on how students learn, and she developed interventions that can overcome learning challenges. She gathers evidence-based findings about new ways to teach complex science concepts and studies why some students have difficulty understanding teachers’ instruction. Her presentation at the conference was an overview of the ways students behave when learning material and the ways in which educators present the curriculum. She emphasized the importance of student interaction and application of content to foster deeper learning.

An award-winning cognitive science researcher, Chi said, “Paying attention is the lowest form of engagement. What students need to do is to generate some knowledge beyond the information presented in the instructional materials while learning, such as taking notes. This will help them achieve deeper learning.” 

The focus of CAST is to enhance teaching in and outside of schools. Chi’s research is particularly relevant in illustrating how teaching directly impacts students’ learning. Reaching students where they are, and understanding where they need to be was an underlying theme of this conference during which educators and researchers shared results of their own work and encouraged teachers in K–12 settings to work with students, families and communities.

Relationships with parents and communities and being aware of what families do on weekends or what their neighborhood resources are helps teachers get to know students and foster success. A session on how to engage families included an overview of the power of understanding a school’s community.

Lori Ellingford, director of the iTeachAZ Community Embeddedness Project at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, was a conference presenter on this topic, and she said, "Our grant-funded research spans three academic years and aims to embed senior-year student teachers within the communities of three school districts. This community involvement occurs through a series of guided experiences that involve interaction with parents and the school districts' physical surroundings and resources. Our research shows that when teachers become aware of and acquainted with resources and strengths in their school neighborhoods, they develop a fuller understanding of students’ lives, challenges and strengths as well.” This work reinforces the idea that all the people in a child’s life act as teachers in some form.

Ellingford is referring to a $900,000 grant awarded in 2015 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is managed and implemented by Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College faculty and staff along with three partner elementary schools: Balsz, Roosevelt and Scottsdale.

Margarita Jimenez-Silva, associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, is a co-investigator on the Early Childhood Special Education Scholars grant and investigator on the iTEACH ELLs grant, both of which she spoke about in the presentation on community engagement. She emphasized the need for teachers and administrators to work in partnership with culturally and linguistically diverse families. “Every family comes to our schools with knowledge and assets that we need to recognize,” she told the audience. “We have worked with preservice teachers to learn about families’ cultural wealth, so teachers can approach the relationship from an asset perspective and find ways to meaningfully engage families.”

Mari Koerner, Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education and director of CAST, along with Sarah Galetti, director of professional learning at CAST, illustrated how effective teaching is not only scientific and evidence-based, but also an artistic practice enhanced by craft knowledge. They showed three paintings, one each by Rothko, Van Gogh, and Pollack, and asked the audience to respond with words that described these paintings. In comparing their responses to great art to acts of teaching, participants found most descriptions perfectly illustrated both. “CAST is a place where we do research about and projects about teaching in classrooms,” Koerner said, “but also explore teaching outside of schools in informal settings. It is great fun and also an important move to thinking about and improving teaching in the 21st century with a broader vision of all the places that teaching and learning happen.”

The CAST conference drew more than 80 participants from across the state and allowed for interactive discussions and sharing of ideas among attendees. CAST is dedicated to exploring and sharing what makes teachers effective. The center will bring evidence into teacher preparation and also provide knowledge and resources to teachers once they are in classrooms.