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August 9, 2018

Making Lessons Memorable: Designing from Two Perspectives

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Instructional Strategies
What do we want students to learn? What do we want them to remember—tomorrow? Next month? Next year? Clearly, we cannot separate learning from memory. Ensuring that what we teach is memorable is a vital component of instruction. The question, of course, is how.
To answer the question of how, we need to look at learning from two distinct, but deeply interrelated, perspectives: the learner's perspective and the lesson designer's perspective.

The Learner's Perspective

While there is no single universal "learner," cognitive science can help us extrapolate some important generalizations about how all humans build understanding and retain new learning. Drawing on brain research, Goodwin, Gibson, Lewis, and Rouleau (2018) outline a model of the "perilous journey that information must take before finding a home in long-term memory".
In its simplest form, this journey entails three phases: (1) attention, or making the initial connection to new learning; (2) focus, or working with and actively processing the new learning; and (3) consolidation, during which learners practice using the new learning, elaborating on it, and making it personally meaningful. Thus, a key to making lessons memorable is designing them with the goals of capturing attention, promoting active processing, and facilitating practice and reflection so that learning sticks.

The Lesson Designer's Perspective

Madeline Hunter. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Robert Marzano. All of these giants in education have spent years researching and improving this thing called instructional design. In working with thousands of educators over the years to help them apply the frameworks laid out by these experts, we became driven by a question: What do all instructional design frameworks have in common?
The result of this inquiry is what we call The Five Episodes of Instruction (Silver Strong & Associates, 2012), a framework that synthesizes the preeminent instructional design models into a simple, universal design. This design recognizes that good instruction is episodic in nature—that learning unfolds over time and that teachers pursue five distinct purposes during distinct episodes. Over the course of any effective learning sequence, teachers
(1) prepare students for new learning,
(2) present and help students acquire new learning,
(3) deepen and reinforce learning,
(4) challenge students to apply or demonstrate learning, and
(5) and encourage students to reflect on and celebrate learning.
Let's bring these two critical perspectives together with a walk-through of The Five Episodes of Effective Instruction, complete with an explanation of how each episode supports the learning process (attention, focus, consolidation) and a classroom example showing how a teacher uses this framework to help students retain and use new learning.

Episode 1: Preparing Students for New Learning

Learning begins with attention. Therefore, during this episode, teachers capture students' attention and help students activate prior knowledge. Teachers also direct students' attention to the learning to come by establishing clear learning targets. Here's an example of how a teacher prepares students for new learning by getting their attention:
Instead of announcing, "Today, we will learn about the water cycle," Mr. Chow begins with a thought-provoking hook that will drive the entire lesson. He takes a sip of water from a glass and asks students to agree or disagree with these statements:
  • This water is the same water dinosaurs drank millions of years ago.
  • Leonardo da Vinci sipped this water while painting the Mona Lisa.
  • Serena Williams guzzled this water to get through her last tennis match.
He asks, "Not quite sure? Skeptical? By the end of this lesson you will be able to explain whether these statements are true with clear evidence to support your explanation."

Episode 2: Presenting/Acquiring New Learning

Learning requires focus. Teachers do more than present content during this episode; they help students actively process the content and assemble information into big ideas and important details. Here's an example of a teacher presenting information in a way that harnesses their focus and helps them acquire the new learning.
Mr. Chow presents students with a blank graphic organizer that outlines the water cycle. He has students review the organizer to determine what it tells them about the water cycle (What are the big ideas? What predictions can you make?). He then presents the content, one chunk at a time, while students make notes. After each chunk, he engages students in a processing activity. Activities include reducing notes to a single-sentence summary, diagramming what was presented, and comparing notes with a partner.

Episode 3: Deepening and Reinforcing Learning

Learners need opportunities to consolidate learning. Therefore, during this episode, teachers engage students in strategic practice to help them solidify their understanding of key content and increase their mastery of new skills. Here's an example of this in action:
In small groups, students use their organizers to retell the steps in the water cycle. Group members give one another feedback on how to make their retellings more complete and more accurate.

Episode 4: Applying and Demonstrating Learning

Learners further consolidate and extend learning by applying it. Therefore, during this episode, teachers challenge students to demonstrate, synthesize, and transfer their learning. Here's how Mr. Chow helps students consolidate new learning through application:
Mr. Chow offers students a choice of tasks. Students can (1) agree or disagree with the opening hook ("This is the same water the dinosaurs drank.") and support their position with evidence; (2) make a diagram explaining the water cycle; or (3) create a narrative titled, "My Life as A Drop of Water." No matter which task they choose, students must demonstrate their understanding of the entire water cycle.

Episode 5: Reflecting on and Celebrating Learning

This entire process is enhanced through active reflection. Teachers help students look back on, learn from, and celebrate their learning—and their learning process. Mr. Chow uses several prompts to engage students in reflection:
Mr. Chow's students think about what they have learned and complete one of the following reflection stems:
  • I was amazed by . . . .
  • I would like to learn more about . . . .
  • I see a connection between . . . .
  • I am confused about . . . .
Mr. Chow concludes the lesson with homework that anticipates tomorrow's lesson (water conservation) by asking students to list five things they believe they can do to conserve water.

Mastering the Dance

George Balanchine said of ballet, "There are no new steps, only new combinations."
Over the years, we have found that the best way to help teachers increase their expertise in instructional design is to use The Five Episodes, guided by an understanding of what it takes to really learn something. No new steps, but endless opportunities for combinations that make learning memorable.

Goodwin, B., Gibson, T., Lewis, D., & Rouleau, K. (2018). Unstuck: How curiosity, peer coaching, and teaming can change your school. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Silver Strong & Associates. The thoughtful classroom teacher effectiveness framework: Resource guide. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Author.

Harvey Silver is president of Silver Strong & Associates and Thoughtful Education Press. An experienced educator, presenter, and coach, Silver has conducted thousands of workshops for schools, districts, and state education organizations throughout the United States.

Silver is the author of several articles and books on instructional tools and strategies, including some ASCD bestsellers: The Core SixThe Strategic Teacher,  So Each May Learn, and Teaching What Matters Most.

With the late Richard Strong, Silver developed The Thoughtful Classroom—a renowned professional development initiative dedicated to "making students as important as standards” and collaborated with Matthew J. Perini to develop the Thoughtful Classroom Teacher Effectiveness Framework.

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