Why Don’t We Teach Sequencing Skills? It’s an Essential Higher-Order Thinking Strategy

We spend a lot of time in school getting students to learn sequential information – timelines, progressions, life cycle of a moth, steps for how to. Typically the teacher teaches the student the sequence and the student correctly identifies the sequence for teacher on the test. Thus we treat a sequence as a ordered collection of facts to be learned, not as a thinking process for students to use.  This memorization reduces the student's "mastery" of the chronology to lower order thinking. I was guilty of this when I first started teaching history "Can someone give me two causes and three results of WWII?" 

When students are asked to observe a process and develop a sequence they have an opportunity to use a full spectrum of higher-order thinking skills – they must recognize patterns (analyze), determine causality (evaluate) and then decide how they would communicate what they've learned to others (create). Sequencing can be taught across the curriculum at a variety of grade levels – we simply have to ask the students to observe and do the thinking.

There is some interesting research that demonstrates that students have trouble when asked to develop sequences. It comes from the Program for International Student Assessment.  PISA is an assessment (begun in 2000) that focuses on 15-year-olds' capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. PISA studied students in 41 countries and assessed how well prepared students are for life beyond the classroom by focusing on the application of knowledge and skills to problems with a real-life context. For more examples of PISA questions and data see my blog post.

Sample sequencing problem from PISA 2003.

The Hobson High School library has a simple system for lending books: for staff members the loan period is 28 days, and for students the loan period is 7 days. The following is a decision tree diagram showing this simple system:


The Greenwood High School has a similar, but more complex library lending system:
All publications classified as “Reserved” have a loan period of 2 days.
For books (not including magazines) that are not on the reserved list, the loan period is 28 days for staff, and 14 days for students. For magazines that are not on the reserved list, the loan period is 7 days for everyone.
Persons with any overdue items are not allowed to borrow anything. 

Develop a decision tree diagram for the Greenwood High School Library system so that an automated checking system can be designed to deal with book and magazine loans at the library.  Your checking system should be as efficient as possible (i.e. it should have the least number of checking steps). Note that each checking step should have only two outcomes and the outcomes should be labeled appropriately (e.g. “Yes” and “No”).

The student results were rated on a rubric scale.  Only 13.5% of US students were able correctly answered the question. Their international 15-year-old peers didn't fare much better – 14.3% of them answered correctly. 

The correct response looked something like this.


Student Teacher Evaluation 1971

I recently found my student teacher evaluation. It’s nearly thirty-eight years old – an interesting prediction about what would eventually emerge as my teaching style. At the time, I was a senior at Hartwick College in Oneonta NY. I student taught at very small rural school in South New Berlin NY. It was a K-12 central school of about 300 students with a senior class of about a dozen.  You can download my first evaluation here. (348KB pdf)  
I’ve included a few comments from my college supervisor:

You have no problem with class control when you wanted it. – I suggest you get it as soon as you are ready to start.
Learning cannot go on to any great extent, if half the students are talking.

And I especially like this one – what an image!

Climb on them and let them know what you expect.

[Ironically, I was teaching a lesson on Ghandi and civil disobedience!]
I suspect my college supervisor was hoping to see a well-organized lecture with attentive students busy taking notes. At the time, I was just stumbling along trying to figure out how to engage my kid in their learning. After teaching few years,  I realized it involved shifting my role from information dispenser to designer of learning environment. For example, I had to learn not to reply to every student response during a whole group discussion. That teacher-dominated discussion was only teaching my students that none of their comments had any value, until I “approved” them. As more experienced teacher, my classes were filled with student discussion – the difference was, I had well-planned formats that encouraged all students to reflect and contribute. Unlike my college supervisor, I do believe learning can go on with all the students talking!
BTW: I did see one positive in my student teacher evaluation. In the space for “Chalkboard Work.” He had written “used overhead.”  Guess I was into cutting-edge technology from the earliest days of my career.

Teaching Innovation

04edlife.fruit.190 Innovation – an idea put to work – stands at the pinnacle of higher-order thinking. It begins with a firm grasp of the basics. Then the innovator must continue up through Bloom's taxonomy of thinking skills to analyze patterns and needs, evaluate alternatives and finally create something to resolve to the problem. Creating is nothing more than a new combination of existing components.

The New York Times has devoted much of this week's "Education Life" (1/3/09) to showcase 23 innovative ideas generated by students. The same issues details a number of college course on entrepreneurship – "Dreamers and Doers." 

<<< The Elizabowl’s shape shifts to hold more or fewer fruits. The idea is to separate fruits into individual compartments to retard spoilage. Photo by by Sarah O'Brien (it's inventor)

Let's hope this focus on innovation and sustainability can extend down to K-12 education. Kids are getting plenty of time with the basics – when do they get to create something original with them?  Seems more valuable and engaging than test prep.


Visual Literacy: How Do Your Students Share Their Thinking?

The perceived audience / purpose for most student work is the teacher / because it was assigned. Learning becomes more meaningful when students are given chances to share their thinking with more authenticity. It's as simple as adding an audience to an assignment. Example: "How would you explain your solution to younger students?" This also opens the door to more relevant self evaluation. "Did my presentation suit my audience and purpose?"

Visual literacy is the ability to evaluate, apply, or create conceptual visual representations. Visual-Literacy.org has assembled a collection of visualizations in as a periodic table. Mouse over each element and a sample pops up. The examples range from simple to complex and they provide a vast array of approaches beyond the overused Venn diagram or T-chart. 

A pdf of the table is also available. On another page you can group the visualization methods by your criteria and  find background information for a specific visualization method via Google Images and Wikipedia

Teacher Workshop Evaluation of the Year

As my presentation year draws to close I have to look back on one teacher's evaluation of my workshop that beats them all. The teacher wrote: 

I think the most valuable thing I got out of this was to change the perception of my job from "information dispenser to "designer of learning environments." I really enjoyed it. I usually get  online to look for jobs in other fields during inservice, but I didn't do that once during your workshop. I am actually exited about using this information.

As a 25+ year teacher who sat through many dull inservice workshops, I know what it's like to feel that PD is a waste of time (I usually brought papers to grade.) My nonnegotiable rule is that quality staff development should model what you expect to see in the classroom. "Sit and get PD" emulates what you don't want to see in the classroom. It is essential that the presenter models the instructional technique they are advocating, thus giving the teacher attendees the chance to both experience the technique (as student) and reflect on its use (as educator).

BTW – Here's the basic form I use for workshop evaluations. Pappas-evaluation (68 KB pdf) It usually provide very useful feedback. I might add,  it's been developed over the years with input from teachers who were invited to not only evaluate the workshop, but the feedback form. (Special thanks to Stephanie Malin, Beaverton OR, Literacy Coach for her valuable input on the evaluation prompts.)