Stop Starting Small!


My son is in his first year of college, taking Chemistry 111 as an engineering science major. Smart kid, most days. He was a little underwhelmed by his first class. The chem prof began class by writing on the board: “1 meter = 1000 centimeters.”

“Dad, do you have any idea how many times I’ve done that?” my son complained.

A review of the metric system struck my son as a bit too basic for the first day of college for a future engineer. Apparently, in forming his objections this otherwise intelligent young man failed to consider when one of the basic principles of schooling: you must always master the basics before moving on to more complex concepts. The metric system is as basic to chemistry as atoms and test tubes.

Good teaching starts with the basics. Always begin a unit by defining vocabulary words. It’s impossible to move forward until we conquer the basics.

(Clunk…other shoe drops.)

I hate that kind of teaching.

I believe in starting at the highest levels of thinking, never the lowest. Create something. Solve something. Learn the basics along the way.

Consider this example: suppose you wanted to build a deck onto your house as a DIY project. Where would you begin? Most folks would start by designing their deck. They would sketch their plans; then they would start measuring. They might make more detailed sketches; then they would calculate materials and cost.

Few people would start a DIY project by taking a Home Depot course on how to hold a hammer. If you started any DIY project at that level of the basics, you would never complete anything. You would never engage in the highest level of creative thinking. You would never have a new deck.

Everyone who has ever completed a DIY project understands that you learn new and valuable skills along the way. You learn the basics as you create, not before you create. If you want to learn a heap of building trades, fix your house up to go on the market and do all the work yourself. You will learn everything from HVAC to plumbing, from carpentry to landscaping.

Several years ago I ran a workshop on writing learning objectives in lesson plans. As an activity, I asked teachers working in small groups to create objectives for an imaginary character education unit. Nearly all the groups insisted on first writing objectives at the lowest end of Bloom’s taxonomy. The teachers argued vehemently that they couldn’t teach lessons about empathy or respect until students first copied the definitions of those terms out of the dictionary.

There is no reason students need to learn the word for a thing before they learn about the thing. Words are not things. For example, you don’t need to know that the comfy thing in the living room with all the pillows is called a couch, or a sofa, before you lie down on it to take a nap. Who cares what it’s called whey you need a nap?

Yet, I couldn’t convince those teachers that students could grasp the concept of empathy before they learned the word itself. They were too entrenched in their belief.

I wish all teachers understood this: humans are driven by a need to create, and the need to create is a powerful force to drive learning.

Take a moment to consider the architects, stone cutters, masons, artists and laborers who created the pyramids and the great cities of ancient Egypt. What must they have learned in the process of creating extraordinary structures the likes of which the world had never seen before? Architects still study the methods of those ancient builders.

ELA teachers often feel the need to “front load” students with content knowledge before reading a story or novel. On the surface, it makes sense to build background knowledge about the French Revolution before reading A Tale of Two Cities or about the Holocaust before reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I have done this myself.

And I was wrong.

Rather than front loading background knowledge, I should have modeled curiosity and inquiry from my students. I should have shown them how to identify historical references and allusions and provided my classes with the opportunity to develop their questions, then research the answers.

Granted, this approach would have radically slowed down my Anne Frank unit. However, I would have greatly enriched the learning.

The opening pages of To Kill a Mockingbird contain references to the time the story takes place. A teacher launching a novel study should assign the first chapter and ask students to generate a list of questions about the setting. The students should then use the questions to guide their inquiry into the Great Depression. They may not learn everything, but what they learn will be meaningful.

No two words mean more for learning than create and discover.