Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Levels of storytelling, Part 2
   Pursuing intentional purposes

Because schools are ritual centers cut off from the real living places where we love and hate, we burden them with all the elaborate aspirations that our love and labor are too meager and narrow to bear.
Madeline Grumet

Let us answer this book of ink with a book of flesh and blood.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Organizing around purpose

The second level of storytelling includes the planned and structured stories we use to organize our lives. Politicians call stories at this level of narration “campaigns.� Scientists call them “experiments.� Teachers usually call them “unit plans.� They are scripts we intentionally create, aiming at goals we consciously choose. They are the larger stories we want our lives to follow. They are the stories of our purposes and of what happens as we pursue those purposes.

What intentionally planned stories schools tell is a subject that every faculty should be able to discuss fluently. We know from experience that the most powerful learning occurs when we become protagonists in our own learning: pursuing desires, facing obstacles, meeting opportunities, making decisions, and arriving at conclusions. In many workshops, I’ve asked people to tell me the most significant thing they remember learning. The answer is always a story. Because we are made to live and learn through story, turning schoolinlg into a story requires neither pedagogical brilliance nor a complicated theory.

It mostly requires that we attempt something. A couple of years ago I visited with an unusually intelligent young man who had dropped out of school after ninth grade. “They never did anything,” he explained. Not doing anything, or not seeming to do anything, is a fatal mistake for schools. Getting ready for a test doesn’t count, unless the test itself means something.

Heritage Project teachers invite young people to join the work of creating a valuable legacy to add to the community’s record of itself. They do this by asking important questions, pursuing insight about those questions both in the library and by interviewing community members, creating points of view about those questions, then giving those points of view tangible form by creating new cultural artifacts that can be given back to the community as gifts of scholarship. Such projects never fail to become stories. Students in the Heritage Project are led to understood that their own learning is a story which is part of the larger story of their family and community.

Using ALERT to structure expeditions into deep learning

To organize Heritage Projects as meaningful stories, teachers and other leaders can oranize learning expeditions organized to incorporate the ALERT processes.

I developed the ALERT process after extensive study of teaching models designed to promote deep understanding. I examined dozens of comprehensive teaching designs and identified their common elements and arranged them into an acronym that’s easy to remember: Ask, Listen, Explore, Reflect, Teach (ALERT). It’s a reminder of the stages we go through in deep learning. The stages are presented as a discrete sequence because I can only say one thing at a time, but in practice they overlap and flow into one another, and come in any order. When we are doing any one of them we are likely also to be doing others.

Deep learning is a recursive process, in which tasks are interrupted by other tasks, and tasks set aside earlier are returned to, and new insights lead us to revise everything, and gaps are worked around until a way of bridging them is found. The ALERT process helps plan and monitor this process, both at the beginning and along the way. When we are in the middle of things and feel confused, pausing to review the processes available to us can help see a useful next step. The important thing is to recognize that all the processes are involved in significant learning and that therefore teachers should structure them into their teaching and researchers should build them into their projects.

I’ve used this process with teachers and students at all grade levels. It works in fifth grade classrooms, but it is also the basic pattern of doctoral dissertations. Most dissertations begin by posing a hypothesis or forming a research question (asking a question), then move on to a review of the literature (listening to the historical record), formulating and implementing a research methodology (exploring current reality to uncover new findings), interpreting and evaluating what happened (reflecting on possible meanings), and reaching a final conclusion (transforming what we know with new insights).

Using the ALERT process to plan an expedition is one way to organize our educational purposes into a lived story.

Back to Part 1 | Forward to Part 3


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/05 at 05:12 AM
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© 2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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