7. Words and Wordsmithing: Tools and Skills in the New Learning Infrastructure

Words and wordsmithing: the tools and skills necessary to design mastery statements and a curriculum that ensures quality teaching and learning.

People not well acquainted with vocabulary and how words can be strung together to stimulate action can be put off by mastery statements. And intentions for student learning subordinate to them.

Mary’s professors and Mary herself knew the struggle. Some of her fellow students could not understand why so much verbal complexity was necessary.

Unlike past centuries when novelists and poets were like today’s rock stars. When Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century political wordsmiths such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln were revered for the power of their intellect and ability to write inspiring documents, books, and speeches.

Our 21st Century is different. The dominance of mass and social media reduces almost everything to sound bites and emotionally charged phrases. Commercialism and marketing ploys glorify simple descriptors and even outrageous remarks. Nuance is dominated by an either/or kind of thinking and acting.

Reflection, as a necessary way to improve the quality of human life, is considered by some to be a waste of time and effort. Which makes it even more difficult to institute a new learning infrastructure.

But we persevere. Because we must, to improve the quality of schools and schooling.

Mary’s next task as a teacher education student is to create a mastery statement for the middle school science class she identified. It must align with the district and subject area mastery statements.

The only way to create that alignment is to examine words and phrases. Content fields. Nouns, adjectives and especially verbs. Strong verbs.

Special attention must be given to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Because it ranks learning bottom up, from remembering things, to understanding something about them, to applying them to real life, to analyzing their effectiveness, to evaluating their worth, and to creating something better from what was learned earlier.

Creativity sits on top because that is what our century expects. People who succeed and live well are creative. They imagine, improve, and upgrade.

Yet today’s school programs of study still concentrate on REMEMBERING and UNDERSTANDING. COVID-19 has made that condition abundantly clear, because creative people were able to dance around the status quo and find ways to survive.

Those who just meet expectations and plod along are suffering.

We again join Mary as she continues her teacher education program. Learning how to design down from comprehensive mastery statements, to mastery statements she must use for her own course.

Mary Chapman’s Story – Part 5

My idea was to set up a middle school science program based on the biography of scientists and include characteristics that might be instructive to my students.

Classroom strategies were figured out. I would use role play, simulations, debate, and other interactive techniques to help my students FEEL what science is and who scientists are.

At the end of the year, I wanted them to know that scientific study is not a casual walk in the park. It means rigor, accuracy, intensity, patience, and ongoing determination.

The starting point was to examine the fictitious district’s mastery statement for science. I pulled out a few key words and phrases:

  • Steps in a scientific investigation
  • Techniques for evaluating findings using the scientific method
  • How a scientist gets to the point of drawing conclusions
  • Processes used by scientists to prove their conclusions are practical
  • Analytical thinking done systematically through problem solving
  • Defining and using critical and creative thinking
  • Explaining and demonstrating the relationship among pure science and applied science
  • Explaining the relationship between science and technological applications
  • Depicting the interdependence of science, technology and social needs

As I reflected on those key elements in the district’s science mastery statement, I attempted to frame them in a biographical context.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term scientist as a person who is studying or has expert knowledge in one or more of the natural or physical sciences. Scientists are usually thought of a being expert researchers.

They also speak and write about their work, because what they learn in the research must be shared with, examined and evaluated by other scientists. That is called “peer review.” The findings of one scientist are always subject to the critical analysis of other scientists.

Some scientists have the time and financial backing to think about and research whatever comes to mind. Others are given a task, such as finding a vaccine to prevent COVID 19. They concentrate their attention on that one goal.

History’s most famous scientists were those who, through experimentation and deep reflection, came up with theories that changed human life directly or indirectly. Their stories range from heroic to tragic. But buried in those stories was the drive to make a difference in the time they had on earth.

That making a difference goal is what I decided to focus on first in my science course. And to keep attaching ways all of us can think and act as scientists, whether we assume that mantle or not. The subtitle for my simulated middle school course is therefore People Who Think and Act Like Scientists Make a Difference.  Here is the proposed mastery statement for my fictitious middle school course:

Students will:

  • define science as a scholarly activity and explain how it is the best way to study.
  • explain and demonstrate how quality research is conducted.
  • describe each research technique in terms of why it is important.
  • select two famous scientists from history and explain why they were chosen.
  • relate their story in terms of what motivated them to do what they did.
  • choose a vocational pursuit they might follow as an adult and explain why.
  • defend conclusions made by one prominent scientist from today or in history.
  • create and present an argument for how a particular scientific finding can improve technology or the quality of life.

Our professors had each one of us present and defend our course mastery statement. In several ways. Student readiness. Alignment with both the general and subject area mastery statements. Logical spiraling considerations with other grade levels. Scope in the context of time allotments and instructional configurations.

Examples of curricular components. Preliminary ideas of what and how student assessment would be conducted to ensure mastery. And the kind of evidence accumulated to prove student mastery at an acceptable level.

The answers I gave in my oral defense had to square with action verbs in each sentence, as well as address the content field adequately. Coverage of Bloom’s Taxonomy was also important, especially in consideration of how well the course attended to the top four goals: applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating. Those verbs did not need to appear in the mastery statement itself, but the actions they called for needed to be inherent to the instructional program.

Most of all, elements of the mastery statement must follow the intent of the course theme: scientists making a difference.

I did not pass the oral defense with flying colors. My professors and fellow students said I probably did not think through two problems well enough.

The first was spiraling in concert with previous and subsequent grade levels, which everyone admitted was difficult in a simulation. In a district I would be part of a subject area committee that would resolve what gets taught and where. What gets introduced and reinforced.

The second problem my professors and fellow students had was that “scope” might be too “pie in the sky.”  Discounting new problems associated with virtual instruction, typical school year contact time with middle level students is a total of 165 clock hours. Or less. Which is exclusive of homework time.

The question I had trouble answering was whether I could cram everything in my mastery statement into that timeframe if, let us say, I had an average of 25 students in each class. That could be a severe problem, especially if my “mastery” expectations were as high as I claimed they were.

I was told some of the elements of the mastery statement should be moved to another grade. Or maybe dropped altogether. Especially those that did not speak directly to my theme of People Who Think and Act Like Scientists Make a Difference

—————-

I realized this project was significantly different than what happens in most teacher education programs. At least in the context of depth and intensity.

My professors were candid as to the reasons many preparation programs for teachers do not include this kind of intense training. Some professors are not acquainted with the process themselves.

And governmental regulations in some states do not allow universities to require more than minimum number of semester hours in professional preparation. Education deans in many states have been hamstrung by legislatures and state boards of education, who have powerful people asserting their belief that all teachers need is a strong subject area background.

I am learning that such thinking hinders what my professors call the new learning infrastructure.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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