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Weeding Out

When the spring rains finally stopped, I think the only thing that grew in my yard were weeds.  I’m in a new house with a lot of yard that hasn’t been tended in quite awhile.  As each new green thing burst through the ground I had no idea if it was a plant or a weed.  Now that we’re fully into spring it’s pretty clear that while there are a few welcome surprises, much of what has sprung up will need to be weeded out.  Some weeds are easy to spot and you simply grab them by the root and pull them out.  Others get tangled in among other plants and it’s difficult to see what is what.  As I began working on my weeding process, it struck me how analogous this is to learning and the work that happens in my brain.

When I read a new book or article it’s almost like a spring rain flooding my mind with all kinds of thoughts and ideas.  Some ideas are isolated and others become connected and infused with other types of thinking.  But just like gardens needed to be weeded out in order for the good plants to shine and thrive, thoughts and ideas needed to be weeded out too.  Some ideas are clearly weeds and can easily be discarded but others are difficult to detect often get mixed up with lots of other thoughts.  This process of thinking about thinking or metacognition is one of the habits Costa and Kallick (2009) encourage in their work on Habits of Mind.

Students often struggle with this habit.  We often tell students what to think or how to do things without spending time thinking about the thinking.  They often do not have the depth of knowledge to realize what is a weed and what is a plant.  Sometimes the ideas get so tangled in their heads, it’s difficult to unravel.  If you’ve ever taught students about ’s you have a clear example of how difficult it is for students to weed out thinking.  Once they learn the new idea, ’s, every word with an s in it gets an apostrophe.  Eventually they learn to weed out when and when not to use an apostrophe, but it takes practice and thinking.

One way of ensuring that the good ideas or thinking take root and grow is to help students think about what they are thinking and to identify the schema they are using to understand new ideas.   Piaget  defined schema as a way of organizing information.  Think of it almost as a plan for the garden.  Students come to any learning task with their own schemas.  Unfortunately, sometimes their schemas are full of weeds.  Before we can teach new ideas we need to figure out what students already know and where they might be making connections.  We need to ask, “What are you thinking?” We need to know what their garden plan looks like.  Imagine if students were thinking of a flower garden as their schema when you were providing instructions for a vegetable garden.  Your view and the students view would be completely different.  Asking students what they already know about a topic or to draw pictures of what they think of when they hear a word are two useful ways to uncover student’s schema.  In correcting student errors about their schemas I think the garden analogy is a useful one.  After collecting what student’s already know about a topic for example you could tell students that now it’s time to weed out the garden and find out which things are plants (true or connected to factual ideas) and which are weeds (unfactual or unsubstantiated claims).  The task then focuses on uncovering which thoughts and ideas fit within the garden or schema and which ideas need to be weeded out either because they are weeds or they belong in a different garden.

While my focus is mainly on the classroom, I am also living with two teenagers and I can’t help but see the connections of this to working with adolescents.  I know my young teens are being flooded with new thoughts and ideas from school, peers and many sources of media.  Sometimes they are exposed to thinking and values that contradict those we have taught and valued as parents.  It’s difficult for a teen to ‘weed out’ what ideas they want to grow and develop and which ones they might be better off removing from their thinking.  The strategy to helping them is similar.  It is important to give our teens opportunities to think about their thinking and to share their schema’s.  We need to ask, “What are you thinking?” and understand how they are framing their thinking and help them to identify for themselves which ideas are plants and which are weeds.

With our students and teens, while it might be easier to just tell them which weeds to pull, in the end, I think they will become better gardeners if we take the time to teach them how to weed out their gardens themselves.

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