I shared this video with my students the other day. It is about 7 years old, but its message is timeless and crucial if we are to teach our students how to be in charge of understanding their world. The boy speaking is Jacob Barnett. At the time this video was made he was 11 years old. At present he is 19. If you have not seen this, please watch it now. It is 18 minutes long, but well worth your time. If you have seen it before, watch it again. Having Jacob’s voice in your head as you continue to read this post will give strength to what you read.
When it was over, I said, “Well, What do you think about what he said?” One student mentioned how smart Jacob is. Another said it was weird that Jacob wore sandals. Another commented that he could tell Jacob was “different”. Yet another noticed that he had the Greek letter phi (φ ) on his shirt. (We’ve been learning the Greek alphabet). It got kind of quiet after that. So I said, “What do you think Jacob means when he says you have to stop learning and start thinking?” Now it was completely silent. And the silence was paired with facial expressions that said, “I don’t have any idea what that could mean!”
At that point I shared my own thoughts: When Jacob says to stop learning, I think he is talking about learning as it is typically done in schools. You know how it goes – the teacher tells the students what he/she wants them to know. They learn it. (This might include reading about it, writing about it, watching videos, etc.) Then the students take an assessment to see how well they learned it.
THAT is what Jacob wasn’t able to do when he was young – because of his learning differences. THAT is what Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t able to do when attending the University of Cambridge – because the school was shut down with the outbreak of the plague. And THAT is what Albert Einstein wasn’t able to do – because he was Jewish and turned away from the local university, so he ended up taking a job working in a patent office instead.
Each was prevented from following this model of learning, and in doing so, had time to think. Jacob believes it was this time to think and question and seek understanding that lead each person to their discoveries. Now, does this mean Jacob didn’t learn things by reading books? Of course not. When he had posed questions that he wished to explore and knew more information was necessary to move forward in his thinking, he read the books he needed to read! In other words, he read books and focused on understanding what he was reading. He was a motivated reader. The information he learned while reading helped him formulate new questions and better understand whether or not his past questions were on the right track. In this manner he was always motivated to deeply understand a specific topic in order to weigh whatever questions he was currently posing.
So did he in fact “stop learning”? I don’t think so. I think he stopped being a passive participant in learning, and became an active one. And he found his inner voice – that unique perspective that he has – that each of us has with which to do our thinking. Jacob explored the questions he had in a way that came natural to him. Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, students often lose sight of their own unique perspective as they get older. They get used to waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next, what information to search for, what answer to find. They become passive learners. And as passive learners, they rarely go beyond what has been laid out as the expectations for a particular assignment. If doing “a, b, and c” is what is required, very few will ask about “d”. Sometimes teachers will comment that there are students who are capable of doing more, but lack motivation. Do they really lack motivation, or have they become passive? Are YOU sometimes a passive learner?
At this point Ella raised her hand. “When we study words, we’re not passive. It’s like how Jacob learns. We do a lot of thinking about what the word means, and then we come up with a hypothesis for our word sum. We read whatever dictionary we need to while collecting our evidence and the word’s story. But WE do it ourselves.”
I answered, “Yes! You work independently and are actively involved in your learning! You look at resource books when you need to. You search for evidence to support or disprove your word sum hypothesis. You discuss with others what you are thinking about as you are finding information and hypothesizing. And often another person’s unique perspective helps you stretch your own thinking. You research and investigate and gather your evidence until you’re satisfied you understand as much as there is to understand at this time! The best part is that you recognize that you have not found an answer. You have found a temporary understanding that may in fact deepen should other evidence come to light!”
Ella continued rather proudly, “When we were taking the Forward Exam a few weeks ago, I was trying to think of what the word sum would be for <conversation>. I knew about the two possible suffixes <ate> and <ion> on this word which left <convers(e)>. I also recognized the prefix <con>, although I couldn’t remember what it meant just then. That left <vers(e)>. When I thought about that, I thought of how a verse is something I read, write, or talk about. A conversation is talking between at least two people, so I knew I was on the right track. I couldn’t look it up during the exam, but later I checked it out to see if what I thought made sense.”
I was not expecting Ella to point out this correlation between what Jacob was describing and what we do in class, but I was delighted she did! The students can FEEL the difference between passive and active learning. They recognize their own level of engagement, and how using a scientific lens to look at words has drawn them in and increased their level of interest. The fact that Ella shared her thinking about the word <conversation> and how being able to do that helped her in a situation outside of class, proves that Structured Word Inquiry has become the way she thinks about words! Ella KNOWS that a word’s spelling is not random. She KNOWS to expect its structure to make sense and to help her understand the meaning of that word.
I remember what a former student said at the end of her fifth grade year, “In fourth grade we had a list of words. We wrote them on our white board over and over again until we could spell them without looking. It got very boring very quickly. In fifth grade it’s different. We investigate a word to find out where it comes from, and what it’s word sum might look like. We find out its history and how it’s been used. Then we write about what we found, and after we’ve collected words with the same base we make a matrix. It’s a lot more work, but it is also a lot more fun!”
Did you hear that? It was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun! We have to stop deciding what is too much work or what is too hard for our students. We have to stop simplifying tasks to the point of rendering them uninteresting and requiring too little thought.
Structured Word Inquiry versus the Scientific Method
What my students do with spelling is not much different than what they do in preparation for our Science Fair. The first step is to choose a topic or a word. Next they do a bit of research. For both spelling and science, they need to know enough about their topic to create a thoughtful hypothesis. Let’s say a student is curious about the effects of music on a person’s heart rate. Before writing a hypothesis, that student would benefit from finding out what a typical resting heart rate is. It might even be helpful to find out what is considered to be an elevated heart rate. The student might also want to know how many beats per minute specific music has. The student’s hypothesis can include those pieces of information, and later on, the data collected can be compared to that hypothesis. The student investigating a word will want to brainstorm a few other words related to the targeted word. Which structural pieces are the same? Which structural pieces are different? I am speaking of morphemes. Does the student recognize affixes that could be removed in order to identify the base or bases? A hypothesis in this situation means a possible word sum. Oftentimes a student will consider two or three different word sum hypotheses.
The next step in either scenario is to research deeply. The person preparing a science experiment will want to find out more about music types, heart rates, the effects music has on people, and maybe even music therapy. The person investigating a word will want to find out when his/her word was first attested and what it meant at that time. The person may consult several etymological references to find out the word’s language of origin and its spelling in that language. What was the lexical stem in that language of origin that became today’s base element? In the process, the word’s story is revealed. It may have meant different things at different times in history. It may have had its spelling changed (for a variety of reasons) by the different groups of people who used it over time.
Now it is time for the scientist to set up the experiment, run it, and collect the data. This will take some time. The person running the science experiment will select a group of people to participate. Resting heart rates will be taken, and then music will be played. Then heart rates will be taken again. There will be tests for different kinds of music, and the group of participants will be tested several times for each type of music. The student investigating a word will now focus on collecting words that share the word’s root (ancestor) which was found during research. Words found that share both the word’s ancestor AND the base’s spelling are listed as morphological relatives. Words found that share the word’s ancestor but NOT the base’s spelling are listed as etymological relatives. In both cases it is important to keep a journal detailing this collection process in case the experiment gets repeated at a future time.
The data is collected. What’s next? The student who is preparing for the Science Fair will begin making graphs and/or charts of the data so this person can make observations. After careful consideration of what the data shows, the student draws some conclusions. Does the data support the initial hypothesis or does it falsify it? At this point, either outcome is valid. The student learns about the effects of different types of music on a person’s heart rate regardless of whether or not their hypothesis was “right”. Proving the hypothesis is what drives the experiment, but if the hypothesis isn’t proven, the experiment has not failed. It has only moved the student in a different direction with their questions and thinking. In so many respects it is the same for the student investigating a word. This student looks at the morphological relatives found (the words that share a common ancestor AND the base element’s spelling) and writes those words as word sums. As the student does this, special attention is paid to the the morpheme boundaries. This is where the student’s understanding of the single final non-syllabic <e> as well as suffixing conventions come into play. For example, let’s say the student was writing a word sum for <describing>. If the student wrote the word sum as <de + scribe + ing –> describing>, I would know that the student understands the importance of the single final non-syllabic <e>. The <e> is part of the base element in this word. If it wasn’t, then adding the vowel suffix (<-ing>) would force the (then) final <b> on the base to double. The student includes the <e> on the base element to prevent doubling! When the words are all written as word sums, a matrix is created. (Just as there are several kinds of graphs on which to display science data, there are other ways to present word collections as well. A matrix is the one to use when looking at all the elements – affixes and other bases – that can be used with a common base.)
Once the graphs/matrices are made and the students have made a list of observations, it is time to share their findings with a larger group. The student who is presenting at the Science Fair will pull out the journal with the detailed notes and type up a list of procedures, some of the research findings, the hypothesis, the observations and more. Those will be displayed along with the graphs or charts and any pictures on a display board. The student doing the word investigation will decide whether to create a poster, a booklet, a skit type presentation, a video, or some type of digital presentation (perhaps similar to Powerpoint). This person will also go back to their journal with the detailed notes and share the word’s meaning, the attestation date, the language of origin, and other interesting things that were found out about the word’s history. They will also share the matrix they created, the related words, and any observations they have made as they reflected on their investigation. For instance, they may have noticed interesting things about the phonology in this word’s family. Perhaps this word is Hellenic and has a <ph> grapheme that represents a /f/ phoneme. Perhaps there are pronunciation differences in the base of the word family as there is in the family that includes predict, diction, and indictment. The students usually include the word in IPA so they can specifically talk about the grapheme/phoneme relationships.
As each student presents, they walk us through their exploration. They share the most surprising things they found out and ask for questions. Their explorations, whether the kind shared at a Science Fair or the kind shared with fellow word enthusiasts in a classroom, always get great interaction from the audience. The work investigated with this scientific lens is so worthy that audience members can’t help but become engaged themselves and think of their own questions.
It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? I bet some of you are even thinking, “My students can’t do all that.” But given the chance, your students will prove to you that they can. My students begin fifth grade with very little true understanding about our written language. But amazingly, within two to three months of school they are eager to investigate words on their own and in much this way! They are so hungry to be actively involved in their learning! As we continue through the year, they become more and more independent in their pursuit. THIS is what Ella was pointing at when she said that our word work was a lot like what Jacob Barnett was describing. When we investigate words (and conduct science experiments), we “STOP LEARNING AND START THINKING“!