Getting learners to build things out of concrete (examples, that is).

This post is not about assessment.

A few weeks ago, before every other word on the internet became Wikileaks*, there was a lot of buzz about this piece in The Chronicle by someone who writes students’ essays for them, for money.

I’d like to think, gentle reader, that you, sitting alone at your computer with a cookie arrested halfway through its trajectory to your mouth, are reeling at this astonishing news: students buying their way through a degree? Say it ain’t so! But if you’re reading this blog at all, you probably already know about essay mills, so finish your cookie and let’s move on, because essay mills make me sad, and they probably make you sad, too.

Anyway, I got to reading the (numerous) comments on the Chronicle article and ended up at another essay-mill confessional. And this one absolutely stopped me in my tracks:

I doubt many experts spent most of a decade writing between one and five term papers a day on virtually every subject. I know something they don’t know; I know why students don’t understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.

It’s because students have never read term papers.

It’s so obvious, in hindsight: students never see enough essays to be able to abstract the rules of what makes a good one. I mean, think about the essay as a form — often the form — of undergraduate assessment: we’re basically asking students to build a working aircraft without ever having seen one. We give students some classes about Newtonian mechanics, show them a few force diagrams, then say “right, build me something that will fly me to France for lunch.” The students duly experiment, with most making emergency landings in fields, while we rally ’round, saying helpful things like “but you didn’t put the right kind of fuel in” and “why haven’t you finished building this wing?” Typical student responses include “there are different types of fuel?” and “but you didn’t cover that part of the wing in class.”**

No wonder some students find it easier to have a quiet word with their local aircraft retailer. And I’m not saying this to excuse the essay-mill companies, whom I deplore for the simple, selfish reason that they are devaluing university degrees, diminishing my own efforts and those of my students. I mean, I don’t think you will ever convince me that their aww-shucks-we’re-just-providing-exemplars-what-do-you-mean-students-are-handing-this-work-in-as-their-own schtick is anything other than a thin veneer of bullshit designed to stave off the lawyers. But I also think that if hacking the system is as easy as paying a few dollars here and a few dollars there to someone who will effectively learn for you, then, well, maybe the system isn’t very good. Simon Bostock has some nice thoughts here on why this problem won’t go away until universities wise up.

But as I say, this post isn’t really about assessment; it’s about learning. Quite a lot of our knowledge is rules-based, like knowing “I before E except after C”, and “don’t talk to Roger until he’s had his first coffee of the day”; we rely a lot on these rules of thumb to help us make sense of the world. Students’ whole lives are about learning rules: how to write an essay; how to format a references list; how to make sure the electricity in your flat doesn’t get cut off. Very, very broadly (it’s possible that this dirty shorthand explanation is going to upset some people), there are two ways of acquiring these rules: learning the abstract principles, and learning by experiencing concrete examples for oneself.

Guess which category most university education falls into.

None of this really cohered for me until I watched a colleague from a different department teaching a group of new students the Harvard style of academic referencing. While not the most stimulating topic, this is nevertheless pretty relevant, because it underpins much of students’ written work during their degree.

Here’s one way of teaching Harvard referencing:

* surname followed by initials

* year of publication

* Title of article

* Title of journal (italics), its volume (italics), page numbers.

These abstract rules work well as a recipe for writing out your own reference list, but they’re not that great if you’re actually trying to internalise the rules. They’re pre-digested; there’s no work left to do there, so the bits of information slide over us, and each other. There’s no friction. Also, there are a lot of pieces of information there: six(ish) basic components, but many more if you also include the order in which they must be assembled, and details like which bits get italicised and which don’t. That’s probably too many.

Here’s a different way of teaching referencing:

Aardvark, J.R. (1980). Ants, and how to eat them. Journal of Orycteropodidae Studies, 80, 11-17.

Barker, R. (1982). Rum babas, and what to do if you’ve got them. Reading: Goodnight From Him.

Halley, W. (1955) Rock Around The Clock. New York: Decca.

Izzard, E. (1998) Cake or Death? Gateaunomics, 10, 195-196.

Lemur, R.-T. (2010) Strepsirrhinoplasty. Antananarivo: Raft Press.

Leonard, E. (1996). Out of Sight. New York: Harper.

Shorty, G. (in press). Okay, so they got me. Los Angeles: Cadillac.

* What are the rules by which this reference list is organised? Name as many as you can.

Here, to understand the rules, we have to do a little work. But it’s sort of fun; working out the rules is a barely-game. And the thing about abstracting the rules for yourself in this way is that the process is messy, tracking its muddy footprints all over your memory. Which is exactly what you want.

Here’s a half-baked thought: you can’t teach abstract principles nearly as well as people can teach themselves using concrete examples.

Science as a university subject relies on practicals as well as theory, but we still spend a lot of time telling students what the rules are, rather than letting them abstract those rules for themselves. For starters, I think this is a very paternalistic*** way of treating people who are supposed to be adults. But also, I’m pretty sure it constitutes poor practice, since putting in a little mental effort is rewarded in the long-term by better retention and understanding. You thought your teachers were sadists, giving you worked example after worked example? Well, maybe they were — but my point is, they were actually helping you out, too.

But university is not high school. And the thing about being an ‘expert’ (and if you’re lecturing to university students, then you are, by many people’s definition, an expert — even if no-one fully understands what it is exactly that you are an expert in, other than that you “do something with computers”) … the thing about being an expert of any kind is that it’s so, so tempting to provide helpful short-cuts, like well-meaning parents who hand down sensible advice about life to their children. We’ve all been given that advice, and I’m pretty sure that we all learned more profoundly from the consequences of ignoring it than we ever would have if we’d listened in the first place. The trick that education often misses is that abstract rules are easy to ignore until we understand their relevance, by which time we’re usually pretty deep in our own personal concrete example. Or deep in something, anyway.

I recently spent some time with a friend who is trying to learn about organic chemistry but finding some aspects of it hard. I enjoyed chemistry at school (um, 20 years ago), so we sat down together for an hour to try and work through the IUPAC scheme for naming chemicals. Now, you can try to learn all the rules for naming molecules in organic chemistry, but there are lots – they go on for two or three pages of my friend’s textbook. That’s a lot of abstraction, and we know that concreteness helps us learn (stodgy academic explanation; human-readable explanation). So instead, we looked at some specific examples of structural formulae, along with their names, and tried to abstract the rules of naming based on the information we had. And you know what, it worked pretty well. In fact, naming in organic chemistry is basically a language and visualisation problem, not a chemistry one, so I learned the rules quicker than my friend did, because language and visualisation are more my bag than they are his. But I’ve yet to meet someone for whom the exemplar approach flat-out doesn’t work.

Of course, when I talk about abstracting the principles from a set of concrete examples, what I’m really talking about is pattern recognition. Pattern recognition will be one of the essential 21st-century skills. It’s not about finding information anymore — now it’s about finding the right information, rejecting the irrelevant stuff, and knowing how we might go about telling the difference. Hat-tip for that link goes to Lee Skallerup, who suggests

Get students to analyze the writing (and the comments) to see what kinds of patterns emerge, what they can see if they take the time to look.

If we want to prepare students for the 21st-century workplace, we should be teaching pattern recognition, using exemplars and letting students figure out the rules for themselves; those are the skills they are going to need when they go out into the world. It shouldn’t takes much effort to shoehorn this sort of activity into the classroom, or to get students to understand the basic process — we abstract rules from concrete examples all the time (take this discussion of what differentiates men’s and women’s shoulder bags, for instance). As @Dave_Ferguson points out in that post,

The effort to make the tacit knowledge more explicit encourages reflection and revision … Concrete examples help people work their way toward more general principles.

And here, try this on: “assessment should fundamentally be about building learners’ capacity to make informed judgements about their work” (@cathfenn, via @hypergogue). I couldn’t agree more with this: success as a teacher or learning facilitator is watching the learner walk away, not needing you anymore (and ideally, exceeding you). But to be able to get to the point of critiquing their own work, the learner must be able to move from tacit or implicit understanding of the rule to being able to describe it explicitly. And I’m struggling to think of a case in which having concrete examples would not make it easier for learners to explicate the rules in this way.

Once I started thinking about this abstract/concreteness issue, I started seeing it everywhere. For example, on my third-year module, I set students a piece of coursework that is opt-in, and pass/fail: in exchange for demonstrating that they’ve done some of the groundwork, successful students receive some additional information that will help them think about the topic. Quite often, students fail to grasp what is required of them (a failure of pattern recognition that may well originate in my explanation of the task), so I ask them to resubmit. Recently, a student emailed me work that wasn’t up to scratch, so I suggested she try again and resubmit, which she duly did. But when I got her work back a second time, it was still missing the point. So I thought about it for a bit, and then I sent her the additional material anyway. And you know what? I got a very nice, very grateful response, saying that she now realised exactly why her original submissions hadn’t been right. Three simple points of triangulation (two “wrong” answers and one “right” one) constituted enough information to start abstracting some rules.

Really, the more I think about it, the more I think that using concrete examples and letting students abstract the rules for themselves is really just another variation on show, don’t tell. Which is honestly the best advice for learning design — or communication of any kind — that I know. And hey, maybe if we want to assess learning in ways that are less easily hackable, we should engineer a system of assessment that requires students to show us, as well as telling us, what they’ve learned. Let’s have assessments that test (a) implicit knowledge of the rules, (b) explicit knowledge of the rules, (c) awareness of situations in which the rules may not apply, and (d) the learner’s awareness of their own progression in terms of grasping (a) through (c), because there’s nothing like getting students all metacognitively tooled-up.

Okay, so maybe this post was a little bit about assessment.

(PS — If you’d like to read more about abstraction and concreteness in learning design, you may find this short paper interesting.)

* Here I’m inserting a reference to current events, so you know I didn’t just record this sometime last year.

** Just so we’re clear, this is a metaphor; I’m fairly sure this is not how Aeronautical Engineering students are assessed. At least, I hope not.

*** I know it’s not the done thing to laugh at your own jokes, but recently I had occasion to tweet But paternalism is good for you. Here, swallow this. You have to seize these opportunities where you find them.


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42 responses to “Getting learners to build things out of concrete (examples, that is).

  1. Pat

    Do you think there is / are legs in a process of peer reviewed initial essay development tool?

    • Definitely. I think one of the reasons that kind of thing isn’t already universal is universities’ rather old-fashioned tendency to treat every student collaboration as having the potential for collusion, plagiarism, or whatever. However, of course it can be done — one of my colleagues has had great success with getting students to evaluate each others’ work (formatively) as part of the learning cycle, before they submit their own work for summative assessment; any tools that would make this whole process easier would be brilliant.

      • How would you see it working. Spec it out for me? I don’t like half giving ideas as they become too techie.

        • Pfffff … I’ll give it a go?

          Students can copy/paste their draft work in. Formatting (to the level of bold, italic, underlined, and paragraph markers) is retained. Maybe there’s the option for the software to randomly select who gets to read your draft work? The system can be set to allow all-open, closed-group, or one-to-one (private) viewing of drafts, which could be determined by the instructor. Likewise, you can toggle between knowing who authors and reviewers are, or having it be blind, or double-blind. Some kind of commenting feature is enabled, though I don’t really have any fixed idea of how this would work. Some kind of interface that puts the original draft writer and the reviewer on an equal footing, essentially, so commenters feel like they have a right to be there (I think students can be quite timid about providing peer feedback, at least initially). The system can then return the commented work to the original student; the instructor has the option to moderate if they wish. Of course, it’s possible to do most of this using Word or other such software, though it’d be less neat and I’m not sure if you can anonymise the commenting tools in those.

          • Pat

            Sheesh your blog gets a lot of comments, I might have to start writing something better than sub literate tosh.

            I think the above is doable – is highlighting vital? I reckon i could make it a bit more interesting without highlighting.

            • This is about the most commented-on post for a while, actually ;)

              Highlighting is useful because it allows the commenter to say which bit they are commenting on. But highlighting doesn’t have to be highlighting as such – it just needs to be clear which part of the text the person is referring to.

  2. As usual, I agree with you. I’m all in favour of concrete examples in instructional material. In my area of practice (technical writing to support application software, rather than academia) it’s almost all practical and concrete. Or it should be at least. People need direct practical examples that are relevant to their work.

    By the way, here’s a footnote and a reference on the specific point about students and writing: the University of Coventry has a Centre for Academic Writing (CAW). (While many US universities have similar facilities, I think few UK institutions do.) The head of the CAW has edited an erudite collection of essays on how academic writing could/should be taught:

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for that — going to have a poke around in those essays! Appreciated :)

    • Also: a common discussion that we have is, should it be the business of universities to teach students how to write? Universities can get very preoccupied with trying to instill sufficient subject knowledge in students, and while they can certainly learn some writing skills along the way, it can feel like “yes, but why didn’t they learn this stuff in schools?” I don’t say that to demonise the schools, who have their own problems (like keeping up in the league tables); I’m just wondering aloud how we fix it. And again, maybe the fix is a simple one; a little time spent reading through some good (and not-so-good) examples so students can try to identify the rules? Which we already do, a little, but maybe we could do more.


      • I was horrified to discover that learning how to write in Denmark is only at the university level. They do not have it at the lower levels of education. I asked a friend about it and she confirmed. I swear I learned in primary school. I’m just talking about the basics: Here’s my hypothesis, here are my arguments, and here is my conclusion. Period. I think some dude name Aristotle also has some advice. Again, only at university level. Think of all the bad habits that have formed by then.

        My college profs talked about the increasing number of students in *remedial* writing classes prior to their Freshman year in (US) college. That was in 1999 and for a top-notch liberal arts college. No wonder the Fox sound bites are taking over. GAAAHHH!

        • I’m trying to remember if we had anything like that in school. In high-school English, we wrote (probably very descriptive) things about poems or books we had read, but other than the ‘creative writing’ we did in primary school, that’s about all, I think.

          I do think our education system should probably start, in primary school, with some basics that include “thinking and writing about stuff”.

  3. Great point. And I think it clarifies something I used to do and probably could have expanded on.

    I started to elaborate and then realized that what I had to say should really be said in my own blog post. I will let you know when it is up. :-)

    BTW, I love your footnote about the paternalism joke. And I love the joke. It is particularly funny since when I used to point out how an academic article was constructed, as a model for a student essay (inter alia) I was accused by a student of being patronizing. My head of department stuck up for me.

    • Hi Jo,

      As ever, looking forward to your commentary in whatever form it takes!

      Glad you liked the paternalism joke ;) I worry a lot more about struggling students than I do about the ones who might find my explication of how we do stuff patronising. Which isn’t to say that we can’t stretch the latter group too, but.

  4. You might want to check out @readywriting. She blogs at and uses peer evaluation in her classroom. She also recently mentioned that problem of the apparent conflict between plagiarism and need for original work and encouraging students to collaborate in writing.

    I used to do final year dissertation supervision in a group and have students read and comment on each other’s early drafts. This took out their fear of my evaluation of the draft and gave them insight into how others write. Was very helpful, I think.

  5. “It’s not about finding information anymore — now it’s about finding the right information, rejecting the irrelevant stuff, and knowing how we might go about telling the difference.”

    So true. But it is also about flagging, and offering opposition too, incorrect information. In academia, in debate, and in life.

    Fantastic post though.

    • Hey, glad you like.

      But it is also about flagging, and offering opposition too, incorrect information. In academia, in debate, and in life.

      YA RLY. The personification of this, to me, is the Corrections And Clarifications columns in the papers that hardly anybody reads. Story first with a bang, then the truth later (or not at all, if you’re Fox News), with barely a whimper. Churchill was spot-on. (Critically, all the lie has to do is be cognitively sticky).

      There probably ought to be entire modules that teach students how to tackle, dissect, and refute bogus arguments.

  6. AnthroK8



    1) My writing became immeasurably better when I went to GRADUATE SCHOOL and became a grad/undergrad writing tutor. I read 5 essays a day, four days a week, and boy, did reading a lot of other student work make me learn prettydamquik how an essay is put together.

    1a) And so did having to tutor other people without directively teaching them how. How to explain or model without doing it for them? How to do it for smart kids, ESL learners, thickish kids, lazy kids…

    2) I spend a lot of time teaching students how to read both for content and structure. In my freshman class, we do a lot of using-a-model-to-pick-apart-articles. We do it with the newspaper, with academic essays, and with sections of books.

    3) We peer review. I give them other student’s papers from previous semesters to read as a regular part of the course syllabus. They read each other’s work.

    4) I think there is a lot of privilege buried in the idea that students should know how to do a lot of the university level reading and writing we ask of them right away. In the USA, it is not the case that high schools teach these skills to the end–of-high-school level. If students are good at figuring out how to write and read, they often come from families where reading and writing and education are valued, and reading at least is done for fun.

    ESL learners, students from families with rather less education among the members do not know how to “do” college or aren’t ready to learn to “do” college as quickly. So they’re not just building an aircraft without having seen one, they’re doing it without having ever seen an engine of any kind.

    5) I feel like we forget that writing and reading are ongoing skills that require practice and attention and help. Teachers complain that students are able to take on new kinds of writing or reading tasks, but seem eminently unwilling to actually teach students how to do them.

    It’s not a secret club, or a magic ritual, people. It’s a process, often with very formulaic steps attached, and we aren’t nesc. committed to teaching the mechanics of writing and reading because we want to work on content acquisition. Even if we DO have college-ready writers and readers coming into our classes, it isn’t the job of their high school instructors to teach them how to write a 3rd year level paper. WE have to do that.

    And I think your point- learning to abstract from the concrete, is one of the first things we can actually add in to the mix, once we decide to make these things a priority. But I often get the feeling the “build an aircraft without having seen one” behavior is really a grudging “well, I guess since I have to address it, I will do it this quick way and move on.”

    So. Yeah. I am grading final papers in a writing and research skills class, even now! Can you tell?

    • Hey, good to hear your voice :)

      My writing became immeasurably better when I went to GRADUATE SCHOOL

      Indeed. Actually I did relatively little tutoring while I was a PhD student, but what I did do was read a truckload of published papers. Which, obviously, helped a lot with the thesis. Somehow we have written students’ explicit/conscious consumption of writing out of the equation. (That sentence uses ‘write’ too often, but you know what I mean. I hope.)

      In my freshman class, we do a lot of using-a-model-to-pick-apart-articles.

      I’d love to do more of this (though perhaps the reason I don’t do much is that a lot of my teaching is about relatively fact-based, objective stuff, like “this part of the brain does X”). But it’s such a useful skill for students to develop. Hell, for anyone to develop.

      3) We peer review.

      If you have time, any chance you could drop a short paragraph about the process you use? I’m curious to know whether the issues I can imagine are even on your radar screen.

      4) I think there is a lot of privilege buried in the idea that students should know how to do a lot of the university level reading and writing we ask of them right away.

      Such a valuable comment – thank you. Of course. Easily forgotten.

      5) I feel like we forget that writing and reading are ongoing skills that require practice and attention and help.

      Yeah. I think this can happen for many reasons: we get sidetracked by content and forget process; we worry about over-assessing students; we favour summative over formative assessment; I may only mark two batches of coursework in a semester, and they may not even be from the same students, so I lose a sense of the individual’s progress … etc. But we could definitely try harder to embed this stuff into the curriculum. I spent a really great couple of days with some smart people last week, trying to future-proof undergraduate psychology degrees. One of the things that kept on coming out was that we wanted content and process to be more tightly woven together – the benefits for employability alone are obvious.

      Happy grading! And thanks for stopping by :)

      • AnthroK8

        What issues do you have in mind for peer review day that could be a problem?

        • Um, in no particular order:

          Reticence (students being reluctant to comment on others’ work, because they “don’t want to be mean”, or lack confidence in their own convictions, or … ) I figure at least some of this can be overcome with practice, though.

          Emphasis on things that actually aren’t that important (e.g. superficial elements like presentation; lack of awareness that heavy description [info-dump] isn’t that valuable unless it’s used to address the question, etc)

          Not sure what else, really. I still think peer review is a great way to go, though. Do these issues above even feature when you do this?

          • I was just reading peer evaluations of student presentations, and they were very nice. Supportive, but also helpfully critical. I am wondering if this is because they are anonymous? I threatened to leave names on the returned sheets if they were unduly mean. But, since they are by and large nice kids, they were by and large nice and also critical. So that was encouraging.

            One of the easiest ways to make peer evaluations go well is to have someone guide them in the process. Having someone model how to tutor really helps; it forces students to focus on a hierarchy of needs. There will be no discussion of grammar if you have no thesis statement, for example. And there will be no discussion of transition sentences if you haven’t bothered to follow the assignment.

            Learning to give good criticism is… a learned skill! Like writing and critical reading, it’s something that takes time and practice.

            Usually, I hope students get three good comments from each peer evaluation, since that makes it enough to actually make revising meaningful, but is focused so they aren’t wandering all over the place. It’s a bit of a balancing act, I think.

            • I threatened to leave names on the returned sheets if they were unduly mean.

              Ha! I like it. But yeah, my students are nice, so I wouldn’t perceive that as being too much of a problem. The anonymous thing is interesting though. And the modelling and hierarchy of needs stuff is gold, thank you; now I’m thinking about ways of visualising that for the students so we can all get together and do this.

              Thanks so much — definitely going to try this with my final-year projectees.

  7. Thanks for the great article! As always, intelligent and accessible. Damn, woman, you fine.

    I am using this right now with a mentee who is a recent university graduate. It is a fascinating journey from the blindness of the opaque abstract to the rich atmospheric colours of the concrete in plain sight.

    • You are so sweet :) Thank you!

      I’m thrilled if this is working for you at a practical level (you’re the second person to find a practical use for it since I hit ‘Publish’ yesterday, so clearly there’s something in here). I keep coming back to metacognition and how we don’t do nearly enough of it in formal education. So important.


  8. AnthroK8

    Peer Review Day In Kate’s Class:
    I can send you the materials I use, but your contact link isn’t working. I am at kate dot costello at gmail dot com (that’s the address I check every day).


    Peer Review.
    1) I don’t tell students that the due date for the paper is DRAFT day, because they don’t turn stuff in complete if I do. So… the syllabus says “turn in paper day.”

    1a) The next class, I have four copies of each paper made and bring them to class. If I can, I have the papers commented on, but not graded. If not… oh well.

    2) I ask the campus writing center to send three or four writing tutors to class.

    3) I have them split into groups and basically do a led tutorial with one another. There are usually four students per tutor. The tutors are good at teaching how the process goes/ what the process values. (From the top: Did you follow the assignment? Are all the pieces there? Is there a thesis? How is the paper organized? Do you use concrete examples? Are the transitions in place? Are the citations in order [unless they are missing, then that comes up earlier]? How is the grammar?)

    4) Students then go through the process of reading one another’s papers, with this hierarchy of values firmly at the front. They make comments on the copy of each paper that they are given. Then I ask students if they would like to revise the papers before they are graded by me.

    4a) Everyone says yes, since their paper was just ridden over rough shod, in a nice way.

    5) As an added bonus, students start going to the writing center on their own.

    Other peer review things we do:

    1) I show them my own work in draft stage and end stage so they can see the differences.

    1) They have to write a long paper in the sequence next term. They post their paper topics on the board in class, and students go around, read and discuss the topics, and ask questions about the topics by writing them on post-its and sticking them to the posted paper. This helps them narrow it down so they aren’t all over the place.

    2) We do a “speed dating” exercise where students have to explain their paper’s thesis in three minutes, eight times- to a different member of class each time. They get to ask one another questions about the thesis and topic, forcing individuals to be able to explain and refine what they say each time, and giving them an opportunity to have holes in the argument pointed out to them before I get to the papers.

    3) They peer review drafts of the long paper as well.

    • This is just awesome — thanks so much. Think I’m going to do this with my final year project students.

      Incidentally, that email link should be fixes by now … but I’ll try and drop you a line soon.


      • I don’t recall there being anything like this at GU- at my school, every first year takes a First Year Symposium, which is specifically focused on research, writing, information literacy, and critical reading. It is a year long sequence, and although I get to teach Anthropology, what I am really teaching is How to Do College.

        We spend a lot of time in meetings talking about How To Get Students to Argue Alternative Points of View and How to Assess Student Writing and How to Write a Rubric.

        I never read any GU student writing aside from my own, but I can say about American students… composition classes and research and reading and writing classes are really helpful to have!
        These are my days…

  9. Thanks for the mention! I had to say, it never occurred to me to make the students figure out what (in our case) MLA format is and what it should contain/look like. I was thinking that instead of using a grammar text next semester, I would send the students out to research the rules. But I might just start the process with an in class exercise with each group looking at a set of sentences and then ask them: looking at this, how does one use a comma correctly? What is wrong with a fragment? Etc. I really appreciate this.

    I pulled a fast one on my writing students. We did our usual series of peer reviews of their last papers, but what I didn’t tell them is that their drafts didn’t “count” for anything (usually count as homework/class work part of grade). When they asked what they needed to hand in, I said nothing except the final draft. Some looked crestfallen, like I had just wasted there time by spending two weeks on drafting and revising. But then I asked them, how much better is your final draft than you first draft – that is your reward. They got it. :-)

  10. I am appallingly jet-lagged, and am reading my favourite blogs to stay awake another two hours so apologies for not being terribly erudite BUT…

    I love this. I love teaching through pattern-making. In fact, I see that a pattern in my teaching (ha) is ‘Look here, and here, and here… What do you notice?’

    It needs setting up with people, as some people only feel convinced of value if they are ‘taught’, but it seems to me that encouraging pattern-making sets up the meta-learning so that progress carries on outside the classroom.

    (Loving ‘muddy footprints’.)

    Thanks for keeping me awake.

    I hope this makes sense. I’m a bit stare-y…

    • You poor jetlagged bunny! That’s not the nicest state to be in (unless you’re at that stage of tiredness when everything’s funny).

      Really pleased if this works for you. Say mote about the “need to set it up for people”? I think I see what you mean about needing to look like you’re providing value (when you actually are already), but I wonder if you can give me an example of how you’d do that? (If you’re not too wiped)

      Oh, and welcome back :) And thanks for the compliment :)

    • More, damn it, not mote. This is what happens when I reply to this stuff on my phone.

  11. Well, gosh, I got here via my daughter’s blog,, and what you’re writing about fits right in with the book I’m reading, Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham. Chapter Four: Why Is It So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas? I feel like I’m entering a Perfect Storm!

    • Hi Nancy, welcome aboard!

      I confess that I have actually bought Daniel Willingham’s book, but not yet had time to read it! I do find it reassuring that he is espousing these principles though; feels like I’m not totally howling at the moon. Incidentally, I’m a big fan of his video learning styles don’t exist.

      And it’s funny that you mention the perfect storm — quite often when I encounter a new interesting educational seam, I find that I see it reflected back at me wherever I look :) I’m sure at least some of that is the online educational community’s delightful willingness to pick up even half an idea and run with it.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      — Chris.

  12. Once our online discussion group gets to chapter four, I plan to link them to your blog post. They are much slower readers!! Of course, since they are either teachers or principals, and I’m now a retired teacher, I have the time :-) I appreciate the link to Willingham’s video. He discusses learning styles in his book, too. I need to learn how to make hot links in my replies.

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