Thinkers are characterized by their curiosity, willingness to explore different approaches, and the ability to think critically about a task. Thinking generates learning. The question for us as teachers is “How much thinking are our students doing?” Students who succeed in school by mimicking may get acceptable grades but are often set up for future, often unexpected, failure.
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[00:00:00.410] – Steve [Intro]
Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of Steve Barkley ponders out loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding, and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.
[00:00:32.870] – Steve
How much thinking are students doing? Listening to a recent podcast interview by EdSurge with Peter Liljedhal led me to take a deeper look at Liljedhal’s work connected to students thinking in order to generate learning. I was initially introduced to his work through his strategy of visual random groups and vertical, non-permanent surfaces in math classrooms. You’ll find a link to that earlier blog of mine in the lead-in to this podcast. Liljedhal’s findings from his observations showed that in K-12 math classrooms, 80% of the students weren’t doing any thinking. 20% of students were engaged in thinking, but only for 20% of the time. And it wasn’t that they wouldn’t do more thinking, but that was the only time that was being allotted for them to engage in thinking. Students who are thinkers are actively engaged with problems, and they persist in seeking solutions. They are characterized by their curiosity, willingness to explore different approaches, and ability to think critically about the task. Thinkers often achieve a deep understanding of concepts and can apply their knowledge flexibly – what many of us would label as deep learning. So if thinking was only occurring by 20% of the students, 20% of the time, what would we observe looking at the rest of the students in a class?
[00:02:30.500] – Steve
Liljedhal described some of the students as slackers. Slackers are students that are characterized by their tendency to quickly give up when faced with challenging problems. Often, they don’t even begin. Their off task behavior is likely observable to the teacher. They may be on their phone, writing a note, looking at a different website, or having a book open. Generally, they would jump out as being off task. Some students are stallers. Stallers are students who delay or procrastinate when confronted with a task or problem. This behavior might stem from a fear of failure, a lack of understanding the task, or simply a habit of avoiding immediately engaging with challenging work. Stallers frequently get permission from the teacher not to engage in the thinking task. It sounds like this – “May I go to the bathroom?” Some students are fakers. Fakers are students who pretend to understand or engage with the material without actually doing so. They might mimic the actions of thinkers or give the appearance of participation without genuinely processing the information or the problem. Liljedhal describes a student whose pencil was moving, but no marks were showing up on the paper.
[00:04:19.490] – Steve
And then the student actually flipped their pencil and erased where there wasn’t anything written. I’ve observed fakers when I’ve been in classrooms where students are supposed to be reading, and I ended up labeling those students as fake readers. They’re the student who can move their head back and forth as if their eyes were going across the page, but it’s only when you observe closely that you recognize that they haven’t turned the page in quite a few moments. The last group that Liljedhal identifies are mimickers, and this group is probably way too big, way too often. Mimickers are those who follow the steps or methods demonstrated by the teacher without deeply understanding the concepts. They can replicate a procedure, but they may struggle to apply those methods in a new situation or are unlikely able to explain their reasoning. Listen as Liljedhal has a conversation about mimickers.
[00:05:34.680] – EdSurge Podcast
So the mimickers are the ones who, they’re not actually thinking for themselves, they’re just reproducing what has been shown to them.
[00:05:50.160] – EdSurge Podcast
So the teacher showed me how to do this. I’m just going to emulate that exactly the way it was. Put this number there, put that number there, cross multiply, get the answer – done. And now I can do three or four of those, right?
[00:06:05.170] – EdSurge Podcast
The problem with mimicking is that mimicking is not learning. It’s not thinking. In fact, it’s not a learning behavior. Speaking to the students. Mimicking is actually a production behavior. It’s what students do to produce for the teacher the things that the teacher asked for in exchange for praise, gold stars, and grades. It’s just a production behavior, and it doesn’t actually facilitate long term growth.
[00:06:40.430] – EdSurge Podcast
Well, just to be devil’s advocate, sometimes, aren’t there some things that when you copy the process of a math, to learn a certain time, multiplication or division, don’t you need to just mimic the same procedure over and over?
[00:06:58.160] – EdSurge Podcast
Yeah. So this is an interesting question, right? Because there was some really interesting things in the data, one of which was, I would ask teachers, I would say, so what do you like? Do you want your students to mimic? And they’re like, no. Maybe a little bit at the beginning, a little bit of fake it till you make it. But overall, I want them to understand. I want them to see connections I do not want my students to mimic. And then we would interview the students, and the students would go, he definitely wants us to mimic. There is this misunderstanding, and the reason is because students don’t listen to what we say, they listen to what we do. And if our teaching incentivizes and rewards mimicking, then what the students hear is that we want them to mimic. But to your question, isn’t that what we want sometimes?
[00:07:45.550] – EdSurge Podcast
Like this idea, I said it earlier, and some teachers say this, I want them fake it till they make it. That’s a good starting point. I want them to understand in the end, but what our research actually showed was less than 4% of students were actually willing to move beyond mimicking once they started mimicking.
[00:08:05.120] – EdSurge Podcast
Wow, 96% stay mimicking.
[00:08:08.780] – EdSurge Podcast
Yeah. If they started mimicking, they would not move beyond that strategy. This idea of fake it till you make it is good in theory, but it’s not what’s happening. And any teacher who’s listening to this will recognize these words. So I didn’t do question 13 on the homework because you didn’t show us how.
[00:08:33.550] – EdSurge Podcast
The ones you’ve shown me how to do, I will mimic. But the minute you ask me to do something you haven’t shown me how to do, I don’t know how to do that one.
[00:08:42.160] – EdSurge Podcast
And we’ve subscribed to this idea that if we start with mimicking, that’s going to build the proficiency and then the conceptual will come after it.
[00:08:54.790] – EdSurge Podcast
Mimicking is like a highly addictive drug.
[00:08:59.590] – EdSurge Podcast
Once they start mimicking, and they start being productive through mimicking, and this is one of the problems with mimicking is that it has really high short term success rate.
[00:09:10.780] – EdSurge Podcast
You get the gold star.
[00:09:12.300] – EdSurge Podcast
Yes. If I mimic now, I’ll be productive now. If I mimic tonight, I’ll be productive tonight.
[00:09:17.940] – EdSurge Podcast
And because of that, it’s highly appealing and highly addictive to students.
[00:09:22.690] – EdSurge Podcast
The problem is that 100% of students, 100% of students who use mimicking as a strategy will eventually start to struggle at their inability to remain productive through mimicking. And it happens to every single student. At some point, mimicking runs out. And when that happens, students don’t go from an A to a B. They go from an A to a D because they haven’t actually learned the things that they need to learn to set them up for success. They’ve actually just sort of short term successes are not actually accumulating to long term gain.
[00:10:04.170] – Steve
Liljedhal points to our need as teachers to create the task, the motivation, and the environment that will support student thinking. One of his findings was that we tend to get more student thinking, student engagement, when students are working in groups of three rather than in pairs or groups of four. Also, standing and working on nonpermanent surfaces gives more engagement than seated at a table. I’ve had the opportunity to observe some math classrooms using this strategy, and the increase in student engagement was evident. I think that exploring how to generate student thinking should be a continuous PLC exploration as well as constant teacher reflection. Certainly having a coaching observer in our classrooms who observes students sees those many behaviors that we don’t get to see while we’re teaching. I think those coaches can provide us with very important feedback. Another strategy can be asking your students for feedback on the task that you’ve assigned as a way to reflect upon the thinking that they’re doing. Alexis Wiggins, a secondary teacher, shared a great example in a recent blog. She was wanting to create a final exam that would incorporate all that students had learned during the semester, and she wanted it to be challenging, engaging, and unique.
[00:11:56.850] – Steve
Thanks to the New York Times Learning Network, Alexis got an idea to have her students write, edit, and produce their own podcast on the topic of immigration. You’ll find a link to her blog in the lead into this podcast, and it includes the opportunity to link directly to the details of that exam. When she polled the students prior to the exam, she asked them if they would prefer a sit down, timed essay exam or the podcast project. The majority of students said they preferred the sit down essay. Wiggins was surprised. One of her students put the message to her clearly that the podcast would be much harder. It would be more challenging for them to get out into the community, interview real people, and edit the podcast into a compelling audio story of five or less minutes. Once the exam day came, however, Wiggins was wowed by the result and so were many of her students. A couple of podcasts stood out as highly professional, and all of them would be eligible to submit their project to the New York Times contest. When polled again, after the presentations were finished, all but one student said they preferred the podcast project to the traditional exam.
[00:13:49.110] – Steve
Creating the motivation, the task, and the environments that support student thinking is challenging to all of us as educators, but I believe that in many ways, when student thinking is rewarding for the students, it’s also rewarding for us as educators. I’d love to hear your thoughts and perhaps some of the strategies you use to increase students moving from mimicking to thinking. You can always contact me at barkleypd.com thanks for listening.
[00:14:34.110] – Steve [Outro]
Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what your pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.