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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Get Students to Use New Skills

Teachers use a practitioner model to move away from memorizing and encourage depth of learning.
By Lisa Morehouse

She Walks the Walk:

Marybeth Hamilton, an alumna of ULS, helps prepare her students for real life.

Credit: Nina Lee

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Hula High: Where Everybody Is a Doer."

"What use is technical knowledge or facts you learn from books if you don't know how or why to use them?" asks Marybeth Hamilton, an English teacher at the University of Hawaii's Laboratory School. Under ULS's practitioner model, she says, students are required to employ the skills they learn, using knowledge grasped in the classroom, like experts in the field.

A practitioner model moves students away from memorizing what Don Young, director of the ULS Curriculum Research and Development Group, calls "independent factoids." By treating students who are studying science like scientists, he adds, teachers encourage depth of learning, long-term retention of concepts, and awareness of the interconnectedness of disciplines.

Young, Hamilton, and hula instructor Alison Hartle explain how any teacher can turn students into doers.

Think about how real practitioners study and learn new concepts. Identify the core questions of your subject area -- What are the big questions in math? What do historians puzzle over? -- then set up some classroom rituals that mimic how practitioners learn. In science classes, let students create their own labs to test hypotheses. Have art students emulate and imitate work by masters. Integrate lots of interviewing into a history curriculum and have students compare stories they hear. Add a five-minute reading component to journal-writing time, emphasizing to students that real authors share their writing and need to have a sense of their audience.

Work locally with a real practitioner. In the ninth-grade Marine Science class, ULS students work with other schools and zoology graduate students collecting data in intertidal zones that no one else is researching. Contact your local university to tap into existing partnerships with researchers or graduate students (like the National Science Foundation's Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education), or talk to a professor whose work interests you and start a small exchange that can grow.

Create opportunities for students to teach. Last fall's hula focus was the historical ali'i, or royalty, including Queen Lili'uokalani. Students brought what they learned in the Modern History of Hawaii course to hula, making even more relevant the meaning of the hulas and chants. Teachers who can't integrate their curriculum with colleagues can create independent assignments to help students share context and knowledge with each other.

Encourage students to use multiple sources to find many "correct" answers. ULS hula students have a "hula book" designated for notes and vocabulary work. After receiving Hawaiian-language versions of hulas and chants, they have to consult family members, dictionaries, and online resources for definitions. Back in class, students discuss the different definitions of words they've located, then debate in order to establish group translations of the hulas and chants.

"In a student-as-practitioner classroom, teachers need to be open," Hamilton says. Her English students talk about components of a good short story, which they pick up from listening to stories read aloud. "I will ask students to use these components, but when the final product comes in, it is ultimately up to each student to use the devices appropriate to his or her story," says the teacher. "As long as students are making deliberate decisions about how they want to write, I need to let them try it. I have been surprised a number of times by students who chose to do something against my advice and ended up with a better final product without my change."

Have an end goal. Performances, presentations, displays, publications, and entries into contests are essential for student buy-in. ULS's hula class spends the semester gearing up for a final performance, and Hamilton's seventh graders forget how hard they're working on their writing when they focus on creating podcasts. "When I tell students they are going to create a podcast of their own stories, they get excited," she says. "This buy-in from the students gives them a purpose to learn new skills and a reason to come to school."

Use what's already out there. Many teachers and organizations already are experimenting with these instructional ideas. Along with resources that may be more local to you, check out ULS curricular materials and professional opportunities online.

Lisa Morehouse taught secondary English for twelve years in San Francisco and rural Georgia. She is now a public-radio journalist and an education consultant.

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