I recently underwent a hip replacement surgery for my left hip. This has meant that during the past several weeks of recuperation, I have had to relearn how to use my left leg and unlearn any movements that required me to bend more than 90 degrees in order to reach down and pick up something on the ground.
This period of recuperation has made me think about relearning and unlearning. Both should be used by teachers, especially middle and high school teachers, to teach writing in ELA, or any other content area, during the school year.
Relearning: What do the students already know
Students who had been out of the classroom for several weeks due to summer break will begin the year doing a lot of relearning.
The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer in the study of memory and learning which led to his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. In 1883, he determined that
“Relearning is supposedly the most efficient way of remembering information.”
I can attest. While I had to relearn to use my left leg to step up the stairs or to put on a pair of pants, my relearning was not very difficult. I was already proficient at these tasks before the hip surgery. According to Ebbinghaus, relearning is faster when the information is already stored, and the brain needs only to revive these memories and refresh them for use.
The level of relearning for each student will differ depending on the level of proficiency a student was originally able to attain on a task. That means the amount of time/attempts that a student took to meet a specified level of proficiency can be compared proportionally to the time/attempts he or she later needs to attain the same level.
Once school begins, teachers should take advantage of relearning by finding out first what students already know. While this may seem a statement of the obvious, a student does not come to class as a “blank slate.” They may already be familiar with information; what they may need is an opportunity to relearn.
There is ongoing relearning in English Language Arts classes at most grades because the literacy anchor standards for writing are almost the same for all grades. The difference in the relearning is directly related to the increase in sophistication required for reading (ex: character, plot, setting) and for writing (ex: noun, question mark, phrase).
Students have already been introduced to the rules for writing, those standard rules of English, at the earliest grade levels. They may need only “to revive these memories and refresh them for use.” That ability for a teacher to differentiate between students who need to relearn versus those who need to be retaught from the beginning can guide the framework for effective instruction for the school year.
Unlearning: Letting go
Unlearning is harder. During this recuperation from hip surgery, I would repeatedly have to stop myself from reaching down to the ground to pickup whatever I dropped (and I dropped many items!) I had to “unlearn” the reflex action of bending.
“Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring.”
In the same way, students may need to unlearn or “let go” before they can learn new information or try their own strategies in order to develop new skills.
Unlearning or letting go plays an important process in learning how to write for grades 6-12. By the time students have reached the middle and high school levels, they will have been taught a number of writing formulas, mnemonic training wheels, designed to help them learn how to respond to a writing prompt. Some examples include:
RACE: Restate the question. Answer the question. Cite evidence. Expand/Explain.
TREE: Topic sentence. Note Reasons. Examine reasons. Note Ending
DIDLS: Diction. Images. Details. Language. Sentence Structure.
While many of these mnemonic devices are generally helpful to students, they are designed to be training steps or preliminary checklists. These formulas are meant to stir, not replace, the kind of good thinking that leads to good writing. As noted writer an editor William Zissner said in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,
That is the goal teachers want their students to meet…to put their thinking on paper.
To turn their thinking into writing, students should be encouraged to “unlearn” and move away from the checklists and formulas.
Good writing does not follow a prescribed outline where student fill in the blanks, often without generating the important thinking they need to do for comprehension. Even more dangerous is the impression the outlines give to students that writing is neat and easily organized. Good writing is neither neat or easily organized, instead:
Writing is messy.
Writing takes time.
Unlearning the fill-in-the-blank outline can give students new opportunities to develop their own strategies in order to deepen their own understanding. And while students are unlearning the writing formulas they were taught in elementary school, they could also unlearn some of the myths or general misinformation that still circulate in high schools about the writing process:
- myth: essays have 5 paragraphs;
- myth: a paragraph has at least three sentences;
- myth: “I” should never be used in a response.
The end result of misinformation and formula writing has generated years of sameness in student responses. While these same kinds of responses may be easier for teachers to compare and to grade, the sameness in responses will never truly reflect an individual student’s writing ability.
Encouraging writers: Relearning & Unlearning
For students to become better writers, they may need to relearn some of the general rules for writing and unlearn many of the prescribed ways that writing has been taught to them in the earlier grades. Students will need to be encouraged to drop those outlines that were put in place to guide them -like training wheels- towards the goal of being good writers.
Two areas of focus for the ELA classroom this new school year can be relearning the standard rules for writing, and unlearning the formulas, the checklists, or misinformation that stop student thinking.
Students will need those teachers who are willing to support them as they experiment in the more sophisticated, but very messy, art of writing.
Relearning to remember and unlearning to let go; important goals for the school year in the grades 6-12 classrooms… and for post-hip surgery recuperation!