What Makes for Optimal Learning?


The inspiration for today’s post comes in the form of a comment from Maureen Devlin (Twitter; Blog) on yesterday’s post. Maureen wrote,

You mention that your work is “targeted” and “purposeful,” and I know the climate is positive–all attributes that lead to optimal learning. You’ve also written about one engaging lesson after another and the fact that you notice and respond to students lives and interests too. What other aspects of your classroom and teaching do you think makes your students so successful? What do you consider optimal learning design? Thanks for contemplating this with me.

And thank you, Maureen, for giving me reason to ponder this further. I am finding that good teaching is a synchronization of many important realms, all of which require a devotion to their follow-through. I have three areas I am always seeking to improve upon: pedagogy, student achievement, and classroom community.

I still have many miles to go in achieving the ideal in those three goals. There are five realms I see as important to getting there.

Realm 1: Research and Planning – This is the “purposeful planning and targeted teaching” of which I wrote yesterday. This is the first year in my career I am actively collecting data (through observations, conversations, assessments, etc.) for the benefit of my students (instead of just saying, “I have the data, what more do you want from me?!”) This week, after completing an exit slip, one student asked what I’m going to do with it. I said I’ll take it home and see if we need to work anymore  on measuring to the nearest inch. One of my staunchest defenders piped up, “That’s what he does, and tomorrow he will teach it again to the kids who need it.” Purposeful planning and targeted teaching are two reasons I am seeing more investment and movement this year in my students than I have in the past.

Realm 2: Belief and Confidence – I like to think of my classroom as the last bastion of belief and confidence for my students – that is to say I believe in the urgency of building them up, because if not me, who? I try not to focus on what they can’t do and instead focus on what they can do. This allows me to pour it on really thick when the kids are down on themselves. “You can do it,” “Show me what you can do,” and “You’re going to get it,” are phrases I often utter (and should utter more). More importantly, in my subtle and unsubtle ways I try to make my paras, push-ins, cluster teachers, and administrators believe the same.

Realm 3: Respect and Compassion –  I want each student to feel valued as an individual. In my ideal world, I have time every day to spend five minutes involved in meaningful conversation with every student in my room about anything that’s on their minds. Unfortunately, these conversations only seem to happen with the kids who are most verbal, outgoing, or closest to my desk when they’re unpacking and I’m doing my housekeeping. I have been guilty of not being as patient with sensitive issues lately as I normally would be, but my ideal self takes kids into the hall when they’re down and has a friendly question or comment for each student as they walk into the room in the morning.

Realm 4: Parental Involvement – This is easily the realm in which I am weakest. I have made positive steps this year with a monthly newsletter (in English and Spanish). The one I sent home this week had reminders about web sites for reading, a little blurb about our Christmas festivities, and pictures of each child involved in our fun activities the week before we went on vacation. I have also sent “Nice Notes” home more than in the past, but still not as often as I should. I have also tried to shed my self-consciousness about speaking Spanish, realizing that I have to meet parents halfway, and only with some can I do that in English.

Realm 5: Consideration and Implementation of Recommendations – I have gotten much better at accepting criticism from administrators. If the criticism comes with a suggestion, I take the time to consider implementing that suggestion. I feel I owe it to myself (as I want to improve my pedagogy) and to my students (as I want them to succeed). Sometimes, recommendations have impacts I didn’t anticipate. This only makes me more willing to consider future ideas. I am also working with a couple of more experienced special ed colleagues who readily share ideas and resources. Their experience is positively impacting my classroom.

Striving to improve in all five realms as a means of improving my pedagogy, student achievement, and classroom community is a daily journey. I have learned that Friday is not a throwaway day and neither is the week before a break. There are many challenges along the way, and it can be exhausting, but acknowledging that every day and every lesson is important forces me to push through.

Maureen, I hope this answers your questions!

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One response to “What Makes for Optimal Learning?

  1. Hi Matt, Your answer is sensational–one I will read again and again for direction and inspiration. It’s so helpful to hear another teacher answer this question and share metacognition. I hope other educators will answer this question as a way of guiding and supporting all of us classroom teachers since it’s such a complex job. This would also make a good #edchat question. Thanks once again. I appreciate your time and effort.

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