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I went looking for a resource about “growth mindset” that I could use in class, because I am trying to convince my students that asking questions helps you get smarter (i.e. understand things better).  I appreciate Carol Dweck‘s work on her website and her book, but I don’t find them

  • concise enough,
  • clear enough, or
  • at an appropriate reading level for my students.

What I found was Diana Hestwood and Linda Russel’s presentation about “How Your Brain Learns and Remembers.”  The authors give permission for non-profit use by individual teachers.  It’s not perfect (I edited out the heading that says “You are naturally smart” … apologies to the authors) and it’s not completely in tune with some  of the neuroscience research I am hearing about lately, but it meets my criteria (above) and got the students thinking and talking.

Despite her warning that it’s not intended to stand on its own and that the teacher should lead a discussion, I’d rather poke my eyes out than stand in front of the group while reading full paragraphs off of slides. I found the full-sentence, full-paragraph “presentation” to work on its own just fine (CLARIFIED: I removed all the slides with yellow backgrounds, and ended at slide 48).  I printed it, gave it to the students, and asked them to turn in their responses to the questions embedded in it.  I’ll report back to them with some conversational feedback on their individual papers and some class time for people to raise their issues and questions — as usual, discussion after the students have tangled with the ideas a bit.

The students really went for it.  They turned in answers that were in their own words (a tough ask for this group) and full of inferences, as well as some personal revelations about their own (good and bad) learning experiences.  There were few questions (the presentation isn’t exactly intended to elicit them) but lots of positive buzz.  About half the class stayed late, into coffee break, so they could keep writing about their opinions of this way of thinking.  Several told me that “this was actually interesting!”  (*laugh*)  I also got one “I’m going to show this to my girlfriend” and one, not-quite-accusatory but clearly upset “I wish someone had told me this a long time ago.”  (*gulp*)

I found a lot to like in this presentation.  It’s a non-threatening presentation of some material that could easily become heavily technical and intimidating.  It’s short, and it’s got some humour.  It’s got TONS of points of comparison for circuits, electronic signal theory, even semiconductors (not a co-incidence, obviously).  Most importantly, it allows students to quickly develop causal thinking (e.g. practice causes synapses to widen).

Last year I found out in February that my students couldn’t consistently distinguish between a cause and a definition, and trying to promote that distinction while they were overloaded with circuit theory was just too much.  So this year I created a unit called “Thinking Like a Technician,” in which I introduced the thinking skills we would use in the context of everyday examples. Here’s the skill sheet — use the “full screen” button for a bigger and/or downloadable version.

It helped a bit, but meant that we spend a couple of weeks talking about roller coasters, cars, and musical instruments.  Next year, this is what we’ll use instead.  It’ll give us some shared vocabulary for talking about learning and improving — including why things that feel “easy” don’t always help, why things that feel “confusing” don’t mean you’re stupid, why “feeling” like you know it isn’t a good test of whether you can do it, and why I don’t accept “reviewing your notes” as one of the things you did to improve when you applied for reassessment.

But this will also give us a rich example of what a “model” is, why they are necessarily incomplete and at least a bit abstracted, and how they can help us make judgement calls.  Last year, I started talking about the “human brain model” around this time of the year (during a discussion of why “I’ll just remember the due date for that assignment” is not a strong inference).  That was the earliest I felt I could use the word “model” and have them know what I meant — they were familiar enough with the “circuits and electrons model” to understand what a model was and what it was for.  Next year I hope to use this tool to do it the other way around.

This morning, my students are reading about negative feedback and assessing the information provided using our standard rubric, which asks them to summarize and write their questions.  They’re finding it difficult to understand, almost too confusing to summarize.  I remind them that that’s ok — to summarize what they can, if they can.  I also tell them to write questions as they read, not to wait until the end of the passage to write them down.

Especially, I remind them that common cause of “getting stuck” is waiting until they understand the paragraph before writing down a question.  The problem, of course, is that you might not be able to understand the passage until after the question is answered.  Waiting for understanding before asking questions is like waiting to be fit before going to the gym.

I have this conversation with one student:

Student: “What I’m afraid of is, if I get partway through the paragraph and write a question, then I get later in the paragraph and write down another question, I’ll get to the end and realize, Oh, that’s what it meant, and I won’t need to ask that question any more.”

Me, joking: “So what happens then?  What horrible consequence ensues?”

Student: “I have to kill an eraser!”

Me: “No need to erase it.  Just write a note that says, ‘oh, now I get that… [whatever you just understood].  Have you ever noticed how often I do that on your quizzes and papers?  I write questions as I’m reading, then I cross them out when I get to the end and write a note that says “never mind, I see that you’ve answered the questions down here.”

Student: [noncommittal shrug, smiling, seems willing to try this]

I think that’s an ok way to get the point across.  I sit back down.  Then I need to be a smart ass.  I go back to chat with the same student.  “You know, from our conversation earlier, it sounded like you were saying, ‘I’m afraid that if I ask questions, I’ll get it.’ ”

My point, of course, is that asking questions, thinking through our questions, and clarifying to ourselves what question we mean to ask can be an important part of sense-making, and can even help us answer our own questions.  But that’s not how it comes across to the student.  Now he’s been backed into a corner, shown the absurdity of something he just said.  He scrambles to defend his statement.  “No, what I meant was that if I ask questions while I’m reading, I might get to the end and not understand my… [pause] I can’t put it into words.”

Notes to self

  • Students sometimes think they should delay asking questions until after they have understood something.  This causes deadlock and frustration.  Strategize about this with students.
  • Pointing out someone’s misconception, especially in the middle of class, does not usually result in a graceful acknowledge of “oh, yeah, that doesn’t really make sense, does it?”  It usually results in backpedaling and attempts to salvage the idea by re-interpreting, suggesting that I didn’t understand them, or saying “I understand it, I just can’t put it into words.”
  • The phrase “I understand it but I just can’t put it into words” is highly correlated with “You just pointed out a misconception to me and now I must save face by avoiding your point at all costs.”  Use this clue to improve.
  • Dear Mylène, you think you’re too highly evolved to use “elicit-confront-resolve” to address student misconceptions, but you’re mistaken.  It’s causing students to avoid their misconceptions instead of facing them. Find a way to do something else.

Is school like a grocery store of ideas?  Learning should result in understanding and action, but we’re not always clear about what kind.  There’s a big difference between understanding the organization of the grocery store layout, and understanding how to grow food yourself.

Photo of farm country landscape

I live in farm country.  Changes to zoning bylaws can draw protests of hundreds of people.  People know where and how and by whom their food is produced.  We also know how we affect the system — even if it’s only through our consumer choices and by-election votes.  We’re engaged with the production narrative of our food.

I recently finished reading Shop Class as Soul Craft (thanks, John).  I hope you’ll overlook the silly title because, though the book has its flaws, it’s also full of useful and refreshingly unusual ideas.  One of the less surprising ones is that we have a responsibility to know the production narrative of our stuff, as well as our food.  Knowing who makes what, and why, can take us past catchphrases (buy local) and teach us about class, agency, and democracy, if we let it. (Update: my review is on Goodreads)

I’ve been thinking about these because of a recent post on Educating Grace about what “sense-making” is, and why it sometimes diverges from understanding.  I don’t know the answer, but the question is becoming urgent in my classroom.  Brian Frank weighs in with a comment, and Grace responds with an even more perplexing post.

Here’s an excerpt from Brian’s comment:

Without knowing how to participate in the creation, telling, and changing of stories, learning science stories is no different than learning myths… The more we make our disciplines exclusionary, the more myth-making we do.

I haven’t fully wrapped my head around this.  It’s starting to sound as though what my classroom needs more of is the production narrative of our ideas.

The game field of infinite moves

Frank Noschese just posed some questions about “just trying something” in problem-solving, and why students seem to do it intuitively with video games but experience “problem-solving paralysis” in physics.  When I started writing my second long-ish comment I realized I’m preoccupied with this, and decided to post it here.

What if part of the difference is students’ reliance on brute force approaches?

In a game, which is a human-designed environment, there are a finite number of possible moves.  And if you think of typical gameplay mechanics, that number is often 3-4.  Run left, run right, jump.  Run right, jump, shoot.   Even if there are 10, they’re finite and predictable: if you run from here and jump from exactly this point, you will always end up at exactly that point.  They’re also largely repetitive from game to game.  No matter how weird the situation in which you find yourself, you know the solution is some permutation of run, jump, shoot.  If you keep trying you will eventually exhaust all the approaches.  It is possible to explore every point on the game field and try every move at every point — the brute force approach (whether this is necessary or even desirable is immaterial to my point).

In nature, being as it is a non-human-designed environment, there is an arbitrarily large number of possible moves.  If students surmise that “just trying things until something works” could take years and still might not exhaust all the approaches, well, they’re right.  In fact, this is an insight into science that we probably don’t give them enough credit for.

Now, realistically, they also know that their teacher is not demanding something impossible.  But being asked to choose from among infinite options, and not knowing how long you’re going to be expected to keep doing that, must make you feel pretty powerless.  I suspect that some students experience a physics experiment as an infinite playing field with infinite moves, of which every point must be explored.  Concluding that that’s pointless or impossible is, frankly, valid.  The problem here isn’t that they’re not applying their game-playing strategies to science; the problem is that they are. Other conclusions that would follow:

  • If there are infinite equally likely options, then whether you “win” depends on luck.  There is no point trying to get better at this since it is uncontrollable.
  • People who regularly win at an uncontrollable game must have some kind of  magic power (“smartness”) that is not available to others.

And yet, those of us on the other side of the lesson plan do walk into those kinds of situations.  We find them fun and challenging.   When I think about why I do, it’s because I’m sure of two things:

  • any failure at all will generate more information than I have
  • any new information will allow me to make better quality inferences about what to do next

I don’t experience the game space as an infinite playing field of which each point must be explored.  I experience it as an infinite playing field where it’s (almost) always possible to play “warmer-colder.”  I mine my failures for information about whether I’m getting closer to or farther away from the solution.  I’m comfortable with the idea that I will spend my time getting less wrong.  Since all failures contain this information, the process of attempting an experiment generally allows me to constrain it down to a manageable level.

My willingness to engage with these types of problems depends on a skill (extracting constraint info from failures), a belief (it is almost always possible to do this), and an attitude (“less wrong” is an honourable process that is worth being proud of, not an indictment of my intelligence) that I think my students don’t have.

Richard Louv makes a related point in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (my review and some quotes here).  He suggests that there are specific advantages to unstructured outdoor play that are not available otherwise — distinct from the advantages that are available from design-y play structures or in highly-interpreted walks on groomed trails.  Unstructured play brings us face to face with infinite possibility.  Maybe it builds some comfort and helps us develop mental and emotional strategies for not being immobilized by it?

I’m not sure how to check, and if I could, I’m not sure I’d know what to do about it.  I guess I’ll just try something, figure out a way to tell if it made things better or worse, then use that information to improve…

This will be my first September using the “skill-based” assessment and grading system.  So although I’ve used it for two semesters, I’ve never done the “sales pitch” to an incoming class.  For the last two weeks I’ve been in a fog, trying to figure out how to introduce so many (probably foreign) ideas at once, to a bunch of people I didn’t know and who have no particular reason to trust me (yet).  It seemed like every idea depended on every other idea, so nothing could go first.

Dan Goldner proposed an elegant solution: have them assess me.  It gives me a chance to show (not tell) what assessment and grading will look like.  At the same time, it exposes my philosophy about teaching and learning, introduces some of the concepts that will run through our semester (i.e. “make mistakes understandable”), and opens a conversation about what good teaching is.  I plan to scaffold it with a survey about their learning experiences and goals.

But for now, I’ve got a very rough draft of what a skill sheet would look like if it was for assessing me, not a student.  Think I’m way off base?  Wrong emphasis, missed something important, need to find more student-friendly language?  I hope you’ll let me know.

I’m on a jag about what confusion is and whether it’s necessary for learning.  My latest Gordian knot is about how confusion relates to pseudoteaching.

It seems that some condition of readiness has to happen before students can internalize an idea.  Obviously they will need some background knowledge, and basics like enough sleep, etc.  But even when my students have the material and social and intellectual conditions for learning, it often seems like there’s something missing.  To improve my ability to promote that readiness, I have to figure out what the heck it is.  I’m wondering if confusion is part of the answer.

Dan Goldner writes that students must have “prepared a space in their brain for new knowledge to fit into” — that they must have found some questions that they care about.

Grace points to the need for conflict in a good story.  She advocates creating a non-threatening “knowledge gap” using either cognitive dissonance or curiosity.

Dan Meyer, obviously, has made it an art form.  He calls it “perplexity” and distinguishes it from confusion (or sometimes describes it as a highly fruitful kind of confusion). If I’m reading it right, perplexity = conflict + caring about the outcome.

Rhett Allain has a great post about the “swamp of confusion” (go look — the map illustration is worth it).  He points out that a lifetime of pseudoteaching can convince students that working through confusion is impossible, or that teachers design courses to go around confusion, so that if you feel confused, either the teacher is incompetent, or you did something wrong.  He also pulls out some of the assumptions about “smartness” that people often hold about confusion: “If this IS indeed the way to go, I must be dumb or I wouldn’t be confused.”

Finally, the word “confusion” comes up in Derek Muller’s points about using videos to present misconceptions about science (videos that explained the “right answers” were clear but ineffective; videos that included common misconceptions were confusing but effective).

What I get in my classroom, which often gets called confusion, is conflict + anger.  Or possibly conflict + fear, or conflict + not caring (it’s possible that “not caring” is made out of anger, fear, and/or fatigue).  Just a guess: students get angry when they think I’ve created conflict that is unnecessary, or when they think I’ve created it carelessly.  These are worth thinking about.  Conflict can be threatening or exhausting.  Have I created the right conflict?  Is my specific method of creating conflict going to improve our learning, or did I use videos/whiteboards/particle accelerators because I think they’re fun and cool and make me look like a “with it” teacher?

Given that my students use the word “confusion” for a lot of situations where the next move is not immediately clear, I bet they would call all of these things confusion.

Which ones encourage learning?  Are any of them necessary?  Next year, I think I will ask students to make a note in their skills folder (portfolio-like thing with loose-leaf in it) to record confusions, so we can get a better grip on it.

In the meantime, I’m not having trouble with intellectual conflict.  By all the accounts above, the conflict is not just an inevitable side-effect but one of the main components of learning.  We’ve got lots of it to go around, and I hope that opening a conversation about it earlier in the semester will help students understand it as part of learning. Bringing to light our conflicts is part of what allows us to transform them into new understanding.

That leaves me with the “non-threatening” part, the “caring enough about the outcome to want to resolve it” part, and the “skills for dealing with it” part.

I attended a webinar today about the pros and cons of flipped classrooms (i.e. information gathering such as video lectures or textbook-reading happen at home; experimenting, exploring, and inquiring happen in class).  There was lots of great discussion and food for thought.  Several presenters brought up this important point: A video lecture is still a lecture.  Sure, it has some advantages.  But why are we (video) lecturing at all?  Lectures were born in the days when only one person owned a copy of the book.  If you wanted to know what was in it, they would read it to you.  In medieval Latin (the language of European scholars pre-Gutenburg), lecture means “to read.”

This alone is not sufficient evidence to either keep or get rid of lectures.  Nowadays, the word “lecture” doesn’t always mean “reading the book at you.” Sometimes it means “storytelling,”  sometimes it means “asking short questions of one student at a time,” sometimes it means “direct instruction,” sometimes it means “modelling my work or my thinking,” sometimes it means “teacher talking, broken occasionally by outbursts of student discussion.”  I’m not interested in “are these useful tools.”  Of course they are.  My question is, “are these the best tools for my purpose.”  The answer to that is more difficult, also more dependent on my purposes and my students.

There are a few topics where I don’t think lecturing is the best tool for my purpose, but I do it anyway (the inner workings of a P-N junction, for example).  If I’m going to lecture, a 5-min video buys me at least an hour, considering that it would take me 15-20 min in class, plus repetition for students who were absent or needed to go over it again.  The reason I do it, just as Jerrid Kruse mentions, isn’t that I think it’s ideal; it’s that I haven’t found a suitable collection of examples or a good way to guide a discovery process.  So ultimately, the PD I need isn’t a lecture about why I should move away from lectures; it’s a guided exploration where I can explore my intractable problems with some guidance (inquiry-discover-model-constructivist-project-engaging-self-directedness: not just for students anymore).  Somehow, we need to create that course.

Working on reading comprehension has taught me lots about how my students see text, or don’t see it.  It also taught me about how I see it.

I noticed that my students couldn’t use their textbook to help them solve problems.  I didn’t know how to teach them to do that, so I set out to find out.  I didn’t understand what my students didn’t know, so I asked them.  They couldn’t tell me, but their answers helped me ask different questions, which led me to other resources. I reviewed books, videos, blog posts, and research websites.  When I boiled down the results and applied them to my classroom, here’s what I got:

  • Choose a purpose
  • Find the confusion
  • Check for mental pictures/descriptions
  • Use structural clues
  • Make connections to what you already know
  • Ask questions/make inferences

Maybe you got the irony already, but it took me two months: after looking for the answers from my students, from blogs, videos, and etc, the list I distilled was a summary of the very process I had used to find the list.  You see, those things are what I was doing while reading, watching, listening.  It turns out that I do them when I’m having a face-to-face conversation, when I’m experimenting with new equipment, when I’m inspecting a solder joint, and when I’m troubleshooting a circuit.  In other words, I do the same things regardless of whether I’m reading, listening, watching, or inquiring.  Can I go so far as to say that, to me, even a lecture is an inquiry activity? These aren’t techniques for reading comprehension.  They’re techniques for comprehension.

While I was working away on this post, John Burk beat me to it, asking how we can teach students to learn from as many formats as possible.  I’m thinking, maybe these techniques can improve our ability to see what we’re looking at, hear what we’re listening to… regardless of the medium.

That got me thinking about how I learn new things when there’s no one around to teach me.  Let’s choose a suitably complex goal like, say, learning how to teach (I left a skilled trade to do this, so keep in mind that I don’t have a B.Ed. or any other formal teacher training).  I listen to lectures (videos and podcasts).  I read text (research papers, books, blogs).  Lots of text (more blogs).  I write.  I practise.  I experiment.  Sometimes I make things up that I don’t have words for.  Sometimes I learn a bunch of new words and try to apply them.

No teacher decides for me whether I should be introduced to a new idea via a screencast or an inquiry activity.  And all along the way, I evaluate.  Which media worked best for which goal?  How do I know?  What will I do next time I’m in that situation?   If I’m serious about helping my students become independent learners, I eventually have to stop doing this for them.

What’s my role as a teacher in all of this? So far, I’ve come up with these:

  1. Helping my students use the techniques above and adapt them to their own goals, with any media they have available.
  2. Removing roadblocks in their use of these techniques.
  3. Helping them evaluate their ability to apply these techniques to different media.
  4. Supporting them in creating the media they need.

I’ve got a few ideas about #1, #2, and #3.  But I think #4 might be the most important one.


For Using Comprehension Techniques

Jerrid Kruse contributes some great comprehension questions

The West Virginia Dept. of Ed.’s Keys to Comprehension

For Removing Roadblocks

Bret Victor’s suggestion for text that is less “information to be consumed,” more “environment to think in.”

When evaluating which medium to use for any given activity, try asking, how will this medium make it easier to use the techniques above?  How will this medium make it harder?

For Why This Matters

From the ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, a 2011 review of research that asks, are we making our students Too Dumb for Complex Texts?

For Creating Our Own Media

Bret Victor promises, someday, to publish his JavaScript library so we can all create our own explorable explanations.

Until then, I’m thinking a lot about who gets to design media, and who merely fills them with content.  Stay tuned.

My students have often been at a loss to tell me what caused them to become confused.  And I was at a loss about how to help them.  How could someone not know what caused their confusion?  It resulted in nonsense conversations. Me: “Which part do you find confusing?”  Student: “All of it!”  Me, obnoxiously reading from the beginning of the paragraph: “The.  Is that word confusing?” (Put out the torches, I didn’t actually do this.  I just thought it exasperatedly).  Obviously, I needed help.

If you’ve read the last few posts, you know that I spent the spring intersession trying to learn about teaching “technical reading.” In the third week of our class meetings, I decided to ask some questions about confusion.

Once again I that found Cris Tovani’s book Do I Really Have to Teach Reading had anticipated my problem.  She writes quite a bit about detecting confusion, suggesting that readers need to become aware of the “video camera in your head” and the “voices in your head.”  These show a picture of what you’re reading about, comment on the reading, agree or disagree with the author, etc.  It never occurred to me that some people don’t have them, or don’t realize they are part of understanding.

In conversation with friends and other teachers, I’ve discovered that not everyone has a camera, or that there might be several voices (the one that reads the words, the one that tries to convince you to make pie instead of reading, etc.).  I’m interpreting Tovani’s point in this way: students must learn to notice the sensory reactions they have when they read, to create them if they’re not there and, most importantly, to notice the moment when they turn off.  It doesn’t matter which one you use, or if you have something else altogether: when it stops, that’s the sign of confusion setting in.

The Exercise

To help people become aware of this, Tovani proposes this exercise: choose a short piece of text and make a photocopy for each student.  Students must underline every single word.  They underline in pen if they could explain that word to the class, and in pencil if they don’t know the word or aren’t sure they could explain the concept in the given context.

I asked students to read the passage twice.  Once at a “skimming” pace, with the goal of stating the main idea, and once at a “full comprehension” pace, with the goal of discovering which parts were confusing and which were not.  And we timed ourselves.

I went first.  I explained that we would be using these ideas to help troubleshoot confusion.  I talked a bit about the video projector in my head, the voices in my head, what I see and hear when I’m reading.  The students had fun laughing and making fun of me for “hearing voices,” and a few contributed examples of ways that they use their “mind’s eye” or “mind’s ear” when they’re reading.  I asked them to keep those ideas in mind and try to notice which ones were going on while we worked on today’s reading exercise.

I projected the chapter introduction, and modelled the “skimming for main ideas” process.

  1. Students start timing
  2. I read the text out loud
  3. I interrupt my reading to speak out loud any thoughts that I think might point me toward the main idea
  4. I write what I think is the main idea
  5. Students stop their stopwatches

After a brief conversation about whether they agreed with my main idea, I read the same section again, this time underlining each word in either green or red, like so:

  1. Students start timing
  2. I read slowly, stopping after each word or phrase to report whether I could explain it to the class (“I know that word, it means ‘slanted.’  I’ll mark that in green.  Hm.  What does ‘coefficient’ mean in this context?  I’m not sure what they’re measuring the coefficient of.  I’ll leave that in red.”)
  3. I underline each word or phrase in red or green, depending on my conclusion about my understanding
  4. I get to the end
  5. Students stop their stopwatches.

Ok, so obviously I know what the intro to the chapter means.  I modeled the degree of understanding I had when it was new to me, just a few weeks ago.

Then I asked for comments.  We talked a bit about how much I had to slow down when I was checking my understanding of each word (they calculated my “personal slow-down rate” at 2.3 — I have to spend 2.3 times as long when reading each word than when skimming).  The comment that got the class nodding was “reading this way made you MORE confused.”

“In a way.” I asked them, “Do you think that reading this material erased knowledge that used to be in my head?”  They didn’t seem to think this was true, and it was the entry point into a conversation about defining and classifying confusion (a post for another day).  I told them I felt that the confusion had been in my head all along; I had just never noticed it before because I wasn’t looking for it.

Several students wanted to speculate about the meanings of the ideas I claimed not to fully understand.  I agreed with them that I could figure out all the words, but explained that I still underlined them in red because I wasn’t completely sure how they related to the chapter.  I was trying to open the idea that there are kinds of confusion — from “I don’t know this word” to “I know these words but I don’t see why this is so important.”  I also reminded them that this exercise was about finding questions, and that we would come back for the answers.  Several students volunteered that “you’re not done reading this — you’re just starting.”

Then I gave them two passages to try for themselves.  One was “just right” for most students: unfamiliar enough to be challenging, but scaffolded by previous units enough for them to figure if out (shown below).  The second passage (see the top of this post) had so much obscure vocabulary in it that I was expecting “I don’t know” to be the main idea.


It took about 20 minutes for the class to finish.  I was expecting them to read more quickly when skimming and more slowly when underlining.  It turned out that that was only true for the first passage.  The second passage was so difficult that it was easy to find the words they didn’t know: they underlined most of the paragraph.  Trying to get a main idea, however, took several long minutes of brow-furrowing.  No one gave up, surprisingly, and everyone got something out of it.

We talked about how it felt to do this. (“Hard.”) The comment that stuck in my head was “When I underlined, I was surprised how many words I hadn’t even seen the first time.


No wonder they don’t know where the confusion starts: they literally don’t see the parts that cause the confusion.

We talked about when you should use which strategy.  “It depends whether the test is open-book or closed book.”  “It depends whether you’re studying for a test or just reviewing for class.”

A really interesting exchange happened like this:

Student: “It depends whether I understand it or not.  I only go back and slow down if I don’t understand it when I skim it.”

Me: “How do you decide whether you understand it if your brain is skipping over the parts you don’t understand?”

Student: “…”

I wouldn’t want to do this exercise every day because it’s hard on the brain.  But it opened up some great conversations about reading and confusion — I’ll post the reading comprehension summary next, and what we’ve learned so far about confusion after that.

Jason Buell wrote a comment about this really interesting video on reading comprehension a few days ago.

It really made me think, and I had mixed reactions to it, which is why I didn’t respond right away.  I like the point that meaning is something we make.  The video, though, seems to have a bit of an axe to grind at the end. I had no idea that American elementary school classrooms spend that much time on reading comprehension (I wonder if it’s the same in Canada?).

Here’s where I diverge from the video’s viewpoint: “if you don’t have prior knowledge of cricket, no strategy is going to help you” understand a passage about cricket.  By this logic, I should not expect my students to read any material in the textbook that they don’t already know.  But why should that be?  I expect them to watch screencasts and have conversations about things they don’t already know.  My students seem to perceive reading differently.

To extend the analogy, I expect my students to see a passage of text they don’t understand, look for a chapter heading, notice that it is “Cricket”, look up cricket in the glossary or maybe on Wikipedia, and make sense of at least the first paragraph (from the video):

  • it’s a sport
  • played in teams
  • uses balls
  • keeps score
  • popular in England
  • and patience is valued


My hopes for student reading of technical material are that they would

  • read at least the introduction and summary
  • recognize that reading the intro and summary is a useful idea
  • take note of which words they don’t know
  • put sticky notes pointing to sentences that threw them off
  • notice the moment where they went from understanding to not-understanding, and make a mark in the book, and ask a question about it
  • notice when they are making inferences, make a note of those, and be sure to double-check them
  • do this with patience and compassion for themselves, and not write themselves off as stupid just because sounding out the words didn’t instantly make them make sense


If my students have already been taught how to strategize about their reading, many of them don’t show it — and don’t know it. It’s likely that, if I pointed to a page and ordered them to find the main idea, they could.  But if they never actually do this of their own volition, because they can’t recognize why or when to do it… well I guess that’s what they call pseudoteaching.  Which explains why I find the need start from the beginning.  Also explains why I’m afraid I’ll fall prey to the same booby-trap.