OneThing48: the rich get richer

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Cognitive Science helps us work with students

In Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School, one chapter focuses on background knowledge as a key to learning anything. In our age of knowledge and information saturation, we still MUST KNOW SOME THINGS to learn anything new; relying on Google to remember and then teaching students only “critical thinking” does not work.

This simple model of Willingham’s idea illustrates his thinking that the more one has in “background knowledge” the more one is able to learn. And this is because the broader and deeper the background knowledge, the more readily retained is new information, because the mind wants to “chunk” the new learning. Even limited knowledge is helpful; in fact, it’s ultimately more helpful than a student’s interest in the subject.

The upshot is that there is STILL a critical need for people to know things, certain elements of our cultural context helps us learn even more. This gives some credence to E. D. Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy, a book that ignited fiery debate.

How are teachers to be strategic in WHAT is learned? Good question . . . And Willingham has some thoughts on that.>

OneThing47: model modeling

Barry Richmond on learning

Barry Richmond - creator of STELLA and systems citizen

Barry Richmond – creator of STELLA and systems citizen

The last few postings on my School Change model have generated some discussion over on the System Dynamics K-12 list-serve that focused less on the structure and more on some philosophy of education and specific pedagogies, things I am somewhat less interested in than the deep structure of change.  While there is a philosophical bent in my model – I am asserting something, after all – my intent of publishing is to focus on the structure to the extent it effectively narrates my ideas about school change.

And this brings me to Barry Richmond, the STELLA creator, who exuded a profound passion for education and learning.  He was an inspiration to me and many in the emerging community of teachers using system dynamics.

Barry's full model integrates all aspects of the learning process

Barry Richmond’s full model integrates all aspects of the learning process

And I want to reprise his Learning Model because I have leaned on it for some of my thoughts about change.  You would likely see the parallel to Barry’s “Constructing a Mental Model” section and my “Curriculum” section (OneThing45).

A few things about Barry the Model-Builder:

  • Simplicity – tell the story of your thinking as clearly and simply as one can.
  • Elegance – the iconography has a beauty in its connectedness, and the rounded links help with the mental model of feedback
  • Grammar – Barry was fond of saying that Stocks are the nouns of the system, and the Flows are the verbs.  This syntax helps the modeler compose.
  • Co-Flows exist in the world – two things happen simultaneously all the time; e.g., the act of simulating also generates decision-making
  • Coining icon titles – language is meant to bend to need and use; Barry coined new words all the time, exemplified here in the Conveyor Ramifying
  • Flows tell the story – in this, as in others of his models, the Richmond preference is to the actions within the bounded system.  There’s the story!

In my School Change model, I am using Barry’s models as a kind of style kind, as a journalist might use the Associated Press Style Guide or a writer Elements of Style.

OneThing46: when students learn, what’s going on?

I have been thinking a lot about student learning.  Not at the single student – single teacher level, but at a high-aggregate level; that is, how do all students in a classroom learn things, forget things; how do teachers’ instructional capacity have impacts on both flows; how do students’ own sense of their learning gaps impact them.

This zoom into STUDENT KNOWLEDGE depicts three key ideas:  students can forget things, teachers impact both learning and forgetting, and students own sense of their gaps impact their learning and forgetting.  An obvious assumption here, since this is a school model, is that all learning is curriculum driven.  Mark Twain, of course, would take issue with that.

This zoom into STUDENT KNOWLEDGE depicts three key ideas: students can forget things, teachers impact both learning and forgetting, and students own sense of their gaps impact their learning and forgetting. An obvious assumption here, since this is a school model, is that all learning is curriculum driven. Mark Twain, of course, would take issue with that.

First, there’s a lot in this . . . and I am leaving out a lot.  A LOT!  And that is intentionally so.  I want to build in a thoughtful, layered way; see what holds up to reason and scrutiny (thank you to all for feedback); and then ever so slowly ascertain a boundary in this system. Second, you have to imagine that the rest of the model (See OneThing45) is attached: Instructional Efficacy emerges from Teacher Learning, which comes from Professional Development.

The most obvious addition here is the outflow from STUDENT KNOWLEDGE (more on this in a moment).  Students flat out forget things.  At the UCLA Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab, substantive work has been going on for years focusing on retention and various methods of increasing students’ capacity to remember.  Only recently have these methods filtered into schools of education.  Ideas such as interleaving and deep practice are relatively new ideas in education, even though the evidence of their efficacy is substantial.

Now, a vexing question for me is this: what is the accumulation happening in the heads and musculature of students through schooling?  Go back a few iterations of this model, and you’ll see I’ve changed this title a few times:

  • Student Achievement
  • Student Learning
  • Student Understanding
  • Student Knowledge (today, anyway!)

Recently, Tracy Benson commented to me that Learning has always seemed an activity, in other words, a flow.  Barry Richmond, as a few commented, always leaned on Understanding as the accumulation.  However, in the education realm, the mantra now is “it’s all about student learning.”

I’m not too concerned about what the curriculum is or what the pedagogy is.  I am trying to capture a change process that occurs everyday in classrooms.

OneThing45: the Teacher, the Student, and the Work

Three things make a classroom hum with learning

School Change Model 4.0.  This version includes curriculum.

School Change Model 4.0. This version includes curriculum.

In this latest iteration of the School Change Model, I have included the final key ingredient required for an effective classroom: the curriculum. Or, as noted educational researcher Robert Marzano calls it . . . “the guaranteed and viable curriculum,” the single most important factor in student achievement.

Therefore, the three things needed for high impact instruction to occur are students, teachers, and content.  That’s the work.  When there is a change any one of those variables, the other two will necessarily be impacted. If there is a curricular change, teachers need training and the students will consequently do different work; if the students change, then teachers and curriculum may need to change, especially if there is cultural shift in the school.  If teachers change, there will be impacts to the delivery of content and student learning. A change in any one requires attention to the other two.

The Instructional Team Capacity results from teachers having both pedagogical skill (often called “high-impact”) and knowledge of teenagers (a capacity to know what makes teenagers tick).  It is this combined capacity that drives instructional efficacy, an instructional team’s rate of delivering content and engaging student learning.

In this model, then, are the foundational ideas of an adaptive school.  While there are remain some corners of detail that need flashing out, the deep structure of a Learning Team is there.

Simple Capacity Model.  One might focus on the current LEVEL of the stock, or one might focus on the RATE of change.  These will be two really different things.

Simple Capacity Model. One might focus on the current LEVEL of the stock, or one might focus on the RATE of change. These will be two really different things.

Of course, there is never a point when a school has it down, when it should rest when it attains a certain level.  The focus of a Learning Team is on the flow, improving a school’s capacity to deliver highly qualified citizens to its community.  You can imagine the political discussion:

  • CITIZENS: our school’s are not graduating enough college-ready students
  • SCHOOL: we are improving our instruction every year

It would help both to know that they are talking about the same system, just different parts of it!

OneThing15: learning to do something

Start with a Mental Model of Learning

Portion of Barry Richmond's model on Learning - focus here is on choices the thinker makes to SELECT, then REPRESENT, and then SIMULATE

A more complete version of Barry Richmond’s very helpful model was recently posted on the K-12 System Dynamics Discussion Group (http://www.clexchange.org/bb/k12_discussion.htm) by Scott Guthrie (wizard teacher in Portland) as he spoke about engaging students in substantive work, and why so many students go to school begrudgingly.

As usual, Barry’s model told a full story, how learning unfolds in a context of a teacher in a classroom and students in their day-to-day experiences.  It’s worth a deeper look, I believe, so I have sliced out the Mental Modeling part – how students might learn things.

First, take in the boundary:  the stocks pertain only to the STUDENT – what’s going on inside the student’s mind. (Barry used a separate chain to represent “actions taken.”)  

Second, the blue chain focuses on a student’s first draft of an idea: of all the possible elements (place, words, what I wear, time, et al) needed for, say, asking a girl to the prom, what shall I select for how I ask her?  In the young student’s mind will be a host of related things to this ask, and he will represent a few elements in his mental model.

The incredibly awkward moment

Third, the first iteration of the ask, the wildly hopeful young boy will begin to simulate the mental model, playing over and over and over in his crazed head how asking Jane will go.  Various outcomes play in his head.  Of course, he rethinks – he selects different elements and he represents elements differently as, in his manic imagination, he asks and asks and asks Jane if she will go to the prom with him.

Fourth, and now continuously for a few weeks as the boy screws up his courage, the boy moves through this recursive process of selecting and representing and simulating images in his head. Over time, the Mental Model of asking Jane to the Prom becomes clearer and ever more perfect in his imagination.

A last note here . . . just replace “asking Jane to the Prom” with taking the bus to a new destination, writing the term paper on Huck Finn, determining the causes of the Great Depression, formulating a geometric proof with the correct theorem, and on ad infinitum.  Barry represented a universal process and made his thinking about it absolutely clear.

The big question, of course, is . . .  did Jane say, “yes”?  We’ll find out in the next Thing.