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Winter 2009/2010

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National Geographic Society logo "Geo Learning"
A column by Daniel C. Edelson,
Vice President for Education, National Geographic Society

The Importance of Innovation in Teaching

photoGiving people an image of what learning could be like is a really important part of improving education. Students, teachers, administrators, parents, policy makers, and community members have remarkably similar views of what education looks like, and those views have not changed much since we were in school.

Despite the fact that the dominant image is in conflict with much of what we know about how children and adolescents learn best, it is deeply ingrained in our culture. It is so ingrained that approaches to education that differ from this model are typically met with resistance by participants and stakeholders.

If you want to make students and teachers uncomfortable, ask them to work in a configuration that goes against convention. Ask most American high school students to sit in a circle or to share their work with others in small groups, and they will squirm with discomfort. Ask most American principals to evaluate the quality of teaching and learning in a classroom in which students are moving around the classroom, talking and arguing, and making messes, and they will conclude that the teacher is unable to control the students and that learning is being undermined by the disorder. And yet, these are precisely the kinds of conditions that have been shown to maximize learning.

click to enlarge
Students using crayons and a map of the world can draw their best guesses of what the distribution of temperatures is like all around the world in the month of July. This activity can be engaging to students, giving them a chance to draw on what they know in a way that makes them curious about what they don't know. This lesson is based on research that says that if students are asked to articulate their current understanding of a phenomenon before they are taught something new about it, then they learn the new material more effectively because they can connect it to their existing understanding.

Along with traditional views about the conditions that lead to learning, most of us carry around traditional views about what constitutes learning. Most of us were educated in a system that focused very heavily on learning facts, and we still tend to associate the state of being well-educated with knowing a lot of facts. Even as we say that 21st-century citizens and workers need to be able to think critically, solve complex problems, and work in teams, we assess the progress of students in terms of what they know.

If we are serious about educating a generation of geo-literate citizens, it is important that we break down our own out-of-date views about learning and replace them with new images of how we should educate young people and what kind of knowledge and skills we should be aiming for. Here's an example.

Consider the following two descriptions of how teachers might teach the first day of a unit on climate for eighth graders. (These are fictionalized composites based on real teachers and students.)

In one classroom, Ms. Brown projects several maps displaying global distribution of temperatures at different times of year and asks her students to identify and discuss interesting patterns.

In her classroom, Ms. Scarlet gives each of her students six crayons and a map of the world displaying continent outlines. She asks them to draw their best guess of what the distribution of temperatures is like all around the world in the month of July.

The day before, when Ms. Scarlet told Ms. Brown about this activity, Ms. Brown warned her she was making a big mistake. Ms. Brown told Ms. Scarlet that her eighth graders will get frustrated because they won't know enough to color the map in. Worse, she argued, the students are likely to draw things that are incorrect, and it's dangerous to have students do things like that if you won't be able to correct them.

At the beginning of her lesson, Ms. Scarlet grew concerned that Ms. Brown had been right. Even though they were excited about getting crayons, her students were slow to start drawing, and Ms. Scarlet saw them looking nervously at each other's papers. After a few minutes, though, they became very engaged in the temperature-drawing activity. In fact, she only wanted them to spend 5 minutes drawing their temperature maps so she could begin discussing them, but her students insisted on taking 10. When she asked them what they drew and why, two-thirds of the students' hands shot up. Over the course of the discussion, several students shouted questions out of turn about what the "real" temperatures were and why temperatures are different from place to place. At the end of the discussion, in which students voiced many thoughts—some right and some wrong—about the factors that influence temperature, they practically begged her to show them a map of global temperature distributions.

In Ms. Brown's class, on the other hand, the lesson was very different. After Ms. Brown put her global temperature maps on the projector, she had to ask three different prompting questions about what they saw in the map and wait a full 30 seconds—an eternity in front of a classroom—until one student reluctantly raised her hand and said, "It looks like it's warmer closer to the equator." After a few more minutes of discussion, in which a handful of students each identified a pattern, Ms. Brown instructed them to take out their books and start reading about the causes of temperature variation.

Ms. Scarlet's approach made Ms. Brown uncomfortable. She didn't like the unfamiliar practice of asking students to do a task before they'd been taught to do it. It even made the students uncomfortable at first. They aren't used to speculating, and Ms. Scarlet had to reassure them that they wouldn't be graded on their maps or even asked to hand them in.

However, in the end, Ms. Scarlet's activity was much more engaging to students, and it achieved its goal more effectively than Ms. Brown's. Both activities were intended to get students to notice patterns in global temperature and develop interest in the sources of those patterns. Ms. Brown's assumed that students would be naturally motivated to notice differences and be curious about them. Ms. Scarlet's recognized that they wouldn't be, and it engaged them in an activity in which they had to draw on what they knew in a way that made them curious about what they didn't know. Ms. Scarlet's lesson is also based on research that says that if you ask students to articulate their current understanding of a phenomenon before you teach them something new about it, they learn the new material more effectively because they can connect it to their existing understanding. Ms. Brown was afraid the map-drawing activity might reinforce a student's misconception, but in fact, the reverse is true. By eliciting students' misconceptions, a teacher increases the likelihood that they will replace the old in their memories with the new.

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