Thursday, September 3, 2009

Working with outliers

One of my areas of Web2.0 ignorance has been RSS feeds. I have known for years what they were but saw no real purpose for them. Why did I want more stuff to read coming at me everyday? I have plenty to read as it is. However I recently have added a few feeds including the Information Literacy Weblog

Information literacy is a real interest of mine and will be covered in a future posting. Today there was an article from the infoliteracy feed which caught my eye. This article discussed information literacy instruction with outliers, our students who, for whatever reason, are not in the mainstream or the normal range (I could go off on what normal range could mean for hours but I digress).

Outliers was a concept I couldn't let go of all morning! The article discusses at-risk students, new business owners, older learners (over 50... what's up with that?), homeless people; any of whom might need extra help learning information literacy skills because they are starting at ground zero.

Those of us who teach work hard to help the outliers in our classrooms, in fact, it would be safe to say we spend most of our time motivating, encouraging, and supporting our outliers. We struggle with the outliers, some of us more than others. Much of my classroom and online teaching success has been due to reaching the outliers.

So... I thought I would share some of what I know about working with special populations or outliers. As I write I am picturing students classified as at-risk, but I am also picturing new online learners who struggle with the new environment of online learning, and the senior citizens from my computer basics class (I learned what ground zero really was when teaching that class. More on that another time as well).
  1. Start with building a relationship - Success in education, well in life, begins with building relationships! (Right Deb?) Outliers can be harder to build relationships with but once the bond is created it will be extra strong. Outliers resist relationships for a variety of reasons. There may be trust issues, they may be just nervous, or they may have a fear of failure which is keeping them from asking questions. Invest time and effort into relationship building from the start. In many cases all you really need to do is listen. We don't listen well in our culture. We are multi-tasking or planning what we will say next instead of really listening. I have found great power in listening (see Costa & Kallick for more on listening with empathy). Even with online students who are communicating by email or discussion forum you can listen. The trick with this is to ask a simple question and stop. For online learners I often send an email that says not much more than, What can I do to help? Once you have listened you can begin to know how to support learning.

  2. Offer support - Many outliers are not in the normal range because of a deficit. The deficit may be in skills, knowledge, or both. Years ago I learned the term scaffolding. It took me a long time after hearing that term to realize it was an overarching word for a whole lot of stuff I was already doing. Scaffolding is the support we provide to learners whether it is in the form of worksheets, tutorials, language assistance... Or the hundreds of other ways good teachers help learners learn. Outliers in particular need lots of scaffolding for their learning. For my online learners I use tech tips. In the past these have been mostly documents with screen shots (link to video on how to get a screenshot) but I have begun to do more video tech tips (video on creating a toolbar bookmark) using the program Jing and uploading them directly from Jing to their associated website,

  3. Praise, correct, praise - I believe very strongly in the power of praise (as readers of my books about inclusion and online learning already know). Tell people what they are doing well, even if it is a small thing at first. Keep offering praise but weave in corrections. Some people refer to this as the hamburger method. The praise is the bun and in between is the meat. Let people know what they are doing well, then tell them what can be improved, then offer them more praise. It works!

  4. Stand close then step back slowly - Most outliers are nervous for one reason or another, fear of failure, fear of looking stupid in front of others etc. Stick close by as they take their baby steps, the same way you would when helping a little one learn to walk or ride a bike. As they gain confidence begin to step back. Keep praising them all the way, but let them go on their own a bit more and a bit more. Pretty soon they are using the skills on their own, teaching others, sharing new wisdoms they've gained and then...
You have transformed the outlier into something new, a non-outlier. OK, I don't like that term non-outlier but it will have to do for now because I don't want to say normal. Normal is such an ugly word. Well my ignorance is showing again... what do you call an outlier who has been transformed... Until next time... Yours in ignorance!

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