Launching the Year by Connecting to the Known

Brows furrowed, I stared worriedly at the red marks on my rough draft.  Shifting uncomfortably in the red leather chair, I brought my eyes upward to meet the gaze of the woman sitting across from me.  There sat my favorite college professor, who also served as my senior advisor and evaluator of my final thesis project.  “You have great things to say,” she began.  “Your ability to provide relevant details about the topic and cite sources make your writing quite persuasive.”  Nodding, I remained quiet for a moment.  Then, “So…how can I improve?” I asked. I watched as the reddish Vermilion mark on my professor’s  forehead raised a little as she gently smiled, shifting in her beautiful red Sari.  “Well, let’s begin by talking about how to use less ‘flowery’ language,” she quipped.  Looking me straight in the eye she continued,  “Sometimes, simpler is better.”

Recounted above may perhaps be the most powerful writing lesson I learned as a young adult writer.  But why? What was it that made this session– this writing conference– so effective?

Recently, an article written by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall entitled, “The Feedback Fallacy” published in the Harvard Business Review caught my attention.  One quote from this article in particular jumped out at me:

“Learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is.” (p. 5)

Dear readers, I invite you to reread that quote.  In this article, the authors suggest that when we provide feedback or teaching to another human, we often ineffectively operate from a premise that might sound like, “This person does not know this, so I need to teach it to them.”  And why wouldn’t we?  After all, those of us in schools and classrooms typically went into the business of teaching so that we could…well, teach kids things they don’t already know.  But what research teaches us is that “…each brain [is unique and] grows best where it is already strongest (emphasis added)” (p. 6).  In other words, when feedback (i.e.,teaching) connects to what learners already know and can do, versus what they cannot do, more neurons and synaptic connections are formed (i.e., learning occurs).

As the beginning of the school year approaches, I have been thinking about ways we might harness this research for the good of our students.  In what ways might we angle our teaching to create more neurons and synaptic connections, so that our writers might become stronger this year?  How might we build on ‘the known?’  In a writing workshop, a few possible ways come to mind:

  • Lens for reviewing and analyzing on demand writing- Whether or not you or your school uses the Teachers College Units of Study in Writing (Heinemann, 2014), finding out what your students know and can do early on is a wise idea.  Asking writers to show off how and what they are able to write before teaching begins helps us with planning, and it can allow teachers a view into what each writer brings in regards to strengths.  Where is each student’s brain ‘already strongest?’    Buckingham & Goodall suggest that learning paths ought to be built around the “unique patterns” within each individualThis approach is sometimes called employing a ‘lens of strengths,’ versus a ‘lens of deficit.’  If we begin planning and implementing our teaching and feedback around what students cannot do, we actually run counter to brain research. As it states in the article, “Focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it” (p. 6).  According to the authors, this is because such an approach activates the well-known ‘fight or flight’ system- not something any of us would wish to rouse during teaching!  Instead, when reviewing student on demand writing, try making some brief notes on what each student can do as a writer, and perhaps a few on what might be next.  These early observations can then be tucked inside a conferring kit to guide future conferences.
  • Conferences and specific compliments- When pulling up next to a writer for a writing conference, arguably the best and most effective structure for helping a writer to improve, most of us are likely familiar with the importance of a genuine, authentic compliment.  The power of letting writers know of something specific that is truly working in their writing repertoire cannot be understated.  Compliments can perform an important job of affirming a skill or strategy.  They also might help to pave the way to new learning.  As stated in the article, “…we learn most when someone else pays attention to what’s working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently” (p. 7).  Something I have often done and now plan to do more consciously is connect my teaching point in a conference to the compliment.  Here are a few examples:

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  • Beginning small groups- Pulling 3-5 kids together in a small group typically happens because we see a common need that these writers have demonstrated; not necessarily a common strength.  Therefore, the idea of building upon something this group of writers already knows and can do may add an element of planning.  Many years ago, I was fortunate to take part in a study group on small group instruction led by teacher and author, Jennifer Serravallo.  Jennifer taught us to always begin a small group session by stating what we had noticed about the readers in front of us.  Applying this to writing, we can launch our small group sessions similarly by not just planning a teaching point, but also a compliment that acknowledges and affirms a part of these students’ writerly repertoires.  It might sound like this: “Writers, I’ve been reading your writing and have been so impressed.  One thing all of you do so well in your writing is to structure your arguments with reasons.  You know that when we want to make a case as writers, we do so by structuring it in sections that each provide specific reasons for why a reader ought to agree with us.  You’ve definitely got that down! So I’ve been thinking about next steps for all of you, and how you might take your writing to the next level.  Today I want to teach you that to make their case super strong, writers use evidence from texts they’ve read to support those reasons.”  Another way to begin this small group might have been, “Writers, I’ve pulled you together because none of you are using text evidence in your writing, and you need to start doing that.”  Compare and contrast those two possible ways to “say what you’ve noticed,” and you’ll likely hear how one clearly attempts to build upon what writers know and can do, while the other focuses on their shortcomings.

Reflecting back on that college writing conference with my wonderful professor and advisor, and viewing it now through the lens of the powerful research shared by Buckingham & Goodall in “The Feedback Fallacy,” I can now see one of the reasons it may have been so effective.  Instead of rendering her feedback through a deficit model, my teacher attempted to build upon something already within me as a writer, a strength.  Perhaps this is what helped to make this feedback so powerful and effective?  As all of us launch a new year of teaching and learning this year, let us not forget the power of building upon what students already know and can do.  Because now we not only know this approach is not just a “good idea,” but a research-based fact about the human brain.