The essential, underrated, underused teacher action is getting all students expressing their learning. Why should that be so?
Teachers do a host of things but not all enhance learning equally. Many are housekeeping or record keeping or operating the system. Some are instructional. For the sake of the argument, what if one specific instructional action by teachers boosted learning way beyond any other? Would we want to know, and check our use of it, and perhaps do more of it?
There’s a defensible rationale for such an objective. U.S. education is waiting to make a qualitative leap, so we would not want to overlook easy ways to make it happen. We wish to be alert to what teachers can do that causes student learning to blast off, that jump-starts students to incorporate knowledge more broadly, and deepen it more permanently. The means lie in three steps:
1. Define learning as what persists in the mind. In an ordinary classroom, this would be knowledge that can be called up explicitly for a test or spoken in answer to a teacher’s question. It’s not the kind of knowledge handed in for an assignment. The activity immediately preceding the expression of knowledge is consulting one’s inner bank of it, rather than searching for something in print or on the Internet. This is not to diminish the importance of collecting information, but information once collected should not remain in that form. For it to have meaning as education, some part of it must register in the mind, so that the expression of it arises out of the mind.
This type of knowledge enables students to pass tests handily, but deciding to define learning this way challenges standard instruction which labels as learning many activities that fall short of that standard. Answering to that standard exposes many common classroom activities as half-steps. Some entertain, others expose students to new ideas; students may look up references, copy information, process details, write out answers to questions, turn in assignments, and then forget about what they just did. The structure of effort engages them in a typical rhythm: focus, process, absorb, and dismiss. Then on to the next assignment and do the same: focus, process, absorb, and dismiss, over and over.
The problem worsens when we appreciate the meaning of “persists.” It means knowing the material not just a few hours after it has been studied, but knowing it next month, next semester, next year. Defining learning as turning in assignments and discarding them conveys the polar opposite of what we say we want—knowledge persisting.
2. Input and output of what you want learned. Student minds respond to the practice they engage in. Practicing anything is the direct route to improving at it, and we practice knowledge by explaining it. A two-step cycle structures it. First comes input of the content into the mind. We absorb the material, model, or design to be practiced and learned. Second, the mind translates the model into outer expression.
With the assimilation of academic knowledge (plus the host of skills needed to get along in society), we first input a model of it, and then express it somehow. Only our practice of it, our expression of it, connects it to all the nuances of understanding in us that “perfect” it. We effectively install it in its mental niche only by expressing it, and in general need four or five times as much output of the model as time spent grasping it in the first place.
The input/output cycle can be done in two ways that engage the mind differently. When used together, they install knowledge more comprehensively. The first is to collect in one place what is important enough to save. Students can’t carry everything forward, so we try to choose the more important for them. We do this initially a word at a time, building a coherent written summary that captures the essential meaning worth retaining. What did the teacher say? What does the text say? What further articles, interviews, or references might we bring into a comprehensive account of this idea?
Having performed this step and collected the input for our mind, we should not assume that it has been retained. Students constantly work at assignments they then dismiss. It is not enough to assume that students have learned something the moment they can explain it intelligibly. But once possessing a written document, its link to the other content in their mind jumps qualitatively if they can also explain it fluently in words to another listening to them face to face.
3. Repeat step two until everyone learns everything. The challenge remaining after comprehension is attained is its depth, which is easier to estimate than has been widely recognized. An easily calculated measure is the number of days students can recall the material perfectly after last reviewing it. As the number of days increases, it means that the content has lodged more deeply and completely in the student’s mind. This number expands by, and only by, expressing and re-expressing the material at longer intervals of time.
In practice, the three steps can comprise a standard cycle. Every class period can be a time for input. As new material is presented, it is also organized, arranged, and written out as succinct, numbered notes. Initial output can occur in the same period if students pair up and explain it to each other. This achieves the initial temporary objective of a mental grasp of the material.
Then at least once week, students receive this guideline: “Pair up now and ask each other the questions all the way back to the beginning of the course. Concentrate especially on anything you think you are weak on. At the end of the period, turn in to me the name of your partner with the number of points they knew well. Identify any they need more work on.”
This form of practice gives social significance to each one’s mastery of the material. We intuitively want to show up well when asked to display our competence to peers. And having done it well and achieved a “Yes, you know it” response, students are vastly more likely to buy into claiming the knowledge as their own. It ceases to be an assignment to dismiss, and changes instead into something to keep because it has lodged successfully in their mental stores.
Two requirements make this work: 1) Deliver knowledge in an organized way so that it can be collected in writing and explained as a chunk to another person. 2) Structure enough classroom time for everyone in the class to practice explaining everything until it is learned thoroughly.
The first book of John Jensen’s three-book Practice Makes Permanent series was issued February 22 by Rowman and Littlefield, titled Teaching Students To Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Permanent. Readers interested in previewing the second book due out in mid-summer, titled Changing Attitudes and Behavior: Practice Makes Permanent, can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.