Professional Learning

Just Plain Good Teaching, Part One: A Simple Technique That Works

October 7, 2008

All students need to learn. I have attended specialty training on how to help limited-English-proficiency students, or gifted students, or special education students, and it all comes down to one thing -- JPGT (just plain good teaching). One of the things I have learned about JPGT is that when you apply it, it works on all students, not just the special ones.

For example, I learned from an article called "Sheltered English Instruction" that intense vocabulary development can profoundly increase student performance and engagement in a subject. I had already discovered that this was essential for my foreign language students if they were to ever truly speak English. But if I take that thought a bit further, English math, and science might as well be a foreign language to most students. So, why can't teachers use sheltered instruction to help all of their students?

Robert J. Marzano, the famous meta-researcher, wrote a book called Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools. His premise is that vocabulary and words' underlying concepts are what cause most students to stumble or get turned off by school.

What they hear is akin to what Charlie Brown heard from his teacher: "Whawa wa waah wawahhh wa." The teacher talks and believes that he or she is speaking plain English, but the only students grasping what is being said are the those who already have the vocabulary and the background knowledge to make sense of it. The rest, although they speak English, do not really understand the words and their relationships. As a result, they may stop trying to make sense out of it.

My daughter Mercedes, who is in the sixth grade, came home from school the other day and enthusiastically told me that she had gotten a perfect score on a math paper. She was so exuberant because she had guessed the right answer for a problem about how many nuts a squirrel had remaining after gathering and eating some.

That didn't sound right to me. "Do you understand it now?" I asked her. She shook her head. She had tried to understand it, but it had confused her, so she stopped trying and simply guessed. I read the problem and immediately saw the solution. It was similar to the problems that I had worked out when I was her age -- you know, the bus-driver problem, for which you have to figure out how many people are on the bus after people get on and off at five stops.

It was in plain English, so why couldn't she understand it? I walked her through the way I would solve the addition and subtraction. It didn't help. I asked her some questions I thought would trigger some insight. She still didn't get it. So, finally, I helped her go through the process and, step by step, she figured it out. To me, the solution was obvious, but she had never done that kind of problem before and did not have the background knowledge, whereas I did.

Now, if I had been really smart, I would have told her about the bus problem and helped her solve that one, and then she could have easily solved the problem about the squirrel and the nuts. I would also bet that if this problem had been couched in a science lesson about squirrel behavior, my daughter would have been less confused about why a squirrel is gathering nuts in the first place and could have focused more on the math. This sort of presentation would also help a student who is learning English or who might have other special needs. But in any case, it is JPGT.

I continue my discussion on sheltered instruction and bring up a teaching system called Total Physical Response in my next post, but please share your thoughts here.

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