Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is this an activity or a strategy?

The difference between an activity and a strategy is an important concept for teachers to take away from their workshops. The question comes up when discussing the importance of teachers being able to transfer new ideas from the staff room to the classroom. Robin and I know that to get authentic transfer, it’s best to emphasize the strategies as much as it is to present the content.

Classroom teachers who are sacrificing valuable instructional time to attend a professional learning opportunity, become frustrated if they think their time is being wasted. They understand that they need to be there to learn the latest content vital to doing their job, yet, they know they have gotten a bonus when they leave the session with a good idea to take back to their classroom.

This good idea, or what we call the “take away”, is more likely to transfer authentically if the teacher sees it as a strategy rather than as an activity. An activity is something that is done once, or something done in a similar way every time, in the same content and in the same context.

For example, the activity called Signing Name Tags, is a great way to get movement, conversation and accountability. The presenter has everyone get up and move around the room and have at least three conversations with three different people about their goals for the day. After each conversation they sign each others name tags. The only criteria is that they can’t have a conversation if their name tags have been signed by the same person. This simple guideline ensures that there will be a comprehensive mix of people meeting and talking. There is accountability, movement, collegial conversations and a focus on the expected outcomes of the day.

A capable staff developer may encourage their participants to try, Signing Name Tags in their classroom and teachers may do just that. Yet, if teachers transfer Signing Name Tags to their classroom and use it at the beginning of each semester, and the students discuss goals every time, and they always sign name tags, then this teacher has conceptualized and transferred Signing Name Tags as an activity.

However, when teachers see, Signing Name Tags as a way to get movement, accountability, collegial conversations about specific content the participants are seeing Signing Name Tags, as a strategy that can be parlayed into varying strategies. In fact, teachers begin to see more dynamic ways to transfer not only the strategy Signing Name Tags, but specific components of the strategy. For example, they may have students walk and discuss their homework while signing each others papers.

Or a teacher may transfer only the movement aspect of Signing Name Tags, knowing how to get students to engage verbally but not considering having them move while they talk. Or another teacher highlight the accountability aspect of Signing Name Tags and uses this as part of the strategy with her poster projects, having students comment on their peer’s posters.

When teaching for transfer, special emphasis on the components of the strategies that are used, increases the frequency of authentic transfer of strategies from the staff room to the classroom. Teachers who are taught engaging strategies, explained what makes the strategies engaging and are encouraged to transfer the strategy into their content and context, are empowered with new learnings in enhanced and relevant ways.

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