Saturday, November 3, 2007

Now I Get It: Documentaries and Teaching for Understanding

Previously, on Bib 2.0:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4,
Part 5

At long last finishing the documentary series.

Having discussed the how, we now reach the more fundamental question: why? In these days of high-stakes testing, how can any teacher afford the amount of time this sort of project takes? Frankly, can't afford not to.

If you have never read Grant Wiggins' Understanding by Design or attended one of his workshops, you really must. With NCLB, districts increasingly focus on content-based teaching and learning the facts for the test--despite everything we know to the contrary about how students learn. The emphasis in this scenario is on the teacher and covering curriculum (and certain lower parts of the anatomy) in order to say, "Well, I TAUGHT it."

However, when we focus on teaching rather than learning, when we cover the material rather than teach for understanding, there is, as Grant Wiggins says, no room for the learner. And test results repeatedly bear this out. While students may learn rote formulas, when asked to apply the same information to unique situations/problems, they repeatedly fail to answer correctly. Two examples from Wiggins' book:

The "most wrong" item on the state test. Students were given excerpts from a 9 paragraph humorous essay, then asked the following question
This selection is best described as
a. a biography
b. a scientific article
c. an essay
d. an investigative report

71% gave the wrong answer, saying it could not be an essay because "it was funny" and "it had more than 5 paragraphs."

From an NAEP 8th grade science task.
When students were asked HOW batteries should be placed in a flashlight to make it light, 97% answered correctly. When they were asked WHY they should be placed that way, only 34% gave the correct answer.

In other words, students may be learning, but they're not understanding. It's how I learned math. I could plug in formulas quite happily, but once I had to understand the problem, I was sunk...and dropped out. In the examples above, students learned the convenient formula (essays are five paragraphs), but failed to grasp the function: a reflective piece expressing a point of view.

If teaching to the test doesn't work, we must teach to engage the learner, through questions, problems and tasks to be solved.

This involves:

  1. Discovery--Students don't need to recreate the wheel, but they do need to discover ideas for themselves. We've all had that wonderful ah-ha! moment of the new insight. I bet you never forgot what you learned from that moment. Your students won't either.
  2. Hands-On: Whether you're a kinesthetic learner or not, learning through tangible tasks provides a multi-sensory approach that aids both understanding and recall. It also engages students interest, which also improves learning. My next post will look at this and multimodal learning in more detail.
  3. Relevance: Learning needs to connect to students' lives. We all learn best when we recognize the learning is meaningful for us beyond getting an A on the test. We all know that, yet still neglect leading students toward that relevance, settling on the glibly easy "you need it for the test"...or for college. If we can't decide why students need to know something, why are we teaching it?
  4. Student Choice: We also learn better when we're interested in the topic, or at least have they have a stake in our learning. Students need to feel that they have choices.

Well, sure, but...

As Wiggins states, many teachers see teaching for understanding as if it were "incompatible with state mandates and standardized tests. They would teach for understanding...if they could. The only way to raise test scores is to 'cover' those things that are tested and 'practice' the test format."

In fact, quite the opposite is true. Wiggins cites the 1996 Newmann study which showed that "Students in classes with high levels of authentic pedagogy and performance were helped substantially." The practice even decreased the disparity between low and high achieving students.

I suspect, if you're reading this blog, I'm preaching to the choir. I've let this posting sit as a draft for a few days, trying to figure out how to end it. I wish I had a rousing solution or call-to-arms: Teachers of the World--Rise up and Unite!! The Students Need You! Refuse to Compromise! Refuse to Buckle Under the Pressure of Test Score Meritocracy. Refuse.... Well, you get the idea.

However, I also understand the pressure to play it safe and do what the public at large believes will work. But that's not good enough anymore, and most of us know that. We need to lead by example. To take the risk, stop covering the material, give students more control and allow them to learn. We need to educate the public as to what real learning looks like, in all its messy glory, and stop allowing the testing and textbook industries to lobby their way into legislation that's damaging to students and the educational process.

If more teachers took the time to engage students in real learning and real assessment, I believe the results would not only speak for themselves, but also encourage others to take that first step. Let the revolution begin!

Next time, final post: Documentaries and mulitmodal learning.

1 comment:

  1. I came upon this blog in search of templates for documentary film. For some reason I read posts beyond what was relevant to my search, and found this one.

    I say, "Bravo!" We will not reform our educational system or tap the extraordinary potential of American society without focusing on learning. The movie DEAD POETS SOCIETY is an example of teaching for understanding and learning how to learn.

    This is not about competition; it's not about catching up with Western Europe or Japan or China. It's about fulfilling the potential of our own youth, our culture, our society, irrespective of how others are doing.

    My hat is off to Jeri Hurd.