Saturday, December 22, 2012

Rappelling and reading: When is "direct instruction" not appropriate?

Learning Targets: "Isn't this stupid?"
At my son's school, every Monday his ELA teacher hands out a syllabus with the daily learning targets for the week, and at the beginning of every class the teacher writes the day's Learning Target on the board.  This past week the Learning Targets were:

  • I can write engaging introductions to draw my readers in.
  • I can write strong topic sentences to guide my readers through my writing.
  • I can reread my own writing to make choices for revision.
  • I can eliminate unnecessary parts of my writing and add transitions to support my readers.
  • I can add information and adjust my word choice to improve meaning and precision of language.
On the one hand, these seem like perfectly reasonable things for students to be working on. On the other hand, when my son just handed me the sheet, he said, "Isn't this stupid?"

True, my son is a twelve-year old to whom almost everything seems either totally stupid or totally amazing, and yes, he has imbibed some of my own skepticism about pretending that reading and writing can be broken down into discrete and teachable "skills"--but some of the most mature, sophisticated and enthusiastic of the high school juniors in my "Honors" American Literature class also seem to think "Learning Targets" are ridiculous. When I wrote a "Learning Target" on the board of my own classroom one day a couple of weeks ago, a few of the top students in the class, the kids who are taking three AP classes and are sons and daughters of fancy doctors or professors at Perfect University, said, "Are you kidding?"

That my son and my students are so critical and even dismissive of these Learning Targets is interesting, because Learning Targets are central to the way education is conceived of these days. A  lot of the current discourse about education says that teaching and learning  should always have specific goals ("Learning Targets"), that it should always be "visible" to teacher and student, and that student progress should be assessable along the way. This is often a good idea, but it has its limits. The reaction my son and my students had is largely related, I think, to the fact that it was in English class.  My guess is that if their AP Math teacher had put up learning targets (e.g. "I will be able to calculate the mean, the variance, and the standard deviation for a population or for a sample"), my students would have found it less risible.

"The heart of the model of successful teaching and learning"?
A prominent book on education research offers the following as an illustration of its central argument:

Consider the following: I am going to take you to the top of a three-storey building and teach you to rappel down the outside of this building.  Typically, I would demonstrate to you how to put on a safety harness, tie the rope in a bowline, and then show you how to lean backwards to commence the descent.  In line with the principles of of good teaching, I would then ask you, the student, to implement this learning.  Typically, such a learning situation lead to much care by the students, an enhanced level of interest in what peers are doing, and high levels of help-seeking behaviors to ensure the knowledge of rope-work is correct and harnesses are correctly positioned.  The goals are challenging, specific, and visible, and the learners are committed to them!  The learning is actively visible and there are high levels of feedback and monitoring.  The learner typically "seeks" the feedback.  When a novice first gets to the edge, there is a remarkably high level of peer teaching and learning: it is not natural to fall backwards when descending as it is more typical for the feet to precede the head.  When finally the student reaches the bottom there is a surge of excitement appreciating that the challenging goal has been reached (it is abundantly clear what the success criteria are!), the experience was exhilarating, and the learning absorbed in the experience itself.  Most want to repeat the experience and continue to enjoy meeting the challenging goals.  Moreover, all these acts and most of the "thinking" about the task are visible to the teacher and to the learner.  This is the heart of the model of successful teaching and learning advocated in this book.

The first time I read this passage, I laughed out loud.  The notion that rappelling down the face of a three story building is in any way comparable to what students do in school is just ridiculous. Nevertheless, I think looking at the passage a bit more closely may shed light on when this model of teaching and learning is appropriate and when it is not.

In the spirit of being visible and explicit, let me state the obvious:

(1) Rappelling can be taught in a day.  Even the basics of reading usually take a year or more.

(2) Rappelling is (as presented here) a new skill that the "novice" is trying for the first time.  Reading is for nearly all students not a brand new skill (see #1), and most English teachers, like me, are teaching kids who have been studying reading for more than five years.  I'd like to see the education researcher try to teach rappelling to people who have been doing it nearly every day for five years.  He might find that his model didn't seem quite as snazzy.

(3) Rappelling is, especially for the novice, hugely exciting.  Reading is pleasant, but not exciting.

(4) Rappelling is potentially extremely dangerous to your health.  Reading is fairly safe.

(5) If it is "abundantly clear what the success criteria are" in rappelling, the same is much less true in reading.  Even in an hour-long assessment, it is difficult to measure reading skill with much precision on an individual level, and in daily practice the success criteria are far from "abundantly clear."

(6) Rappelling has certain discrete and fairly straightforward skills and conventions (how to tie a bowline and put on a harness, etc.) that are necessary to master before you begin the difficult part.  In this, it is actually similar to reading.  Reading requires knowing some facts (the sounds the letters represent), knowing a few conventions (you read from left to right, etc.).  Mastering this knowledge is necessary but is, in some sense, the easy part.  But with both reading and rappelling, and perhaps with every important skill, the really important part is the practice--actually doing it.

Actually doing it
Although I have not rappeled, I have both learned and attempted to teach a very similar, and perhaps more difficult task: "dropping in" to a halfpipe on a skateboard.  Learning to drop in is quite similar to learning to rappel: there is the same frightening moment at the top of a vertical face when all of your instincts are telling you to lean back, not to lean forward, and telling you that if you are going to fall, you had better fall feet first.  As the passage says, "it is more typical for the feet to precede the head."  In some ways, dropping in may be even more scary, since there's no rope.  It's quite thrilling, even after you've done it thousands of times.  These photos can't convey the thrill, but the one on the right gives some idea of the scale that's often involved:

Now, what inevitably happens to beginners is what happened to me the first time I tried to drop in: you don't lean forward enough, and you slide down the ramp, kind of like this--except that this guy is leaning so far forward, he is clearly not a beginner:

When I dropped in for the first time, at a ramp in Canton, Massachusetts, in 1986 or so, I sprained my ankle quite badly. Would better instruction have made it easier for me?  I don't think so; my friend Jon had told me everything I needed to know, had modeled it for me, and had offered lots of encouragement. I have since tried instructing other people to drop in, and there's not much to say; the steps are quite simple:

(1) put your back foot, and all your weight, on the tail of the skateboard, which is perched on the coping of the ramp;

(2) put your front foot lightly on the front of the skateboard;

(3) simultaneously push down hard with your front foot and throw all your weight forward and down.

That's it.  There is no knot-tying, no complicated safety harness (everyone knows how to put on a helmet and knee-pads).  It's all in the doing. That last step, pushing down hard with your front foot and throwing all of your weight forward and down into the ramp, is both the most important and the most terrifying.  And it famously cannot be taught. An online how-to has this to say about dropping in:

It can be scary to stomp down and lean into open air. There is no turning back once you've started the stomp, and I would say at least 80% of the problems people have when dropping in is not being committed enough to this part. You have to trust that you and your skateboard will make this work. You have to invest in dropping in 100%. It's all or nothing. Be committed to the drop in. Once you do it, it will get easier and easier every time.

Here's a secret about skateboarding - skill is very important, but even more important than skill is self confidence. It's all in your head. This is what separates something like skateboarding from other "sports". Your strongest opponent is yourself. So when you face something like dropping in, and you do it, you are taking a huge step toward self control.

That was a little deep, but it's true. The point is, if you are going to try and learn to drop in, then just do it. It's like Yoda says, "Do or do not, there is no try."

Just do it.  When my brother and I had a half-pipe in our backyard, and when I was the advisor of the skateboarding club at Leafstrewn, I noticed this about skateboarding: there was a strong culture, not only of "just doing it", but of encouragement, support and collaborative learning.  The important things were not the direct instruction or the "clear learning goal," but the culture, the engagement, the modeling, feedback and encouragement from peers, and the endless practice.

 Direct Instruction? Yes, in small doses.
"Direct instruction" is a pretty good way to teach people a new skill.  You make it clear what you're about to teach and why, you teach it and model it, you have students practice it under your supervision, you review, and then students practice it on their own.  These steps seem like common sense.  If I were going to teach people how to, say, fix a flat tire on a bicycle, this is pretty much how I would do it.  Nevertheless, this is not to say that all of school should consist of "guided instruction."

In learning rappelling, or dropping in, or reading, direct instruction should play a role--but only a small role.  There may be subjects, like math or science, in which there should be a new learning target every day, and there should be new instruction every day, but English is mostly not like that.  The most striking thing about the learning targets my son's 7th grade teacher put on the board this past week is that they might serve just as well for my 11th grade students.  In reading, the learning goals are even less "challenging, specific, and visible" than they are in writing, and the success criteria are even less "abundantly clear."

Therefore, even though I am trying to be clearer about what the learning goals are in my classes ("I will become more comfortable reading colonial-era literature"; etc.), and even though I am trying to be clearer and more deliberate in my instruction, I still think the most important thing is to foster a culture of engaged reading, humane discussion and intellectual inquiry.  There is a mania in education today for direct instruction, visible learning, abundantly clear learning targets, accountability, testing, and so on.  These things are important, but there is a great danger that we will go too far and think that every minute of every schoolday must be specifically targeted, and that the only worthwhile learning targets are those with abundantly clear success criteria.

As always, we need to think about the long term.  After trying it over and over, I did finally learn to drop in, and it was fun--as learning should be.


  1. It is not a coincidence that it is popular -- if you've got the resources and a reasonably open-minded administration -- to take at risk students as a group to do a ropes course as a community-building and bonding exercise. You do it because it is SO different than academic learning. Out of all the things you can think of which seem scariest, aren't really dangerous, don't cost that much, and give you the most reliable feeling of overcoming fear and accomplishment in an afternoon, rappelling and other ropes stuff is pretty much at the top.

    Also, we need to skate! I'm in Providence and hit The Edge in Taunton pretty much every Wednesday. I don't know where in Mass. Leafstrewn is.

    1. Hi Tom: yes, that's funny about how schools always use ropes courses as bonding activities--exactly because they are so different from school. Hattie's passage is pretty silly.

      As for skating, I'm impressed you're still out there regularly. You're probably actually good at it, unlike me. But maybe someday!

      Leafstrewn is my nickname for the near suburb of Boston in which I teach.