The Value in Purposefully Teaching Academic Skills in the Classroom

When I was a wee, young lad, my father gave me a Rubik’s Cube as a gift.  I thought it was so cool.  All those colors and moves.  Amazing.  I spent several hours trying to figure out how it worked, how to solve it.  Now, keep in mind, I grew up in the 1980s, prior to the influx of all of this wonderful technology that allows kids to learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube in under 10 seconds.  I had no resources.  I tried different moves and configuration of moves, to no avail.  Nothing seemed to work.  So, I just gave up.  I was not working in any sort of purposeful or effective manner, as I had no help available to me back then.  I needed a lesson, book, guide, video, or tutor to help me learn the algorithms required to solve the Cube.

Fast forward many, many years to 2016.  After having read an interesting article about the value in teaching students how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, I took it upon myself to finally learn how to solve the mysterious Cube.  I spent many weeks during that summer trying to tame the beast in the Cube.  I made a plan of attack and started off on my journey.  I watched multiple videos on Youtube, many times each.  I printed out a solution guide from the Rubik’s Cube Website.  I practiced, tried, failed, and tried again.  I memorized the first few steps, but still needed to look at the solution guide for the final few moves.  After many weeks, I was able to accomplish the goal I set for myself many long years ago.  I solved the Rubik’s Cube.  It felt so great to do something that once seemed impossible to me.  The key to my success was purposeful preparation and execution of an appropriate plan.  I made use of my resources to ensure my success.

As a teacher, I employ this same practice with my students.  When I teach a particular skill or ask the students to complete a task, project, or activity, I make sure to model the skill or show the students how to utilize the skill in an effective and meaningful manner.  If I want my students to take notes from a text, I need to make sure that I teach them how to do so and not simply expect that they have learned how to do so in the past.  I need to teach the skill before having them practice applying it.  I need to be mindful of teaching with a purpose so that my students can taste effective success.

This past week, my students completed the final project for our introductory Science unit on the Scientific Method.  After weeks or learning the various steps of how to DO science, they were provided with the opportunity to highlight their learning.  The students chose a problem impacting our school community, brainstormed solutions to the problem, generated an investigation to test their solution, conducted their experiment, crafted a lab report to document their process, and then created a presentation board to showcase their learning.  It was a lengthy project that included multiple mini-lessons on the Scientific Method, lab report writing, and making an effective presentation board.  The outcome was phenomenal.  Because the students learned how to utilize the many skills I expected them to apply on the project prior to completing it, they all had well organized posters with detailed information on their scientific processes.  The students were rehearsed when they spoke to members of the school community about their project and findings.  They had props and samples from their investigations to show their learning.  I felt like I was observing a high school science fair on Friday morning as my students presented what they had learned regarding their self-selected topics.

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Several teachers and school administrators shared with me how incredibly impressed they were with my students.  “They all did great work.  They talked about what they had learned with confidence and ease.  Their posters were well done and effectively organized.  They did amazing work that rivaled what some eighth graders had done in the past,” they said to me after visiting with each of the students.  Following the big event, I couldn’t stop praising my students for their great effort, hard work, dedication, and ability to effectively apply the skills learned.  They knocked it out of the park like Jackie Bradley Jr. did against the Houston Astros last Tuesday night.

I do wonder if I would have observed the same outcome from my students had I not spent class time showing the students how to create an effective poster, modelling how to conduct a scientific investigation, and practicing how to appropriately present what was learned to others.  Would their posters have been neatly organized had I not conducted a mini-lesson on effective poster making?  Would my students have sounded as mature and confident had I not discussed the importance of removing the words or sounds ‘um, like, ahh, and err’ from their vocabulary?  Having a foundation of knowledge and skills on which to build, practice, and apply is crucial to success in and out of the classroom.  Great athletes aren’t born doing great things, they have to work at it over and over again.  Doctors, scientists, and authors don’t just fall into their professions, they have to practice and be trained in purposeful and meaningful ways.  I didn’t learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube without a purposeful plan, much support, and correct practice.  As teachers, we need to help our students apply the academic and social skills learned in the classroom accurately so that they can grow and develop into wonderful young adults.

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