Students Access Their Best Work by Going Back to Basics

When schools seek to help students access their best work, it means focusing on helping each student become proficient in the necessary skills, no matter how long it takes. Some schools have utilized reDesign, an education consulting firm, to help teachers intentionally build skills in their students that they may not have realized were even needed. 

The premise of reDesign’s approach is that there are many “portable skills” required in any academic project, no matter the subject. These are things like determining importance, asking questions, thinking about purpose and audience, identifying evidence, choosing a focus, and even clarifying confusion. Students need these skills in everything they learn, but often aren’t aware of them as steps necessary for a deeper analysis or more meaningful product. Co-founder Antonia Rudenstine said their approach is rooted in a fundamental belief: “You get to deeper learning by taking students through a deep thinking process.”

When teachers explicitly name these skills and identify them as something that can be learned, students become more aware of them. With practice they build up a comfort level with a thinking process that will be required again and again in any learning situation. And crucially, because these skills are found in almost everything, they can be incorporated into more traditional lessons. Teachers have to be very clear about the skills they are teaching through the content and communicate those learning goals to students, however. For example, rather than asking students to name the five causes of the Civil War — essentially a memorization task — a teacher could explain that the goal is to understand cause and effect. She could then ask students to read an article and pull out causes and their effects.

“That’s really different from breaking content down into bite-sized pieces,” Rudenstine said. “You’re breaking thinking into bite-sized nuggets.” Even in more traditional schools where drilling academic skills is the focus, many teachers still skill over fundamental skills required for deep thinking, working with other people, and figuring things out on one’s own. That’s where Rudenstine says the reDesign materials might help.

Karen McCallion, a biology teacher at Epping High School in New Hampshire, teaches at a fairly traditional high school — they still have rows of desks and bells. McCallion, like so many teachers, feels pressure to get through the content, but as she’s looked at the skills laid out by reDesign, she’s given herself permission to slow down and make sure students have what they need to succeed.

“It does feel like I’m going away from the content — or it did at the beginning — but then I realized I’m teaching them how to learn,” she said. She’s begun to realize that to succeed in science her students need to be good readers, and they need to be able to determine what’s important. She’s started helping them do that work with non-science texts first, then later asking them to apply those skills to science texts that can feel daunting to students.

“If you can give them some ownership and some skills then whatever content you put in front of them, even if it frustrates them, then they’re going to be able to engage with it,” McCallion said. She’s never going to give up lab reports, but she does see ways she can open up assignments she’s done in the past to build student skills beyond memorization. For example, McCallion used to do a “design a cell project,” where each student was assigned an organelle and had to research and present on its function in the cell. “That’s not really what I want. It’s very surface. So I changed it,” she said. Now, she’s trying to emphasize collaboration and connections.

She modified the project so that students work in groups to come up with an analogy for what the organelle does, along with a representation of the analogy. At first, McCallion thought she had made a big mistake. Students didn’t know how to work together, they struggled to come up with a plan to collaborate and when they ran into problems they wanted her to solve them.

“Instead of telling them how to solve it we conference,” she said. “We sit and discuss and I have them speak up. I enjoy so much watching those light bulbs go off, and I don’t see them go off as much when I make them regurgitate facts,” she said.

McCallion says she’s even starting to think this way about her tests. She always writes in a few questions that require synthesis — that’s where kids either fall down or wow her. This provides a clear indicator to teachers of where they might need to offer a little more support. 

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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