Thursday, May 5, 2011

Turning the Tide

My daughter got her first pair of eye glasses when she was in the first grade. (Taking after my father’s side of the family, she was already quite myopic.) It was a day we both remember. Moments after we walked out of the optometrist's office, on a balmy spring afternoon, my 6 year-old daughter stopped short. She was staring at a nearby maple tree and when she spoke her face and her voice were meshed in wonder. “Mommy!”, she exclaimed, “I see the leaves! They look like they’re dancing!” The green blur she was accustomed to seeing was gone and in its place were clearly defined leaves swaying in the breeze. 

When teachers unpack cognitive processes for their students like summarizing, inferring, comparing, synthesizing, categorizing, elaborating, or monitoring for understanding, the result is as clarifying as putting on a pair of corrective lenses and the effect is just as awesome. Lack of clarity about these essential behaviors can and does dismantle the way kids read, write, and seek answers yet we seldom take our instruction to the source of the confusion.

I prefer to do my strategy unpacking in the company of colleagues. We verbalize what we are thinking as we read to reveal how we arrive at an inference; we think aloud as we draft our writing and make decisions about which ideas belong together and why; we tackle a puzzle with full disclosure so our partners can record what we do when we’re working with persistence, or accuracy, or flexibility. Our work yields a list of the steps in a process, which we turn into a demonstration for our students. For example, reading and thinking aloud reveals that when we make inferences we: 
  • Want to know something not stated
  • Gather information that provides clues for making thoughtful guesses
  • Use information from our prior experience
  • Look for connections between the pieces of information
  • Make a guess about what we want to know that is supported by all the information we gathered and eliminate guesses that are not supported by all the information
  • Understand that inferences are our guesses based on information; they identify what is reasonably true
Shining a light on the workings of a process which is usually hidden from view is the first step in helping kids know what to do when they don’t know. After starting with an engaging concept-building strategy demonstration, an instructional continuum that consists of scaffolded practice in selecting and using helpful strategies, coaching from peers and teachers, and purposefully transferring those strategies where ever they prove useful, finishes the job.

The elephant-sized question in the room is: Where and when does this teaching take place? The macro answer is, regardless of the framework for your instruction, as long as (1) your teaching and assessment practices are learner- centered (2) teacher/student communication is transactional and (3) your focus is on the deep processing of information and long-term learning, the explicit teaching of strategies can be embedded in your curriculum. 

Just like the functioning of the latest and greatest computer is contingent on the performance of the microchips within it, our best intentions and efforts to provide differentiated instruction in a curriculum aligned with standards that avail students with 21st century tools still requires that we pay attention to those smallest units of understanding. Unless the teaching and understanding of essential strategies and indispensable habits of mind are included in our curriculum, we will not turn the tide on a sea of graduates that are neither high-functioning nor independent learners.
Your thoughts, experiences, questions?