As a followup to my last post, I'd like to re-present a lightly revised version of piece I put together several years ago, before Throughlines existed. The argument I made at that time is that the art of teaching resides not just in the design of lessons, but in their sequencing. A poorly-designed sequence will give the students the sense that this happens and then that happens and then something else happens, with no apparent logic or connection. In a well-designed lesson sequence, students will know - or at least be given reason to believe - that there is a logic to what they are doing and why they are doing it. Even if they don’t completely understand the logic while they are engaged in the sequence, if they sense a connection, then each part of the sequence strengthens the other. For example, if students come to know that a group discussion activity is usually a rehearsal for a writing assignment to be given later, they often pay a different kind of attention to what is being said in the group than if their sense is that there will be no followup.
The logic of any particular sequence is inevitably shaped by the assumptions and intuitions of the teacher, which may in turn by shaped by any number of factors including (but not limited to) the teacher’s personality, previous teaching experiences as a student, previous experience as a teacher, and goals for the course, as well as such external factors as departmental or parental expectations, community demographics, and so on. More important yet are the needs of the students and the interactive dynamics of each particular class.
Some grounding assumptions for what follows:
• The most important goals of education are not content goals but process goals. You don’t judge how well-educated people are by what they remember. You judge them by what they know how to do, and how well they do it. As B. F. Skinner says, “Education is what’s left over after you’ve forgotten what you’ve learned.”
• My students don’t need to know what I think. They need to learn how to articulate what they think. A corollary assertion is that direct instruction - that is, lecturing - is the most efficient and least effective method of instruction.
• Students are inherently interested in themselves and in one another. Activities and assignments which are linked to their interest in one another are more likely to go over well.
• Students learn in lots of different ways. Some learn visually, some learn interactively, some learn by talking, some learn by writing. Too much of any one mode of instruction or interaction in a classroom is deadening.
• Ideas don’t appear of out a vacuum. The “aha!” moment doesn’t just happen. (Well, perhaps once in a great while it does, but it’s not the norm.) Ideas emerge from sustained thought, dialogue, and interaction. Some students know how to ask good questions and brainstorm answers. Many do not. All can benefit from regular practice in the process.
• Writing is not simply or most importantly a vehicle for conveying thought. It is also a perhaps the single most powerful for generating thought. Students need to be given lots of practice in learning how to use this tool effectively.
Here, then, is a hypothetical - but not atypical - sequence of events set in a high school English classroom. It assumes that the students have come to class having completed a common reading:
1) At the start of class ask each student write down two relevant, significant questions about the reading.
2) Students share the questions they have written with a partner (or, depending on class size and time available, two partners) and discuss. "Are they the same? Are they different? How? Between them they should agree on one question to share with the class.
3) One student from each pair of partners goes to the board and writes the question.
4) Give the students three minutes to scan the list of questions and decide individually which ones are in their judgment most significant and most relevant. (This is how the class will decide the order in which we will address the questions in class discussion - most significant questions first.)
5) Poll the class. Each student is allowed to vote twice. Write each question on the board; students who have voted for that question raise their hands. Record the votes.
6) Tell the students that at the beginning of class tomorrow they will have a written quiz in which they will be asked to write a clear, precise, plausible answer to one of the questions listed on the board. The question will be chosen at random from among the top three (or four, or five) vote-getters. The class discussion about to take place will be a chance to brainstorm answers, share ideas, think through the possibilities.
7) The remainder of the class is a Harkness discussion in which the teacher does not take part. Students work through the questions, sharing ideas, considering possible answers, looking for passages in the text that might be relevant to those answers.
8) At the end of class, tell the students that if they need any additional information or need to think through the questions further, they can do that work on their own for homework. They have to be prepared to answer any of the questions, but they will actually be asked to answer only one. They don’t just don't know which one.
9) At the beginning of the class, roll a four- or five-sided die to see which question they will answer. (Any other form of randomization would work as well: pulling numbers out of a hat, drawing from a deck of cards, whatever.)
10) Students take the quiz, writing out the answer to the question in class. If economy and precision are currently on your agenda, you might give each student a file card and ask them to limit their answer to what can fit on one side of the file card. This technique has the side effect of making step 17 (below) a little easier.) Collect the responses and put them aside.
11) Ask the class to return to the text and approach it from another point of view. (One way to do this is to ask them to consider the possibility that while everything they have said so far is true, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Their task is now to consider how to get to the heart of the matter.) Students work in groups of four for ten minutes to come up with an action plan for their group: what process can the group design that will allow them to go deeper?
12) The groups share their plans orally.
13) The groups now have five minutes to decide whether to use their original plan, borrow one from another group, or come up with a new plan that combines features of both.
14) The remaining fifteen or twenty minutes of class the students try out their plan: they try to arrive at a deeper understanding of the text using the process they have selected.
15) Homework assignment: "Write a reflection paper in which you discuss your group’s work today: what your group did, what conclusions you came to in the group, whether the process satisfied you personally, why or why not, anything that in retrospect you would do differently if you were starting this process over."
16) Collect the homework, and hand out a sheet on which are printed four of the answers to yesterday’s quiz. (In the interests of objectivity and anonymity, it might be a good idea to type these up using selections from another class, and without names on them.)
17) Students must read the four sample responses and rank order them in terms of their overall effectiveness. "Which one is, in your judgment, the best answer? The second best, and so on?"
18) Students then meet in small groups and compare rankings. "Tell which one you picked as best, and explain what you see in the piece that you like. See if the others in your group agree. Then see if your group can agree on the number one choice. In five minutes I will ask your group to report. If you agree, tell which one you have picked and why. If you disagree, report on the nature of your disagreement."
19) Debrief: Ask for reports from each group and collate the results, listing on the board various individual criteria as they emerge.
20) There is now a list of criteria or standards for this assignment on the board. Ask the students to scan the board and decide on which two of the indicated criteria are most relevant and significant. They get to vote twice. Once the exercise is completed, each criterion has a certain number of votes. Number the list in order of votes. Ask the students to write the prioritized list in their notebooks.
21) Lots of ways to go at this point. One would be to hand back their first drafts ungraded, ask them to re-draft the answers in the light of the new criteria, and finish them for homework. Let them know that you're going to grade them using the rubric generated in class.
22) Remember those reflection papers you collected (Step 16)? How might you use those to set up a new sequence of activities for the next reading?
This three-day cycle of activities makes an attempt to integrate reading, writing, thinking, and speaking in ways which are interconnected and self-reinforcing. There is also, by design, a range of interactive modes: small groups, large groups, teacher direction, teacher distance. (Notice there is no direct teacher-delivered instruction about content anywhere in the sequence. The students are doing the heavy lifting.)
There's nothing magical about this particular set of moves; the point is that it's a threaded sequence. Each of the small group discussions, for example, leads to another step in the overall process, at the end of which there’s an assignment which gives the students a chance to demonstrate that they can produce a response that meets the criteria they themselves have established. Sustained engagement in the process is self-rewarding. Students who have followed the whole process attentively should have a very good sense of what is expected, and the grades which will ultimately arise out of the process should be satisfying both to the students and to the teacher. In fact, the grade becomes at least in part a means of verifying or authenticating the process understandings the students have been working to master. Notice that I have said nothing about the content of the reading. It doesn’t matter. Whatever content is at issue will be covered in some depth as a result of the design of the process: having the students ask good questions, brainstorm through the answers, articulate their ideas, set standards of excellence, and then revise their writing with those standards in mind.