Sweating the Small Stuff: showing students how is sometimes good!

“Just Show Me How, OK?”

Sometimes clear, direct instruction really is the ticket!

Did you ever want to know how to do something and the person helping you, the teacher-like person, wanted you to figure it out on your own? Maybe they thought that you should already have mastered the skill or maybe there were a number of ways to complete the task and they wanted to provide you with some choice. Often, there is a sense (on the part of teachers) that we all learn best when we struggle a bit and work to figure it out. But, everything?

Someone showed me how to get the ticket I needed this summer on the Denver A line from the airport to the city. That was what I needed. They didn’t fold their arms and raise their eyebrows at me or say, “how do you think it works?” or “there are a number of ways you could get to the city.”

I understand that we don’t want to simply pour content into the brains of our students as though they were empty vessels, but sometimes clear and direct instruction really is what is needed, at least the option for that kind of instruction.

Of course, we all learn from trying and failing and trying again. Think about riding a bike. Someone may show us and tell us how, but ultimately we need to figure it out by doing it. In my case, my brother put me on his bike on the top of our hill and pushed me. I fell. It was not a good experience, but I was mad enough at my brother that I vowed to learn despite his interference.

Tenth grade English students at my school write a research paper in the fall. It is a persuasive essay. Teachers walk students through the process of selecting a topic, locating information, developing a thesis statement, gathering reliable sources, and writing. Students must also understand and use three main persuasive elements: logos, ethos, and pathos. In addition, counter arguments need to be addressed. It is a complex and overwhelming process for many of the students as there are multiple aspects to writing a good persuasive essay.

That is why I think that showing students one clear way to cite their sources in MLA format is a good idea. Let them veer from that method once they demonstrate mastery but give them something to start, some clear procedure. Prior to Noodletools and Easybib, students learned how to cite in MLA format source-by-source with a print guide. The teacher and the librarian would help the students learn how to do this starting with books and magazine articles. Sources were checked for accuracy and students needed to correct errors. Done.

Creating a bibliography in MLA format is not one of the higher order thinking skills in the research process. There is little benefit, learning wise, in asking students to do this in any way they would like and not actually demonstrating one clear way to do it, or even having the students demonstrate mastery prior to letting them at it.

Barriers to the direct instruction approach in this instance include:

  • Time. There is limited classroom time to review all of the steps in the research process without bogging down the experience so severely that students are done before they even begin (beating a dead horse).
  • Prior experience. This is related to time. Many students have cited sources previously using a method that they prefer, so teachers do not want to waste students’ time reviewing.
  • Wanting to offer choice. This is an area where it is easy to offer students a choice. Teachers clarify expectations about the end result and let the students decide how to get there. The problem is that a number of the students do a bad job at the last minute because they do not understand how to do it and why it is important to do.

Alex Ames, an English teacher at Waunakee High School, has moved toward having all of his ninth grade students demonstrate mastery by creating error-free MLA citations of several several types of sources without a program to do it for them. Students refer to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) MLA Formatting and Style Guide.

During part of a 90 minute class period, students must cite several of the sources they have found on their research topic by typing them into a document. They are told to refer to the Purdue OWL guide.
Each student begins with 10 points.
Students can ask as many questions as they want while they are creating their citations.
When they believe that their citation is perfect, they ask for a sign-off from either the teacher or the librarian.
One point is deducted each time an error or errors are found and the student is asked to identify and correct all errors.
Repeat process until there are no errors and every student achieves mastery.

The direct instruction elements in this example are the Purdue OWL guide and the answers to student questions as they create their citations. The teacher shows the students the guide and says “make your MLA citations look exactly like this,” and then walks around the room to help students with any specific questions they may have.

The time that it takes to do this activity is balanced out in the end as there is much less need for revision or discussions about accurate MLA citations later on. The teacher has also made it clear that correct citations using the assigned format are both important and expected. Students with prior experience can check their mastery and fly through this activity; they can then turn their focus to other parts of the research process. Most students, even those with prior experience, gain understanding and confidence in their ability to create an accurate MLA citation. Finally, students can create their citations using any method they want once they have demonstrated that they know what a correct citation is. Choice is still available. Only now students can confirm that all of the elements of an accurate citation are present no matter which method they use.

Not all learning needs to be discovery-based. Though working through problems and allowing students to struggle is important, there are times when it is OK to just show them how.