Do you remember asking your Algebra teacher this question? When will we ever use this? And, if your Algebra teacher was credible, he or she admitted that the pure use of algebra is relatively non-existent for most of us. Algebra is incredibly useful in electrical,electronic,civil and mechanical engineering as well as physics, chemical and aeronautical engineering, which means that millions of people use algebra on a daily basis. But for a Literacy Coach? Not so much. I use it occasionally. Actually, the more honest truth is that I muddle through figuring something out that I KNOW would be easier if I could remember the algebra that I learned in high school.
My point here is NOT to defend the teaching of algebra in public schools, but to assert that none of us wants to learn something for which we foresee no use. And even those of us who were good little doobies don’t remember the thing that we learned. It didn’t stick. Stickiness requires a foreseeable usefulness.
When will we use this in real life? That’s the question. The answer is what makes the lesson stickier. If I can envision a use for this skill or this strategy in real life, I’ll commit some brain cells and some energy to learning it. If I cannot envision a usefulness, I might humor you and comply with the instructional activity, but I won’t “learn” it. It won’t stick.
Abstract language provides such a challenge for teachers — and it only gets worse in the upper grades. We are talking and thinking about such abstract concepts as prejudice, power, and coming of age. These abstractions mean nothing to our students. When we use abstract language in our teaching, our learners REALLY get lost.
Sticky teaching avoids the language that eludes our learners. In the upper grades, this means not using cultural references that pre-date our learners (something we often do without realizing it). In the lower grades this is even more tricky. There is soooo much that is abstract to our young learners. They are concrete thinkers at their core, and any venture into abstract language is a trip into uncharted territory.
Start and stop often. This seems counterintuitive, especially for those of us who have been brought up to value “time on task”. We’ve always pushed out students to remain on task for longer and longer periods of time. More recently, we’ve talked about this in terms of “stamina”. And don’t get me wrong, I still believe that stamina and time on task are important parts of the work that we do with children. But, right now, I’m thinking more deeply about the issue of sticky instruction — not the independent and guided practice that children do. And I’m thinking that stamina and time on task are issues of independent and guided practice, but NOT of instruction.
What we know about the human brain is that it depends on electrical circuitry. Neurons fire across regions of the brain, activating and “lighting up” on an MRI to indicate brain activity. The more the neurons are firing, the more the brain is working — simple equation.
Well, it turns out that when we change up our activities, the reptilian cortex or amygdama in the brain is triggered to run a “safety check”. Is everything still okay out there? Are there any new dangers that need to be addressed? Once that quick safety check is completed, the amygdama goes back to resting and frees the rest of the brain to do it’s work. The trick here is that the safety check causes neural firing ALL OVER the brain. That electrical activity, triggered by the safety check, causes the brain to be more active and to capture more the instruction that is happening at that moment.
So, it seems that starting and stopping often, changing up the activities a little bit within a lesson is a good thing for the brain and for making the teaching stickier. That little change-up causes all kinds of sticky electrical activity that helps our teaching adhere more tightly to the brain. Just what we wanted.
Check out this tremendous diagram of the brain and how it works — its made for students (but still good for teachers too!)
I was teaching in a demonstration lab recently. Another instructional coach was commenting on my instruction to the group of teachers who had gathered to observe. While I was clearly trying to do a good job (nobody wants the other coach to start commenting on what a screw up you are), I wasn’t working on making my teaching particularly sticky. And yet, my colleague commented on something that I had done rather unconsciously that make the direction I was giving really stick.
I was asking the students to recall previous instruction and then to “set aside” that particular approach to the work and move with me into a new strategy. When I write it out like that, it sounds illogical, but in the lesson, it make some sense. They had a previous strategy that they were “stuck” in and my goal for the day was to create a little more repertoire.
As I asked to students to set aside that previous strategy, I make a strong hand motion, pushing to the side as if I was sweeping off a desk or table. The coach immediately commented on the gesture and how clear it made my request for the students. That got us all thinking and talking about the power of a well placed gesture.
Gestures have particular power for us in our comprehension of social interactions. We all learned at a young age to value the message of the gesture or expression far more than the message of the words a speaker was saying. We comprehend gestures and expressions long before we have the skill to fully comprehend verbal language. Don’t believe it? Try watching and listening to a conversation in a foreign language. You’ll find yourself relying heavily on gestures and expressions.
Secondly, gestures lock into our memory as both visual and kinesthetic information (especially if we enact the gestures). They serve the brain as a visual anchor, much the way an icon does. It provides a “lock” on an idea, expressed in a gesture, captured in a “snapshot” in the mind. When we enact the gesture ourselves, we also engage muscle memory to anchor the learning deep in the brain.
Gestures stick. Gestures communicate when the words fail.
Gap Theory has nothing to do with shopping or the mall or a certain clothing store frequented by teenagers. Nope, Gap Theory is that curiosity that creeps up on us when we notice a gap in our knowledge. That little knowledge gap can act like an itch. It doesn’t bother us overmuch, but it keeps at us. It sort of nags us a little bit. And the only way to make that itch go away is to scratch it with some knowledge that helps us to fill the gap.
Scientists tell us that this is why we are willing to finish poorly written novels and movies. Even though we “know” how it will end (poorly written novels and movies are always utterly predictable), we have to know for sure – and so we hang in there to the very end.
So how does Gap Theory help me make my teaching stickier? (see, I just created a gap for you – sneaky eh?) Well, first we open a gap. We pose a question that makes the learner aware of a knowledge gap – sort of like I just did with my rhetorical question at the beginning of this paragraph. Once the gap is realized, the itching begins. And the only way to stop the itch is to fill the knowledge gap.
This is such a core idea to teaching. We’ve talked about anchoring to the known for the last twenty years. Way back when, Madeline Hunter talked about Anticipatory Set. She posited that the best Anticipatory Set was the set that tied to prior learning. Today we talk about the Architecture of the Minilesson having the connection that sets the current learning into the work that has been going on. Let’s face it — schema is everything.
As I’ve been working through some of the ideas around brain function, I’m struck by the neuroscience of schema as well. The brain is continually mapping and re-mapping the world around it. Every time the human brain encounters a new piece of information in the environment, it checks against existing schema or maps that it holds in the neurons. Then the brain modifies the existing maps and creates or extends maps to encompass the new information.
When we present children with new information, their brains MUST go and check with existing maps. We can help that brain-work along by explicitly telling children which maps in the brain need to be accessed. Its even better if we can layer the stickiness with graphics and charts that link the new information to an existing map to push students’ brains into the map-checking and changing work that we need them to do.
Sensory hooks are every kindergarten teacher’s bread and butter. This is where we make something rather abstract and random into something hands on and concrete for our students. We get their hands moving, their mouths tasting and noses sniffing. This is multi-sensory education at its best.
Some sensory hooks that I love using:
Using a laser pointer to “write” on the wall. This activates large muscle movements in the upper arm as well as some unusual and interesting visual hooks.
Playing twister or giant checkers games with words or phrases. This is a fun way to review a phonics pattern or sight words. Again, large muscle groups are activated – especially with Twister! The learning is tied to the muscle movement, providing a sensory hook for the learning to stick in the brain.
The human brain craves pattern and predictability. It works hard to create habits and automatic routines. Habits are what get us through the day with a limited amount of stress. They free up our brains to think big thoughts, to create fresh, new ideas and to solve problems. When we’re worrying about the little things – where do I go next?
Our students cannot attend to the new learning being presented if the reptilian cortex is struggling to determine what is happening next and is it safe. Students begin attending to all the wrong things – they notice the color of the paper, the squeak of the chalk on the board and the hum of the florescent light. We want them to notice the content of our lesson.
Habit frees up the brain for that kind of work — for synthesis and schema mapping. Our learners are able to take in the predictable structure, assess what is new and different inside of that familiar pattern and assimilate that new content.
Routines and predictability also make us more efficient as teachers. We can invest out time in determining the precise content we need to deliver and how to make it as sticky as possible. Without sufficient routine in our classroom, we expend our time and energy on new, jazzy activities rather than on sticky, transferable teaching.
I always love this scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It was hysterically funny the very first time that I saw it, and it just keeps getting funnier. Now, I know, no teacher sets out to sound like this poor guy, but sometimes I hear echoes of this scene in my teaching.
Essentially, this is what happens when inquiry is used as a teaching methodology in places it simply doesn’t belong. Don’t get me wrong! Inquiry is a wonderful and effective teaching tool. But inquiry is useful when there is something for students to explore or experiment with. Inquiry when there is a “correct answer” or when there is little for students to explore turns into the Ferris Bueller lesson.
Direct instruction, on the other hand, is a perfectly good and vastly under-rated teaching methodology. Direct instruction is the mode in which I tell the students something, demonstrate it, and tell them again. This is a perfect modality for lessons in which I need my students to master a process or procedure. And it makes it perfect for strategy instruction. Strategies are nothing more than mini-procedures. Tell-show-tell gives my students an opportunity to hear me talk through the procedure, watch me do the procedure and then hear me recap the procedure once again.
During Direct Instruction, I don’t ask questions. I don’t solicit suggestions or ask students what they recall from previous lessons. When I engage in those activities, I run the risk that students will provide an incorrect model, which is then firmly (and stickily) stored in every other student’s brain. I want my correct model out there in front of my students and that is the model I want stuck in their brains. So I put it directly out there. No misguided inquiry process, no risk of misshapen models, no Ferris Bueller lessons by accident.
If we’re going to make our teaching stickier, we need to be certain that we’re focused about WHAT we’re teaching. There is no way possible that something is going to stick with a 7 year old if I’m not even clear about what that something actually is.
Focus is trickier than it sounds. It means picking one thing and sticking with it. No bird walks, no add-ons, no “one more things”.
What makes it especially tricky are the little people with whom we work. They can be depended upon for doing something unexpected (for good or for bad) during any given lesson. I’m teaching something brilliant and suddenly — POOF, Sam is doing something even more brilliant and I want to call attention to it. The next thing I know, I’m off on a bird walk. My formerly brilliant objective is gone and I’m “making it up as I go along” to fit Sam’s brilliance. And usually, as I begin working with it, I discover that its not all that brilliant after all. My lesson is now a train wreck and there is no hope of anything sticking.
Also adding to the trickiness of this simple idea is that most of what we teach is actually really complex. Reading, Writing, Mathematics — these are really complicated brain functions. They involve ways of thinking and accumulation of skills and strategies that number in the thousands. In teaching, we break things apart and address them as if they were discreet items. But, the reality is, there is a huge messy quagmire of learning awaiting us. It becomes very easy to lose the tiny discreet part that we’re teaching and to see only the big, hairy thing. Sticky teaching is all about keeping my eye on the ball, teaching one thing at a time and not getting distracted by all of the other really important stuff.
So, how do I support or scaffold myself into FOCUS?
I tend to teach with a planning board in my lap. This is a simple whiteboard from the dollar spot. I use a permanent marker to write in the structure of my lesson (mini-lesson, inquiry lesson etc). Then I cover the whole board with heavy duty packing tape to make a whiteboard marker surface over the original surface. Now for each lesson, I can write in my FOCUS with a whiteboard marker. My focus stays right in front of me, keeping me focused.
As we explore other facets of stickiness, I can support those with my planning board too.
What was your focus in your last lesson? How focused on the focus were you?