Sunday, February 15, 2009

Teach a New Skill Through Meaningful Content

Through my tutoring/coaching work with older kids, I have often encountered a resistance to using new ways to study and master understanding of new material. Some of this resistance arises out of a time crunch; kids feel pressured by the voluminous demands of homework. Many kids use the same old method of reading and re-reading to study for a test and don't think they have time to learn a new skill.
A recent encounter comes to mind. As I worked with a student, N. on note-taking last week, I encouraged him to use a mind map or graphic organizer to complement his natural visual style of learning. Of course my enthusiasm didn't mean much, as N's goal was to get his notes done in the least time possible so that he could continue his other homework. As he worked, outlining and defining the key words ( bolded in the text) as his guide, N. seemed to be writing verbatim from the book. He was receptive, however, to my suggestion of using some note-taking symbols like @ for at and w/ for with. I asked him the purpose for the notes and was surprised to hear that he can use them during the test. Ah, even more reason to use my strategy, I thought. So I went in.. for the sell.
As N. worked on his outline of terms, I mapped out the chapter in a mind map format, linking key ideas together and condensing definitions. I expected N. to be interested in my solution as I saw how it would be easier for him to use on the test. He glanced at my organizer, mumbled politely, "oh, that's interesting" and announced that he was "done with his notes." N. had absolutely no interest in learning a new tool. And knowing what I know about him, it was not the right time to press my agenda.
It was then time for me to quiz him on the material, an activity I hoped would illustrate the benefits of my note-taking strategy. N. did fairly well answering about the key ideas. Where he broke down, not surprisingly, was in how the ideas linked together to form the main idea of the chapter. He needed to refer back to the chapter for such answers and here was my opportunity to show him the benefit of different strategies. My student was less than thrilled as I demonstrated how my mind map gave me a more solid big picture of the information. I realized in that moment that he "wasn't thrilled" for a big reason. He didn't really care about the content information he was taking notes on.
As I look back with hindsight, I now know that I will need to teach the mind-map strategy using a subject that this student finds interesting. If I teach him how to mind map a story of a science project he has done, or a historical account in his life, or an interesting chapter of a book he is reading, I may hook him on the technique. Just as advertisers must convince consumers that a product will change their lives for the better, a teacher must show students how utilizing a new strategy will make his life easier, especially by shortening study time and increasing test scores.
Not only does using meaningful content help in engaging the student, so does using a strategy that incorporates and highlights their learning strengths. Each learner is unique, so we must not adopt a cookie cutter approach to study skills and strategies.
Teaching is surely a work in progress.

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