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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This series of posts entitled, "Making the Shift", addressed another area of interest to me. Recently, I posed the question, "Why do students learn so many things throughout one school year, then appear in my classroom the following year with a dazed look when I ask them about a topic I know they have studied and supposedly mastered?" It's an intriguing question since teachers invest so much planning, time, and effort into teaching. It has been suggested that subjects are too compartmentalized and are not taught in an integrated manner to make learning meaningful. Another piece to this puzzle seems to be the importance of incorporating the "doing" into the learning as Dr. Washburn suggests. What if students took information from what has been learned to accomplish an activity that requires the exective functions to operate? Also, what if service learning activities were intertwined with the "doing" part of the learning?