Wednesday, March 8, 2017

4 Key Ways to Teach A Concept (Part 1 – students)

Lately I've talked with a few teachers who are confused about the messages they're hearing about current “best practices”. On the one hand, they hear that they're supposed to allow students to struggle and become more comfortable experiencing failure . On the other hand, their principal has docked them for conducting lessons that consist of too much questioning and not enough explicit modeling. How do they know what to do?

As always, Lucy Calkins and her colleagues have words of wisdom to offer. In the “A Guide to the Reading Workshop” that comes with the Units of Study boxed kits, they describe four key ways that we can teach a concept to others. As an example, they describe asking people to teach a partner “how to put on your shoe.” When we teach our partner, we usually default to these four main methods:
  • Demonstration: This involves explicitly modeling the targeted skill or strategy. The teacher should think aloud as he models, talking through the steps and possible misconceptions or confusions along the way. A teacher demonstrating how to put on your shoe would think aloud about the process: “Oops! I need to point my toe more to make sure the tongue doesn't get in the way. Now I'll slide my foot forward…” Calkins argues that demonstration should be included in 90% of our mini-lessons.

  • Guided Practice: We provide guided practice by working alongside a student as they attempt the skill or strategy, offering guidance and feedback as necessary. This shifts the responsibility partially onto the student, while allowing the teacher to actively teach. The shoe-teacher would coach the student by giving pointers: “Make sure to hold the back of your shoe while you point your toe.”

  • Explicitly telling and showing an example: I had to really think about how this was different than demonstration. After some thought, I realized that demonstration includes sharing the teacher's thinking aloud about a process, whereas explicitly telling has more to do with simply telling students a procedure. The shoe-teacher might have a chart with illustrated steps, and describe each step without actually modeling the procedure or sharing her own struggle with the process: “First, you should lift up the tongue, next you should point your toe, third you should…” There are times when this method is sufficient, but generally not if the concept is a difficult one.

  • Inquiry: In this approach, the teacher is not modeling at all, but instead asks the students to discover the answers themselves. “How do YOU think we could put on our shoes? Go ahead and discover by trying some different ways.”
A few weeks ago, I realized the subtle differences between these methods when I attempted to teach a group of 5th graders a way to find the main idea by looking for vivid language that revealed the author's point of view. The lesson flopped. Afterward, I realized it was because I didn't strongly demonstrate the key strategy I wanted kids to practice – determining which words in the article qualified as “vivid language.” Instead, I simply “told” the kids the words I was going to highlight: “This word frigid helps me imagine how cold it was, and when the author says the people were bundled up in the cold, that's another vivid word.” I was just telling and showing them the words I would highlight as “vivid” without clearly thinking through what made them vivid.

Instead, I should have been much clearer in my thinking aloud to make it a true demonstration lesson. If I had talked about visualizing the scene, and thought about which words were helping my mental picture become clear (frigid, bundled, miserable) and which were not (Wednesday, temperature, people) then the students might have understood better how to apply this thinking to their own reading. They needed to hear more about the process I used WHILE I tried the strategy, when instead I merely told them what to do.

If you're finding that some of your lessons are flopping like mine did, take a look at how well you're modeling the work you want kids to do. It helps to actually do the task or use the targeted strategy beforehand with an adult-level text while you pay close attention to your own thinking processes. Make sure you're going beyond simply telling.

Open up your head, and let your kids see the processes strong readers and writers use.

Have you tried this before? What works and what doesn’t? Share in the comments below.

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