Sunday, February 21, 2016

Learn Like a Baby II

Let’s go on.  I’d like to continue exploring the idea of learning like a baby, this time, using writing as the content area.  During my teaching career, writing was an area of great interest to me.  I’m not too sure why.  Certainly my high school English teachers would never have predicted that.

When I taught fourth grade, the State expected us to teach students to write summaries, which might be the task on the State writing test at year’s end.  So, teach summaries, I did.  The problem was that what I was teaching, and what my students were producing, were two distinctly different things.  Student summaries typically began with a huge amount of detail about the characters, setting, and beginning events.  Then, students ran out of steam.  Seldom did a summary mention the story’s problem, attempts to solve the problem, or the resolution, the meat of the story.  They just didn’t “get” summary.

My solution:  simplify.  I started giving students three slips of paper and the task of writing one sentence about the beginning of the story, one about the middle, and one about the ending.  We did this repeatedly.  After students developed some skill at this, I asked them to read their three sentences and write a beginning sentence which told what the whole story was about… in one sentence. After they mastered that, I asked them to add a sentence at the end that said what the “point” or “moral” of the story was.  Some students complained that three sentences wasn’t enough to explain what happened in the story.  To those students I gave permission to explain a bit more.  Over time, my students learned how to write a summary.

Brain research tells us that we can only juggle about four things in our working memory at one time.  Fortunately for us adults, thanks to what scientists call “chunking,” many individual things eventually become understood as one to our brain, allowing us to accomplish increasingly complex tasks.  An easy example of a chunk is a telephone prefix.  Where I live, most land lines begin with the prefix “265” and many cell prefixes begin with “477”.  Our brains, knowing the way prefixes are assigned, learn the three-digit prefixes as a single “chunk,” easing the burden of remembering 7-digit phone numbers.  Such is the value of experience.

Babies learn by repeating actions until the routines become known and reliable.  That knowledge, then, becomes foundational for greater learning.  When we ask too great an intellectual load in our assignments, we may produce students who become more adept at following directions, but not necessarily students who are learning or expanding their skills.  We need to allow students time to consolidate experiences into skills at their pace.  Repetition is the mother of learning, I’ve heard.  If we do that, we will develop students who ask to do more… just as soon as they’re ready.

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