How do we move beyond simple retrieval and towards schematic connections?

Retrieval practice is in danger of lethal mutation.  Generate a map, make a spray chart, arrows and thinking bees and dotted lines everywhere! When we get to the heart of what retrieval practice is, and strip away the fancy words or terms or phrases, it’s really just making connections between what you knew before and what you’re learning now (which is at of the heart of cognitive load theory). In their latest book Symbiosis: The Curriculum and The Classroom, Kat Howard and Claire Hill note that a curriculum which help make those connections it’s about much more than just putting things in order. They write that, “it is about the relationships and connections between the [component parts],  and the deeper understanding that the sequence allows our students to access”. Knowledge and the curriculum is about transforming the seemingly abstract into the concrete, and  as I’ve expressed before, I think making those connections to prior knowledge is much more about the how rather than the what, (although what students learn obviously matters too).

One of my goals this past year was to be intentional about making conditions where students would be able to study important literature but also make connections to the world around them thereby hoping to emphasize what Willingham calls the  “deep structure” of knowledge. Reading this book and particularly this section about retrieval and sequencing reminded me of retrieval technique, or thinking routine, I attempted this year– Connect-Extended-Challenge from Richhart, Church, and Morrison’s Making Thinking Visible.

Just activate it!

In setting students up to study Of Mice and Men, I wanted to ensure students had a conceptual framework to study the text in the way I intended, largely through the prism of the lie of the American Dream and wealth inequality. For that reason, we read an article about the Great Recession of 2008 and how work has changed for Americans since then. I had a few reasons and aims in selecting this text:  

  1. The material was distant enough from the present where students would not feel like their life was on display
  2. The text was recent enough where it wouldn’t feel pointless to read it
  3. The knowledge was similar enough to what is currently happening with the pandemic that they could make a personal connection if they so choose,
  4. The text drew on (what I call) a knowledge bucket from the text we studied prior, A Raisin in the Sun

After reading the text, one of my process and analysis tasks was to follow exactly what was in the Connect-Extend-Challenge thinking routine directions, as shown below

The Connect-Extend-Challenge prompt from Making Thinking Visible

Many of the strategies in the text, including this one, tend to be very broad- what do you think? What do you wonder? what do you notice? And upon reflection, the task is clearly quite bare. While the thinking routines can and do serve to ‘activate prior knowledge”, they do so in a way that dd not specifically set students up for success with the specific goal I had for the lesson. It quite literally, is simply whatever they happened to notice.  

And what I noticed from student’s responses when I posed this task was okay, but not great. They made connections to their present lives and asked questions that related to current events, but that wasn’t the full scope of what I was aiming for in this task: students did not make any connections to the our essential question about the American Dream or the text we read before hand even though I intentionally sequenced the curriculum so that the texts would be centered in similar issues. Essentially, while I emphasized the deep knowledge in my planning, I didn’t give as clear a pathway for students to make those connections as I could have. 

The Power of “About”

Howard & Hill offer an important note to that end:

The approach we take in activating prior knowledge needs to pay service to the internal dynamics of our subjects,  which are complex, transformational and symbiotic. … we need to explicitly draw attention to where we have seen this vocabulary concept behavior or pattern before and expose its relationship to what we are teaching now this process involves a continuous ebbing and flowing between the simple and the esoteric rather than a mere layering of 1 building block on top of another

(Howard and Hill 64)

The explicit nature of how we help students make those schematic connections is made all the more important by Howard & Hill’s conclusion: it’s not as simple as just “activating knowledge”, or generating mind maps . But by taking a page from Adam Boxer’s “The Power of By”, we could adapt the thinking routine to more explicitly draw on the connections between the texts. Perhaps something like this:

It’s still a generic form of the routine, but already you can see the focus is shifted and narrowed by the simple addition of the word “about”. To consider a specific example: say, for instance you teach Chinua Achebe’s  Things Fall Apart in Y9 and study it through the lens of the tragic hero’, you could  then have them connect-extend-challenge when they study Macbeth again in Y11, or if they study Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Potentially like so:

I think this idea has some merit, and I’ll definitely be revisiting this idea as I get ready for my new school in the fall. What do you think?  

I’m on twitter @msjasminemn

Books and Stuff

1. Here’s a short explainer to the connect extended challenge.

2. Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel T. Willingham

3. Symbiosis: The Curriculum and the Classroom by Kat Howard and Claire Hill

4. Making Thinking Visible by Ron Richhart Mark Church, Karin Morrison

5. The title of this post is borrowed from a reflection question in Howard & Hill’s book.

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