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
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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.

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Thomas N. Turner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I want to echo and expand on the notion of working with a real practitioner. You may have to look a little to find those "real" practitioners. Not every job holding teacher is a real practitioner. But if you can find one, I would suggest that you work with more than one "real" practitioner. There is not one way of making the teaching-learning thing work. How do you know a "real practitioner when you see one? Though there are many definitions, the real ones will always show in some way that they themselves are still on the learn, that they know that teaching at its heart is a relationship between two human beings, that the art of teaching is getting students to want to learn, and, most importantly, that they care.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to know new ways that I can teach my highschool Special Education students the core subjects, so that I can get them to be more excited about the learning process

middle school teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Are there any ideas to use in a traditional middle school for my English class? I used to be a progressive Bank Street teachers but now seem to be getting very dull trying to meet the needs of our Standards...Our curriculum is dull and I have a tough time trying to work with teachers on thematic project like English/History etc.... Help! I need some new ideas!

Tobi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wholeheartedly agree with Lisa Morehouse about students needing to be introduced to and use their skills in relevant ways in order for them to appreciate the information. I recently read an article regarding brain research and foundation from December 2006 issue of The School Adminstrator. The more times you offer a student the chance to use his/her skills, the more meaningful you make the information and the more likely they are to remember it. Our brains learn best when we can connect new information with prior knowledge. Also providing connections through "concrete experiences" and "multimodal instruction" help our brains to represent the necessary information within our brains. Lisa Morehouse was very astute in determining the need for these concrete experiences (using the History of Hawaii to help with information about the hula). The more times we offer these relevant experiences to our students, the more likely they will be remembered and used again in the real world.

Trish Potts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use project-based learning in much of my 6th grade class. The trick is for you to reflect on the basic skills your students need to learn and think about how these skills are used in "real" life. In a middle school English class you also have the luxury of tying your projects in with other classes such as Science and Social Studies.
One project I have used to teach basic research skills is tying in with our student council's project to raise money to build a clean water well in Africa. We researched issues surrounding unsafe water and then created brochures on the computer to inform and motivate people to give. Each student in the school received one to take home to inform their parents about the project.
Another great research project is a debate. Students research a topic not knowing until debate day which side of an argument they will be asked to advocate. This also helps teach logic.
I also use periodicals such as the student versions of National Geographic from which to spin projects. If a team selects an article on volcanoes, they may be asked to prepare an urgent television broadcast which explains what a volcano is, how it works and why it is imperative that the audience evacuate. A recent article about Blackbeard had a team performing a mock trial in which his crimes were weighed against the government support of his activities to determine whether or not he should be punished. Another article about a tropical island gave a team the opportunity to create a travel brochure and commercial selling trips to that island.
Rubrics are the key. Creating a rubric helps you decide what you value in the project and gives the kids a clear vision of the final product.

Cathy Miami,FL's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The use of background experience and schema are essential components for students. Lisa Morehouse provided real life experiences that students could relate to, thus,enabling the instruction to be meaninful and useful. The interactive application is retained.The 2006 December issue of The School Administrator also validates that the the brain houses thoughs,feelings and emotions. The article also mentions the breakthroughs in neuroscience. The study is interesting and informing. Lessons learned through interaction are memorable and meaningful. I encourage and applaud those who can utilize what is in the text to bring about life changing lessons. It was my joy to work with butterflies from a tiny egg to a beautiful butterfly. The students enjoyed releasing the butterfly from the net. It is reassuring to know that they will be able to communicate their lesson with relevance as well as having the experience of a lifetime!

Peggy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I highly recommend spicing up your lesson plans for PBL by using your librarian and your school library.

Plan a collaborative unit that relates a subject to a real-life activity with a practical project as the end result. e.g. our 7th grade science teacher and I planned a unit which combined understanding diseases with creating a brochure to be used in local doctor's offices. The information had to be correct, use top-notch resources, and be useful to a patient seeking good information.

After researching diseases, the students' ELA teachers had them read novels that included a disease as a major part of the plot - then, based upon their understanding of disease, the students had to critique the book on its handling of the disease as a literary device.

Use your librarian and your library!

sabah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think to apply project based learning in English classes is quite difficult . It is easier in math or science classes to make projects. But in English classes , what projects we can do . just to make brochures . If you have ideas please tell me because i'm really interested in using the project based learning in my classes

Joy's picture

I'll be doing a project this fall with 5th/6th graders to create a webpage about Ellis Island and Immigration. We'll be reading actual letters sent home and replies back to America. After studying about this period in US history, they might write their own letters home as a 20th century immigrant and another as a 21st century immigrant and discuss who they compare, or write questions and interview a naturalized citizen, or research about a family member who immigrated, or write a report about 21st century immigrants -- how did they immigrate? from where? why? where did they settle? why? with research, how have the laws of immigration changed? why? where are they headed? why? What do other countries offer for immigrants? etc. they might write a news report and do a podcast about it. why not read a book and relate it to history and proceed with these types of activities? if your family had to leave home country, what would you bring to your new country? why? etc. With enough research, your class could do a web page about their journey to a place that is the setting for a book you read.

pahri's picture

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