Exit slips, quizzes, pre-assessment, post-assessment…we teachers have toolboxes full of ways to figure out who doesn’t get it and who forgot it. Many of us have gotten so good at assessment and remediation that a student pretty much never needs to ask a question. After all, it’s the teacher’s job to make sure each student learns before the state tests. But what if our efforts don’t carry over to successful independent learning post high? It seems we might want to check the tires we have been rolling on in recent pedagogical journeys. Lifelong learning is something one typically reaches for; but instead, we may be teaching students to wait for learning…or even hide from learning concepts that require intentional effort.
So what are we supposed to do? Any teacher who has strayed from explicit and direct instruction has likely heard those words from students without previous, similar learning experiences. Students may sometimes react before even attempting to read straight-forward directions. Every year I host a meeting for parents before school begins to initiate important conversations about what is to be expected in the next nine months. Inevitably one mentions their student won’t ask questions, more as an informative heads up than as a concern. Those quiet students may also be thinking, Does she think I’m going to teach myself? when first encountering student-centered pedagogy. I believe these responses are my opportunities to have a huge impact by developing life-long learning skills.
The Standards for Mathematical Practice, the 6 C’s for Deep Learning, the Next Generation Science Standards, the Engineering Design Process, and the ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading all require analytical skills and perseverance in learning. A habit of reaching for learning on the part of the student is a major component. That reach requires some independence, motivation, and a bit of confidence. A propensity toward curiosity might be helpful, but ultimately we need to develop learning habits our students that transfer across content areas and throughout life stages.
I believe teaching students to reach for understanding is one of the most important things I do. Research seems to be showing that the sooner a student reaches for help, the more powerful the help becomes.* This year I have been able to increase the number of students I felt confident recommending for honors classes for next year by almost 300%. (I am aware of the equity issues associated with honors classes but they are embedded in my context, so I do my best to get students to a level where they can move up.) The primary reason my students are now able to move up is because my district adopted an inquiry-based learning resource for algebra with low floors and high ceilings throughout the lessons. This means my least accomplished students can learn and contribute while my most accomplished students are challenged to reach higher. This helps all my students develop the ability to think deeply and tenaciously while being held accountable in teams with assigned roles. Here are some of the things I do now:
- Years ago, when I realized that direct instruction had unintended consequences, I waded into inquiry-based learning by substituting single-day direct lessons with single-day explorations. For the past 18 months I have been working with a resource that does that for most lessons. I have only experienced CPM and have read about Illustrative Mathematics (open source), but surely there are others across disciplines.
- When I host a meeting for parents and students I discuss the importance of reach and how teaching methods that include inquiry develop that. I explain that inquiry shouldn’t feel like a scavenger hunt, but it seems less like learning from Amazon Echo than direct instruction sometimes does. Well-written inquiry lessons are more like reading a map from one level of understanding to the next level in logical steps.
- My students spend more time in the classroom in rich discussions now, and less time with rote practice. Most of my students do much more of their homework as intended.
Both CPM and Illustrative Mathematics interleave lessons and homework; but to maintain scores on short-term procedural skills assessments, I found I had to convince my students to improve their homework practices. All this is asking a lot from students who may be feasting on a cognitive diet of notifications and brain hacking, but they have responded well to explanations about why they seem to forget a lot (they tend to be frustrated with forgetfulness, too!) For example, I show them a pile of Legos and explain that they don’t stick to the platform well unless they are intentionally pushed. Notifications on their cell phones in their pockets can have the same effect on new learning as shaking the Lego base. Students need to be intentional about learning by writing new insights and assessing their own understanding. They need interleaved, spaced practice over time.** I have had to convince them it is worth their effort to do their homework as intended, checking their answers and reaching for help as needed. Just convincing them to ditch Photomath and group copy-chat was a major improvement! I explain they may have experienced the unintended consequences of completion grading, and I make a point of asking students how they feel when they figure something out for themselves.
Having students seated in teams with assigned roles helps to motivate my students who tend to hide what they don’t know. I teach team mates effective questioning techniques. Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler have moved mountains of progress in establishing the importance of growth mindset in US schools. Yet, many students still hold a negative connotation for slow, associating reflective cognitive processing with not very bright. My students need to understand many great thinkers have been slow processors, and both fast and slow processors can have great insights. With low-floor, high ceiling problems, all students can make contributions while they learn from others, instead of hiding what they don’t know. Students who understand how they fit within a group gain confidence to make contributions and develop patience for each other’s thinking time. Some of my slower processors find themselves able to keep up with faster paced groups when they preview the material the night before. One of the joys in learning coaching-style pedagogy is in finding ways to group students such that they encourage each other to reach for learning.
Teaching students how to grow by reaching for knowledge is exciting because those students are becoming self-sufficient learners. (A teacher isn’t always going to be around to make sure learning happens.) I rarely saw anything close to this when I was teaching predominantly by direct instruction. I have watched as many formerly “average and below” students evolved into powerful life-long learners. I will continue to study, reflect, and reach for more ways to motivate that.
*Almeda, V. Q. Baker R. S. , & Cobett, A., (2017). Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 3, 2017, p. 1-24, https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21775
**Brown, P. C., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.