Education Opinion

A Lesson Not Learned

By Hanne Denney — September 03, 2007 3 min read
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First week is over. Whew!

As a Department Chair, I teach only one 8th grade class a day. Blue day is Social Studies, White Day is Science, but the group of students is the same both days. The teachers are different -- I co-teach with two general educators. I am the constant between the two classes.

In Social Studies, Day One was all the usual administrative stuff. That was followed with brainstorming about the American identity, and brief writing of notes and a paragraph of prose. The “paragraphs” were various lengths, from one phrase to a full page. Day Two we took the students to the computer lab and used software to design a graphic organizer for our brainstorming material. We led the students through it -- so everyone’s graphic looked just alike. After the visual design, we asked the students to open a text document and write a prose paragraph. Basically, over two days, we had them write on the same topic twice.

I saw an interesting thing. Because the graphic organizers looked just alike, the prose sounded just alike. Each student wrote basically the same paragraph. The paragraph contained the material we wanted them to absorb, but the format did not allow us to evaluate learning. It was a no-fail assignment, because we made sure everyone did it just right. But we couldn’t tell if they learned anything.

It reminded me of when I taught preschool children, and every now and again we made a nice “Mommy Project”. I would buy materials, and the kids would follow the directions, and we’d wind up with identical, almost perfect, little projects. Mommies are usually pleased with those kinds of things. But you know and I know that the kids didn’t learn anything from doing it.

When the social studies students had finished their paragraphs, we collected them for review. Two students had paragraphs which didn’t match -- they grew bored waiting for everyone else to follow directions and just went ahead and wrote. They had unique ideas, in a unique structure, and wrote in their own voice with some spark of intelligence. I know they understand the ideas. A couple of students wrote paragraphs of three sentences that were less thorough than the ones they wrote on Day One. Uh oh, I think we took synthesis away from them. They’re now thinking at a lower-order of skill.

So how do I fix it? Day Three, take your two paragraphs and put it all together in a meaningful way? Or do we just disregard both of them? I’m learning towards the latter, because neither one represents the students’ best efforts. But there was an important benefit to the lesson which isn’t obvious from the learning objective:

The students now know who the teachers are, what our basic classroom procedures are, and what our first area of inquiry is about. They know how to use the computer lab and the graphic organizer software. They know the two teachers in the classroom will help them when asked, regardless of their learning abilities. They know they have to try. These are valuable things to know.

The first Science class was a similar list of administrative tasks. The students sat dutifully filing papers and writing information as required. The only spark of enthusiasm came when a student muttered to someone else, “Why do we need science, anyway?” and I asked the whole class to answer. They had good answers, which let me know that they may be interested in our subject and are willing to participate.

So next time, in both classrooms, we can work on something new without telling the student exactly what he needs to put in his brainstorming, graphic organizer, and paragraph. He’ll have to think about what he’s doing, and the knowledge he’s gaining, and put it all together in a way that will demonstrate understanding. He’ll consider (and answer) just why we need this material, anyway?! THAT will be a learning experience. Hey! I’m learning, too.

The opinions expressed in In the Middle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.