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I recently started a new job here at CPH as a curriculum editor. I’ve done a wide variety of jobs in the education field since I graduated from Concordia College, River Forest, in 1987 (now they call it Concordia University Chicago), but it feels like a good majority of what I am doing now in my first few weeks here at CPH is new. Rarely have I learned so many new things in such a concentrated time period. I have often found myself listening to a kind and patient colleague giving an explanation of a new task or process and thinking to myself, “I know those words are English, and I thought I was pretty good at English, but I don’t have any idea what they are talking about.” As you might surmise from my college graduation date, I am not a Millennial, not even close. Much to my chagrin, my brain does not possess the elasticity and speed it once did. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn; it just means I may need to do it a little differently than I once did.
Hmmm, that statement sounds awfully familiar to the special education teacher in my head. How many times have I said to a regular education teacher or a parent of a child, “It’s not that (insert child’s name here) can’t learn; it’s just that they need to learn in a little different way”? How did I become the one with special needs?
Let’s face it, any one of us could be considered “special needs” for any number of reasons. It might be a long-term condition or a short-term situation. Either way, we can easily find ourselves in a position where we don’t learn the same way as the rest of the “class.”
What I’ve rediscovered in my own recent learning situation is what I’ve been preaching and utilizing in my teaching for a very long time. There is high value in chunking material into smaller pieces and slowing things down. As teachers, sometimes our enthusiasm for our content or our project or whatever gets the best of us and we overwhelm our students by presenting too much information to them at one time. We serve up the meal of instruction on a turkey platter instead of a salad plate. Just as portion control is important to healthy food consumption, it’s even more important in the consumption of new learning.
There’s nothing wrong with painting a broad picture for a student; in fact, I highly recommend that as a good place to start. Certainly when you go on a trip, you need some “big picture” information. What is your destination? How will you get there? How long will you be gone? So too, with instruction. Students need to know where they are going and how they will get there. What will the end product look like? What supplies will they need? How long is this going to take? How will they be graded? Then they need a map they can handle for how to get there.
When I was a child in the 1970s, one of my favorite parts of going on a cross-country car trip was using the TripTik from AAA. These little spiral-bound mini-maps were just the right size to fit in your hand or in the glove compartment of your car. They have now been replaced by Garmin, MapQuest, or GPS on a smartphone. But oh, how these TripTiks added to our family fun in the car. Each page covered approximately 150 miles, just about exactly as long as my mother and I could go between bathroom breaks. The route was highlighted on our own personalized mini-map. Passing each small town listed along the way was an accomplishment to be noted, especially on the trip across Interstate 70 across the very long state of Kansas. Turning a page was a big achievement and a much-coveted task. Some pages took longer to turn than others, but by the end of the trip we had turned countless pages and covered hundreds of miles together. If we’d gotten in the car in Denver and just started heading east and said, “Okay, let’s go to St. Louis,” it surely would have been a much longer and more arduous trip. Breaking the trip into small, page-sized pieces with specific points to reach along the way not only made the trip manageable, but it also made it more fun and less tedious. That’s not to say that we didn’t encounter detours along the way. When we did get waylaid, however, we had our small map to return to and could work through the difficulty on a more manageable level.
The same results occur when we chunk learning material into smaller manageable pieces in the classroom. Students aren’t overwhelmed. They can accomplish specific and reachable checkpoints without becoming exhausted or frustrated. Naturally, the key is to know your students well enough to know how much is too overwhelming and how little isn’t challenging enough. Sure, they may get waylaid by a roadblock of sorts, or one section may take longer than expected. On a trip, the driver of the car makes adjustments to suit the situation. In the classroom, teachers use their expertise and ability to look at the skills they are teaching or the assignments they are giving and then break these down into their component parts. We give the parts to the students in the sizes that they can handle. As students progress in skill and understanding, we may give them bigger chunks. Then if a new set of skills or teaching is required (similar to me getting a new job with a bucketful of new skills to learn), we back up to the smaller chunks and start on the road through the learning process in manageable pieces again.
I’ve made the trip from Denver to St. Louis and back more times than I can count. There came a time when I didn’t need the beloved TripTik anymore, even though I did keep it in the glove box just in case. When I go through the complex highway turnoffs in Kansas City, though, I still check my GPS system. We need to do the same for some children. Some skills become automatic after a student uses them over and over, but then when the student hits something complex or abstract (e.g., long division or writing a big paper), the student can pull out the shorter map to review how to do just that one job.
Does referring to my GPS system to get through Kansas City make me a “special needs” driver because I don’t drive there often enough to have the highway system imprinted on my brain? Does asking my boss to break down my new job tasks into smaller pieces so I can learn them and remember them more effectively make me a “special needs” new employee? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure it matters. Good teaching and learning strategies need not be identified as for “special needs.” They are just good pedagogy.
I consider how often Jesus did just this for His disciples. He didn’t dump all His teachings on them all at once. He taught them patiently with parables when they needed it, gave them a template for praying, showed them how to care for one another, and gave them His body and blood. He didn’t start with the cross and the resurrection, even though He knew that’s where He was going. He went one step at a time. It wasn’t because He couldn’t have done it by starting at the cross and the resurrection. He took the journey He did over the course of his earthly ministry for us because He knew this was the way we would be able to understand it best, starting with smaller pieces.
The next time you notice that students seem overwhelmed, frustrated, or lost in the complex highway system of new skills, consider if you might need to back up and dig out that old TripTik from the glove box and try things just one TripTik-sized page at a time.
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