DOUG: Juan and I met in Chile where we were both presenters at ResearchEd Santiago. We both have a keen interest in cognitive science and how it can (and should) be used to guide classroom practices. We began discussing a variety of classroom ideas especially how important writing was in building habits of rigorous thinking among students and how important listening was to both effective discussion and optimal learning.
I’d written about these ideas in Teach Like a Champion. The technique Art of the Sentence examined at how deliberate practice with sentence formation could make student thinking more complex. And Habits of Discussion investigated how teaching students to rephrase and respond to one another not only caused them to talk to (rather than past one another) but caused them to listen better. I am pretty sure that the measure of a good discussion has at least as much to do with how well and how much students listen as how well r how much they speak.
So when Juan suggested what was more or less a combination of these ideas– using common sentence expansion tools for rephrasing activities in discussion as they did in writing my ears perked up. Could this help students be better listeners and learners?
JUAN: One of my main focuses in my classes is to increase participation. In my early years as a teacher, only those who already knew the answer participated. Basically, this meant that only few people in the class benefited from being challenged to think and from getting feedback on their ideas. In some students minds, perhaps, answering meant: `knowing the answer’.
This created a version of the `Matthew effect,’ where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is what happens when only the eager, the highly verbal, the already-confident participate, and other students are allowed to be passive.
Further, answering only when they know the answer makes students unprepared for much of what school asks of them. What about when participation means being uncertain? or asking another question? or saying you’re just not sure but trying to explain why?
Ultimately, the purpose of increasing participation is to cause everyone in the class to think rigorously and experience the «deliberate difficulty» a challenging question can initiate. If there is a consistent and robust finding from cognitive science, it is that learning requires connecting ideas. Answering questions is a perfect way to connect ideas–especially if you listen to what classmates say and can connect your thinking to theirs.
Re-reading Teach Like A Champion 3.0, I noticed in particular the technique `Habits of Discussion’ (HoD) in which students are socialized to respond to and rephrase one another’s ideas. It got me thinking about how my questioning could potentially emphasize participation, but not listening. When students are eager to talk, they sometimes fail to pay enough attention to those who are talking. They say their idea but they don’t connect it to anyone else’s- or to what the class is talking about.
I was thinking about possible solutions to this problem as i read, `The Writing Revolution’ by Hochman and Wexler, which describes `because but, , so…’ activities where students are given a short «kernel» sentence and asked them to expand it in three different ways, using each of the three conjunctions in the name.
So I might give students a kernel sentence: Seeds need light to grow.
They might write:
Seeds need light to grow because they use photosynthesis to turn light into energy.
Seeds need light to grow, but they also need water as well.
Seeds need light to grow, so you can often observe heliotropism as a form of competition among plants.
The first time it is useful to explain in this way: `because’ explains why it is true, `but’ indicates a change of direction, and `so’ tells us what happens as a consequence of something.
The usefulness of this activity lies in its intertwining with the content. In this way we not only guide learners to construct complex sentences, but also push them to think critically and deeply about the content they are learning. Much better than when we simply ask them to write an answer to an open-ended question.
I decided to put the two techniques together and create what I call a `thinking line. It consists of posing a question to a person in class, and the next person to participate has to complete what the first person has said by using `because but, or, so…’. This would cause students to connect their ideas in more complex ways.
Doug and i developd this example of how the thinking line might work:
Teacher: Ok, guys. What happens during Prophase of mitosis?
Student: The nucleolus dissolves and the chromatids line up along the middle of the cell.
Teacher: Ok. Can anyone develop Carlos’ ideas using `Because But or So`.
Ivan: Well the chromatids line up along the middle of the cell so they can pair and separate and replicate.
Teacher: Ok. Who else.
Pamela: But also the spindle fibers start to form.
DOUG: Juan and i both like the potential in the idea. For example, many times teachers prompt students to build off of their peers ideas by asking them to «agree or disagree,» but this suggests only two potential responses to build discussion. And those two options both frame discussion as primarily about deciding who was right rather than working together to expand what we know.
Using Because, But So and consistent discussion prompts seemed t have the potential to address that limitation. But there are also challenges. For example There’s a bit of a conflict between starting a sentence with because but or so and ideal first step I proposed in Habits of Discussion: rephrasing the previous speaker’s remarks. That is if i respond to Carlos’ observation about the nucleus by rephrasing his idea the result can be confusing. As in «Carlos pointed out that the nucleolus dissolves because….» in which it sounds like I am explaining why Carlos said what he did.
I shared this thought with Juan and he went back to work.
JUAN: For the technique to work students have to paraphrase like this: `Carlos pointed out that the nucleolus dissolves, and that´s true because…’ or `Carlos pointed out that the nucleolus dissolves, and might not be true so…’
In addition here are three conditions that have to be in place for this technique to work, I think
The first is that it involves creating complex sentences, so you need to allow time to think about them. It is even possible to write before sharing, which improves the quality of the interventions. It is therefore not a matter of completing the previous sentence with something obvious, but of connecting the learning as the line of thought progresses. Giving one minute between questions improved students answers and reflections.
Secondly, it is important to start modelling with simple sentences, and to complete them ourselves if there is any difficulty. Remember that the idea is that they listen to each other, and that they learn to incorporate or contrast the arguments of others into their own.
Finally, in the selection of participants, it is important to decide whether the selection will be random, or rather we will try to choose carefully. I recommend the latter, as it is not a matter of choosing people who can always cut the line of thought. As always, scaffolding and timely feedback is the best remedy here.
This strategy helps me to practice listening, since the contribution of each person depends directly on the contribution of the previous one. In addition, it allows me to solve more complex open-ended questions that, as we said at the beginning, require a greater integration of ideas.
Hochman J. & Wexler N. (2017). The writing revolution : a guide to advancing thinking through writing in all subjects and grades. Jossey-Bass a Wiley Brand.
Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 3.0 : 63 techniques that put students on the path to college. 3nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Willingham, D.T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? : a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass.