Hands-On in the Mind
By Mark A. Forget
I recently shared some ideas with a group of career-technical education teachers at a conference in Nashville. The theme of the workshop was Motivating CTE Students to Read Challenging Text: Doing “Hands-On” in the Mind. In the workshop, which was near the end of a long day, I noted to the participating educators that what we were doing was not too different from a seventh period class, where students might have already expended a good deal of energy in earlier classes, and that it might be a bit more difficult to motivate them. Nevertheless, I began to model behaviors that I have used with students for years—behaviors that motivate through engagement.
After a few introductory remarks about Benjamin Bloom’s original research on problem solving that led to the creation of the taxonomy of objectives for which he is so famous, and about the role played by higher-order thinking in helping people to learn subject matter, I could see several eyelids drooping, as I had anticipated might occur. Then I asked each of the participants to make some predictions on an anticipation guide, a piece of paper that included seven conjectures about “how students learn most effectively.” After having committed to agreeing or disagreeing with each of the statements, the participants were asked to discuss the reasons why they chose the way they did on the anticipation guide. After a few minutes of discussions in small groups, I asked them to read silently from a short excerpt from my book, MAX Teaching with Reading and Writing (2004), as they sought evidence to support or negate their predictions. Having been engaged in discussion, the droopy eyes were no longer evident. Each person took to the text to find evidence for his or her thinking. It was pin-drop quiet in the room for about ten minutes, with everyone engaged in reading and gathering evidence to support their thinking.
After sufficient time for reading, participants were placed in small groups and asked to attempt to come to a consensus as to which of the seven items on the guide should be considered to be validated by the text (combined with their own prior knowledge of course). The ensuing discussions were highly active, with participants citing various ideas from the text and from their own experiences with their CTE students. When one group had achieved a consensus, I wrote their conclusions onto the screen in the front of the room, suggesting that the next step in the process was to try to achieve a whole-class consensus. Immediately some teachers disagreed with one of the conclusions drawn by the group whose ideas I had placed on the screen. The discussion went back and forth from one group to another, with teachers excitedly citing various parts of the text to make their points. The atmosphere in the room was quite emotional as they argued over what each word meant, and how such ideas would apply in their own classrooms. After several people had made a variety of debating points from virtually every group in the room, we amended the statement by substituting one word, altering a couple of others, and adding a phrase to clarify the idea. At this point there was a “classroom” consensus. And there was enough emotion in the room to cut it with a knife!
It was at this time that I pointed out to them how engaged they all appeared. I think many were stunned by the fact that they forgot how tired they were at the end of a long day, and had become so enthralled with the arguments/discussions in which they were involved that they hadn’t noticed how time flies when you are having fun highly engaged. It was nearly time for the session to end, and not a person had left the room, nor were any appearing drowsy. Just the opposite was obvious to everyone present. I reminded them at this point that what they had been engaged in was problem-based learning, not to be confused with project-based learning, but not unrelated either.
Project-based learning is the practice of engaging students in seeking answers to a central question or solving a real-world problem through their own research, experiments and ideas. This process often culminates in some type of work project that leads to a product, such as a live or written presentation, a demonstration, or the creation of some invention or artwork. Proponents of project-based learning say that when it is done right, students may be learning history, economics, science, or math by working hands-on.
Problem-based learning, done properly, is similar to project-based learning in the required thinking, but involves a much shorter-term process, usually within a class period. The product—insofar as there is a product—is likely to be some sort of evidence in the form of individual and/or group writing that will lead to discussion or debate. Problem-based learning relies on the use of ill-structured problems that have the three characteristics of 1) needing more information than is offered in the problem, 2) allowing for multiple interpretations both before and after the reading, and 3) requiring higher-order thinking in order to come to some resolution. So, problem-based learning is essentially a mini-version of project-based learning, and it is easier to generate than one might think.
Though there are many techniques to create a problem-based learning situation in the classroom, one of my favorites is through the use of an anticipation guide. Every well-made anticipation guide has at least one or two statements that create ill-structured problems. Thus students—in this case, teachers in a workshop—have a need to find out more information based on their own personal interpretation of the statements. Partly as a result of pre-reading small-group discussions, each person went into the reading thinking, “I know I am right, and I know s/he is not, and I am going to find information that supports my thinking!”
When I do this sort of modeling for teachers, it is my hope that they see the effectiveness of the activity and will want to use it with their own students, provoking similar thinking behaviors, before, during, and after they read. What many may not know is that research resulting in development of the six tiers of thinking known as Bloom’s Taxonomy was based, in part, on observations in problem-solving settings, comparing the problem-solving methods of high-achieving college students with those techniques used by students with lower performances that did not seem to reflect their actual abilities. What Bloom & Broder (1950) observed was that both aptitude groups had certain habitual behaviors in their problem solving styles. Low-performing students tended to employ “one-shot thinking” and to tolerate gaps in their knowledge (Whimbey, 1984). High-performing students were much more active in their problem solving, drawing on prior knowledge, and carefully proceeding though a series of steps that often included application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. What the researchers observed was that, to succeed, students placed in problem-solving settings had to break the problems down (analyze), and to combine their prior knowledge with the specifics of the new problems they faced to create novel solutions (synthesis), and to constantly weigh their own thinking and various possible alternatives (evaluation), and to apply their thinking to succeed. This research led to recognition of the various “levels” of the hierarchy, or taxonomy of thinking that they had observed—recognizing that those subjects that were engaged in higher-order thinking in problem-solving settings tended to think more precisely, and to have greater success in solving problems. Thus, observation of college students of differing aptitudes in problem-solving settings contributed to the view that awareness of higher-order thinking skills enhances one’s abilities to perform thinking and problem solving. To me, the key concept to take from the early work of Bloom et al. is that what separates high performing students from low performing students is their differing habits of mind in solving problems, and that the processes of problem solving are as significant as the end product. Furthermore, one might conclude that training could be provided, not just in how to study to improve achievement, but also in how to think (Bloom & Broder, 1950).
Where does a person develop habits of mind that lead to effective thinking and problem solving? What are the implications for classroom instruction? Some students come to school already prepared with analytical skills because they have grown up in an environment where such precise thinking skills were modeled as a part of everyday life. Others don’t. Perhaps we should recognize that teachers are capable of enhancing the analytical reasoning of all students by simply using the subject matter of any course as the medium. All that must be done is to modify the focus of our instruction, shifting the emphasis from the content itself to the mental processing of the content, with provisions to be made to observe and provide feedback on the processing (Whimbey, 1984). We must create an environment in which opportunities to solve subject-matter-related problems abound, and in which the opportunities for formative assessment and feedback correspondingly abound. In other words, teachers can cultivate intelligence by cultivating intelligent behavior in their students. Instead of the culturally normative practice of primarily providing students with information (knowledge) and probing for understanding (comprehension) teachers could create situations in which students had opportunities to learn through problem solving (practicing higher-order thinking—combining fluid intelligence with crystalized intelligence).
Since Bloom’s mid-20th-century research, refinements to the original taxonomy have been proposed (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Webb, 1997, 2002; Marzano & Kendall, 2007), and each refinement contributes, in its own way, to a finer understanding of the habits of mind we associate with intelligence. (Figure 1.) Anderson and Krathwohl re-align Bloom’s, and Webb synthesizes and expands on both, achieving similar recommendations. Marzano & Kendall apply three “systems” of processing knowledge to the three domains of information, mental processing, and psychomotor activity. The various levels of processing knowledge that are included in earlier taxonomies are subsumed within the cognitive system. They also posit metacognition and self-system as critical elements in the habits of mind to be developed in students.
My contention is that, through content-literacy-based instructional (CLBI) classroom activities like those performed in the CTE teacher workshop mentioned above, we allow for students to acquire sophisticated habits of mind with regard to learning and problem solving. Unfortunately, I see a dearth of such activities in K-13 classrooms that I visit around the country.
|Bloom’s Revised (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001)||Webb’s DOK
|Marzano & Kendall (2007)|
The concept of taxonomies of cognitive (and other) behaviors most often imply use of increased levels or complexities of cognitive performance as one moves up the table from the lowest level to the top. For Bloom’s original taxonomy, the lowest level of thinking would be at the knowledge level, suggesting behaviors characterized by the descriptors of the lowest levels of the other taxonomies: remembering, recalling, or retrieving knowledge, perhaps best characterized by memorization. As one moves up in the tables, one sees increased mental activity involved in the higher processes. The Marzano/Kendall taxonomy differs in that it goes beyond a knowledge-related taxonomy. Their cognitive system has four levels similar to Webb’s, each of which describes ways of acting on cognitive knowledge. The Marzano/Kendall taxonomy then progresses beyond cognitive behavior to include metacognition and self-system as important educational objectives. So, the Marzano/Kendall taxonomy really includes three systems of a hierarchical structure of thought: cognition (the four ways of using knowledge), metacognition, and self-system. It is the development of metacognition and self-system and that are the basic premises of this book and of CLBI. Indeed, the essence of MAX Teaching is daily immersion in higher-order thinking within a skill-development paradigm to help students acquire facility in metacognitive behaviors and to develop a self-system based on habits of mind that are built on repeated experiences of success in processing ideas and solving intellectual problems.
My experiences with content-literacy-based instruction (CLBI), facilitating students’ reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking in subject area classrooms, began before publication of the latter three taxonomies, and I did just fine using Bloom’s. In fact, at first, I was not really cognizant of how what I was doing in the classroom with CLBI was engaging students in the higher levels of processing ideas. I only saw that students were highly engaged and that they were retaining information so much better than they had when I simply gave them the information to recall. In addition, they were all becoming comfortable with reading for learning. My original focus in using CLBI had been on the dual acquisition of literacy skills and subject matter. I knew the importance of learning through reading in my own educational history. One could say that I truly learned how to learn through reading several years after I graduated from high school. (I dropped out of college in my first attempt, largely because I was not capable of keeping up with the reading required. After a short stint with military combat, leading to many months in the hospital, and years on crutches, I again attempted college, and with a great deal of effort, was able to develop the literacy skills that I had never acquired through an education that had been centered on the culturally normative model.)
As I worked on my master’s degree in secondary curriculum development at the college of education, in the first year after receiving a bachelor’s degree, professors constantly stressed that higher-order thinking was a goal to be achieved by students, and that Bloom’s Taxonomy was the way to go. Most of my instructors were quite adamant about that. It is just that I had no idea how to really get students to practice the higher levels of thinking. After all, like most newly graduated teachers, I had sat through approximately 13,000 hours of the culturally normative model of instruction throughout my education. When I did student teaching, I was observed, and lauded, for how interesting my lectures were. I was clueless as to how to get students deeply engaged in processing ideas. Eventually I figured out the missing link—reading. If all of the students had read something, they could discuss what they had read. However, homework was not the place for the reading to take place. For many students, the reading would be too difficult. For others, they had myriad excuses why they did not get to the reading. The fact is that only a few would have read the assignment for class each day. What I discovered was that it is very difficult to perform higher-order thinking about something for which a person has no knowledge to start with! This problem is, of course, what leads teachers to fall back into the culturally normative model to begin with. They have a need to convey knowledge to their students. Of course, teachers also do as much as possible to help students comprehend what they lecture about. They pepper students with questions to help them think about the new knowledge they are receiving. Teachers create analogies to help students to comprehend information. But how can a teacher get the students to get beyond the lower levels of the taxonomy? That was the quandary.
Fifteen years after beginning my career as a teacher, I attended a train-the-trainer workshop wherein I learned how to use reading for learning as a routine for the classroom. Suddenly, by having students take the time to read, right there in the classroom, I could help them to be able to read difficult text. I could help them to set their own purposes to want to read, a fundamental part of metacognitive behavior. I could facilitate their pre-reading and post-reading discussions. It did not take long to realize that the top four levels of Bloom’s taxonomy were the norm under this classroom regime. Without my anticipating that it was going to happen, higher-order thinking became a routine. Students analyzed what they were reading, naturally discussed how it would apply under various circumstances, synthesized ideas with what they had learned previously, and with their own experiences, and evaluated the author’s and each other’s interpretations of what they were reading. What I was discovering was that higher-order thinking is a natural extension of the CLBI process. Everyone in the classroom has read the subject matter with real purpose, and interactive discussion and debate is a natural outcome of an environment in which everyone has the same information to play with, but different opinions as to what the information means. So, students were practicing higher-order thinking and metacognitive behaviors every day as they self-actualized as independent learners. In other words, I watched my students as they routinely performed higher-order thinking, practiced metacognition, and developed a self-system that would lead to a lifetime of successful learning.
To facilitate the process, one of my favorite CLBI methods became the use of an anticipation guide—a set of conjectures about what is to be read—to get students arguing about ideas both before and after the reading, which is what I did in the CTE workshop last week. (The term anticipation guide is somewhat of a misnomer since, if created and used properly, it does much more than lead to anticipation. It allows for individuals to maintain purpose during silent reading, and it provides the specific language about which students will argue after the reading. A well-made anticipation guide is quite the opposite of most textbook-published worksheets that demand essentially no real reading/thinking at all.) Whenever I make an anticipation guide, I take ideas that are important from the reading—the learning targets for the lesson—and I figure out some way to connect with what I think students might think about the ideas, based on incomplete information, and I write statements (most of which are at least mostly true interpretations of the text they are going to read) that are at a level of language that students will find easy to interpret. In other words, I scaffold students by writing the statements in language that will make it easy for students to understand the essential concepts without necessarily using the technical language they will subsequently encounter in the text to be read. Agreement or disagreement with the statements brings students each into conjecture. In facilitating this process, I have created a problem-based learning opportunity. Students are committed to finding out. My experience has been that, once hooked on a set of ideas over which there is some contention—or at least a need for clarification—students of all levels of capability become purposeful readers and thinkers. Teachers in a workshop are similar.
In fact, problem-solving behaviors (higher-order thinking) are central to who we are as a species. Language is the tool for such thinking. By allowing for all persons in the room to have access to the same language is to facilitate acquisition of both language and habits of mind that include higher-order thinking. Every student has access to the same text. They do not have to rely on what the teacher said fifteen minutes ago—or yesterday, or last week—in order to develop ideas. The resources are right on their desks in the classroom. Whatever text(s) the teacher has chosen are the resources. The problem to be solved, then, is what does this text mean, exactly? How shall we interpret this in light of all of our knowledge and experience? How does what we are discussing apply in our lives? Such problem-based interaction—what I call hands-on in the mind—is a natural outflow of human collaboration, which can only occur if everyone is on the same page, literally. We all are capable of higher-order thinking as long as we have the resources to be in the discussion. Content-literacy-based instruction is one solution, and it is easy to do if a person is willing to get beyond the culturally normative model and try something different. I always tell teachers that, if you use CLBI for two weeks straight, every day, you will never go back. Being highly engaged is too much fun—even during the last period of the day. That is what the CTE workshop was all about.
Anderson, L., & Krathwohl, D. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing : a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.
Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York: Longman.
Bloom, B. and Broder, L. (1950). Problem solving processes of college students. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Forget, M. (2004). MAX teaching with reading & writing: Classroom activities for helping students learn new subject matter while acquiring literacy skills. Victoria, BC: Trafford.
Marzano, R., and Kendall, J. (2007). The new taxonomy of educational objectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Webb, N. (1997). Criteria for alignment of expectations and assessments in mathematics and science education. Council of Chief State School Officers and National Institute for Science Education Research Monograph No. 6. Madison: University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
Webb, N. (2002). Alignment study in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies of state standards and assessments for four states. A study of the State Collaborative on Assessment & Student Standards (SCASS) Technical Issues in Large-Scale Assessment (TILSA). Washington, D. C.: Council of Chief State School Officers.
Whimbey, A. (1984). The key to higher order thinking is precise processing. Educational Leadership, September, 1984. Vol. 42, No. 1. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Scripted Introduction to Behaviors that Improve Instruction
An instructional model that assures deeper understanding of subject matter, facilitates higher-order thinking, helps to close the poverty-related gaps between students of different socio-economic levels, and prepares students to be college and career ready has been around for a long time, and it is now the essence of the Common Core State Standards.
The Big Switch: How Will We Ever Get Teachers to Comply with the Common Core State Standards? There is little question in my mind that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are right for the times in which we live and for the generation of students that is coming through our schools today. It would even seem that a consensus is developing along those lines since forty-six states have adopted them at the time of this writing. It is time to throw out the more-than-one-hundred-year-old “culturally normative” model of teaching (by transmitting information to students), and to begin to use what has, for over a hundred years now, been recognized as a most effective tool for learning — literacy-based instruction (Huey, 1908). The former — the culturally normative model of instruction — was certainly appropriate for a population that pretty much finished formal schooling by the third grade, and hoped to live a life of agricultural or factory work. The latter — content-literacy-based instruction — though it was described in the literature more a hundred years ago, has barely taken a foothold in our school systems, despite the constant flow of research that has demonstrated its effectiveness at helping students to deeply learn subject matter while, at the same time, learning how to learn. That is up until now. The CCSS is largely based on the content-literacy-based instructional model.
The problem is that the culturally normative model persists simply because it is what was done to us, and we all recognize it. It seems normal to be in a classroom wherein the teacher talks at students for a time, and then provides them with some form of written assignment that involves looking up answers for a textbook-published worksheet. The central problem with the normative model is that the principal focus is on lower-level thinking. The model is designed to provide knowledge and perhaps comprehension, even though we know (and have known since the 1950s) that the use of higher-order thinking leads to deeper understandings and greater retention of information and ideas (Bloom, 1956). Nevertheless, if you walk down the corridors of K-12 schools around the country (as I do quite frequently) you will see the culturally normative model to be thriving as though none of the research accumulated over the past century ever existed!
The culturally normative model is a system that has worked reasonably well for about 25 to 30 percent of students throughout its time, and, when it fails, there is always something or someone to blame other than the instructional model itself. An underlying premise of the recently developed CCSS is that we know what works, and it is not the normative model. If you want to close the gaps that exist between students of poverty and students from more advantaged homes, you would embrace the CCSS. The problem is in getting teachers to change. There is nothing easy about changing any long-enduring system of behavior, and the culturally normative model is especially difficult to challenge in the minds of teachers who have practiced it for years, and even for those young, new teachers who haven’t spent very much time actually practicing it in their own classrooms, but have experienced the system since they were kindergartners. So the failing pedagogy persists despite its shortcomings.
The essence of the CCSS is that literacy is at the core of preparing all students to be college-ready and/or career-ready by the time they are finished with high school. What the CCSS does is to take advantage of the fact that, applied correctly, content-literacy-based instruction — reading and writing for learning — has a long tradition among the small percentage of teachers who have used it in their subject area classes of solving many problems at once. Content-literacy-based instruction closes the gaps that result from pre-existing language deficits, it helps students to become accomplished readers and thinkers, it is highly engaging and motivating, and thus reduces discipline problems in the classroom, and it helps students to become autonomous and self-directed learners. It does all this while improving students’ understandings of the subject matter they are learning.
Scripted Lesson Activities? Some say that scripted lessons are no solution to teacher preparation, but I disagree. Generic but scripted activity procedures can facilitate the massive change needed to break out of the mold of the culturally normative model of teaching. (You will see later that a scripted instructional sequence is how I first acquired the abilities involved in facilitating student-centered learning.) Allen Mendler (2012) suggests, “changes in behavior often precede changes in beliefs, attitudes, habits, and expectations” (p. 13). If teachers are to make the somewhat radical change from practicing the normative model of teaching to becoming coaches, or facilitators of students’ active learning, then they can benefit from guidance in the form of written instructions. Getting past the deeply ingrained attitudes and habits of the normative model can help a teacher improve through practice. If a teacher is willing to learn — to try out new curricula — then why not facilitate the process with as much help as possible? Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi, in Practice Perfect (2012), point out the need for precisely accurate descriptions that are necessary for people who are making significant changes in their behaviors. Rule 19 of their 42 rules for improving practice suggests,
“(n)ovices can and should apply a model by directly imitating it… most people feel they are supposed to put their own spin on it… they try to think through whether the model matches their style or their personality, and they get stuck there, not ever applying. Some learners misapply the model in an attempt to give it their own spin, and then, mistakenly assume it was the technique that didn’t work for them rather than their implementation of the technique… (l)earners need to hear that direct replication of the model is a completely legitimate way to approach a technique.…(E)ven the seemingly soft skills of presentation and human interaction that are in play in so many professions can be learned more readily if you treat them as technical skills. You might assume that it squashes practitioners’ freedom and creativity to tell them that what you expect is for them to copy the model you present. In fact it can free them to do simply as they see, to think less and act more, to feel the success of a simple moment, and it can insure a proficient performance — the predecessor to creativity.”
Certainly a too tightly scripted curriculum designed to foresee everything that might occur in the course of a classroom lesson would be destined to fail since most effective instruction involves constantly seeking evidence of progress and/or understanding (or the lack thereof) and reacting to the resulting evidence with instructional changes to enhance the learning. In other words, no class goes exactly as planned, and any teacher needs to be able to make ongoing changes as the lesson proceeds. On the other hand, the culturally normative model is so imbedded in the classroom and so resistant to change, that, if a flexible set of steps — a generic, yet widely applicable series of steps to be applied in a multitude of content areas, at a variety of age levels — could help teachers who are willing to learn to get beyond the apparent stigmatism that limits them to traditional approaches, then perhaps it is worth a try.
I have been doing workshops in content-literacy-based instruction for over twenty years now. In the workshops, I have always modeled the procedural steps of a content-literacy-based instructional activity, such as the use of an anticipation guide (an activity that, despite its name, is much more than a pre-learning activity if carried out properly). In so doing, I take teachers through a process that essentially places them in the role of students. In other words, the workshop is just like a content-literacy-based classroom, with my acting as the instructor, and the participating teachers as the students. I have always used adult, pedagogy-related readings to model the “two-for-the-price-of-one” nature of content-literacy-based instruction. The participating teachers acquire new ideas from the text that they read, from me, and from each other as fellow learners, just as the process occurs in a real classroom. At the same time, the teachers practice literacy skills. Often, in the past, when the workshops ended, teachers would be very enthusiastic about wanting to try out the processes they had learned. However, once they returned to their own classrooms, they would leave out essential elements that I had employed when modeling in the workshop. At times, that led to the content-literacy-based activity not working as well as it had in the workshop, and, upon experiencing less than what they expected, the teachers would revert to their default mode — the culturally normative model. So it is critical that teachers understand the rationale behind the pedagogy as well as how to perform the pedagogy, but they can also benefit from the carefully designed processes that show step-by-step procedures in order to be able to get it right from the start. The need for both explanation and guidance explains the format of the workshops and the two parts of the book. We learn by reading, and we learn by doing. And it never hurts to have a recipe.
My Own Experience with Scripted Lessons My own teaching career, launched in 1974, has been the inspiration for my book,MAX Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills (2004, second edition in press). You could say that I first learned how to teach in a student-centered reading and writing classroom, using a book of carefully thought-out lesson plans not unlike those in Part II of this book. But that would not be entirely true. I did not learn how to teach; rather, I learned how to facilitate active learning by students. That’s an altogether different thing. But I didn’t learn that immediately.
My discovery of student-centered instructional techniques did not take place until my third year of teaching. I tried other classroom activities before that time, focusing on the normative model that had been practiced on me for most of my education. For example, when I first got out of the college of education, I wanted to imitate the best of my college professors who had been able hold my attention for hours as they lectured about their research interests and other topics. My first classroom experience involved teaching the history of the United States. It was a great time to be teaching that subject. The Alex Haley miniseries “Roots” was on television, and there were dramatic turns occurring in U.S. politics. I was enthusiastic, and my enthusiasm carried over to my students. But it was not enough to keep students interested for long. They lacked the discipline of a college student accustomed to lectures. In addition, I had all the problems that any young teacher might have with classroom management and discipline. Results were mixed at best.
By my third year, I was ready to try something new. At that time, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston had developed an “inquiry curriculum” in the social studies. Each lesson was designed by curriculum specialists at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute to use constructivist principles, leading students to discover for themselves new understandings. Such discoveries would take place through the use of primary source materials to write about, discuss, and set purposes for reading, reading in the classroom, and then writing about and cooperatively discussing student ideas to assist in creating meaning regarding history. Each lesson was written in a step-by-step format that any teacher could follow. If the teacher did so, students were led through a sequence of getting ready to read through thinking, writing and discussion, silent reading from various forms of text, and more discussion and writing that allowed them to systematically construct meaning from written and other sources.
What was great about this method is that it allowed students to become historians—to work as historians do. They would form opinions and make predictions about what other historians would conclude—even before they would read the history textbook. The result was that once they got into the textbook, they had sufficient knowledge and purposes for reading that allowed them to become active in processing text that otherwise might have been much less interesting. A typical lesson from the Holt curriculum might read as follows (I abbreviate it for terseness.):
- Pass out to each student the list of laws written in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia. Ask students to read the laws silently to themselves, thinking about how the laws reflected the society that existed there.
- Tell students to write on their own paper what they thought Jamestown Colony might be like.
- Share students’ predictions on the chalkboard, making a list of predictions for the whole class.
- Ask students to scan the list of predictions they have made to see if they could be organized into a few categories.
- Lead the class through a discussion, narrowing the list to three or so categories.
- Tell students that now that they have collectively made predictions of what the Jamestown Colony was like at the time, they have become historians. Then introduce them to the next step, looking at the textbook to see what other historians have said about the same topic.
And so it went. Students were engaged, the teacher was empowered to let students learn, and students routinely used literacy skills to perform higher order thinking about topics important to understanding who we are as Americans. What I learned from the pre-planned lessons created by Holt Reinhart Winston and the Carnegie-Mellon Institute was that students actually learn better when they are coached through a process in which they are active in trying to make sense of something. It is the opposite of the lecture wherein students struggle to perceive what the teacher has on his or her mind. It is also the opposite of what occurs when students are provided worksheets designed to help them learn the details of subject matter. What really occurs with most worksheets is that students simply decode the “correct” answer to fill in the spaces on the worksheets. Rarely do they get to mull over important ideas relating to what they are learning. I had now seen firsthand what works and what doesn’t work if learning (in the best sense of the word) is to take place.
But then I changed jobs. I moved away from that teaching position to another state, which presented the challenge of a different curriculum. I no longer had the pre-planned lessons I had found so effective in leading my students through the discovery process. My new job was to teach U. S. and Virginia Government. Although I had a reasonably good textbook, the instructor’s manual did not provide for the same level of student engagement. Again, the teacher was “on stage” for most of the class. Students learned, but they learned what was on the teacher’s mind rather than being led through a thought-provoking discovery of how our governmental systems work. If the teacher had a limited understanding of the topic of the day, then the students were doomed to the same.
Fifteen years into my teaching career, I was first exposed to the idea of using reading and writing to help students become engaged in their own learning. I had the opportunity to attend a summer staff development experience that taught me several classroom activities (many of which are included in this book) to use within a three-step lesson framework that helps students become actively engaged in learning virtually any subject matter. The three steps of the lesson framework that I learned that summer were “anticipation, realization, and contemplation” (Vaughan & Estes, 1986). Through the facilitation of a knowledgeable teacher, classroom students could become engaged in virtually any subject matter in such a way as to be ready for confronting new ideas in text, be equipped with strategies for gathering new information while reading, and be able to construct their own understandings so that they could think critically about the ideas afterward. No longer did I need a “canned curriculum” such as that from which I first learned that student-centered learning works best. Now, in any subject area, I could help students use text to become engaged in learning subject matter that probably wouldn’t have interested them otherwise. I was immediately struck by the potential of these new classroom activities. And I saw what happened as soon as I put them into action. When I employed reading and writing in such a way that students became engaged in their own processing of new information, they became motivated to learn. On a daily basis, they all learned much more than I could have told them through lecture and note taking. Why? Because each student was involved in first processing the new information in his/her own unique way, followed by discussion with others, and then coming to an understanding based on collective analysis and interpretation. What had occurred in my third year of teaching — student-centered active engagement in learning from print and from each other — was now happening in my government class, even though I was designing and facilitating the lessons myself rather than following a prefabricated published guide! It is more fun to teach in this way, and it is more fun to learn this way. I quickly made that discovery. I found that students in my classes were actively engaged and therefore not causing problems related to discipline. But an even more significant result was occurring: while my students were better learning my subject matter, they were also becoming better readers and thinkers, attaining knowledge and skills that would enhance their lives forever. They were learning to learn — and they were learning how to learn effectively. Two for the price of one!
It Has Worked for Me, and for Many Others I am an example of someone who changed dramatically from the culturally normative model of teaching to a content-literacy-based instructional model. I probably would not have made the transition without the help of scripted lessons, yet it was those lessons that provided the basis for my development. I had broken past the obsolete mold to become receptive to the changes needed to have a student-centered classroom because of that scripting. Once I had achieved the pedagogical experiences thus provided, all it took was understanding of the content-literacy-based instructional model to become a designer of my own student-centered lessons based on getting students reading and writing every day in the classroom. If it is true that changes in behavior often precede changes in beliefs, attitudes, and habits, and if direct replication of a model is a completely legitimate way to approach a new technique, then perhaps we should recognize that scripting may help many teachers make the big move that is coming. I know from the thousands of teachers with whom I have worked over the past many years since publication of the first edition of my book, that they have found the detailed learning activity descriptions in part II to be extremely helpful in their own progression into the world of student-centered learning and away from the culturally normative model. Because the activity descriptions in part II of the book are generic enough to be applied with most any text, and because the activities can be mixed and matched to create a wide variety of lesson plans, the results are a far cry from the very scripted lesson plans that launched my career in student-centered learning, and maybe that is why teachers and students learn to love the results.
Mark A Forget, May 16
Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York: Longman.
Forget, M. (2004). MAX teaching with reading & writing: Classroom activities for helping students learn new subject matter while acquiring literacy skills. Victoria, BC: Trafford.
Huey, E. (1908). The psychology and pedagogy of reading. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lemov, D., Woolway, E., and Yezzi, K. (2012). Practice perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better. New Jersey: Jossey-Bass.
Mendler, A. (2012). When teaching gets tough: Smart ways to reclaim your game. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
I don’t see the CCSS as a “flavor of the week” as many in education might be led to believe. The reason I say this is that the essence of the CCSS is not so much the content to be taught as it is the processes that should be used to help students simultaneously acquire both content and the ability to learn – across the board use of literacy skills in the classroom, with students doing silent reading for upwards of 90 minutes a day (or an average of 15 minutes in each of six classrooms) according to Lucy Calkins et al. (Pathways to the Common Core, 2012). According to Pathways to the Common Core, the CCSS
… emphasize much higher-level comprehension skills than previous standards.
… emphasize reading complex texts.
… call for proficiency, complexity, and independence.
… support cross-curricular literacy coaching.
… require that every student is given access to higher-order thinking and complex text.
… emphasize argumentative literacy.
… expect a minimum of 90 minutes per day of silent reading in the classroom.
If most teachers only knew what those of us who have been using these methods in our classrooms for decades knew, they would celebrate the change. But alas, this sort of change doesn’t come easily. We are stuck in what Joyce & Showers (2002) call a “culturally normative model” of instruction (p. 37). It is culturally normative because we all recognize it and have lived through it. It works for a fraction of students, but the fraction becomes smaller as the amount of knowledge out there, and the means of attaining information change. The culturally normative model is teacher-centered and knowledge-centered. It is generally not a way to help students to perform higher-order thinking. Rather, it is about conveying knowledge – often obsolete knowledge, or knowledge that may seem obsolete to the recipients of it.
Teachers who already use the techniques of content-literacy-based instruction (read CCSS) in their classrooms can easily identify with the following Martin Heidegger quote from the early 1950’s:
“Teaching is even more difficult than learning. We know that; but we rarely think about it. And why is teaching more difficult than learning? Not because the teacher must have a larger store of information, and have it always ready. Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than—learning… The teacher is far ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices.”
Unfortunately, many in the teaching profession might completely reject this notion of teaching as “letting learn” because it is so far outside the culturally normative model, and because many teachers would not know where to begin to implement such a regime in their classrooms. Yet, the CCSS is asking of teachers exactly that. Through the use of content-literacy-based instructional techniques, any teacher can facilitate active student participation in discussions that cause the students to perform higher-order thinking as a routine way of processing ideas. To make this happen in a classroom, the teacher would need to feel confident in the abilities of students to think. (They can.) She would also need to feel confident in the use of classroom activities that might not be something she has seen much of in her lifetime. (Literacy-based activities work.) If a teacher has the experience – year after year – of watching students of all ability levels acquiring the joys of becoming successful learners, that teacher will never look back to the culturally normative model.
So, yes, the CCSS requires many to rethink what they do in their classrooms, and the changes required will need to be supported by schools and school systems. They are changes that will lead to college and career readiness, and the changes will prepare students of all ability levels for a lifetime of successful learning. The culturally normative model – designed for an era long gone – won’t. So don’t fight it; celebrate it, and watch yourself grow as a teacher.