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?”

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