From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings


A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:


While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:


Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.



What We Can Learn from Our Math Colleagues: A Look at Rich Tasks

This year I’ve had the privilege of doing some work for an amazing organization called Metamorphosis. Founded by the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, Metamorphosis offers content-focused coaching to math—and more recently ELA and science—teachers through an outstanding corps of consultants. And it also operates as a kind of think tank that explores best practices in teaching and coaching, which is where I first heard of rich tasks.

At the first consultants’ meeting I attended, a visiting mathematician Betina Zolkower asked us to form groups to try to solve one of several problems she presented, all of which were examples of rich tasks. Not feeling particularly confident about my math skills (i.e., being terrified), I chose one that seemed relatively easy: to figure out the number of ways you could spell MATH from the following graphic configuration:

MATH Graphic

Different group members approached the problem differently. For me, after staring at it for a while, I took the simple route. I used colored markers to trace the different ways, discovering that there were more ways than I’d initially thought (which is a testament, I think, to what happens when you muck around instead of ponder from afar). And then I doubled the numbers of times each way showed up to account for the bottom.

MATH with Markers2

This method worked but I was aware that there might be a more mathematical way of approaching it, which wound up being needed when Betina upped the ante by asking, “What if the word were OCTOPUS instead of MATH?” Immediately I realized the limits of my method, envisioning a tangle of colored markers too confusing to count. But fortunately one of my group members shared what she’d done. She showed me how each letter (except for the H) could form the word by going two ways, which she was able to express mathematically as 2 to the 3rd power. My conceptual understanding of that still needed a lot of work, but I cannot tell you how excited I was when I realized I could apply what she’d done to the word OCTOPUS without making a magic marker mess. And for one wonderfully energizing moment, I felt smart in math.

MATH with Markers3

If I asked you to think about what a rich task was based on this example, my hunch is that you’d come up with some of the same descriptors found in these links to Metamorphosis and an educational blogger in Victoria, Australia—or in my words here:

  • RICH TASKS are open-ended problems or projects that offer students multiple points of entry and multiple ways of solving, from simple to complex (e.g., my route versus my group-mate’s, which means they offer built-in differentiation).
  • RICH TASKS invite creative and critical thinking as well as reasoning and meta-cognition as students explore the problem and explain how they worked through it to each other.
  • RICH TASKS throw the spotlight on both process and product in a way that helps students better see the connection between means and ends.
  • RICH TASKS promote student ownership, self-direction and engagement while maintaining academic rigor (or as several students I’ve worked with have said, “That was hard but fun!”).

What’s interesting, though, was that when I googled ‘rich task’, all I came up were math sites. And adding the word literacy didn’t really help. There were plenty of links about rich tasks for mathematical or media literacy, and lots that looked at “literacy-rich environments.” But the only one I found that specifically discussed rich tasks in ELA equated them with the kind of performance-based tasks designed by PARCC and Achieve the Core, which are anything but open-ended. In fact, those tasks do exactly what my new friend in Victoria, Australia, says rich tasks do not: They put students in the position of “simply trying to crack the code to predict an answer/solution that has been predetermined as correct by the teacher.”

AfterSo what would a truly rich task in literacy look like? For me, it seems to be a new way of talking about the kind of problem solving I often ask kids to do, which, in one way or another, involves thinking about what an author might be trying to show us or asking us to consider in a scene, a passage, a line, a whole text. Depending on the text, this might also be framed in a slightly more specific way, as I’ve been doing with one of my favorite finds of the year, Gregory Maguire‘s short story “How Th’Irth Wint Rong by haplessjoey@homeskool.guv” from the anthology After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and DystopiaWhether with a 10th grade class that was reading dystopian novels or the participants at one of my sessions for the Literacy Promise Conference, I’ve asked everyone to read the first page and consider the following question: What do you think is happening and why?


Considering that question requires all kinds of problem solving: What does the title mean? Why all the misspellings? Who’s Big Ant and Hapless Joey? And where and when is this taking place? Like my math group, different people—whether they were 10th graders or conference attendees—took different paths to come up with different possible answers. I, for instance, along with the 10th graders, didn’t figure out the word Th’Irth until the second page, while some of the teachers in Salt Lake figured it out more quickly. Everyone agreed that the time wasn’t now, some from the detail about the old-timey pen and others from the next page, where Big Ant called homeskool.guv “Brite-time writing. From back in the days of internet and puters.”

As for what happened, many wondered at this point whether there had been some catastrophe (like an atomic war, which, as one of the Conference attendees said, might account for Hapless Joey’s “hairliss skalp”) and/or whether our dependence on technology had come to the point where people no longer knew how to spell. But no matter how readers interpreted this text, everyone was engaged. And just as I felt with the math problem, everyone had a moment when they felt really smart.

I’ll try to share more ideas for creating rich tasks (or enriching tasks you have) later on. But given all these benefits—and the fact that those 10th graders were actually enjoying reading closely—I don’t fully understand why the idea of rich tasks hasn’t had as much traction in literacy as in math. My hunch is that it has to do with narrow interpretations of the Standards and our obsession with outcomes and products—plus the fact that it’s hard to package such open-ended curriculum. But if ELA students can meet the Standards through rich tasks as well as more teacher-directed methods, why wouldn’t we want them to experience the thrill of independently figuring things out?