Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Time When I Directly Told

We’re studying data in my third grade class. My students as a whole came in with vague notions of the meaning of data (“it’s information”) and some kids were confused as to what this all has to do with math anyway. On an initial dataset, kids mostly categorized things by their superficial features (“restaurants go together”) instead of grouping data more purposely in order to answer particular questions. Their descriptive language was mostly limited to “most” and “least”, and the questions they posed reflected that.

OK, that’s the preamble.

The main task today related to a survey that we took of our class. The survey was titled “Places where we like to...”, and we collected information about where everybody in the class likes to do various things. So: “Places where we like to read.” “Places where we like to visit.” “Places where we like to eat.” etc.*

* (The full lesson plan is here, at the bottom of the piece.)

Anyway, a pair of kids were organizing the class’ data on “Places where we like to read.” This was the data set they were organizing:
• School
• In my room, in bed
• Public library
• Home, in bed
• Library
• In the living room in my house
• My bed
• bed
• Home
• Home
• Home
• In my bed with the puppy
When I came over, they had organized all the data points into two categories. They had the data on little cards, and these were their groupings:

Group 1:
• School
• Public library
• library
Group 2:
• In my room, in bed
• Home, in bed
• In the living room in my house
• My bed
• bed
• Home
• Home
• Home
• In my bed with the puppy

“This one [on the left] are places for education.”

I was excited by this, because up until this point it had been very difficult for the students to see any other possible organizations of the data that didn’t just categorize their surface features. Actually, this was their second attempt at organizing the dataset, and their first had been fairly typical: all the “home” was grouped together, all the “bed”s were grouped together, “school” was alone, “library”s were together, etc.

In other words, I thought that I was watching a moment of learning, where the kids saw what we mean by organizing data to answer different questions.

So, I continued probing: “Got it. And what’s the other category?” I pointed to the right grouping.

Student A: “This cateogry is in my room, in bed, and also in the living room...”

Student B: “In home, a bunch are in home...”
The kids continued to trip over each other in an attempt to fully characterize their second category. I saw this as evidence that they recognized the insufficiency of their categorization, but lacked the language to properly describe it.

This, I recognized, was a perfect opportunity to tell them something.

I said: “Oh, so this category on the left are the places where education happens. And this, on the right, these are not places of education.”

Student A: “Yeah like a home or ...”

I continued: “So you might say that this category is places of education, and this category is places of non-education. Did I get your categorization right?”

The kids nodded. One of them repeated the categories using this new language, and then later used it when I brought the class over to look at the categorization that this pair had made.

I think this was a time when directly telling was able to cause learning. I’d generalize this by saying that when kids are searching for a term and can’t find it, that’s an opportunity for causing learning by directly telling. I’d also argue that you can cause learning by engineering these sorts of moments.

Questions:
1. Do you think the language of "direct telling" is appropriate for
2. Are you convinced that this was an appropriate time for direct telling?
3. What parts of this post helped you feel like I wasn't bamboozling you in my representation of what happened in class?
4. Were there moments while reading when you found yourself wishing you could have seen this moment? Where in the post were those moments?

1. I think that this example is a good use of direct telling. When students understand a concept (although in this case it seemed a bit shaky), but lack the formal language with which to describe it, that is an excellent time for you, the more knowledgeable other, to introduce them to formal language they lack.

I was just reading in Kathy Richardson's book about a similar idea with students learning to compare numbers. Their early comparisons are going to involve informal language such as, "The red cubes have more less", and it is up to the teacher to model the use of new terminology such as, "Yes, there are fewer red cubes." The key struggle for teachers is ensuring they are not mistaking teaching formal language for building the conceptual understanding. Just because students can use the language does not mean they understand it.

1. Thanks, Brian. I should check out Richardson's book.

...it is up to the teacher to model the use of new terminology such as, "Yes, there are fewer red cubes."

I find "modeling" such interesting terminology. I want to know where it arose, and how it relates direct instruction. Is it a type of direct telling? Is it indirect telling? Is it not telling at all?

To teachers who don't like to directly tell: what makes modeling different?

2. I really enjoyed reading this -- thanks! And I don't feel bamboozled at all. I think it’s a great example of how to give a rich yet concise and pointed account of a moment of teaching. Very helpful.
With regard to your question, I wonder why we feel the need to ask if directly telling is appropriate? From where else are pupils going to acquire concepts and ways of thinking if we don’t (sometimes) tell them? Forgive me if I’m reading too much into your post, but I hear echoes here of a more general phenomenon that worries me: in our zeal to empower children to think for themselves we have completely disempowered teachers to engage in the conversation.
I also think the how is no less important here. I hear you offering them the concept, and checking if you’ve correctly understood their intention, rather than imposing it upon them.
Finally, a minor point: I’m not convinced that you’ve “caused” learning here, because I don’t see learning as something that happens in any particular moment, as an outcome of any particular cause. Learning a concept involves trying it out on multiple occasions in multiple contexts. It seems to me that you’ve facilitated and maybe even accelerated this process.
Thanks!

1. In our zeal to empower children to think for themselves we have completely disempowered teachers to engage in the conversation.

Agreed! I wrote this because I was talking on twitter with a teacher who said that they plan their lessons by thinking: how can I avoid directly telling students anything?

I’m not convinced that you’ve “caused” learning here, because I don’t see learning as something that happens in any particular moment.

But how can we be sure that I facilitated that process? Are we sure that every particular use of a concept ultimately helps in building the general concept?

Can we say something more limited: I helped students learn something about this particular situation, which may or may not lead to them learning a generalizable concept? After all, I did help them learn how to say something about this particular dataset.

3. Oh, and your lesson reminded me of Borges' amusing classification system taken from a fictional encyclopedia (and quoted by Foucault in The Order of Things). Do you know it? Take a look here: http://www.multicians.org/thvv/borges-animals.html or here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_Emporium_of_Benevolent_Knowledge.
Maybe your pupils will enjoy critiquing it?

1. Thanks! I love Borges.

4. Great articulation of what was going on here. You prompted them to better understand something they simply lacked the language for. Though I'd challenge you to reconsider calling home a place of "non-education." Informal education for sure, but I'd argue there is as much to be learned at home as there is in a formal setting. Just depends on parental engagement and what students have access to.

5. Seems to me like students were thinking "this group has feature A in common, and this other group has feature B in common," and then you stepped in and suggested, "How about 'has A in common' and 'does not have A in common?'" I would tend to think this was not how they were thinking about things. Since there is an obvious connection between the "home things," that's where their minds were (I think). On the other hand, if you had "horseshoe, eraser, bed, cat, salad," then it might make more sense to them to think in terms of A/not A rather than A/B.

1. Lots to agree with in your comment, but first one quick clarification. the kids came with the first category. They characterized one of their columns as "places for learning." I only stepped in on the second category.

6. Whoooops--not sure how that happened. I'll repost, feel free to delete the previous one.

I read this a while back and forgot to comment. First, really nice way to get kids thinking in categories. Second, while I"m not in any way averse to telling, I think you could have gotten them to explain the categorization process with a few leading questions.

"Okay, so this is places where you learn. Can you tell me why you didn't put 'home' here?"

99 out of 100, they'll say "Because you don't learn at home".

"Oh." Crinkle your brow. "So you didn't put "in bed with the puppy" over here because..."

and hopefully they finish "you don't learn in bed with a puppy."

"Wow. So let me see if I have these two piles correct. Help me out. This one here with school" point and pause, they will probably answer "places for learning".

"Then this group here is" and they will probably answer "places where you don't learn."

Then they've done it without you telling. Even though you've done roughly the same thing in both cases.

***

As you may know, I describe classroom action almost entirely through conversation. My recollection is never perfect, but I find it best captures how I work with kids and shows the learning in action.

Couple examples:
http://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/teaching-students-with-utilitarian-spectacles/
http://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/modeling-linear-equations-part-3/

1. Thanks for the thoughts!

I didn't make this clear enough in the piece, but they were pretty clear about "places for learning" as being one of the categories. When I did that brow-crinkling and pointed to the other category, though, they struggled to answer with "places where you don't learn." That's where I felt like the best thing to do was to jump in and offer them a piece of language (and concept) to use.

Do you think, in general, it's better to avoid directly telling?

7. My two cents here Michael.

The best time to tell someone something is when you are pretty sure they are going to understand exactly what it is you are going to say.

I'm not at all opposed to telling students things, particularly things that are helpful to them. I think students make sense of everything they experience, including people telling them things. I just think that we just need to be careful to confirm, double-check, etc... that students are ready for what they are about to be told.

An interesting point; you hypothesize that what you did caused learning for students. The question is, how could you check that these students think differently now than before this interaction?

1. I'm trying to figure out how to take your "double-check" idea and apply it to this teaching situation. I think that'll ground the discussion a bit in some of the details of this scenario, so if you'll humor me a few questions...

What further checking would you have liked to see in this scenario?

In this scenario my "checking" was confirming that they were talking about the categories "X" and "everything else," and I jumped in with the "not-X" language. Is there a different standard of checking that you'd propose?