Friday, December 19, 2014

Reflecting on Problem-Solving: Six Word Memoirs


A couple days into a challenging project this semester, students  felt confused, unclear. They didn't want guidance or coaching.  They wanted me to tell them exactly what to do. Students wanted, no demanded,  an absolute, singular correct solution to the challenge. 

This push back didn't surprise me. The majority were first-year college students. And returning students also argued for a more mechanistic, formulaic prompt of the worksheet or five-paragraph format variety. More comfortable filling in the blanks or following a rote formula, students froze when given a task calling for higher order thinking.  

Anticipating their struggle, I screened the above image that contrasts what we have come to expect from school (95% memorization and 5% problem-solving) and what life feels like (95% problem-solving and 5% memorization). I wrote about this illustration in an earlier post. Discussion was lively and meaningful. Students got that learning is more than memorization; deeper learning has to do with application. Though they appreciated the point of the image, students admitted they felt more comfortable with memorization because it was less rigorous. 

This realization led to a discussion about what it takes to solve problems, what kinds of questions to ask, what it means to be a strategic thinker, and what it means to experiment and make mistakes. We noted how the image captured an earlier lesson we had that contrasted conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge. 


Conceptual knowledge  has to do with what we can learn from reading a book or listening to a lecture. Procedural has to do with the ability to do something, to solve problems, or make decisions based on conceptual knowledge. The image gave me an easy way to iterate that lesson, explaining that the project stymies students precisely because they are relying on conceptual knowledge skills.  


For the last portion of our final, I wanted to return to the this distinction, but I didn't want students to simply recite definitions or simply explain the difference between memorization and problem-solving. I wanted the experience to be a bit more rigorous, applying knowledge instead of merely quoting. So I decided to assign a six-word memoir using the topic "problem solving."

After students completed the last formal part of the final (oral presentations), I reintroduced the "life vs. school" illustration and asked students revisit in small groups various problems they had to solve this past semester. I pointed out that the presentation they had just completed were problems to solve.  I reminded them of the major assignments we had and gave examples of personal problems students may have faced this semester: time management, financial crises, break-ups, getting kicked out of the house. I didn't want them to limit problem-solving to school. 


Then I introduced the six-word memoir concept. We read and discussed several mentor texts (I cribbed copies from Six Word Memoir and The Race Card Project). Finally, I asked them to compose their own six-word memoir that captures the essence of the discovered or rediscovered about problem solving this semester. 


Their memoir served as an exit ticket, students' final word on the class. I enjoyed reading how they made meaning from the problems they faced. Their answers suggest they took the theme "problem solving" seriously. Their stories hinted at kernels of persuasive texts. Each statement, though a complete composition, was worthy of elaboration, could even be the framework of a more developed textual or multimedia composition. 

Three initial take-aways: 
1) I've gotta find ways to iterate the "problem solving" theme throughout the semester. I've got to do what I can to get students (and myself) out of the "learning-as-memorization" mindset. 

2) I. Must. Do. This. Again. I'd tried six-word memoirs before, but with little success. Participating in The Writing Thief MOOC inspired me to try again.  Our first assignment/"make cycle" asked us to introduce ourselves, and many folks composed introductions reminiscent of six-word memoirs. Seeing what they did gave me confidence to try again. Trying the six-word memoir a second time reminds me that I need to have a teaching growth mindset, too. I can't expect to be perfect the first time. 

3) This activity has the potential to  help writers see how stories, or at least story elements, can complement or even structure other kinds of writing. If I construct a prompt or sequence of activities just so, this mini-memoir can be the a "narrative wrapper" encasing a concept or argument. 

I'm thinking here about Thomas Newkirk's Mind Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Newkirk asks us to consider the ways in which everything is a story, that narrative actually structures how we make sense of the world. Amazing read. 

There's so more for me to think about, so much more to unpack. 

Ima do this type of assignment again, for sure. Next time, I'll be more intentional about linking it to a broader project, structuring it to move past simple recitation. This needs to happen early enough in the semester so students can experience the joy of making, too! I had such a blast sequencing the quotes, finding the "just right" image to match their stories. I felt myself moving through different levels of rigor (Norman Webb's Depth of Knowledge) even though I felt like I was playing. I hope to recreate this for students.