Synthesis

Today was one of those days that does not make me feel good as a teacher; actually, I feel like a failure.  Most days in my class, I feel more like a researcher than a teacher, trying to discover what works to facilitate the acquisition of the skills my students need.  Some days are jubilantly successful, others are not.  Today was the latter.

My students have finished their Holocaust research.  And to be honest, that was the easy part.  It’s easy to find information, difficult to know what to do with it.  I think this might be why, as teachers, we see a fair amount of plaigarism and copying and pasting.  Students don’t often know how to synthesize, how to create something new from the information they’ve found.  And yet I was reading an article yesterday that identified synthesis as the essential skill our students need in the 21st Century.  My students, however, don’t have it.

Today my English students met in their research groups to begin designing their Holocaust exhibits.  Their goal, by the end of this week, is to have a mock-up of their exhibit.  At this point, they are struggling immensly with how to take their information and create an exhibit with it.  What information do they use?  What do they want to be their focal point?  What story do they want to tell?

It’s not that they don’t have good ideas.  They have some great ones.  As I walked around, I heard some incredible ideas, such as designing the concentration camp exhibit around the concept that many prisoners consumed only 300 calories a day.  What does 300 calories a day look like? Even with great ideas, they seem reticent to embrace them.

And I have no idea how to help.  I know how to synthesize.  I’m reasonably proficient at it.  But I have no idea how I learned to do it.  I don’t know if you’ve Googled how to teach synthesis lately, but the search doesn’t reveal much.  Maybe I’m not looking in the right place.

I find that when my students struggle, I struggle as a teacher too, but differently.  At times I’m not sure how to facilitate their learning.  If I do it for them, they won’t develop the skill.  It’s difficult to know how much to let them flail.  I think one of the key things we need to know as learners is how to struggle.  However, my students equate struggling with not being smart.

I found today that I needed to walk around and facilitate conversations that they didn’t know how to have. One of my students looked at me and said, “this is hard.”  This coming from a straight A student.  Additionally, they were more off task than usual; I wonder if it’s easier for my students to be off-task, than to struggle.

I wonder if this struggle is so pronounced because our students are so often taught how to memorize and regurgitate, rather than synthesize the information to create something new.  Furthermore, I question why we don’t actively start teaching this skill when our students are younger.  I don’t think this assertion is reflective of my school solely, but the educational system in general.

And so tomorrow, I’m going to have an honest discussion with my students. Do they not know what to do? Or is it they don’t want to do it?  I want my students to learn that it’s not enough just to find information.  Most people research topics to do something with it, not just memorize, regurgitate, and forget it.

I’m fine with the project taking another form.  After all, it’s their learning.  I think they should be in control of what the project looks like and determining it’s outcome, but that, too, is a scenario they are not familiar with.  My students are not used to determining their own learning.  They’re used to being told what to do.

Tomorrow we’ll continue to press forward. At times the learning curve is incredibly steep. But sometimes you need to step into the confusion for real learning to occur. All I can say is, at times, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.

photo courtesy of cc flickr: Hljod.Huskona

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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18 Responses to Synthesis

  1. Jana says:

    As an educator myself, i’m finding your thoughts fascinating and relevant. Before I respond, however, a question: how old are your students, and which country is this happening in? (not lazy, on the tram)

  2. Richard says:

    Hang in there!
    Sounds like a great project and a bit of uncertainty (students and teacher!) is not a bad thing. In fact, I think the students need some of that to realise that they can and should make their own decisions about their learning. We have to let go for them to take responsibility, otherwise they’re just doing what we tell them too.
    And if we didn’t have moments like these then we as teachers are not getting out of our comfort zone either – and where’s the fun in that?!
    Good luck!!

  3. Theresa says:

    I share your thoughts and congratulate you for continuing to to push all parties to find success. I am trying to do similar things and share the frustration and the feeling of helplessness as far as not being able to make it easy. However, learning is not always easy and you are trying to give them skills that they can use forever.

    Some days are going to be better than others. Keep the faith and keep working at it. Celebrate the good days and continue to reflect on both. Perhaps we will get there at the same time.

    The easy thing to do would be to give them notes and tests and not push them to process the information and use it in some other way.

  4. Becky Bair says:

    Do you think the kids fail to embrace their ideas because they are afraid of failing or not getting it “right”? I tried a project on a much smaller scale with my 5th graders, and they were almost frozen with fear. No matter how many times we talked about the fact that their project was all about practicing their reading, researching and writing skills, they couldn’t get past the, “What if I don’t get it right?” piece.

    I think that speaks volumes for the problems with a system based on standardized tests and black/white answers. How will our kids ever grow up to develop the confidence to create their own ideas and solve problems in unique ways?

    • I think that certainly might be part of it. My students have learned that if they sit there looking helpless long enough, someone will “bail” them out. I think some times my students do feel paralyzed; I find this happens moreso with students who are straight-A perfectionists. They only want to do something if they know they can do it right. I have to keep pushing them to take risks and try new things, and teaching them that failure is an important aspect of learning.

  5. I’d be curious how your students would respond to this video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tS2IPfWZQM4

    • Thanks, Dean. What an amazing video. I’m going to share it with my students tomorrow. It powerfully explains why I’m doing what I’m doing.

    • Belinda Rother says:

      Wow! Very inspirational…I would love to forward this to our Ministry of Education…maybe they’d give us a little leeway in our social sciences curriculum!

  6. Lyn Hilt says:

    I enjoy reading your reflections from a secondary perspective because you often raise the question, “What if they started thinking this way from a younger age?” and it causes me to examine what we’re doing in our elementary school. In my experience it’s commonplace for the HS teachers to say, “If only the MS teachers would do x” while the MS teachers say, “If only elem. teachers would better prepare them for y,” and elementary teachers proclaim, “If only parents would have spent more time preparing students for z”……and so on and so forth. It’s difficult for me to hear at times, but I agree that the earlier we start helping our children develop as passion-driven, inquisitive learners, they will better internalize those qualities and continue to be inspired learners throughout their school experiences and beyond.

  7. sinikka says:

    What a coincidence to find your blog when I’m going through similar thoughts and struggles with a project my students are involved in. I have also been wondering whether it’s the wish to avoid struggling that makes my students get off-task, and not accomplish much.

    I teach EFL to 16-19-year-old students. They should be old enough to start taking more responsibility for their learning but many of them don’t seem to know how. Maybe I shouldn’t expect too much too quickly, though, knowing that they have been taught the language through the simple fill in ready-made gaps with individual words system for almost 10 years before coming into my class! Being faced with any open-ended, creative tasks, many of them won’t even start tackling it. It takes a lot of patience, coaxing, guidance and encouragement…

    Good luck with your project! Hopefully you will tell us how it turns out in the end!

    • With my students, their learning in their first language, and they too struggle with open-ended, creative tasks. But I think as they become more familiar with it, they will struggle less. I’m hoping by the time they graduate, they will be proficient and creative problem-solvers!

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  9. Carol says:

    HI, I appreciate your style; I’m just getting started; I’ll be back.

  10. Chet Churchill says:

    Shelley, Thank you for the interesting piece! I am just getting into blogging as an 8-yr. high school teacher of science. It is encouraging to know that I am not alone in the task of equipping my students to hike Mount Bloom and not be content to camp out at the base of it–i.e. rote memorization. Though it is a challenging climb it will be well worth their effort. I realize as their primary “sherpa” they are depending upon my having made the climb multiple times before. Yet, like you, it’s easier for me to be able to think critically and synthesize than to actually realize how I did it and communicate to these young men and women. As most of our fellow sherpas have already encouraged you, “keep the faith” and know that you are making a difference. I hope to as well. :)

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