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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sometimes you need to be really far away to get perspective and be reminded of what you already know. As I write this, the eight thousand miles between myself and the schools I work in are illuminating the inside out, backward, and upside down nature of our education system. I'm am talking about the spliced into 55-minute periods, standardized testing, and the disconnection from authentic application and what makes life meaningful. I know, not all schools in the US are like this, but too many are.

I'm in Bali and for the last two weeks have been observing how Balinese children learn music, dance, and other arts. I've never been to a place where the arts were more integrated into daily life. In Ubud, the "cultural center of Bali," it's hard to walk down a street or spend a day without hearing or seeing some kind of artistic expression.

Much of this is connected to religious practices and takes place at the many temples on the island. This I expected. What surprises me is how children throw themselves onto every stage, into the laps of musicians, into the workshops of the carvers and painters and weavers. But perhaps "throws" is the wrong word -- I start to notice that they are pulled onto stages and laps and workshops.

Real-World Application

Early in our trip we wanted to learn something about Balinese gamelan and signed up for a day-long course. Our instructors spoke very little English. They taught by demonstrating, and motioning to us to copy them, and then by holding our hands and moving the hammer-like gavels over the xylophone. We didn't need much language and without it, I paid closer attention to the rhythms, the beats, and the sequences of notes.

Throughout our class other Balinese played along, helping to create the beautiful sounds of a Gamelan ensemble. Amongst these players was a boy of three or four who wandered up and plunked himself down first at an instrument that was full of symbols and then at a small, gong. He played, and then danced, and then pulled out a flute, played that, and then sat next to my son and tried to teach him percussive rhythms.

I wondered whose child he was as he moved from lap to lap, each Balinese adult laughing with him, encouraging him, clapping for him after he danced, and giving him instruction on his music as well.

I was captivated watching this little boy and my own son who was learning by doing -- and for a purpose and authentic application. I want this kind of learning to be a daily reality for the students in the schools where I work.

In the Classroom

Let me take a big leap now into what this reflection might mean for those who are still working within the 55-minute period. While this is far from what I envision schools to be, I know we can start taking steps towards integrating this concept, starting with a strategy as simple as the "think-aloud."

When I first started teaching English Language Arts to middle school students, a wise mentor encouraged me to share my writing practice with my students. "ELA teachers must be readers and writers themselves," she said, "so that they can make their process transparent to their students." She explained how to use the strategy think-aloud as students wrote first drafts.

I began to do them regularly in class as a way to determine a focus for my writing, how I revised it, and how I organized my thoughts. I did the same for reading, narrating the metacognitive processes I used to make sense of texts. I was surprised by how captivated my students were with these mini-lessons; those of us who teach middle-schoolers know that it's hard to captivate this audience! Then I saw the evidence show up in their writing; when we had a conference about a piece they were working on, they'd narrate their thoughts and use phrases I'd used, such as, "here, I want my audience to feel... ."

Why It Works

Now I recognize this strategy as one that parallels what I have been seeing in Bali. It's the old apprentice model, of course, but it can be adapted to our educational context today. This strategy can be applied to any content. It's about making our thinking transparent for kids, the steps we take to figure something out, and the ways in which our actions flow from this thinking. In this way, we are modeling what children need to do, not just telling them what to do.

Using a think-aloud strategy in all content areas, for all ages, is one step towards recovering an apprenticeship style of learning, something that has a legacy of great success and efficacy. Have you used a think-aloud lately? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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Sheila's picture

My "take away" for this discussion is that transparency provides clarity. So often in the classroom we think our message is clear, but it only seems clear because we conduct the task with such automaticity. When we force ourselves to "model" our thoughts it provides the students with a roadmap to follow. Paralleling that process to an apprenticeship gives a sense of working as partners to achieve the goal.

Shannon Mueller's picture
Shannon Mueller
MS/HS Learning Support teacher

This is such a wonderful idea! So often we think our students comprehend our lessons and we can move on to the next topic, but what we need to realize is a "hands-on" approach is a lot more beneficial. As a teacher in special education, I'm thrilled to implement this idea into my daily plans.

Melanie's picture

I love the idea of using "Think-Alouds" in writing lessons. My school district has required us to use them in our Shared Reading lessons (I teach 1st grade) and I have even found it beneficial to include them in my math lessons.

Sheila's picture

I made a point today to utilize this strategy as I read a story aloud to my third grade students. As I continue to try and implement this frequently, I will be interested to see if that becomes part of their discussion and strategies also. I will celebrate the first day I hear a student say...."Well -when I do this I think....." After reading several other posts I can see the importance of using this strategy more as I teach writing. Since younger students struggle to organize their thoughts, this could help them "think it through" if I think aloud.

Jamie Thompson's picture

I teach preschool, so the think aloud strategy is an essential to my students learning. We must explain in detail every step along the way. Our students struggle to follow along if we are not verbal when explaining an activity. They often need to visually see what each step looks like and hear how to complete each step.
Our students are just at the beginning of the writing process. They need us to write words for them to copy. The students verbally express their ideas and then we help them form their sentences and stories.
Thinking before talking is a very important skill to learn especially with the younger children. Another strategy that we use that is similar to think-aloud is think-pair-share in which the student thinks about his/her answer, then discusses with his/her partner, and finally shares it with the class.
Our students learn primarily through imitation and hands-on practice, which seems to be what the Balinese instructors were doing in their class. We spend a portion of our instruction doing hand over hand activities with students. I had an ELL student from Mexico this past school year and we used imitation as a primary tool when teaching him do to our lack of Spanish language knowledge.
"I wondered whose child he was as he moved from lap to lap, each Balinese adult laughing with him, encouraging him, clapping for him after he danced, and giving him instruction on his music as well."
I loved the way the Balinese adults encouraged and praised the students as they worked through the activity. As a preschool teacher, we spend a lot of time praising our students and giving appropriate feedback as the students completed activities.
From this blog I gained some crucial insight into the way others teach and interact with students and how that relates to what I am doing as a teacher.

mimimonroe's picture
mimimonroe
third grade

I often use think alouds, it is a great techniques especially for those struggling with "where to begin". I like to model the "struggling" process as well so the students can hear how I work through the steps. Modeling is key in showing what they need to do instead of telling them what to do with no clear guideline.

Leslie's picture
Leslie
Seventh grade language arts teacher from Germantown/Collierville, TN

I have been working with colleagues to become a better writing teacher. I have always just been able to write, and trying to break it down for students to learn has been a challenge for me. My PLC is currently working to help our students become more effective writers as we begin the transition from Tennessee state standards to the Common Core State Standards. This year, we are preparing our students not only to take the state standardized test, but also to take the PARCC assessments that our state will implement next year.

I have not really thought about using the think-aloud strategy to teach writing. I am going to take your article back to my PLC, and I am going to begin incorporating think-alouds in my writing instruction. Thank you!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger

Thank you, Jamie, for this thoughtful reflection on my blog!

Ari Ogoke's picture
Ari Ogoke
I teach computing/technology skills to deaf students in K-12 grades

Although the topic is music -- which is a high priority for the students I work with -- you got my attention when you said "We didn't need much language... "

Where I work, we communicate with our students through sign language and speech -- for a few who can benefit from it.. For a variety of reasons, many of our students come to us with limited proficiency in *any* language. So, I am always on the lookout for any tool that can help improve communication and increase comprehension.

Would you be kind enough to share a little more of what you are currently doing? Thank you.

Patrice Clunis's picture
Patrice Clunis
Teacher Education Student at Northern Caribbean University, Jamaica

Very interesting discussion!

The think-aloud method is one that "helps students to monitor their thinking as they read an assigned passage. Students are directed by a series of questions which they think about and answer aloud while reading. This process reveals how much they understand a text. As students become more adept they learn to generate their own questions to guide comprehension."

I personally believe that this is a good method to use as teachers because, it allows the teacher to model and also guide your students on the right path or to the level which you want your students to be comprehending information. As was pointed out in another post; it is very important for teachers to teach students using a step by step sequence in which the teacher will verbally explain activities or the lessons so that students will have a better understanding of what is being taught whether or not the student is a fast or a slow learner. This also helps teachers to monitor the progress of individual students where the grasping and comprehension of information is concerned.

This technique can be very good in building student's self esteem where speaking out is concerned. I say this because I too am a student and I am or was one of those students who would not speak unless a question was directed at me. So, I do believe that the think-aloud technique is one which worked well for me, because it gave me a reason to speak out and it allowed the teacher to see that although I did not speak as much as she would want me to, I was on track with whatever was being taught.

As was said in another post, the think-aloud technique works well with the think-pair-share technique. I say this because it is my belief that while the think-aloud helps to guide all students onto the path in which you as the teacher wants your students to think, the think-pair-share technique will give the students the opportunity to showcase their understanding and usage of the method in groups of their own pairs.

As a teacher in training this blog has truly provided me with much to think about and utilize when I am faced with a class of students of my own.

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