This is a re-blog post originally posted by Susie Wilson (@concordmoose) and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.
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When it comes to working out something difficult, I think John Donne had it right:
On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
My father taught me early on how tiring it is to try to walk straight up a mountain (or the hill that was to me as a child, a mountain) and how very much more efficient it is to walk in zigzags up a slope or around it until you reach the top. This takes longer, but you get there in better shape. You don’t overtax your muscles or lose your balance, but your fitness gets better as you go. How can we invent cycles of activity in the classroom which do this? What are the natural ‘hills’ and circular or zigzag paths in our subjects which we can exploit? There has been much fashion for applying cognitive and thinking skills to lessons as if they map over every single area comfortably, but perhaps we’d be better off examining the terrain of our subjects and working out what the mental strata and steps actually are, then patiently practice following them. This would also have the distinct benefit of building our base knowledge, without which, as cognitive science research on Critical Thinking tells us, it is actually impossible for us to make replicable progress in learning to think. See D.T. Willingham, on which more in later posts, at https://www.aft.org//sites/default/files/periodicals/Crit_Thinking.pdf and https://www.danielwillingham.com/articles.html .
When teachers in INSETS make snorting noises if asked to try to apply Bloom’s Taxonomy to a topic to which they feel it does not apply (English and History teachers unite!), they are, without saying as much openly, intuitively rejecting the proposition that an external scaffolding of thought which is not directly related to the entomology of their subject can be worth their time applying.
Bloom’s Taxonony really can be relevant and could solve that D.T.Willingham problem of why Critical Thinking is so hard to teach, by simply succumbing to the happy position that we might as well teach it within the relevant subject matter of our subject areas, just learning to challenge ourselves that we can ask our students to think more deeply at the higher levels of our subject matter much sooner than University. Why not in Year 7 and forever after!
Solo Taxonomy also greatly helps with the conundrum of depicting and teaching relevant ways to think to master expert levels of thought. If you take the time to sit down and work out what the levels of understanding look like, for example in an English Literature essay ( https://pamhook.com/solo-taxonomy/ ), it turns out that extended abstract usually works out at A/A*, relational at B/A and multi-structural at C. Or perhaps, if this seems too abstract, we need to be finding ways that expert expeditionists in our subjects behave and practice them. The great difficulty is how you move a student from the relational knowledge of their subject to extended abstract understanding, which is no easy matter and I begin to think is mainly a matter of interest – being sufficiently curious about how the whole subject actually works tends to do the trick, which of course entails a sense that it matters. Or we just ask, what does an expert do and how did they get that way? I bet the answer is walking around their subject matter a lot and observing a very great deal. So maybe our students actually need focussed sessions on skills taught in context and a hugely greater exposure to the material of our subject, since the maxim that the best geologists have seen the most rocks works with poems too. Fine to start with easy rocks/poems. It’s looking lots and working out as you go that matters.
But of course, the one thing we shouldn’t do, is pick a smaller hill. As John Hattie has noted, it isn’t a teacher’s job to make learning easy, it is to make it difficult (the challenge of goals having a .52 effect size: https://www.decd.sa.gov.au/limestonecoast/files/pages/new%20page/PLC/teachers_make_a_difference.pdf ). Challenge matters. Anyone can hop over an ant hill.
It also calls for some heart in mouth guts when you find the path isn’t there and your father just tells you to look at the horizon and run – your wellies will do the rest. When faced with the yawning river chasm below and steep heather slope above, with two expectant male members of your family facing you across the way, what do you do? Run, hope and find out all is well. You didn’t break and now you know you can bridge the gaps. This is what observers mean when they say to teachers that it wouldn’t hurt to depart from the lesson plan if it turns out that the way the lesson pans out in the classroom requires it. Teaching life is rarely as catastrophic as Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Sound of Thunder’!
So it turns out that my favoured John Donne round and round approach is how I have thought about Teaching and Learning thus far – I’ve been happy to ‘read around’, apply my ideas in cycles and re-think them constantly, essentially going round and round but getting better all the time. Gradually within the schools I have worked at, both students and other staff have come to realise that although I may look as if I am wandering around, I am far from lost.
Read more from Susie Wilson by Clicking here.