Why Cohort Learning is More Important Than You Think

Why Cohort Learning is More Important Than You Think

RVS Teacher – How do you determine if your students are intellectually engaged? Are they completing their assignments, appearing interested in the task, and showing up to school regularly? Beyond observations, how do you really know? Further, how do you know a new initiative is driving good practice? This post hopes to shed some light on how understanding intellectual engagement can help inform teacher practice based on findings from a small study on cohort learning.

Background

Many high schools across Alberta are now involved in the Moving Forward with High School Redesign initiative to help increase student engagement, foster high levels of achievement and quality teaching.  Some schools are prototyping innovative program designs to engage, make learning relevant and integrate career experiences. W.H. Croxford High School in Airdrie, is an example of a school supporting new practices on how learners are supported in both choice and topic of study through an offering of Grade 10 cohort academy learning experiences. Cohort learning is when students are grouped into learning arrangements who begin and complete learning experiences with the same students throughout most of their time in an academic program, such as a learning Career Academy (Alberta Education, 2009). Think of a cohort like a small learning community providing curriculum with a career related theme.

At W.H. Croxford, Grade 10 students can choose to enroll in a cohort topic of their choice ranging from Mechatronics, Visual Art and Media, Cavalier Music Academy, and Building Futures to name a few. With such new initiatives, how do we then know these offerings are supporting learning? One tool is for educators to use data to understand how intellectually engaged learners are in their learning.

What does it mean to be intellectually engaged? Intellectual engagement is a psychological investment in learning that encompassing students’ sense of enjoyment, interest, motivation and relevance of curriculum (Friesen, 2009). Essentially, you are so immersed in learning, that you often don’t want to stop (in state of flow), you are challenged (not too much, not too little) and the learning is relevant and interesting to you. Studies continue to show that when students are intellectually disengaged, they have increased risks of dropping out of school. Intrigued by the cohort model, I wanted to investigate how this grouping could help promote intellectual engagement.

Why This Study Matters

In a study of over 60,000 students across Canada, only 41 percent indicated they were experiencing intellectual engagement (Dunleavy, Milton & Willms, 2012).  Further, many students who are behaving in ways traditionally associated with appearing engaged at school (e.g., attending classes, participating on teams, high grades etc.) reported actually experiencing low levels of intellectual engagement in learning. In fact, student intellectual engagement in school stagnates and declines dramatically in Grade 6 (Willms, Friesen & Milton, 2009; Willms, 2003) and continues to remain low into high school (Wang, Chow, Hofkens, & Salmela-Aro, 2015; Dunleavy, Milton & Willms, 2012). More worrisome, is students who are intellectually disengaged, have increased chances of dropping out of school. When students don’t finish high school, this can negatively impact not only the student, but also society as a whole.

Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore how cohort learning promotes intellectual engagement for students and gather learner evidence to inform teacher practice. Results from this small study of 26 Grade 10 participants found cohort students seemed to indicate higher than nationally reported averages for intellectual engagement. To investigate how such a cohort model helps promote intellectual engagement for Grade 10 learners, an online survey asking questions related to intellectual engagement was implemented and analyzed. Questions were asked regarding flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), effort, motivation, interest, relevance and enjoyment, specifically about Grade 10 Career and Technology Studies (CTS) and Grade 10 English courses. Responses were collected from three cohorts including Visual Art & Media, Building Futures and the Academy of Mechatronics.

Study Findings

Findings seem to indicate that a cohort model helps promote intellectual engagement, as overall, there was a 72 percent student psychological investment during the two-week period studied for the English Language classes and CTS classes. These results were higher than previously reported national intellectual engagement trends of 54 percent for high schools participating in the High School Flexibility Enhancement Pilot Project and the Canadian norm for Intellectual Engagement Composite for high schools for the 2010/2011 school year was 44 percent (Fijal, 2013).  The students in this survey indicated an 18 percent higher psychological investment in their learning.

In addition, open ended questions found student expressed themes related to feeling connected (with teachers, peers and experts), a strong sense of enjoyment and motivation to go to school, a positive classroom culture (feelings of trust, acceptance and belonging) and relevant and meaningful learning experiences. Lastly, students shared why they chose a cohort over a regular school stream, and many expressed a desire for new learning experiences beyond “regular school.” It seems students these students are telling us these cohorts are fostering a sense of community with relevant learning experiences. These results also support previous High School Redesign research findings in successful schools fostered trust and student voice (Friesen, Jacobsen, Brown, & Alonso-Yanez, 2016).

Now What? Recommended Next Steps

  1. Teachers/Educators: Do you want to know if your students are intellectually engaged using evidence? Grade 5-12 educators should consider integrating the Alberta Education TTFM (Tell Them From Me) survey as a formative assessment tool to collect engagement data. This survey can help teachers improve learning experiences for students and target specific areas in their classrooms most in need of intervention (Reschly, Appleton, & Pohl, 2014), all while promoting student voice in their own learning. Also, this survey provides data on more complex issues, such as student wellness and classroom climate.
  2. Administrators: Consider using this survey as a data-based decision making tool. Share student perspectives with staff to target specific school issues and improve learning (Lovelace, Reschly, & Appleton, 2017). Bring students together in staff meetings to discuss results in partnership to develop creative solutions. Also, consider how a cohort model could support community building in your school.
  3. Rocky View Schools: Continue to research innovative practices and share findings locally and globally to better understand what does and does not work in school redesign. Also, consider offering more cohort topics to more learners. Maybe we ask students what they want to know more about and design cohorts around those topics?

In summary, this study found a cohort model may help promote intellectual engagement. Improving our practice as educators requires listening to student’s critical voices. We cannot do this without asking the students themselves and we must be willing to be vulnerable and find out what is and isn’t working in our practice. In a light of fostering student voice, making learning relevant, meaningful and developing a sense of belonging, the cohort model may be one possibility to help foster intellectual engagement and a sense of community.

References

Alberta Education. (March 2009). High school flexibility enhancement: A literature review.

Appleton, J. J., Christenson, S. L., Kim, D., & Reschly, A. L. (2006). Measuring cognitive and psychological engagement: Validation of the Student Engagement Instrument. Journal of School Psychology, 44, 427–445. doi:10.1016/j.jsp. 2006.04.002.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial: New York, NY.

Dunleavy, J., Milton, P., & Willms, D. (2012). Trends in intellectual engagement. What did you do in school today? (Research Series Report Number Three). Toronto: Canadian Education Association.

Reschly and Christenson (2004)

Fijal, J. (2013). High school flexibility enhancement pilot project summary report.

Friesen, S. (2009). What did you do in school today? Teaching effectiveness: A framework and rubric. Toronto: Canadian Education Association.

Friesen, S., Jacobsen, M., Brown, B., & Alonso-Yanez, G. (2016, April). Highly adaptive learning systems: Research in Alberta’s redesigned high schools. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Washington, DC.

Lovelance, M. D., Reschly, A., Appleton, J. J. (2017). Beyond school records: The value of cognitive and affective engagement in predicting dropout and on-time graduation. Professional School Counselling, 21(1), 70–84.

Reschly, A. L., Pohl, A., Christenson, S. L., & Appleton, J. J. (2017). Engaging adolescents in secondary schools. In B. Schultz, J. Harrison, & S. Evans (Eds.), School mental health services for adolescents. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wang, M.-T., Chow, A., Hofkens, T., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2015). The trajectories of student emotional engagement and school burnout with academic and psychological development: Findings from Finnish adolescents. Learning and Instruction36, 57–65. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2014.11.004.

Willms, J. D. (2003). Student engagement at school: a sense of belonging and participation (Paris, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Willms, D., Friesen, S., & Milton, P. (2009). What did you do in school today? Transforming classrooms through social, academic and intellectual engagement, final national report. Toronto: Canadian Education Association.

What Do You Make?

What Do You Make?

Learning Design Specialist – In preparation for the Learning Design Maker Cohort, we thought it would be interesting to ask teachers, “What do you make and why?” Tough question! Immediately I put on my teacher hat and thought, “Well, I make awesome lessons, labs and fun projects because… curriculum!”

And then I thought about what making really is: making is finding creative solutions to unique problems. Teachers are designers of learning; we are here to design for our students and to learn alongside them. One way teachers can create authentic experiences that are fun, engaging and real, is to come up with interesting and relevant challenges for kids to solve. In making, students rise to the challenge by creating authentic, high quality products. They will be engaged, reflective, collaborative, and feel accomplished. During the Learning Design cohort, our goal was to generate engagement by encouraging teachers to make something they were proud of.

The modern maker movement is about making high quality products for an authentic audience or consumer. Whether a person knits a blanket to give as a baby gift or bakes cookies for coworkers to enjoy, creating a high-quality product worth sharing is the essence of making. When a student produces something that they take no pride in, either because they lacked the skill to reach a level of quality they could be proud of, or the product has no consumer beyond a teacher who will grade it, the engagement can be limited. When students have an opportunity to create products that are meaningful to them, that they can be proud of, and that can be shared with an authentic audience, making becomes magical! Teachers don’t have to be experts. Being willing to pose a question and learn alongside students can be just as powerful. Providing an opportunity for students to explain, exhibit or show off to parents, industry or local government adds even more to the experience.

Making requires more than knowledge and some remembering. It often requires deeper understanding, reflection, and an application of knowledge. And isn’t that the goal of teaching – to create authentic learning experiences that drive students to be engaged learners ready for problems of the future? So what are you making?

CTS Remix and Chewing the Fat

CTS Remix and Chewing the Fat

Learning Specialist – CTS Teachers from across Rocky View came together to collaborate, create and ideate on designing CTS projects to include core subjects and that also would meet the needs of the students and school. We started the day being inspired by the staff and students of Building Futures in Airdrie. The teacher participants were blown away by the professionalism of the Building Futures students. The students introduced themselves, shook hands with teachers and talked about about the benefits of their program, why they enrolled, and how it was changing their outlook on school.

Then we made our way to the shop at W.H. Croxford. Teachers had time to talk to each other about projects they have done and what they were interested in doing in the future. One key thing that has struck me over and over again this year, is how much we crave time to talk to other professionals about our practice and projects. Rarely are we given time for a tête-à-tête about what is going on in our classes. Professional Learning days and staff meetings often have tight agendas with a lot of bullets to get through, leaving no time just to chat. Shooting the breeze shouldn’t be seen as a waste of time! Build it into your agenda by using speed dating or critical friends protocols that are structured to allow for talk. It can be so helpful to have someone to share your ideas with, brainstorm ways around barriers, and #humblebrag** about the amazing things your school does. The feedback left by teachers and administration following PL sessions led by the 21C team this year, reflects this. The opportunity to hear what other schools are doing is valued and powerful.

Teachers at the CTS Remix day were then faced with a challenge: “How would you redesign a shipping container to meet the needs of your school and/or community?” Teachers partnered up and created incredible designs! A biodiesel plant, a makerspace powered by green energy and a Transformer-inspired container that would expand to allow for multiple uses and then contract back to an innocuous-looking shipping container are just a few of the thoughtful designs that came out of that exercise. From there, teachers had time to consider how they could redesign what they were doing in CTS classes. With creative juices flowing, teachers arrived at inspired and inventive projects that included repurposing an existing school space into a makerspace, redesigning a tent trailer into a mobile showcase for student art work, and rethinking the entire grade 10 curriculum to create a more personalized learning experience.

It was a fantastic day and our thanks go out to all who participated. If you have an idea that needs some help getting off the ground, send me an email (saramartin@rockyview.ab.ca) and we can set up a time to chat!

**Definitely worth a Google if you haven’t heard of that term before 🙂

Design Cohorts Launch

Design Cohorts Launch

Greetings from the Learning Department’s 21C team! Not sure who that is or what we do? Check out our introductory article, and then join us back here for an update.

Trailblazers investigate iconic Alberta images at The Stockman’s Museum.

Trailblazers investigate iconic Alberta images at The Stockman’s Museum.

If you follow #rvsed or #rvs21c on Twitter, you’re probably well aware that we’ve been doing some fun, out-of-school things with a number of RVS teachers these past couple of weeks. On those days we do tend to get a little excited and spam the Twitter account with updates and retweets of the work everyone is doing. We apologize to anyone whose #rvsed Tweet got buried in a stream of 21C exuberance.

It’s just that it’s difficult for us to control ourselves when we see and hear enthusiastic teachers diving into an interesting inquiry and creating excellent finished products in spite of some heavy time pressures. We believe one of the hallmarks of good instructional design is understanding it first from the inside – as the learner. Accordingly, a consistent feature of all the design cohorts is that teachers first act as learners and actually work through a designed exercise where they must explore an inquiry topic and use newly acquired tools or skills to create a product of significance.

In our Trailblazers Cohort, teachers inquired about the natural and man-made iconic symbols of Alberta at Cochrane Ranche, and exhibited their learning in a narrated SoundScape. They then put their new photography and graphic editing skills to use, creating icons of Alberta to be submitted to The Noun Project – an international effort to create a visual language.

Canada 150 teachers inquire about the identity of historical artifacts.

Canada 150 teachers inquire about the identity of historical artifacts.

Our Canada 150 Cohort explored what we can infer about Canadian identity by examining the artifacts we curate, like the ones they explored at the Glenbow Museum.  They went on to compose photographic pieces of art to accompany artist statements they made about their findings.

Lastly, our Architecture Challenge teachers took on the role of Professional Planners at the U of C, as they uncovered the ways in which public space serves our communities. After an inspiring tour of the Faculty of Environmental Design, including conversations with a Professional Planner, they began to plan scaled architectural models that will accompany infographics highlighting their findings.

 Teachers pool the knowledge about public spaces for their Architecture Challenge.

Teachers pool the knowledge about public spaces for their Architecture Challenge.

You may notice that in each of these projects, teachers are asked to acquire and share knowledge (Inquiry), to create something that meaningfully displays their learning (Project), and to showcase this in a way that is authentic to the discipline they are exploring (Exhibition). These three phases are the key elements of our own instructional design process and what we believe can make for powerful design for student learning as well.

The part that we sometimes fret about is making teachers speed through all of those phases in a single day. In truth, the most important part of the design cohorts is when teachers design for their own students. While we believe the teacher projects have authenticity, the real value is in seeing the process from the inside and getting to use different tools and protocols that lend themselves to collaboration and creativity. In a future blog post, we’ll look at how these first days later translate into exciting student projects.

Our Visual Instructional Design Framework.

Our Visual Instructional Design Framework.

Thanks for reading! Janelle (@Janelle3904), Dan (@DMcWilliam), Jason (@JasonTeaching), & Sara (@mrssaramartin)