Rinse and Repeat: How Learning Sticks

If we were to catalogue the sensations of teaching, the feelings and thoughts that swirl about us as we move from class to class, period to period, or subject to subject, one phrase might separate itself from the pack - both in quantity and intensity: "But I taught you that already."

I taught you that already: a troublesome idea. It is a phrase that makes me feel like I have failed, like my teaching is not effective. It is the feeling I have that gets me on that slippery slope of wondering if somehow you, my student, have failed me. It is the fleeting thought in my darkest moments that maybe you just can't do it, like I should give up and hand out a worksheet.

It is also kind of, sort of, total bunk.

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What it feels like to say or hear "I already taught that." Coincidentally, also how I feel about the word "bunk."

The problem with saying "I already taught that" is that the entire premise of the argument is faulty. If, in fact, I had "taught" it, then the student would know it. What I usually mean when I think "I already taught that," is that I gave one mini-lesson on that subject, or that I reminded students of the work they should be doing from time to time, or that I "covered" the material.

Everyone knows, upon reflection, that this is not how humans learn. One lesson, one day, even one week is not enough to build a new habit or skill within the brain of a brilliant thirty-year-old, let alone an eleven-year-old distracted by life. Lots of people have researched this: whether we mention Gladwell and his ten thousand hours, or UCLA's recent research on habit forming (they say it takes 66 days) the fact of the matter is clear: in order to learn something, we need to do it repeatedly, over and over again, with coaching or reponse along the way.

Hence the title of this blogpost: Rinse and Repeat.

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The instructions on our shampoo bottles: lather, then rinse and repeat as needed. Dont stop until your hair is clean.

Rinse and repeat are good instructions for our teaching, as well. Teach, then rinse and repeat as needed. This has some implications for our planning however. I cannot rinse and repeat if I am teaching a new thing every day.

I cannot rinse and repeat if I am always asking kids to jump through different hoops, perform different tasks, or prove themselves in different ways.

I cannot rinse and repeat if they only write one piece a unit, or a read one book a quarter.

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Before you launch into your next unit, step back for a moment and consider what it is that you might "rinse and repeat" across the next few weeks. (To do this, it might help to take a look at our previous blog post on performance assessments.) Let's suppose you are headed into a unit where students will be writing arguments (or, as they called them way back in the early 00's, essays). And let's say that you have assessed your kids and have seen that they struggle with elaboration, with saying more about their ideas or their evidence.

Ok. So, how do we rinse and repeat a skill across a unit?

1. Find multiple places where kids can practice the skill. Everyday is ideal, but even once or twice per "phase" of the unit will do. Take our elaboration example.  During the 'collecting' phase of a writing unit (the beginning), kids can work on elaboration as they write entries that help find their topics and claims.  And they can use elaboration moves to debate their ideas as they develop reasons and evidence. And when writing a rough draft, they can elaborate across all paragraphs.  And when they revise their draft, kids can keep a careful eye on the amount and quality of what they have elaborated upon. Rinsed, and repeated.

2. Be sure to collect a host of strategies to help kids at all levels of the skill. Once I have marked multiple places in the unit to practice, I am going to need to know what to teach kids about this skill. Maybe I'll collect a list of elaboration prompts to help scaffold the work for kids, or develop a lesson around when to elaborate and when to hold back, or maybe I'll set up a structure of talk in my class so that kids can say more in effort to write more. If I commit to rinse and repeat, I need to be well-versed in the reading or writing skill and all the different ways I can teach that skill.

3. Get models. (Not shampoo models.) Creating great examples of what I want my kids to try out will help them to visualize their own work. They will also help to make the vague and ethereal more concrete and doable. For elaboration, I can put up or hand out models of notebook entires, examples of great old student work, or beautiful paragraphs from published essays.

4. Edit the unit. As we said before, we can't rinse and repeat if there is no breathing room in our units. Look across your pacing calendar and consider which lessons you need to teach. Is there anything that the kids might be able to do with a gentle reminder versus a full lesson? Anything that feels like something you can teach in a small group rather than whole class? Only by trimming the fat of a unit do we have the room to ask students to work on something repeatedly.

5. Rinse and repeat the "unit" itself. After teaching students something, ask them to do it again with more independence. In a reading unit, they can try the same moves on a new book. In writing, once they have written one essay, they can try their newly adopted moves on a new essay right away. By practicing the whole move over again, kids can use what they know in a new situation and show you what they have held onto.

Our hope is that at the end of a unit, you can look out on your class and think to yourself, "I taught you that," with satisfaction and certainty.

Or...to extend the inevitable metaphor, we hope that you can rid yourself of the split ends in your teaching, to wash away the waxy buildup in your units to leave your class strong, clean...and luxurious.

Big idea:  Purposeful unit planning.                  Tiny detail: Rinse and repeat instruction & practice.

Kate and Maggie