My wife recently rediscovered her grandmother’s copy of The Scarlet Letter. The edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1892. My first thought was, “We’re rich!” It turns out that an 1892 edition is not worth a lot, however. First editions of the book have some value, but first editions are from 1850. This led to my second thought: “This book was written a long time ago!” And that led to these questions:
Why is this book still a part of the curriculum in many high schools? Has nothing been written in the last 169 years that has as much or more value than this book?
Are we doing unto others what has been done unto us and missing a bigger picture?
This past summer I had the opportunity to take a “curriculum camp” with Julie Stern, Trevor Aleo, Kayla Duncan and the whole “Learning that Transfers” crew. Learning that Transfers is the umbrella organization for Julie and the team’s work in Conceptual Understanding.
This is not an informative post on Teaching for Conceptual Understanding. For that powerful method, I’d suggest you visit the Learning that Transfers team at their website. Also, follow the hashtag #LTT on Twitter. This is a post about a technique I used to great effect with my 10th grade English students that is based on the LTT team’s teachings in their amazing book, Learning that Transfers. However, for a quick overview, this video below will serve well.
My students and I started the year with a reading of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (HATSOS). Rather than read the novel as I had in previous years, by splitting the class into groups and having them read by focusing on allegory, satire, the Hero’s Journey, and allusion, I taught them a few key concepts.
Concepts are like nodes on the cognitive web of discrete information. Where a fact about rocks, for example, would be “Wissahickon schist” or “Baltimore Gneiss”, the concept, or node, that connects them is “metamorphic rocks.” So concepts, at least in one formation, are a type of classification. But it goes deeper than that. Concepts act as containers for ideas and actions. Thus, in any young adult novel, one could probably read the novel and identify numerous instances of identity formation. Thus, “identity” becomes a key conceptual lens to read though when reading books like Huck Finn, Invisible Man, The Joy Luck Club.
In our study of HATSOS I identified 5 key concepts: Truth, Identity, Power, Language, all of which orbit around the ultimate concept of “Story” itself. I then divided students into groups in which they would read and annotate the text in groups with their similar concept partners. We did this by using the social annotation application, Perusall.
About 3/4 of the way through the book, I asked students to create a series of three observations about how their concept was crucial to the development of the story so far. Those observations could also be things they’d learned by reading in this way that could be applied to the world outside the text.
Next, students moved into their concept groups and wrote their observations on to post-it notes (one observation per post-it). These were then placed onto special boards I have for just such purposes (they’re called “gator boards”).
Finally, and this is the most important part, after each group had placed all its post-it notes, groups rotated and visited the three other groups’ boards. There, they read the observations and collected two or three observations about the novel through this lens that they found interesting. As a final act, each group had to leave behind a new observation that connected their personal concept, with the other group’s concept.
I know it is impossible to read though just one conceptual lens when more are given; obviously students were always aware of the presence of the other concepts in the story. But by having them focus first through one lens and then giving them a chance to step back and see the novel in a wider sense, understanding better how their peers were reading similarly and differently, students became primed to jump into making deeper conceptual connections within the novel and in the world itself.
This “carousel,” produced some of the most impactful observations at the end of the novel when students engaged in thinkpieces, a type of “essaying,” through exploring their responses to questions they formed using the question stems from http://www.learningthattransfers.com.
When I was barely in 9th grade, I first encountered the music of Talking Heads. It was the summer of 1983, andSpeaking in Toungeswas on heavy rotation on my Sony Walkman as I sat on a rusting, red Wheel Horse tractor cutting acres of grass for my house and my neighbor’s.
Hours of idle passes over a baseball-sized swath of backyard were filled with sounds I’d never heard. Drums from foreign lands, rhythms that challenged the common tempos of rock music, and a heavy funk that would lead me straight into Parliament and the mysteries of that genre’s dank goodness.
But more than anything, that summer began my life-long love of Talking Heads and their enigmatic frontman, David Byrne. It wasn’t long before the brilliance ofStop Making Sense assailed the ears and eyes, and I was convinced that if I never saw this band live I would…
(This post was originally published in July of 2018 on the website of the design consultancy, Form and Faculty.)
Since April of 2017 I have been reading about and, now, practicing gradeless-ness in my high school 9th and 10th grade English classes. Sure, I know that such a practice is not new, at least not in independent schools, but what I did not know was how widespread the practice had become in public-school classrooms around the nation. The Facebook group, “Teachers Throwing Out Grades“, and more recently, the group “Teachers Going Gradeless” have been incredibly active in promoting this movement, and its history is as old as our system of public schooling itself. While seemingly counterintuitive, given most Americans’ experiences in public school, going gradeless is a key aspect of the move to deeper learning.
Learning≠Making the Grade
The research on grades is fairly clear: little to no evidence exists to support grading as having a significant impact on student learning (Listen to Scott Looney’s podcast on this–referenced in a previous post). In fact, most of the research on grades fails to return any positive advantage in terms of learning. The real impact of our obsession with grades and grade point averages is that parents and students have become more focused on the grade than they are on learning. The persistent pursuit of the A+, of meeting the requirements the system demands, not only diminish the human desire of learning for learning’s sake, it perverts the very enterprise of public education.
Of course, designers and most students of the arts are familiar with such a situation, for we are practiced in creating our own criteria for success, undergoing countless critiques, and we are driven to learn through iteration.
That schools and universities across the nation have put serious research and funds behind shifting the goal of education from grade point averages to actual assessment of learning is heartening and indicative of a larger shift in education in general: a shift from superficial achievement to deeper learning.
Curiosity, Relationships, and the Depths of Learning
Deeper learning labels teaching methodologies seeking student mastery of content knowledge by, among other things, engaging them in collaborative work that demands creative and critical thinking, increasing student voice and communication…all through real world learning, through projects whose relevance is not merely found in a letter grade, but in making a real-world impact.
The confluence of these current educational initiatives with design thinking is clear: If all learning is based in relationships either between the learner and others, or between the learner and the things they want to learn, then all learning begins in curiosity…in finding a problem…an itch to scratch. The building of a relationship (be it a learning relationship or otherwise) begins in empathy. The learning that derives out of empathy is then driven by a deep curiosity. All these states are not unique to school and its insistence on lesson plans, disciplines, class periods, etc. They are innately part of what it means to be a human being. And, perhaps most importantly, they cannot be reduced to the quotidian, to mere numbers on a data set of evaluation.
Form and Faculty is founded on the knowledge that design and the mindsets of design thinking are innately human, and that it is the learner’s human right to express his or her desires as the impetus for learning in the first place. Our own work and the work we do for others always begins from a human-centered orientation. For in the end our work would matter little if we did not believe our users mattered. And our work would count for little if we did not take into account the humanity of our clients.
If you’ve followed my blog here for a while, you’ll know I champion speaking and listening as cornerstones of my classroom. And while I was an accomplished student in my HS and College seminar classes, it wasn’t until my introduction to and adoption of the Touchstones Discussion Project in 1996 that I shifted not only how I used speaking and listening in the classroom, but also the entire culture of the classroom and, without question, my own identity as a teacher.
Over the course of 25 years, I have used several different iterations of Touchstones. I have attended workshops, invited one of the founder’s and the executive director to my school, and joined the project’s board of directors. And I have never stopped using the project and honoring the power of student voice and story in my classroom. From middle school, to high school, to college classrooms, my students have explored and struggled (productively) through now countless sessions learning how to self-manage and lead their own discussions in civil and synergistic ways. And learning, perhaps, one of the greatest things of all, the ability to listen actively with the intention of understanding, and not merely responding with the echoing din of one’s loud opinion.
Listen… the world needs more of this learning right now. In fact, deep, empathetic communication represents the only way I can see out of the crises we find ourselves in. The philosopher Zachary Stein’s 2018 book, Education in a Time Between Worlds, as well as the work of the others in the “Integral Theory”/Meta-Modernity movement, lays out the changes facing us rather clearly: “We live in a time of global transformation, when major social and natural systems are in transition, and our only hope of survival is to find ways to support future generations in their development and learning” (Stein 2).
What greater support could we offer future generations than the development of active, empathetic listeners who seek connection rather than competition, community over conflict, and who can navigate with calm through the chaos.
The Touchstones Discussion Project develops just such skills
Listen…In 28 years in the classroom, 27 years as a speech and debate coach, and countless years as a speaker and presenter on education, nothing I’ve ever encountered comes close to building the cognitive and social skills that accrue through regular participation in the Touchstones Discussion Project.
Touchstones is used in 47 different countries, has touched the lives of over 5 million students worldwide, is used in prisons, women’s correctional facilities, with veterans returning from war-torn lands, and is has been used in executive sessions with leaders of billion-dollar, multinational companies for decades. Few educational products have such history of broad success.
Listen…supporting a generation in developing these kinds of skills is not easy, but it will be impossible if we do not understand that teaching is, at its heart, a relational event, not merely a transactional one–ie. deep learning happens only when the heart and the head are aligned. It cannot be forced, it follows no schedule, and it abides no dictates. But it flourishes, as does our humanity, in environments where all voices are heard, all ideas are honored, and all spirits bring light to the existence of each other.
Listen…such a community in a classroom is possible. I’ve cultivated it with Touchstones as its fertile soil for over 20 years. And an education that grows in such an environment and is nurtured and tended to by caring, future oriented mentors will be the only way to reimagine humanity with any hope of reaching the 22nd century better than we find ourselves now.