Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Instructional Time Matters

But time keeps flowing like a river (on and on)

To the sea, to the sea
’til it's gone forever…

At least that’s what the Alan Parsons Project suggested in their hit song. But poets and songwriters aren’t the only ones seemingly consumed by the passage of time. Educators frequently talk about the concept, discussing “time-on-task,” school start and end times, and the length of the school year. What’s behind this preoccupation with instructional time? Does it matter if the school day is interrupted for pep rallies, award assemblies, announcements from the office, and the like? Isn’t the school calendar that revolves around the needs of an agrarian culture adequate for today’s students? Why does nearly every conversation with teachers end up being a discussion of time and the lack of it in classrooms?

Teachers have sound reasons for being concerned about time. More than 100 years of research suggests a significant correlation between time spent learning and the amount of learning that results. As memory expert Alan Baddeley describes it, “In short, as far as learning is concerned, you get what you pay for.”1 The relationship between this research finding and teaching may seem obvious, but let’s dive deeper into the research and its implications.
Researchers originally connected expertise in playing the violin with the amount of time spent in individual practice. They found that experts spent more than 10,000 hours practicing, while lesser experts spent about 7500 hours practicing, accomplished experts spent around 5000 hours practicing, and committed amateurs spent around 1500 hours practicing. While the numbers fluctuate slightly, the general range has remained surprisingly consistent as researchers examined expertise levels in other disciplines.2

What does this have to do with teaching? Probably more than we realize. For example, every school system I’ve encountered has significant literacy goals for students. Most schools would like to produce expert, or at least lesser expert or accomplished, readers. According to the research, developing such readers requires at least 5000 hours of practice—5000+ hours that students focus on applying and developing their reading capacity. With that in mind, let’s examine a possible scenario. If a child spends one hour each day for 175 days of the school year from grades one through eight, she will have invested approximately 1400 hours in developing reading expertise—not even enough for “committed amateur” levels! What if we add kindergarten and high school? The student still comes up woefully short at 2275 hours—not even halfway to accomplished levels.

No, this doesn’t include the time a child may spend reading at home, but it would be a rare child who actually spends the extra 2300+ hours needed to achieve “accomplished expert” levels. And to make the situation more challenging, recent research on the amount of time students actually spend reading in school classrooms ranges from a low of seven minutes to a high of 23 minutes.3 (Note that the research focuses on time spent practicingrecalling and applying skills—not on the amount of time the teacher presents information.)

Admittedly, we are not attempting to produce readers for the stage at Carnegie Hall, but this research on time and learning should not be dismissed. Time spent learning does matter for a student’s achievement. We’ve only explored this connection to developing literacy capacity, but the same would be true if applied to other disciplines. Want to develop expert mathematicians (or at least “committed amateur” mathematicians)? Time matters. Want to develop accomplished scientists (or, again, at least “committed amateur” scientists)? Time matters. The time a child spends recalling and applying learning correlates with the child’s level of expertise. When it comes to learning, time invested in recalling and applying relates to ability and achievement.

In conclusion, here are some questions to consider:
  • What are our priorities? In what areas of the curriculum are we attempting to develop more than amateur capacity? In what areas of the curriculum are we striving for more than amateur achievement?
  • How does our time (both given and devoted) reflect those priorities?
  • What is needed to increase the time students choose to spend in recall and application of new learning?
  • What are the implications of this research for our own professional development?
Share your thoughts and insights!


  1. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, M. C. Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009), p. 70-78.
  2. Ibid.
  3. In-School Independent Reading.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

To Retain New Learning, Do the Math

Every teacher experiences the frustration. Content and skills taught throughout the year seem to abandon students during springtime standardized testing. “How can they not know this?” thinks the the teacher. “We learned this back in November.”

Recent research reveals some likely causes, and the principles for retaining new learning may not be intuitive to us as teachers. For example, multiple retrievals rather than multiple exposures promote better retention of new learning.1 In other words, the more students are required to recall new content or skills, the better their memory will be. Reviewing the material with students does not have the same effect. The students must be engaged in activity that requires them to recall the material. Even when students recall details incorrectly, if the teacher promptly provides the necessary instructive feedback, engaging students in recall of the material fosters better retention of new learning than a teacher-led review.2

But how often should teachers be engaging students in recall of newly learned material? Two findings provide answers.

First, repeated recall should occur frequently immediately following new learning. For example, a teacher who teaches students to add fractions should engage students in recall and use of that material several times over the school days immediately following instruction. Again, even if students do not recall the skill correctly, requiring recall combined with immediate instructive feedback is more effective than reviewing the skill.3

Second, once the initial period of learning and multiple retrievals is past, students still need to be engaged regularly in recall of the material. In general, students need to recall the material after a delay of 10 to 20% of the time between initial learning and final testing.4 For example, if students learn a new skill with only a month of school (about 20 school days) remaining, they should be engaged in recall of that skill every 2-4 days. This increases the likelihood that the new learning will be part of their knowledge when they begin the following school year. (Ideally, they would be recalling that skill every 7-14 days over a 10-week summer break!)

So, let’s go back to our opening scenario: a teacher teaches material in November that students need to recall for testing in May—a gap of about six months, or about 120 school days. To increase the likelihood that students will recall the material in May, they should be engaged in retrieving it every 12-24 days, once or twice a month, probably closer to every 12 days for the first few months and every 24 days for the last few months. It is critical that every retrieval be accompanied by immediate instructive feedback.

One more principle helps us design activities that engage students in retrieving new learning. The more material students are required to recall, the better. For example, if students are required to retrieve or construct an explanation of how to add fractions and actually apply the skill to add fractions, their retention will be greater than if they are merely required to apply the skill.4

According to this research, many of our classrooms may be structured for minimal memory retention. If we begin every school year reviewing material from the previous years and spend the second half of the school year introducing new material, students are less likely to retain the new learning in future school years because they were not engaged in recalling it throughout the school year. We need to be teaching more new material at the beginning of the school year and reviewing that material as the school year progresses. Perhaps this helps explain another common teacher frustration: the “They should have learned this last year” syndrome that we’ve all experienced.

Retrieval + Instructive Feedback = Retention of New Learning.

  1. Devachi, L. The Limits of Memory: How to Maximize Your Memory Trace. Presented at the 2008 North American Neuroleadership Summit, New York.
  2. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, M. C. Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009), p. 70-78.
  3. Ibid. 74.
  4. Ibid. 82.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Authors, Illustrators, and Teaching: Part 2

Authors and illustrators get treated like rock stars at the National Book Festival. Readers crowd into tents, some literally with standing room only, to see and hear the people behind favorite narratives and artwork. The payoff is worth the effort. Many authors and illustrators are as interesting in person as they are on paper.

In the last post, I discussed three authors and illustrators who provided insights related to teaching. Here are three more who similarly challenged and inspired me.

Sharon Creech was, in honesty, quite different from what I expected. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t an author who would embody one of her characters so perfectly that you felt like you were in theater with an accomplished actress rather than under a tent with a writer. Her editor shared the stage and played a role as Mrs. Creech read and enacted a section from her latest book, The Unfinished Angel. With drama and humor, the two wordsmiths captivated the crowd, even those beyond the tent’s borders. (By the way, for the record, unfinished angels speak in English with an Italian accent and make up words when necessary!)

Drama and humor. Tension and laughter. What a great combination for teaching. When I prepare to teach, do I look for the drama and humor in new material? Do I use these tools to not only keep attention but make material more memorable? Do I go the extra mile to bring such creativity to my teaching? I love this quote from Saul Bellow: “No school without spectacular eccentrics and crazy hearts is worth attending.” Do I allow myself to be the “spectacular eccentric” or “crazy heart” when doing so would promote learning?

Up next, another Newbery-winning author, Kate DiCamillo. I must highlight the perseverance DiCamillo personified. When rain knocked out power to the sound system, she continued to take questions and shout answers to the audience. This sounds less of an accomplishment than it actually was. The tent was jam packed and people wandered through steady rain falling outside.

But it was DiCamillo’s anecdote about the origins of The Tale of Despereaux that captivated my thoughts. A young boy suggested a story about a hero with large ears. At first, DiCamillo didn’t give the suggestion much thought. It certainly wasn’t much to go on when trying to write a whole book! But the idea stayed with her, and about five years later, The Tale of Despereaux was published.

Simply listening to students can sometimes provide substantial professional development! In trying to teach a group new concepts recently, one individual kept asking for examples. Every time I’d thoroughly explain something, at least in my own thinking, I’d get asked for an example—sometimes more than one. Listen to the suggestion, I told myself. Keep it in mind. Use it to improve your teaching. As I responded with examples, I could see the a-ha! moments multiply. The request, when fulfilled, made me a better teacher.

Sometimes a suggestion, even one focused on a hero with large ears, is all the you need to communicate in fresh and effective ways.

Finally, my favorite presentation came from Jerry Pinkney. Mr. Pinkney is a five-time Caldecott Honor medalist, and his latest book, a retelling of the Lion and the Mouse fable through illustrations, should catch the committee’s attention this year.

Mr. Pinkney shared his childhood with the audience. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, his parents, neither of whom possessed artistic talents, encouraged all their children to draw. It was something to do—something to keep the children occupied. While young Jerry manned a newspaper stand, an artist caught a glimpse of his sketches. Impressed, the artist invited Jerry to his studio. Before that visit, Pinkney was unaware that art was something you could do for a living, and oh!, the world of colors and artist’s tools that he encountered for the first time.

One caring adult—that’s it, just one caring adult opened up the world that would become Jerry Pinkney’s focus and passion. There’s a thought for teachers, but that’s not the one that I carried away with me.

Almost in passing, this successful, revered, and award-winning illustrator mentioned that he still takes drawing lessons. “You can always improve some aspect of what you do,” he explained, “and it’s important that you do so.”

While I can’t sign up for weekly teaching lessons, I can seek out professional development opportunities that will stretch some aspect of my teaching. Such continual growth is what Jerry Pinkney claims has empowered his success for several decades. My relevance and influence as a teacher may, likewise, depend on my willingness to continue growing professionally.

Drama, humor, wisdom, and growth. Sounds like a good recipe for teaching. In fact, it’s not a bad recipe for life.

Monday, October 5, 2009

An Educator Races (but not to the top)

The single shot from the starter pistol stirred me out of my pre-race stupor. Here we go, I thought. This is what those early morning runs prepared you for—hopefully. As I started moving toward the starting line of the Montgomery Half-Marathon (it took 27 seconds to get to the starting line!), Paul’s admonishment to run the race set before you infiltrated my thoughts. The race set before you. Reflecting on that concept brought to mind the advice friends had offered. Start out slower than you want to ultimately run. Use your head, especially for the first five miles. Be aware of other runners and avoid impeding their running. Take advantage of every water station. I shook them from consciousness and tried to focus on running my race.

That sounds easy, but doing it becomes much more difficult when you are surrounded by hundreds of other runners. How do you run your race when you are one drop in a moving wave? To be honest, I never figured it out, and for the first three miles I allowed myself to just be part of the wave. At the third mile marker, the wave became more like separated ripples, and I noticed that I was ahead of my target pace. Good news, right? Maybe. My concern then became having the stamina to finish the distance of 13.1 miles.

I kept trying to slow myself down. I even found a runner with a watch who was trying to run my target pace. I stayed behind him for a couple minutes, but couldn’t stand it and ended up passing him. At this point it became clear to me that running my race would depend mostly on listening to my body and heeding its suggestions.

I must pause to tell you about the funniest part of this experience. I’m an avid reader of Runner’s World magazine, and 99% of the advice I recalled from its pages proved true during the race. However, the RW writers made drinking from a tiny paper cup while continuing to run sound as easy as walking and chewing gum. As I entered the first water station I knew not to stop. That creates a major hazard for other runners (imagine a car stopping suddenly in
front of you while driving). I knew to hone in on one volunteer, make eye contact, and grab and go. Shouting thanks was optional, but I managed it nonetheless. Now, just get the liquid into your mouth. Easy, right?

I pinched the cup, as I remember Runner’s World explaining, and tried “funneling” the water into my mouth. If the water in the cup had remained calm, all would have been fine. But my running served as a submerged earthquake, creating a tidal wave in my tiny paper cup. As I attempted to pour the water into my mouth, the tsunami continued its upward trajectory, soaking my entire face and adding to the muck on the inside of my glasses. Determined to do it right, I got brave at the second water station and grabbed a cup of sports drink. The same thing happened. My head was now drenched and dripping watery Gatorade. I stuck out my tongue to catch a few drops, laughed at myself, and kept running. It took me five water stations to get the motion right!
Apparently, though my running pace was ahead of schedule, my learning pace was behind.

Somewhere around the five mile mark, I overheard the following conversation:

Runner A: Hey, Bob, I didn’t know you were a runner!
Runner B: I’m not! I just started in March. This is my first race. When I started I could only run 90 seconds before resting. Now look at what I’m doing! It’s crazy!
Runner A: No, not crazy. Awesome!

Like me, Bob was running his race. In six months, he’d gone from being a non-runner to running a half-marathon. What an inspiration!

I must pause to make an observation about people. Specifically, non-runners. Every once in a while, someone would be sitting out on their lawn and occasionally yelling to the runners. (Some might have yelled at us, but I often was too distracted to hear clearly!) I think at least six different people told me, “This is the last hill! It’s all downhill from here!” They were liars, every single one. Others would yell, “Keep going! You’re almost there!” Thanks, but at the four-mile mark of a 13.1 mile race, you’re not even close to being almost there.

However, many people really did provide a lift of spirits. On the campus of Alabama State University, the percussion section of the school’s marching band rhythm-ed us across the campus. In the Colonial Heights neighborhood, a group of neighbors stood at the corner shouting greetings and welcoming us to their home turf. At another point, a family had their car doors open and its radio blasting; the beat of Motown carried us on its waves. A gentleman on a bike showed up at several mile markers to cheer the runners forward. Each of these made me glad to be there. (I had quite the opposite reaction to whomever in “historic Cloverdale” thought it would be funny to cook bacon with all the windows open, but I’ll let that go!) Another activity that upped the friendly factor was the many runners who thanked the police officers and volunteers who made the event safe and smooth from beginning to end. I hope all of them knew the sincerity behind those yelps of gratitude.

Somewhere after the 10th mile marker, I lost track of how far I had gone. Was the next mile marker 11 or 12? I convinced myself it would be 12. Obviously, it wasn’t. I surprised myself by not being defeated or even set back too badly from this miscalculation. Somehow I was able to push ahead, glad to finally know for sure what the next mile marker would be.

And oh, the joy of hitting mile marker 12 and then 13 and noting that I was still ahead of my target pace. It was possible that in addition to finishing I might actually finish in under two hours! (Cue the Chariots of Fire theme!). “Hear those bells?” called a spectator. “They’re waiting for you at the end!” Again, technically the bells were not at the end, but they did pull me forward. In fact, as I rounded the last corner I found a burst of energy and actually sped toward the finish. Recalling Runner’s World’s recommendations again, I tried to ignore the clock and run through the finish so the photos of me would be magazine cover material. Let’s just say that between the Gatorade baths and the fact that I looked like I had just run 13 miles, I won’t be appearing at your newsstand anytime soon. Nonetheless, my wife did capture the moment, providing evidence of the accomplishment.

A few moments of chaos—a man with what looked like a pin-pong paddle stepped forward to scan my timing chip, a volunteer threw a finisher’s medal around my neck, and a couple volunteers offered water and bananas to the weary—and it was over. It was over way too soon. I was just beginning to have fun! There is little that generates more motivation than success.

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with education. After all, that is the focus of this blog. To make some connections, let me share some questions that I’ve asked myself:

  • Do I recognize that my students must each run his/her own race to learning—that learning is always an individual act? How am I creating the conditions that allow each learner to find their way to new understandings and abilities?
  • How do I lift the spirits of learners who find the going difficult? Do I toss easy lines at them? or do I encourage them with honesty while running along side them to help them progress?
  • Do I allow and help my students to laugh at themselves? Failure combined with self-anger is a sure road to defeat. Do I model resilience? Do I help my students develop resilience?
  • Do I recognize that what I think will be easy may be a challenge for students? Do I plan sufficient practice and feedback to support students as they move toward mastery?
  • Do I celebrate students’ success? Do I create conditions that give students a feeling of accomplishment? or am I so preoccupied with the next thing that celebrations get left out? How motivating do I allow accomplishment—true accomplishment—to be?
These aren’t new ideas or the roadmap for major educational reform, but their potential power and influence are more significant to me than ever before. I may not have raced to the top (I finished 203rd), but running my own race proved to be an effective dose of professional development.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Authors, Illustrators, and Teaching: Part 1

Authors and illustrators recently challenged my thinking about teaching.

The National Book Festival is an annual event held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. This year my wife and I attended for the first time. As I listened to various children’s authors and illustrators, I was struck by how much relevance the ideas they communicated had for educators.

First up was Charles Santore. Mr. Santore has illustrated several well-known children’s books, including The Camel’s Lament and versions of classics, such as the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the fantasy The Wizard of Oz. He also illustrated this year’s National Book Festival poster.

Because he moved from advertising illustration to children’s literature, many of Mr. Santore’s comments contrasted the two. For example, in illustration, Santore explained, you have to synthesize all the ideas into one, attention-grabbing illustration. However, in illustrating children’s literature, the artist can attend to pacing, even drawing “quiet” pictures that allow the reader to pause and ponder.

This pacing, giving the reader time to imagine and think, mirrors a pace the brain needs for optimal learning. Often called “down-time,” the brain needs to process new content in manageable chunks.1 A teacher who lectures for 45 minutes straight promotes less learning than a teacher who presents information for 10 minutes, engages students in processing new material, and then resumes presenting information for another brief period. To learn, the brain needs to pause and ponder—it needs the story of learning to include “quiet” illustrations.

Up next was one of my favorites: Nikki Grimes. Miss Grimes has authored several of my favorite children’s books, including The Road to Paris. With gifts in both poetry and prose, Miss Grimes captivated the audience with a colorful, poetic journey through several of her works. I cannot explain this sufficiently to help you appreciate it. She used poetry to introduce a color and its affective associations, then illustrated the concepts with passages from her writings. She created a hush in the tent and no one wanted her to stop.

What does this have to do with teaching? It made me think about how little thought I often give to my actual presentation of information. Sure, I think long and seriously about the activities I use to introduce or engage students in processing new information, but Nikki Grimes put that kind of thought into how she actually presented the information.

Hmm, how could I simulate this? Could I combine communication forms to better articulate critical concepts for students? Would a poetic journey through the Pythagorean theorem promote better understanding? One thing is certain: by challenging myself to consider the approach, I’d think more deeply about how I would actually explain the concept, and that would likely improve the words and phrases I used to teach it.

Finally, for this first of two posts, we heard and observed illustrator Kadir Nelson. Without exaggeration, Mr. Nelson is an artistic genius as evidenced in all his books, including the recent Testing the Ice.

A quiet individual, Mr. Nelson let his pens do most of the “talking.” He called two children up to the stage and recreated one of his illustrations with the children filling the roles of the original characters. Two young girls became Jackie Robinson and Yogi Berra, and their faces lit up with excitement and recognition. He actively involved the children, taking their minds to the scene he wanted them to imagine. Wow! In one illustration, he captured an entire narrative—a narrative to which two young girls could emotionally connect.

Narrative is a powerful teaching tool. Stories frame experience. Mark Turner suggests stories are actually fundamental, organizing structures: “Parable is the root of the human mind—of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking.”2 Neurologist and author Alice W. Flaherty agrees, suggesting metaphors, such as stories, contribute to memory formation and understanding:
…metaphors are cognitively useful because they rephrase an abstract concept in more physical terms. This engages the cortex with its visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory maps, and the limbic system with its emotional charge…[Metaphors] create a sense of understanding by an analogous mechanism. By giving abstract concepts tastes, colors, smells, and emotional resonance, metaphors fix them in our minds and make us feel like we understand them.3
The human mind frequently thinks in terms of stories, communicates in stories, and converts new learning into stories. By framing experience, stories provide a structure for exploring and making sense of experience. Can I structure any of my teaching as narrative? Again, just challenging myself to try will likely improve my teaching.

Pondering pauses, poetic presentations, and narrative frames can inspire and inform my teaching. What I learn from authors and illustrators can become personal professional development if I’m willing to accept the challenges their ideas present.

In Part 2, insights from authors Sharon Creech, Kate DiCamillo, and illustrator Jerry Pinkney.

  1. Sousa, D., How the Brain Learns, 2nd ed., (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc., 2001).
  2. Turner, M., The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), i.
  3. Flaherty, A. W., The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 230.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Making the Shift, Part 4: From "Target Future" to Teaching

In this series of posts, I’ve tried to raise awareness of executive function processes, examine their role in successful learning and thinking, and begin exploring how they can receive greater emphasis in education. In this final post, I want to investigate these ideas within the framework of a commonly taught topic. I’m choosing my verbs carefully, and I’m using investigate because I hope the results spark input from others. I’m still incubating all this material, very much in the learning stage of understanding and the novice stage of application. The thoughts that follow merely represent one way of engaging student learning that also engages and develops executive function processes.

Working with the story from the previous post, one “target future”1 pictures a current student capable of recognizing what needs to be accomplished and what is needed to accomplish it, of formulating a plan and prioritizing and executing its steps, of evaluating the results and of shifting focus as needed, and of presenting the information and conclusions with confidence.

With that target future in mind, a teacher may turn to the required content for the American History class she teaches and note colonial America’s movement toward revolution as a topic. She has a focus.

The teacher reviews the focus with a critical question in mind: What form will engage students in interacting with and acting on this content? Keeping in mind the “target future,” the teacher decides to require students to demonstrate their learning as collections of evidence for a pending trial. Who’s on trial? The Sons of Liberty—visionary revolutionaries or radical extremists? Students will build cases for both conclusions, collecting facts, first-person accounts, expert insights, and anything else that may support either extreme. Thus, the form takes shape; students will develop convincing but opposing arguments.

While this challenge directs attention to several critical concepts, it may not address all the required content. Since this is a high school class, she decides to list the few other elements that must be addressed and take suggestions from the class about how to integrate them into the given form.

The teacher also decides to work with the students to develop a rubric for the form. She has some ideas, but to engage student thinking and motivation, she decides to involve them in defining what a complete project will look like, what elements will be assessed, and what will define achievement for each element.

With a focus and form established, the teacher consider the frame. What timeframe will enable the students to produce excellent results and be appropriate for the content’s importance in the year’s study? She teacher selects ten class sessions as the frame.

Focus: The Sons of Liberty within colonial/pre-Revolution America
Form: Presentation of arguments for Sons of Liberty to be considered visionary revolutionaries and, in opposition, as radical extremists. Frame: 10 class sessions.

A rough outline begins to form:

Session 1: Presentation of focus and discussion of form. Discussion of what completing the arguments will require. Initial discussion of steps for planning. Homework, complete list of steps needed to complete the challenge.

Session 2: Discussion of planning steps. Discussion and formation of rubric. Homework: Students complete plans, assigning timeframes to each step. Teacher puts rubric into a distributable form.

Session 3: Review of plans. Mini-presentation by librarian and ed-tech specialist on potential resources. Initial research begins.

Session 4-7: Review of findings, continued monitoring of plans and execution of identified steps, mini-presentations by teacher on key concepts or research tools. Throughout, the teacher monitors student progress and provides instructive feedback, referencing the rubric to help students improve their work and attain the highest possible level of achievement.

Session 8: Discussion of findings and potential tools for presentation. Final steps of plan executed.

Session 9: Rubric review and presentation refinement.

Session 10: Presentations.

The presentations may be electronic “portfolios,” in-person presentations, “hard copy” portfolios, dramatic role-plays (the prosecution vs. the defense?) or whatever form the teacher and students agree as being effective. Also, the teacher and students may determine together whether the form will be completed as individuals, groups, or some combination. The more the teacher can engage the students in active planning and executing of the work required for learning, the more experience the students gain in successfully applying executive function processes. And the more successfully they learn to apply executive function processes, the closer the teacher moves them toward the “target future.”

Answering Some Objections

I know, it sounds idealistic and our classrooms are firmly grounded in the realistic. Can a teacher “give up” that much control and maintain an instructional environment? I’d say that depends on your definition of instructional environment. If you think students taking notes from one designated expert constitutes learning, then no, you can’t even consider such an approach. But if you recognize that authentic understanding is constructed by the brain, and that executive function processes play critical roles in working memory’s constructing of understanding, then you may see this ideal as representing a potentially real instructional, or better yet, an effective learning environment. Students are still accountable for their work and learning, but they get a say in how that work and learning will develop. They become participants in the learning, not merely recipients.

Some may think this sounds great for upper high school classrooms but not for lower levels of education. I agree that not everything can be taught in this way, but I disagree with the age-limit argument, and so do researchers. A 2004 study of students as young as third grade found that children could grasp the concept of experimental design, design experiments, differentiate cause and effect, and even make models and symbols.2 With the proper scaffolding and active formative assessment and instructive feedback, even young students can learn to engage executive function processes while learning.

Wait, you may be thinking, what about my master’s degree in history, or science, or literature, or…? You still will have opportunities to share your knowledge, but the delivery will be different. You may present mini-sessions on some key elements, share your knowledge with individuals or small groups, and use it to guide students to discover some of the same concepts. Your content expertise will need to be accompanied with expertise in guiding student LEARNING. Think “coach,” not “talking head.” A coach still has expertise, but the players master the skills, and actually play the game. The coach is not diminished by the players but serves as the guide who empowers their success. Likewise, the teacher empowers students to learn.

In conclusion, I recognize that not everything can be taught this way. But I challenge readers to consider how much of this approach could be effectively used within what they teach. If you teaching something that is heavily skill-focused, could an occasional focus, form, and frame that engages students in applying several of those skills help them connect what you are teaching with the executive function processes they’ll use to determine when and where to use the learned skills? Could similar approaches with far narrower foci and greater teacher scaffolding be effective in early childhood education? All I’m asking is this: consider the possibilities before dismissing the idea.

You may discover that a “target future,” a focus, a form, and a frame are all you need to supercharge student learning.

1. Hurson, T., Think Better, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 127-141.
2. McGinnis, J. R., & Roberts-Harris, D., "A New Vision for Teaching Science," Scientific American Mind, 20 (5), 62-67.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Making the Shift, Part 3: A Focus, a Form, and a Frame

Let’s begin with a story.

Once upon a time, twenty years in the future, Jaime works in the office of an influential nonprofit. The organization is regularly consulted by local and state officials on matters related to the nonprofit’s focus. One day the organization’s leader explains that the governor just called to request an analysis of legislation being considered by the state legislature. Not aware of the issues and implications, the leader promises the governor a return call in three days and gives Jaime the task of identifying and presenting the organization’s analysis of the legislation's pros and cons.

Confidently, Jaime tackles the task, first recognizing what needs to be accomplished and what is needed to accomplish it. Jaime formulates a plan, prioritizes and executes its steps, evaluates the results and shifts focus as needed, and progresses toward a presentation. Three days later, Jaime informs the governor and impresses the nonprofit’s leader with a confident and thorough command of the legislation, its issues, and the implications of both passage and rejection of it. In fact, Jaime is well-informed enough to even offer suggested improvements to the legislation that would overcome the negatives associated with its passage.

What will the issue be? We have no way of knowing. What organization or business will Jaime work for (or start)? We can’t know yet. Will Jaime be able to accomplish the task? That depends, in part, on you. Why? Because Jaime is currently a student in your class.

Even with these unknowns, the story provides a “target future,” an “imagined future” so “powerful and compelling” that it generates motivation to achieve it.1 But what, exactly, should we be developing in students to make this “target future” a reality, or at least a possibility? Jaime’s success was not powered by typical school subjects but by executive function processes.

Executive function processes that researchers describe as “core” include:
  • planning and goal setting
  • organizing
  • prioritizing
  • self-monitoring/assessing
  • shifting flexibly2
All of these are evident in Jaime’s success, but few, if any, appear in school curriculum guides. How can the target future represented in our story become reality if we overlook the very capacities students need for success? And how can we develop those capacities if we need to teach what is in the curriculum guides? The answer: instructional design. How we teach may be more important than what we teach, or, stated better, how we engage students in learning may be more important than the material they learn in the process. For possible guidance, let’s examine Jaime’s journey from not knowing to confident command of material.

Jaime was given three essential pieces of information: a focus (the pending legislation), a form for communicating knowledge (the presentation), and a frame of time between assignment and presentation.

A focus: Jaime was given something to learn. This is what we typically find in curriculum guides—the what, the facts, the specifics. However, it’s worth noting that Jaime was not given a textbook and a schedule of lectures to attend. These frequent and unfortunate shortcuts between not knowing and recalling long enough to pass a multiple choice test too often compose our instructional methodology.

A form: Jaime had to act to move from not knowing to confident command of the material. As I mentioned in Part 2, simply knowing, that is merely recalling material, does not require the level of executive function activation that doing does. Again, note what Jaime had to do: plan in accordance with the goal; identify, organize, and prioritize action steps; self-assess the success of each completed action; shift flexibly to improve incomplete or ineffective actions and move forward to next actions; and organize an effective presentation, the evidence of a confident command of the material. All this activity engaged executive function processes. It’s worth noting that Jaime was given no resources except whatever was available to the organization. Jaime could use technology, printed material, interviews with experts—anything that would provide the necessary information. If a textbook existed, it could have been used as one among many resources. If a teacher with expertise were available, she could have been one among many human resources. Any portal to information was open for Jaime’s use, but Jaime had to select and exploit those resources in accordance with the focus, form, and frame that had been given. Likewise, in developing the presentation, Jaime could use any resources that were available and make decisions based on what would communicate what had been learned most effectively.

A frame: As is often the case in the real world, things have to be done on a schedule. Jaime’s task had to be completed by a set time or the organization risked losing influence and damaging its reputation for reliability.

Could we design learning similarly? Could we provide students with a focus, a form, and a frame and provide whatever coaching they needed to engage their executive function processes sufficiently to accomplish the learning? What would such instructional design involve? What would it look like? How would it be assessed?

In the final post of this series, we’ll apply these ideas to an actual discipline and topic and deal with these remaining questions.

As always, comments and insights are welcome!

1. Hurson, T., Think Better, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 127-141.
2. Meltzer, L. & Krishnan, K. “Executive Functions Difficulties and Learning Disabilities,” in Meltzer, L. (ed.), Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007), 81.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Making the Shift, Part 2: Toolboxes not Suitcases

Ever go through a turnstile and realize something you needed was left on the other side of the gateway? During my first encounter with a public transit system, I tried to take a rolling suitcase through a subway turnstile. Of course I ended up on one side of the gateway with my luggage on the other. Fortunately a friendly New Yorker (They do exist!) saw my dilemma and hoisted my suitcase over the turnstile.

Such gateways are one-way by design; they promote lawful movement in single directions. However, a similar design for teaching, learning, and thinking limits student learning and its usefulness. Much of what we should emphasize ends up like my suitcase—on the wrong side of the turnstile.

For example, we may teach a biology unit on cell construction and emphasize new terminology and locations of various cell parts. Then, after students seem to have absorbed the information and can recite it back, we may engage them in “critical thinking” by asking questions that represent various “levels” of a taxonomy. Like my suitcase, thinking gets pulled along behind and occasionally doesn’t make it through the gate. It gets left behind because of pressures to cover the curriculum or because the assessment will only involve the memorization elements of the unit. If time allows, if the gateway stays open, we might pull in some thinking.

But what if thinking were not a wheeled suitcase but a toolbox, something we carry in-hand and set in a central place to enable our work, our learning? What if instead of thinking of ourselves as teaching content, we viewed ourselves as teaching thinking?

That doesn’t mean students would not learn any content. In fact, content would be exactly what they’d gain by making thinking the force that “pulls in” new understandings. After all, students need to learn how to learn to function successfully once a teacher is no longer telling them what to know.

Activating executive function (EF) offers a potential gateway for developing both understanding of new content and strategic abilities for future learning and success. Executive function comprises “complex cognitive processes that serve ongoing, goal-directed behaviors,”1 including goal setting and planning, self-regulation and metacognition, and working memory processes, such as organizing and patterning data. Executive function serves both as “infrastructure” and “overseer” of other cognitive functions.2 By itself, EF lacks purpose, but when infused with ideas and concepts, it illustrates the brain working at its best. Perhaps most importantly for us as teachers, EF enables intention, the transfer of new learning to novel situations. Teaching only to know—that is, to repeat on demand—does not engage the cognitive processes that promote intention. Martha Bridge Denkla describes such knowing as being able to recall a strategy without the capacity to be strategic.3 Simply knowing does not require the level of EF activation that doing does.

Philip David Zelazo suggests that the EF processes of solving problems and attaining goals reveal EF “subfunctions.” These subfunctions can be easily understood by viewing their roles through the questions they attempt to answer:
  • representation: “What do I need to accomplish? What is preventing me from accomplishing it?”
  • planning: How can I get from the current state to the desired state?
  • execution: What’s next? Check. What’s next?
  • evaluation: Did that action accomplish its intended result? What do I need to change to make progress toward the desired state?4
Teaching students to successfully engage these subfunctions equips them to learn independently. Engaging these subfunctions as a means of learning new content equips students to use their learning beyond the classroom. This brief look at executive functions reveals some principles that provide guidance for making thinking more of a toolbox and less of a rolling suitcase. An emphasis on teaching for action, or on teaching for knowing how, is more likely to produce transferable learning. Since doing requires greater executive function engagement than simply knowing, teaching that engages students in doing better equips students to transfer their learning to new situations.

Knowing that
should become more of a by-product of applying know-how.
Rather than just asking, “What do students need to know?” we need to ask “What can students do/produce to foster learning of what they need to know?” (This has additional implications for what and how we teach. I’ll explore these in a future post.)

Increasing an emphasis on executive function is better education for life. It’s impossible to know what knowledge and skills will be essential in the future, but it is certain that EF will continue to enable successful living.

Before concluding, allow me to attempt to prevent some potential misunderstandings. First, I am not advocating abandonment of the disciplines. As the Purview Project states, the disciplines “have contributed to man’s construction of knowledge for ages.” I believe the disciplines will continue to form much of the content schools teach. What I am suggesting is that how we teach the disciplines needs to change. Others have recently suggested similar ideas—e.g., Jose Bowen’s “Teach Naked” approach, which advocates increased thinking in the classroom. But an implication of changing the “how” is changing the “what.” If we’re going to engage students in more thinking, we need to equip and strengthen them to think optimally. I’ll explore this more in future posts.

Second, the ideas expressed here are easier to envision in content-heavy disciplines, such as social studies than in skill-heavy disciplines such as reading and math. I’ll explore these differences in future posts and suggest ways these principles can be applied in both types of material.

In conclusion, I have a confession. I’m writing this post as much to process these ideas as I am to communicate them. I’m in the learning process, which means I have more questions than answers, vague ideas than concrete specifics, and swirling concepts than guiding frameworks. Over the weekend I was asked what was “going on” in my head. In reply, I listed at least seven different major elements. This post is a very initial attempt to sort through some of them. I hope to explore and clarify these ideas in future posts. Stay tuned!

  1. Meltzer, L. “Executive Function: Theoretical and Conceptual Frameworks,” in Meltzer, L. (ed.), Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007), 1-2.
  2. Denckla, M. B. “Executive Functions: Binding Together the Definitions of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Learning Disabilities,” in Meltzer, L. (ed.), Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007), 7.
  3. Ibid, 11.
  4. Zelazo, P. D., “Executive Function Part One: What is executive function?”

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Making the Shift, Part 1: No More Objectives

The following statement preoccupied my thoughts for several hours: “As a result, a large gap separates the skills and strategies taught in school from the executive function processes needed for success there and in the workplace.” The basis for this conclusion, the cause, is education’s focus “on the content, or the what, rather than the process, or the how, of learning.” Our teaching frequently fails to emphasize executive functions—the cognitive processes that enable goal setting, problem solving, organizing, attention shifting, and metacognition.1

In introducing the Purview Project, I wrote about the shift to a more thinking-centric emphasis in education, and in a recent post focused on thinking within the disciplines, I described how researchers illustrated the difference between knowing what and knowing how by contrasting AP social studies’ students and practicing historians results on differing types of assessment. Despite the recent discussion of national standards in the US, I believe this shift is underway, necessary, and inevitable.

A shift in what we emphasize requires shifts in our own thinking about teaching and learning. If we teach more process and less content, textbooks will either change or become obsolete. If we emphasize how rather than what, assessment will need to engage students in demonstrating how to do rather than what to memorize. If we want to develop students’ executive functions, we need to reexamine every aspect of our practice. We need to close the “large gap,” beginning with one of our most ingrained ideas: objectives.

What we know and believe about objectives depends somewhat on how long we’ve been educators. I was trained to develop “behavioral” objectives that specified what students would specifically do and to what percentage of accuracy they would do it. Wording was a major concern and everything had to be measurable. (You can still see this philosophy being emphasized in current discussions.) Researchers then divided behavioral objectives into three types: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. We were told to display the objectives for students to see. Then, for a time, behaviorism and its objectives became “yesterday’s news” and "outcomes" became the focus. These were followed by objectives addressing student “emotional quotient” or “EQ.” Next came different objectives for each of the learning styles and/or multiple intelligences, and objectives based on various taxonomies of thinking. In many schools, more emphasis was placed on form and wording than imagination.

That’s right, imagination. Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”2 School-based learning happens as a teacher’s envisioned future becomes a student’s reality. If we are shifting to a greater focus on developing students’ executive functions, our notions of objectives need to be replaced with something more imaginative, something more forward looking than what we can measure tomorrow.

But what? What can provide a guiding vision that will focus our teaching?

In his book Think Better, Tim Hurson introduces the concept of “Target Future,” an “imagined future” so “powerful and compelling” that it generates motivation to achieve it. It generates “Future Pull.”3

That sounds great, but how do you develop one? Hurson suggests an act of imagination; he suggests telling yourself a story. Before you succumb to the temptation to write this off as too involved or requiring too much time, allow me ask a simple question: When you envision your students using the thinking processes you’ve taught them, when they’re applying such thinking on their own, what do you see? Stretch that vision, seeing your students utilizing the thinking they’ve learned in multiple scenarios outside of the classroom. Hurson suggests making this vision, this story as “vivid and sensory” as possible. How would your students feel? How would their use of the thinking influence their work and their interactions with others? Imagine all this as reality. That’s a “Target Future.” That’s what you’re teaching for—what you work to make real.

What’s the difference? Objectives tie us to schools, to classrooms, to limited contexts for our students to put their learning to use. “Each student will be able to answer two-digit addition problems with 85% accuracy.” See how that pulls you into the classroom. We feel like we are teaching for a classroom-based assessment that features an easily determined rate of accuracy. The problem is that we are not educating students to live successful lives in a classroom. We’re trying to close the “large gap” between school and successful living in the real world.

Wording a “Target Future” so that it satisfies those who insist on objectives may be a challenge. (Something for which you can offer suggestions in the comments!) However, we won’t educate for the real world until we envision our students operating within it, using the executive functions we’ve helped them develop.

In future posts, I hope to explore additional shifts we as teachers can make that will aid the inevitable shift to more thinking-centric education. For now, consider opening your next lesson with, “Students, let me tell you a story, a story in which you are the main characters…” Then use all your teaching ability to make that story their reality.
  1. Meltzer, L. (ed.), Executive Function in Education, (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007), xi-xiii.
  2. Einstein, A. Albert Einstein Quotes,
  3. Hurson, T., Think Better, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 127-141.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thinking in the Seams: Engaging Interdisciplinary Thinking

It was ingenious. So much so that some listeners wished to be high school history teachers so they could “borrow” the analogy. Even though my first listen was is in a semi-awake state, I understood enough to be informed, entertained, and left wanting to hear it all again. What caught my ear and interest was an NPR interview with Marc Lynch, author of an article that explained world politics through the analogy of a rappers’ feud. The clarity the analogy brought to the more complex issue of foreign policy and “rogue” nations amazed me. It truly was ingenious.

Such analogies are products of what I call “thinking in the seams,” thinking that merges ideas from different disciplines to generate something novel and beneficial. Researchers use varying terms for such thinking—cross-disciplinary thinking, multi-disciplinary thinking, and interdisciplinary thinking—and define it as the use of frameworks from one discipline as “points of departure for discovering or confirming similar structures and relations in other disciplines.”1 It stitches together perspectives or modes of inquiry from two or more disciplines to explore ideas. It is thinking “in the seams.”

Creativity, innovation, and deepened understanding can result from interdisciplinary thinking. Despite these potential benefits, schools rarely cultivate the “mental dexterity” required for thinking in the seams.2

Many education systems emphasize departmentalization, especially as students progress through the grade levels. Each subject is taught by an “expert” who specializes in the discipline and who rarely, if ever, designs instruction that engages students in interdisciplinary thinking. Specialization, while valuable in some contexts, prevents interdisciplinary thinking.

However, specialization should not be confused with deep understanding of a discipline. In fact, deep disciplinary understanding can foster interdisciplinary thinking if the understanding includes the recognition of patterns within the discipline. Patterns play a critical role in enabling interdisciplinary thinking.

According to researchers, interdisciplinary thinking often follows a sequence of mental actions: relationships between ideas within a discipline are recognized→the relationships are recognized as forming pattern(s)→the pattern(s) are decontextualized/generalized→examples of the same pattern(s) are recognized in other disciplines→ideas from one discipline “overlay” with another, generating new ideas.3

How can we foster such thinking?

First, teach the disciplines through patterns. By using patterns as entry-points to material, teachers can connect students’ prior experiences to new content. This helps students construct deeper understanding of the content and alerts them to associations between major ideas.

Second, teach to understanding. Moving from simple recall to understanding is moving from being able to answer a trivia question to possessing “usable knowledge”—knowledge that “is connected and organized around important concepts” and “supports transfer (to other contexts) rather than only the ability to remember.”4 Engaging students in connecting new content and patterns fosters understanding.

Third, challenge students to recognize other patterns within new content. Challenge students to explore how else the major ideas may be organized, identify the new patterns that result, and to generalize those patterns so cross-disciplinary possibilities can be explored. (This is a process of thinking that will need to be delineated and modeled for students.)

Fourth, engage in interdisciplinary thinking with colleagues. Explore patterns within the material you will be teaching and see if any possesses potential for engaging students in interdisciplinary thinking. Work collaboratively to design instruction in which patterns from both disciplines can be used to encourage interdisciplinary thinking.

Finally, encourage interdisciplinary thinking by designing time for thinking “in the seams.” Designate a period of time (daily? weekly?) in which students reexamine material to identify potential overlays of two or more disciplines. One relatively easy way to engage such thinking is to identify analogies, explaining Concept A from Discipline A by referencing Concept B from Discipline B. As students develop and express such analogies, they reprocess the content from both disciplines, deepening their understanding of both. By structuring time for it, students recognize that you value such thinking. That understanding may motivate additional interdisciplinary thinking throughout the school day.

Several teachers have expanded their own capacity for interdisciplinary thinking and for designing instruction that fosters thinking “in the seams” through instructional design models, such as the Architecture of Learning, that emphasize patterns. Teachers find their own thinking about teaching and material changes as they work with such models. Changing our approaches to material can lead to improvements in our teaching. Personal growth and professional growth are not mutually exclusive.

Do rappers and foreign policy elements share significant similarities? Yes, and examining one can truly enlighten thinking about the other. Interdisciplinary thinking is an effective tool for understanding and interacting effectively with our world. And isn’t that part of what we seek to equip students to do?

  1. van Leer, O. in Perkins, D. N. (ed), Thinking: the Second International Conference (Philadelphia: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1987), 405.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 407.
  4. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 9.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Beyond Ovals and Pencils: Thinking in the Disciplines

Only the sound of #2 pencils carefully blackening tiny ovals could be heard. On one side of the room sat high school seniors, AP history students. On the other, working historians. All were taking the same test—an assessment that demanded typical school-oriented items: names, dates, events.

When the #2 pencils were put down and the answer sheets were scored, the results surprised the researchers. Many AP history students outscored the historians. In fact, some of the practicing historians knew answers to only a third of the questions!

Round one: students!

The second half of the assessment didn’t require #2 pencils. Researchers presented a collection of historical documents to the two groups. The documents made competing claims that had to be identified, sorted, and interpreted. The historians dove in, excelling at the task and even energized by it. The students were stumped, unaware of how to even start. Though they knew their facts, the students could not form interpretations or reach conclusions when given historical material.1

Round two: historians!

The second half of the assessment required thinking within the discipline. It required historical thinking, not factual recall. Faced with this challenge, the students were stumped. According to Howard Gardner, such results are not surprising: “Most students, including those who attend our best schools and receive the highest grades, are not able to explain the phenomenon about which they are being questioned. Even more alarmingly, many give precisely the same answer as those who have never taken the relevant courses and…never encountered the concepts relevant to a proper explanation…[they] have accumulated plenty of factual or subject matter knowledge, but they have not learned to think in a disciplined manner.”2

If we’re not equipping students to function beyond a multiple choice test, are we really educating them within the disciplines? I realize I’m not the first to ask this question, and I do recognize that factual knowledge plays a role in constructing understanding.

I’ve sat in numerous conference session where presenters admonished us to “engage students in thinking,” and then offered their preferred “tool” for making such activity happen in the classroom.

I always leave these sessions feeling like I am missing something. The generic approach to thinking seems to fit in some disciplines much more naturally than in others, and it seems like I often just ask for more information rather than engaging students in different ways of thinking. I never feel like I know what to teach so my students will know how to think.

So, what are the general characteristics of successful thinking within a discipline? While not intended to be exhaustive, allow me to suggest four possible traits.

First, thinking successfully within a discipline requires deep familiarity with the discipline’s major concepts. Ever seen a commercial where an individual is surrounded, 360°, by words? That’s how I envision the successful thinker within a discipline, surrounded by concepts that are so familiar he can reach out and grab those needed within the moment. He owns the concepts and can use them beneficially. He can illustrate major ideas with examples drawn from the discipline. For example, when a decision requires a careful consideration of structure and function, the scientist may recall and consider cell anatomy, the historian—forms of government, the writer—nonfiction paragraphs. Each would not only understand the decision to be made but also relate it to discipline-based concepts. These concepts can then inform their thinking, possibly leading to better decisions.

Second, thinking successfully within a discipline includes the ability to organize ideas in a wide variety of ways, and in so doing, discover new connections between concepts. For example, we’ve all experienced history taught sequentially. Every textbook I’ve ever used, both as teacher and student, presented history with sequence as its primary structure. But what would happen if we thought of major eras or movements (e.g., the Civil Rights Movement) in different schemes, such as organizing events from most to least influential? or those that involved the greatest number of participants to those that involved the least? Would we find correlations between number of people involved and influence? Would we return to the sequential organization and notice an ebb and flow of significant and common events? What new patterns would we discover? Such thinking empowers new perspectives that can initiate breakthroughs in understanding and generate new knowledge within the discipline.

Third, thinking successfully within a discipline is demonstrated by responding to circumstances with relevant ideas. For example, a historian may raise a simple question: “How did we get here?” She may then attempt to retrace the events that led to the current situation. However, this look back involves more than picking and ordering obvious happenings. Influences will be recognized, entrances and exits of critical contributors will be noted, causes and effects—even indirect examples—will be identified. The historical thinker looks broadly at the past, knowing that influences may never appear in the actual events. Recognizing such influences can illuminate solutions to problems, guidance for decisions, and effective ways to proceed through the current circumstances.

Finally, thinking successfully within a discipline includes recognizing limits of the discipline. Jonah Lehrer makes this point in his book How We Decide. An understanding of basic economics can help us make many choices, such as which of two potato peelers is the better value. However, it cannot help us choose the strawberry jam that tastes the best. In fact, trying to apply numerical reasoning to select the best-tasting jam often results in choices that are ultimately unsatisfying.3 Economics is a valuable discipline, but its usefulness does have limits. Every other discipline possesses the same characteristic, and successful thinking will not try to force the discipline into arenas where it lacks utility.

Obviously, knowing facts, no matter how numerous, does not equal successful thinking within a discipline. If we’re committed to equipping students to function within the disciplines and to use the valuable thinking represented in the disciplines, we have to do more than prepare them for tests requiring #2 pencils.

  1. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 146.
  2. Gardner, H. Five Minds for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2006), 21.
  3. Lehrer, J. How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Conspiracy Theories: Patterns, Teaching, and Thinking

The human brain loves patterns so much it can take random puzzle pieces and construct seemingly coherent, if wildly implausible, pictures. “The CIA stockpiled lederhosen in case of an Alpine leg virus epidemic, causing the severe shortage of appropriate menswear for high school productions of The Sound of Music.” See? Random pieces strewn together to create a wild yet coherent picture—a conspiracy theory.

While interesting and entertaining, conspiracy theories reveal important principles for teaching, learning, and thinking.

The brain constructs meaning via patterns, even occasionally imposing patterns to make meaning from random data. As John Medina explains, “We…are terrific pattern matchers, constantly assessing our environment for similarities, and we tend to remember things if we think we have seen them before.”1 Patterns provide a gateway to prior experience, and prior experience provides reference points for constructing new understanding. “Patterns are paths for memories to follow,”2 explains Judy Willis. When patterns fail to emerge from sorted data, the brain either ignores the data or imposes a pattern on it—hence, conspiracy theories.

Researchers suggest teachers should develop students’ pattern-recognition capacities: “The idea that experts recognize features and patterns that are not noticed by novices is potentially important for improving instruction…One dimension of acquiring greater competence appears to be the increased ability to segment the perceptual field (learning how to see). Research on expertise suggests the importance of providing students with learning experiences that specifically enhance their abilities to recognize meaningful patterns of information.”3 Judy WIllis agrees: “Education is about increasing the patterns that students can use, recognize, and communicate. As the ability to see and work with patterns expands, the executive functions are enhanced. Whenever new material is presented in such a way that students see relationships, they generate greater brain cell activity (forming new neural connections) and achieve more successful long-term memory storage and retrieval.”4

By using patterns, the brain is able to connect ideas from disparate disciplines. The conspiracy theory in the opening paragraph features ideas from government, virology, economics, and musical theatre. Sure, the example is ludicrously wild, but it demonstrates the brain’s capacity to weave tapestries with threads from different spools. As the mind perceives patterns within a discipline’s content, it can seek, and often find, the same pattern within other disciplines. This enables the overlaying of one discipline with another, the identifying of connections between the disciplines, and the emergence of new ideas that combine concepts from multiple disciplines. A new tapestry is woven with thread from different spools.

According to Howard Gardner, such a “synthesizing mind” is now a “core competence”: “The ability to knit together information from disparate sources into a coherent whole is vital today. The amount of accumulated knowledge is reportedly doubling every 2-3 years. Sources of information are vast and disparate, and individuals crave coherence and integration.”5

Students who do not perceive patterns miss opportunities for beneficial interdisciplinary thinking: “In their English classes, young persons may learn how to write effective prose; but if they fail to transport at least part of those lessons across the hallway to history class or to biology lab assignments, then they have missed an opportunity to link compositional strategies. Adolescents may be exposed to causal reasoning in their physics classes; but if they draw no lessons about argumentation in history or geometry class, then this form of thinking needs to be retaught.”6

How, then, do we teach to foster multi-disciplinary thinking? I hesitate to suggest thinking like a conspiracy theorist, but to a degree, that’s part of the answer.

Consider an earth science unit—volcanoes, earthquakes, mountain formation, etc. As the teacher explores the content’s details, a few “conspiratorial” questions can help:
  • What are the major ideas in this unit?
  • How can I “connect the dots”—what are the relationships between those ideas?
  • What succinct, general statement communicates the relationships?
With the previously mentioned unit, the teacher may notice that internal forces/changes and external forces/changes are prominent ideas. How are these dots connected? Internal forces can influence external changes; external forces can influence internal changes. Succinctly? The internal (or inside) can affect the external (or outside), and the external can affect the internal.

Now, as the teacher teaches the material, she frequently references the pattern and engages students in thinking about how the material illustrates it.

Take another look at the pattern. Can you think of other places, other disciplines where the same pattern can be seen? How about characters in literature? Do internal forces (beliefs, values, motives) affect external elements (actions, dialogue)? Do external forces (character, events) affect internal elements (beliefs, values, motives)? Do the internal and external ever mingle and cause mutual change in other disciplines?

Instruction that emphasizes patterns creates opportunities for cross-discipline thinking. Concepts and skills get transferred (Constructing a geometric proof can help me write that persuasive essay), ideas merge to enable critical thinking (The inner turmoil at Company X seems like the pressure build-up along a fault line, which leads me to predict…), and new analogies empower “well-motivated leaps” (If I envision the website as a real estate agent’s showing of a new house…).7
With access to information on a constant and meteoric increase, knowing how connect data from disparate sources and disciplines—how to use patterns to recognize and use interdisciplinary connections—becomes equally constant and meteoric in its increasing necessity. Thinking a bit like a conspiracy theorist, connecting concepts into coherent patterns, can help us structure our teaching in ways that increase student ability and potential for interdisciplinary thinking.

  1. Medina, J., Brain Rules (Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2008), 82.
  2. Willis, J., Research Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006), 15.
  3. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 24.
  4. Willis, 15.
  5. Gardner, H., Five Minds for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006), 46.
  6. Ibid., 64-65.
  7. Ibid., 66.