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Laporte teachers, administrators engaged in ‘higher order thinking’

BY Sarah smith

A rigorous revamping of the way teachers teach and the way students learn has been quietly taking place in a small conference room at the Laporte School.

Five teachers and two administrators have delved into an educational concept called AIW, Authentic Intellectual Work.

Five small northern Minnesota schools, including Laporte, received a $225,000 grant to implement the program, which questions traditional methods of teaching and whether requiring students to regurgitate facts back to teachers makes any sense.

AIW involves primarily “higher order thinking,” or HOT. It requires students to “organize, interpret, analyze, synthesize or evaluate information about themes, concepts and problems and draw a conclusion,” the training materials indicate.

And after a year of dissecting lesson plans and approaches and analyzing whether students are experiencing that “Eureka!” moment, the Laporte teachers will begin spreading the good word to others.

The teachers are Louise Bass, who teaches K-12 music; Karen Komulainen, teacher of Spanish and American history; sixth grade teacher Andrew Sundberg, math teacher Mary Hegna and Ryan Ferrin, who teaches social studies and is the football coach.

Hegna and Ferrin are new to the district this school year.

Superintendent Harvey Johnson and Principal Kim Goodwin are also part of the core group.

Lower order thinking, the instructions say, “occurs when students only recite facts, definitions, conventions or use rules and algorithms repeatedly” without understanding them or why they’re spouting them.

This experiment is intellectual risk-taking, said Fred Nolan of the Center for AIW within the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

Nolan was in Laporte last week to conduct a day-long seminar focused on AIW’s tenets of group-think.

Students don’t absorb much if a teacher lectures and then quizzes that student on what he or she has just learned, Nolan said.

“There’s a lot of us out there doing that,” he acknowledged.

Students having a substantive conversation not dominated by one party, the teacher, allows kids to learn from each other, to build on each other’s thinking.

It tends to have a snowballing effect, the Laporte teachers learned as they critiqued a video from The Learning Channel attempting to put AIW into practice.

By sharing ideas and concepts, the goal is that students will reach a coherent consensus on a correct answer. And peer-to-peer education tends to get all students engaged, not just the smartest kids in the room, often the most vocal.

Nolan agrees there’s an element of uncertainty about AIW, a certain risk-taking.

“You don’t want students just looking up facts and reiterating them,” he told the Laporte teachers.

He suggests teachers ask their students open-ended questions designed to make them think, such as “Why did we go to war?”

It’s concept-thinking. In evaluating learning, teachers ask what the value of the lesson is beyond the classroom.

“If you’re getting a headache now you’re not paying attention,” Nolan said to the frustrated teachers. “This is complex stuff.”

The teachers dive in, even discussing the words the teachers use to convey the lesson. They count the times the students interact with the teacher, how many times a conversation goes back and forth.

The more the better. They count how many students participated in the exercise and rate the quality of that participation.

Ditto – the more the better.

They learn how to phrase questions in order to stimulate discussion, not just provoke an answer.

They score the lesson, each tiny aspect of it.

They are highly critical, scoring it lower than Nolan did.

But another tenet of AIW is respectful disagreement.

The goal is “how to build kids’ understanding of this so they can engage with each other,” Nolan summarized.

And they are their colleagues’ best cheerleaders.

“I think you hit a home run,” Ferrin told Sundberg after one of the first lesson plans was presented.

Along the way the teachers self-critique to make sure they are reaching not just the smartest kids in the room but the middle and lower achievers.

Memorizing the rules doesn’t lead to understanding.

The process will continue this school year.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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