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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A Book Is Born (Well, Almost)

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After umpteen drafts over nearly four years, I finally delivered the book I’ve been working on to Heinemann the other week. It won’t be out until early 2017, but it now officially has a title:

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading:

Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach

Like Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’s great new book Who’s Doing the Work?, Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading addresses the “What next” in reading instruction question that’s been posed by our rapidly changing times and the many pendulum swings that have hit the field of literacy over the years. And to give you a feel for how this book will answer that question, here’s some lines from the introduction:

I’ll show you how students can become the insightful and passionate readers and learners we all want them to be—and the critical and creative problem solvers and thinkers they’ll need to be in our increasingly complex world. The book builds on the process of meaning making that What Readers Really Do explored, though unlike that earlier book, this one looks at both fiction and nonfiction as well as explicitly connects the work to all the shifts, concepts and terms that have cropped up over the last four years, from close reading to mindsets and from grit to complex texts. It will also more explicitly help you build your own capacities as problem solvers and thinkers, as well as develop a repertoire of dynamic teaching moves. And it will deepen your understanding of what it means to read closely and deeply so that you can, in the words of Lucy Calkins, “outgrow yourself” as a reader in order to meet both the higher demands the Common Core has set—and enjoy what you read even more.

ChalkboardI’ll be sharing more from the book as we get closer to publication, but now that a new school year is about to start (or in some places is already underway), I want to spend the next few weeks posting a variation of my yearly tradition of kicking off the new year with teacher thinking. In the past (as you can see here, here and here), I’ve celebrated teacher thinking by sharing some of the amazingly thoughtful comments teachers have left on each year’s blog posts. But given that posts have been few and far between this year, I instead want to share some of the incredible thinking that teachers I’ve worked with have done in both classroom and institute settings.

Through the Teaching Learning Community Metamorphosis, for instance, I facilitated a content coaching institute this summer in Redding, California, for administrators and coaches who were embarking on a county-wide literacy initiative. For those of you unfamiliar with content coaching, it’s an incredibly effective approach to coaching that Metamorphosis founders Lucy West and Toni Cameron explore and define in their book Agents of Change as follows:

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Recognizing the importance of developing a common vision of what the initiative might accomplish, I asked the coaches to consider this question from Agents of Change and, in groups, create a chart to share their thinking.

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The groups immediately started talking as I passed out chart paper and markers. And here’s a taste of their thinking:

Redding Chart 1

Redding Chart 2

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Having articulated such well-defined visions (with so many great variations) of what they want to see happening in classrooms, these coaches were ready to think more deeply about what might be the most impactful practices they could focus on with the teachers they’d be working with this year. And in that way, they were engaged in a process of planning for change that I wrote about in “Beliefs, Books & Being True to Yourself”: They articulated what they believed teaching and learning should look, feel and sound like before searching for resources and considering practices.

Next time, I’ll share some of the work teachers did with a practice I shared at this summer’s Paramus Institute on the Teaching of Writing, which engaged them in much happy grappling, in depth conversations and collaborative messiness. And in the meantime, here’s hoping that your new school year starts off with a sense of wonder, lots of energy and just the right amount of controlled chaos!