Building Student Character in the Classroom (Part V)

The Importance of Performance Character Values

characterThis will be my final installment on “performance character values,” the behaviors and traits that seem to have significant influences on student success in school and in life. Over the past few months, we’ve discussed things like persistence, precision, questioning, and collaboration. Each one is important, and working together, they can be incredibly powerful. But I think the final piece of the puzzle may be the most important and the hardest to accomplish. Today I want to talk about making connections, or what the serious scholars call “transfer of learning.”

In case you missed it: Part IPart IIPart III, and Part IV of this series!

Teaching for Transfer

One of the greatest challenges we face as educators is helping students connect what they learn in the classroom to what they need to do in the world, whether it be taking a standardized test, filling out a tax return, making sense of a lease, or writing a report on the job. Transfer of skills and knowledge can be tricky because when the context changes from the controlled environment of the classroom to the unpredictable and un-categorized world around us, it is often difficult to know which skills to call upon in a given situation. This is why so many teachers tear their hair out and say things like, “They understood this stuff in class. What happened?”

There are stories (apocryphal or not, I don’t know) about students missing what should have been easy questions on tests for just this reason. There is a story about high school students missing a question on the Pythagorean Theorem, simply because they couldn’t see the right triangle in the diagram. All through school, they had been given questions with formal, literal triangle shapes with little squares inside to indicate that the figures were right triangles. On this test, however, they were given a picture of a soda glass with a straw leaning inside of it. The straw, the side of the glass, and the base of the glass formed a triangle, but the students never saw it.

There’s another story about a high school reading test in which students were asked to read a humorous essay and answer some multiple-choice questions. Many students who successfully tackled higher-level inference questions failed to identify the genre of the piece, which should have been one of the easiest questions. It turned out that thousands of students across the state misidentified the piece as fiction, simply because it was funny. Essays weren’t funny. Not in their experience. The piece was also longer than five paragraphs—and, as everyone knows, essays are five-paragraphs long.

In both cases, students had been taught in such a limited and narrow context that they could not make actual use of their knowledge anywhere else. It reminds me a little of the old folk tale about the five blind men and the elephant. Each man has experience with a different aspect of the elephant, but none has experience with the entire animal. As a result, each man reaches a faulty conclusion about what it is he has encountered.

To understand a concept or build a skill deeply enough to be able to make use of it in the world, we need to experience the whole elephant. We need to walk all the way around an idea, experience it from a variety of angles, and be able to identify all the different, seemingly separate aspects of it as part of a coherent whole.

This means we need to think very differently about things like homework and practice sets for our students. Practice and repetition can be vitally important, but perhaps the way we’ve constructed and managed practice has been limiting and ineffective, especially when we’re dealing with more complex concepts. It’s not enough for students to “do” and then do again; they need to do it differently each time, come at a thing from a different angle, make use of a thing in a different way, or a different purpose–and then have time to compare, contrast, and discuss what changes, what remains the same, and what it all means.

Grant Wiggins was the first author I read who talked about transfer, and he returns to it again and again as the ultimate goal of our teaching. In a recent blog post, he shared this story:

Transfer of LearningMy greatest learning as a teacher came on the soccer field. We had been working for a few weeks on the same key ‘moves’ on the field related to creating ‘space.’ After a few practices, the team looked good in the drills; they’ve got it! Next two games? Nothing–like we never learned it. Finally, in exasperation I yelled at my co-captain, Liz, one of the prime offenders in not using the moves practiced: “USE what we worked on!!” I yelled. Liz yelled back from the field: “We would, Mr. Wiggins, but the other team isn’t lining up the way we did the drills!!”

Interestingly, while the players may have failed to transfer their learning from the drills to the game, Grant succeeded in transferring his learning from the soccer field to the classroom. He saw the connections.

How Experts Are Formed

As John Bransford and his co-authors discovered, in How People Learn, experts in a field are able to see and use connections between seemingly different ideas or facts because their brains work differently from amateurs. As they amass knowledge, they build schema, or organizing structures, based on the patterns within the material they are learning. They see the particular through the lens of the general because they come to think more abstractly. This makes it easier for them to access and recall information when they need it, and it makes it easier for them to make connections to prior knowledge when new facts arise.

This means that, to some extent, the ability to make connections simply requires time. We can’t expect sixth graders to manipulate science knowledge the way actual scientists do; They simply don’t know enough. But this also means that “knowing things” is crucial. The idea that factual knowledge isn’t important anymore—that we can simply look things up on the Internet when we need information—is false. Teaching “critical thinking” strategies without building up a foundation of factual knowledge will not help our students. To put it bluntly, you can’t think about stuff unless you know something about the stuff you’re supposed to be thinking about.

However, we can’t dump facts on our students and expect them to learn how to make connections among them. We have to organize our teaching in ways that help students see the underlying structure of the material and identify the important patterns and principles. This is what Wiggins, McTighe, Erickson, and others talk about when they use terms like, “understanding by design” or “concept-based curriculum.”  You don’t ignore the trunk and the tusks; you teach those things with the whole elephant as your goal.

The Challenge of Deep Structure

One thing that makes this kind of teaching challenging is the fact that some patterns and structures matter more than others. Cognitive scientist and author Daniel Willingham, in Why Students Don’t Like School, talks about how students (and adults) may see surface-level  connections between details and draw conclusions that aren’t important or even merited–while missing vital connections between things that look dissimilar on the surface, but have important and meaningful connections at a deeper level. This is why even the best medical student or intern may make a bad decision that the more experienced resident will not; a wealth of experience has let the resident understand the underlying patterns and structures of illness and not become distracted by surface-level facts.

Here’s a famous example of how all of this can work:

Two groups of college student–were given a passage about a general who captures a fortress by dividing his army into groups that converge on the fortress simultaneously. The same students were then asked to solve the problem of how to destroy a malignant tumor with rays that cannot be used at very high or very low intensities. More than 90 percent of the students could solve the problem when they were told to use the information about the general and the fortress to solve the problem, but few students could solve the problem when not prompted to use the analogous connection between the two problems.

On the surface, the two stories had nothing to do with each other. It was what the two anecdotes had in common structurally that allowed students to take ideas and principles from one situation and apply them to the other.

Metaphors Be With You

So, while discrete, factual information is important—students need to know what X is—its value may remain limited until we use analogies and metaphors to help students see what that information is like. The more different ways in which we can show students how X is like Y, the more three-dimensional and flexible their understanding of both X and Y can become. Some analogies will work on a surface level; some will work on a deeper level. But you have to start somewhere.

I learned this the hard way. I was teaching a Ray Bradbury story to a 9th grade English class in New York City, many years ago. The story was about two knights preparing to fight a dragon that had been terrorizing a village. The dragon has skin like iron; a single, unblinking, yellow eye; breath of fire; and a mighty roar. As the dragon approaches, the knights put on their armor and set out to attack it. They are both killed. Suddenly, we hear two new voices:

“Did you see it?” cried a voice. “Just like I told you!”

“The same! The same! A knight in armor, by the Lord Harry! We hit him!”

“You goin’ to stop?”

“Did once; found nothing. Don’t like to stop on this moor. I get the willies.”

The two new voices belong to train conductors. It’s a science fiction story. Time is slipping. The dragon is a train; the train is a dragon. One thing can be two different things, depending on your perspective. I loved the story. But when my students read it, they didn’t understand it, at all. They simply didn’t get it.

So I read it aloud to them.


So I had them create a chart, listing qualities of the dragon on one side and qualities of the train on the other.

“Oh,” they said. “Okay.”  They got it now, but they didn’t enjoy it. There was no “aha” moment, no fun in the thing. And I found that to be the case over and over again, that year. X was just X was just X was just X, and Y was just Y was just Y was just Y. Every single thing was just itself. Nothing resonated. Nothing vibrated. Nothing set off associations. I blamed them, of course, being young and foolish. But it was my fault. It was our fault, as a school. We weren’t teaching for the resonance. They learned exactly what we taught them: X was just X was just X was just X.

Do we really wonder why some students have trouble understanding the relevance of their school work?

“The Dragon” is obviously not an example of “deep structure” comparison. It’s just a fun little story, with no particular meaning or importance. But appreciating patterns and resonances, understanding metaphor and simile—these are things that take many years to develop. If we strip poetry, metaphor, allusion, and wit from the texts we ask our littlest readers to tackle, and then lead them from garbage-y picture books into bland textbooks, where facts are presented as simply and basically as possible, then when, exactly, do we think they’re going to learn how to think richly and associatively?

I challenge you to think of any great idea, discovery, or advancement that was not based, at least in part, on association. Newton’s apple, Einstein’s “thought experiments,” the invention of the computer “desktop,” airplanes with turned-up wingtips—again and again, we find answers to our newest and strangest questions by looking elsewhere and making connections. We are deeply enmeshed in our history, our culture, and the natural world around us, and the more we understand how those connections work, the wiser we can be.

The world feels fragmented and arbitrary enough to our children—a universe of random dots that they didn’t create or ask for, a universe they struggle to make sense of, day by day. Isn’t it our job to help them connect the dots?


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