Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Maximizing Memory (and Learning)

Memory formation is a byproduct of other cognitive processes, explains Dr. Lila Devachi (2008) of NYU’s Centers for Neural Science and Brain Imaging. We cannot say to ourselves, “Okay, I’m now going to make a memory,” and then turn on THE memory-making brain function. However, we can engage the cognitive processes that construct memory as a “byproduct.”

Dr. Devachi lists six such cognitive processes:
  1. attention: focused attention increases activity in the hippocampus, a brain structure in which increased activation correlates with memory formation
  2. working with information: engaging in QUALITY processing (vs. mere quantity) of new material increases the likelihood of memory formation
  3. organizing information: sorting new material and relating it to known ideas and previous experiences
  4. generation: actually speaking the item, or retelling, increases the likelihood of memory formation
  5. practice distribution: spaced retrieval of new memories increases memory formation; recent research indicates that multiple retrieval rather than multiple exposure (e.g., studying or re-reading a text) promotes better memory formation
  6. context: imagining the time and place in which new material is encountered positively influences recall

What can teachers take from this list? Processing new material beyond merely seeing it or hearing it increases the likelihood of memory. A major emphasis of our teaching needs to focus on engaging students in such processing.

The Architecture of Learning™ instructional design model actually builds such processing into teaching. When not using such a framework for designing instruction, we need to be mindful of engaging students in quality processing of new material.

It’s the processing that maximizes memory (and therefore learning).

Devachi, L. (2008, October). The limits of memory: How to maximize your memory trace. Session presented at the 2008 North American Neuroleadership Summit, New York.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 10: Teacher Expertise—"Critics" & Teachers

Teachers as “Critics”
The BBC used to produce a show in which an individual was taken from his normal surroundings and professional practices and placed in a month-long, immersion experience in a profession he dreamed of practicing. At the conclusion of the month, the individual faced a test. He or she had to interact effectively with peers in the assumed profession and fool the field’s critics into thinking he was a professional. The show was fascinating on many levels—observing the learners who effectively gained the knowledge they needed, watching the “teachers” and seeing their influence—but especially to observe the interaction of critics and pretender.

The critics interviewed three people in each show: two practicing professionals and the “faker” who had completed a month of immersion training. Because they had such depth of knowledge, the critics often knew exactly the questions that would trip up an faker. In fact, the questions required so much understanding of the field that they often tripped up the practicing professionals.

One memorable episode featured a house painter who dreamed of becoming an abstract artist with displays of his work in art galleries. The month featured ups and downs as the painter learned technique, vocabulary, history, and the qualities of great abstract painting. His interaction with peers at a gallery display was quite good. But the critics, who had reviewed his paintings, knew exactly what the painter’s strengths and needs were. (They also knew the strengths and weaknesses of the two practicing professionals whose work was on display.) Within moments of scanning the work, most of the critics identified the “faker.”

What I found especially memorable about this episode, however, was the faker’s response. He wanted to learn more! He had begun to develop as a professional artist, and he treated the critics’ input as a step in the learning. His concluding remarks made it clear that he hoped to continue developing. Returning to house painting would not satisfy this budding abstract artist.

What does this have to with writing instruction? First, the critics had the task of assessing the painter’s work. They had to know what they were looking for so well that by merely scanning a work they could identify its strengths and weaknesses. Writing teachers need to be equally familiar with the writing tasks they assign students and the criteria with which they will assess the results. This knowledge enables coaching: the teacher can quickly assess the strengths and needs of the student writer and suggest ways of improving it. Second, the critics’ input became an instrument of learning. Writing teachers should view assessment as an ongoing component of teaching and learning. The caring input students receive while writing not only improves the writing they are doing but provides guidance for future writing. Coach a developing writer enough on effective sentence limits and soon that young writer’s rough drafts feature better constructed sentences. And when the young writer develops that awareness and the skill of crafting sentences, there will be no going back. That element of good writing has been integrated into the writer’s practice.

Writing teachers need to be effective “critics”; they need to be constantly assessing student writing and offering suggestions for increased achievement. However, unlike critics in the art world, the teacher needs to assess within an environment of nourishing passion (Maisel, 2005). A nourishing passion:
  • communicates that a student matters
  • conveys that students’ meaning-making through writing is valuable
  • makes certain that students understand the purpose for writing
  • helps construct feelings of competency in students by actually developing student competencies
  • transmits a love for a student’s current project
  • takes student thinking and writing seriously
  • communicates excitement about writing and each facet it comprises
Developing young writers requires a caring, critical eye combined with a nourishing spirit.

Teachers as Writing Teachers
It may seem obvious that writing teachers need to be effective teachers of writing, but let’s examine what characterizes effective writing instruction.

First, effective writing instruction engages the brain’s natural learning processes—i.e., the teaching aligns with how the brain learns. When teaching concepts such as genre, the teacher uses activities that engage the thinking students need to construct understanding. When teaching revision skills, the teacher uses activities that engage the thinking and action students need to develop utility.

Second, effective writing instruction uses instructional methods known to be effective in developing young writers. Direct instruction in revision skills and coaching throughout the writing process are two examples. Both directly influence the young writer’s ability to improve writing.

Third, effective writing instruction sequences activities in ways that optimize student development. The flow of instruction enables students to gain the knowledge, construct the understanding, develop the utility, and ultimately integrate the new learning into successful and consistent practice.

Finally, effective writing instruction flows easily from direct instruction to individual coaching as needed to optimize student achievement. The teacher adjusts the instructional material and techniques in accordance with student learning needs.

Teaching writing successfully requires a knowledgeable, caring, and effective teacher. No other school-based factor contributes more to a young writer’s development. The best teachers are those who are well-equipped to teach writing—those who know how to craft writing themselves and know how to guide young writers to such practice. The teacher, not any textbook or materials, makes the difference.

For information on Clerestory Learning's The Writer's Stylus, click here or contact Clerestory Learning via this form.

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 9: Teacher Expertise—Writers & Coaches

Sufficient research exists to make the following claim: the most significant school-based factor influencing student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. An effective teacher increases a child’s achievement. An ineffective teacher decreases a child’s achievement.

This seems like common sense, but perhaps we remain unaware of the magnitude of difference the classroom teacher makes. Educational researcher Robert Marzano (2003) uncovered the teacher’s significant influence: nearly 70% of a school’s influence on student achievement results from the teacher’s effectiveness. It’s worth reiterating: the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most significant school-based factor influencing student achievement.

What does this have to do with teaching writing? For students to optimize achievement and reach their potential as writers, we need effective writing teachers.
What, then, makes a writing teacher effective? Four areas of competence emerge:
  • effective writing teachers can produce quality writing themselves
  • effective writing teachers can coach other writers to improved results
  • effective writing teachers can accurately assess writing and identify elements of excellence and potential improvement
  • effective teachers teach writing using sound instructional methods in effective combinations
Let’s examine each area.

Teachers as Writers

“In most other fields of endeavor, those who instruct are required to have a minimum level of expertise,” claims author and teacher Gloria Houston (2004). “In the teaching of writing in the English-speaking world, that has often not been the case, so teachers feel frustrated…Teachers who do not know how to write are required to teach writing…[Teachers] want to do well, but they often do not know where to begin” (p. 1).

Can you relate to this? With rare exception, the teachers I know have experienced the frustration Houston describes. We want to teach students to write well, but we lack the knowledge that would make us confident writers ourselves.

Allow me to illustrate via my own experience. I grew up in a literate environment. My mother loved the public library, and she took me to it often. As soon as I was old enough, I had my own library card. Throughout elementary and secondary school, teachers generally praised my writing. (I was pretty good at snowing my teachers with essay responses that didn’t necessarily answer the question they had asked.) When I entered college, I passed the entrance assessment and bypassed all basic level writing courses. I majored in English and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. From all appearances, it should have been safe to assume that I knew how to write well.

But assumptions do not always match reality. As I began my teaching career, I engaged my students in frequent writing tasks, but I quickly realized that analyzing the themes in great British and American literary works did not equip me to teach fourth grade students how to write well. Saying things like, “You know, like Shakespeare does in Hamlet,” didn’t seem to have any effect. I muddled along with the textbook’s suggestions for several years but always felt I lacked the knowledge to really help students improve their writing. What should I have them consider once the rough draft was complete? What specific direction could I provide for clarifying and strengthening their writing? I was the teacher Gloria Houston describes: I wanted to teach writing well, but I did not know where to begin because I lacked content knowledge. I did not know how to craft my own writing beyond the draft stage.

Which brings us to a critical component of successful instructional writing programs. High quality programs include a comprehensive professional development component—training that equips teachers with the knowledge and know-how to develop their own writing capacity. By improving the writing abilities of teachers, we can overcome the frustration Gloria Houston describes and increase our instructional effectiveness.

Teachers as Writing Coaches

The single most important, most effective, and most valuable instruction a developing writer can receive is coaching by a caring expert. Coaching is a person-to-person activity, a chance for a writer to interact about his work with an interested individual. Good coaching provides strategic help, personal support, and individual challenge.

Increasing coaching increases learning. Marzano (2003) found that students who had teachers that consistently provided timely and specific feedback scored anywhere from 21 to 41 percentage points higher on standardized tests than students who had teachers that failed to provide such feedback. Neurologist and classroom teacher Dr. Judy Willis (2006) offers a likely explanation for this dramatic impact: “One of the most successful strategies for engaging students’ brains in their lessons comes from personal connection and accountability” (p. 82). Through frequent coaching, teachers connect with individual students, hold them accountable, provide an opportunity for student questioning, and optimize learning and achievement.

But what does it take to be a great writing coach? Research suggests:

  • in-depth knowledge of each phase of the writing process, especially revision
  • knowledge of what completing a specific writing task involves
  • knowledge of how to guide a young writer from one phase of writing to the next
  • an attitude that is “supportive, honest, critical, but always encouraging” (Lukeman, 2000, p. 17)
Simply creating the time and space for coaching may be a writing teacher’s greatest challenge. Yet when we look at the achievement difference coaching makes, we must conclude that coaching is the most important aspect of teaching writing.

What would you see in an instructional writing program that emphasized coaching? First, the professional development component would include instruction and practice in coaching young writers. Second, the number of major writing projects would be sufficiently limited to allow for multiple coaching sessions as the student completes each project. Third, clearly defined assessment standards would provide unambiguous direction for determining a student’s strengths and for directing the student in improving the writing.

Behind every developing writer, there needs to be a caring coach.

Up Next: Teachers as "Critics" and Successful Writing Instructors. That posting will be the final one in this series on writing instruction. Postings with insights from the recent Neuroleadership Summit will follow.

Houston, G. (2004). How writing works: Imposing organizational structure within the writing process. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Lukeman, N. (2000). The first five pages: A writer's guide to staying out of the rejection pile. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Willis, J. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 8: Integration—Connecting Revision Elements

Revising, says writer and editor Susan Bell (2007), is “a conversation”—an interaction between the writer and text that generates waves of improvement in the text (p. 6). The writer approaches the draft as a critical reader and “converses” with what was previously written. The “conversation” initiates improvements in significant issues, such as the writing going astray, and text-level improvements that strengthen the writing, such as a change in word choice. The writer does not engage in self-pity or self-condemnation for these issues, but attacks the draft, determined to give his voice the best possible expression.

But what does the writer look for during revision? Author and writing instructor Gloria Houston (2004) describes the components of a written piece as points within a continuum (p. 10).

Macro-level elements address the work’s conceptual and structural elements, such as structure,clarity, and tone. Micro-level elements address specifics that strengthen or weaken the work, such as using the most immediate verb tense, editing modifiers, and avoiding There and It as sentence starters. Macro-level revisions strengthen the writing’s effectiveness. They address the question, “Do the ideas and their presentation communicate effectively?” Micro-level elements are specifics—details that compose larger units. They address the question, “Can the specifics be improved to strengthen communication?”

Complete instruction connects macro- and micro-level revision elements. Students learn to consider the influence of every choice a writer makes on other aspects of the writing (e.g., If I use this specific word, will my clarity be affected positively or negatively?). Students learn to “converse” with their writing multiple times to sharpen their revisions for effective and powerful writing.

Up next: Teachers as Writers

Bell, S. (2007). The artful edit: On the practice of editing yourself. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Houston, G. (2004). How writing works: Imposing organizational structure within the writing process. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 7: Integration—Connecting Mechanics to Writing

Researchers describe our current writing instruction as being stuck in the eighteenth century with little real relationship to actual writing. A recent study found that students spent only about 15% of their time in school writing, and of that 15%, two-thirds was merely copying, word-for-word, in worktexts
(NWP, p. 6). In many classrooms, students fill time completing worktext exercises, usually identifying parts of speech with underlining, circling, or diagramming of preprinted sentences; correcting capitalization and punctuation in preprinted sentences; or identifying the correct word form (e.g., have or has?) in preprinted sentences.

Despite all this busyness, research indicates that almost no, if any, relationship exists between mechanics instruction and writing achievement. You could train world-champion sentence diagrammers and never produce a student with exemplary writing skills. According to research findings, the relationship just does not exist.

There may be a simple reason for this lack of relationship. Anything taught in isolation—that is, apart from the context in which it has influence—PREVENTS transfer. Yes, actually PREVENTS the beneficial use of knowledge. Why? Because students become habituated to only using the knowledge or skills within the contexts in which they were learned.

Connecting Mechanics to Writing

All of this does not mean we should avoid teaching mechanics, but it does implicate our current practices. If we are truly committed to improving students’ communication abilities, we cannot continue to teach mechanics in isolation. We must combine elements to provide complete instruction for constructing lasting learning.

Mechanics should be taught from the understanding that their purpose is to help the writer communicate more clearly with the reader. Author and writing teacher Gloria Houston (2004) describes mechanics as “an act of courtesy to the reader on the part of the writer” (p. 20). Keeping this perspective can help us give mechanics the attention they deserve without overemphasizing their importance. Think of it this way: you have a child who you want to learn to express gratitude when they’re given a gift. You mention to the child that it’s good to say “Thank you” in such a context. The next time they’re given something, you might prompt them with, “What do you say?” But you don’t take hours and hours of time drilling the response or abandon child when they forget. You instruct efficiently, prompt as needed, and point out the times when the child expresses gratitude without prompting.

Mechanics should be taught as a means of thinking—a way of helping students make their writing more “meaningful, well-constructed,” and “information bearing” (Rothstein, Rothstein, & Lauber, 2007, p. 72). Instruction and practice need to progress beyond the recall and identification levels to multiple and diverse uses within widened contexts.

Mechanics should be taught as prerequisites to learning actual writing practices, such as revising; instruction should move from teaching the prerequisites into teaching associated writing practices. For example, when teaching adverbs, students generally learn to identify the modifiers and circle them in preprinted text or place them correctly when diagramming a sentence. If any writing is included, teachers often ask students to write a paragraph or story using as many adverbs as possible. This is the OPPOSITE of good writing practice! Students need to know how to identify adverbs so they can ELIMINATE them from their writing: “Inspect adverbs carefully and always be suspicious. What are those little buggers up to? Are they trying to cover up for a lazy verb? Most adverbs are adjectives with ‘ly’ tacked on the end, and the majority of them should be shoveled into a truck and hauled off to the junkyard” (Provost, 1985, p. 76-77). Good writing uses strong verbs and limits adverbs. Students need to identify adverbs in order to revise their writing by strengthening verbs and eliminating adverbs. To teach students to do such revising, they must be able to identify adverbs, but they must also be able to consider the adverb’s role in the sentence, evaluate its necessity, and make decisions that result in improved writing. Students gain such skill by writing themselves AND engaging in multiple revisions of that writing. Just circling adverbs on a worksheet without the connection to revising writing PREVENTS the transfer of identifying adverbs to actually improving writing. Complete instruction connects elements of grammar with actual writing practices.

Up next: Connecting Revision Elements

Houston, G. (2004). How writing works: Imposing organizational structure within the writing process. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
National Writing Project & Nagin, C. (2003). Because writing matters: Improving student writing in our schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Provost, G. (1985). 100 ways to improve your writing. New York: New American Library.
Rothstein, A., Rothstein, E. & Lauber, G. (2007). Writing as learning. A content-based approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.