As the COVID19 pandemic drags on, I’ve followed with great interest the reported experiences of parents as they work at sustaining their children’s educations while simultaneously dealing with the realities this crisis foists upon us. It’s clear that parents–particularly parents who themselves must work from home–have struggled with figuring out how to contrive a home school, as Diane Ravitch has noted here and here (and by the time I publish this, no doubt, elsewhere as well) on her excellent policy blog.
Extensive reporting on the challenges of distance learning, remote learning, or whatever it is we want to call communicating via screen technology over the internet has, in my view, exposed it as a failure. A friend and colleague in New York reports to me that one of his classes meets for two twenty-five-minute (!) periods a week, and that he assigns one piece of work (again: !) for this class. Under these circumstances, there is richly justified concern that students will fall behind. In fact, from what I hear and see, this has already occurred. All of this results from our schools’ fixation on training students to pass tests rather than to learn to think, imagine, and apply knowledge in real situations.
Ideally, learning, becoming educated, is something a person does every day across the span of his or her life. Every time we read instructions, ask a friend of family member for help with or an explanation of something, or–especially–use prior knowledge to understand something new, we are learning. There is in fact a rich literature on the learning we do outside of our educational institutions. My own teaching practice (by which I aim, among other things, to produce disciplined, skilled autodidacts, and thereby render myself superfluous) has been heavily influenced by Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling Society. While some people might object to the obvious influence of Marxism in its pages, I have also found Paulo Freire’s great book Pedagogy of the Oppressed serves as an explanatory manual for the importance of relevance and application when teaching; Freire’s successes in educating illiterate Brazilian peasants is well documented, and he was amply honored for it. The late Theodore “Ted” Sizer had much to say about learning and school–particularly the frequent and tragic disjunction of theory and practice. I highly recommend his Horace trilogy, which brilliantly exposes the way that our schools have essentially subverted authentic learning in favor of a test-and-punish regime.
To no small extent, the problems in our public schools are the problems of commodification of education and, more specifically, the credentials that education produces. I know, as I hope most parents do, that contractual teacher salaries are often based on credentials. That makes a master’s degree a commodity, another thing for sale in the marketplace. David Labaree of Stanford analyzes the commodification of credentials in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). As the title indicates, this is a book which describes the manner in which the quest for a credential, a marketable commodity, has replaced actual learning–and actual love of learning that compels learners to pursue knowledge for its own sake and for their own edification. The commodification of education and credentials is intimately connected with the adoption of curriculum produced by large corporate publishers. Again, we teach kids to assume possession of a body of bland, decontextualized facts that they must and will repeat on tests–produced by the same corporations–in order to earn their credential. Through all of this, students really don’t learn to think as much as memorize, they don’t learn to analyze and question so much as repeat and parrot. It is an intellectually deadening process. We should not be surprised that students resent and resist teaching and learning as presently constituted, and that we have such shocking dropout rates in our schools.
Despite the constant fascination with gimmicky pedagogy and electronic gadgets in our schools (an example of which I wrote about here and here, which so offended the administrators under whom I served when I wrote it that I think it may have cost me a job), teaching and learning are well-researched, well-understood, and stable procedures. We can start, as we should, with history’s first teacher, Socrates, that master ironist of feigned ignorance. Socrates asked the big conceptual questions, and he remains relevant to teachers today. Put another way, teachers should understand that in terms of the way people learn, and therefore the way people should be taught, they really must understand underlying concepts and big ideas; we know that little has changed in these procedures since Socrates held forth in the Agora.
In fact, a number of studies in the past generation or so have affirmed this. Most important among them is the National Research Council’s magisterial and definitive book How People Learn (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000). Martha Stone Wiske’s (she edited) Teaching for Understanding (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997) predates the publication of How People Learn but demonstrates its principles in action through the related experiences of classroom teachers. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ book Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005) and its ancillary titles (including the excellent Integrating Differentiated Instruction + Understanding by Design by Mr. McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson) are the teacher’s user’s manual for applying the principles of teaching and learning outlined in How People Learn. Over the years, I have relied heavily upon Understanding by Design to create and adapt instructional materials for my students. Indeed, my planning book is rife with typescripts of material from these books.
What all these studies and their subsequent books share is one relatively simple certainty: rather than running students through tedious, decontextualized rosters of facts (then supplying anxiety-producing tests to “assess understanding”), we must teach students concepts that enable them to find the connecting tissue between the facts that serve as manifestations of concepts. Put another way, we must help students gain understanding and knowledge that transfers both within domain-specific curricula, but also across the entire common branch curriculum, by moving back and forth between general (conceptual) understanding and specific (factual) knowledge. Put yet another way, rather than teaching students to pass tests, a rather narrow piece of procedural knowledge, we must teach them an understanding of how to use prior knowledge to understand new material; put yet one more, and final, way, our schools must teach kids to learn how to learn.
For parents at home with their children, particularly parents who in some degree now serve as surrogate teachers, the good news is this: teaching and learning in their essence are fairly simple procedures. To learn, one uses prior knowledge to understand something new, which is then integrated in and with prior knowledge. When we talk in casual conversation about the “learning curve,” this is the process we’re discussing. In an effective learning environment, the teacher’s first task is obviously to locate prior knowledge and establish it as the basis for understanding new things. This is where teaching complicates learning: assessing prior knowledge is a subtle exercise. If it is not done accurately or correctly, learning can falter or even fail. There are a number of ways for teachers to pin down and exploit prior knowledge for learning. Good old Socratic questioning is still one of the most effective ways to proceed. The student’s role in this is to both answer the question and (or) ask the teacher to refine or vary the question in a way that will yield potential results. In the ideal classroom, as students receive and consolidate new knowledge, they themselves begin to ask the kinds of Socratic questions that arouse further curiosity, stimulate inquiry, and activate the will to learn and understand. These Socratic questions become teachable moments and vice-versa. This creates a productive cycle of inquiry and understanding. Thing of Socratic questions as productive questions in the sense that they are likely to produce discourses, not pat answers–i.e. the way understanding is arrived at in scholarly communities.
Which is not to say that every learning opportunity, every teachable moment, occurs in the kind of structure a Socratic dialogue prescribes. I very highly recommend this post on the acquisition and cultivation of soft skills from David Berliner and published on Diane Ravitch’s Blog.
How can parents use the procedures in the previous paragraph to engage the young minds at home because of the COVID19 crisis? First, let’s stipulate that everyday life, especially where and when curious young people are present, offers a plethora of teachable moments. Any time a child observes something, there is an opportunity to ask questions about the thing observed–and any time a child asks a question, there is a teachable moment in play. A couple of fairly simple questions, which can then deepen as a discourse ensues, can keep kids thinking, learning, and therefore in the process of acquiring an education. Fortunately, my planning book contains a set of documents that I’ve accumulated over 17 years of planning instruction for struggling learners and teaching them. All of this material is relevant across a range of abilities.
And now that I’ve bloviated beyond the limits of most the reasonable person’s patience, let’s run through the contents of my planning book in an attempt to help you learn what they are and how to use them. With this material I hope to aid you, gentle parent, in keeping your children learning during this crisis. All of this material has been, I think I should mention, previously posted elsewhere (including the top pinned post during the COVID19 pandemic) on Mark’s Text Terminal.
First, here is a list of ten laws of and three keys to simplicity that is actually on the cover of my planning book. I took this from John Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006). I use these simple rules to remind me that no matter how grand an act of synthetic thinking, learning, and writing I aspire for my students to do, I must keep their needs in mind–and sometimes, for their needs, simpler is better. These 17 Teaching Tips are of a piece, I think, with Mr. Maeda’s imperatives to simplicity of design, so I keep them together to remind me that no matter the complexity of a topic, no matter how much sophisticated the thinking a topic or issue in the curriculum requires, teaching and learning are at bottom fairly simple and straightforward endeavors.
All teaching begins with a question. The type of question one asks tends to be domain specific in some respects, and universal in others. For the latter, here is a taxonomy of questions from Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership (Roland C. Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet, eds., Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1991). Just as the document’s title indicates, it taxonomizes questions and gives examples of how to apply the taxonomy to structure questions. I use this document all the time. To complement this taxonomy, here is a list of question stems for structuring the kinds of questions that stimulate thinking–and therefore learning.
As above, I think the best planning framework out there, and the best explained by its authors, is Understanding by Design. So, here are 16 pages of planning materials to help identify big ideas and essential questions from the pages of Understanding by Design. In the time I worked in classrooms, I compiled this list of essential questions I contrived for my social studies and English language arts classes. Essential questions are Socratic questions, and vice versa.
Now that you have some questions to ask, you might want to know how to structure the kinds of activities that will yield results. I have a couple of things that I grabbed from articles in The Cambridge Companion to the Learning Sciences (R. Keith Sawyer, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) that might be helpful here. First is this table of activity structures from Janet L. Kolodner’s article “Cased Based Reasoning” which is apparently one of her areas of expertise. From Allan Collins in the same Cambridge volume, this outline of the principles of cognitive apprenticeship explains how that method of pedagogy operates. Cognitive apprenticeship is just what it sounds like–students are schooled by participating in the kinds of scholarly work professionals in a field do. Put another way, cognitive apprenticeship gives both teachers and students a shortcut to the big concepts that inform and connect knowledge within and across domains.
To pull this all together for the children in front of you on any given day, I find this table of cognitive styles from Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Kids Like School (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009) helps me gain insight and understanding on how kids are thinking, and therefore how I can make learning more accessible to them. Also from Dr. Willingham, from his book The Reading Mind (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017), is this table of conclusions with practical implications for reading instruction.
Finally, if you have emergent or struggling readers on your hands, you might find this short glossary of linguistic terms from Denise Eide’s excellent Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy (Minneapolis: Pedia Learning, Inc., 2011) useful when thinking about how to explain the parts of words to kids.
That’s it. Remember: there are a plethora of situations every day that can be turned into teachable moments by dropping a simple but essential (or Socratic, or productive–you choose your modifier) question into it and thereby beginning a discourse.
If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.