Thursday, July 26, 2012

More Thoughts from Chapter Four of Choice Words

I really need to get rolling with chapters seven and eight of Choice Words but some thoughts from chapter four keep ringing in my head so I'm going to reflect on them first.

On page 31 Johnston writes,
We hear a lot about teaching children strategies, but we often encounter classrooms in which children are being taught strategies yet are not being strategic (Ivey, Johnston, and Cronin 1998). Teaching children strategies results in them knowing strategies, but not necessarily in their acting strategically and having a sense of agency.
That distinction between knowing strategies and acting strategically is a critical focus and there is such a huge difference there. He continues on citing work from Marie Clay about having students generate strategies themselves. One more quote, on the next page, helps me clarify why this feels so important.
The strategy of arranging for a student to figure something out independently, without full awareness, and then reflecting on it, has been called "revealing." Courtney Cazden (1992) contrasts this with "telling," in which the teacher is explicit up front and then the student practices what he has been taught to do by someone else.
Johnston considers the possibility that revealing is a harder skill for teachers than telling and I think he is probably right. I often feel that doing the right thing as a teacher, for my students, is harder than traditional teaching methods.

As I reflect on things I have learned, especially things I have learned in recent memory, I know that when I have had to struggle a bit, work through things and work them out on my own, I tend to feel more confident in my knowledge or skill.

Reading this reminded me of some recent studies I had learned about. One I read about on KQED's Mindshift blog and it hit on why students should work things out themselves rather than simply be told something.
So important is the feeling of confusion, writes D'Mello, that parents and teachers shouldn't try to help children avoid it, or even simply accept its presence. They should deliberately induce confusion in learners. Not "hopeless confusion," of course, which occurs when "the impasse cannot be resolved, the student gets stuck, there is no available plan, and important goals are blocked." Rather, "productive confusion" should be the aim. It's achieved by helping the student recognize that the way out of confusion is through focused thought and problem solving; by providing necessary information and suggesting strategies when appropriate; and by helping the student cope with the negative emotions that may arise.
This sounds an awful lot like what Johnston is talking about regarding agency. Allowing students to take their confusion and work through it not only helps them truly learn something but it shows them that they are capable of doing so and of solving their own confusion.

EdWeek had an article that reinforced this thinking for me.
Robert A. Bjork, the director of the Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA, calls this sort of challenge "desirable difficulties." Just as in physical exercise, the more students have to exert their mental muscles to learn a new concept or recall and idea, the stronger their memory and learning will become. 
The analogy to physical exercise helps this make more sense for me. All of this: Johnston's book, these articles and these studies, reminded me of my husband's (a college professor) mantra: "Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed." This is how he wants his students to be. Pushed out of their comfort zone but just enough so that they work to make these new skills or new content comfortable for themselves.

As I reflect on this I feel that this is something we do both really well and really poorly at primary grades. We work to give students independence and let them solve their own problems, but sometimes we fall into the habit of simply doing something for them or telling them how to do things because it is so much faster. I need to remember the idea of agency and keep myself in check.

The Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA sounds like a really amazing place. What an awesome name for a place to work.


Sue VanHattum said...

I love these references, Jenny, thanks!

I started to think about writing my own blog post about a few of them and realized, "Oh yeah, writing about the thing I'm just learning is the best memory tool for me. When I write a blog post about something, it sticks with me much better."

I want to share these with my college students in the fall. I want them to understand that their confusion does not imply that I'm teaching badly. I also want to challenge them to study differently.

Jenny said...

Sue, Writing a blog post serves the same purpose for me! I hadn't considered, before reading these articles, how students study and whether that does or does not work. Getting them to think about that is one of those things that could be immensely powerful.