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.