Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Learning, Thinking, Doing

For me, one of the best parts of summer is the time I have to read.  I know I will never get to all of the books on my "to-be-read pile", but I make an effort each summer to at least put a dent in the stack.  Of course, this is more difficult when I keep adding to the stack....

But I digress. :)

One of this year's book choices is Why Don't Students Like School by Daniel Willingham and while I'm less than halfway through the book, it already has the potential to be a game changer in my classroom.  Willingham is a cognitive psychologist and the style of the book is very similar to Make It Stick, another book that I highly recommend.  One thing I really like about WDSLS is that each chapter ends in an "Implications for the Classroom" section, which provides practical tips for the classroom.

In my post yesterday, I was processing various discussions from the AP Stat reading and how I had changed as a teacher over the years.  Part of that post was spawned by this tweet by my dear friend, Julie:

During the week, I would often start a conversation with a "Question of the Day" and one of Julie's answers was about having a more student-centered classroom.  I fully agree with a student-centered classroom but over the years, I have gotten away from it and turned to more traditional methods, much to my dismay.

But today, while reading and taking notes on Ch 3 of WDSLS, I think I have some answers...

The key question of Ch 3 is this... "What makes some things stick in memory and what is likely to slip away?"

And Willingham's answer is pretty simple.... "Memory is the residue of thought.  Whatever students think about is what they will remember."


I've heard this quote from him several times while listening to podcasts, etc, but until now, I did not have a full picture of what was meant because I hadn't read his book. :)

In Ch 3, Willingham spends some time talking about lesson planning and how we, as teachers, really need to pay attention to our lessons / assignments and use the anticipation method of planning to help us figure out what students will actually think about in our lesson vs what we hope they think about.  This is a throwback to the '5 Practices' book where we anticipate student responses to help us plan good questions.  But do I actually *do* this?  Nope.  Or at least, not often enough.

This is where I need to focus my energies.  How can I create engaging lessons that get students to think about the deeper meaning?  How can I structure my lessons so that "the person doing the most thinking is the person doing the most learning"?

In Chapter 3's Implications for Learning, Willingham does caution against a few strategies that might create a barrier to thinking & learning.  One barrier he mentions are "Attention Grabbers" because often students might focus on (and therefore start thinking about) the 'cool-ness' factor and totally miss the bigger idea that followed.

The other barrier mentioned is the one that really grabbed my attention - Discovery Learning - and this section was where I really had my a-ha moment of the chapter.  As I've already said, I love the idea of a student-centered classroom and for many years, my classroom was filled with activity upon activity, with the idea of using an activity to introduce content and formalize it later.  I gravitated toward this approach mainly because of the "sticky-ness" of activities in giving the background knowledge for the later formalization.  From Willingham:
"Discovery learning has much to recommend it, especially when it comes to the level of student engagement. If students have a strong voice in deciding which problems they want to work on, they will likely be engaged in the problems they select, and will likely think deeply about the material, with attendant benefits.  An important downside, however, is that what students will think about is less predictable.  ... If memory is the residue of thought, then students will remember incorrect "discoveries" as much as they will remember the correct ones."
And this is my a-ha moment.  This is really the crux of the reason why I have changed over the years.  While activities and discovery definitely created the "sticky-ness" I desired, the resultant outcomes were less predictable and students did not always catch the nuances of the material that I wanted them to get out of the lesson.

Added to this problem is the core question from Ch 2 - "Do students have the necessary background knowledge  to carry out a critical thinking task?"

Too often, I would throw out a task, without making sure that students had the necessary background knowledge nor adequately preparing my lessons to ensure that students would actually be thinking about what I wanted them to think about.  Without these two elements in place, I set myself up to fail, which resulted in a regression toward a teacher-centered classroom.

I don't have all of the answers, or even most of the answers.  But at least I now know what I need to watch for while planning my lessons this year.  I want to get back to that student-centered classroom, but with an intentional focus on background knowledge and deep thinking.

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