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.



From Demonstration to Orchestration: Some Thoughts on Mini-Lessons


Last week I read a piece in The New Yorker titled “Slow Ideas” by the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, whose articles about medicine seem full of implications about teaching and learning to me. In this piece, for instance, Gawande looks at how to speed the spread of important innovations, such as institutionalizing hygienic hospital practices in order to avoid infections, and along the way he discovers something that I think has implications for mini-lessons: that people are most prone to lastingly learn things not if they’ve seen it demonstrated by an expert but if they’ve had the chance to try to do it themselves.

Rockin' Reading WorkshopThe by-now standard structure of a mini-lesson has the teacher explicitly naming a teaching point that’s connected to the unit of study, then modeling it as students watch. This is followed by a few minutes of active engagement, where students are invited to participate, sometimes by trying out the teaching point themselves or sharing what they saw the teacher doing. Then there’s a link that acts as a segue to independent reading, where students are explicitly or implicitly expected to apply what’s been taught in their independent reading book.

I can’t say enough about how important it was to me, in my own practice, to become adept at articulating a clear, concise teaching point, which this mini-lesson structure forced me to do. I learned an incredible amount doing that—sometimes, I believe, more than the students watching those lessons did. For while there are certainly stellar exceptions, I often see students zoning out as teachers—including me—demonstrate, and too often I don’t really see students transferring what’s been taught into independent reading.

As I explored in an earlier post on the pros and cons of modeling, this may be because of the passive nature of watching someone else do something—especially if it’s not something you’re burning to know. It might also be that the time allotted to active engagement simply isn’t enough for many students to get the teaching point—let alone to see what it can do for them as readers, which might motivate more students to transfer the thinking. Furthermore I think that all of this is compounded by the practice of teaching a new mini-lesson every day, regardless of whether students got what was previously taught or not, which may unintentionally send out the message that we don’t really expect you to understand.

Confucius Quote 2The ideas I explored last week from Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry’s “Planning for What You Can’t Know,” specifically address this last issue by encouraging teachers to be flexible and responsive to student needs. But what about the mini-lesson itself? For a while now I’ve done my most critical teaching not during independent reading but during read aloud (or a hybrid of read aloud and shared reading, where I project or provide students with a copy of the text). And while I often begin that with a teaching point, I’m more likely to set students up to practice it, rather than demonstrate it myself—knowing that, as Gawande (and Confucius) said, the learning will be more meaningful and lasting that way.

IThe Name Jarn the example I shared in that post about modeling, I set the students up to read The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi by asking them to try to do what readers usually do in their heads whenever they begin a book: They try to keep track of what they’re learning and what they’re wondering about both because beginnings can be confusing and because they know that some of what they’re curious about will be answered as the story unfolds. And to help them make that work visible, I used a text-based Know/Wonder chart to keep track of their thinking.

Unlike the teaching points found in many mini-lessons, this wasn’t exactly a strategy or skill, though it positioned the students to employ many strategies and skills we might otherwise teach separately as they automatically—and authentically—started questioning, monitoring their own comprehension, and connecting details within the text to infer everything from the character’s nationality to the problems she faced. And moving the main teaching point from independent reading to the read aloud gives students more time and space to wrestle with meaning by engaging in what Gawande calls in another great article “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.” It also gives us a window into different students’ minds, which can help us and students in several ways.

By studying The Name Jar, for instance, I was aware that there were several problems readers had to tackle in the first few pages, including navigating a flashback, which, as you can see below, is signaled only by small textual clues that include a subtle shift in verb tense.

TheNameJar 1

TheNameJar 2

TheNameJar 3

I anticipated that that might be tricky for some students, which it proved to be, as students had different views on where and when things were happening. But rather than solving the problem for them by either confirming the ‘right’ answer or explaining the time shift myself, I asked a student to explain her thinking, which accomplished several things. The student who walked the class through her thinking benefited in ways that are described in a recent Education Week article called “Students Can Learn By Explaining,” which cites new research that shows that “students who can verbally explain why they arrived at a particular answer [are] more able to catch their own incorrect assumptions and generalize what they learn to other subjects”—or, in this case, other texts. The number of ‘ah’s’ heard in the room also meant that other students were listening and now saw what she had seen (though anticipating that here might be problems here, I already had a small group lesson up my sleeve that would give the students I could now identify more time to practice this kind of thinking).

Additionally as I noticed and named what that student had done in more general terms, we’d arrived, as a class, at another teaching point: that writers sometimes signal a shift from the present to the past through small words and clues like “had said” and “remembered,” and so readers try to attend to those clues in order to not get lost. This teaching point and the other about keeping track of what we’re learning and wondering about could now be imported to independent reading where, instead of modeling, we could remind students of what they’d already done, how they’d done it, and how it had helped them as readers. Building the mini-lesson around student thinking this way not only builds on strengths instead of deficits, it also ensures that time-wise the lesson stays mini so that students have more time to read, without being shortchanged on the time really needed to experience the thinking work first hand.

And if and when I do see the need to model, the students are more apt to see the need for it, too, because they’ve developed a different sense of themselves as thinkers and readers—having played the notes of the symphony themselves.

Student Orchestra