Thursday, June 2, 2011

What support do learners need?

Last week I shared a lesson plan used to introduce the clock model for adding and subtracting fractions to a class of fifth-graders. This post focuses on the follow-up lesson, which concentrated on developing an anchor chart that learners could lean on as they solved progressively more difficult fraction computation problems. In particular, I will discuss how the instruction attempted to offer support so new learning could occur.

Learning is about moving from the known to the new. Therefore, we began by activating our schema regarding how we had used the clock model to add fractions in the previous lesson. Then we considered other fractions that could be represented using time as a context and began building an anchor chart based on our experiences with clocks in and out of the classroom.

An anchor chart supports learning by creating a record that learners can refer to as cognitive demand increases. In Reading with Meaning, Debbie Miller writes, "Anchor charts make our thinking permanent and visible, and so allow us to make connections from one strategy to another, clarify a point, build on earlier learning, and simply remember a specific lesson (p. 57)." This anchor chart offered the fifth-graders support both as a representation for thinking as they computed the fractions and a representation of thinking that they could point to as they communicated their thinking to their peers.

We worked through the number string together, with me starting the computation and learners offering advice as we went along. A number string is a series of progressively more difficult problems that build on the success of prior solutions. Being sure to use "I language," I started each problem by saying, "This reminds me of ..." As we went on, I asked more and more often, "What should I do next?"

From the perspective of the Gradual Release of Responsibility, my approach for this lesson would be considered Shared Practice [WITH]. (In the previous lesson, I had relied on Demonstration [TO] in order to support the introduction of the clock context - something new. Based on learners' efforts in that lesson, I was confident that they were ready for more responsibility.) With Shared Practice, the teacher supports learners by reinforcing how problem solvers get started, but there is still room for exploration and approximation as learners offer their suggestions for what comes next. This came in the form of the fifth-graders telling me what to do to complete the fraction problems. Not all of their suggestions worked, but we thought through them together and used our prior knowledge and anchor chart to get back on track. Any "mistakes" were used as an opportunity to foster a learning community that could support each other through difficult problems.

At the close of this lesson, I offered a final support - time to reflect. Without an opportunity to consolidate their experiences from the lesson, it is very likely that the learning would not last. I asked the fifth-graders to write in their journals a recount of the day using the What, So What, and Now What framework. Their responses would serve as a formative assessment used to inform future lessons. But that is for another post.

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