Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Most Important Things

The most important things to teach children are critical thinking and problem solving skills, so that children can learn how to think.

No—the most important thing to teach children is academic content across the subject areas, so that children can have something concrete to think about.

No—the most important thing to teach children is how to take tests strategically and effectively, because, in the end, that’s how they’re going to be judged by the educational gatekeepers who hold children’s futures in their hands.

You would think, after teaching generations of children, we’d know which things were most important to focus on. But you’d be wrong. In fact, if I’ve learned anything in my years working in education (a debatable proposition), it’s that any sentence starting with “you would think,” is a sentence that’s going to end in tears.

So allow me to complicate the issue even further. I’m all for teaching skills and teaching content and even approaching tests strategically, but I’d like to offer another candidate for your consideration: the ordinary and often-overlooked skills of note-taking and studying.


Yes, seriously. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that we obsess over what to teach, but spend so little time focusing on what students should do with what we teach them. I mean, obviously, we focus on “doing” when it comes to activities, assignments, and tests. We focus on final, summative products. But are we focusing enough on what students do in the earliest moments of learning? When we teach, through lecture or demonstration, what should they be doing? When they read, in groups or alone, what should they be doing? When they go home and reflect (we hope) on their day, what should they be doing? And when they are preparing to engage with upcoming activities, assignments, or tests, what should they be doing to ensure that their demonstrations will be successful? How should students receive the information and ideas we provide them with?

I have very clear memories of being taught, in 6th grade, how to take notes in outline form. We were learning about ancient Greek mythology, and our teacher showed us how to organize information by listing things in sequences of increasingly indented numbers and letters or bullet points. It worked perfectly for something as linear as the pantheon of Greek gods. It helped us capture the important information in an easy-to-read format, and more: it helped us see how some details related to and supported the main ideas, and how other details supported or illustrated those first details. 
I’m not saying that traditional outline note-taking is the only method, or the best method; I’m just saying that it was a method. It taught me that the catch was just as important as the pitch, and that where I put information in my notebook was as important as where I put my house-keys when I came home from school. In both cases, if I just threw stuff down randomly, it would create anxiety down the road, when I needed stuff and had no idea where it was.

And it did much more than that: learning how to take down information schematically helped me see how information worked, right from the start; it taught me that information had a structure and organization and purpose to it, and it taught me how to listen for that structure and organization. The way I wrote down notes actually helped me think about what the information meant.
And yet, so few of the teachers I know teach these skills explicitly. They have a variety of reasons for not touching note-taking or study skills, including:

  • They assume these things were taught in an earlier grade
  • They assume they’re just “picked up” in life, somehow
  • They feel like they don’t have time in their pacing plans
  • They don’t know an effective method for note-taking, themselves
  • It simply doesn’t occur to them that explicit teaching of note-taking is needed

These are all valid and understandable excuses, but think about the unfortunate results. We spend all our time preparing engaging and rigorous lessons, honing our instructional practice to a fine point—but the people on the receiving end have no tools with which to catch what we’re pitching. Day after day, we see students writing down nothing or trying to write down every word we say, verbatim, and we don’t do anything about it. Or, at best, we type up and photocopy some notes to help them prepare for an exam. But the exam isn’t the problem here—it’s the day-to-day, moment-to-moment understanding that we are failing to facilitate and support by helping students organize and visualize the information they’re trying to process. We assume they’re just “getting it,” and perhaps processing it later. We need to start looking at note-taking as a vital part of the learning process.

What’s Changing

The good news is that note-taking is starting to get a little more love, thanks to the Common Core State Standards and the focus, even in non-CCSS states, on close reading. Close reading is a technique used to help students read complex texts more deeply and analytically, instead of focusing solely on the usual, what-happens-next kinds of questions that can make class so deadly. In the close reading process, the teacher sets a clear purpose for reading, has students engage in multiple readings of the text, and then leads one or more rigorous, text-based discussions, perhaps culminating in a writing activity.

Critical to close reading—and to the instructional shifts inherent in the new standards—is the ability for students to cite evidence to support their claims when discussing or writing about text. I don’t know how students can even hope to do this if they haven’t taken some notes while reading, either marking up the text itself, making use of a graphic organizer, or having a note-taking method that allows them to identify selections of text that they think will come in handy in the upcoming discussion.

If students learn a clear and concrete method for taking notes on their reading, they should be able to participate in any text-based discussion in class—even if they’ve had trouble understanding a section of the text. Everyone should be able to come to the discussion ready to either answer a question or ask a question. No students should be penalized for being confused, if they have grappled with the text as best they can, and have come to class with something. Students who think note-taking is boring or unnecessary may change their minds after the first text-based discussion at which they find themselves unprepared to contribute.

What Could Be

If note-taking is as integral to learning as I suspect it is, it needs to be taken more seriously—not simply just at a classroom level, but across the entire school. Especially as students get older and deal with multiple teachers, it’s crazy-making to have to do things in completely different, often arbitrary ways. Why does your first-period teacher require your name to go in the upper left, followed by the date, when your second-period teacher requires your name to go in the upper right, after the date? Why does your science teacher post assignments on Blackboard, but your English teacher posts somewhere else that she likes better?  So much of what we do in school meets the individual needs and desires of the adults, and makes the world incoherent for students and their parents. Some of the individualization may be important to the way the content is taught, but a lot of it is probably personal preference.

Think how powerful it would be if schools did more than simply hand out a planner at the beginning of the year. Imagine if at an opening assembly, the principal taught all students how the school expected them to use the planner (after some collaborative decision-making among staff).  Here’s where you should write down your homework for each subject; here’s how we’d like to see you write it down, so that it’s the same across classes—easy for you to check (and easy for your parents to check).  And then: here’s our school-wide, recommended method of note-taking.  There are some basics we like to see across all subjects and grades. Your subject teachers may have tweaks and additions related to their subjects, and that’s fine: science teachers may need something extra, social studies teachers may, as well. But the core of note-taking is something we’d like to be consistent across grades and subjects.

Imagine how much easier it would be for teachers to check notes in class—and for mentors and coaches to see how students are doing during observations. Imagine how much easier it would be parents to help their children at home. Imagine how much easier it would be for students to use their notes.

Students don’t have a union representing their interests, but they definitely have a vote in how school is run. If they find a class boring or confusing, they can zone out, check out, or act up in protest. We often treat those things as student character flaws rather than pointed and deliberate commentaries on what we’re doing.

We need to pay attention to what the school day looks like and feels like to the student. We need to do whatever we can to decrease fragmentation and incoherence, to make school feel like a thoughtfully constructed community, where the parts reflect and comment on each other and on the whole. If we want students to be active participants in and shapers of their learning, not docile spectators, we need to care about—and think carefully about—how we want them to engage with that learning, minute by minute and day by day.

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