by John Jensen
Making numbers useful. Before we examine a number, we need to understand what makes it useful. There is no limit to accurate numbers offering zero benefit.
The key quality evident in common experience is its social significance. The number occurs in a context regarded by people as having worth. Circumstances align to inform everyone, “This is important!” — a perception directly affecting their interest in the number and their cooperation in generating it.
People commonly assume that economic numbers such as pay grade weigh heaviest, but students are not in that game yet. People assume also that obtaining later opportunity influences current effort, but students possess notoriously poor imagination for how their current actions affect future advantages.
What matters most to students instead is immediate recognition of and celebration for effort. A hindrance to obtaining this is official preoccupation with results instead of effort. The distinction is subtle. Results are indeed important but the focus for class today is effort. Results are affected by many factors beyond a student’s control. Today’s possible learning largely depends on the jumpoff from yesterday’s. Where do we start from? The student can no longer influence yesterday’s achievement, yet it conditions today’s. The stimulation and support of other people are outside his control, and habits that brought his results to this point came only cumulatively. The teacher’s instructional approach lies far beyond his management.
The net effect of these conditions is that on any given day, he has but a small margin within which to reach for better results. Think then about yourself: How do you feel when others judge you based mainly on conditions over which you have no control? Doesn’t feel good, does it?
There is an alternative. What if we engage the student in a process of effort that steadily generates deep learning, and we reinforce the process? If we are clear that he knows how to study in a manner guaranteeing deep learning, our concern shifts. We know results arrive as fast as they can if we only maintain the process that brings them. With our eye fixed on his process, we monitor the time he spends at it. As he continues in it, we know he will succeed.
The principle applies to students of every ability. Their current stage of learning doesn’t matter. With a process that works at all stages, they advance as rapidly as they can from whatever their starting point. We just clock their use of the optimal means. Assuming then that we had a metric enabling us to monitor such a process, how do we make that number come alive? How do we make it interesting and motivating?
Administrators, here is your moment. We need you personally for something. Because your role is systemically significant, your presence and interest carry automatic weight. Your observations and opinions affect others. You need only exhibit presence as a person to literally deliver significance to a given classroom activity.
To grasp the point, imagine that someone important to you shows up at your office, observes your activity, and exclaims, “Wow! That’s great.” Compare that to you quietly, unnoticed, invisibly accomplishing a task verified only by a number that finds its way into a category somewhere in the bowels of your organization. What’s the difference to you? By showing up and face to face surrounding the number with personal significance, the visitor “delivers” significance to you, and you do the same to teachers and students.
A rationale. The metric I nominate as decisive concerns talking about learning. To appreciate the point at a simple level, we begin just with talking itself. Say you are a teacher with a student so non-verbal that you can literally count on the fingers of one hand the words she speaks in a day. This worries you for a host of reasons, not least that it inhibits her ability to learn, so you decide to help her by measuring something she manages: you count words.
You tell her, “Let’s keep track of how many words you say out loud every day.” You make a chart with zero on the bottom and a hundred at the top, and columns for each day. The first day, she has already spoken six words and so has success going. You make a dot at six. The next day you ask her to count up every word she speaks. You start off a line chart, and celebrate with her every upward movement of the line.
Your interest is the motivating factor. Face to face you make her number of words significant, and hour by hour you add up numbers. Within a couple weeks she maxes out the initial goal of a hundred words and sails onward. You used three steps: make an issue socially significant, measure it objectively, and acknowledge progress.
Your problem may be broader. You may realize that in your class you do most of the talking while your students speak mostly to distract each other. While it’s commonly understood that student talk deepens learning better than does teacher talk, the amount of actual talk in classrooms skews heavily toward the latter. About learning, teachers do most of it, which may describe you.
The downside of this arises from children’s need to construct knowledge word by word. It’s axiomatic that teachers “learn a subject by teaching it,” but the corollary doesn’t sink in: “Students learn a subject by expressing it.” Since it’s fun to develop your knowledge by explaining it to others, teachers may not realize that they indulge their own pleasure by talking far beyond the amount needed for students’ optimum learning. Students cannot assimilate knowledge through verbalizing it if no one listens to them. “Talking it out” enables them to absorb and give better order to random perceptions and thoughts.
Student talk is needed also because curriculum constantly drives novel information past their minds (from the Latin “currere,” meaning “to run.” Think of chariots or racers). The burden of what they need to say perpetually lags the oncoming flood of new information. Every day they get more long before they have the prior well embedded.
Expressing their learning is the only way they can deepen it, either by writing or speaking. And while the writing process is critical, the quantity of information is too great for writing alone to accommodate all the assimilative activity needed. Speaking it is the crucial activity through which they assimilate what they retain.
Their talk also aids academics indirectly because it’s social. If knowledge is being spoken, particularly one to one, it becomes a legitimate focus of reciprocity between students. If it is not spoken, it remains less integrated, more piecemeal (even if sufficient to pass tests), and a higher proportion of students remain socially isolated. Connecting them to their friends through expressing learning, we harness a fundamental need in service of our goal.
Determining a useful metric. A metric can assist that shift for an entire class. Here’s the play to do that as you visit classrooms:
Buy two stopwatches to carry with you. Bring also a small notepad, calculator, and masking tape. You obtain the metric by comparing two numbers obtained from the stopwatches. Plan to spend as much randomly-aimed time in classrooms as you can until you have communicated to the district the values the metric embodies. To be compelling, the metric needs to be applied long enough to show a change due to teachers’ intentional activity, but it need not be burdensome to generate.
1. Choose the day’s school and classroom randomly. Randomness helps. It lets everyone know that they are not being picked on, that no one “has it in for them,” and that everyone in the district has an equal chance of receiving your attention. You might find a simpler way, but one is to tack on a corkboard a list of all the schools in the district. Step back a few paces and throw a dart at the list. Whichever school is closest is nominated. Then post the floor plan of that school, throw the dart again, and the room closest to your dart is nominated. The game-like quality of the selection process should enhance interest.
2. Sometime that day, visit the selected classroom. As you step into it, begin timing with stopwatch #1. This is just to determine your total elapsed time in the room, a baseline figure against which to plot a percentage. What you compare to this number is the key to the metric.
3. Once in the room, begin just by watching. Wait until you observe a student talk about the subject matter and click on stopwatch #2. Click it off when he or she ceases talking. Don’t count the time teachers spend asking questions or explaining. Count only the time of one or more students talking, which is the quantity we want to increase. When a second student begins, restart stopwatch #2 and continue to add to the prior total.
4. When classroom activity is structured so that more than one student talks about subject matter at the same time, open the notepad you brought with you and jot down two numbers. One is the minute-reading on stopwatch #2 (e.g. “5” for the fifth minute) and to the left of it the number of students talking at once. If the class is seated in four discussion groups with one student at a time speaking in each, you write “4” left of the 5. When the segment of student talk ceases, note the ending minute to the right of the 5 (e.g. “12”).
5. Later when you leave the class, click off stopwatch #1 and do some calculating. First multiply the number of students talking times the amount of time they spend at it as in 4. above. The product of those two numbers is “person-minutes talking” (e.g. 4 students x 7 minutes = 28 person-minutes). If a class of eighteen students is arranged in nine pairs, in which students ask each other the questions from prior lessons and all participate by either speaking or listening, the 4 becomes a 9 to multiply by the time spent.
6. Your second calculation determines what percent the prior number is compared to the total time you spent in the class. The formula is (total person-minutes obtained from stopwatch #2) divided by (total time spent in the classroom from stopwatch #1) equals (percent of total time that is student talking time). The higher that figure (which can exceed 100% as multiple students talk at once), the richer is the use of class time for students expressing their learning.
7. Post visibly the percentage you calculated for the room. Out in the hallway, rip a page from your notepad, write on it the percent you obtained, and tape it to the wall outside the room. This gives the teacher and students something to aim at. Next time you come, they want to know, how they can “beat their record”? As desired, you can utilize the percentages in other ways as well.
Answering an objection. If you’re concerned that teachers may do the organizational equivalent of teaching to the test, this is no problem. It’s what you want. Let’s say that the moment a teacher sees you step into the room, he/she says, “Okay kids, Green Light.” Everyone instantly finds a partner and they begin asking and answering the questions comprising the entire semester’s learning to that point. What you have before you is the maximum possible number of students expressing their learning. In order to accomplish this, they had to:
- organize and write down their learning to make such a practice design easy.
- carry out the practice often enough previously to gain facility with the format.
- buy into cooperating with the teacher’s direction to do it.
- take pleasure demonstrating their ability to a visitor.
- judge it significant to meet and exceed your expectations.
It’s entirely unlikely that students will spend too much time talking about their learning with each other just to meet your standards. If each one managed to spend half the total class time expressing their learning, results would vault upward, but the optimum amount (expression compared to receiving input) is likely to be even more weighted toward the former. On some occasions, closer to four times the amount of self-expression compared to input from teacher or book is the most productive.
Likely results. By explaining to your district why you are doing this, you convey a value about producing learning. At the very least, it will help teachers be more conscious of how their own talk enhances or inhibits learning. Applying the metric over time, you are likely to discover that students 1) improve their relationships, 2) assimilate new ideas better, 3) retain them more deeply, 4) claim them as their own, and 5) become more interested in learning. 6) Test scores rise, 7) teachers’ stress diminishes, and 8) students spontaneously talk more about their learning with each other and their parents.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: firstname.lastname@example.org