If a Tree Falls in the Forest: More Thoughts on Teaching & Learning

A few months ago, I found myself in a third grade classroom, modeling a social studies lesson. The class had just finished a six-week unit on geography, and this lesson was going to launch the next unit, which focused on Nigeria. My job was to help teachers create more opportunities for kids to engage in the kind of productive, collaborative talk that’s more about thinking than answers. And to that end, I’d decided to crack open the launch lesson that came with the packaged curriculum the school was using to allow for more thinking and talk.

The packaged lesson plan asked teachers to review the geography terms the class had just learned to, in the words of the lesson plan, “make sure students understood that Africa was a continent, just like North America,” Instead, I decided to ask the class to look at the following maps of North America and Africa, then give the kids a chance to turn and talk about what they thought was similar and different about the two based on what they noticed and already knew.

And here’s what happened: After a lively turn and talk, I brought the class back together and invited students to share. The first students I called on said she’d noticed that Africa had many more continents in it than North America—and I could tell from the look on other students’ faces that some were questioning that. I invited one of those students to share, and he hesitantly said he thought those were countries, not continents. So I asked them to turn and talk once again about what they thought the difference was between a country and a continent.

The consensus was that continents were made up of countries, and with that in mind, I asked them how many countries there were in North America. The class agreed that there were three, but when I asked what they thought all the different shades of red, blue and green were on the North American map, the first student to respond said, “countries”—and no one else raised their hand. “Hmm,” I said, “so New York is a country?” Again, many students looked puzzled, until finally one said, “No, I think it’s a state.”

All of this material had been covered in the just finished unit, yet clearly a majority of the students hadn’t learned it sufficiently enough to apply what they’d learned to a different setting, which brings me to the tree in forest. Like the philosophical question about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a sound if no one hears it, I think there’s a similar question to consider: If students haven’t learned something we’ve taught them, have we really taught it?

The great progressive educator Paulo Freire would definitely say no. According to Freire, “There is, in fact, no teaching without learning.” Yet, I fear I see it all too frequently—and I hear about it as well whenever a teacher moans about how her kids didn’t seem to learn something from their previous teacher.

I do think there are some reasons why students don’t learn that are beyond our control, such as students who chronically come to school too exhausted, hungry or anxious to learn. But I believe the expectation should be that students should learn what we teach, and learn it deeply enough not just to pass a quiz or hand in an assignment but to transfer and apply what was taught to a new situation.

This is also what the late, great Grant Wiggins believed when he wrote  that “the long-term and bottom-line goal of education is transfer of learning.” Sadly he noted, though, that transfer in literacy is poor, which he attributed to numerous indicators that suggest we, as teachers, don’t make it crystal clear that transfer is actually the goal.

Making that goal explicit for kids is certainly important, but I think there are some additional reasons why students don’t always transfer what we teach. For one, we don’t always give them enough time to practice and apply what’s been taught for it to truly sink in. Many learning experts, for instance, believe that mastering anything involves a four-step process, in which learners move from not even knowing what they don’t know to becoming aware of that. Then they use that awareness to deliberately practice until the concept or skill becomes internalized—all of which takes times. And I think we don’t give kids the time they really need because of how much we’re expected to cover.

I also think we don’t always make what we teach meaningful enough for kids to value. Take the skill of identifying main ideas, for instance, which we often reteach year after year because students still don’t seem to get it. As I write in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading:

© Vicki Vinton. 2017. Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

And when it comes to something else we often moan about, kids not using end punctuation, do we truly help them understand its importance beyond that it’s a rule that helps readers know where each sentence ends? To make that concept meaningful for students, I like to share an unpunctuated passage of a text, like the one below (which I invite you to try reading yourself), so they can feel the confusion readers experience when there’s no punctuation to guide them:

Becoming more aware of the value of punctuation helps students attend to it more. But they still need time to deliberately practice before it becomes second nature. And for that I like to use Jeff Anderson‘s practice of having kids do what he calls an “express-lane edit.” Like express check-out aisles in supermarkets, express-lane edits asks kids to reread whatever they’ve written that day—be it a draft or a notebook entry—to quickly check for a limited number of things, like capitalization and end punctuation, until writing with those things become a habit.

For me, all this means that, barring those external reasons we simply can’t control, we’re responsible for student learning. And if students don’t learn something we’ve taught, perhaps, in addition to giving kids more time and making what we teach truly meaningful, we need to heed these words from the educator Ignacio Estrada:

19 thoughts on “If a Tree Falls in the Forest: More Thoughts on Teaching & Learning

  1. Amazing post Vicki! It’s like the old adage about medicine…”The surgery was successful, but the patient died!” How many times do we teach wonderful lessons that kids just aren’t ready for, or they’d hear it if it were taught differently, with different texts, different modalities, just differently!

    With such a renewed emphasis on student-drivenness, the ideas in this post have to be at the forefront of our lesson planning, assessment, and everything we do. I’m going to carry this with me in all my interactions as we get ready for summer!

    • Thanks, Tom. It seemed to hit a chord for lots of people – and love your analogy about the dead patient! For teachers, though, I think this means being a problem solver, using observation-based formative assessment, not a coverer of content, and that’s hard to do if your school doesn’t embrace a student-driven vision of education. Thankfully, the folks who come to your summer institutes do, which is why it’s a such treat to work with them!

  2. Vicki, this post is golden. The concept of “true teaching” ought to ring true with all educators- just because we taught it doesn’t mean they learned it. I love the four-step process for learning and am planning to share that in future trainings. It’s only when we learn that a “blind spot” even exists that we can actually do something about it (until we know about what we didn’t know we didn’t know about). And the way you discuss how we approach the teaching of punctuation gets at the all-important ‘why’ of humanity. I, like you I think, believe the ‘why’ is what drives all of us.

    My one question would be to ask you to say more about this line in your book regarding teaching kids about main ideas: “For that, we need a more complex understanding not only of what ideas are but of how readers can engage them based on how writers convey them.”

    Great post!

    • It is always about the why (and the how), isn’t it. And I think, too, that unless we give kids meaningful opportunities to keep playing around with what we’ve taught them, we don’t get a window on whatever blind spots kids may have. And as for your last question, at some point I’ll be writing a blog about that line, which comes from Chapter 9 in the book, so stay tuned. But basically I think identifying ideas in nonfiction requires that readers must really synthesize the text by continually thinking about how one part connects/expand/develops/impacts other parts. And what kids need for that is not so much a strategy as a process.

  3. Such a wise and rich post, Vicki. I’ve been chewing over this idea of transfer, too, especially since it’s nearing the end of the year and we are in that stage of my curriculum plans where everything depends upon independence and transfer, which was what I mulled over in my last blog post. There are so many wise ideas in your post, but I keep coming back to this line: “I also think we don’t always make what we teach meaningful enough for kids to value.” This is the key, I think. After all, why remember something if it has not value to you? If it doesn’t connect to your thinking in some way, or make you sit up and pay attention, or move you? I love the way you created a true learning scenario for those kids – they had compartmentalized their learning until you gave them an opportunity to knit together all they had learned and apply this to the two maps at hand. Lucky teachers and kids to have you in their midst!

    • Not surprising, Tara, that you would zoom in on that line! Unless you’re basically a compliant kid, why even try to learn something if you don’t see any meaning or relevance in it. And I’ll share here what I didn’t have room for in the post. At the end of the class, I found one of the kids staring at a map of the world on the wall. And he’d noticed that Australia was an only-one-country continent, so the idea that continents are made up of countries didn’t work there. And that made him wonder why other big islands, like Greenland weren’t one-country continents, which was a great question I didn’t know the answer to!

  4. Vicki, your post speaks volumes to the need for deeper learning opportunities. In reference to your point that, “…we don’t give kids the time they really need because of how much we’re expected to cover,” that is a challenge, especially for elementary teachers who are traditionally viewed as generalists. In our district, we believe that elementary teachers should be literacy specialists (a work in progress), which, in theory, means we strive for transfer in reading, writing, thinking, speaking, listening, and viewing across all disciplines. Although we have aligned our reading and writing units of study (thanks to your suggestion to use Heather Lattimer’s Thinking Through Genre), and have worked toward developing a continuum of growth within and beyond those units, we need to do more work in content-area disciplines. In other words, we have to ask ourselves: How can we align our content alongside our literacy work so that new content knowledge can become a platform to deepen literacy knowledge, or new literacy knowledge can be practiced through discipline content? If our curriculum frames/guides can become more streamlined (content & literacy), and include inquiry-based and/or problem-based opportunities, then we would benefit in two ways: (1) Students would have more time to grapple with questions, seek answers, and internalize deeper learning, and (2) Teachers would feel confident knowing they have covered standards/expectations. Or, does transfer knowledge occur through passion projects, where kids have a felt need to learn something important to them? And how can we assure teachers that those passion projects address required standards? You always have me thinking, Vicki! (BTW, your visuals are stunning and sophisticated.)

    • And those last few questions you posed have really gotten me thinking, too, Laurie! I do tend to think that whenever we dive in to something deeply, we inevitably engage in multiple standards because the standards do reflect the deeper work of reading. They just compartmentalized the work in a way that leads teachers to teach to individual standards rather that creating what I’ll call more authentic and holistic, rich tasks that involve multiple standards and multiple access points. But let’s have a plan to continue the discussion in Paramus this summer, by which time we’ll probably both have new thinking!

  5. Vicki,
    I love returning to “transfer” which was my #OLW two years ago. I think any word chosen remains a part of the repertoire because it has been a priority; however, it’s so hard to continue to ask folks, “How will this transfer?”

    The whole notion that a student can “answer correctly” on the summative assessment but yet not be able to really answer the question the next week should be a RED flag to teachers. How much teaching is for the moment? How much is for the long term? What should transfer? So many wise issues to ponder.

    I agree that we have gotten “better” at making the goal more explicit for students. YET, I’m not sure that we have agreement on what that end goal is because many will say it’s this one product rather than the transfer.

    This whole section had me cheering . . .
    ” For one, we don’t always give them enough time to practice and apply what’s been taught for it to truly sink in. Many learning experts, for instance, believe that mastering anything involves a four-step process, in which learners move from not even knowing what they don’t know to becoming aware of that. Then they use that awareness to deliberately practice until the concept or skill becomes internalized—all of which takes times. And I think we don’t give kids the time they really need because of how much we’re expected to cover.
    . . . I also think we don’t always make what we teach meaningful enough for kids to value.”

    To me, this goes back to the reason WHY this is critical . . . the kids have to know it and think it truly is relevant to their own lives. If not, it truly is just talking at them, not teaching. Also no learning. Just listening. That passive cycle must be broken.

    Kids HAVE to be doing the work! ❤

    Such a treat to have your wisdom on a Thursday!

    • Reading this now, Fran, I see that you laid out those teaching vs. talking and listening vs. learning dichotomies – with the first one being passive – right here! And in terms of transfer, I think we have to not be talking about some kind of final summative assessment, but about creating ongoing opportunities for students to practice and grapple with the work. That’s why I’ve been telling teachers that in writing, once you’ve finished a unit, you have to figure how to keep that kind of writing alive across the content areas and the rest of the school year, as you can’t expect kids to hold on to, say, how to write realistic fiction if they ‘learn’ it in 4th grade but don’t revisit it until 7th. But creating those opportunities probably means covering less, which seems critical if we’re really serious about learning.

      • And I think we can provide “choice opportunities” during workshop or across content areas to provide more work with realistic fiction in grades 5 and 6. Just because it’s not “our unit”, does not mean that we can’t provide extra time to revisit. Heaven forbid if I wait three years to attempt another essay, I will be in BIG trouble. It will be Ground Zero all over again!

    • And your response, Jenn, just made me smile! I think, too, that once you see what kids are capable of when we both give them more time to muck around with stuff and open the door wide enough for actual thinking, versus the mechanical delivery of something specific we’ve taught them, there’s no going back to other kinds of teaching. It’s simply too much fun & rewarding!

  6. Thoughtful post! Glad I found your blog, Vicki. I might have to see if I can get the time to read through all your other posts, they seem to be right up my alley.

    Letting the learning come from peers is such a powerful part of what it means to internalize a lesson. Discourse between students instead of between exclusively teachers and students makes for deeper, more voracious learning. Those are my thoughts, at least.

    I teach at a Reggio-inspired preschool, and some of my greatest moments I’ve ever had with my students are when they engaged with me as an equally curious investigator into something we both didn’t know. Sometimes you can just feel the difference between telling a child something, and teaching a child something. And for me, sometimes teaching and learning happen at the same time.

    Anyhow, I’m rambling. Thanks again for such a well-articulated article.

    • Thanks, Misha. If you poked around my site you may have discovered that I went to Reggio-Emilia five years ago as part of a study group considering the implications of their approach on the teaching of literacy across the grades, and it affected me profoundly. And your comment reminded me of a quote from Louis Malaguzzi: “Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water.” It’s a vision of teaching that doesn’t equal telling and I love how you put it, it leads to voracious learning!

      • Very jealous of you for having that experience. When the baby gets a little older, my wife and I would love to go there for a summer. I want to learn a little more Italian first. I’ve only ever studied the Reggio way in translation, and somehow I imagine it would be a little different untranslated. Language conveys culture, after all.

  7. This, “For me, all this means that, barring those external reasons we simply can’t control, we’re responsible for student learning” is my theme song. It is a hard one though. It is so tempting to shift blame. Thank you for writing what I’m thinking about.

    • I think we’ve actually been on the same wave length for years now, Julieanne. You reminded me yet again of that Pasi Sahlberg quote: “Accountability happens when responsibility fails.” Perhaps if we’re more responsible we won’t have to go through all those accountability hoops.

  8. Pingback: Letting Students Be the Protagonists in Their Own Learning | To Make a Prairie

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