Tuesday, September 15, 2009


"Instead of content memorization, we should be teaching content processes" (David Andrade, " 21st Century Skills").

Originally, my post was one word: Absolutely. But after three days and one intense after-school session in the library working on the research process, I am not so sure.

Andrade is correct - today's quick access to digital content makes much memorization unnecessary, especially in a 1-1 laptop program like ours. But I have observed that processes that involve non-digital elements make content memorization happen - and happen more quickly. Digital processes build upon and contribute this learning, but they are the be-all for today's classroom. Accessing digital content is just one more style that helps learning to happen. On its own, I do not believe that it is enough. The problem is - how can I convince students that this is true?

My process of teaching content is doing multiple processes - which jigsaw into a map of successful learning. This is old pedagogy, but I am afraid that today's teachers will forget about it as laptops and highspeed wireless become more ubiquitous.

Here is some anecdotal support for what I believe in:

We are studying the medieval culture out of which the Grimm's and other fairy tales grew. Our processes have been varied. I have not provided notes beyond a revisit of the Plot diagram, or vocabulary lists, or any content beyond two boards covered with hand drawn settings and characters (after an initial reading of a picture book tale retelling).

Example 1: Students listened to my oral tellings of classic versions of "Hansel and Gretel" and "Three Billy Goats Gruff," and then, in discussion and role-play, related these stories to our world and to an inferred "old" world. We drew conclusions about the importance of land, about living with no or reduced resources, about violent change, about haves-and-have-nots, about family problems, about the childhood of the poor, about rural housing of the poor, about jobs of the rural poor, about the roles of witches in this society. These conclusions are right-on, historically. When I assigned students to write in the 1st person as a poor child in the year 1378, going to bed, the details from the stories and our discussion are prominent in the pieces. That is content memorization.

Example 2: We selected broad all-cultural topics and began the research process of narrowing them to middle ages topics through "keyword research" and questioning - no Internet searching allowed. We looked at the digital catalog, at contents and indices of books we located, at a print encyclopedia index. Yup - there was simple V organizer (broad to narrow), but the most important part of this process was conferencing and talking about the topics. M., for example, moved from Government to What rights and freedoms did the serfs have in a feudal society?
J. moved from Artistic Expression to What was the role of stained glass windows in cathedrals? M. discovered that her best friend, who was looking at How did the farming peasant deal with loss of resources?, shared many of the same resources and ideas. Encouraged to talk and share resources, our kids bubbled over with the content they were memorizing - or was that deeply learning?

Without this verbal process, and the V organizer's insistance on a purposeful narrowing of topic, these students would not have explored the ideas behind the content. They would simply not have thought about it at all. In fact, there are two or three students who slip-slided around the three adults in the library and did jump into Google. Not a one of them had any viable information or understanding after almost an hour of searching. One student, with the broad topic of Artistic Expression, was taking notes on Native American birch bark as a pigment. After a quick conference, she has refocused on stone carvings in medieval churches (will be gargoyles, probably) - but she lost a lot of time.

Example 3: K. had a lot of trouble committing to a narrow topic within Art. She and I finally narrowed it to illuminated manuscripts. She read about illumination in several "skinny" books - but was not passionate about the topic. She won't be until she sees The Book of Kells on the net. I can't wait! K will have the background, and she can add her own ideas by focusing on one aspect of the illuminations themselves that intriques her. It would be even better if I had my mom's old reproduction of the book, but that has disappeared.

Example 4: Working after school today with a hesitant reader, M. We narrowed Medicine down to Superstitious Remedies, with a focus on Epilepsy (we have a great three volume encyclopedia of supersitition). She was reading that "doctors" were often also barbers. Why? I got her to the point of recognizing tools doctors and barbers have in common, but she could not get the "straight razor." She is the one who said, "Find a Google image, for G-'s sake - we have the laptop." So there it was - and she got the connection instantly. That is where digital content enters process. Will she remember the barber-razor-surgeon connection? Absolutely (hope she reads Cervantes at some point...).

Point? I am learning this year that our kids may be gradually becoming "native" in their approach to learning. But there are processes that should not be lost in the process. Our job is to identify these until they are digitized (as I think they might be...)

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