Saturday, March 26, 2016

Thinking - The Next Dimension... Well not really!

RIGOR!!! Just make it harder!!! haha, this is not about that.  This is actually about how to, in some ways, make it easier, although more complex, reflective and yet predictive, pro-active, and re-active, have I confused you yet?

I have been stuck on how we "think" and how "our kids" think for a while.  In my opinion, it is the most important aspect to lesson planning and a classroom.  There have been many posts, movements, and talks about ways students can collaborate, problem solve, be engage, and use technology.  But how are they thinking?  What are we asking them to do?  Solve problems, comprehend a text, or understand a concept?  Should we also try to help them figure out their place in the world with true authentic thoughts based on some of these tasks?  Not quite problem based learning, but internal reflective learning within a context of standards.  Apply technology, and presto! They have a voice and a audience.  It is amazing!

I have spent the year and part of last year talking about how we should attack lessons under an umbrella of cognitive targets (bloom's taxonomy).  I mean how do we start at reasoning, self-actualization, meta-cognition, to move towards comprehension?  Your cognitive ability to pull from your feelings and experiences define your ability to learn, nothing more, nothing less.  In other words, you can not continue to build on your learning without thinking about what you already know and how you feel about it (passion).  (Self-Actualization)

Generally we deliver vocabulary and build first, right?  It might look like this:

"Today class, we are going to go over the concept of _______. Some important things for you to remember are ____, ____, and ____.  Now open your book, watch this video, look at this sheet, tell me what you already know about this topic..."  Then we build on that with more information and we may ask them to summarize, retell, solve, etc. based on new information.

Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with this approach, but can we at times do better or at least differently to push their thinking?

Here are my examples in math and reading.


I am not a classroom teacher, although I did teach 5th grade a few years ago.  I have not tested this, but have observed thousands of lessons.  I "think" this will work, but in practice and levels of success is determined by the instructor, not the words on this page.  I just know that I have seen it work, in classes, with teachers that are committed to this process.  We need it to be more regular than something we stumble upon.  

Math: Here is the traditional approach - we break down a problem, model it, show the formula or "tricks" to solve.  Then, deliver problems with repeated practice.  We will write all sorts of multi-step problems that we think are complex, but still only ask students to comprehend.  Here is an elementary example problem I created that is very multi-step to the point of confusing.

Here is the problem we see:

A class has 12 boxes of crayons, there are 36 crayons in each box.  "Oh my" the crayons all fall on the ground.  How many crayons are there total? (1) There are 24 students in the room, each student picks up an equal number of crayons, how many crayons does each student have? (2) The assignment only calls for using blue, yellow, and red, of which there are only one in each box. How many of those colors are there? (3)  How many remaining colors are there that we don't use? (4) (Absurdly multi-step to the point of maybe even being confusing, but all that is asked is comprehension of math)  If they can comprehend the text, they should be able to solve the problem.

First answer = 432
Second answer = 18
Third answer = 36
Fourth answer = 396

This is not a bad problem, but again, all we asked students to do is comprehend mathematics and be able to read and comprehend (which many of them struggle with, admittedly).  Again, these exercises are needed to build reading stamina, but we should not stop here, nor begin here.  This should be a part of the overall landscape, but not the main course, appetizer, drink, and dessert.  Let's offer up a buffet of options.  Here is my idea for this lesson to begin.

What if.... We started with:
  • What is your favorite 3 colors?  Let's graph that...
Let's say the data looked like this:

  • If your teacher said you could only use these 3 crayons to draw a picture of your favorite scene from a book or something you read, how would you feel? Are those enough colors to really draw the picture you want?
  • Talk to someone about why you feel those colors are your choices?  Do you think those will be the most popular colors that others' choose and why? 
  • Why did you choose those 3 colors?
  • If we then dumped just those 72 crayons on the floor, and we put a blindfold on you, what is the likelihood that you would select a Pink crayon?  Put a percentage to that, and be prepared to defend your reasoning.   
  • Then ask them, what would happen if the teacher secretly removed all the red crayons from this mix?  How does the likelihood of selecting a Pink crayon increase or decrease.  Again be prepared to defend your answer.  
  • What might happen if the teacher dumped the remaining 360 crayons in the mix?  What is the likelihood you would select a Red crayon now? The class favorite color. 
Better yet, time permitting, have some of them do this as a class and have a blindfold ready.  See if they can pick the Pink or the percentage of time that someone would pick the Red.  Make a few of them go through this as test subjects to "live" the process.  I bet many would say Red gets picked the most because it is the "favorite".  In this case they don't understand a major math concept, favorites don't predict outcomes in math.  Knowledge gained by you as the teacher.    

Then ask them, "what did you have to do in order to solve this problem?"  They would have to multiply, divide, reason, etc.  Have that conversation afterwards.  Do the math with them at this point in the same fashion asking questions like, "what did you get?" "Anyone disagree..." "Defend your answer..." etc.

In other words look for this: (From earlier)

First answer = 432
Second answer = 18
Third answer = 36
Fourth answer = 396

Reading: I feel this is easier in reading.  Let's say we are working on character perspective or even tone?  This text is a primary source correspondence (letter).  The letter is urging the president (Eisnehower on Sept. 9th 1953) to do something, but I won't spoil it. It is a very short text.

Letter from Mrs. Barnard Cummings to Dwight D. Eisenhower

You chose this text as it is readily available through free searches and copyright free (National Archive Website) and could be interpreted quite differently from an elementary mind.  

Traditionally you might read the correspondence and discuss the tone and perspective of the mother in writing to a president. You might ask:

  • What is the mother asking for?
  • How is this relevant to this time in the history of our country?
  • What is happening in America at this time?
  • What do you notice about the words she uses?
None of these are bad questions... But can we do better?

What if... We started with (before reading the letter):
  • Have you ever felt so desperate that you wanted to write to the president of the United States?
  • Have you ever talk to a friend or loved one that seemed upset or depressed?  What advice did you give them?
  • When is a time that although you felt like you had nothing else to give, you reached down deep and pulled motivation out to move forward?  What was that motivation?
  • What do you do when you feel like there is nothing more of you to give to a situation, how do you cope with that, and recover from that?
This approach works because the students have already grappled with the "feelings" or "tone/perspective" of Mrs. Barnard from their own personal reflection before they begin to apply their thoughts to her situation.  They have already "acted out" how she feels.  They reflected on their learning before they knew what they were going to experience from the letter.  

That is both powerful and a way for you as an educator to allow them to process information in their heads without constraints of new knowledge.  Thinking without biased based on new text is very important to generate original thought.  Then apply biases and watch the creativity, hopefully fly.  This will not happen the first time, as students will be confused, but do it repeatedly and watch them open up with thoughts, ideas, and words. 

Then read the correspondence, help them make connections to their thoughts, and have them live it in the "eyes" of Mrs. Barnard and President Eisenhower.  

Just ideas:  Break the class into sides, one representing Mrs. Barnard and the other President Eisenhower.  If they sat face to face how might they interact? Have them write a return correspondence from Eisenhower and explain how Mrs. Barnard would receive their message. 

In summary:

Go from lessons following this possible trajectory (Retrieval, Comprehending, Analyzing, Reasoning, Creating, Metacognition, Self-Actualization) to the opposite or close to it when possible.

As educators, we feel like we need to build so much pre-requisite content knowledge first, in order to allow students to think, that if we actually flipped that, they would be able to better relate to content when it is delivered.  Remember Comprehension in its "definition" is based on how one "receives" information. Metacognition and Self-Actualization are "lived and experienced".

We need both, but do they have to go in a particular order?  Why not flip it when it makes sense. When you have the time to plan for it.  Make "our kids" think about themselves and their own experiences first as it relates to the content you know you want to deliver.  Do this strategically with reflection or challenge questions that spark debate and conversation.  They will already have had "thoughts" about what they are thinking.  Remember how they "think" is most important because it drives how they understand standards, concepts, and essential questions.  The "transfer" of knowledge we always talk about is also all about how they "self-actualize" and "meta-cognate", so why not start there when you can?

I don't know, makes sense to me... Or at least to my self in my meta-cognitive/self-actualize state!!! 

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