Making Learning Visible at Tree of Life

Continuing a “Dialogic-Friendly” Environment in our Classes

“Making Learning Visible” is a concept which emerged from the Project Zero study at Harvard, which publicized the pedagogical approach to early childhood education practiced in Reggio Emilia, Italy. We are studying this concept at TOLIS to be sure our debate-friendly environment in the classroom is indeed productive and conducive to developing critical thinking. Do we allow students to talk too much? Should all classes be as subject to discussion? What is the right balance for social interaction?

We are also studying “making learning visible” to re-evaluate our assessment process, as waiting for test scores and quiz results can leave parents, teachers and students anxious, and relying on assessments based on participation in class can feel too subjective. How can we make learning visible? How can we capture and document this elusive process that goes on inside a child’s head, in order to capture the intangible of “what’s been learned”?

We want our students to move from the process of being regulated by their teachers, to regulating themselves. This entails them becoming aware of their own “best ways” of learning. They need to know how they learn most effectively. Like teachers, students also need to see their learning — they need to have it made visible, also.

Vygotsky describes learning as “originating in social contexts and being a process of the child moving from being dependent upon guidance (or ‘scaffolding’) from an adult or more experienced peer, or ‘other-regulated’, to being able to carry out a task independently and being ‘self-regulated.’”

At TOLIS, we want to use the social context of the multi-age class to help students move from other-regulated to self-regulated, where they are able to choose and employ adequate strategies to master skills and content successfully.

How do we get that to happen?

Interaction, communication and language development at a metacognitive level is important. In other words, students need the space to talk, people with whom to talk, and words to describe what they are experiencing. Studies show that young children who have a high level of interaction with their mothers and a large vocabulary will have higher levels of self-regulation, such as the ability to stay on task (Vallotton, Ayoub, 2011). Enriching vocabulary through interaction is important (as opposed to handing out word lists).

Vygotsky wrote, “Children solve practical tasks with the help of their speech, as well as with their eyes and hands. The unity of perception, speech and action… constitutes the central subject matter for any analysis of the origins of uniquely human behavior.” Taking away speech — telling them to learn only with their ears, eyes and hands — is not effective. He is an advocate of learning in a social context, with an environment favorable to dialogue.

We encourage learning inside this context with different “dialogic” strategies, including:

· Reciprocal teaching — where students learn and then teach peers (Palincsar, Brown, 1984);

· Having ground rules for talk in the class (Mercer, Littleton, 2007);

· Having students explain their reasoning and brainstorm to find a solution or make a plan (Mercer, 2000);

· Debriefing, to involve students in reflections and making explicit judgments (Leat and Lin, 2003);

· Self-assessment and choice of subsequent levels of difficulty (Black, William, 1998);

· Instruction on different strategies, where students try approaches and measure their own results using them (Verschaffel, et al, 1999);

· Use of metacognitive vocabulary such as notice, respond, thinking time, suggestions, let’s discuss, sort, coming to agreement, explain, give a reason, talk about,

“Making Learning Visible” means making learning effective

In their book, “Making Learning Visible,” David Whitebread, Deborah Pino-Pasternak and Penny Coltman refer to recent studies showing that high-achieving children are more effective because they consciously choose a strategy appropriate to a task. They refer to a study of children aged 6 and 7 who were given a memory task where they could group 12–16 pictures into three or four categories. The students had better results using a sorting strategy, and approximately two-thirds of the group recognized that the strategy had helped; the other one-third of the group thought it was just because they had “used their brains more” or taken more time with the task. What was particularly interesting was that almost every child in the study who recognized the effectiveness of the sorting strategy, re-applied it in a following memory task. The point of the study is that students who understand the significance of the strategy will be able to use it in the future. Teaching strategies — ways of doing something — is more important than teaching content. Once more we see that process, not the result, is key. We want students to have different learning strategies, and know how and when to use them.

Are there age limits to this “dialogic” approach, where learning is made visible through talk?

The “Children Articulating Thinking (ChAT) Project” found positive results working with children as young as 5 years of age, where children became self-regulating and conscious about the selection of strategies in their learning through talk in the classroom, with peers and with teachers. The ChAT project planned interventions to support more productive interactions during group problem solving activities. They concluded, “Children’s ability to use language to describe and reflect upon their own mental processes is fundamental to developing their metacognitive and self-regulatory processes.”

How do we know when “dialogic” is happening?

· Students are able to explain their reasoning to their peers.

· Students are able to diagram or show working out to arrive at the correct answer.

· Students are able to brainstorm and reflect as a group or in teams or pairs.

· We can see strategies spread from student to student, or from teacher to student.

· Students talk comparatively about strategies. “I tried this last time, but I prefer…”

· We see new strategies re-employed in different situations.

· Strategies that get used again result in new “best times” or in access to new levels of difficulty.

· Students assess themselves as ready for new challenges.

· Students assess themselves as needing new strategies.

· Students participate more in class, asking questions or contributing to discussions.

· We see observers gradually being pulled into conversations around a challenge.

· Students become self-regulated, rather than other-regulated. They self-talk, or reason to themselves, about the right approach.

· Classes have a range of communication, from teacher-group, to student-group, to student-student in small groups or pairs (e.g. the 1–2–3 approach, where 1 is individual, 2 is working in pairs, 3 is group activity, centered upon a question or provocation)

How do we know when dialogic is not working? When does that talk aspect of a working classroom counter-productive?

  • Students and teachers are not respecting the ground rules for talk in class. Conversation drifts from the topic, people talk over each other, or disrespect others’ opinions.
  • When certain students are not engaged, continue at the margins

Further Study

Black, P. and William, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. London: Kings College School of Education.

Leat, D. and Lin, M. (2003) Developing a pedagogy of metacognition and transfer: Some signposts for the generation and use of knowledge and the creation of research partnerships, British Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 383–416

Mercer, N. (2000) Classroom talk and development of self-recognition and metacognition. In D. Whitebread N. Mercer C. Howe and A Tolmie (eds) (2013) Self-regulation and Dialogue in Primary Classrooms. British Journal of Educational Psychology Monograph Series II: Psychological Aspects of Education — Current Trends, №10. Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Palincsar, A. S. and Brown, A. L. (1984) Reciprocal teaching of comprehension –fostering and comprehension-monistoring activities, Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117–75.

Vallotton, C.D. and Ayoub, C. (2011) Use your words: The role of language in the development of toddlers’ self-regulation. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 26 (2), 169–81.

Verschaffel, L., De Corte, E., Lasure, S., Van Vaerenbergh, G., Bogaerts, H., and Ratinckx, E., (1999) Learning to solve mathematical application problems: A design experiment with 5th graders. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 1, 195–229.

Vygotsky, L. S., (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press