Friday, September 4, 2015

Lessons in Education, Featuring Gary Larson: Part VII

By Ed Tech Maniac, Darin Anderson


Life is full of questions. It is also full of the search for answers. Knowing that, a question unasked is an answer unfound.

So here is a pop quiz:

#1) How many questions does a teacher average over the course of a typical school day?

Click here for the answer

#2) How many meaningful questions does a typical student ask throughout a normal school day?

Click here for the answer

#3) What needs to change?

Here is an alarming graphic taken from Warren Berger's book, A More Beautiful Question:

As our students increase in age, the amount of questions they ask decreases significantly. While this is not a post about the causation of such a dramatic drop (children are naturally curious, while older students read and write to find answers, for example), it should serve as a wake up call to educators about, first, the disparity between teacher and student questions, and second, the types of questions asked.

Certainly, students of all ages have a zillion questions during a school day, but most of them revolve around rote tasks or procedures:
When is this due? How many points is it worth? Or, May I use the bathroom?

And teachers are often no better, posing such though-provoking inquiries such as
"Who can tell me the circumference of earth? What is the answer to #2? Or, Why do you all act like second graders?
Humans are curious. We want to know things, especially when they pertain to us directly. Students are certainly no different. And yet, educators repeatedly herd them into rows, subject them to mind-numbing facts, statistics, and concepts, and expect them to respond correctly at the drop of a hat.

Anyone who has spent considerable time in a classroom knows that the cycle described above works for only one person - the teacher. However, ritual compliance and fearful injections of knowledge only go so far. We have created, by and large, a culture of kids who expect to show up to school to be given what they need to know "for the test" but who otherwise have no personal connection to the material.

Here are five simple techniques to help involve students in the inquiry process and thus help them become self-directed learners:

  • Non-Linguistic Representations - Using pictures, images, memes, and video clips help engage students in material by activating their schema and curiosity about a topic. For example, introduce a lesson on hurricanes with this picture, and wait for student questions and subsequent discussion: 
    Give students opportunities to create and explore their own
    questions after examining pictures, images, videos, etc.
  • Text Annotation - Most every teacher asks their students to mark up text, but how many educators take it a step or two further and give the kids time to examine, on their own or with guidance, some possible answers to their questions? More than just summarizing or responding to TEACHER-made questions, when kids can formulate their own inquiries, the likelihood of personal attachment increases.
  • Closing the Diamond - Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman, of Miravia-Leading Groups, talk of getting everyone in the game by starting with the individual and working out. The Diamond Pattern starts with an individual response or inquiry based upon any given teacher prompt. Starting this way gives each student a chance to formulate thoughts in the same window as his or her peers. Then, before going to whole group responses, as is the ages-old custom in schools, the students respond in pairs or small groups, allowing for safety in the intimacy of small numbers. Once responses and questions are verified, then the entire class can jump in to share ideas. To complete the diamond, it goes back to the individual who has a quiet moment to reflect on his or her initial thoughts and make adjustments as needed.
  • Research Notebooks - Like a personal diary is only good if it spurs reflection and growth, a research notebook can be a place where students write questions and comments about their learning. If, during a lesson, a student concocts a serious question that cannot be answered then and there, a simple notebook can become of vast importance. So often kids have great questions that simply cannot be dealt with in the time and space provided. As long as the kids have sufficient opportunity to revisit their inquiries, the learning will go deeper than class time discussions. The key is to set aside time for personal discovery without the teacher being the sole source of information. It is unfeasible for 1 adult to sufficiently answer the questions of 25+ students in 50 minutes. Let research notebooks, and sacred exploration time, handle some of that load.
  • Making Inferences and Activating Schema - Two longstanding skills can also be valuable questioning tools, as students engage in discussion about the validity and plausibility of their inferences and the depth of their schema. As learning begins where base knowledge ends, teachers must take full advantage of that intersection. The ZPD theory (or the "flow" idea of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) states that students learn best when challenged at or near the end of their knowledge rope, so to speak. Beginning too deep, or too shallow, is a certain way to lose kids' interest.

Now, here are two difficult and often overbearing barriers of involving students in the questioning process...

1. Students are conditioned, in so many ways, to not take an active role in their own learning, even though we know it works. John Hattie, of Visible Learning fame, assigns substantial effect sizes to instructional strategies that explicitly involve students in their own learning, yet we have students who ask an average of 1 meaningful question per day.

2. Teachers, under the gun from local, state, and federal authorities, are not willing to loosen the reigns in fear of an out-of-control horse careening into their otherwise enjoyable world. If I can keep them under control, I can make them learn, the thought goes.

Exacting change in anything takes time, especially when federal dollars and age-old habits are so heavily embedded in the mix.
As educators, students, and parents continue the fight for a more viable educational experience for all, we will see a widespread change that will be better for everyone!

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