Thanks for nothing, Mrs. Clark, or What’s important to teach?

As people have been hunkered down at home during the Covid-19 epidemic and parents have been smacked in the face with the difficulties of trying to keep children productively employed in confined spaces for hour after hour, I’ve been thinking about Mrs. Clark.

Mrs. Clark was my high school English teacher. I clearly remember two things from her classes.

First, I remember that when she talked about fiction, Mrs. Clark said the details a novelist chooses are important. To illustrate that concept, she said that when she did dishes, there was always one spoon left in the bottom of the dish pan after she thought she’d finished washing up.

 

kitchen sink with single spoon in it
Sure enough, just as Mrs. Clark said, there’s a spoon left in the sink.

I don’t recall what novels we had to read in Mrs. Clark’s classes other than Lord of the Flies and I’m pretty sure is there was no dish-washing scene in  that. Nonetheless, what Mrs. Clark taught, stuck with me. I probably remember her a couple times a month when I do dishes and find a spoon left in the bottom of the dish pan after I think I’ve finished washing up.

I also remember that Mrs. Clark taught us to spell cemetery.

Mrs. Clark said that if you went by a cemetery on a dark night, you might cry, “E-e-e.” That mnemonic came in handy after the death of my uncle’s widowed second wife’s second husband when I emailed my sister to report that I had gone to the funeral and to the cemetery to represent our family. That was about 50 years after Mrs. Clark had taught me to spell cemetery, and I hadn’t forgotten.

Mrs. Clark taught well. Her mnemonic stuck with me for 50+ years.

I also hadn’t needed to spell cemetery any other time in those 50 years.

And this is the first time I’ve needed to spell cemetery since.

Why think about Mrs. Clark now?

When the children who are confined at home during this epidemic look back in years to come, I wonder what they’ll have learned from the experience.

What will kids learn now from the pandemic and afterwards in school?

Will it be something they will use just once in 70 years?

Or something worthless they remember vividly?

And when the epidemic is history and they get back to school, what will they learn there?

Will it be something they will use just once in 70 years, or something worthless they remember vividly?

Or might it be something they use day in and day out for the rest of their lives?

While we’re hunkering down in our homes, waiting out the Covid-19 epidemic, let’s use some of this time to think about what we can teach students that will have every-day-all-their-lives significance.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Taxonomy-aligned multiple choice questions

Taxonomy of Educational Objectives cover
My well-read paperback Taxonomy

 Today I’ll show you three multiple choice question sets for testing students’ knowledge of correct punctuation rules.  To create the questions, I used a sample question in 1956 Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives from a different subject for my pattern. I think you’ll see that the definition of knowledge as used in the Taxonomy means a far deeper understanding than simply being able to choose a correct answer.

If you use these questions with students, they may get some answers right by guessing, by they won’t get many right by guessing. To get all 11 answers correct, they have to understand the meanings of the terms in which the rules are expressed.

Knowledge is popularly believed to be the “easiest” of Bloom’s six types of learning, even though the authors specifically say that is not the case. Learning at the knowledge level is difficult for students because they typically have very little context for information they learn at that level. Learning at the higher levels may come much more easily because the students have far more context for understanding it.

Enough theory.  Take a look at multiple choice questions about basic punctuation rules.

A five-question set

For the five numbered items below,  indicate by letter whether the rules for the use of possessive apostrophes are:
(a) correctly applied, or
(b) incorrectly applied, or if
(c) from the information, it can’t be determined whether the rules are correctly applied.

_____1. The dog’s dish is empty.
_____2. My cars’ front and rear fenders are both dented.
_____3. He owes three month’s back rent.
_____4. The sounds of childrens’ voices carried across the street.
_____5. Jody’s sunglasses are on the table beside the door.

A second five-question set

Look at the numbered sentences below and indicate by letter whether the sentence is :
(a) correctly punctuated because the information set off by commas is non-essential (i.e., not restrictive),
(b) incorrectly punctuated because the information set off by commas is essential (i.e., restrictive),
(c) incorrectly punctuated because there are no commas to set off non-essential (i.e., non-restrictive) information.

_____6. The day, rainy and dark, was ideal for reading a good book.
_____7. I was late, having gotten caught in traffic.
_____8. The bridge, for example, is a tourist attraction.
_____9. After that dinner I am ready to burst my buttons.
____10. He plans to work this summer, and save for college.

One single question

11. Look carefully at this statement:

Bartz’ and Norton’s horses got out when the stable door was accidentally left unlatched.

To determine whether the possessive apostrophes are correctly used in that sentence, what do you need to know? Put an X in the blank before your answer.
____(a) The general rule that most words form their plural by adding -s.
____(b) The rule for forming the plural of words that end with an -s or an -s sound.
____(c) Whether Bartz and Norton are joint owners of the horses.
____(d) Both a and b.
____(e) Both a and c.

Use the results as formative assessment

You should use items like this as a formative assessment. Unless all your students are getting at least 8 of the answers correct, you need to keep reteaching the material in other ways until they do achieve that level. Don’t devote whole class sessions the reteaching: Give five or seven-minute lessons every few class periods. If you do that and you’re lucky, each time you give a lesson a few more students will catch on to what you’re talking about.

The answers

1-c,  2-b,  3-b,  4-b,  5-a,  6-a,  7-a,  8-a.  9-c.  10-b,  11-e.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Learning to relearn in a digital world

There are three main types of knowledge that can be taught and learned in schools:

  • Content: facts, concepts, and processes that are the stuff of instruction
  • Tools: classes of devices (including software) used to manipulate, remodel, re-purpose, and re-imagine facts, concepts, and processes.
  • Skills: procedures required to use those tools efficiently and effectively.

Of the three types of knowledge, skills are the most important for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Content expires quickly

Having content at one’s fingertips is probably useful for people who create bubble tests, but for most people remembering the factual material taught in school isn’t useful in the long term.

Content is primarily information we can look up as needed. Content is just stuff: It comes and becomes obsolete faster than entries in the Urban Dictionary.

For example, for decades there were nine planets. Then Pluto was demoted for not being good enough, and we bought T-shirts saying “In my day there were nine planets.”  Two years later, scientists found what they think may be a genuine planet at the edge of our solar system. Overnight our knowledge and our T-shirts were obsolete.

Similarly, this years’ PD on mindfulness and PBL will be replaced by PD on some other buzzwords and acronyms next year.

Tools become obsolete

In the last 30 years, the tools we’ve used to work with facts, concepts, and processes have become outdated almost as quickly as our content.

For example, the entire tool class known as word processors emerged and disappeared in a quarter of a century.  (If you remember using stand-alone word processors, you probably should be reviewing your Medicare coverage options for 2017 instead of reading this post)

Search engine AltaVista  and web host GeoCities—big names in the information sector 20 years ago—have become Jeopardy questions for nerds. Yahoo, which purchased both companies, seems to also be disappearing into technology’s sinkhole.

In five years we may be asking each other, “Do you remember when we used Twitter and Canva?”

Skills have durability

In the midst of all the degradable knowledge in our information age, skills still have remarkable staying power.

Chances are, if you learned how to use AltaVista in the ’90s, you learned how to use at least one other search engine since then.

If you created websites with GeoCities back in the ’90s, you probably have learned how to use several tools for creating websites and digital presentations since then.

Certainly, many tool-specific skills that were essential 20 years ago have practically disappeared—using a card catalog, writing a paper check, or operating a mimeograph machine are skills the under-20 population has not experienced—but the meta skills for retrieving information, transferring money, and making printed duplicates of written material have not changed.

Twitter may die off, but people will still use tools for interpersonal communication across distances.

The ability to learn to use a new digital tool with which to manipulate content to produce original outputs is a learning skill that can transfer from old tool to emerging tool and from old content to new content.

In my next post, I’ll explore what we need to teach (and what we shouldn’t bother to teach) to enable students to become good re-learners.


If you’re one of the 1,200+ people who subscribe to this blog by email (you wonderful people!) or one of the equally wonderful people who pick it up through RSS or through postings on Twitter or LinkedIn, you know that skill learning is one of my soapbox issues. Here are some of my earlier posts on the topic:

Reflections on learning from work experiences

Learning when those who can, teach

Work experience as education

Use your bloomin’ mind; get some bloomin’ skills

 

Great ideas, but will they work?

Among education bloggers and the Tweeters who promote them, a couple of ideas have been breaking out in pixels regularly over the last year or so.

One that seems to get a lot of retweets is the idea that students don’t actually need to know information because knowledge is available everywhere. This position, summarized in a post at gigaom,  holds that the teacher’s role is to teach students to think, get them to ask questions, and spark passion for the discipline.

That seems to me to be a good idea until I try to figure out how it would work.

  • How would a teacher go about sparking passion for his/her discipline without presenting information about that discipline?
  • Can students be taught to think and ask good questions without having some information to think about?
  • Are teachers who have been brought up on putting information into their notebooks to be transfered to test papers later likely to be willing and able to teach without packaged content?

I can see how teachers in the arts and technical, hands-on fields might be able to spark a passion in some students by having students work along with them. Painters and plumbers, for example, might raise up disciples without resorting to presentation of information first. Could physicians and paleontologists? I somehow doubt it.

Another  idea ricocheting around the Twitterverse is the idea that teachers should allow students to learn what they need to know by pursuing the subjects that interest them most. [Non-working link removed 2014-05-08]

That also seems like a good idea until I try to figure out how it would work.

The concept presupposes that the teacher knows what students need to know.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that teachers have accurate knowledge of what students must know. (Teachers cannot predict with certainty what today’s third graders will need to know at age 23, but they should have a fairly good idea of what today’s high school senior will need to know the first week of August.)

How would a high school teacher English teacher with five classes averaging 25 students go about individualizing instruction so each of those 125 students is allowed to read and write on whatever interests them most and ensure that all 125 wind up knowing the essentials?

My guess is that most English teachers became English teachers because they followed their passion. As a result they are likely to be too narrowly prepared to be able to help more than a handful of students develop essential knowledge, however that’s defined.