Complex to Clear
As teachers, we often spend the majority of our planning thinking about the cognitive tasks we want to engage our students in. We prepare to make content meaningful and we develop dynamic learning experiences that are sure to engage. But what happens when we don't reach all learners, when not every student dives into the learning process with passion? Why do some students fail to attend during our mini-lessons or struggle to get started on independent work? Today, we grappled with these questions as we focused on the topic of how to simplify complex topics for struggling learners.
At the start of our session, we looked at a basic word problem: Ferdinand loves smelling flowers. On Monday, he smelled 13 flowers. On Tuesday, he smelled 12 flowers. How many flowers did he smell in all?
We identified many of the discrete skills that a student would need to be proficient in to access this problem. Together, we were able recognize the following skills:
After this activating conversation, we broke out into groups to discuss a variety of scenarios which may present within an elementary classroom. The group focused on partner reading, whole group mini-lesson, reflective journaling in science, and independent work time. The teams generated a list of the discrete skills a student must possess for each activity.
The interesting realization came when we moved away from focusing exclusively on the "thinking" skills and considered the "behavioral" skills necessary. One example of this came out of the discussion around journaling in science class. A student who has transitioned from an active, hands-on experiment to a quiet activity such as journaling, would need to have the ability to delay gratification. Self-expression, in a written format, requires patience and stamina. The student must self-regulate without immediate positive feedback from external sources as well as without the intrinsically motivating aspects of discovery learning. The journaling may be a non-preferred activity for that child. If the student is lacking the ability to delay gratification, to 'put the nose to the grindstone' for a period, then they may struggle to even get started.
The further we dissected each learning activity, the more we realized how complex basic classroom moments truly are. We realized that our students may be lacking essential skills, outside of the realm of content, which are limiting their ability to engage in a task. Under-development of listening and conversational skills, self-organizational skills, or emotional regulation skills could all be interfering with their academic participation. So, with this understanding, how do we move forward?
The teams began thinking about how to teach each discrete skill required by our complex tasks. We brainstormed different supports we might put into place which would increase the opportunities for all learners to engage with a lesson. For the student struggling with delaying gratification, we proposed building stamina through a system of breaks. The student works for five minutes and then earns a two minute break. Over the course of a few weeks, we would lengthen the work time and decrease the break time until the student was able to sustain effort for the non-preferred task.
For other skill deficits, we looked to explicitly teach active listening skills, incorporate visuals as much as possible, involve students in defining and modeling appropriate behavior, and utilize anchor charts to remind students of required steps. So many phenomenal ideas developed from our conversations, and we walked away with the understanding that we may need to dig a little deeper to determine why a student is struggling.
Breaking a task down into the discrete skills required for participation and completion allows us to identify how we can adjust our practice to make learning accessible for all.
Tech for your tool box:
Each week we meet and learn together about meeting the diverse needs of students. This week we discussed working memory.
There are two types of working memory: auditory memory and visual-spatial memory. You can think of these skills in terms of making a video. Auditory memory records what you’re hearing while visual-spatial memory captures what you’re seeing. But that’s where working memory’s similarity with making a video ends.
When you make a video, visual and auditory information is stored for safekeeping and can be played back when you need to access it. You don’t necessarily need to pay attention to details when you’re filming. Working memory, on the other hand, isn’t just stored for later use. It has to be accessed and “played back” immediately, even as new information is arriving and needing to be incorporated.
Imagine a teacher reads a word problem in math class. Kids need to be able to keep all the numbers in their head, figure out what operation to use and create a written math problem at the same time.
Kids with weak working memory skills have difficulty grabbing and holding on to that incoming information. This means they have less material to work with when they’re performing a task.
In math class, they may know how to do different kinds of calculations. However, they run into trouble with word problems. It’s difficult to listen for clue words that indicate which operation to use, while at the same time remembering the numbers that need to be plugged into the equation.
Kids rely on both incoming information and information stored in working memory to do an activity. If they have weak working memory skills, it’s hard to juggle both. This can make it challenging to follow multi-step directions. Kids with weak working memory skills have trouble keeping in mind what comes next while they’re doing what comes now. For example, your child may not be able to mentally “go back” and recall what sentence the teacher wanted written down while also trying to remember how to spell out the words in that sentence.
The part of the brain responsible for working memory is also responsible for maintaining focus and concentration. Here, working memory skills help kids remember what they need to be paying attention to. Take, for example, doing a long division problem. Your child needs working memory not only to come up with the answer, but also to concentrate on all of the steps involved in getting there.
Kids with weak working memory skills have trouble staying on task to get to the end result. You could think of it like the learning equivalent of walking into a room and forgetting what you came in to get.
Working memory is responsible for many of the skills children use to learn to read. Auditory working memory helps kids hold on to the sounds letters make long enough to sound out new words. Visual working memory helps kids remember what those words look like so they can recognize them throughout the rest of a sentence.
When working effectively, these skills keep kids from having to sound out every word they see. This helps them read with less hesitation and become fluent readers. Learning to read isn’t as smooth a process for kids with weak working memory skills.
Being able to solve math problems depends on a number of skills that build on one another like building blocks. The block at the bottom—the most important one in the stack—is the ability to recognize and reproduce patterns. It’s the foundation for the next block: seeing patterns in numbers in order to solve and remember basic math facts.
From there, kids build up to storing information about a word problem in their head; they then use that information to create a number sentence to solve the problem. This eventually leads to the ability to remember mathematical formulas.
What keeps the blocks from toppling over is the ability to remember, sequence and visualize information—all of which can be difficult for a child with weak working memory skills.
Understanding how to help children and adults with working memory needs will help reduce anxiety, and move towards successful learning experiences.
Providing scaffolds and methods for organization helps to break tasks into remembered parts or parts that can be returned to for reminder.
Tune in next week when we learn the specifics of how to break down each part of a complex task to ensure children can access the learning.