Note: This is the third in a series from the authors that lays the groundwork for transformative teaching and learning using the EMPOWER model details in their books for elementary and secondary educators. Links to the previous posts along with more information about the Planning Powerful Instruction books can be found at the end of this post.
Like many children of the ‘90s, Adam loved playing video games growing up.
They’re engaging. They’re addictive. They’re enjoyable.
They’re everything we want our learning experiences to be!
So, naturally, what can we learn from the almighty, attention-commanding video game?
Let’s look at a video game on the most basic structural level.
In the early stages of a game, you get hints and clues about how to succeed. The “bosses” at the end of every level are easy to defeat.
You marvel at your skills. You feel successful. You are amazing. You’re juiced to take on the next level. I’m unstoppable, you think.
Then, over the course of levels, the game gets harder. The supports fade.
No more clues. Now there are traps you have to avoid. New challenges.
You might fall into a chasm, endure a few failures. Even lose a few lives.
And when you do, the callback to action is so dramatic:
Continue? 10. 9. 8. 7. 6-
Your hands fumble for the controller. OF COURSE, I WILL CONTINUE. I WILL NOT GIVE UP. I WILL NOT GIVE IN!
The sequence repeats until the player finally “levels up” to a dramatic showdown with the final boss after which you win the game.
This “leveling up” sequence found in most story-based video games keeps players playing, learning, reflecting and persevering despite losing, starting over, practicing new moves, and being challenged with greater obstacles over time.
Dedicated players reflect on and discuss their performance with others, put in the time, reflect and strategize in their off hours – and they do it with deep joy and engagement (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002; 2006)..
In other words, this sequence helps people develop the most sought-after behaviors we want to develop in our learners!
So, why doesn’t this level of engagement and capacity building happen in our typical curriculum and instruction?
The not-so-gradual release of responsibility
Many teachers will recognize the pattern of gradually decreasing prompts with gradually increasing task complexity as the gradual release of responsibility. But in comparing the sequence that plays out in video games to the sequence that plays out in schools, we notice a curious phenomenon playing out in the latter.
In many cases, units of instruction–even in some of the most popular packaged curricula nationwide–proceed as follows:
First, the teacher models a new skill; students practice. The next day, the sequence repeats: the teacher models a new skill; students practice (and maybe apply to an “independent piece”). The sequence repeats over and over until teachers present students with the final task: to reproduce the sequence with independence.
So, to flesh out the example, students might build parts of a narrative day-by-day–story idea generation one day, crafting an intro the next, followed by adding character dialogue–until everyone has completed a narrative. Then it’s time to tackle the final task: creating a narrative independently.
Often, students who go through units like these fail spectacularly.
But why? Isn’t this just a faithful interpretation of the Gradual Release of Responsibility?
When students learn part-by-part (as they do in this example), they do not get a sense of the whole task.
If a basketball coach only ran drills for dribbling, passing, and shooting, the players would not magically put all these pieces together. They need opportunities to practice dribbling and passing as part of running plays, then scrimmage and play against teams to see the bigger picture, the context for each skill, and how they all fit together. To get good at storytelling, you need to tell many stories, not just practice all the parts that make up one.
Besides the lack of context, in moving onto a new skill almost daily, students never get the practice repetitions, nor get it in a real context of use, that they need to develop expertise.
To bring back our Super Mario analogy for a moment, this sequence is akin to a version of the game in which you:
- get hints and clues the whole way with no decrease in scaffolds–except abruptly at the very end
- skip “mini-boss” checkpoints along the way, so you cannot “level up” your skills
- face an exceedingly difficult “final” boss at the end–except that this is the first time you face a boss of any kind, so you have no experience, confidence, nor practice in navigating this kind of challenge
Sounds like a great game, right? Just thinking about it makes our palms sweaty again.
The truth is “I Do, We Do, You Do” is a perfectly adequate sequence for some lesson plans some of the time, but it’s not how students are apprenticed into developing deep transferable learning for the long haul.
So, is there a better alternative?
Walkthrough and extend expertise: A better way to “level up” skills
In our recent book, Planning Powerful Instruction, we detail a seven-step framework called EMPOWER that captures seven must-make moves of transformative teaching.
E: Envision the destination
M: Map the path to mastery
P: Prime students
O: Orient the learning
W: Walkthrough and extend expertise with new skills
E: Explore new territory
R: Reflect on the journey
Direct skill development occurs during the “W–Walkthrough and extend expertise” phase of the model.
By the time we reach this phase, we have already completed these steps:
E: We have envisioned the unit goals.
M: We have mapped out a path to student mastery of those goals.
P: We have primed students for success by activating and connecting to prior knowledge.
O: We have oriented students towards the learning goals.
And now we are ready to:
W: Walkthrough and extend students’ expertise in a new set of skills.
In unit planning, the walkthrough is a phase of instruction that apprentices students to acquire new strategies and concepts and use them in holistic contexts through mindful, deliberate practice.
To address the shortfalls identified in the instructional vignette above and to develop student independence, we need an instructional sequence that:
- provides a sense of the whole task, then focuses on specific parts in the context of the whole, then returns to the whole
- gives scaffolds that decrease gradually
- offers plenty of opportunities to “level up” skills and face “junior” tasks increasingly like the ones they will face towards the end
- challenges students without triggering shutdown with tasks way outside of their zone of productive struggle
One way to ensure students tackle the same task and practice the same skills over enough time to develop independence is to build a task staircase where instruction is bookended by a series of tasks that approximate the final task.
Just like mini-bosses.
In this staircase, we gradually “level up” the complex task of comparison writing by beginning with a “close to home” comparison (restaurants) with a high degree of support before engaging students in comparing a slightly more complex topic of student government candidates with slightly less support from the teacher.
Following that, students “step up” to more complex topics with less teacher support.
By the time students reach the final task, they have had multiple opportunities to practice the “crux moves” of comparison with guidance in junior versions of a whole task, with peer support, and with independence in increasingly sophisticated contexts.
Why a staircase?
We use a staircase metaphor to illustrate that skill development does not develop in a perfectly linear fashion. Students will require some time at each level before they can move up to the next level of sophistication or independence. And some students will require more time or more and varied kinds of assistance at a level. This provides instructional differentiation.
Over days and weeks spent practicing and tackling tasks, student expertise will seemingly “jump up” as skills you have practiced and interleaved crystallize in your students’ minds.
As we know from cognitive science (e.g. Ericsson & Poole, 2016), the point is that deep learning and achievement is situated, and takes time and lots of deliberate practice. But this process makes you the boss – of your own future learning with similar tasks!
We invite you to read the earlier posts in this series, in which we focus on planning instruction (the E: Envisioning and M: Mapping phases of EMPOWER) and on starting lessons in a way that pulls students in (the P: Priming and O: Orienting phases).
Our books Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must-Make Moves to Transform How We Teach–and How Students Learn, grades 6-12 and grades 2-5, walk you through every step of EMPOWER and provide numerous strategies you can use immediately in every step of the model. We’ll continue to break down some of the books’ key concepts and tools for you on Corwin Connect in the coming months. In the meantime, please reach out with questions and to check out our website, empoweryourteaching.com, for downloadable tools that will help you get started with EMPOWER right now.