Sunday, February 14, 2010

What We Expect Vs. What We Teach

When we tell our three year old to "clean up," often she just stares at us as if we were asking her to lick the back of her neck.

We go on to say things like, "It is really messy, and we need to clean this mess up." Or, "Why did you get all of this stuff out?"  Or we try to do something that, to us, is logical -- such as, "We have to clean up this mess before we get any other toys out."

It finally dawned on us that we were missing some key steps here.

We never told her HOW to clean the messes up, we just expected her to do it.  Because we said so. Because I guess, in our brains, we didn't understand that there was a skill set involved that was beyond the basic direction.  When we figured that out, things changed.

It wasn't about cleaning up this mess or that mess. We had to be specific.  It had to be, "Let's put these books back on the shelf...this way." (And we would show her.)  Or, "These things go into your toy box." (And we put them in there together the first few times.)  Now, she is still 3, but she has a better understanding of what we mean when it is time to clean up and we want her to help.

I relate this story because it's come up in several workshops lately the lamentations that teachers have over expected behaviors in their classrooms.  They ask the students to do something, something that we've probably ALL done at some point, with the expectation that they have the skills to be able to do it.

One teacher recently told me that she was frustrated that her students just don't study, as evidenced by low scores on assessments.  I asked her if she ever told the students HOW they should study, or given them information that might help them to make their study efforts stronger.  Last week, I had the opportunity to teach 18 model lessons with 5th and 6th graders.  In many of the classes, I asked the students how they studied.  This is a sampling of the answers I got:

  • I read the information over and over.
  • I lay on my bed and study it.
  • I look at the information until it is in my head.
  • I close my eyes and try to remember.
  • My mom (or dad) reads it to me.

The work I was doing with this school last week centered around test taking strategies, study skills, and brain based instructional strategies.  What their students had collectively figured out on their own, over time, was that they needed to spend time with the information they were supposed to be learning, but did not specifically know HOW to spend that time.

Over the years when I've asked students to study, I had to become mindful of the specifics around the direction.  In the beginning of my teaching career, I might have told children to study for their tests, and that be the end of the directive.  In the last few years, I would say, "Highlight your notes and determine which pieces of information are essential to remember."  I might say, "create a graphic organizer that chunks your information into smaller pieces that are more easily digested and remembered by your brain."  I've tried to teach in a way that gives students multiple interactions with the information, reinforcing, hopefully, the need for multiple interactions at home.  They need to see the information, hear it, manipulate it, make connections within it, apply and analyze it, create mnemonic devices if necessary, create their own study aids, including graphic organizers, and play games with the information.  That's what studying is--specific strategies to get the information to stick in their brains.  But the students have to be taught those strategies so that they can use them when we say, "STUDY."

I've also taught my students, over the years, how I want them to take notes.  I use a format called NOTEMAKING, developed in conjunction with a colleague, Vivian Demers-Jagoda, where students chunk the information they are learning, reading, or experiencing into manageable "Brain Bites." (This format is also largely based on the Cornell Note Taking System, with a few changes specifically geared to its usage by younger students) Students learn to pull out key words, big ideas, and listen carefully for questions and repetitions to help them more effectively study when the time comes.  PLUS, the new format provides a more active role in their study efforts, giving them guidelines to fold on to isolate information they are trying to remember.

I remember being in high school and trying to write down everything the teacher was saying, and having page upon page of overwhelming notes to study.  That "studying" usually meant lying on my bed with the notes in front of me, and hoping that by magic the information stuck in my brain.  I learned pretty quickly that magic doesn't work, and it was years before I discovered what did.

What else do we require of students that we've not specifically taught?  What expectations do we have that require specific skills that are not often part of the instructional sequence?  This includes things like what we might consider "good behaviors," listening skills, conversation skills, collaboration skills, etc.  Feel free to leave comments about what you do in your classroom to help students learn what is expected but not always taught.

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