The SAIL Teaching Framework

This is a condensed version of the complete chart, but it's a good place to start.  Click for a larger view (and to download).

January 19, 2015

Intervening

While writing my last post, on pseudoteaching, I was compelled to change my Teaching Framework a little in response. I was thinking about when and how the learning actually happens in my classroom. According to Frank Noschese's concept, teaching happens when a student's pre-existing conceptions are challenged, and this happens when the student tries to actually do something (see Derek Muller on this point). At the crucial moment of potential failure, the teacher intervenes, and the student learns. I've actually written about this before:
So what is teaching? Well, the teacher does something, and then the student does something and thereby learns. What kind of something? Let's say that the teacher performs a certain action and the student mimics the action. The teacher watches the student, intervenes when necessary, and repeats the action. The student tries again. The process is repeated until the student is capable on his or her own. Teaching by example is probably the most fundamental and natural form of teaching.

But more is going on than meets the eye. A relationship of trust has been built between the teacher and student so that the interaction can work effectively. The teacher's intervention is extraordinarily important, and will depend exactly on what the student has grasped and what he has missed. The teacher directs the student's attention to the work: like this, not like that, here's why, can you see? Mere mimicry is not enough, the student must develop some understanding. The teacher will not always be there, the student must learn to correct himself, must learn how to learn.

What does it mean to intervene? In a classroom, intervention is often the word used to describe what a teacher does to alter a student's behavior. It is the I in PBIS, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, an approach to classroom management that I endorse. Notice that I also used it in the quotation above - "intervenes when necessary" - to describe an act of teaching. I hadn't really thought about intervention meaning the same thing in both cases, but it does. Education is changing a student's behavior as much as it is changing what a student knows, and intervention by the teacher is how it is done.

What does this look like in my classroom? People tend to like my classes - students, parents, other teachers, administrators - because I am energetic and engaging. And let's face it, physics can be a lot of fun. But when does the learning actually take place? Not, it turns out, when I'm doing the fun stuff. Students don't learn from my lectures or explanations, demonstrations, diagrams, simulations, videos, etc. etc. They are happy to take notes, often with great care, draw diagrams, watch demonstrations, and they really think they are learning something. But they are not. Their preconceptions block them, without their even knowing it.

What preconceptions? Have you ever thrown a ball to someone, or dropped a dish and watched it fall and break, or twirled a key on a lanyard, or skidded while driving a car, or burned yourself with a hot skillet? All that is physics, and these experiences taught you something that then became a concept in your mind, and quite possibly an incorrect concept from the point of view of physics. How is it possible to learn physics correctly? It requires the intervention of a teacher, a teacher you trust.

In my classroom the intervention happens when students are asked to do something, or produce something, or perform an action. This work is done in the classroom, what is called seatwork. Students must answer a question, use a vocabulary word correctly, perform a calculation, solve a word problem, write a coherent sentence, take an accurate measurement, build a model. These activities will reveal the flaws in their thinking, the gaps in their understanding, and these failures are the teachable moments that will only result in learning if I am there to intervene when the failure happens. All the other activities, the notes and explanations, diagrams, demonstrations, videos, group questions and discussions, are shared experiences that I and the student can refer to so I can prompt and goad and question until the student finally sees the failure and makes a correction.

I have altered my Teaching Framework so that, under Instruction, a collection of activities is now labeled Intervention. Under Attention & Focus I have gathered some of the activities and added more to a category also called Intervention. This strengthens the intervention parallel between behavioral learning and academic knowledge, and fills out the Attention & Focus section so it encompasses classroom management more obviously.

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