Friday, February 24, 2017

Teach How You Learn: Gradual Release of Responsibility

When was the last time you learned to do something new? Maybe it was how to use a new electronic device or program. For me, it was getting my Japanese driver’s license last May. Now, I’ve had a U.S. license for many decades, but a Japanese one is another whole story. I’ll skip most of it for now and just say that I didn’t jump straight from reading the rule book to passing the driving test any more than I did with my first license when I was a teenager. 

I did start with reading—rulebooks, blogs, helpful hints and personal experiences. I practiced walking through the school halls and up and down stairs on the “right” (i.e. left) side, making righthand turns across traffic. Next a friend drove me around, explaining all the idiosyncrasies of Japanese driving law, driving examiners, and the driving course I’d be tested on. I became a master at observing other drivers who were and weren’t doing everything I’d been told I needed to do. I talked with a lot of other foreigners’ about how many times they had to take the test before they passed, and what tricks and wisdom they had picked up. Then I got behind the wheel and my friend coached from the passenger’s seat. In spite of all that, I failed the driving test the first time. The examiner told me the two errors I’d made, and I practiced some more, even driving around on my own. The next time I took the test, I passed.

I was thinking about that because I’ve just started a weekly book discussion with some colleagues on Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. I was thinking about how we all know deep in our bones that effective learning starts with the teacher mostly running things, and gradually releasing responsibility to the students. Fisher and Frey have identified 4 phases of this release:
  • Focused instruction
  • Guided instruction
  • Collaborative learning
  • Independent learning
I moved back and forth but generally forward through those phases as I prepared to get my Japanese driver’s license. And yet I don’t always move my students through those same phases as they are preparing to be more skillful readers, writers, thinkers, speakers, and listeners. So I set a goal this week to be intentional about including all 4 of those phases in each lesson. 

What difference did that make?

Monday 10th graders began planning their writing response to the prompt “Who am I culturally, temperamentally, and spiritually?” They came in primed with content we had studied: Henrik Ibsen’s drama A Doll’s House, Robert L. Kohls’ essay “The Values Americans Live By,” an introduction to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and a lesson on a Biblical perspective of identity. 

I remembered that before they began brainstorming and planning (independent learning), they needed more than my direct instruction on organization: Don’t just put your points in the order of the prompt (cultural values, temperament type, and spiritual beliefs)—put them in and order that makes logical sense to you, and articulate that logic in your transitions. They needed practice doing it. They needed some guided instruction and some collaborative learning.

I also remembered a piece of advice I heard several years ago: Have students work on a new skill or new content, but not both at the same time. So I started with familiar content. I asked them to complete the following thesis statement: “I like/dislike living in Okinawa because ___, ___, and ___.” While they worked on their own (this was clearly familiar content), I wrote my model on the board: “I like living in Okinawa because of the natural beauty, the friendly people, and the community at OCSI.” I also listed several examples under each point. 

After a few minutes, I recalled students’ attention, showed them my model, and explained that my organizing principle could be most impersonal to most personal. I asked them to share their thesis statement with a neighbor and explain their organizing principle: level of significance, of permanence, of realization, of experience in daily life, etc. Conversations erupted. After a few minutes, I reclaimed attention and reminded them that the conversations were fascinating, and the purpose of them was to think about organizing principles for ordering points—specifically the points in their “Who Am I?” paper. 

We looked at the three model papers I’d given them earlier, and how each of them put the points in a different order for different reasons. I handed each student 3 note cards and asked them to write one of the three points on each card: culturally, temperamentally, spiritually. Then write a couple of illustrative examples or supporting points on each card. Then arrange them in a logical progression and explain that logic to a partner. 

Then they could get a Chromebook and begin writing their paper.

The next day they spent a lot more of the time in the independent phase, planning or drafting their paper. But I did remind them at the beginning of the period that we were working on organizing points according to a principle, and as they worked, I would come around to confer with each person, and my first question would be “What order are you putting your points in and why?” And each student had a well-reasoned answer ready for me, and each student was deeply engaged with their writing.

I haven’t been that successful hitting all the 4 phases in every class on every day this week, and maybe it’s not always absolutely necessary, but I’m doing better just for paying attention to it, and I think my students are, too.

How effectively and intentionally do you release responsibility to create engaged, independent learners? Do you spend some time each lesson in focused instruction, guided instruction, collaborative learning, and independent learning? 

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