In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve ponders “Guiding Learning from the Complex to the Pattern.”
Listen as Steve examines how the brain works to find patterns in complexity and how this can be applied to engage students in learning production behaviors that will lead to a richer understanding into the future.
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Steve: Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For the last 35 years I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes. I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading. Thanks for listening in.
Guiding learning from the complex to the pattern. The brain works in a natural process of finding patterns within complexity so if you think about the young child they live in a very complex adult world and their brain finds patterns that the child brings into learning. One of my favorite examples is when you hear that young child say, “I go to outside.” You need to realize that, hopefully, [chuckles] the child isn’t repeating a word that they’ve heard somebody at home use.
When that child says, “I go to outside.” what it tells you is the child’s brain has identified that past tense Ed sound as communicating a past tense and having not received any instruction on letters yet, not alone any instruction on past, present, and future tense. The child has figured out that pattern and the child is now taking that pattern and applying it to actually create a word that the child has never heard before. It’s actually a form of creativity. I’m so impressed when I stop to think about the quality of learning that that young brain is designed to do.
Now what we frequently find happen is when we come to the school setting, we have a tendency to try and flip the process and so our tendency is to break learning elements down into their most simplistic form and then try to build from that simple form to the more complex understanding. It’s part of why I’ve struggled with the whole concept that people had a tendency to write lesson plans where they actually looked for a learning outcome within 45 minutes.
I’m going to start a class and students don’t know something and during 45 minutes the students going to learn it and have that at the end. The only way to approach that is to reduce to the most simplest element what it is, I’m looking to teach within that class period. I’ve always been encouraging teachers to look much broader as a time frame so that the activities I’m engaged in class today aren’t looking for an immediate outcome at the end of today’s lesson but they’re all about engaging the student in the learning production behaviors that are going to lead to a deeper richer understanding somewhere out into the future.
I had a great example shared with me from a band director who stated that the way he introduces a new complex difficult piece of music to the band is that he passes it out and says, “Let’s take it from the top.” His phrase for it was actually orchestrated train wreck. In other words, he knows within a few short moments some band members will be laughing, some will be crying, many have put down their instrument but the student now understands the complexity of what the band is looking to do.
Having understood that complexity now you might back up and look at an individual measure of music a note sequence and you’re going to practice that note sequence now in isolation putting it back into the whole piece of music. I pondered at what time what would it be like if the band director took the approach that most of our math textbooks take to instruction. I couldn’t picture students walking into band one day and on their music stand would be two notes, di da. They’d practice it today, di da. They’d be told by the band director, “Go home and practice tonight,” di da. “Come back tomorrow and we’ll add another note,” di da da. Trust me by Christmas time there’s a song here. I think too often that’s what we’re asking kids to do, is believe in me that all these little pieces I’m putting out there too you eventually add up to something bigger.
Imagine it in physical education a student walks into middle school PE class and the teacher shows her a basketball says, “This a basketball and this year we’re going to learn how to dribble it. 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, they’re going to play a game with us.” We’d never be able to keep kids engaged, but I think way too often that’s the task we’re handing to the teachers.
I’ve been encouraging teachers when they look at their standards, they’ll frequently find that their standards are laid out and almost guarantee that their textbook is laid out to work from a simple-detailed elements that eventually lead to something more complex. My thought is that if teachers looked ahead at that more complex issue and that’s where they began their instruction.
Another way to consider this is, if my students are being asked to meet a standard and they’re going to be assessed on a standard that I as a teacher decide is rather simplistic, then I might decide that I’m going to teach substantially above the standard. I don’t have to come back and assess at that higher level but I’m going to instruct at that higher level as a better way of having my student meet the standard that’s required.
I was just working on an example with a professional learning community of first-grade teachers who were looking at a standard that students needed to be able to tell time to the hour and the half hour. The natural approach is for the teacher to do some modeling and explaining and then the math curriculum provided the kids with worksheets of practice where they looked at a clock and identified the time, or they were given the time and they had to draw the hands on the clock to illustrate it. As I talked through with the teachers I thought, “What if that unit started instead with students discussing and exploring the concept of 24 hours making a day.”
What would happen if we stuck the video camera on a clock and let it record it for a whole day and then jump around showing it to the students? What if students were engaged in conversations about, “Why is the time of day when I called Grammy different than the time here where I’m living?” What if we were exploring, if it’s just happening, Daylight Savings Time and the change in that time? 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, and why is it that they would call it 1400?
If teachers explored that depth and then while they’re having those in-depth discussions they’re using clocks that the students are manipulating, clocks at the teacher’s modeling, but they’re using clocks with the hour and half hour as part of the discussion rather than as the specific standard I’m teaching to, eventually, the teacher in that process would arrive at the students understanding and working with clocks and putting the time on paper similar to the way that it’s likely to be assessed.
As you’re working with your staffs, especially working at NPL season and I think with beginning teachers this is would really be a big issue is, have them look ahead at the complexity of standards. I just keep finding that there tends to be this list of less complex standards listed first and then a more complex one. Teachers are following a pacing guide that’s teaching the standards in the order that they’re listed. Instead, get teachers to consider, “If I tackle that complex standard and I built my instruction around the complex standard, how likely is it that the students would be learning the standards that lead up to it?”
Besides increasing student depth of learning, I think that we’d find students are more engaged and enjoying learning more as they tackle those complex elements. I’m pretty sure we’d find the same thing within the teachers. It’s much more interesting to be tackling and designing those complex learning activities than the detailed sequenced items. This conversation with staff may encourage them to look at how working in project-based learning and simulations and real-life learning events can create the opportunity for students now to be taking two or three complex standards and engaging all of that into one complex learning event. Allow the students to deal with confusion during the early stages and take time for the pattern to emerge.
Thanks for listening.
Thanks for listening folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com
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