Thursday, February 11, 2016


I learned something new today and I can’t wait to pass it along to you.  I learned that if you are trying to get someone else to learn something, the way you introduce it may make all the difference in whether it is learned or forgotten within hours.  

Picture two lessons.  The first, a writing lesson in which you want students to understand the order of a paragraph.  You begin by setting the topic, let’s say, “My Favorite Food.”  You ask students to talk with their neighbor about their favorite food.  You invite students to share with the class about their favorite food.  You ask each child to draft cluster about their favorite food.  Finally, you remind them that you want a topic sentence, at least three major details, and a conclusion.  The second lesson, let’s say a science lesson on magnetism in which you want the students to understand the idea of polarity.  You begin by bouncing two circular magnets on a pencil.  You follow that with a chain of 10 bar magnets which you swing back and forth.  Immediately after, you chase one magnet around on top of an overhead projector with another.  Finally, you put a piece of glass over a bar magnet and pour iron filings on the glass.  You explain that each magnet has two types of charges and that while the two different charges want to join together, two of the same charges want to stay apart.

Which lesson is more likely to achieve its purpose?  Though with students there are no guarantees, I’m guessing that the second lesson has a far greater chance of succeeding because it’s introduction was aimed at the instructional goal.  Students might remember the first lesson, or at least know more about their or a classmate’s favorite food.  They’re not likely, however, to understand anything more about the structure of the paragraph, even if they worked hard to write a good paragraph.

Why?  This is what I learned today.  The brain encodes information in the same places where it first goes to make sense of it.  In Lesson 1, the brain is going to access the “food memories” places.  Any information about paragraph structure will probably get lost and languish there.  In Lesson 2, the brain will perceive the demonstrations, attempt to understand them, and encode the explanation, all in the same place.  Consequently, if the student wants to retrieve her understanding of polarity at a later date, that understanding will occupy a discrete and substantial place in the student’s brain.

Pretty cool, huh?  In all my years of teaching writing, I bypassed the need for a memorable introduction to get students to focus on the “meat” of their topic.  Major details and elaboration were everything to me.  I’m now thinking that those examples and elaboration may have been misplaced.  What do you think?

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