The Challenge: Breaking learning into pieces while maintaining students’ responsibility for meaning

by Mr. Sheehy

Reading through the beginning of Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice, I ran across a scenario that has interesting application to teaching – especially the teaching of writing. So often I as an instructor of writing struggle with true scaffolding – giving students enough direction that they do not flounder, but little enough support that they develop and use the skills necessary – those skills I’m trying to teach. It’s a classic element of teaching, I realize, one that even parents experience as they attempt to help their children with homework but not do their homework for them.

The comparison to the parents’ balanced tension does not quite describe how it works for me, but it begins to get there. Writing is hard and capturing exactly what a topic sentence or adequate thesis statement looks like is not easy. I try many methods and do a lot of modeling and sharing of examples. Eventually, and I do this especially for essays, I begin to map out what I want the writing to look like. First, I’ll say I want five paragraphs; then, I’ll say how many quotes from the book I want in each paragraph; then I’ll ask to see topic sentences written out ahead of time so I can help them craft them into something that will make a claim and not summarize the plot. And then I go further, breaking the process into pieces as best I can until students can do the steps I suggest. My worry, then, is that I will chop it up so much that the students will not recognize the whole after I’ve spent so much time breaking it.

Enter Wenger. He mentions a claims company where he conducted some research and lays out a snapshot of life as an employee there so he can have a framework and example to which he can refer throughout his book. One element of the work there for workers was a claims worksheet, which prescribed the claims process

to the point where knowing what to do next does not require any interpretation of the worksheet’s underlying purpose.

The effect for workers was that

the form removed from the execution of the procedure the need to assume responsibility for its meaning. (p. 39 – italics added)

It’s not hard to see how this might apply to teaching. When I as a teacher create a form, whether it be a worksheet or an activity or procedure for a piece of a project, I begin from the whole, which I, as the expert in my content, understand. It is therefore exceedingly simple for me to see the application and purpose of the broken piece and then to glue the various pieces back together to make them whole again.

Students, however, approach the knowledge from the other direction. They see my broken pieces and 1) have to understand that isolated bit, and 2) in their own mind have to construct the whole from other isolated bits I offer them. For them, working with the pieces is not a process of reconstruction. They often have to approach those pieces before I have shown them the whole – or at least before they comprehend the whole. It’s original construction, but harder – the puzzle without the box top situation.

As a teacher wanting to fix and address this, it’s not as simple as determining to show students the box’s top before tossing out pieces. How to capture that whole in a meaningful way is a challenge that keeps me grasping. It’s why I’ve created things like The Essay Goblet and An Analogy for a Research Paper – things that work, sort of, but not really. I don’t know that I’ve ever hit upon that beautiful and simple box-top explanation that makes the assemblage of various pieces a simple process. Instead, I usually try 6,000 ways of painting the big picture, hoping one of these attempts will makes sense to someone.

One key, it seems from reading Wenger, is never to stop painting that picture. Without some sort of over-arching picture of the whole, students may end up knowing well how to write a topic sentence in an outline but have no idea how to write an essay.

Copyright Mr. Sheehy at A Teacher’s Writes