Culling the Story from the Sources

If ever there was a time to be good at telling stories, it is now.

For the past two weeks, I have been attending the James Madison Seminar in American History at Princeton University.  We’ve been immersed in the elements surrounding the birth of our nation, most specifically how the ideas of Republicanism, Liberalism, and the Enlightenment all had tremendous influence over the founding of our nation.

Most of what we have done has been fairly traditional: we’ve sat in class and been talked to, albeit by some talented and learned folks.

Today, however, looked and felt very different.

We spent the day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art exploring collections within the museum and architecture in nearby Fairmount Park.  Doing so amounted, in my opinion to some real moments of clarity regarding what we do as teachers, and specifically as teachers of history.

One of our guides, Justina Barrett, took us through two homes in Fairmount Park managed by the museum: Mount Pleasant and Cedar Grove.  The houses were distinctly different in their architecture and function, but Ms. Barrett, in her discussion of the homes crystallized something for me.  On the second floor of Mount Pleasant, she asked us a simple question about how they came to know what each of the rooms functioned as during the initial life of the home (over 225 years ago).  With that question as a springboard, she spoke about how the job of a historian, especially art/architectural historians is to cull the story from the homes, the historical record, and each room individually.  Her main role, and that of teachers of history for that matter, is to deduce an interpretation of what happened right from the primary sources.

Think about that.

We laugh at how little people in later life remember of the “stuff” of history, but I ask, if they forgot a good amount of the stuff, but could still distill a relevant story from several sources, was the stuff important?

Secondly, during our time in the museum itself, we examined the following works:

I’d forgotten what it was like to sit around with a group of intelligent folks and dissect a work of art, fully basking in the multitude of perspectives each one of us brings to the painting.  The work of Peale astounded me, and as our guide, Mary Teeling, explained, brought forth so many of the ideals we have spent time studying over the course of the last two weeks.  Peale was a natural philosopher, a true enlightened man, who brought into his work the polymathic principles of the period.

Ms. Teeling asked us to examine these pieces with playfulness, to see what came to us and what struck us.  We took stabs, we built off of one another, we contradicted one another.  I thought for a while on the way home about how much fun that was to project out those thoughts and then listen as the group interpreted them or rejected them.

Sadly, in education, whether in teaching our students or in collaborating with colleagues, we rarely get that time to build what is known as neuroplasticity–that time we take to re-shape our minds through engaging play.  Today provided a window into that for me once again, and gave me that time to wrangle with some conflicting ideas, and it took a visual medium to do that.

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Attention—->Engagement=Retention

When you get into school either today or tomorrow, whether it’s on your prep period, or during a walk through the halls, take note of who is doing the talking in your schools.  Is it the students?  The teachers?  Take this one into consideration as well:

Brains are more engaged when people are interacting with one another.

Are students interacting in your school?  Are they placed within situations that promote safe conversations and high-yield accountability?  What happens when these answers are “no?”

Kagan shared with us this image that clearly shows the activity within the brain when various learning tasks are going on.  What do you see?
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Here’s what I see.

The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning.

Yes, I understand that I just wrote that on Saturday in reference to another session, but it is so much more telling when looking at these PET scans.

Try taking your next lesson plan, your next department meeting or faculty meeting (please do this there) and incorporate some cooperative learning structures into the process.  In looking back at this weekend, I am noticing a connection between two specific ideas: the Kagan structures and the Gradual Release of Responsibility model espoused by Fisher and Frey.  Here is that image once again:

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Notice this: your direct instruction is not lost; you can hang onto your chalk and talk.  It just lives in a smaller space within your overall lesson or meeting structure.  That area where Fisher and Frey delineate at Guided Instruction and Collaborative Instruction is where the learning structures of Kagan reside.  So the flow goes “I-We-You(plural)-You(singular).”

Image Credits:

PET Scans: “Kagan Structures Enhance Brain Engagement!” images adapted from Rita Carter’s Mapping the Mind.

Gradual Release of Responsibility.  Image taken from this slidedeck.

Kagan’s Structures

Just a heads up: these next few posts are going to all deal with my time spent with Dr. Spencer Kagan.  His generosity in sitting down to answer my questions led to a bunch of information that would be irresponsible of me to put into one post.

For the second time in two days, I’ve been fortunate to sit down and have a truly transformative conversation.  Dr. Spencer Kagan, a psychologist and author of hundreds of books about using cooperative learning structures in schools, sat down with me after his session and we talked about the primitive needs of our brain and how they wreak havoc on modern learning, embedded curriculum and the lack of a separate curriculum for “21st Century Skills.”

Kagan’s session was based on this idea:

“unstructured interaction does not lead to equity in the classroom.”

and it forces you to think for a minute about what equity is, and what it means to decrease the gap in achievement in your classroom.  For me, when I begin thinking of that, or when I listen to a teacher talk about a class with children of widely varying abilities, I think of how difficult it becomes to make sure that beyond helping a child reach a year’s growth in a year’s time, but also making sure that the gap between the high-achievers and low-achievers is minimized.  In his session, Kagan showed us some examples of data he’s collected in which classrooms that had a huge achievement gap and were given direct instruction aimed at raising everyone’s test scores actually did work, only the gap between the high achievers and low achievers remained constant.  He then showed the same situation with an experimental group of a classroom that implemented true cooperative learning structures, and that gap nearly disappeared within a year’s time.

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Cooperative Learning is based on four principles, according to Kagan and others, that fit into the nice pneumonic PIES:

  • Positive Interdependence – occurs when gains of individuals or teams are positively correlated.
  • Individual Accountability – occurs when all students in a group are held accountable for doing a share of the work and for mastery of the material to be learned.
  • Equal Participation – occurs when each member of the group is afforded equal shares of responsibility and input.
  • Simultaneous Interaction – occurs when class time is designed to allow many student interactions during the period.

Again, and I apologize if this is becoming a trend in my writing, this session focused on a lot of doing, coupled with some amazing information on how the brain worked.  Doing, rather than just sitting hearing about the theory, makes all of the difference in learning.  This was Kagan’s message overall.  Throughout the hour and half, we interacted in several ways with both those we did not know and those we did.  We used touch, interview, and most of laughter, to get ourselves in a ready state for learning to occur.

Whether you are an advocate of this theory, which I am, or not, it was hard to deny that the activities we engaged in: Sage and Scribe, Celebrity Interview, Hagoo, Take-Off/Touchdown, and a quiet signal, did not focus our attention and put us in a position to be receptive to learning not only from Kagan, but from our new colleagues as well.

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Kagan, S (2007, February, 8). Simple Structures to Reduce the Achievement Gap. NCCREST, Retrieved March 16, 2009.