Trying on Learning
A man went into a new clothing store to buy a dress shirt. He was somewhat confident that his shirt size hadn't changed but he'd recently put on about 20 pounds and his collars had already fit a little tight. Knowing that he wanted something simple, he went over to men's section. He didn't see any dress shirts on the racks but instead found an entire display of shirts in clear plastic boxes with matching ties.
"I guess I'll get a new tie as well," he grumbled to himself. Though it wasn't his first choice, it seemed like it was his only choice. Finally settling on a pale yellow shirt and a sky blue tie with yellow diamonds, he started digging through the display. He found his current size and the next size up and grabbed one of each. He looked on the far wall of men's section, hoping to find a fitting room. Unable to locate one anywhere near him, he instead headed toward a clerk.
"Excuse me, this is my first time here. Where are the fitting rooms?" he asked a young woman with a name badge labeled Claire.
Claire looked surprised and replied, "Excuse me?"
"The fitting rooms. Where can I find one?" the man repeated patiently.
Claire looked sheepish and stated, "I'm sorry, sir. We don't have any fitting rooms here."
The man was dumbfounded. As Claire started turning away, he stopped her. "Well, I need to try these shirts on. I used to know my size but I think I might need to buy the next size up. How am I supposed to do that without a fitting room?" he asked in an increasingly frustrated tone.
"You'll just need to buy the shirt that you thinks fits you best. I'm sorry, but we have a strict policy of not trying clothes on. It damages the clothing and leaves the store with merchandise that cannot be sold," Claire said, obviously repeated a statement she'd made several times before.
"So I'm supposed to just buy a shirt and, if it doesn't fit, bring it back and return it for the right size? That's inconvenient," the man shouted, increasingly frustrated with the lack of service at this store.
"Yeah, about that sir. We don't accept returns, either, for the same reason. All sales are final," Claire said to the man's back as he stormed out of the store, buying nothing.
Most would agree that the scenario above is ridiculous. How in the world can someone properly size a shirt while it's locked inside a box? To make the correct match, customers have to try on the article. Even though most clothing manufacturers use a common sizing standard, most of us know that some clothes from certain stores tend to run a little big or a little small. That's why it's best to try on the clothing before purchasing it.
As educators, though, don't we often commit the same blunder in our classrooms?
Using the analogy above, students are the customers trying on the ideas we share with them. Though the tidbits of information may seem uniform and manageable to us, the teachers, to students they can often appear dubious. Student learning is greatly enhanced when they have the opportunity to try on the information, to see if it fits. This is done through processing tasks.
One of the simplest ways to process information is to talk about it. Think about how you understand something new that you've just learned. More than likely, you'll want to talk it out, asking questions, repeating statements, and gaining clarity. Someone has handed you a boxed piece of information and you want to unwrap it and try it on. Students are the exact same way. Teachers should intentionally create moments during a lesson where students can interact with the new content, chewing on it before swallowing it whole.
Besides talking about it, teachers can also provide practice opportunities. Practice opportunities are simple scenarios or situations that ask students to apply what they've just learned, not assignments for a grade. In the analogy above, the customer walked out when he learned that not only could he not try on the shirts, but there was also a no return policy. To him, the stakes were too high for guesswork.
When teachers spew out new information and immediately assess student learning with a graded task, they are creating the same high-stakes situation. Students are more comfortable trying on their new knowledge with tasks that are not graded. This creates an environment of safety so students can take academic risks without fearing a penalty.
Teachers, how do you let students try on their learning?