Saturday, March 8, 2008

One mind at a time...

Diana Watson, who works with the outreach arm of the Center for School Success, visited our school yesterday to talk research related to Mel Levine’s book A Mind at a Time. She’ll be back next week to talk with us more, but the essence of her visit this past week was to share with us some of what they’ve been teaching at CSS. I’d like to share it with you because, whether you’re a teacher or not, it has implications for how we think about our potential as people. Be prepared, though. This is a loooooong post. Do you have coffee? Several minutes to kill? Then read on!

If we, as teachers, think about what goes on in the classroom, we might describe it as an interchange between what the tasks we’re asking students to perform and the skills they bring to those tasks. We say, “Here’s what I want you to do,” and the students draw upon what they can to do it. Simple, yes? Well, why is it that it doesn’t work that way? Diana suggests (and I agree) that there is a disconnect in the interchange.

Let us play a game to illustrate the point (this is a fun game to do as an ice breaker, by the way--a full version is available [HERE]). Imagine that you are with a group of students (age is not important) sitting in a circle. You each have a baton. The game is this: You must pass the baton to the right or left on cue, according to the reading of a story. When you hear the word LEFT or RIGHT/WRIGHT, you hand the stick you have in that direction. You keep passing the stick you receive to the side that's mentioned next in the story - back and forth. Here’s a part of the story…

Mr. WRIGHT prepared to take Mrs. WRIGHT RIGHT to the hospital just as she went into labor. As he LEFT in the car, he turned RIGHT out of the driveway. He had to go RIGHT back home because he LEFT Mrs. WRIGHT at home. As soon as he turned into the driveway, he went RIGHT inside and RIGHT up the stairs, where he found Mrs. WRIGHT sitting RIGHT beside her overnight bag. They both got in the car on the LEFT side as the RIGHT side door wouldn't open. Mr. and Mrs. WRIGHT again LEFT for the hospital, turning RIGHT out of the driveway.

Make sense?

What are the skills, then, that you need to have in order to play this game? There’s a long list of physical requirements to this game, including good hand-eye-ear coordination and quick reflexes. Then there’s the very basic ability to hear and understand English. Having played this game myself, I can attest to the fact that an ability to focus on the story while simultaneously focusing on the sticks being passed back and forth is important, as well. Play it in your mind. Imagine yourself passing the stick left and right, and doing a pretty decent job of it. When the story is done and you’ve got the stick you’re supposed to have, imagine how good that’ll feel. You’d feel proud, right? It is not an easy game to play, even for adults!

Now, imagine the teacher telling you that you did a great job, and if you’ll just recite the details of the story in your own words, you’ll get an “A”.

How do you think you would feel? Could you even do it right now without having to go back up and look at the paragraph?

This is what it is often like for students in our classes. They come into our worlds with a set of skills, many of which are still in development (this is true even of older students in college). Often, however, we give them tasks to do that presuppose that these skills are fully developed or, worse, we demand of them tasks that are not at all in line with the skills they’ve used to prepare for what we’ve asked of them.

Let’s put the next example in the classroom. Say you’ve just given your middle or high school students a paper to write. The topic: Take a news article of your choice and do an analysis of it. Talk about it using all five question words (who, what, etc.) Tell what about it makes it newsworthy, then give your opinion of the article. Since this is a piece of writing, let’s make it clear that you intend there to be proper grammar and punctuation, a standard format (12-point Times Roman, 2x space, title at top) and, for consistency in evaluating, let’s require the five paragraph structure. Is this assignment pretty clear?

Let’s be clear that you’ve done your job as a teacher. You’ve taught them how to find an article in a newspaper. You’ve stood in front of them and explained about the five question words. You’ve put information on the board for them to copy down and given them a link to refresh their memories of what makes up a five paragraph essay (see [HERE], for example). You’ve even given them a rubric spelling out exactly what you were going to grade, and by how much. How much more do you need to do here? Most of us would say that sets them up pretty well, I think.

The due date arrives. Where are the papers? Some of them might have come in, but they were miserable. The writing was full of errors, they didn’t follow the format and, what the hell?! This one doesn’t even have five paragraphs! Does this sound familiar? Everyone who’s gone through this as a teacher, raise your hand.

Now let’s consider just what we’re asking the students to do in this assignment. That is, what skills do they need to have already in place to complete it to the standard we, as teachers, would expect? Here are just some of the things I could think of off the top of my head:

-- Read and understand a news article and an Internet site
-- Summarize the article in one’s own words with all five question words
-- Type on a keyboard
-- Understand and be proficient in formatting in a word processing program
-- Learn or review the concept of a five paragraph essay from a piece of writing
-- Think beyond the article to other connecting events
• Be aware of other connecting, prior events related to the article
• Interpret and communicate concept of “newsworthiness”
• Interpret broader public interest
-- Understand what the instructor meant by “analysis”
-- Develop and express an opinion

What did I miss?

Now, for the point: How many of your students (how many of US, for that matter) do you expect could easily perform all of these tasks simultaneously? Like in the left-right game, above, most people could do SOME of what was required, but few of us could do ALL that was required to do complete the overall task well. It’s no wonder, then, that our students produce substandard work. It’s not unlike expecting someone to pat their head and rub their tummy while also trying to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy, and it sets people up to fail and be frustrated in the process.

Many of us who teach at higher grades lament the fact that students simply don’t know what they need to by the time they get to us. It’s not our fault, we say. They’re supposed to have these skills in place by the time they get to us! Well, maybe they are and maybe they’re not.

We often label these students (and there are millions of them in the U.S. public schools through grade 12) as having learning disabilities or, at minimum, serious learning issues. Neuroscience is beginning to challenge this assumption, however. One of the things the work of Dr. Levine and others are making clear is that, in fact, we may be expecting students to have skills that they may simply not universally have fully developed by the time we call upon them to use them.

We know a lot of students (and adults) like this, don’t we? Bob is a brilliant artist and good with math, but can’t write well to save his life. He’s gone through Language Arts twice in the same grade, but still isn’t reading up to grade level. Jenny needs to have instructions repeated, like, 12 times before she’s able to them. You’d think she just wasn’t paying attention, but she’s looking right at you! These are examples of people (and they could be adults or children) with a solid ability to understand what they need to do, but who must contend with the unique, subtly different variations in the wiring of their brains that get in the way of their learning. Sometimes these variations are easily seen because they affect basic skills such as reading, writing or arithmetic, but very often they’re far less obvious. They may have trouble with time management, expressing things orally, remembering isolated bits of trivia or ways of solving problems, or even learning how to navigate social situations. In adults, we often accept these as eccentricities. In children, we consider them handicaps. I would philosophically argue that they are neither, but I’ll leave that be in favor of looking at how to actually solve the problem and get the students learning. That is, after all, what all this is about, right?

If we acknowledge that there is a diversity of ways in which people’s brains are wired, we can begin to think about the necessity of a pluralistic approach to teaching--or, more appropriately, to learning. We can recognize that, if each of our students learns in a different way, a couple of things about our practice as teachers become important. First on this list is the ability to accurately assess just what our students are individually, and collectively, capable of. Then we can create learning opportunities that are built upon what our students know (for learning cannot take place apart from what we know) and that take our students out of what Lev Vygotsky termed the Proximal Zone of Development (in real person’s English, that means that we take students just a little out of their “comfort zone”, but not so far out that they get scared and can’t pay attention).

Second on the list is the ability to approach our teaching from several different points of view, recycling or spiraling around the concepts repeatedly in ways that draw upon different paths in the brain (what Howard Gardner terms intelligences). At some point I’ll be motivated to talk more about this, since it’s central to my own practice, but I’ve already droned on for nearly 2,000 words in this post and you’re probably bored to tears by now.

In closing, I’d like some feedback from y’all out there--teachers or not. Does any of this make sense to you? Does it fit with your own experience as learners or as teachers? Even if you don’t agree, does the logic of what I’m saying seem sound? What, if anything, does not hold? I’d love to hear from you!

By the way, an interview with Dr. Levine by Margot Adler on NPR is available [HERE].


Kizz said...

I think it makes a lot of sense. The reason that it's less of a handicap in adults is that usually an adult, wither consciously or unconsciously, understands the way that s/he learns and forms their life and learning experiences around that knowledge. Students don't have that sort of freedom in what they learn or how they learn it, usually.

I think it's key to take students out of the comfort zone and a regular basis because sometimes it is possible to teach them different ways of learning and they'll need that, even the ways that don't work for them, to be able to decipher what their best learning experience is.

laurie B said...

This was a brilliant and heartfelt post.

I graduated HS in '73 and nowhere in the protocols was it mentioned that as students, we should have to think. I had one teacher that lit up when we sussed out the answer. That was then, this is now.

Each and every one of my current teacher friends are so dragged down by the plague of teaching to the test..I feel for all of you.

Seeing this now as an educator adjunct (I'm the go-fer) I can begin to understand how unable these current students are at logical process or clear thinking. They have never been asked to think.

As a society, we spend more than ever on education that does not count and tests that measure nothing but an ability to memorize answers.

I'm all for an educaional system that calls kids to think and talk and be able to construct scenarios and possible solutions to problems. I'd much rather my tax payments cover that rather than rote "teach to the test stuff.

I know I'm preaching to the choir. I'll have the BEW read over this. There is no doubt that some of wayfarers comments and suggestions will show up in the graduate level course next year.

I don't think I've added any thing much to the conversation but I have gotten much from the post. Thanks Mr. Wayfarer.