Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I am curious. . . about learning?

It really shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone that curiosity fuels learning. After all, what is it that prompts individuals to take something apart? Curiosity about how it works. What is that prompts individuals to start thumbing through Google (figuratively speaking)  or other resources? Curiosity. The desire, maybe even the need, to answer a question.

As an aside, that's one of the reasons I think the "Ok, Google" ads are pretty brilliant. For many of us, questions beget questions. What is it that prompted early explorers to venture into the unknown? Wondering what was in or beyond the unknown. Wondering how to make the unknown known.

What is beyond the question "What if. . .?" or the phrase "I wonder. . . "? Yep, curiosity.

So it should be no surprise to us that curiosity prepares us for learning. All of us; not just K-12 kids. And that should make it even more evident that learning situations that prompt, even provoke, curiosity just make sense.

There are plenty of adults who talk wistfully of the loss of wonder that they see in kids who are constantly discovering new things and being excited about those discoveries. In workshops I often say one of the most important questions anyone can ask is "Why?", and I believe it. Because "Why?" is a question that foster curiosity, exploration, and discovery. In this Lifehack article we're told four reasons why curiosity is important and how to develop it. I'm not sure we have to develop curiosity, per se, but maybe some of us have to rediscover it. I also think some of us need to be able to channel our enthusiasm about discovery because of curiosity or we risk spending all of our time chasing after the next shiny distraction. So there is at least one downside to curiosity, but one that's manageable, I think.

Which brings me a bit lumberingly to another article which prompted my thinking about curiosity and learning. See? That's how this works. You might be doing one thing and something you're hearing or reading sparks a connection or a question and the need to follow it, well, that's curiosity.

The article is about educational research. A brief aside on that: there is a LOT of research in education to try to find, well, I'm not sure exactly what other than trying to explain how learning works. Which, to me, is interesting but also a bit silly because one of the things we do know is that each of us approaches learning a bit differently. On the other hand, there are commonalities, so research tries to find ways to say something about those commonalities which might lead to insight but might also lead to someone trying to create a thing so that everyone can do something with those commonalities. I'm very deliberate with those generalities because too often I think we do research with the hope of discovering a problem to solve rather than doing research based on a concrete hypothesis. Well, there's a lot more I could say about that but I don't want to digress any further.

What made me start to think and wonder about curiosity, how we view it, and how we empower kids to be curious in their learning is the opening paragraph of the Scientific American article on educational research.
Anna Fisher was leading an undergraduate seminar on the subject of attention and distractibility in young children when she noticed that the walls of her classroom were bare. That got her thinking about kindergarten classrooms, which are typically decorated with cheerful posters, multicolored maps, charts and artwork. What effect, she wondered, does all that visual stimulation have on children, who are far more susceptible to distraction than her students at Carnegie Mellon University? Do the decorations affect youngsters' ability to learn?
It reminded me of articles I've seen of research suggesting that too much visual stimulation impacts student learning negatively and yet we think we know the value of having stuff on the walls. Maybe we haven't yet figured out if there is a way to measure what's optimal, what's distracting, and what just becomes, in effect, white noise. And maybe we don't really know if stuff on the wall influences learning, maybe prompts curiosity. And maybe we don't really know if there is a way to make decisions to have the "right" stuff on the wall or if some stuff is better for some students and other stuff better for others. Who knew that decorating one's classroom might be so complicated? And yet, I wonder. . . .

Friday, October 3, 2014

Writing should not be "tedious"

The first sentence of an article promoting "awesome" iPad apps reads thusly: "Writing is a tedious task and as such kids find it hard to sit down and write." Ugh. Balderdash. Ugh again.

If writing is a "tedious task" it's because that's the way the teacher is teaching it and presenting it. No app is going to make writing less onerous if the teacher truly believes that writing is a "tedious task." And the only things these apps do is present the same sort of possible writing activities teachers might do in class but do so on a web-based application or via an app.

So let's back up for just a teeny second or several and talking about writing and why some consider it a difficult task. Most teachers I know blanch at the grading. They don't know how to grade it and/or there is a lot to grade if they have several students in their classes.

One more step back then: why do we ask students to write? I don't mean that in the broader and more esoteric sense, but in the very real "what are kids learning by doing this?" sense. Kids start to think writing is about grammar and mechanics only, and they begin to lose the sense of wonder about writing, which leads to discovery in its own right. Teachers obsess about spelling and punctuation, which is important but can muddy up the significance of ideas.

Do you know why there are editors in this world? In my opinion, because even the best writer needs some help with structure, grammar, and mechanics. Because the best writers on focused on the ideas of the text. Yes, they recognize the importance of word choice, punctuation, spelling, and all of that, but they also recognize the superlative importance of getting the ideas on paper first.

So why do we ask kids to learn how to write? The same reason anyone writes: to convey information, to explain, to excite the imagination, to communicate emotions and passions.

For the youngest of our writers, the hardest part is learning how to write, literally. Gripping a pencil and forming letters, and then forming words. Or using fingerpaints to draw letters. Or crafting letters with Play-Doh. Or use Wikki Stix or some other something to let kids play with practicing their letters and learning words. And don't fret over the backwards "N" or "E" or funky "S." That will come in time.

Reading to kids and then having them make up their own versions of the story or what happens after the end of the story, so they can use the text of the book to help identify and find words to use. Let them make up words. Shakespeare did and he was a pretty good writer.

As for older kids, well, it depends on their age and it depends on what they're learning and it depends on what the teacher needs them to learn and reinforce. I don't think writing should be separate from anything else. I think writing should always be a part of other learning.

I worked with a school some time ago who had some great activities for their kindergartners that were reinforced in every class by every teacher. Every day those kids wrote about something. The alphabet was on the wall in the K-3 classrooms and every teacher in the school had a word wall. In kindergarten, they used that lovely newsprint lined paper but kids could use pencils, colored pencils, or crayons, or some combination. So kids wrote and could, of course, draw on their papers, too. There wasn't a specific number of words they had to write or a particular number of lines they had to write. They just had to write.

The point was that they were to write. Every day.

And the kindergarten teachers worked with their students to create a portfolio for every student. At first the kids put only their writing in those portfolios, but then the kids wanted to put everything in their learning portfolios.

In the first two weeks, teachers offered prompts for the kids. They would have the prompts on the board and students could choose to write about the same one or different ones throughout the week. The prompts were on the board so students would see them all day and would, therefore, be thinking about them off and on all day. The prompts were pretty general and teachers weren't surprised when at first kids would write about recess, about something at home, about a friend--and illustrate it accordingly, of course. And then kids started writing about what they were learning. And as the kids started writing about more complex ideas, they would raise their hands for help with a word or do their best to figure out how to spell it because the teachers told them not to worry about spelling or punctuation but to focus on their ideas. That's why we teach kids to edit and revise their work. Eventually. And then one student wrote about how he was always forgetting to put a period at the end of a sentence and he wanted to practice that. And another student wrote about wanting to be a better reader to learn more words.

What works in kindergarten can work in other grades. The topics and the prompts might be a little more complex as does the process. As students learn the process of writing and become more comfortable with editing and revision, they learn why grammar and mechanics matters and how some of those details can improve their writing.

In my opinion, writing becomes a tedious task because we make it so. We require students to write a specific number of words or pages so they are more concerned about the right number of words or the right number of pages or, heaven forbid, writing only five paragraphs, that they are distracted from their writing.

I will admit that teaching writing is exhausting. It requires a lot of time and it requires a lot of patience. Sitting down with a student to help them see why they have too many ideas in a single paragraph and why they need more than one paragraph is something (among many other things) teachers would love to be able to teach in one fell swoop. But the thing about writing is that it requires some coaching because writing is a very individual activity.

Sure, we can have kids write collaboratively and there is a lot of power in that activity. It also saves on grading. There are ways to reduce some of the stress of grading through peer work, but that takes some time, too, to teach kids how to do peer reviews well and effectively.

I don't think there is one single way to teach writing well. I think much depends on the comfort level of the teacher and then a lot depends on the personality of the class of students. Some kids may do well with having a word scavenger hunt throughout the week and others might prefer a different kind of word jumble activity, but, again, so much depends on the learning objectives and how these writing activities might be tied to other learning.

Want some coaching on teaching writing? Contact me. Today. Right now.