schools

Aha! in Action: Ms. Holmes (#2)

Ms. Holmes has 25 years of professional teaching experience, working as an adjunct professor in a university, a private and public elementary, middle, and high school teacher in southern Maine, rural northern Maine, New Hampshire, Boston, Massachusetts, and now in Houston, Texas. Ms. Holmes was emphatic in her narrative about a particular story during her first year of teaching in Houston, Texas, which occurred 9 years ago. Ms. Holmes had a beginning photography class, “full of senior boys who were taking their last arts credit in order to graduate.” Holmes recalls her transformative Aha! with her students:

The “moment” came when a student, who was considered to be problematic and barely passing his academic classes, looked at the first roll of film he had just processed. The film was perfectly exposed, rolled and processed, he the only kid in class who had not made one mistake. He was so amazed that he had earned the title “Best in Class,” something he hadn't experienced in [high school], it changed everything. He took film home every night to take photos just for fun, not for an assignment, and would come to tutorials (after school support) once a week to work in the darkroom. None of his other teachers believed me when I told them he was my favorite student and the hardest working kid in all of my classes. It changed the way I looked at each kid!

Ms. Holmes was clearly impacted by this moment, and the positive effect has transformed her current practice. She writes,

I now take each kid at face value and ignore any negative feedback from other teachers (even though the teachers mean well and are giving me “insider information” so that I'm [supposedly] prepared). I take every chance I can to celebrate the small successes along the way for each student, and to help them realize that practice makes you better when they are disappointed in a failure.

Ms. Holmes’ innocent faith in her student provided the necessary preconditions for the project to develop, for without this grace, the student clearly would have followed similar habits formed with other teachers. Further, her continued insistence with colleagues provided a metaphorical wall and created a secure environment for exploration and development of the student’s work. More than informing their different independent approaches, in this case the student and the teacher became codependent authors of their mutual successes. One needed the other, and neither would have experienced an Aha! moment without the belief that arose from the other. Way to go, Ms. Holmes. Your inspired story is another amazing Aha! in Action!

...it changed the way I looked at each kid!
— Ms. Holmes

Aha! in Action: Mr. McLaughlin (#1)

Mr. McLaughlin has 25 years of professional teaching experience in public and private high schools, beginning in a rural northern city in Texas, and now in Houston, Texas. Mr. McLaughlin describes Aha! moments as, “an exclamation point” that happens when teaching, coaching, and directing reach their fullest potential. Mr. McLaughlin recalled having many throughout his career, but offered a remarkable story of a particular student that changed the course of her life (and Mr. McLaughlin’s), based on an intense Aha! experience:

Virginia, who came [with] a reputation of being an average student, with marginal athletic ability, and quite reserved. As the years progressed, she became known as a plodder in the classroom, a good teammate in softball, and her personality began to blossom. In the spring of her senior year, however, one event seemed to have an everlasting impact on who she was and the timing was perfect. In the conference championship game, we were behind by one run in the top of the seventh inning with two outs and runners on first and second. Virginia, who always batted ninth in the batting order, looked overmatched facing a pitcher who would eventually play for the University of Arkansas. Another strike and the count was now 3 and 2. From the third base coaching box, I started moving toward Virginia and started to motion for her to meet me halfway up the baseline, but before I got my hand up to my waist, she put her hand up, palm out and mouthed the words, “I got this, coach.” She confidently repositioned herself into the batter's box . . . windup and the pitch, and the ball left her bat with a crack, a line drive perfectly over the second base bag. The first run scored and the throw to home plate dribbled away from the catcher, and before the pitcher could retrieve the ball, the second run scored. We held on in the bottom of the inning and won the championship!

Softball.jpg

Mr. McLaughlin noted that this seminal moment in his career formed the basis of a belief (his own Aha!) that, “sometimes it is the most unlikely member of a team who makes the most important contribution.” This noticeable change in Virginia’s behavior is a testimony to the extreme effect of her Aha! experience. McLaughlin describes Virginia at first as someone who was reserved, marginal athletic ability, and most notably, “a plodder in the classroom.” Over the course of their career, every teacher has this student. In fact, teachers might often dismiss a student who is both average in ability and does not seem to express a great disposition for future achievement, but that is exactly where McLaughlin’s relationship with this student, understanding how to push and pull with her abilities, became the necessary ingredient for igniting her potential, and for Mr. McLaughlin to revise his assessments. In this way, Virginia’s Aha! moment became a turning point for the teacher as well.

The Aha! moment allowed Mr. McLaughlin to understand that Virginia’s thinking had changed. But more than this, the shared Aha! experiences of Mr. McLaughlin and Virginia combine to create a life-changing moment that set a new foundation for them both to flourish now at new, previously unanticipated levels. In fact, McLaughlin changed his entire belief about what is possible with students from this experience, subsequently benefiting thousands of students over his nearly 25 years of teaching. In this situation, the winning moment can be seen as a manifestation of the Aha!, but it is also in understanding the subtle nuance between the coach and the athlete where one can fully see how the learning transcended the game. “I got this,” was perhaps an even greater breakthrough because it signified a shift in relationship, not just forms of the thinking and understanding within an individual. Virginia now connected with Mr. McLaughlin in a way previously unattainable and in a way that could not have been deduced from previous experience. This Aha! is one of enlightened human interconnectivity. Congratulations, coach!

What’s your Aha!?!

What’s your Aha!?!

Teacher as Architect of Learning and Designer of Experiences

Teaching efficacy is among the most significant determinants of student outcomes in classrooms (Hattie, 2008). As wide as the variety of teaching styles are, so are the variations of curricula, curricular delivery systems, factors affecting schools, and the quality of teachers and the training they receive. Laurillard (2013) sums up nicely the importance of teachers and their role as architects of learning and designers of experiences that optimize surface to deep thinking:

What it takes to teach cannot be determined directly from what it takes to learn, which means that teachers must be willing to treat the process as essentially problematic, iterative, and always improvable; we must stop assuming that teaching can be theorized like a natural science and treat it as a design science. (p. 82)

Indeed, teaching can and should be a designed process that encourages vibrant and dynamic growth in student outcomes. Aha! moments in learning are an important and special part of that design. These moments in learning should be captured and cultivated – and produced regularly. Teachers can positively transform learning experiences for students using strategies that promote the increased frequency of Aha! moments in their classrooms, the benefits of which connect to all areas of learning growth and potential (Kounios & Beeman, 2014). The opportunity for students to find deeper meaning in their work, extend ideas, and become more actively interested in their personal development in all areas of learning, becomes a powerful lever in education and learning overall, and one that teachers and school leaders must embrace and nurture.

Experienced teachers are able to contextualize learning and meet the needs of their students within various curricula, regardless of personality differences, and remain focused on mastery of content and transfer across subjects (Hattie, 2003). Further, as teachers develop their practice over time, the potential for greater positive impact in classrooms increases. Hattie (2011) states:

Expert teachers and experienced teachers do not differ in the amount of knowledge that they have about curriculum matters or knowledge about teaching strategies – but expert teachers do differ in how they organize and use this content knowledge. Experts possess knowledge that is more integrated, in that they combine the introduction of new subject knowledge with students’ prior knowledge; they can relate current lesson content to other subjects in the curriculum; and they make lessons uniquely their own by changing, combining and adding to the lessons according to their students’ needs and their own teaching goals. (p. 261)

The focus must therefore be on providing opportunities to develop expertise within teachers to cultivate and capture insight and discovery throughout their curriculum and course lessons. If one of the primary objectives in increasing teacher efficacy is helping students move from surface to deep thinking (Hattie, 2003), and if it is hoped that this change in thinking will produce transfer across different areas of learning, Aha! moments in learning provide an excellent opportunity for this type of teacher training. Hence, an understanding of surface and deep learning, the differences between them, the place of both in the learning, and developing Aha! moments to enact the transition from surface to deep could be most valuable in teacher development programs. These teaching strategies can be aimed at manifesting greater numbers of Aha! moments and a more robust and engaging learning environment. Teachers can be trained on how to maximize the number and magnitude of these moments and further impact learning, achievement, and observable outcomes of students.

There is a growing body of neurological research that proves cognition is highly plastic and that complex mental activity improves cognition, brain function, and structure (Chapman et al., 2015). The tools that are becoming available to enhance and increase retention of learning are becoming easier to access and more widely used, and there is growing interest from teachers and professionals in implementing techniques that increase achievement in students. School administrators must discover and invest in teaching development programs where current research about learning is at the center of informing practice. Teachers need to spend more time harvesting from the available research literature, perhaps even adding to it, in order to garner the fullness of its potential to inform behaviors, and to enhance their professional work in schools. This may be best accomplished by placing a greater premium on the observable behaviors and patterns surrounding learning in classrooms. As Laurillard (2013) suggests, we should transfer energies away from teaching teachers how to teach and toward training them in methods to become leaders of learning. Teachers cannot practically observe what is happening in the mind when learning occurs (or easily, even with various measurement apparatus – e.g., fMRI), but if the observable correlates of the Aha! moment reflect the plasticity and growth happening when students’ do learn, this breakthrough in research will open tremendous opportunities for teachers and students alike.

Aha!

Archimedes’ discovery of water displacement as a method for measuring the volume of an object was among the first recorded instances of the Aha! moment (Kounios & Beeman, 2015). The account of Archimedes’ transcendent moment can be summed up briefly: King Heiro II challenged Archimedes to determine whether a votive crown that had been made for him was made of pure gold, as represented to him, or if the goldsmith had adulterated it with some other metal. Archimedes grappled for some time with the problem of how to authenticate the crown without damaging it until one day, as he was lowering himself into his bath, he observed the correlative rise of the water level and had a flash of inspiration. He is said to have shouted Eureka! (“I’ve found it!”). His observation of displacement led to a profound insight – his Aha! moment, which was the breakthrough that allowed him to solve this problem. His Aha! moment enabled his thinking to move from surface to deep, thereby producing a theory for the measurement of the volume of an object without damaging it. More important than what Archimedes was attempting to accomplish, was how his mind now managed the exact same set of observations that most humans have when wrestling with a problem. His thinking exhibited the capacity to take seemingly disconnected ideas (i.e., the water rising in the bath, the volume of gold, and finding a way to determine legitimacy without damaging the artifact) and combine specific factual knowledge in order to provoke an Aha!, a breakthrough that created a sudden and unanticipated solution. This indicates an ability to compare and manipulate concepts, which is further up the taxonomy on the SOLO scale, not to mention the Piagetian scale of conceptual facility (1950). From the point of view of an observer, the expressive exuberance of Archimedes’ eureka made it possible to actually see him exhibiting a new level of facility with the concepts available to him. If that observational mechanism can be brought into any learning environment, along with a rich understanding of how and when human beings achieve milestones along the path to greater conceptual facility, then our instructional practice will be that much more powerful and effective.

An insight is a quantum leap in thinking. There is a distinct before and after, and history is filled with similar stories of men and women, young and old, and their Aha! moments. Whether these moments are connected to monumental or to less consequential but still important moments of insight, they are part of the fabric of the human journey because they are a universal form of human learning. Galileo looked to the heavens and observed the orbit of the Earth (Kounios & Beeman, 2015), suddenly forming theories about orbital eccentricity; Sir Isaac Newton had an Aha! moment when he saw the apple fall from the tree (Gleick & Alexanderson, 2005), later going on to describe universal gravitation; Einstein worked through a thought experiment when a sudden breakthrough allowed him to conceive what became his theory of relativity (Einstein, 1922/2003); and Sir Paul McCartney woke up one morning, after a long series of shows, and in his Aha! moment he crafted (“Yesterday”), a song that has since gone on to become the most- recorded song in history (McCartney, 2009). In each of these examples, the sudden realization could not have been predicted. The significance of these moments generally causes the learner to refer back to the moment in a sort of before-and-after manner – a life moment.

The practice of seeking these moments of insight, their subsequent outcomes, and the transformation in learning that takes place as a result can be of great value in pedagogy. My research has collected, documented, and analyzed the observable instances of these Aha! moments, and used the term “correlates” to signify both a possible pattern to observation and a taxonomy of insight that occurs for individual students in complex ways. The goal is not only to identify these moments, but also to produce a template for techniques, methods, and practices that learning leaders may adopt or implement in their curricula in the hope of creating the fertile preconditions that facilitate production of these moments.