Making Learning Visible: Understanding, Documenting, and Supporting Individual and Group Learning
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Fall '04: Seminar Findings

We have been impressed with the passionate responses and enormous enthusiasm for the chance to explore MLV ideas that seminar teachers and others express. Four areas of particular interest and insight, based on our work with the MLV Seminar, are:

Finding 1: The Formation of the Group as an Entry Point

We have noticed that many of our seminar teachers seem to gravitate to consideration of the formation of small groups as an entry point into this work. Factors that influence the formation of a learning group include the size of the group, the ages, competencies, and interests of the children, gender, friendships, and time spent together. Simply devoting time to thinking about how to form groups seems like a new experience for many teachers, perhaps because so much schoolwork is either done individually or in whole group discussions. Group work in U.S. classrooms often refers to whole-group work. But even collaborative learning models for small groups do not typically emphasize consideration of who is in each group and what individuals can bring to one another's learning. Thus, the notion that careful formation of small groups might afford a qualitatively different kind of learning is provocative to many teachers.

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Finding 2: The Creation of a Collective Body of Knowledge

The idea of creating a collective body of knowledge intrigues and excites our teachers and teacher educators, yet its meaning can be elusive. This concept has prompted a great deal of discussion about the nature of the task the group is working on and led teachers to reflect on what it is the group comes together to do. Some tasks are inspiring and compelling and provide reasons for a group to come together, whereas others are far less successful. A number of teachers have identified many of their own tasks as the less successful kind, but are now trying to grapple with what is the nature of a promising task in this context.

Emerging Ideas about Tasks that Lead to Group Learning

  • Tasks which can't be completed without a group
  • Tasks for which there are multiple entry points
  • Tasks in which everyone can be invested
  • Tasks for which there is no one right answer
  • Tasks in which there is a central focus on learning, rather than an implied or actual emphasis on the group completing work. (Although the completion of work can lead to learning, many students and teachers perceive collaborative tasks as opportunities to share labor, rather than learn together. See "Equating Learning and Work," below.)
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    Finding 3: Equating Learning and Work

    A number of teachers noticed that their students seemed to equate "getting work done" with "learning." These teachers also realized that while they considered learning a priority, sometimes "learning" took a back seat to the work that was supposed to generate it. In the absence of alignment of many factors in the classroom, work gets equated with learning. Consider this reflection from a ninth grade student in response to a question about whether working or getting work done was the same as learning:

    Most times for me it is not about learning, but completing the project. Many times I just want to complete an assignment and do not care or even think about how it may affect my learning. I guess part of the reason is [due] to my education from my past. It wasn't until I hit 8th grade people started caring about how I learned. We learned some fancy word meaning understanding how you think. It was cool to talk about, but hard to get across in an actual project.

    I am asking myself, "Do I learn better in groups or by myself? What is the point of me knowing if I am learning? Shouldn't me working on something mean I am learning? Who's to say if I am learning or not? How do others learn?" These questions are now in my head after this experiment. I feel these are good questions to better understand where people are coming from.

    The researcher Hermine Marshall has distinguished three kinds of orientations in classrooms: learning, work, and work-avoidance. In a learning-oriented classroom, the goal is to develop an understanding of the course topics. In these classrooms, the work is purposeful and directed at making personalized and collective sense through a building up of connections, applications, and associations. A work-oriented classroom focuses on completing the work of the course and covering the material. These classrooms are driven by completing assignments, obtaining favorable external evaluation, and moving on to the next task. In work-avoidance classrooms, students will often either try to see how much work they can avoid doing, perhaps as a result of unclear instructional goals, or there might be an unwritten compromise in which, in exchange for the teacher's not pushing too hard, students agree to remain generally complacent and compliant.

    For our seminar teachers, this discovery of the distinction between doing school work and genuine learning in the group has been very important. It helped them to clarify their goals and to focus on creating genuine learning groups, not just groups in which students can get the work done.

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    Finding 4: The Critical Role of Listening

    Ability to Listen

    The ability to listen is an essential foundation for the exchange and modification of ideas, yet many seminar teachers find that their students' listening skills are not yet honed for classroom exchange. Lindy Johnson, a high school English teacher in our seminar, said that while her students could name many of the elements that make for good discussion, they did not include "listening" on the list. Lindy characterized her students' views as more one of "I don't like you so I don't need to listen to you." Lindy's social studies colleague, Heather Moore Wood, described most of the discussions in her class as, "This is my opinion, that's your opinion," rather than a genuine exchange of ideas with the possibility of modification. Moreover, Heather and Lindy realized that many of their students had so little confidence in their own ideas that it was difficult for them to engage in a healthy exchange of ideas.

    Role of the Teacher as Listener

    The role of the teacher as one who listens also emerged as significant. Students seemed to recognize the connection between documentation and what Carlina Rinaldi refers to as "the pedagogy of listening." Students tend to respond thoughtfully when their teachers demonstrate—often through documentation—that they are listening. As Lindy shared in her presentation on the documentation panel at the MLV Institute,

    At the end of the year one girl came up to me and said, "You're the only teacher I've ever had that listens to us when we have suggestions for the class." I don't say that to congratulate myself. I think that comment is a direct result of the documentation that I've been trying to implement in my classroom and it relates to the heart of what documentation really is.

    Comments like this one from Lindy and the student quoted earlier suggest that the MLV focus on group learning in conjunction with documentation holds great promise for supporting deep thinking and the practice of democracy in the classroom. Knowing that someone is listening, students may take more care to formulate their thoughts and to listen in return. Expressing and explaining one's own ideas and listening and responding to those of others is critical to establishing a democratic culture in and outside the classroom. Thus, creating a space in which people can offer, receive, and modify ideas becomes the very thing that the teachers and students are working on.

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    Copyright 2006 Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University.
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