Monday, May 25, 2009

Lesson Design III - Willingham

This year I've been subscribing to an interesting and valuable resource called The Marshall Memo. Each week I get an email with an attachment which contains wrapups of current articles selected by Kim Marshall on educational topics. A recent edition of The Marshall Memo featured a couple of very interesting articles by Daniel Willingham, one of which is called "Why Students Don't Like School." I don't agree with everything that Willingham has to say — for one thing, he's death on the very same process orientation I've argued for in many posts — but he's definitely a thought-provoking writer with an interesting angle of vision. Reading the article led me to his book of the same name, which I've been enjoying.

Each of the chapters in his book is phrased as a question. In Chapter 3, entitled "Why Do Students Remember Everything That's on Television and Forget Everything I Say?" Willingham develops a deceptively simple argument, which he summarizes at the end of the chapter as follows:

If we agree that background knowledge is important [a central point of one of his earlier chapters], then we must think carefully about how students acquire that background knowledge — that is, how learning works. Learning is influenced by many factors, but one factor trumps the others: students remember what they think about. That principle highlights the importance of getting students to think about the right thing at the right time. We usually want students to understand what things mean, which sets the agenda for the lesson plan. How can we ensure that students think about meaning?

Willingham follows this summary with a listing of "Implications for the Classroom," which actually winds up reading like a set of guidelines for lesson design. Since that's what I've been considering in several of my last posts, I'd like to proceed by reproducing his list, but with my own commentary.

Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.

Willingham has concerns about a lot of project-oriented learning, on the plausible grounds that students who are doing projects are likely to spend more time thinking about the process ("How do I make this Powerpoint slide spin into view?" vs content ("What are the implications of Gertrude's marriage to Claudius?"). He argues that well-designed activities get the students to think about the core concepts of the discipline, not the process skills, or perhaps more accurately, moreso than the process skills.

Think carefully about attention grabbers.

This injunction is actually a followup to the first. All teachers are at times tempted to do oddball things to get student's attention. If you show up for a lecture on Ancient Rome wearing a toga, you're going to get attention, all right, but while you are delivering the lecture are the students thinking about Ancient Rome, or are they thinking about you and whether you are wearing pants under that toga? It's going to make a difference in what they retain.

Use discovery learning with care.

For similar reasons. Willingham: "Discovery learning has much to recommend it, especially wehn it comes to the level of student engagement. If students have a strong voice in deciding which problems they want to work on, they will likely be engaged in the problems they select, and will likely think deeply about the material, with attendant benefits. An important downside, however, is that what students think about is much less predictable."

Design assignments so that students will unavoidably think about meaning.

Willingham's example is that if in a unit on the Underground Railroad you ask students to bake biscuits, they're going to spend more time thinking about flour and milk than about the experience of the runaway slaves. It might be better to ask students to think about the question of how the runaway slaves got food, and then try to find out the answers.

Don't be afraid to use mnemonics.

There are some skills and concepts (multiplication, the distributive property) that you need to have in memory in order to be able to think well about the task at hand. If there's no other way to do it than through memorization, it makes sense to give kids memorizing tools.

Try organizing a lesson plan around the conflict.

I'm reminded of a presentation I saw at NAIS last year by Brian Greene, in which he argued that you can teach any scientific concept more effectively if you like it to story. The example that he used, and that framed his whole talk, was to explain string theory as the latest chapter in a long-standing argument between those physicists who see the universe as being made up of stuff, matter, as opposed to those who see it being made up of events, energy. String theory is a way of resolving the conflict by saying that it's made up, at the sub-sub-atomic level, of both, in the form of vibrating strings. I'm not sure if I have the exact terms of the debate framed correctly, but the point was that the lesson was framed around a conflict, a story.

Willingham argues in this same section agains the notion that one of our goals as teachers is to "make it relevant to the students":

"If I'm continually trying to build bridges between students' daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don't have much to do with me... Student interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas."

As I said at the start, there's a lot here that one might choose to argue about. But I am pleased that Willingham has chosen to join the conversation.

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