The 'thinking gap' (and why teachers shouldn't keep kids busy every second)
My guest is Diana Senechal, who taught for four years in the New York City public schools and is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture. Her education writing has appeared in numerous places, including Education Week, the Core Knowledge Blog, GothamSchools, and American Educator.
By Diana Senechal
Doug Lemov’s "Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College" (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010) has been widely praised for its specific, no-nonsense breakdown of teaching techniques. Yet the book suffers from its unquestioning acceptance of the “thinking gap”—its unspoken assumption that children in urban schools cannot and should not sit still and think.
Lemov seems to believe that students must be kept busy at every moment and must know the exact purpose of each activity. This premise limits the kinds of teaching that can take place and the topics that can be taught. If students cannot tolerate any stillness or doubt, if they are unable to occupy themselves with their own thoughts, then they will not be able to pursue advanced or even intermediate topics in the humanities and sciences.
Lemov’s suggested techniques cluster around the assumption that children must be kept busy and purposeful.
For instance, Lemov heartily recommends the well-known “Do Now” technique (No. 29 in the book): a warm-up activity that students perform immediately upon taking their seats. The “Do Now” is supposed to lead into the lesson; it means “that students are hard at work even before you have fully entered the room.” Many schools require teachers to begin lessons with a “Do Now” as a matter of course. In some cases it makes sense; a well-crafted question can help students start thinking about the lesson.
But what would be wrong with expecting students, upon entering the room, to take their seats, look over their reading or homework, and think? Why could they not use those few minutes to gather their ideas, refresh their memory, write down a few questions or observations, or even let their thoughts roam freely?
If students expect to be told what to do at each moment, they will not learn how to handle moments when they don’t know exactly what to do. Moreover, those who do know how to sit and think will not have the opportunity to do so. A student may be penalized for looking off into the distance—perhaps pondering a question related to the reading. Those who are not visibly busy will be treated as though they were doing something wrong.
Another of Lemov’s favorite emphases is staying “on task.” He insists that a lesson should have a clearly defined goal and that neither teachers nor students should stray from it.
In his discussion of the “Ratio” technique, he mentions a teacher who asks the students to choose one of “several subtly different character traits” to describe a character from a story. When a student offers an adjective that isn’t among of the options, the teacher reminds the student “that their goal was to decide from among the similar traits they’d identified at the outset, thus keeping the discussion focused and productive.”
But a good literature discussion often goes to unexpected places. The point is to come as close to the truth as possible—and to consider tone, rhythm, images, and many other things all along the way. It makes sense, perhaps, for the teacher to postpone consideration of the student’s proposed adjective, but not to disregard it. If a teacher offers a choice of three adjectives, she should do so only in passing, and then move on to a consideration of other words and possibilities. Otherwise she is subordinating the literature lesson to a vocabulary lesson or to a multiple-choice question.
Ultimately, the question should be: Who is this character? What details in the story give us hints? What role does this character play in the larger picture? There is no single path to the answer; sometimes the clues will lie in an unexpected place, and sometimes the most fitting adjectives will be different from what anyone initially considered. A teacher should be willing to guide students through this uncertainty, and students should learn to tolerate it.
It is time to consider the thinking gap in education: the difference between those who are able to sit still with thoughts, even for a minute, and those who are not.
Lemov’s techniques, if taken as orthodoxy, only cover up a deeper problem. If students expect, at every moment, to know what they are supposed to do and why, they will have limited options in high school and college. Or, worse, high school and college courses will cater to this need, giving students tasks at every moment and specifying the exact objective. This is detrimental to advanced study. Most subjects require a great deal of struggle, listening, and patience.
Yes, lessons need structure and purpose, but they also need tolerance for the unknown. One of the greatest aspects of learning is that we often don’t know where we are going, yet we sense some motion, out of which comes, slowly or suddenly, a solution, an idea, a beautiful and thoughtful performance.
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| January 31, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Learning, Teachers
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