Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading

Posts in this series…
1. What is Explicit Instruction?
2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling

Concreteness fading is exactly what the name suggests. You start with a concrete example, and once your students have grasped it, you fade it out for a more abstract representation. The purpose behind this strategy is that abstract representations are more generalizable than concrete ones.

When teaching a concept you should use an example with strategically extraneous details. It sounds strange, but it’s true. Concrete examples help students with initial learning because they have extraneous details (Glenberg et al., 2004). These details help “ground” the concept in the familiar, allowing students to grasp the example. 

However, the extraneous details making up a concrete example hinder generalization and transfer (Petersen & McNeil, 2013). Hence the need to fade from concrete representations to abstract ones.

Useful Definitions

We do run into a bit of an academic language problem when talking about concreteness fading. Technically, abstract representations do not exist because, whenever you describe something, or write, or draw it, parts of that idea become concrete.

In their 2018 paper, Fyfe and Nathan propose a simple linguistic work around. Instead of referring to examples as concrete (specific and non transferrable) or abstract (general and transferrable) we instead identify them as less idealized (concrete) or more idealized (abstract). 

Concrete Examples (Less Idealized)

Not all concrete examples are created equal. Concrete examples that are less idealized add seductive details that make it more difficult than necessary in order to learn and generalize the example (Sundararajan & Adesope, 2020). So when we are crafting our concrete examples, we should be careful with the type of extraneous information we include, that extra information might not help initial learning.

We ought to include the extraneous information that improves initial learning (It isn’t really extraneous then, is it?). There are two types of information to be wary of: perceptual and conceptual.

Perceptual information pertains to the physical properties of the example. This could include 2D or 3D representations, visual surface features such as patterns and how real an object looks. Researchers have found that 3-Dimensional representations are generally more effective than 2-Dimensional objects, at least in math (Carbonneau, Marley, & Selig, 2013). In addition, representations that are particularly rich in visual surface features have been found to inhibit learning compared with less perceptually rich objects (Kaminski, Sloutsky, & Heckler, 2013).

The solution to this isn’t to only use 3-D or less perceptually rich representations. It is simply to be smart about it. 

What are you teaching? What is the main idea of the concept? Does the picture/diagram allow students to make incorrect inferences? How much explanation will students need to understand your concrete example? Is the “extraneous” information in this representation directly relevant to the concept?

Conceptual information is trickier, because it is learner dependent. Conceptual information depends on the background knowledge your students bring to the table. If your students are very familiar with an object, it is often difficult for them to think about that object abstractly (Petersen & McNeil, 2013).

Abstract Examples (More Idealized)

A good abstract, or idealized representation allows students to make the intended generalization with the least effort. Essentially, in a more idealized representation, your students will be more likely to successfully transfer their learning to a new context. We should also expect for students who are more novice to struggle with transferring their learning, even if they are able to think about the underlying ideas of the representation (Koedinger & Nathan, 2004).

The purpose of an idealized representation is to encourage generalization and transfer. Idealized representations achieve this by moving the focus from the what representation is to what the representation does. Idealized representations are able to do this because they lack the extraneous details of less idealized representations.

old lady or hag

The extraneous details of a less idealized representation help to ground the example in the familiar and the relatable, thus, providing a fertile context for initial learning (Glenberg et al., 2004; Schliemann & Carraher, 2002). And it is this same grounding that reduces transfer of learning. Think about an optical illusion. If you see the young lady first, it can be hard to then see the old hag, and vice versa. When we use more abstract, more idealized representations, we make it easier for students to generalize and transfer their learning.

Three Concrete Goals

According to Fyfe and Nathan (2002) three goals of concreteness fading are to

  1. Promote initial learning with a meaningful, less idealized representation of the concept. (grounded context)
  2. Promote transfer of learning by ending a learning sequence with a generic, broadly applicable idealized representation.
  3. Draw connections between less idealized (concrete) and more idealized (abstract) representations to create a well developed schema.

Concreteness Fading (Less to More Ideal)

Concreteness fading aims to take advantage of both concrete and abstract representations. The extraneous details of a less idealized example help the student to learn the concept, but these same details prevent students from transferring that concept, it is inert, inflexible knowledge (Schliemann & Carraher, 2002). However, if after initial learning you begin to use more idealized examples by reducing the extraneous details, your students will be more able to generalize and transfer the concept, making their knowledge applicable and flexible (Kaminski, Sloutsky, & Heckler, 2008).

As we fade from the less ideal to the more ideal, we don’t simply want to focus on the idealized examples. Concreteness fading is not a checklist procedure to follow, the initial concrete examples are still true, they are still valuable. 

The concrete examples help provide a continued grounding for the abstract ones, so we should ensure our students know not only the concrete and abstract representations of the concept, but we should also ensure they understand the connections between concrete and abstract representations by making the connections explicit. 

Fyfe and Natan encourage teachers to use a 3-step progression starting with a grounded, less idealized representation before fading into an abstract, idealized one. In order to do this successfully, teachers must reduce the perceptual and conceptual information their examples contain. 

The classic example of this 3-step model is in math. You start with a 3-D manipulative and go to an image on the paper and you finally conclude with just numbers. concreteness fading

This 3-step strategy can be applied in many other classes and age groups as well. In science, you could start teaching about a food chain by showing a video of a gazelle grazing in the savanna being silently stalked by a cheetah. Next, you could show the classic image of a food chain and then, finally, have your students generalize the pattern of food chains to any environment (producers to primary consumers to secondary consumers, etc).
1. Springbok Antelopes vs Cheetahs (Antelopes are a type of gazelle)
2. gazelle food chain
3. Producer –> Primary Consumer –> Secondary Consumer

*Note: You should use the correct vocabulary throughout your examples, whether they are concrete or abstract. Ex: The bush is a producer, the gazelle is a primary consumer, the cheetah is a secondary consumer.

This will give your students more exposure to the vocabulary in context, which will also make transferring their knowledge easier.

Concreteness Fading, Research, and Teachers

Concreteness fading is not an end all be all for education, it alone is not a silver bullet. But, if we want all of our students to know our subjects deeply, it is vitally important. The methods proposed by Fyfe and Nathan will also give our students exposure to multiple models of a concept, this likely increases the flexibility of their learning (Jacobson et al., 2020).

By teaching with methods aligning to research, we make the curriculum more accessible for all students. When we deviate from research and go with mere instinct, we increase the likelihood of creating an inequitable learning environment. Research alone is not some paneca of perfection, but without it, what are you going on beyond experience?

We should understand the broad principles of research and apply them to our context with nuance.

Sources

  • Carbonneau, Kira, Scott Marley, and James Selig. 2013. “A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Teaching Mathematics with Concrete Manipulatives.” Journal of Educational Psychology 105 (2): 380–400. doi:10.1037/a0031084.
  • Fyfe, E. R., & Nathan, M. J. (2018). Making “concreteness fading” more concrete as a theory of instruction for promoting transfer. Educational Review, 71(4), 403–422. doi: 10.1080/00131911.2018.1424116
  • Glenberg, Arthur, Tiana Gutierrez, Joel Levin, Sandra Japuntich, and Michael Kaschak. 2004. “Activity and Imagined Activity Can Enhance Young Children’s Reading Comprehension.” Journal of Educational Psychology 96 (3): 424–436. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.96.3.424.
  • Jacobson, M. J., Goldwater, M., Markauskaite, L., Lai, P. K., Kapur, M., Roberts, G., & Hilton, C. (2020). Schema abstraction with productive failure and analogical comparison: Learning designs for far across domain transfer. Learning and Instruction,65, 101222. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101222
  • Kaminski, Jennifer, Vladimir Sloutsky, and Andrew Heckler. 2013. “The Cost of Concreteness: The Effect of Nonessential Information on Analogical Transfer.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 19:14–29. doi:10.1037/a0031931.
  • Koedinger, Kenneth, and Mitchell Nathan. 2004. “The Real Story behind Story Problems: Effects of Representations on Quantitative Reasoning.” Journal of the Learning Sciences 13 (2): 129–164.
  • Petersen, Lori, and Nicole McNeil. 2013. “Effects of Perceptually Rich Manipulatives on Preschoolers’ Counting Performance: Established Knowledge Counts.” Child Development 84: 1020–1033. doi:10.1111/cdev.12028.
  • Schliemann, Analucia, and David Carraher. 2002. “The Evolution of Mathematical Reasoning: Everyday versus Idealized Understandings.” Developmental Review 22 (2): 242–266.
  • Sundararajan, N., Adesope, O. Keep it Coherent: A Meta-Analysis of the Seductive Details Effect. Educ Psychol Rev (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09522-4

How to Teach Critical Thinking: A Summary’s Summary

Critical Thinking Can Be Taught

1. Teach strategies and principals and integrate those principals into your teaching

Teaching Critical Thinking for General Transfer

1. Transfer is only possible when there is a relationship between topics.
-Ex: Writing a paragraph will not improve your ability to use a shading technique in drawing
2. Even seemingly related topics do not always allow for transfer.
-Ex: Estimating the area of rectangles does not improve ability to estimate the area of other geometric shapes
3. Teaching general critical thinking skills leads to limited success

Transfer And The Nature Of Critical Thinking

1. Critical thinking is not a generalizable skill because “analyze, synthesize, and evaluate” mean different things in different disciplines
2. Goals for critical thinking must be domain specific
3. There are some logic rules that transfer across domains, but students will struggle to apply them to new, unfamiliar domains

Critical Thinking As Problem Recognition

1. Challenges to transferring knowledge: Deep and Surface Structure
-Deep structures: Deep structures are often abstract and difficult to understand. Understanding the deep structure requires many examples (rich knowledge of surface structure)
-Surface structures
2. Speed recognition of deep structure
-problem comparison (2 worked examples with differing surface structure and the same deep structure)
-Teach the sub-steps of a process (label the sub-steps) to make knowledge more flexible

Open-Ended Problems And Knowledge

1. Critical thinking for routine and open-ended problems relies on extensive stores of domain knowledge.
2. Knowledge helps by…
-Improving the recognition process
-Allowing working memory to treat disparate groups as pieces of a single unit. (Frees up space in your working memory)
-Enabling you to deploy thinking strategies
3. Even experts struggle to think critically outside of their domain of expertise!

How To Teach Students To Think Critically (4 Steps)

1. Identify what is meant by critical thinking in your domain. Be specific.(Think like a scientist is not a helpful goal.) Identify what tasks would demonstrate critical thinking. Explicitly teach and have students deliberately practice said tasks.
2. Identify the domain content students must know. Identify the knowledge students need to successfully complete the tasks in step 1. This will involve uncomfortable, but necessary trade-offs. We interpret new information in light of what we know.
3. Choose the best sequence to learn the skills and knowledge.
4. Decide which skills and what knowledge should be revisited across years

Link to Article

How to Teach Critical Thinking

Research Apértif: Across Domain Transfer

According to dictionary.com, an apértif is a small drink of alcoholic liqueur taken to stimulate the appetite before a meal. This research apértif is likewise designed to stimulate your mind’s appetite.

If you enjoy the appetizer, click-through at the bottom of the page for the main course!

Background Research/Lit Review

1. Productive Failure (PF) process: Exploration and Generation (activate prior knowledge), Consolidation and Knowledge Assembly
2. Learning about complex systems with computer models can help students learn complex systems principles and transfer their knowledge
3. Far across domain transfer can be encouraged by allowing two scenarios to be seen as embodying the same principal (lab only, so far)

Study

1. Female 9th grade students at a high-achieving all girls school in Australia used computers to understand climate change
2. Study was conducted in 6 class periods of 80 minutes
3. One group used a single climate model and wrote down the “key ideas”
4. the other group used two models (one climate model and one non-climate model w/ similar deep structure) to compare/contrast

Findings

1. Both groups improved in declarative and explanatory knowledge
2. Students taught by an expert teacher w/ high content knowledge showed significantly higher complex systems knowledge
3. Students taught by an expert teacher showed higher performance for near within domain transfer
4. Performance for the one model group were more dependent on the quality of the teacher
5. Two model group showed better far transfer regardless of teacher expertise

Implications

1. Prior knowledge activation and differentiation may give students more chances to practice and encode critical info for the studied concept
2. Highly contrasting models may activate more prior knowledge (of structural and surface features) allowing for more connections between prior and new knowledge (creating a more integrated schema, making schema abstraction more likely)
3. It is most effective to use maximally contrasting models, w/ same deep structure along w/ explicit teach instruction about the shared deep structures of each model

Link to Article

Schema Abstraction WIth Productive Failure And Anological Comparison: Learning Desings For Far Across Domain Transfer (Free for ~50 days)

Citation

Jacobson, M. J., Goldwater, M., Markauskaite, L., Lai, P. K., Kapur, M., Roberts, G., & Hilton, C. (2020). Schema abstraction with productive failure and analogical comparison: Learning designs for far across domain transfer. Learning and Instruction,65, 101222. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101222

If I Were The King Of A School

🎶And if I were the king of a public primary school
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the lies and the busywork and the poor pedagogy
And give sweet knowledge to you
Sing it now, joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me🎶

What follows might not always be possible due to staffing limitations. However, if I am going to pretend to be the king of a public primary school, I might as well pretend to be king of a good one.

If I were the king of a school, here is what I’d do…

First, I would name it Normal Elementary School for several reasons. The first and most important being that I am trying to set a “new” norm (teaching knowledge systemically). The second, it is a shout out to two things, historical teacher’s colleges and my hometown. Three, I like wordplay.

School Culture/Environment

At Normal Elementary School, our staff would also be knowledgeable of their students’ cultures and backgrounds. This will reduce misunderstandings and hopefully help create a schoolwide environment that is more tolerant of differences and deals wisely with disagreements (even ones that cannot be resolved). An added benefit of knowing student cultures and backgrounds is that it helps create a safe, welcoming environment.

Another way we will create a safe environment is to have a “warm/strict” discipline policy. Essentially, every student will both know the school rules and expectations and trust that they will be fairly enforced, while, at the same time students will know that they are deeply cared for and valued, i.e., the school discipline policy will involve teachers being warm and strict at the same time.

The combination of high academic expectations with high behavioral expectations is paramount. Over time, with careful crafting they can become somewhat self-reinforcing. Students can internalize expectations and I want their internalized expectations to be good ones.

All elementary students would have the following classes every single day from kindergarten through grade 5. If I were king of a middle school, students would have some choices, followed by still more options in high school. But let’s focus on elementary school, because it’s the most important!

The Classes

  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Art/Music
  • Foreign Language
  • Physical Education

Each class would be 45 minutes long followed by a 4 minute passing period. Lunch and recess would be 30 minutes each and would, of course, add a passing period to the schedule. So the total time my students would be in school is 360 minutes for classes, 40 minutes for ten passing periods, 30 minutes for lunch, and 30 minutes for recess. Giving us a grand total of 460 minutes or 7.7 hrs.

For those of you who may be concerned about how long students are in school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average American student spends 402 minutes in school or 6.7 hrs. So my students would be in school for 58 more minutes per day than average.

The Science of Learning

I would establish a school ethos that explicitly values knowledge. By choosing to explicitly value knowledge, we are not, and will not be dismissive of skills, critical thinking, or creativity in any way.
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that skills are built from knowledge.
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that knowledge makes critical thinking possible (p3 & p8).
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that knowledge unlocks creativity.

My staff would all have a pedagogy informed by cognitive science. In practice, this means we would integrate spaced practice and retrieval practice into everything we do while also combining them with other research-based teaching/learning strategies where appropriate. Our students’ learning would be research informed as well because we will explicitly teach and model effective study strategies and would encourage their application with various tools/assignments. I consider having sky-high expectations for all students to fit into this approach seamlessly.

This does not mean that I expect all students who walk into my school’s doors to be academic rockstars. It means that every teacher will expect consistent effort and progress from every pupil. Every teacher’s default approach will be to push and challenge students to learn more and grow their curiosity. This will be done with a kind and encouraging spirit.

The Curriculum

The curriculum itself would generally be delivered in a spiraling format, allowing students to revisit content over the years, building their schema. An example of this could be in 3rd grade, students are introduced to basic physics, in 6th grade students learn several common physics equations and apply them to varying contexts, and then in 9th grade students may take variables such as friction/air resistance into account when calculating their equations. Each time the students are exposed to a topic, they go deeper into the content, intentionally building upon what they previously learned.

As we go through this curriculum-building process we would determine what is Core vs Hinterland. The core content would be what we want students to know for forever and would be referenced throughout a student’s time at our school. The hinterland content is used to set up the core content with a grand narrative. This creates a story and makes all of the content more memorable.

An example of core content would be the three branches of government. The hinterland content could be the story of how a bill becomes a law. Another example of core content might be the Revolutionary War. Songs from the play Hamilton could be used as the hinterland in this case because it shows the relational and emotional dynamics leading to the Revolutionary War.

The overarching goal of developing our curriculum in this manner is to build student knowledge and skills in all subjects. We want our students to know lots of things and to be able to do lots of things. As knowledge is the limiting factor to both knowing and doing, we will emphasize it.

All of this leads to questions of primary concern.

What schemas do we want students to have? What specifically will we call core knowledge? What knowledge and whose knowledge will be taught?
I would seek to answer these questions in an open manner, to build trust with the community and to make open, healthy discussion and debate possible.

One goal of the discussion would be to communicate the importance of educating students of every ethnicity and socioeconomic background in such a way that they become culturally literate and therefore prepared for success in “mainstream” America.

Cultural literacy entails teaching knowledge that speakers and writers (think NPR, The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic, National Review, etc) assume their audience has such as, understanding the Bible and classic works of literature, America’s founding, along with basic math and science skills. In no way is this approach assuming that the mainstream, or empowered culture’s knowledge is better than other knowledge, but it acknowledges that access to opportunity is often limited, intentionally or otherwise, by the culture of the “elites.”
At Normal Elementary, we want to give our students access to the same opportunities the privileged few have, and are convinced that the best way to do this that we can control is by teaching students information that has been deemed culturally important. This is a norm we are trying to set.

For a further point of clarification, this does not mean my school would only teach students history/literature from mainstream or white culture. Doing so would be fundamentally wrong, even in a monocultural society. I do not have an exact ratio or plan on how to include the histories, literatures, or arts of other cultures beyond saying that we will do it in an intentional and meaningful way. This is a norm we are trying to set.

The world is too big, varied, and interesting; and time is much too limited to teach all that is worth teaching. So we will reach a compromise with the open, honest, good faith debates I wrote about above and make painful cuts and thoughtful inclusions in our curriculum. This likely means that our curriculum, particularly in history, literature, and the arts will change and shift over time, while having a relatively stable core. This is a good thing. This is a norm we are trying to set.

As far as our curriculum’s specificity goes, we would generally use the nominally “national” standards as our absolute basement. This would give us a decent framework to build around, as we seek to enrich and fill out those standards with specific content that fit our context.

Normal Elementary’s Norms

  1. Staff that are knowledgeable of their students’ cultures.
  2. Staff that have high behavioral and educational expectations for all and maintain this by concurrently being warm and strict.
  3. Staff know and apply the findings of cognitive science to their teaching.
  4. Students are explicitly taught effective study skills.
  5. A curriculum that builds on itself and expects students to remember what they have learned.
  6. A curriculum that helps ensure students can find success in “mainstream” America by becoming culturally literate.
  7. A curriculum that is culturally responsive to the school’s student body.

At Normal Elementary, these are the norms we are trying to set. These are norms every school should have, norms every child should have the privilege of being educated under.

If I were the king of a school that is what I’d do.

Pedagogy: Changing Minds Changing Lives

Education is rife with bad practices. The effects of these practices are clear and have devastating outcomes. We use Whole Language and Balanced Literacy to teach reading, avoiding the evidence and Synthetic Phonics. This leads to students who can’t read. We have similar problems with how we teach math, and similar outcomes. 

Unfortunately the consistently poor results of common educational practices have not pushed their promoters out of education or caused educators to take a serious look at research. What these poor practices have achieved is the complicating of thousands of lives, often along socioeconomic and racial lines. 

The sad truth is that consistently poor results have not been enough to create anything beyond a sincere yet generic belief that education is not perfect and does, in fact, have problems. 

Some individuals have done the soul-searching required to look at the evidence and change their practices, but the shame is that as an educational system we think the problem is outside, we think the problem is the others, and we leave our soul unexamined, our practices unchanged, our students condemned to a poor education.

This tragedy is happening because evidence alone is not enough to correct someone’s actions even if it can change their beliefs. Research from the article, Effective Messages In Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial in the journal Pediatrics found that correcting misconceptions does not necessarily lead to a change in actions.

“None of the interventions increased parental intent to vaccinate a future child. Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes.”

vaccination.PNG

By itself, evidence can have strange effects. It can cause an intensification of views or over-corrections. Evidence can even be rejected outright because it conflicts with someone’s underlying beliefs (confirmation bias).

So what is a concerned teacher to do? It is obvious that we cannot just hang our heads and say, “Oh well.” The futures of too many children are at stake. The correlations between educational attainment and life outcomes are too clear for us to merely be concerned about our own classroom. In fact, caring about social justice demands us to work for change (See the disparities in the table above, or better yet peruse the 2019 Kids Count Data Book). Which brings us back to the original question, “If facts aren’t enough to change a teacher’s practice, what can we do? How can we change the practices of other teachers so that all students have a fair chance to learn?”

We cannot abandon facts. For facts help shape reality. However, reality is not created from mere facts. Reality is crafted from a concoction of facts and emotions. But this is particularly tricky. I am not comfortable engaging with contentious issues using emotion. It can devolve into mere anecdotes that tug on heartstrings. It can feel like I am flirting with some type of educational prosperity gospel, “Just do this, and your students will excel, be creative, lovely, and wonderful!” Playing on emotions is what cult leaders do.

And even so, emotions matter. We should use them to our advantage without manipulating others. 

We can do this by realizing that emotions are needed to make all decisions, even ones that seem to be just logical. 

A study by neuroscientists Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio R. Damasio in the journal Cerebral Cortex is summarized by ChangingMinds.org,

“Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who had received brain injuries that had had one specific effect: to damage that part of the brain where emotions are generated. In all other respects they seemed normal – they just lost the ability to feel emotions.

The interesting thing he found was that their ability to make decisions was seriously impaired. They could logically describe what they should be doing, in practice they found it very difficult to make decisions about where to live, what to eat, etc.”

So, if we want people to change their actions we need to involve emotions, even when the data is clear. So, how do we use emotions in a non-manipulative manner?

We need to first get some type of initial investment, and then sustain it. Which is obvious if you pause and think about it. Too bad actually achieving this is not so clear or straight-forward.

I think this can be done in a similar way we get our students to become invested in learning. When we are passionate about what we teach, we are passionate in such a way that it draws students into the content. However, when we talk about how to teach (or politics or religion), our passion tends to turn divisive.

I think there are ways to harness our passion to make evidence informed teaching attractive to doubters. We need to tell a (true) story and not just spit out some facts about good pedagogy. This is challenging. (I am trying to write this blogpost to clearly convey the facts while appealing to emotion. It is taking much longer than normal and I am not sure how effective I am, but I’m convinced it is worth trying.) 

When we turn good pedagogy into a story, we make our methods larger than a mere procedure. When we fail to personalize the issue, to make it a story we often come off as cold and calculating, as if we think educating a child is a matter of plugging in an equation. So, tell a story.

In the rest of this article I will use explicit instruction as my example because I think an easy to digest system of instruction with a proven track record that is based on cognitive science. For those interested, there is an absolutely excellent book about explicit instruction written by Anita Archer Ph.D and Charles Hughes Ph.D called Explicit Instruction: Effective And Efficient Teaching.

You: “I use explicit instruction because I want children to change the world with their creativity and ability to think critically. I use explicit instruction because I want students to have fun in school. I use explicit instruction because I want students to be both tolerant and understanding about other cultures/values.” 

This also plays on the “others’ needs and goals from step #2. Everyone wants these things. Now they are intrigued. 

Them: “Why does your approach to teaching produce those results? Does it really work better than what I have been doing?” 

Now we can move on to step number three, “offering proof that socially desirable other people are already invested”. Basically this is an appeal to authority. Be careful! Remember! Use emotions, don’t manipulate. Appeals to authority can be useful.

You: “Here is what Professor X has to say about explicit instruction. She is very concerned about making education authentic and applicable to students.”

Doing this well involves knowing who you are talking to. Show them that your side shares many of the same goals as their side.

Them: “Oh, that’s interesting. So how does explicit instruction work?”

Now, hit them with the steps! Make it simple. Make it easy. Remember they are new to this and may not have a schema for explicit instruction. Give them small, easily applicable steps. Just like what you would do when you introduce your students to a new topic.

You: “Well, it’s basically like “I do. We do. You do.” You just need to make sure to fully explain and model something before having students work on it in groups or individually. This helps students apply what they are learning to real-life.”

By adding the last sentence and linking explicit instruction with real-life application, you are helping make it easier for the person to buy in. You are making their initial investment more likely to become a sustained one because you are showing them that explicit instruction is aligned with their values (Step #1 of sustained investment).

Them: “Oh, that sounds easy. I already use “I do. We do. You do. But doesn’t explicit instructions involve a lot of lecturing?”

You: “It’s great that you already use that method. The lecturing within explicit instruction always involves a lot of student interaction. It is never just teacher talk. For example, you briefly explain something and then you pose a question and students can work together to solve it. Then you can explain things a bit further and pose an application question where students again talk and work together to come up with an answer. All while clarifying and answering student questions yourself. So there is a variety of T-S, S-T, and S-S interaction. Explicit instruction is actually quite dynamic and it even encourages students to come up with creative answers.”

Them: “That is interesting. And it is a bit different than what I do.”

Here is where you can get them to give something they value, step #5. They likely value creativity, engagement, and critical thinking. Here you can, depending on the context of your conversation either encourage them to try it out in their classroom and/or share an accessible blogpost about it.

You: “Why don’t you try it out in your classroom I think you would see your students come up with some really creative answers, especially if you have them apply the skills your teaching to real-life. I’d love to hear how it went.”

By linking explicit instruction with creativity and “real-life” you are making their initial investment more likely to become a sustained one (step #1). A call to action includes step #2 of sustained investment. You are involving them in a public manner (in front of their students and in a conversation with you). 

Hopefully this will segue right into step #3 of sustain involvement by creating evidence that explicit instruction is working. This evidence may involve more engaged students, higher achievement, changing student attitudes towards the subject, etc.

Then, the last step, #4 involves trying to cement the change and making it difficult to divest. For teachers, I think that the best way to do this is to point at the changes they saw when they began consistently using explicit instruction and to give more data (research summaries work great for this). 

Now, will following this procedure always work? Of course not. But we know that simply telling people about research doesn’t really help. So let’s start our conversations by leading with the story of good pedagogy, don’t just jump to the procedure or statistical outcomes.The story invites those outside our circle to come in. Then, when real interest has been aroused, talk with or message them. Remember that the research is so persuasive to us, in part because of our experiences. Share your experiences and encourage them to apply good pedagogy. If we want them to see the educational light, show them the easy access points. Show them where good pedagogy aligns with their morals and views. Remove the barriers to good pedagogy and you might just change some minds. It might just change some students’ lives.

Teachers Should Read Research

Teachers should read research, on top of their teaching.
I know that teachers are always busy and the addition of reading academic research on top of the teaching/planning/grading load is unappealing. But hear me out. You will find that reading research saves your time, improves your teaching, and helps your students learn more. What’s not to like?

Through reading research on feedback, I found evidence that merely grading an assignment is not effective feedback. Now, I still must grade assignments, I am a teacher after all but I have been working on actually grading only summative type assignments. For formative assessments I have switched to completion based grading system with whole class feedback. When I apply this strategy, grading an entire class set of assignments takes 5-15 minutes depending on the type of assignment. And, better yet, my students are able to apply that feedback. I have more free-time and my students are learning more. It is great.

Through researching about cognitive science, I stumbled upon the Learning Scientists. From them I found out about spaced repetition and retrieval practice, among other strategies. I combined these findings with what I have learned about knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes.

Creating the knowledge organizers and flashcards was more work initially (Here is a how to blog I wrote on knowledge organizers and flashcards). But the payout for the effort has been tremendous. My students are using academic vocabulary to describe concepts instead of continuing to describe scientific concepts in everyday language.

For example:

Before After
When the convection current goes up it is because it weighs less when it is hot. It sinks when it is cold and heavier. A convection current rises because the heat lowers the mantle’s density. It sinks when the temperature is reduced and it becomes denser than the surrounding mantle.

Knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes are all great ways incorporate both spaced repetition and retrieval practice into your classroom. They are also a fantastically powerful tool to for vocabulary acquisition. Students with a better vocabulary will likely grasp the concepts you are teaching better and be able to more effectively think critically. This has opened new doors for my students as they can understand the concepts at a high level and now they have the vocabulary to not only answer questions properly (improving grades) but to ask much much better questions!

The Matthew effect is powerful. I try to teach my students as much as possible to leverage these effects for their benefit. It just so happens that I benefit too. 🙂

Two Critical: Knowing is Critical for Critical Thinking

It amazes me how so many in education push creativity/critical thinking/skills so hard while often forgetting or ignoring the importance of content knowledge.

“Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status”

Sir Ken Robinson, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Warwick (Source)

“Facts and figures once held as paramount in classrooms, and knowing facts and figures, is no longer relevant in today’s society”

Kris Willis, School Improvement Director of Canberra, Australia (Source)

Ken Robinson is a professor who became Ted Talk famous. Kris Willis is in charge of leading Australia’s education system. Both of these sources should know better.

It is confusing that people denigrate knowledge and memorization. We can see how important both are if we start with a basic skill, like going to the bathroom. Children who are being potty-trained struggle with this because it is new and they do not know how. They must first memorize many steps before they can apply the skill.

  1. Recognize that they need to go to the bathroom.
  2. Know where the bathroom is.
  3. Be able to open the door.
  4. Pull down their pants.
  5. Sit on the toilet.
  6. Let it out.
  7. Wipe
  8. Flush
  9. Wash hands with soap

And this list is a simplification itself. But I think that there is value in a small thought exercise like this. As adults, we often take this knowledge as self-explanatory, but every child needs to be explicitly taught how to use the bathroom. They do not discover how to do it. This interestingly titled article from Pull-Ups, Help Your Turtle Recognize The Urge To Go To The Bathroom helps show how much knowledge children need to have before they become potty trained.

We can step up the age and see that memorization holds its importance. If you are reading and understanding this, it is simply because you have memorized the alphabet, memorized basic grammar rules, and memorized the rules of phonics. You do not learn to read organically.

You learn to read from…

  1. Knowing how to speak
  2. Being read to
  3. Recognizing both upper and lowercase letters
  4. Memorizing the sounds of individual letters
  5. Know basic phonics
  6. Understand that letters make words
  7. Understand that each word has a specific meaning
  8. Know that books are written left to right and top to bottom

This list is also a simplification, yet it shows how necessary memorization is. If you do not memorize, you cannot read. For a more in-depth look at what it takes to read, check out this Reading Rockets article, How Most Children Learn to Read.

Now, the previous two examples are very simple. I think it is also important to check and see if it holds for advanced subjects. Consider the ability to think critically about complicated issues such as the relationships of countries.

This is an issue of paramount importance. Yet, in order to do it well, you need to know many things such as…

  1. The individual histories and cultures of each country.
  2. The history of interactions between each country.
  3. The current political climate of each country.
  4. External pressures on each country.
  5. Relevant international laws and agreements

There are at least two full university degrees of information included in the above list. Any attempt to apply critical thinking on this without deep subject knowledge will at best apply simplistic rules that lack the depth and nuance of reality. This is because when people think critically without deep background knowledge, they are looking at the subjects surface structure. Daniel Willingham succinctly describes this need for background knowledge in his AFT article Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? In this example, scientific thinking is analogous to critical thinking.

“The idea that scientific thinking must be taught hand in hand with scientific content is further supported by research on scientific problem solving; that is when students calculate an answer to a textbook-like problem, rather than design their own experiment. A meta-analysis 20 of 40 experiments investigating methods for teaching scientific problem-solving showed that effective approaches were those that focused on building complex, integrated knowledge bases as part of problem-solving, for example by including exercises like concept mapping. Ineffective approaches focused exclusively on the strategies to be used in problem-solving while ignoring the knowledge necessary for the solution. What do all these studies boil down to? First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice. For teachers, the situation is not hopeless, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of teaching students to think critically.”

(Emphasis is my own)

Dylan William mentions critical thinking in his paper, “How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine?

“The idea of “critical thinking” seems important in every single school subject. Indeed it is common to hear teachers discussing with apparent consensus what this means in different subjects. However, this apparent consensus is the result of a failure to explore in depth what critical thinking really means…. Knowing that dividing by zero invalidates an equation, and being aware of ways in which this can be done accidentally, is learned in mathematics classrooms, not in generic lessons on critical thinking. In the same way, knowing enough about the history of the period under study to read an account critically requires subject specific knowledge. Most importantly, developing a capability for critical thinking in history does not make one better at critical thinking in mathematics. For all the apparent similarities, critical thinking in history and critical thinking in mathematics are different, and are developed in different ways.”

Critical thinking is critically important. Educational leaders (and everyone) should promote and celebrate memorization (knowing things) as a way to increase critical thinking. Go on, think about it.

Schema Aquisition

According to Wikipedia, a schema is

a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information. Schemata influence attention and the absorption of new knowledge: people are more likely to notice things that fit into their schema, while re-interpreting contradictions to the schema as exceptions or distorting them to fit. Schemata have a tendency to remain unchanged, even in the face of contradictory information. Schemata can help in understanding the world and the rapidly changing environment. People can organize new perceptions into schemata quickly as most situations do not require complex thought when using schema, since automatic thought is all that is required”

Schema acquisition is necessary in order for students to effectively solve problems and think critically. In an attempt to achieve this, many teaching strategies focus on giving students a large amount of practice with a particular problem type. On the surface, this approach makes a lot of sense. If students are learning multiplication and division, then they need to practice the skill in order to become proficient. But evidence has shown that this conventional approach is not always the most effective.

The studies on this involved giving students problems to solve. The problems could be solved using either a means-ends analysis or by using a rule based on the problem structure (schema). Studies found that while the participants using a means-ends analysis were able to effectively complete the problems, they would not learn the essential aspects of the problem’s structure. Meaning that they would achieve success without much actual learning.

A means-ends analysis approach to problem-solving has two main weaknesses, selective attention and cognitive processing capacity. The means-ends approach involves a student keeping the current problem state and the goal state, along with the relationship between the problem state and goal state in mind at once. They do not necessarily think back on previously solved, similar problems. As a result, the cognitive load is much higher for someone using a means-ends approach (often involving working backward) as opposed to someone using a schema (working forwards). The cognitive load of a means-ends approach can interfere with the development of a schema because the cognitive load is so high.

Solving a problem using a schema allows for students to work forward because the schema holds the related problem states and the procedures associated with them. As teachers, we should strive to help our students develop their own, effective schemas for solving problems and applying concepts. One way to do this is to direct students to use a nonspecific goal strategy. We can do this by changing conventional (specific) goal questions to nonspecific goal questions.

  • Conventional Goal Question: What direction does gravity pull the bird down?
  • Nonspecific Goal Question: How does gravity act on the bird?

That being said, it is important for students to have a basic mental model in place before moving to nonspecific problems. If they don’t have a basic mental model, then nonspecific questions are often unhelpful. This fits with other cognitive science research such as concreteness fading. Basically, start concrete and get vaguer over time. An example of this is telling a student 2+2=4 by showing them two groups of two apples, then put the apples together and voila! Four apples. After the student has mastered two apples plus two apples, you can give them a problem that is two oranges plus two oranges. Eventually moving to strictly using numbers, 2+2=4.

Nonspecific goals are effective because this type of problem cannot be solved by a means-ends analysis (requiring a high cognitive load). Functionally this means that students will be using a problem-solving method that has a lower cognitive load, allowing them to devote more of their working memory towards building a schema. So, as teachers, we should strive to teach students how to solve problems, and we should develop that by giving nonspecific questions in order to help them develop the schemas necessary.

 

Sources

https://mindmodeling.org/cogsci2015/papers/0198/paper0198.pdf

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schema_(psychology)

Experts-Novices: Critical Thinking and Background Knowledge

A schema is a mental structure that allows problem solvers to recognize the particular category a problem lies within, and then use an effective strategy to solve that problem. Experts have multiple schemas, allowing them to quickly move towards a solution. Whereas novices do not, so they must use a means-ends analysis approach.

A means-ends analysis requires a large cognitive load because it works to eliminate possible answers (In the beginning, there is a near infinite field of possible answers). This is done by working backward from the goal, setting subgoals up along the way. In contrast, experts start moving towards a solution right away.

Experts and novices not only approach problems differently, they look at them in different ways as well. Studies have found that experts will categorize problems based on what strategies are used to solve them, while novices will categorize problems based on their surface structures. One finding from this type of study is that domain-specific knowledge is integral for critical thinking to be effective. You have to have the relevant background knowledge in order to correctly apply the appropriate skill to solve a problem.

You can’t think critically about what you do not know. This is a particularly controversial statement within the field of education. But it should not be. It is very commonsensical when you work to isolate the variables. For example, if a chemist was going to write an essay talking about how life works because of chemistry and you were going to write one as well, theirs would likely be much better. The reason being that they have a wealth of background knowledge to draw from. Whereas you, have Google. You can find the same information, but you will not understand it as deeply or be able to apply it as thoroughly because the knowledge has not been sitting in your head.

Another example of this can be seen when we look at foreign languages. How did the phrase “你吃了嗎?” originate and why is it used as a greeting? If you cannot read that sentence, you cannot think critically about it. It really is rather simple, background knowledge is necessary (critical even) for critical thinking. Think about it.

Source

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4