Teaching the ALERT processes
   Ask, Listen, Explore, Reflect, Teach

Students today need to learn to live amid vast amounts of information. They need to learn to construct points of view using reason, evidence, and intelligent emotions. Such skills and understandings are best taught by helping them create original presentations, drawing on original research from primary sources.

Through learning expeditions planned to include the ALERT processes, young researchers can explore and contribute to their cultural heritage.

The Heritage Project encourages teachers to organize learning around expeditions, which are in-depth examinations of topics or time periods in which students are expected to read significant books and articles, interview people with special knowledge, and construct their own original points of view in the form of new cultural artifacts (essays, videos, websites) as gifts of scholarship to their communities.

The best way to plan a learning expedition is to think about each of the ALERT processes. These are the processes we go through when engaged in significant learning—that is, learning that moves us to a new level of understanding.

Here are the processes:

Ask: All of us pose and answer questions every day. We wonder what someone else meant by a comment or what clothes to wear to an event. And we all have deeper questions, wondering how we should act in our relationships, pondering possibilities that worry us, or considering what might be the right thing to do in this or that situation. The more school work can be linked to these deeper questions, the more likely students are to engage. When the questions posed in class echo questions students have in their hearts, school comes to life. It matters.

The quality and depth of our learning is limited by the quality and depth of our questions. We all have questions, but someone who is wondering where her friend bought those new shoes is likely to learn different things than someone who is wondering whether Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to change could be adapted to work with a rigid high school principal.

Essential questions—questions about big and enduring concerns—are the critical link between students’ lives and the curriculum. What is justice? How should we respond to injustice? What is the difference between authority and power? When should we obey and when should we rebel?

These are not questions to which young people are strangers. When they believe such questions are being explored for real, and not simply as classroom exercises in which canned answers are foreordained, their interest is likely to perk up.

Listen: Once we have a question, we deepen our understanding of what’s at stake by “listening” to the historical record. “Listening” should be broadly understood to include all the ways we gather knowledge not just from talk but also from books, music, painting, and architecture. Most often we “listen” by reading.

Expedition members can be introduced to fiction or nonfiction texts complicate or simplify their understanding of their questions, that add to their knowledge the detail needed for accurate thinking, or that present them with points of view that differ from their own.

Whenever practicable, readings should include primary documents. By reading primary documents, stundents draw nearer to actual persons whose thoughts and actions shaped and reflected the past. While secondary sources are invaluable for establishing background and context, reading them without also examining primary documents tends to mystify as well as clarify the past. Only by reading both do we develop an accurate sense of how history is written.

Explore: Students can also gather new information. The simplest way to do this is to include an oral history strand in the expedition.

By enlisting as many people as possible in helping with students’ research, teachers can strengthen the relationship between schooling and community, they can increase and deepen members’ relationships to other people, and they develop motivational strategies more powerful than points and grades.

Students can also make observations, taking field notes then, for example, adding their data to a local data base established to track water quality in a local stream or bird populations in a local forest. They can conduct experiments, adding their findings to the local files. They can document with photographs and essays a local event, a person practicing his or her occupation, or a particular place such as main street at a specific moment in time. Obviously, the better established local knowledge gathering and preserving systems are, the easier this will be to do and the more apparent will be its benefits to expedition members. But starting is not hard. A set of file folders in a file cabinet will do.

Reflect: With whom will members discuss their work along the way? What drafts of notes, essays, or scripts will they create, and who will read and respond to them?

To reflect is simply to think about what we are doing. In the end, thinking is the only learning strategy. Few of us, though, can think very complex thoughts without either talking things through with someone else or writing. So every expedition should include lots of chances for expedition members to discuss what they are doing and to make notes or journal entries to order their thoughts and to preserve them for later revision. Through reflection we can (1) resolve anomalies in our thinking, (2) revise our understanding what has happened and is happening, and (3) construct systematic knowledge.

Teach/Tell/Transform: All students should have chances to teach in every class. It is when we teach others, finding out how to tell what needs to be understood, that we transform ourselves by making new knowledge our own. By asking students to create cultural artifacts to be presented to local audiences, we can support the highest quality learning. A cultural artifact might be a research paper presented at a public forum, a video presented to elementary students, a website presented to a local museum, a radio program or podcast presented to the entire town, or a book presented to the local library.

By returning to the local community with newly formed knowledge, students successfully complete their quest and close their expedition with a sense of earned achievement. By creating gifts of scholarship for an audience beyond the classroom, students more readily learn that standards are not the arbitrary assignments of teachers, but that they flow from the real demands of the real world. A slide presentation to a community audience on local history that is not accurate and interesting simply doesn’t work as well as one that is well-researched and well-crafted.

ALERT was developed by Michael L. Umphrey.

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