Can Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

EdWeek

Editor’s Note: Karen Martin, elementary teacher and instructional coach for Denali Borough School District in Alaska, traveled to Finland as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grantee. She visited over 50 different classrooms and observed almost 70 different teachers and teacher trainees. Her biggest takeaway: that Finnish teachers think and teach in a way that encourages inquiry. Here’s how she brought this lesson back home.

By guest blogger Karen Martin

It is difficult to observe, let alone internationally benchmark, thinking, but one of the most profound lessons we can learn from Finland is how to nurture the development of a “thinking profession” of teachers. If we want to create an intellectual, thinking culture for our students, it is imperative that it also becomes the norm for teachers.

Through many conversations and interviews with Finnish teachers, I began to realize that they fundamentally approach their work differently than American teachers. These teachers are the product of an intentionally designed education philosophy called research-based teacher education, which has as its central goal to educate inquiry-oriented teachers. The outcomes of this type of training are competencies that empower teachers to utilize scientific skills and thinking to critically examine their own practice and to make reflective changes in the moment as they teach. The integration and development of a scientific understanding of educational research and the research process supports a mindset of reflection and evidence-based inquiry that infuses throughout their pedagogical knowing and practice.

How Do You Help Teachers Develop a Research Mindset and Skills? 

The question I carried with me throughout my adventure in Finland was how could I transfer my learning to my own context to benefit the professional lives of my colleagues? When I returned to my school district, I worked with a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to create a continuing education course titled, “Engaging Teachers in Action Research.”

karen_martin.pngThrough this course, my teaching colleagues and I developed the basic technical competencies to design participatory action research projects. Through the course, my colleagues could begin to understand how research thinking can be used to more objectively tackle recurring problems of practice and use new types of evidence to critically inform our decision-making, reflections, and our impact.

In the first year of our action research work, eight teachers collaboratively designed investigations to better understand and affect student engagement. Our collaboration forged relationships of authentic trust as we exposed ourselves to the vulnerability of opening up our classrooms to each other, sharing our fears and struggles in teaching, and working collectively to find answers to difficult problems that have persisted throughout our teaching careers.

How Do You Change Teacher Thinking?

One of the most powerful lenses and sources of evidence that my colleagues and I continue to utilize in our action research is a method of analyzing our own thinking in moments of teaching. This is accomplished through a method called “guided reflection” that uses video analysis. In our action research projects, we use video recordings to capture our classroom teaching for analysis of evidence. We then watch the videos of our teaching with a colleague within days of recording a video.

In the videos, we choose critical incidents that help us understand our pedagogical decisions related to our research questions. We analyze these critical incidents by asking what happened, why did it happen, what were we thinking when it happened, and why were we thinking that?

Through this intentional method of developing reflective thinking, we gather evidence directly related to our own impact within our classrooms and have increased our strength and capacity to inquire into our teaching practice at a deeper level. The use of video study has made us more mindful and changed our interactions and metacognition while we are present with students.

Can Experienced Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

During the second year of our action research, our cohort decided to investigate the concept of learned helplessness to better understand how we as teachers influence the ability of our students to persevere and develop positive beliefs about learning. Collectively, we asked:

  • How do we influence these behaviors in our students?
  • How can we influence our students’ beliefs about learning?

Fundamentally, these questions are at the very core of our most important and transferable work with students—their ability to become self-regulated learners and their productive beliefs about learning.

The year-long investigation included seven different classrooms in our K-12 school and helped us to better understand what our students believe about learning. We engaged students in conversations about making mistakes, we structured student reflections around making thinking visible, we explicitly taught content about how the brain learns, and we made discussions about what learning feels like part of classroom culture.

Most importantly, our work involved video study analysis of the specific language we used with students and how we interact with students in the moments of teaching. These video reflections helped us realize how we needed to change our teaching behaviors to allow students to do the rigorous work of learning. It is only through video study that we observed how often we rushed in to help our students and how the specific language we used rescued our students from productive struggles and learning.

Through action research, including the use of video reflection, we have witnessed a powerful shift in the embedded beliefs of experienced teachers (some with over 20 years of experience), who had never stopped to question their own thinking and actions. We are experiencing some of the principles and outcomes of Finnish research-based teacher education.

By investigating our own practice and learning to reflect deeply on our pedagogical thinking and decision-making, we have initiated a powerful shift in our classroom cultures that has more firmly placed learning in the hands of our students. The impact of this work on our students and teachers is tangible. Teacher action research and the use of video study for guided reflection can change teacher thinking in a way that positively impacts the culture of learning for students.

Connect with Karen and Heather on Twitter.
 Image created on Pablo

References:

Husu, J., Toom, A., & Patrikainen, S. (2008). Guided reflection as a means to demonstrate and develop student teachers’ reflective competencies. Reflective Practice 9(1), 37 – 51.

Kansanen, P. (1991).  Pedagogical thinking: the basic problem of teacher education.  European Journal of Education, 26 (3), 251 – 260.

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Extending the Silence

Edutopia

Giving students several seconds to think after asking a question—and up to two minutes for some questions—improves their learning.

Kids raising hands in an elementary school class.

©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?

Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.

Wow.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.

In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).

The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.

One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?

STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH TIME TO THINK

Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.

I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.

Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.

Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.

In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.

Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.

One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.

Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.

PLACING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF LEARNING

We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.

Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.

What Students Remember Most About Teachers

Edutopia

Teacher and student smiling at each other

©Shuttertstock.com/Monkey Business Images
Dear Young Teacher Down the Hall,I saw you as you rushed past me in the lunch room. Urgent. In a hurry to catch a bite before the final bell would ring calling all the students back inside. I noticed that your eyes showed tension. There were faint creases in your forehead. And I asked you how your day was going and you sighed.

“Oh, fine,” you replied.

But I knew it was anything but fine. I noticed that the stress was getting to you. I could tell that the pressure was rising. And I looked at you and made an intentional decision to stop you right then and there. To ask you how things were really going. Was it that I saw in you a glimpse of myself that made me take the moment?

You told me how busy you were, how much there was to do. How little time there was to get it all done. I listened. And then I told you this:

I told you to remember that at the end of the day, it’s not about the lesson plan. It’s not about the fancy stuff we teachers make — the crafts we do, the stories we read, the papers we laminate. No, that’s not really it. That’s not what matters most.

And as I looked at you, wearing all that worry and under all that strain, I said it’s about being there for your kids. Because at the end of the day, most students won’t remember what amazing lesson plans you’ve created. They won’t remember how organized your bulletin boards are. How straight and neat are the desk rows.

No, they’ll not remember that amazing decor you’ve designed.

But they will remember you.

Your kindness. Your empathy. Your care and concern. They’ll remember that you took the time to listen. That you stopped to ask them how they were. How they really were. They’ll remember the personal stories you tell about your life: your home, your pets, your kids. They’ll remember your laugh. They’ll remember that you sat and talked with them while they ate their lunch.

Two children sitting together

Because at the end of the day, what really matters is YOU. What matters to those kids that sit before you in those little chairs, legs pressed up tight under tables oft too small — what matters to them is you.You are that difference in their lives.

And when I looked at you then with tears in your eyes, emotions rising to the surface, and I told you gently to stop trying so hard — I also reminded you that your own expectations were partly where the stress stemmed. For we who truly care are often far harder on ourselves than our students are willing to be. Because we who truly care are often our own worst enemy. We mentally beat ourselves up for trivial failures. We tell ourselves we’re not enough. We compare ourselves to others. We work ourselves to the bone in the hopes of achieving the perfect lesson plan. The most dynamic activities. The most engaging lecture. The brightest, fanciest furnishings.

Because we want our students to think we’re the very best at what we do and we believe that this status of excellence is achieved merely by doing. But we forget — and often. Excellence is more readily attained by being.

Being available.
Being kind.
Being compassionate.
Being transparent.
Being real.
Being thoughtful.
Being ourselves.

And of all the students I know who have lauded teachers with the laurels of the highest acclaim, those students have said of those teachers that they cared.

You see, kids can see through to the truth of the matter. And while the flashy stuff can entertain them for a while, it’s the steady constance of empathy that keeps them connected to us. It’s the relationships we build with them. It’s the time we invest. It’s all the little ways we stop and show concern. It’s the love we share with them: of learning. Of life. And most importantly, of people.

And while we continually strive for excellence in our profession as these days of fiscal restraint and heavy top-down demands keep coming at us — relentless and quick. We need to stay the course. For ourselves and for our students. Because it’s the human touch that really matters.

It’s you, their teacher, that really matters.

So go back to your class and really take a look. See past the behaviors, the issues and the concerns, pressing as they might be. Look beyond the stack of papers on your desk, the line of emails in your queue. Look further than the classrooms of seasoned teachers down the hall. Look. And you will see that it’s there- right inside you. The ability to make an impact. The chance of a lifetime to make a difference in a child’s life. And you can do this now.

Right where you are, just as you are.

Because all you are right now is all you ever need to be for them today. And who you are tomorrow will depend muchon who and what you decide to be today.

It’s in you. I know it is.

Fondly,

That Other Teacher Down the Hall

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

The Importance of Wait Time

Extending the Silence

Edutopia

Giving students several seconds to think after asking a question—and up to two minutes for some questions—improves their learning.

 

©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?

Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.

Wow.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.

In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).

The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.

One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?

STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH TIME TO THINK

Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.

I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.

Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.

Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.

In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.

Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.

One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.

Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.

PLACING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF LEARNING

We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.

Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.

Teaching a Class With Big Ability Differences

Edutopia

Techniques for meeting the needs of students with diverse abilities and interests.
Engaged students at work in a classroom

How do you teach the same concepts and skills to students with diverse abilities and interests? Different learning profiles? And how do you do that in real classrooms, with limited time to plan?

Differentiated instruction is one answer that has been extensively documented (see “Recommended Resources” at the end of this post). I want to share two fundamental tenets of DI before describing specific tactics:

With that in mind, here are specific techniques you can use to meet the needs of students with a range of abilities.

1. Start Slow

Experiencing comprehensive student-centered instruction for the first time makes some kids uneasy. I’ll never forget the high school girl who ate an entire roll of cherry Tums the day I introduced my choice-based syllabus. Gradually integrate a student-centered curriculum, says Dr. Kathie Nunley, by asking learners to “choose between two or three assignments” that can be completed before the end of class.

2. Introduce Compacting for High Achievers

Compacting curriculum lessens the tedium that elite achievers experience when they master concepts faster than their peers. The Gifted Program at the University of Connecticut recommends using pre-assessments to determine how these learners can skip specific chapters or activities. Then offer “mini-courses on research topics” or “small group projects” as alternatives in a compacting contract.

3. Provide Choice

Choice is motivating and empowering. Let students choose:

  • how they learn with others—individually, in pairs, in small groups, or with the whole class.
  • the difficulty levels of assignments, using menu-based tools like choice boardstic-tac-toe boards (see p. 14–15), or activity menus. The digital version, Interactive Learning Menus, provide links to in-depth assignment descriptions, examples, and rubrics. Content can also be curated and remixed into Learning Playlists with online tools like MentorMob and BlendSpace.
  • what content they study. With Literature Study Circles, an entire English class can investigate and discuss “gender and identity” by selecting one of several books hand-picked to address that theme.
  • what quiz questions they answer. Page one of a test might say, “Pick three of the following five questions that you’re most confident answering.” Students can also vote on when to complete an exam.
  • what, where, when, and how they learn, via individual learning contracts. Be forewarned that students need intensive instruction and patience as they compose their own contracts.

4. Bake Assessments Into Every Class

Student-centered instruction is only as consequential as its assessment. Teachers need to know where kids are in their academic journey, how they learn best, and what interests them. These assessments can help:

  • Educator Chandra Manning recommends two graphic organizers, “Who I Am” and “All About Me Gazette,” for collecting information about students’ interests.
  • Kids complete the “3-Minute Pause” reflection protocol after a lesson concludes.
  • Teacher-student conferences can quickly help teachers determine how learners are progressing and what further support they need.
  • Differentiation expert Deborah Blaz reports that student-created rubrics help instructors identify schema strengths and gaps. For advanced learners, Blaz adds an extra column with challenging criteria to her rubrics.
  • When creating tests, include different question types that might address students’ preferences: multiple choice, short answer, timelines, matching, true or false, graphic organizers to label, and sentences that are partially completed.
  • Have students visually document their academic progress “by creating a ‘benchmark timeline’ of weekly tasks. Each Friday, students initial the timeline, indicating where they are in the task sequence.”
  • Professor Helen Barrett defines the learning portfolio as “a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress, and achievements in one or more areas.”

5. Provide High- and No-Tech Scaffolding for Reading

  • Rewordify, a text compactor, simplifies and shortens readings so that students with diverse comprehension abilities can comprehend and discuss the same article.
  • To find readings that are adjusted for high, medium, or low Lexile levels, use the informational texts in Newsela, the Smithsonian’s Tween Tribune, or News in Levels—the latter also provides audio versions of the articles for additional support.
  • Distribute Comprehension Bookmarks (see pp. 13–26) to readers who might struggle with a complex text.

6. Offer Targeted Scaffolding for Young Writers

  • For academic writing, temporarily supply a word bank of transitions, an essay structure graphic, or sentence frames.
  • The free SAS Writing Reviser, which integrates beautifully with Google Docs, analyzes essays for sentence economy, variety, power, and identifies clarity and grammar issues. Ask advanced writers to analyze and assess their compositions’ sentence variety and use of passive voice, while struggling writers can use the SAS tool to diagnose fragments, run-on sentences, and dangling modifiers.

If learners haven’t adapted to our classroom, classroom instruction should adapt to learners by experimenting with student-centered strategies.

Recommended Resources

Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It

Edutopia

Our brains are wired to forget, but there are research-backed strategies you can use to make your teaching stick.

Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.

In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.

“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”

The Forgetting Curve

We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.

Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 10.09.58 PM

So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.

The Persistence of Memory

The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.

MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.

Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:

  1. NPFXOSK
  2. ORANGES

For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.

5 Teacher Strategies

When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.

Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:

  1. Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning(Sekeres et al., 2016).
  2. The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
  3. Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
  4. Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
  5. Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).

So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.

To Boost Higher-Order Thinking, Try Curation

APRIL 15, 2017


JENNIFER GONZALEZ

Curation-Pin

If no one has ever encouraged, pushed, or insisted that you build more higher-order thinking into your students’ learning, it’s possible you’ve been teaching in a cave.

Higher-level thinking has been a core value of educators for decades. We learned about it in college. We hear about it in PD. We’re even evaluated on whether we’re cultivating it in our classrooms: Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, a widely used instrument to measure teacher effectiveness, describes a distinguished teacher as one whose “lesson activities require high-level student thinking” (Domain 3, Component 3c).

All that aside, most teachers would say they want their students to be thinking on higher levels, that if our teaching kept students at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy—simply recalling information—we wouldn’t be doing a very good job as teachers.

And yet, when it’s time to plan the learning experiences that would have our students operating on higher levels, some of us come up short. We may not have a huge arsenal of ready-to-use, high-level tasks to give our students. Instead, we often default to having students identify and define terms, label things, or answer basic recall questions. It’s what we know. And we have so much content to cover, many of us might feel that there really isn’t time for the higher-level stuff anyway.

If this sounds anything like you, I have a suggestion: Try a curation assignment.

WHAT IS CURATION?

When a museum director curates, she collects artifacts, organizes them into groups, sifts out everything but the most interesting or highest-quality items, and shares those collections with the world. When an editor curates poems for an anthology, he does the same thing.

The process can be applied to all kinds of content: A person could curate a collection of articles, images, videos, audio clips, essays, or a mixture of items that all share some common attribute or theme. When we are presented with a list of the “Top 10” anything or the “Best of” something else, what we’re looking at is a curated list. Those playlists we find on Spotify and Pandora? Curation. “Recommended for You” videos on Netflix? Curation. The news? Yep, it’s curated. In an age where information is ubiquitous and impossible to consume all at once, we rely on the curation skills of others to help us process it all.

In an educational setting, curation has a ton of potential as an academic task. Sure, we’re used to assigning research projects, where students have to gather resources, pull out information, and synthesize that information into a cohesive piece of informational or argumentative writing. This kind of work is challenging and important, and it should remain as a core assignment throughout school, but how often do we make the collection of resources itself a stand-alone assignment?

That’s what I’m proposing we do. Curation projects have the potential to put our students to work at three different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:

  • Understand, where we exemplify and classify information
  • Analyze, where we distinguish relevant from irrelevant information and organize it in a way that makes sense
  • Evaluate, where we judge the quality of an item based on a set of criteria

If we go beyond Bloom’s and consider the Framework for 21st Century Learning put out by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, we’ll see that critical thinking is one of the 4C’s listed as an essential skill for students in the modern age (along with communication, creativity, and collaboration) and a well-designed curation project requires a ton of critical thinking.

So what would a curation project look like?

A SAMPLE CURATION TASK

Suppose you’re teaching U.S. history, and you want students to understand that our constitution is designed to be interpreted by the courts, and that many people interpret it differently. So you create a curation assignment that focuses on the first amendment.

The task: Students must choose ONE of the rights given to us by the first amendment. To illustrate the different ways people interpret that right, students must curate a collection of online articles, images, or videos that represent a range of beliefs about how far that right extends. For each example they include, they must summarize the point of view being presented and include a direct quote where the author or speaker’s biases or beliefs can be inferred.

Here is what one submission might look like, created on a platform called eLink (click here to view the whole thing).

Because they are finding examples of a given concept and doing some summarizing, students in this task are working at the Understand level of Bloom’s. But they are also identifying where the author or speaker is showing bias or purpose, which is on the Analyze level.

MORE PROJECT IDEAS

Ranked Collection: Students collect a set of articles, images, videos, or even whole websites based on a set of criteria (the most “literary” song lyrics of the year, or the world’s weirdest animal adaptations) and rank them in some kind of order, justifying their rankings with a written explanation or even a student-created scoring system. Each student could be tasked with creating their own collection or the whole class could be given a pre-selected collection to rank. This would be followed by a discussion where students could compare and justify their rankings with those of other students. (Bloom’s Level: Evaluate)

Shared Trait Collection: This would house items that have one thing in common. This kind of task would work in so many different subject areas. Students could collect articles where our government’s system of checks and balances are illustrated, images of paintings in the impressionist style, videos that play songs whose titles use metaphors. It could even be used as part of a lesson using the concept attainment strategy, where students develop an understanding of a complex idea by studying “yes” and “no” examples of it. By curating their own examples after studying the concept, they will further developing their understanding of it. (Bloom’s Level: Understand).

Literature Review: As the first step of a research project, students could collect relevant resources and provide a brief summary of each one, explaining how it contributes to the current understanding of their topic. As high school students prepare for college, having a basic understanding of what a literature review is and the purpose it serves—even if they are only doing it with articles written outside of academia—will help them take on the real thing with confidence when that time comes. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for the summarization, Analyze for the sorting and selecting of relevant material)

Video Playlist: YouTube is bursting at the seams with videos, but how much of it is actually good? Have students take chunks of your content and curate the best videos out there to help other students understand those concepts. In the item’s description, have students explain why they chose it and what other students will get out of it. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for summarization, Evaluate for judging the quality of the videos)

Museum Exhibit: Task students with curating a digital “exhibit” around a given theme. The more complex the theme, the more challenging the task. For example, they might be asked to assume the role of a museum owner who hates bees, and wants to create a museum exhibit that teaches visitors all about the dangers of bees. This kind of work would help students understand that even institutions that might not own up to any particular bias, like museums, news agencies, or tv stations, will still be influenced by their own biases in how they curate their material. (Bloom’s Level: Understand if it’s just a collection of representative elements, Create if they are truly creating a new “whole” with their collection, such as representing a particular point of view with their choices)

Real World Examples: Take any content you’re teaching (geometry principles, grammar errors, science or social studies concepts) and have students find images or articles that illustrate that concept in the real world. (Bloom’s level: Understand).

Favorites: Have students pull together a personal collection of favorite articles, videos, or other resources for a Genius Hour, advisory, or other more personalized project: A collection of items to cheer you up, stuff to boost your confidence, etc. Although this could easily slide outside the realm of academic work, it would make a nice activity to help students get to know each other at the start of a school year or give them practice with the process of curation before applying it to more content-related topics.

FOR BEST RESULTS, ADD WRITING

Most of the above activities would not be very academically challenging if students merely had to assemble the collection. Adding a thoughtfully designed written component is what will make students do their best thinking in a curation assignment.

The simplest way to do this is to require a written commentary with each item in the collection. Think about those little signs that accompany every item at a museum: Usually when you walk into an exhibit, you find a sign or display that explains the exhibit as a whole, then smaller individual placards that help visitors understand the significance of each piece in the collection. When students put their own collections together, they should do the same thing.

Be specific about what you’d like to see in these short writing pieces, and include those requirements in your rubric. Then go a step further and create a model of your own, so students have a very clear picture of how the final product should look. Because this is a genre they have probably not done any work in before, they will do much better with this kind of scaffolding. Doing the assignment yourself first—a practice I like to call dogfooding—will also help you identify flaws in the assignment that can be tweaked before you hand it over to students.

DIGITAL CURATION TOOLS

It’s certainly possible for students to collect resources through non-digital means, by reading books in the library or curating physical artifacts or objects, but doing a curation project digitally allows for media-rich collections that can be found and assembled in a fraction of the time. And if you have students curating in groups, using digital tools will allow them to collaborate from home without having to meet in person.

Here are a few curation tools that would work beautifully for this kind of project:

  • Elink is the tool featured in the sample project above. Of all the tools suggested here, this one is the simplest. You collect your links, write descriptions, and end up with a single unique web page that you can share with anyone.
  • Pinterest is probably the most popular curation tool out there. If your students are already using Pinterest, or you’re willing to get them started, you could have them create a Pinterest board as a curation assignment.
  • Symbaloo allows users to create “webmixes,” boards of icons that each lead to different URLs. Although it would be possible to create a curated collection with Symbaloo, it doesn’t allow for the same amount of writing that some other tools do, so you would need to have students do their writing on a separate document.
  • Diigo is a good choice for a more text-driven project, like a literature review or a general collection of resources at the beginning stages of a research project, where images aren’t necessarily required. Diigo offers lots of space to take notes about every item in a collection, but it doesn’t have user-friendly supports for images or other media.

SHARE YOUR CURATION IDEAS

I’m so excited about all the different ways we can use curation in the classroom, and I would love to hear your ideas as well. Please share them in the comments below. If you have links to student samples, share those, too! ♦


WANT TO LEARN DIGITAL CURATION?

Curation is just one of the modules in JumpStart, my new online technology course created especially for educators. I thought carefully about what specific skills teachers need to make the most of classroom tech, chose 9 of them, and designed hands-on projects that will show you exactly how to use them.

If you’re ready to take your tech skills from so-so to rock solid, this course will change everything for you.