Mixing and Matching: Experimental Learning Within High Stakes Testing

| July 23, 2014


Within the data-driven and high stakes testing atmosphere of the charter school where I work, where we are required to turn in the seven-step lesson plan every day, and a week in advance, I became bored in my own classroom.  And worse, so did my students.  Within the model known as The Madeline Hunter Model of Mastery Learning, I found the Introduction to New Material gave the students exactly what they need to learn verbatim through key points within the five to ten minutes of the lesson.  I fell into the realm of showing the key points as a PowerPoint slide, just to have students write them down, and then move on to practicing those key points. I found then if guided practice is practice of the same written information, students were just regurgitating the information fed to them within the Introduction to New Material. Especially my 10th grade World Literature course, if a I gave an interpretation of the text, I wondered how to have students practice comprehension of one idea beyond simply answering questions about the text that I just explained?  I struggled with creating meaningful practice with an idea I just told them. This same regurgitation happened in the Independent Practice if there wasn’t anything new presented or the students were not asked to consider the material in a new way or at a deeper level.  I also found discovered I was bored in my own classroom, and my students were waiting for me to give them the answers since they weren’t cognitively engaged.  One day when my 10th grade students and I were having a lively chat, they told me thee felt they were often “buckets getting filled with water” in most of their classes, and never pushed to develop any meaning or connect with any meaning on their own.  They weren’t given time and space to grapple with the material cognitively and individually in such a structured model.  They weren’t given autonomy to develop meaning on their own.  A first year teacher I was working with even said her instructional coach told her to repeat the same material three times, though at different levels on Bloom’s, and the that the students should regurgitate the key points exactly within the exit ticket. My own discoveries and the feedback from my students and colleagues about learning troubled me. I had to move on from just matching my lesson with the boxes within the lesson plan template my district required. It was time to mix it up.

Mixing It Up With Experiential Learning

My goal became focused on creating experiences in which students themselves generate my planned three to five key points on any given content (such as symbolism in The Great Gatsby). I saw these experiences prompted students to make claims and assertions about the material in a series on intentional layers I created to lead them to an ultimate fluid understanding of a concept.  However, I am still “matching” the seven-step lesson plan.

To illustrate this within my 10th grade English classroom: I worked with the objective of leading students to understand how Life of Pi is an allegory for religion.   To understand the allegory, students needed to understand how the major religious of the world primarily have three things in common: a holy book, a higher power, and a prescribed way of living, yet they also have multiple variations. Students also needed to understand the significance of 3.14 (the protagonist’s nickname) within the novel, for which Martel used as another way for humans to understand the world, in addition to matching religion in the 3, three parts of most major religions, and the .14, or the multiple variations.  Through these layers, my goal was for students see how Martel’s entire story was an allegory for religion, and that it actually didn’t matter which story Pi told was true.

To place the cognitive load on the students, I placed the lesson into multiple layers. I started with an anticipatory set called “The What, The Why, and the IB” (My school is an MYP school) which set students up for thinking, especially within a global context. This set the tone for the remainder of the class:

  • The What: This week we’re going to dive into the Life of PI and think critically about the text. This text will give us some insight into the human condition and why humans tell stories.  The unit question we will consider is, “In what glasses do we see the world?”  Our perspective is what informs our conclusions and what we believe.
  • The Why: Literature is a universal medium that can help us understand the world through different experiences. By reading, we can experience things through a book we might not have ever experienced in “real life”.
  • The IB: IB Learners are Reflective. We are reflective of our own cultural context and how our personal context affects other perspectives.

I had students quickly popcorn read each bullet point, and then we move to a Hook. In this case, I gave students lyrics to a song called “Affirmation” by Savage Garden and played the music video on YouTube for them, and asked the guiding questions, “ How do you think the singer developed these beliefs?  Are there any allusions (references) to the Christian faith in this song? Are there any allusions (references) to other faiths?“ setting up the students to think about beliefs and perhaps their own prior knowledge.  We then debrief and discuss the song and the questions leading them to the next layer on specific religions.

For the next layer, I gave student groups each an article about a different religion, Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism, and asked them to notice three to five components of the religion they were assigned.  Students put these on a poster, one poster per group, one per religion, and hung them up in the classroom.  I know I wanted students to derive that the religions of the world primarily have three things in common: a holy book, a higher power, and a prescribed way of living, so I asked them to look for similarities between all the religions the class as a whole studied on a Gallery Walk, and then we discuss what they noticed as a class.  They noticed the three elements all religions have in common, thus they discovered these key points autonomously.

For the second layer, I wanted students to grapple with the mathematic functions of Pi, and then tie it to what we just learned about religion.  I gave them a poem and a Wikipedia article about 3.14, (which also brings up their geometry class) and once again, they were asked to pull out three to four elements of 3.14. Then I asked them to compare 3.14 to the information they generated about the three elements religion have in common.  Then they’re asked to apply all of that to the novel and answer the question:  How might the novel Life of Pi mirror the idea of religion?   I asked them to include evidence from all their experiences in class. As a higher-level question, it caused students to put all their layers together.  Perhaps they tied their thinking to the articles, but perhaps some outliers add in some thinking about Richard Parker as a god, or the island as faith (to add in prior knowledge from pervious lessons). To ensure students can use literary language, I put a name to the conclusion they make:  Life is Pi is an allegory for religion. Therefore, I ask them, what does an allegory do?  They were able to answer me by explaining the significance of each of the layers they experienced.

To assess their understanding, I then created an exit ticket that allowed them to now apply their thinking to whether or not they think Richard Parker is real, now that they see the allegory, and can apply it to something new. (It actually doesn’t matter if Richard Parker is real, since Martel’s intent seems to be the call to action to give meaning to your own existence, but it pushes students to use the layers in their thinking). The key with the exit ticket is using what they already know to prove or disprove their own thinking around Richard Parker.  I can see if they understand the idea of allegory, since their thinking has to center around religion in order to grapple with the question itself.  Last but not least, we revisit the unit question as the closure to the lesson, and students discuss “How does religion change the lenses of our glasses in how we see things?” as one last personal connection to this lesson and tying up the learning.

Through these layers, I like that students are asked to generate their own thoughts about the readings and apply their initial understanding of the novel itself to two other layers (religion and 3.14) to a final layer (how the entire novel is an allegory) and then to their own thinking: now do you think Richard Parker is real?    Everyone is on the same train of making meaning and figuring out what they think about the question posed at the very beginning, which was “what might the novel stand for?”  If I have a scholar who doesn’t understand or make the connections, we can revisit each layer together, and I can ask and plan specific questions to help them draw the conclusions.

Reflection on Mixing and Matching

What I like about this layer approach in my classroom is that I found students are engaged cognitively, generating and considering questions, aren’t writing down notes of someone else’s or my thinking, and now have experiences and habits of mind they can apply to other reading situations. They will often work in partners or groups, pending the dynamic or size of the class.  I push them not to work individually until the very end, so they are generating ideas with each other. They also free-write between every layer about the ideas generated from the previous layer to ensure they have an understanding before we move on to the next layer, much like the Mastery Model already does within its scaffolding. However, instead of the material being presented by the teacher, the students are developing the information within each layer.  The teacher still plans the material, but also plans intentional experiences in which the students can develop the key points organically.  These experiences can fit into the boxes of guided practice and independent practice, yet the cognitive load is placed on the students.

To be honest, I was worried this enhanced model might not have results I wanted on the state standardized test my students had to take in April.   Would they have enough time on this five-hour test to generate their own meaning? Would they get lost in their thinking and not be able to answer the multiple-choice questions provided?   Quite the opposite happened.  My English II End of Course Assessment (Texas) scores increased and were among the top three schools in the district.  All but four of my students passed: 94% up from 78% the year before.  Even as a Title-I school, my students had the highest commended (advanced) rates in the District: 16% up from 2% the year before.   This enhanced model was what I did in some capacity in every class period with every text we worked with.  It led my students not to look for the right answer, but to generate the answers as they thought about the text and have autonomy within their own learning and meaning and be able to apply these habits of mind to any situation, task or audience.  I found that giving students this autonomy consistently helped them think.

I feel the Mastery Model, the seven-step lesson plan, is a phenomenal way of thinking when considering the structure of a lesson, yet the content of a lesson should be delivered in a way that gives scholars the autonomy to create their own understanding and meaning and be coached towards the key points.  With an open mind to the five steps and viewing them as layers of meaning and understanding rather than practice, I found the students and I could tread and ask some truly provocative questions about literature. My role is then to plan and effectively facilitate the experiences and asks the questions needed to help scholars draw their own interpretations and conclusions about the content.  I thus plan layers of understanding to help scholars reach a conclusion autonomously through specific materials and mediums planned intentionally to invite understandings, rather than impart knowledge.

Written by Autumn Lamphier, MA Candidate, INSTEP English Education, Teachers College Columbia University who teaches 9th and 10th grade English in Arlington, Texas in a high performing charter network.