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Performance and context
Q: How do they understand it in class and fail the test?
Although this process of building new neural networks takes time and requires individual effort, it is also heavily dependent on the context in which the individual works—especially, the social and emotional supports in the environment. In schools, surprisingly, teachers often look at performance alone, independent of context. Jeff's frustration over his students' inability to write a decent essay at home after seeming to understand the process in class illustrates this tendency to judge performance separately from context. Jeff lost sight of the supportive context that he had created to enable his students to perform the skill in the classroom, so he didn't appreciate the debt their skill level owed to the conditions he had set up.
Jeff supplied critical help to ratchet his students' understanding and skill to a level they couldn't sustain without his support. He provided examples of good paragraphs and identified the elements that made them good: the topic sentence, the evidence, and the way all the sentences worked together. He gave them other examples and provided a structure and guidance to help them identify the elements that made these paragraphs effective. He is an energetic, entertaining teacher who cracked jokes and had selected paragraphs that were provocative or amusing, so the students were having fun. Then he prompted them through the creation of a group paragraph that he wrote on the board. In short, he raised them to a level of performance built on the scaffold of several elements: his presence, his doing much of the actual intellectual work involved in creating a paragraph, his priming key ideas and components of the paragraph, the collaboration of the other students, and a classroom atmosphere conducive to doing intellectual work.
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Then quite suddenly, he pulled the scaffold away by sending each student home to write a paragraph alone. Writing a paragraph is a complex skill composed of many smaller skills: the ability to conceive of a topic, to organize an argument, to write sentences, to keep ideas in mind, to connect ideas, to recognize and use evidence, and many more. As teachers, we need to know what skills are embedded in our goals, what skills students bring to the task (likely somewhat different for each student), what skills they can reasonably be expected to do on their own, and what skills we are actually doing for them in the classroom. Could Jeff's students write a paragraph? Well, yes and no. In the scaffolded context of the classroom, the students as a group, relying heavily on the teacher's support, could write a paragraph. But alone at home, they could not. Most adults know, at least intuitively, that performance depends on context. For example, perhaps we have attended a (top)
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lucid lecture about a complex topic, like the connection between emotion and learning. A good lecture provides an intellectual scaffold that enables us to begin to understand a new concept. It's as though we are hoisted onto someone's shoulders so that we can see beyond the usual crowd of familiar ideas and glimpse a new vista; we see it with exciting clarity—but only for as long as we stand on those shoulders. As soon as the lecture ends, as soon as we are put down again into the crowd, the vision begins to dissipate. In the excitement of the afterglow, we rush back to our school and attempt to explain to a colleague what we have seen, and it all falls apart. "It's so great. Emotion is so important to how we learn. It's like the rudder for thinking, so you really have to get the kids to be more emotional. But, no, I'm not really sure how it works with learning math."
The lecture allowed us just barely to begin to build the new neural network; it led us to the path and showed us its shape. But we must return to it again and again, building and rebuilding the concept a bit more facilely each time. We have to reread our notes, listen to the lecture again, read articles on the subject, discuss it with more knowledgeable people, try again to communicate to others our growing understanding, use the ideas to invent lessons, see what worked and what didn't, reread the articles, and go over our notes. Eventually, we may develop a decent neural network for this concept, but each time we need to use it, we must re-create it—reactivate it, rethink it. Although we become increasingly skilled, complex concepts must always be reconstructed. Building knowledge is a dynamic process, not a collection of static things that we store in a memory box.
And each time we reconstruct a skill, we do so in some sort of context that offers varying degrees of support for its reconstruction and various opportunities for reinterpretation (understanding it in new ways). If we are relaxed and talking with a colleague who is exploring the same idea, our reconstruction might result in new discoveries and a more substantial understanding. If we are being attacked by a parent who belittles the notion of any connection between emotion and reason, if we are late for a meeting, or if we just had a fight with our spouse, any weaknesses in our basic understanding will tend to loom larger and may undermine our attempts to reconstruct the pathway.