Monday, January 17, 2011

Do You Need to Adjust the Thermostat in Your Room to Create a Climate for Growing Self-Directed Students

My last post focused on explicit strategy instruction, a research-based approach to building the procedural knowledge that is essential for owning and initiating the complex behaviors required for a high level of reading, writing, and problem solving. It outlined the teacher/student transactions that first, illuminate those behaviors for students and then, engage them in scaffolded opportunities to practice and apply the strategies in varied problem-solving situations that arise in the context of their studies and explorations. 
As I started today’s post, I was all set to “drill down” and share with you how I actually implement explicit strategy instruction. However, I realized that would be as short-sighted and ill-advised as plunging a souffle into an oven that had not been preheated. The results would likely be just as unimpressive. So let’s back up a bit.

What do we need to do to create a climate in our classrooms that supports and nurtures self-directed, independent learners, learners who signal their comfort and confidence in monitoring, regulating, and evaluating their own learning with statements such as these:
            “I always have a hard time understanding my social studies book. I better take notes when I read this. I’ll do a bubble map while I’m reading.”
            “Wait a minute, I’m doing it again. I’m starting every sentence with the same word. Maybe I can combine some sentences.”
            “Why don’t we make a bar graph, like we did in our science experiment. We can keep track of the websites we use and how many times we use them so for our next project we’ll know the best places to look for information.” 
Which paradigm, what teacher-student transactions and instructional settings create the climate that supports self-direction?

1.  Teaching the learner as well as the learning is at the heart of improving our students’ performances in a self-sustaining way. We align our teaching with a constructivist paradigm and we take our teaching cues from our students' demonstrations of understanding not just our syllabi. We expect learning to be idiosyncratic so we research our students’ needs and abilities with formative assessments and then differentiate their instruction. Because cognitive psychologists have ascertained that memory is not formed at the moment information is acquired, we ask students to process information (e.g., organize, summarize, compare) to develop and strengthen their cognitive structures.

2.  Creating a duel agenda of teaching process and product gives our students access to the procedural knowledge that can put them in the drivers seat as they navigate the challenges of learning and problem solving. By ”talking process” and thinking aloud students expand their repertoire of problem-solving strategies, engage in metacognition, become more reflective and less impulsive, and acquire life-long skills that transcend the answers being sought. We even make high-stakes testing useful to students by extracting the long-term learning embedded in the tasks instead of focusing on scores.

3.  Fostering mental self-management enables students to select and initiate the strategies they have been taught in new and authentic contexts. Decontextualized practice exercises are replaced with dynamic practice in identifying obstacles and deciding what strategies would be helpful (e.g., multiple choice exercises in getting the main idea are replaced with organizing ideas while reading to facilitate memory).

4.  Coaching students to discovery. The teacher uses open questions (e.g., “What options are you considering?” What do you think is interfering with the clarity of this paragraph?”) to allow kids to identify and remedy glitches in their work. Instead of rushing to get at the answers, fix the writing, identify the words, we give priority to our students’ expanding knowledge of the criteria for excellence and the behaviors that  are essential for expertise.

5.  Scaffolding strategy instruction creates a safety net for students as they internalize new behaviors and advance from neophytes receiving collaborative support to independent practitioners. Students are given guided practice in problem solving with non-directive coaching, constructive feedback from teacher and peers, and opportunities to exercise control over the processes and products of their learning. The teacher knows when to step out of the spotlight and become an active observer. 

6.  Allowing for different outcomes for all students so that lower-achieving children are not on “overload” and have the opportunity to extend the dialogue around their work and engage in planning and monitoring activities. These children, who rely on teacher and peer support and are expert at getting assistance, have the opportunity to develop their own self-regulatory behaviors. 
While each of these “climate adjustments” may need to be honed with collegial feedback and reflective practices, like any well-functioning heating and cooling system when they are in operation they create a zone of comfort in which the work of posing questions, seeking answers, making connections, perceiving patterns, building knowledge, and visualizing possibilities, can take place. 

An expanded discussion of the topics discussed here can be found in Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Which Teacher-Student Transactions Produce Drivers Instead of Passengers

What do you do if students’ core reading, writing, and problem solving behaviors aren’t improving? What do you do if your students are relying on you to help them process what they read, clarify what they have written, and nudge them to the finish line when solving a problem? What do you do to get between the learner and the learning so that you can mediate and coach as you would if your were skating along side a novice? What kinds of transactions (i.e., demonstrations, questions, conversations, prompts) build skill and empower kids to become self-directed, higher-level readers, writers, thinkers, and problem solvers prepared for the work of the 21st century?

Recent comprehensive research (Hattie, Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement; Pressley & Harris, Cognitive Strategies Instruction: From basic research to classroom instruction) is remarkably unambiguous about the teacher-student transactions that make a difference. The case is clear that the following practices improve achievement for diverse student populations: The explicit teaching of key strategies; fostering metacognitive and self-regulated learning; problem-solving in meaningful contexts; and teachers responding flexibly and opportunistically to students' needs for instructive feedback.

These are practices that I gradually folded into my teaching over a period of many years with attention grabbing strategy lessons and collaborative problem solving activities. Explicit instruction is where I go when my students don’t know -- when the experiences they have had and the lessons I have taught have not resulted in demonstrable understanding. I use my on-going informal assessments to determine where things are breaking down (e.g., making inferences, organizing ideas, flexibility in problem solving) and based on my deconstruction of the needed strategy, I begin instruction by providing a model for that behavior. Future posts will talk about the implementation of these practices, however, first let's be explicit about explicit strategy instruction. Instruction begins with the teacher’s “show and tell” during which the teacher

  • Identifies the strategy and relates it to the students’ prior knowledge 
  • Explains why the strategy is important and helpful 
  • Demonstrates the steps in the strategy while thinking aloud 
  • Coaches students as they reflect and describe the process they observed
This direct instruction is followed by an extended period of scaffolded, curriculum- embedded, problem- solving practice and application of the strategy. The teacher

  •  Coaches students as they practice and apply the strategy while problem solving in the context of the curriculum
  •  Prompts independent initiation and transfer of strategies to diverse problem solving situations 
My initial uncertainty and hesitation to begin teaching strategies explicitly dissolved and my confidence in what I was doing grew in direct proportion to the growth in my students’ engagement, confidence, independence, and reading, writing, and problem solving proficiency.

Why is explicit strategy instruction so empowering and transformative? Just think about the dynamics of improving a complex behavior -- like playing tennis -- with the help of a good coach. First, your coach models the behavior you want to learn so that you can visualize what you want to re-create. Next, your coach watches your performance and gives you feedback. That feedback raises your awareness of what you are doing well and what you need to change. Then your coach views your actions with knowledge and specificity that you, as a learner, do not have. He or she breaks down and clarifies the process you are trying to learn; you are no longer just swinging at the ball. Finally, your coach gives you ample opportunity to practice while monitoring your actions, providing reminders, and answering your questions until your new behaviors become comfortable, natural, and automatic. 

So while the coach is the catalyst for transformation, AWARENESS is the change agent.
Once we shine a light on the behaviors that drive the complex processes of reading, writing, and problem solving and illuminate what had been hidden from view, our teaching can move naturally back and forth between the processes and the products of learning. We can equip our students to make the all-important transition from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat. (For a guide to explicit strategy instruction, including sample lessons, see my book from ASCD: Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners)