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The Classroom Experiment - Strategies to Promote Engagement and Learning

Dylan Wiliam is a prominent educator in the United Kingdom. His ideas and strategies are consistently mentioned in education reform circles. On an uncharacteristically quiet evening at home, I stumbled across these BBC videos, The Classroom Experiment. Although it took nearly two hours to get through the videos, I came away thinking that the teacher is certainly the most important factor in student learning, and that student learning can be improved with persistence and a willingness to become better at failure.

For those folks that feel that teachers can be replaced by technology, these videos suggest otherwise.
Here is a summary of the strategies and changes that Dylan Wiliam instituted to increase student engagement and advance student learning.
  1. No raising of hands - use Popsicle sticks, or some other mechanism to randomize the selection process for student responses. Any student can be called on at any time. In a 1:1 classroom, utilize a random number generating app to identify respondents, classroom clickers (CPS) can also serve this purpose.
  2. Use mini-white boards to achieve 100% participation. All students write their responses and then hold them aloft so that the instructor can quickly assess student understanding. Students can assess each other's responses and suggest revisions or improvements. In a 1:1 classroom, students can use their tablets to share responses. In our 1:1 iPad classes, teachers use NearPod to promote participation.
  3. Red, Yellow, Green cups - students use these color symbols to let the instructor and classmates know when to stop, slow down, or move forward with respects to understanding a question or problem. This formative assessment technique allows the instructor to differentiate lessons through students groups. Teachers can also identify students to work as peer tutors for those students indicating yellow or red.  In a 1:1 classroom, a solid home screen color pattern can serve as the self-assessment / pacing indicator.
  4. Student evaluation - assign students as observers of the class and of the teacher. Allow them to informally evaluate classroom operations and teacher effectiveness. Students can provide insight and suggestions for improving classroom atmosphere and student learning.
  5. Energize students through physical activity and movement.  
  6. Provide the tools and opportunities for students to monitor their progress and reflect on their learning experiences. Provide opportunities for students to learn and practice meta cognition. The BBC video example mentioned previously shows PE students using heart-rate monitors to self-assess activity and fitness levels.
  7. Remove fear of making mistakes. FAIL = first attempt in learning. It's OK to fail, just continually work to fail better. Promote a growth mindset that de-emphasizes static intelligence measures. Everyone can learn.
  8. Give comments, not grades.  Wiliam contends that students are intoxicated by letter grades and that this interferes with intrinsic motivation to learn.  He asks teachers to make comments on student work, suggest strategies for improvement, and gradually transition students towards peer review, self-evaluation, and reflection.
  9. Engage the parents in the learning processes. Use technology to share classroom work and experiences. A good LMS product such as Schoology, or a classroom blog or website can help accomplish this. Invite parents to a curriculum night and ask them to participate as learners.
  10. "Secret Student" is a behavioral modification system where students individual accountability for on-task behavior can lead to a group reward. Positive peer pressure helps keep the students focused. The students aren't aware of which individual is being assessed on a given day. Because the focus is on positive behaviors, the student earning a point towards the class score is recognized on the following day. In the BBC video, the participating class needed 20 S.S. positive behavior points in the remaining 30 class days to earn a trip to an amusement park.
These changes were initially tough on teachers and students. However, their persistence and effort paid off as student engagement and behavior improved. In addition, student mastery levels in math and reading also improved over the course of the summer term. Following a successful class experience, these classroom interventions were instituted across the entire school.

Wiliam states that the two keys to improving learning in schools are...
  1. Teachers must commit to continual improvement
  2. Teachers should follow their own PD path, but then emphasize the techniques and strategies that make the most profound differences in their students' learning.


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