kitchen table math, the sequel: Barry G on just-in-time learning

Friday, September 10, 2010

Barry G on just-in-time learning

I think this is my favorite of Barry's articles -- he nails it.
Even worse than the book itself were the discussions in class that came out of it. One event in particular stands out. In a chapter that discussed the difference between "knowing" and "understanding," a chart presents examples of “Inauthentic versus Authentic Work.” In this chart “Practice decontextualized skills" is listed as inauthentic and "Interpret literature" as authentic. The black and white nature of the distinctions on the chart bothered me, so when the teacher asked if we had any comments, I said that calling certain practices “inauthentic” is not only pejorative but misleading. I asked the teacher “Do you really think that learning to read is an inauthentic skill?”

She replied that she didn’t really know about issues related to reading. Keeping it on the math level, I then referred to the chart's characterization of "Solve contrived problems" as inauthentic and “Solve ‘real world’ problems” as authentic and asked why the authors automatically assumed that a word problem that might be contrived didn’t involve “authentic” mathematical concepts. “Let’s move on,” she said.


The authors’ approach to how one teaches for understanding is through a process that they call “backward design,” in which educators plan their courses, units and lessons by starting from what they want the end result to be. That is, what should students know, understand and be able to do? The planning process then entails working backwards from there, identifying the content that goes into this, the big ideas, the questions to be explored and so on.

As the authors state, backward planning is not a new idea. In fact, I was a bit confused as to why it is even needed, given that such work has essentially been done in the writing of the textbooks that cover the course material.... But this brings us to another axiom which I have heard repeated in education school, which states that textbooks are a resource and not a curriculum. The authors pick up on this as well and regard using the textbook for planning as a “sin," stating that “The textbook may very well provide an important resource but it should not constitute the syllabus.”


In a paean to constructivism and the abandonment of textbooks, Tomlinson and McTighe dispose of the notion that sequence of topics and mastery of skills is important, calling such beliefs the “climbing the ladder” model of cognition. “Subscribers to this belief assume that students must learn the important facts before they can address the more abstract concepts of a subject,” the authors state, and then quote Lori Shepherd, a University of Colorado education professor to make their point:
“The notion that learning comes about by the accretion of little bits is outmoded learning theory. Current models of learning based on cognitive psychology contend that learners gain understanding when they construct their own knowledge and develop their own cognitive maps of the interconnections among facts and concepts.”
In fact, this is the crux of how they approach differentiated instruction. Sequence doesn’t matter. Each student constructs his or her own meaning at their own pace, by being immersed in what the authors term “contextualized grappling with ideas and processes.” What does this mean? There are many examples, but the prevalent pattern of instruction to emerge from the book seems to be one of giving students an assignment or problem which forces them to learn what they need to know in order to complete the task. Say it is quadratic equations. Rather than teach them the various methods of factoring first, with the attendant drills, they might start with a problem such as x^2 + 5x + 6 = 0. The teacher may then provide some activities that illustrate what factoring is, and then provide some exercises. The goal would be to factor the above equation into (x+3)(x+2) = 0 and, from there, lead the students to see that there are two values that satisfy the equation. This is what they mean by “contextualized grappling” as opposed to “decontextualized drill and practice.” It is a “just in time” approach to learning, (my choice of phrase, not theirs) in which the tools that students need to master are dictated by the problem itself by not burdening the student's mental inventory with “mind numbing” drills for mastery of a concept or skill until it is actually needed.


They admit that there are times when direct instruction or ‘teaching by telling’ might work extremely well. “There is a need for balance between student construction of meaning and teacher guidance”, they proclaim. That direct instruction would work even better if topics were presented in a logical sequence is not the message of this particular book, however.


“Just in time” approaches that work as a model for business inventory work just as well in education, they believe. The result is an approach that is like teaching someone to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a pool and telling them to swim to the other side. For the students who may already know a bit about swimming, they may choose to take that opportunity to learn the butterfly. The teacher might advise the weaker students to learn the breast stroke and provide the much needed direct instruction which they may now choose to learn. Or not.

Let’s move on.

Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids


Catherine Johnson said...

Last I checked, 100 years of research into human memory had not been rendered moot by anything happening inside schools of education.

SteveH said...

It's one of my favorites from Barry ... JIT learning.

Apparently, if teachers codify their curriculum in the form of a textbook, that immediately renders it invalid for use as anything other than a resource.