Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why students should model themselves after experts.

Some of the material I've been reading lately has helped me clarify my thinking, but not completely. So there's a bit of digestion going on in this post, with more to come after I finish Curriculum 21.

I've been struggling with Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? I wouldn't presume to question Willingham's discussion of the cognitive science behind memory and the structure of how the brain learns; that part of his book is instructive and very interesting. Instead, I'm struggling instead with some of the conclusions Willingham draws, such as Students Are Ready to Comprehend but Not to create Knowledge, which is a subtopic in one of his chapters. Another is that we can't effectively teach children about a subject by having them do what experts in the field are doing. He calls this Don't Expect Novices to Learn by Doing What Experts Do.

Just over a week ago, I was fortunate enough to attend Educon and tour the Science Leadership Academy where students do indeed learn by doing what experts do. In fact, one group of students is seeking a patent for a process that they wouldn't tell me very much about (smart kids!) Willingham makes a good case for the value of direct instruction. Sometimes, educators sound like we are eschewing direct instruction when what we're really doing is assuming it. Kids need some explicit instruction in order to be able to engage in meaningful project-based-learning. But, what value does the direction instruction have without application?

I like Willingham's call to clearly teach students about learning, and not just about content. I try to actually use the terms for the types of teaching I'm using and make the process more >> trendy term alert>>transparent for students. For example. my students know the term Imaginative Rehearsal and that it means they are using fiction and role play to imagine scenarios and the possible outcomes.

Just recently, someone pointed me towards How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (1999), specifically, chapter two: How Experts Differ From Novices. There's a fascinating description of an historical puzzle and the different approaches to solving the puzzle that experts and novices took. What constituted expertise? High content knowledge and strong process knowledge. The experts in the process of historical research were more likely to find the solution than were those with just high content knowledge. Those with both process expertise and high content knowledge in another area were able to solve the puzzle, but needed more time than the experts who already had relevant content knowledge. Those with only content knowledge did not solve the puzzle.

This finding encourages me. Willingham asserts that novices can't learn by imitating experts because their cognition isn't the same. But he never describes how to teach cognition. In contrast, the authors of How People Learn spend a great deal of time stressing the importance of metacognition, or thinking about your thinking. The virtuosos they describe were self-reflective enough to understand what they didn't know, to realize what they needed to learn, and then how to go about that learning. This is a process that even young students can learn. I've learned that when I work with teachers on improving their professional practice, it's important to find a way for them to be reflective. Not everyone is a blogger (writer), but that's not the only method for reflection. Michael Wesch, of has done fascinating work on video diary experience.

Most of the talk today about what makes meaningful learning are based in what Demitri Orlando and others call "any-century skills." I'm not one to think that only new books have implications for the classroom experience. The idea that students need intellectual agility didn't originate with Tony Wagner, although he does a masterful job of articulating why this matters. While I was completing my reading specialist work, there was research from decades ago that was meaningful and important.

I decided to ask a group of our sixth grade students what they thought about the idea that they weren't ready to "imitate experts yet." They had a lot to say! They gave me example after example of times they exhibited what I would call expert-like behavior. I wish I'd thought to video their responses. They also talked about how meaningful they find projects such as the student organized blood drive we're engaged in right now. This is a project that makes me proud of our students and our school every year!

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