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Disciplinary Literacy: Empowering Students to be Knowledge Producers

This blog is part three of a series on learning transfer. For more on teaching for transfer, see this first post and this second post 

“Why do we have to know this?” It’s the age-old question students pose when they doubt the importance of the content they’re asked to learn. It’s hard to blame them. Most adults have little use for the quadratic formula or periodic table, not to mention the Battle of Waterloo or Moby Dick. When it boils down to it, any one atom of our content – any single text or algorithm, any piece of information or skill – is not all that essential to the daily demands of life, or even to tackling the greatest challenges facing humankind. 

Despite the relative insignificance of any one part of these disciplines, we have designed school around the idea that, when taken whole, these disciplines are essential components of being educated. The question “Why do we have to know this?” is the cry of students mired down in the parts of our disciplines, yearning for the whole. If students truly understood the beauty and utility of each discipline, they’d already have their answer.  

Each discipline is composed of ways of making meaning of, and communicating about, our complex world. By emphasizing disciplinary literacy, or the specialized ways of knowing and doing that characterize a field (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012), we can help students come to understand and appreciate both the beauty and utility of each discipline. Consider how the questions below might be used to explore the power and potential of your content area with your students. 

Example of Purpose-Role-Significance of English Language Arts 

Teaching the ways of knowing in any given field means shifting from teaching subjects to cultivating academic disciplines in students. The word “subjects” implies content coverage. “Disciplines” implies training, order, self-control, and application of standards to thoughts and actions. Students need to understand this so they are not only the receivers of knowledge, but become disciplined makers of knowledge. They must learn to construct knowledge the way that practitioners—historians, scientists, mathematicians, rhetoricians—construct knowledge in the real world. This occurs when students’ thinking in the classroom reflects the type of thinking and reasoning done in the field.  

One of the most significant steps we can take to begin this shift in learning is to discern which conceptual tools will best serve students along the journey. We can ask ourselves—what are the most essential disciplinary practices within the context of my course that students must acquire, connect, and transfer in order to be effective practitioners of the discipline(s) I teach? What are the two or three concepts or practices that I want students to consider, every single time they encounter a new situation? Though this isn’t an exhaustive list, we’ve compiled what we feel are some key disciplinary lenses for several fields. 

A focus on disciplinary literacy should also provide students with the technical vocabularies and practices necessary to evaluate and produce disciplinary knowledge, instead of simply memorizing it. To accomplish this, teachers need to facilitate inquiry that allows students to explore how each discipline asks and examines questions, makes and debates claims, and draws and defends conclusions (Moje, 2015). We like using the following graphic to visualize how experts use disciplinary lenses to think about their field and what key concepts are most relevant. Click here for more examples and use this template to make your own disciplinary literacy chart like the one below.   

Imagine how school would change for the better if educators made this one, simple shift. Instead of mastering a body of knowledge created by others, students would become adaptive experts capable of using the thinking of each discipline to solve real-world problems. Although we cannot predict the exact challenges that future generations will face—manifestations of the climate crisis, intractable global conflicts, economic disruptions, injustice in its myriad forms, or even the wide variety of personal dilemmas that plague each of us from time to time—we certainly know that they will be better off if they can draw on the logic of a scientist, precision of a mathematician, the empathy of a literary scholar, and the skepticism of a historian, for instance, to navigate these situations.  

For more strategies that will help you teach for transfer, check out Learning That Transfers by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. 

Written by

Julie Stern is the best-selling author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary, Visible Learning for Social Studies, and Learning That Transfers. She is the thought leader behind the global workshop series Making Sense of Learning Transfer, and is a certified trainer in Visible Learning Plus. Her passion is synthesizing the best of education research into practical tools that support educators in breaking free of the industrial model of schooling and moving toward teaching and learning that promotes sustainability, equity, and well-being. She is a James Madison Constitutional Fellow and taught social studies for many years in Washington, DC and her native Louisiana. Julie moves internationally every few years with her husband, a US diplomat, and her two young sons. Her website is www.edtosavetheworld.com.   Krista Ferraro is a history teacher and department head at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts. Her passions include civic education, social justice, and preparing students for effective global citizenship. Previously, she served as Deputy Director of Public Policy and Curriculum Innovation at Chavez Schools in Washington, DC, where she also taught history and public policy courses. Her published works include the bestselling Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary. Krista holds bachelor’s degrees in American Studies and Spanish from Cornell University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from American University. She is also an alumna of Teach for America.   Kayla Duncan is a personalized instruction coach for Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Georgia. Her passion centers around empowering student voice through meaningful, authentic experiences and increased ownership. Kayla currently supports personalized learning schools in creating their new vision for education through the design thinking process. She believes the voices of students and the community should drive what happens in the school building. Before her coaching role, Kayla taught elementary physical education and middle grades mathematics. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Georgia, a Master of Arts in Mathematics Education from Western Governors University, and an Educational Specialist in Learning, Design, and Technology from the University of Georgia. Kayla is pursuing a Doctor of Education in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia and hopes to use this new knowledge to propel schools toward innovative visions for education. Kayla resides in Georgia with her husband, a fellow educator, and their fourteen-year-old dog Georgie   Trevor Aleo is a middle school English teacher in Wilton, Connecticut where he designs meaningful learning experiences while reading and writing alongside his students. Prior to his current position, he taught high school and was a grade level lead in Prince William County, Virginia. In addition to leading teams at his own school, he’s drafted curriculum at the district level, created instructional resources for the Virginia Department of Education, and presented at local, state, and national conferences. He believes education should help people become better sense makers and story tellers and is a passionate believer in pedagogies that align with those values. Growing up in a house of teachers, he developed a love of learning that continues to serve as the driving force behind all his work. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in Teaching from James Madison University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Learning Design and Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Trevor currently resides in Fairfield, Connecticut with his amazing wife Lindsey and will be welcoming a son into the world somewhere around the release of this book.

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