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:

Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control

The Elephant in the Room

I recently heard about a study from the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, who, along with Antonia Cameron, is the author of the great new book on coaching Agents of Change. The study looked at the use of open-ended questions, of the sort that can deepen, stretch and expand student thinking, in 500 classrooms across five countries (the U.S., England, France, Russia and India). All those countries supposedly place great value on critical thinking and discourse, whether it takes the form of accountable talk, Socratic seminars or your basic turn and talk. Yet, in those 500 classrooms, open-ended questions accounted for only 10% of the questions posed by teachers. And in 15% of classrooms no open-ended questions were asked at all. Additionally the study found that only 11% of the teachers in those classrooms asked follow-up questions to probe student thinking in ways that might develop and extend both the ideas and the discussion. And when students asked questions that were relevant to the day’s topic but weren’t on the lesson plan (which the study called ‘uptake’ questions), only 4% of teachers actually addressed them. They rest just let them hang there.

This seems to suggest that while we may talk the talk about talk, we don’t always walk the walk, and that leads me to the elephant in the room. While there may be many reasons why open-ended questions weren’t used more in those classrooms (including teachers being evaluated on standardize test scores), I suspect that the discrepancy between what we say and do is at least in part due to our fear of losing control of our rooms.

Panic ButtonFear, of course, is a powerful thing, and in this case the fear isn’t totally irrational. Teachers are, after all, just one person in charge of thirty or more children whose minds and bodies and moods can go off in a zillion different directions. And so in the belief that it’s better to acknowledge what scares us than pretend it doesn’t exist, I want to share the fact that I’ve never helped a teacher implement a writing unit without feeling a moment of panic in the middle, when things are at their messiest and I’m not quite sure how I’ll ever get us out of what I’ve gotten us into. Nor have I ever sat down with students to read—whether it’s for a whole class read aloud, a small group or individual conference—and not been aware that, by asking open-ended questions, I’m opening myself up to the possibility of encountering something I hadn’t expected and might not know how to deal with, which is precisely what happened with that class of third graders I wrote about earlier who were ready to jump on the idea that the Maasai were giving 14 cows to America in order to fight Al Qaeda.

Having some teaching moves up my sleeves, like the ones I’ve been sharing, definitely helps, as does giving myself permission to abandon my plans and exit the small group, read aloud or conference as gracefully and quickly as possible in order to give myself time to think about how to address whatever problem I’ve uncovered. And I hold on, as well, to the belief that if we don’t open up our lessons to encounter the unexpected, we limit the opportunities for students to show us what they’re capable of doing without us as well as where their thinking breaks down.

I also think it’s useful to acknowledge the worst that could happen if we loosen the reins in order to see that those worst-case scenarios aren’t really as bad as we imagined. Last week, for instance, I showed how we could turn a student’s “I don’t know” into an inquiry the-worst-case-scenario-little-book-for-survivalquestion rather than a dead end. And what’s really the worst that can happen if we don’t know something or have all the answers?

I think we fear that our authority or expertise might be called into question, but I believe that students actually gain much by seeing us not know everything. First and foremost, it demonstrates that learning is life long, and that we are learners, too. And admitting that we’re unsure of something often helps students take more risks in their thinking, as happened in a fourth grade classroom I worked in earlier this year. I bungled my way through the scientific name of a frog we were reading an article about, and the teachers observing me were convinced that my willingness to admit that I had no idea how to pronounce the frog’s name encouraged the students to share thoughts and ideas they weren’t completely certain about either.

And if you hit one of those ‘I don’t know what to do next’ moments, you can always follow the advice that the educational writer and speaker Alfie Kohn gives in his list of twelve core principles that he thinks will create the kind of schools our children deserve. Along with “Learning should be organized around problems, projects and students’ questions,” and “Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware of prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly,” he offers this:

“When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.”

We can also stand up to the elephant by holding on to the pay-offs that come with letting go of control. Getting a clearer look at what’s going on in students’ head is certainly a big one. But I think there’s an even bigger pay-off, which was summed up by a teacher I worked with last year who, as we shared our take-aways at our final session said, “I no longer believe that there’s anything that my students can’t do.”

100th PostAnd last but not least, I want to share this: For quite some time after starting this blog, I couldn’t hit the key to publish a post without momentarily shuddering. What in the world was I thinking of, sending my thoughts out into the world? What if no one read them or didn’t like what I had to say? That fear hasn’t completely gone away, but as I send this, my 100th post, out into the world, it doesn’t have the same hold on me. I think that’s because I learned something that writer Erica Jong speaks about in her contribution to the wonderful anthology of essays The Writer on Her Work:

“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, you’ll die if you venture too far.”

I think this means making peace with the elephant instead of ignoring or avoiding it and, more importantly, trading fear in for trust—trust in ourselves, trust in our students, trust in the meaning making process and the fact that the very worst that might happen is that we create some more space to learn.

Making Friends with the Elephant