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

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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:

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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:

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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.

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Giving Thanks to NCTE

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Every year as NCTE approaches, I find myself wishing it was held at another time of the year—some time when things don’t feel quite so hectic, with the holidays looming, my work ramping up and a book still to be done. But this year in particular NCTE was exactly what I needed: the perfect kick-off to the holiday season and a great kick start for writing, with so many people giving generous gifts of wisdom, inspiration and joy.

Talk of joy, in fact, was so prevalent that my wonderful colleague and session pal Kathy Collins warned us not to talk about it so much, lest it become the next new thing, like grit, to teach, complete with lesson plans, assessments and rubrics. But another pattern I noticed in the sessions I attended was the importance of process. In a session titled “Rethinking Our Thinking: The Role of Revision in Writing and Reading,” for instance, Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher and Dan Feigelson put process front and center as they shared a range of ways to consider and help students embrace revision as, Naomi Shihab Nye puts it “a beautiful word of hope,” that’s integral to the process of both reading and writing.

Appreciative inquiryProcess was also at the heart of a session called “The Art of Knowing Our Students: Action Research for Learning and Reflection,” which was chaired by Matt Renwick. The first speaker Karen Terlecky shared the Appreciative Inquiry process—and showed how it could transform the way we think about meeing professional goals, not as something to achieve but something to inquire into and explore. And Assessment in Perspective authors Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan offered a process for thinking about and looking at formative assessment that can help us move beyond beyond raw data to the living, breathing child beneath the numbers.

Journey of ThoughtAdditionally, process formed the heart and soul of a gorgeous session presentation by Randy and Katherine Bomer. Called “Tracing the Shape of Human Thinking: Reclaiming the Essay—and Writing about Literature—as Complex and Beautiful,” Katherine began by making an impassioned plea to return the essay to its original intention, to explore something through a journey of thought (i.e., a process), rather than to argue or prove. And Randy invited us all to attend to our own journey of thought as we drafted and revised our thinking about poet Li-Young’s devastatingly haunting poem “This Hour and What Is Dead.”

But perhaps what stood out the most for me was the way the whole Convention seemed to be the result of a process that we, as educators, went through over the last several years as we sought—and fought—to find our voices in the age of mandated education reforms and the supposedly objective supremacy of data.

VoldemortOnly three years ago, for instance, the only whisper of push back I heard (at least in the sessions I attended) came by way of the teacher and cartoonist David Finkle. In a five-minute presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” David shared a classic scene from The Wizard of Oz, which he used to question the authority and wisdom of the man behind behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards, a.k.a., David Coleman. At that point, however, like Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, he seemed like a “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” specter—someone who’s so powerful his very name could unleash dark forces.

And now, three year’s later, here’s a stand-out moment from a stand-out panel discussion called “Expert-to-Expert: On The Joy and Power of Reading.” Chair Kylene Beers ended the session by asking the three panelists what policy changes they would make to ensure that schools become the place we all want them to be. And without missing a heartbeat, here’s what each panelist said:

Kwame Alexander, the author of this year’s National Book Award winner The Crossover, said he’d make every politician across the country read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl NCTE PanelDreaming. And he’d insist on filling grade K-12 classrooms with much more poetry.

LitLife and LitWorld’s dynamo Pam Allyn said she’d require all members of Congress to send their children to public schools to ensure that they’re actually stake holders in whatever legislation is being considered.

And recent NCTE President Ernest Morrell called for the elimination of all deficit language in schools, for students and teachers alike, which means no more labeling of children as strugglers and teachers as ineffective.

This process also led many of this year’s speakers to share new thoughts and ideas. Ellin Keene, for instance, shared her latest thinking about what’s involved in true student engagement, versus its evil twin, compliance. Her answer? Engagement requires the following four factors:

Intellectual urgency (or the need to know),

Emotional responses to ideas,

Perspective bending, and

Opportunities for aesthetic experiences

Tom Newkirk, on the other hand, helped me recognize something I knew but had never really articulated before: that we don’t read great nonfiction to learn information, but for the same reason we read any other kind of literature: to deepen our understanding of the human experience and, in the words of Kenneth Burke “to arouse and fulfill our desire” to connect. And my friends and colleagues from the Opal School, Matt Karlson, Susan Mackay and Mary Gage Davis, were on fire as they shared new ideas on the connection between beauty and social justice—and made their own impassioned plea to bring imagination, “the neglected stepchild of American education” back into classrooms.

I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about these ideas as time goes by, as they really got my mind churning. But for now, many thanks to NCTE for reminding me to always:

Trust the Process