Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Education--simply cats pulling a string?

First question: Have teachers become the creators of the "puzzle boxes" where we hold the key, the string tied to a door, in which if a student (the cat) pulls it, thus where they can escape our education--they have moved on to a new world, one in which they explore?

No, I did not read this article and think that this was touting behavioralism; I understand the the "new science of learning is its emphasis on learning with understanding" (4). But, what this article did do was challenge what we are (I am) doing in my classes. The researchers acknowledge that facts are important and are certainly key components of our textbooks and curriculum, but they insist that this "usable knowledge" does not emphasize understanding, but one of memory (4). They even further this notion discussing "experts' knowledge is connected and organized around important concepts (e.g. Newton's second law of motion) . . .it supports understanding and transfer (to other contexts) rather than only the ability to remember" (4).

Second question: how are we, as teachers of high school students, masters of our content, how are we creating meaning beyond just memory (strategies, tools, activities you've had success with, etc.)?

One piece this article discussed elicited a "Thank God!" response as I read it; the false idea that constructivist theories should never tell students anything directly, but let them construct knowledge for themselves was refuted soundly and truly, thrown out as only a way to confuse students. I remember my small group discussing this matter several times and wondering how constructivists handle questions that truly only have one right answer. I remember Brian saying in chemistry, that "could just be plain dangerous!" The writer of this chapter continues stating that in order for meaning to attach, students must combine their prior knowledge and beliefs with new information. How do we do this? Researchers claim that "people must learn to recognize when they understand and when they need more information" (6).

Third and final question (and no, you can't phone a friend): how are we teaching understanding to our students? How are we teaching strategies to access information? How do we help them understand someone else's meaning? And, more importantly, how do we help students build their own "theories of phenomena and test them effectively"? (6)


  1. Your third question really made me think about what the job of a teacher truly is. Is it to help mold responsible compliant young people so they are able to make it through 13 years of school? Or is it actually teach knowledge, understanding and skills that take them beyond school? For too long, it has been the first. I have been guilty of it as a teacher myself (who doesn't like those kids in our classes? It makes things go so much more smoothly and sure makes me feel like a dynamite teacher). However, what have they left my class actually learning? What was the focus of my teaching? Was it for me or for them? After the discussions we have been having, I don't think I had their learning in mind. It was more about what would make my class function better as a whole. What a shame!

    When I go back to the classroom, I definitely will have new approach. Teaching for understanding, making sure kids learn essentials, allowing for differences and thoughtful conversations, etc. How am I going to do this? Keep educating myself on the best techniques (Cris Tovani), changing the way I look at grades and most importantly listening to kids and encouraging them to think!

    Don't know if this actually applies to #3!

  2. Wow, what a post!

    Question One: I think no matter what we are creators of puzzle boxes. We like the kid who does exactly what is asked of him or her and then can move on. We have to do this ourselves in our jobs as well. BUT, we are changing this thinking through our class and though our dicussions so that they kids become co-conspirators (oops, I mean co-creators of these puzzle boxes).
    Question Two: how are we creating meaning in our classroom? I think it has a lot to do with helping kids see the biger picture of education and not the small day to day of the assignments. Showing them the purpose and having them be part of the purpose is valuable as well.
    Question Three (I thought I would never get here)I think the best way we can help them decipher another's meaning is by having them break down each other's written work as well as outside sources like real world articles that are interesting to them. HInt not to us! Have them find the point and then write and talk about their findings first individually and then bring it together collectively to see and understand each other's thinking and interpretations.

  3. Question 1: I don't think we create "puzzle boxes," but often our students think we do, and isn't that essentially the same thing. One way to approach this is always to discuss the purpose of an assignment with students - a two-way discussion, that is. I recently spoke with one of my students who was feeling the stress of all the work from her honors classes, and I was pleased when she said that she felt that everything I assigned did have a clear purpose. I know not all students in all of my classes feel that way.

    Question 2: Right now I am teaching African history, which can be very complex. When students ask me for help in learning this material, I suggest that they look for ways that the information can become meaningful for them. For example, when looking at the imperialism of Africa, they might list all the countries, jot down what happened in each one, and then look for comparisons they can make. Which places were invaded? Which were gradually taken over? etc. Then they can try to fit the various people into this framework and make further comparisons. Students who have done this at my suggestion have told me that it is very helpful.

    Question 3: In all honesty, I'm not sure how to answer this one. I will try to come back to it.

  4. Regarding the idea of puzzle boxes, I agree with what Anne and Roger said. I also think that the 21C group has helped me see the value of explaining to my students why I am doing certain things in the classroom, with grading, etc. They seem to have more buy-in when they understand my motivations for making changes such as categorizing grades.

    Regarding the idea of creating meaning, I think it has lots to do with tying ideas together throughout a semester / year / high school experience. For example, I have been making a greater effort to tie themes from one unit back to themes from previous units. It is exciting when the students can draw comparisons between various people and historical time periods, with very little prompting from me. (I imagine this is similar to students drawing comparisons between novels or characters in different novels, etc.)

    Finally, regarding the teaching of understanding, that is a process that I'm not so sure we can accurately measure. One way that I am trying to do a better job at this is by having students who don't perform well on exams come talk to me afterwards. If we sit down with the exam and talk through the missed questions, it usually becomes apparent that the student really did understand the broad themes and even many of the specific details, but had trouble expressing that understanding due to the format of the exam. When they later sit down and write explanations about why they missed particular questions, it is often easier for them to express their understanding. Of course, this is on a small unit scale. I don't know - I suppose that in the end I really mostly care that my students enjoy thinking about history and understand the broad ideas and themes. This to me is understanding. If they also feel confident in their abilities to further learn / understand history in the future, then I have done my job - at least as far as I can measure it during the time that I have access to the students.

  5. Question 1: Personally, I enjoy puzzles. I like the challenge, the critical thinking skills they foster, and the satisfaction of solving the mystery. I think most students do to. As long as (like Anne so brilliantly pointed out) the students are "co-creators of these puzzle boxes" and see the purpose behind them, I think that they can be an effective teaching method in our classes.

    Question 2: Pushing my students to find meaning beyond memory has really been a focus of mine this semester. There are so many vocab terms, concepts, facts involved in biology that it's easy to get caught up in memorizing. As a team, and encouraged by ideas from this class, we've tried to shift our thinking towards the major concepts and skills at the core of the curriculum. Adding "big picture" essays to our tests and reworking activities to include more critical thinking are just a few of the strategies we've tried.

    Question 3: To achieve these goals, I think we need to empower our students. This will look different in every subject and probably won't happen perfectly every day, but as long as we are passing on tools that help students develop educational independence and responsibility, I think that we're on the right track.

  6. When I sat down to "talk" about this, I thought it would be easy. Little did I know.....

    Question 3: I do not think that we will know if, in the short term, we have helped the student reach their own conclusions about theories and the testing of them. I hope in the future to hear about some of our students that are doing just this in their lives. I also agree that we need to help the students form connections to material and let them make decisions.

    Question 1: I too enjoy puzzles, I never was very good at them but I always learned something. What if the box has multiple exits and enterances? If the students are making decisions about their education and they have buy-in then I think I am getting the idea of what this looks like.

    Question 2:Create meaning in chemistry? You mean other than taking a complex topic that everyone loves (note the tone) and getting students to become better problem solvers? If I had the answer to this I would not be here, I would be writing books, giving lectures, and teaching teachers. But for now, I look at the activities that I do (labs, writings, group work, etc.) and I am trying to help the students see the big picture.

    Sorry about the out of order to my answers. I am just that kind of kid.

  7. 1. I think at times we do create "puzzle boxes" (as Thorndike envisioned them), where students are not really required to think, but through trial and error they figure out how to "escape" and get the reward of "the grade" and "the college acceptance" and "the career." To me, this does not describe learning. Because they are not focused on "learning", they are focused on "the reward (grade, college, job)" or "the escape."

    2. I think we can't create meaning for our students, only they can. Our job is to put them in situations that allows them to create meaning, and provide them guidance along the way.

    The idea that constructivism means you can't ever tell them anything is mostly a ploy by those who disagree with constructivism. It's an easy straw man to setup and then knock down. You can have legitimate discussions about pedagogy, but I feel this is usually used to try to shut down discussion.

    3. I think often we are not teaching these things to our students (despite our best efforts). School as we know it has not been setup to encourage (or even allow) this approach. School has been setup to cover the curriculum, not help students learn what they need. (No, I don't think those are one and the same.) We still too often are seen as the "delivers of information," by our students and by ourselves. Why would student bother to learn how to access information when we just deliver it pre-packaged for them? Why would a student try to develop and test theories when we all we want is "the right answer?" Why would they try to understand someone else's meaning when we insist no one else's meaning (current level of understanding) matters? If all that matters is the "right answer", then none of this is important.

    I think too often our goal, whether we mean it to be or not, is to "get the students to produce work." (p. 6) Yet research tells us that "Teaching practices congruent with a metacognitive approach to learning include those that focus on sense-making, self-assessment, and reflection on what worked and what needs improving." (p. 6) How often do we do this in our classes? For that matter, how often do we do this ourselves? Part of this staff development has been to try to get you as teachers to reflect on your practice through the blogs and - frankly - many of you have refused. So if we refuse to reflect ourselves, how likely is it that we will encourage - and be successful at getting - our students to reflect?

    Finally, I thought this was one of the key paragraphs of the article:

    "As Nobel laureate Herbert Simon wisely stated, the meaning of "knowing" has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it (Simon, 1996). More than ever, the sheer magnitude of human knowledge renders its coverage by education an impossibility; rather, the goal of education is better conceived as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that allows people to think productively about history, science and technology, social phenomena, mathematics, and the arts. Fundamental understanding about subjects, including how to frame and ask meaningful questions about various subject areas, contributes to individuals' more basic understanding of principles of learning that can assist them in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learners." My fear is that we are still focused on the old meaning of knowing.

    Sorry for the pessimism, but an assignment was given to read a fairly readable article that introduces teachers to what the best research says about learning. And only one teacher responded by the "due date", and only 6 total have responded at all, out of a possible 19. If we can't even be committed enough to share our opinion on an article, what chance is there that we will change our instruction to reflect what research tells us about how humans learn?

  8. I agree with Anne-I think we have to get beyond just the busy-work that ivolves just pure reguritation of the content and focus on inquiry-based-learning-meaning isn't created in isolation-there has to be something to enagage students in the here and now and something that generates excitement. We have to pose important questions or have students pose the questions; you can still focus o the content you have to teach, but do it in a way where kids come upo with their own answers that is relevant to them. I understand the frustration Karl-and yet, I am one of the people who didn't respond on time-I am not trying to make excuses, but I haven't responded because I'm not committed, but because I truly don't know whether to wind my butt or scratch my watch. I have so much coming in, that I feel overwhlemed. I'm not trying to justify anything for anyone, and it is a poor excuse-but I am having the hardest academic year yet, and I'm truly trying to keep my head above water. Just wanted to get that in-thanks for letting me vent.