Teaching Our Students to Be Learners

I am so fortunate to spend time in classrooms, watching smart teachers and students, and always, always, learning from them.  Recently, I spent time in one of my favorite classrooms, an AP Geography class at a very low socio-economic, diverse, inner city high school.  I’ve spent time before in this classroom, even written about it, and every time I spend time there, I come away with new insights.

The class was working on making sense from a piece of text and some graphics. They were working in teams, writing reflectively, actively asking questions, and making inferences.  While none of that may sound remarkable, it is when you see forty students thoroughly engaged and interacting with each other throughout an entire class period.  No superficial compliance, no off topic chatter…just lots of questions and comments about the information at hand.

After the visit, as we talked to the teacher, she shared some valuable insights.  She was asked about how the work the students were doing would prepare them for the AP exams.  And her answer was an eye opener.

She said that when she first started teaching AP a few years ago, she was incredibly worried about “covering” the content.  She spent lots of time preparing lectures and class activities that provided students with the content that would be tested.  Her test scores were less than stellar.

Then, she rethought what she was doing.  What was it that the AP exams were actually asking of students?  Were they asking for lots of memorization and recall of facts?  The answer to her question was “no.”  The exams provided students with a piece of text which they had to read and then respond to.  They had to understand what they read and be able to analyze the text: in other words, THINK.  With this new insight in mind, she began to revise her course and her teaching.

Now, the following format is used.  Students are provided with a piece of text and graphics, sometimes a video, and maybe a short lecture.  They are then asked to DO something with these resources.  Ask questions.  Determine what’s important.  Infer. Synthesize.  Create visuals.  Monitor for meaning.  Talk to each other.  And also write.

What they’re actually doing is utilizing the Thinking Strategies.  And once learned, these strategies are easily transferrable and become a part of their automatic learning process.

The results are amazing.  Instead of students asking the teacher for the “right answer,” they’re making meaning for themselves.  The discussions are lively and include students using the actual academic language of the Thinking Strategies.

And what about those test scores?  Her AP scores have shot up, and this is in a school with an open AP Program (no tracking…open to all students).  What this teacher has learned that is so important is that it’s not the content that we “cover” that’s important.  It’s what we teach students to do with information and content that will provide them with the skills to be lifelong learners and navigate the world of information that they’ll be faced with throughout their lives.

Resource:  PEBC’s Thinking Strategies

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