The brain works in a natural process of finding patterns within complexity. If you think about young children, living in very complex adult worlds, their brains find patterns that they bring into learning. One of my favorite examples is when you hear a young child say, “I ‘goed’ outside”. You realize that, hopefully, the child isn’t repeating a word that they’ve heard someone at home use.
When a child says, “I ‘goed’ outside”, the child’s brain has identified that ‘ed‘ sound as communicating a past tense. Having not received any instruction on letters yet, not alone any instruction on past, present, and future tense, the child has figured out a pattern and is now applying it to actually create a word that the child has never heard before. It’s actually a form of creativity. I’m awed when I stop to think about the quality of learning that the young brain is designed to do.
This process is often flipped when the child starts school. We break learning elements down into their most simplistic form and try to build from that simple form to the more complex understanding. It’s part of why I’ve struggled with writing a lesson plan where a learning outcome is sought within a class period.
If I’m starting a class and students don’t know something and within 45 minutes the students are going to learn it, I have to reduce learning to the simplest elements. I’ve always encouraged teachers to look much broader at a timeframe for learning so that the activities in class today aren’t looking for an immediate outcome at the end of today’s lesson. Instead, engaging students in the learning production behaviors that will lead to an understanding further in the future.
I had a great example shared with me by a band director who introduced a new, complex, difficult piece of music by passing it out and saying, “Let’s take it from the top.” Within a few moments some band members are laughing, some are crying, many have put down their instruments. The students now understand the complexity of what they will work to achieve. The band director called it an “orchestrated train wreck.”
Having understood that complexity, you can back up and look at an individual measure of music or a note sequence and practice that in isolation. Then, put it back into the whole piece of music. I ponder what it would be like if the band director took the approach that most of our math textbooks take to instruction. Picture students walking into band practice and on their music stands would be two notes, “di da”. They’d practice it, “di da”. They’d be told by the band director, ” Practice tonight. Come back tomorrow and we’ll add another note, di da da. Trust me, by Christmas time you’ll find there’s a song here.” I think too often that’s what we’re asking kids to do; believe that all these little pieces eventually add up to something interesting.
Imagine a student walked into middle school PE class and the teacher showed her a basketball and said, “This year we’re going to learn how to dribble. Next year we’re going to learn how to pass, and in eighth grade, we’re going to learn how to shoot. When you get to high school, you will be playing a game.” We’d never be able to keep kids engaged. I think way too often that’s the engagement task the curriculum is handing to teachers.
“Part of what makes us human is the need for our brains to search for meaning. Educators should understand this fact and create learning opportunities that honor this reality. Students who are given complex patterns to discover and interpret send their brains on this important search for meaning. At the same time, students are building the connections so vital to higher learning and critical-thinking skills.”
Patterns, the Brain, and Learning
– Robert C. Barkman
Sometimes standards, and almost always textbooks, work from simple-detailed elements that eventually lead to something more complex. If teachers look ahead at that more complex issues, they can begin instruction there and plan backwards to the detailed elements being mastered.
If my students are going to be assessed on a standard that I as a teacher decide is rather simplistic, I might decide to teach substantially above the standard. I don’t have to assess at that higher level but I’m going to instruct at that higher level as a better way of having my students meet the standard that’s required.
A professional learning community of first-grade teachers was exploring a standard for telling time to the hour and the half hour. The usual approach would be for the teacher to do some modeling and explaining and then provide students with manipulative clocks and worksheets to practice identifying the time or given the time, draw the hands on the clock to illustrate it.
What if that unit started instead with students discussing and exploring the concept of 24 hours making a day? What if a video camera recorded a whole day of a clock and students watched with speeded time? What if students were engaged in conversations about:
- Why is the time of day when I call Grammy different than the time here where I’m living?
- What if Daylight Savings Time was explored?
- What if we spent some time looking at airline schedules in Europe and noticed that there is no two o’clock in the afternoon listed on the airline schedule; why is it that they would call it 1400?
While teachers explored that depth, they’re using clocks that the students are manipulating and clocks for teacher’s modeling. Clocks with the hour and half hour are part of the discussions rather than the specific standard being taught. Eventually, in this process, students would reach understanding and be able to work with clocks and put the time on paper, like the way it will be assessed.
Complexity in learning opportunities increases engagement and the quality of learning, adding greater joy for the teacher.