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: