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December 21, 2010

The Road to Successful Learning

Nick Diaz

Having inhabited the teaching trenches for 41 years and thousands of students, I’ve grown tired of educationists telling teachers not to use the “drill and kill” method for fear of boring our students.


At the beginning of the school year, I’ve often used a way to explain to my students how every person must learn, breaking the learning process into three levels.


I would draw a picture of a pyramid and struck two lines parallel to the base, to indicate three levels. Then I’d show arrows pointing from the bottom of the pyramid, the middle, and the top, signifying that learners must go from the bottom of the pyramid to the top in order to gain academic mastery.


First, at the base of the pyramid is memorization. Every student must memorize in order to have a firm foundation. The base of the pyramid has the widest expanse which indicates the importance of memorization.


The second level is teacher application, where the teacher (and/or textbooks, worksheets, study guides) present examples to the students based upon the memorized material in the first level. It is on this second level that students must practice, practice, practice, each time applying what they have memorized to a myriad of different examples until their responses become quick and automatic.


The third level is the student application level. The students must memorize the facts (1st level), practice them in many examples until students gain quickness and confidence (2nd level), and then they will be able to implement what they have learned into examples they make up themselves (3rd level). Unless a student sequentially reaches the third level, he has not really gained academic achievement.


The lowest form of learning is memorization, and leaving a student at that level dooms him to live with useless information. He must learn to implement the memorized material by practicing at the second level, and then to originate at the third level before it can be said he has attained true academic achievement.


Every student must pass through the first and second levels to get to the third level, even the most gifted and talented person in the world. The differences among students are determined by the time it takes a person to go through the three levels. A truly “Gifted and Talented” student with great intelligence can memorize faster than a less intelligent person, and he can apply the memorized material to examples faster, then move to the third level just as fast.


Based upon my many years of teaching experience, I’ve concluded that all students must pass through the same learning process; it is the speed of acquisition, however, that is determined by individual student differences.


Stoked by well-meaning but sometimes wrong-headed parents and teachers around them, Gifted and Talented students soon get the idea that they do not have to memorize; unfortunately, intellectual snobbery often sets in.


These students have been told that they should go right into higher-level thinking and innovative group projects which seem much more intellectually stimulating than do memorization and drill.


Because Gifted and Talented students have high intelligence levels, they normally can get through elementary school without having to develop much self-discipline. All they have to do is to listen in class, and because of their high intellect, they can generally make passing grades – not fabulous grades, perhaps, but passing grades.


When they get to the secondary level, however, where the curriculum becomes more sophisticated, many Gifted and Talented students cannot perform at the third level and, consequently, hit the “brick wall.”


Because I teach at the middle school level, I’ve often seen what happens to many of these students when they don’t have the prerequisite skills and self-discipline needed to be successful students. They will not write a correct, complete, sophisticated sentence, often struggling when assigned compositions. They’re generally articulate and have high intellect, but are “handicapped” when it comes to writing their thoughts down on paper.


Of course, many of these Gifted and Talented students love doing creative projects where they can excel; however, when it comes to writing a cogent and organized paper and working through a well-sequenced and well-planned organizational writing project, they falter. These students have not mastered all three levels.


Many of these same students do not want to read a classic piece of literature because the reading level is too difficult. Because they have not learned to read with automaticity in elementary school, they do not have the self-discipline to push themselves to read at a higher reading level.


Typically these students are also poor spellers because they have not mastered levels one and two. They do not gain proficiency in foreign language classes because they refuse to memorize the sound systems and rules of syntax.


Gifted and Talented students often rebel when required to memorize grammar rules, charts, and principal parts of various elements. These students generally choose to write the way they “felt,” wording their compositions and punctuating according to their feelings, with little regard for established rules of communication.


In math, I insist that my students memorize the perfect squares, powers of two, basic fraction-decimal-percent equivalences, and the primes. For those who signed up for Mathcounts competition, I expanded the list of memorized facts contained in the Mathcounts Bible According to Mr. Diaz. Mathematical problem-solving becomes a more efficient and rewarding activity when the basic formulae and relationships are previously mastered, so that higher-level processes can take place.


Whether Mathcounts competitors or not, those students who make the decision to discipline themselves to move through the three levels invariably develop a strong work ethic and become high achievers. I have seen countless numbers of “strugglers” go on to establish successful careers and strong relationships, becoming contributing members of their communities.


I believe in this simplified version of Bloom’s Taxonomy and have seen the principles lived out in countless students through the years. Good teachers make sure that the majority of their students reach the highest level. Good teachers are not satisfied with their students getting stuck at the memorization level. Good teachers do everything possible to motivate their students to attain the highest level of thinking skills, and good administrators support those good teachers’ efforts.


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