Learning Is Like a Good, Quality Game of “Jenga.”

For a teacher to be purposeful with instruction, he/she must spend time planning each step of the learning process. Based on the research findings, featured in Table 2.1 of The Keys to Effective Schools edited by Willis Hawley, teachers must lead students to access prior knowledge at the beginning of the lesson. This can be done by having students complete a K-W-L chart or a journal entry that is focused on the theme or topic of the day’s lesson. Effective teachers also embed motivation into the learning exercise by matching student interest to the learning discussion. This could be by giving examples orally that include what you know about the students, such as, “When Jorge plays soccer, he tends to…” or “Since most of you enjoy science fiction, you should appreciate this short story.” Connecting student interest to the learning makes instruction seem more personal and more attainable.

Strategic processing is also necessary for an effective lesson. Basically, students must connect new knowledge to the time and space of what already exists in their schema. To fit it into their “mental filing cabinet” allows them to access that knowledge when they need to. For example, in a math lesson, the teachers should mention what part of yesterday’s lesson is the new lesson building upon or taking further. What’s important is using clear, specific vocabulary with kids so that they know how to label the folders in their “mental filing cabinet.” Even in third grade, when a teacher is having kids make inferences, the teacher must tell the students that they are making inferences. That way, when their sixth grade teacher builds upon that skill and asks them to make inferences again, the students aren’t anxious about the lesson thinking it’s something completely new and different. Even struggling students are more willing to try difficult concepts if teachers can show them how the standard is simply building on something they already know.

Teachers should embrace student differences and diversity within the classroom. Gone are the days where there is only one right answer to an open-ended question. As long as students are able to defend their argument using accurate evidence, then the student should receive credit for answering the question correctly. This is particularly true in a humanities-based class. With math, teachers should absolutely give partial credit to students who may not have the right answer but are able to show their work as following the correct process. On the other hand, if the student has a correct answer but does not show a logical process, the teacher should not give full credit. The student should be able to follow a different process from the teacher if it makes sense and would work in any situation, but if that process is fallible, points should be deducted from the work. Ask any student in elementary school, and you will find there are now, like, three different ways to complete multiplication with 3-digit numbers. Who knew?

Situation or context matters when students are building schema. Does the teacher want to alter the prior knowledge? If so, discussion has to be purposeful so that the student changes opinion or reality. Nobody can go into someone else’s “mental filing cabinet” and switch things around; only the owner has the power to do so. During instruction, this means that instead of always giving students the answers, teachers must ask purposeful questions to lead students to creating their own conclusions. For example, when starting a novel study, I always used an anticipation guide. When I taught a story about the Holocaust, I gave the students a “quiz” where they answered True/False questions about themes within the story, worded as statements about human relationships without using the words “Nazi” or “Jewish.” I then took up the papers and kept them in a folder while we studied our novel. At the end of the unit, I gave the students their paper and asked them to retake the “quiz” in a different color. Many students had changed their answers and opinions. Now, will these questions be on TCAP? No. However, this activity enhanced our discussion of character development, conflict, climax, and theme – all of which are indeed on TCAP. Through this strategy, the learning is more likely to “stick” in long-term memory and be accessible during the state test.

In any given school, it is probably safe to say that there are teachers who address all five areas every day and there are some teachers who do not. Some teachers are purposeful when planning a lesson, and some are not. Learning is like a good, quality game of “Jenga.” When it’s your turn, you cannot change the stack you are given. All you can do is carefully select what to move and replace. If every teacher was purposeful in this endeavor, maybe the stack would never fall? Maybe our students would build a knowledge base that could stand up to any challenge? I do believe that if we had effective vertical planning with teachers who are committed to purposeful lesson planning, then we could plan new lessons that keep kids moving forward with learning. Many of us have had classes where we feel like we have to start completely over because the teacher before us messed up the strategic process or created huge gaps in learning. Maybe this is the way to prevent that from happening again.