Friday, February 24, 2012

Hooks, Spirals and Dirty Old Men: Part 1 of 2

The other day, I wrote about some of my favorite quirky facts about our nation's presidents. While those facts are pretty darn amazing in their own right, they also open the door to another story that I'd like to tell. So grab a mastodon bone, gather close to the fire, and I'll begin. 

A few years back, my dear friend and amazing teaching partner, Heidi and I decided to teach a high school history class on the Presidents of the United States. 

Men in suits.
I know, right? Can't you just hear the sighs and the groans coming from that group of unlucky students or anyone else who might be caught within earshot of such a dismal and dreary explosion of blah? For anyone who has studied history in a typical classroom setting (like me), it conjures up painful thoughts of a big fat textbook full of meaningless dates to be memorized, phrases like the Marshall Plan, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, the Mason-Dixon Line and Manifest Destiny to be digested, and inane "Chapter Review" questions to be answered.



It doesn't sound very interesting, does it.

Students, wake up..we've only gone as far as George Washington.
But Heidi and I don't roll with boring. So we were determined to find a way to make this topic fun.

First, a little back story. Heidi and I are what you might call "like-minded homeschoolers." If you're new to the world of homeschooling, that might not sound like a big deal. But anyone who's been around this group of people for any length of time knows that it's practically an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp" or "bipartisan cooperation." There are many reasons why people choose to homeschool and most of those reasons are polar opposites. (I know...I said that wrong. Work with me.) Throw in the fact that many of us are uncompromising rebels who think we know best, and you will start to understand why like-mindedness is a rare prize to be found among parent educators.

But Heidi and I do think very much alike. When it comes to why we homeschool our kids and what we are hoping to accomplish in teaching them, our principles are identical. Allow me to explain with some metaphors:

Most traditional teaching methods are basically attempts to pour vast quantities of information into students' brains, as if teachers had big pitchers full of iced liquid knowledge, and expected their students to happily tip back their heads, open their parched little mouths and drink it all up.

If you have every tried to actually pour water into another person's mouth (I'll admit it...I have), you'll know how difficult that can be. If you pour super slow, watch their reaction, and give them time to breathe and swallow, you might have a chance.

But if you have ever been the person trying to drink in this situation (I'll admit it...I've done that too), then you know that it is almost impossible to keep pace with the flow, and you quickly begin to sputter and choke.

And that's assuming that you even want to drink what is being poured forcibly into your mouth. What if you don't like what is being offered to you? What if you don't feel thirsty? What if the person who is pouring does not notice your hesitation and just keeps dumping this beverage into your unwilling mouth until it spills down your chin and forms a puddle on the floor? And then what if that person pulled back the pitcher, looked at you critically, and told you that you were doing it all wrong. Would you ever want to drink from them again? Hmm. It can be quite a bad experience.

This is why Heidi and I don't try to pour water into our students' mouths. It just doesn't work.

We believe in hooks and spirals.

Which means that our method for teaching looks something like this. We offer an array of interesting stories to our students. For any particular topic, as teachers, we offer up a few juicy stories ourselves; once we've got them interested, we send our students off to search out their own fascinating tidbits. And what we have found is that with a little bit of time and plenty of encouragement, every student can find some aspect of the topic that interests them. We tell and retell the favorite bits over and again like cherished bedtime classics, until each story becomes a familiar old friend.

At that splendid moment, we can be sure that each little tidbit of interest has now been transformed into a hook in our students' brains. It is firmly lodged in long-term memory, where it will stay for a long, long time, probably for life. Hooks are good.

Hooks are lovely in their own right, but they are also useful for hanging things.
Quotations make very good hooks.
A really first-rate hook can support a lot of extra weight.
But hooks are just the beginning; we all want our students to have much more than just isolated hooks of knowledge mounted in their brains. In the rest of our students' lives, from high school to college and far beyond, they will be running into other tidbits of information that are related to, or that build in complexity upon, the topics contained in our firm little hooks. These cycles of life-long learning, where familiar topics are encountered again and again, and seemingly unrelated topics become connected and integrated with new ideas, are called spirals. Spirals make it easy and convenient to build on existing knowledge.

Spirals happen when your brain meets up with new information that fits with something it already understands.

If your brain meets with new information that can't find or quickly build a hook in long-term memory,
the new information is likely to slip away. Alas.
Learning spirals happen throughout your lifetime; you just keep building and building on what you already know.
So Heidi and I see ourselves not as the water-pouring sort of teachers, but as hook builders. If we can send our students off into the world with some strong and dependable hooks in their brains, we can trust that when they experience spirals that bring them back to those topics, they will be able to "hang" or consolidate their new learnings with their previous knowledge and have it all make sense.

What does all this have to do with teaching history and the "Dirty Old Men" tease that I planted in the title for this post?

Stay tuned. I promise that within 24 hours, I will spiral back with the rest of the story.


  1. Diane,
    You have found your calling and I stand in awe and humble appreciation for your being able to put into words (and visuals!) what we believe with our whole hearts. Thank you, my dear friend and fellow homeschooler, for weaving your wonderful words together and sharing your wisdom with the world! (...and yes, you do know how I feel about alliteration!) :)

    1. Thank you, Heidi, for this kind comment and for all the years of creative, fun, and hook-filled learning. You're the best. :)


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