Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Face-lift for 21st Century Basic Skills Teaching

“Preparing Our Kids for 1982: Time Traveling Through Testing”, Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ February 18, 2011 blog, certainly activated my schema around the challenges of upgrading the way we assess and teach our students.  

The words "multiple choice" and 'fill-in''might as well be printed in blue ink. I link these kinds of assessments to transmission education (aka “a mind is an empty vessel to be filled”). This is teaching that is focused on the retention and regurgitation of information. As Heidi points out, that century-old behaviorist orientation (my words, not hers) is very much alive today. This does not bode well for our future. 

A transmission education mind-set is a barometer of sorts. It is a pretty good indicator that the teacher’s focus is on checking for retention (more accurately, short-term memory) as opposed to gathering data about her students’ learning via their demonstrations of understanding or thought-demanding performances. (It's using a ditto on the correct use of quotation marks instead of a narrative written with dialogue.) So how does teaching for transmission impact our students' preparation for a highly competitive and complex world? Is it sufficient to lift traditional skills teaching into 2011 or do we want to give traditional skills teaching a face-lift? Let’s take a closer look.
How are we teaching the behaviors that are essential for a high level of reading, writing, and problem solving? If we are relying on teacher- directed lessons and decontextualized practice exercises and drills, we are not engaging our students in the use of mental self-management - the ability to recognize when and how to apply  procedural knowledge to new and authentically challenging tasks. Predictable practice exercises produce inert or static knowledge. We should not be baffled when our students are unable to synthesize an author’s message after finding and circling the main idea for dozens of passages.

So what would a skills face-lift look like when we are teaching students a comprehension skill like understanding similes?

Teacher 1 gives students examples of similes or points them out in their text and then provides follow-up practice in matching similes to their meanings.

Teacher 2 models how he identifies similes as he is reading by first noting comparisons signified by the words “like” or “as” and then noting incongruity (e.g., juxtaposing friends with peas in a pod). The teacher models how he gets the meaning of the simile by using the characteristics of the things being compared and the context of the passage. The students reflect on the teacher’s demonstration and articulate the strategies. Then, using text that contains similes, students work with the teacher’s support to apply the strategies they were shown. Subsequently, the teacher mediates learning by providing feedback and coaching as students work cooperatively and then independently to practice and apply the new strategies.  

Our teaching of essential skills will need a face-lift if our instruction is not explicit, our students are not engaged in mental self-management, and our assessments are not based on authentic application.* 
In order for our 21st century students to be thoughtful, proficient, confident, independent  learners and problem solvers who can navigate and communicate in the global community, let’s be sure that: 

Students understand the value of building a repertoire of strategies that very successful people use and they are given the opportunity to initiate those strategies when they need to help themselves understand what they read, clarify what they write, and resolve authentic problems. 

Parents know that strategic knowledge is the key to ownership and independence. Taking the time to teach strategies will pay off in higher achievement scores for their children.

Teachers make room at the table for teaching the learner and the processes of learning along with the content of the curriculum. They get the opportunity to work collaboratively to develop the skills and knowledge they need to respond flexibly and opportunistically to their students’ mental processing needs whether they are on or off the computer.
What are your thoughts, questions, and experiences? 

*We have known how to teach strategies explicitly for self-regulated learning for over 30 years. A.S. Palincsar & A.L. Brown, B. Beyer, A. Costa, and M. Pressley are among the outstanding educators who have written about and researched the direct teaching of cognitive behaviors. See “The Case for Explicit, Teacher-led, Cognitive Strategy Instruction” by B. Rosenshine (1997) and “The Road Not Yet Taken: A transactional strategies approach to comprehension instruction” by R. Brown (2008).

To read about recent research results and learn more about explicit mediation of essential strategies see Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners