Wordsworth defined poetry as ” … the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings … recollected in tranquillity” ( http://www.bartleby.com/39/36.html ), and I believe that powerful learning shares much in common with this definition of poetry. The problem is that we do not often take the time to “recollect” in our classrooms, and we tend to confuse reflection with review. Instead of a more open-ended exploration of what was really learned, how it was learned and what operating strategies impacted upon learning (a reflective process), we tend to substitute a review process that summarizes what was intended to be learned, a kind of final force feeding of essential content before moving on to other things.

Reflections tend to be concerned with the clarity and quality of learning. Reflections involve the learners in the process and are more organic. They seek to influence learning over time and to nurture the far transfer of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Reviews, on the other hand, tend to be more teacher-driven, more wishfully concise and more hurried. In general, reviews are most likely to be a collage of instructional sound bites delivered in fast-forward with the hopeful intent of embedding information more deeply in learner memories (generally under the pressure of some impending summative assessment).

I think that a part of the problem is that, when we view teaching as a science, we try to logically divide and sequence our course content into tidy lessons that we can teach in a top down linear way.  In our planning, we try to align a “content bit” with an “outcome or standard bit”, and we look for ways to “flow chart” the process into learning. Teaching can work that way, and, when it does, we kind of wish that that was the day on which we could have had our teacher observations. In educational circles, we are quite enamored with the process of stating a teacher learning intention at the beginning of a lesson, teaching the content to the children, locking the children into our design, and then confirming that our teaching matched our intent for x% of our students. It has kind of a pristine logic to it all. Personally, I liked it very much when that kind of planning panned out for me.

The difficulty is that classes do not often follow a flow chart in real world practice. Somehow, real children in real settings have a way of rubbing our well-intentioned noses in an all too pungent smell of reality. I do not need to use other people’s children to illustrate this. I can use my own son. When our Tom was 5 years old, he brought home a phonics worksheet on initial consonant sounds that he did in school that day. It was a picture of a picket fence with a gate right in the middle of the fence. The gate featured prominently in the picture. He was supposed to circle the letter that corresponded to the initial consonant in the picture.  Since I was significantly older than my son (and also taught secondary English), it was pretty easy for me to understand that he should have circled “g‘ for “gate”.  Pointing underneath the big red X on his paper, I said, “Tom, that is a “gate” … “g – g – g” as in “gate”. Tom looked right back up at me and said, in his own defense, “You see “g – g – gate”, but I see “f – f -fence”. That pretty much ended the home review of his school work for that day. It was all “o – o – over”. Time to play with toy trucks in the yard.

What I personally learned that day was that I had spent too much time in my first years of teaching doing the same thing Tom’s teacher did. I had my “intent” and my “design”. It was a safe world with little ambiguity provided that the students perceived my plans in the way I wanted them perceived, worked in the way I wanted them to work and responded as I intended them to respond. I actually agreed with Tom’s teacher when I first looked at his “corrected” paper on that afternoon. In point of fact, he did make a “mistake”. To me, the gate was pretty well pronounced on that page. It was just not that way for Tom. Yet, I also found myself wishing on that afternoon that his teacher had done what I myself had too often failed to do in so many of my classes prior to that day: I wished she had talked to Tom about why he marked the answer he did. I wished that she had taken the time to discover what his operating strategy was for selecting the initial consonant sounds in the pictures he saw. I wished that, instead of rushing to correct the paper so that she could send it home by the end of the day as evidence of Tom’s learning (or not), she held onto that paper and used it as a next step for Tom to take. My world got a whole lot grayer that day as the blacks and whites of certitude were cast more in chiaroscuro.

There are times when I think that, because we do not often structure our classrooms for meaningful reflective learning discussions, we overlook important performance variables that defeat both learning and the significant measurement of learning. We rush into classifying student performances as “errors” without ever spending the time to assess whether they might be miscues rather than errors. I am using these two terms in a rather specific way here. To me, a miscue occurs when a student understands what it is that (s)he should do but fails to do it for whatever reason. An error occurs when a student does not understand what it is that (s)he should do and fails to do it as a result of ignorance. Miscues are amenable to one type of intervention (many of which are experiential), and errors are more likely to be problems that need to be addressed by formal instruction.

I am going to use an illustration here from English grammar, so please bear with me. I need an example to illustrate an important point that I believe can be transferred to other content disciplines and grade levels. I am hoping to make this worth your time to consider, and I will try to keep the grammatical terms to a minimum.

I would like you to consider how children might acquire the ability to write complex sentences in their productive writings. When children first begin writing sentences, their writing is a bit constrained and labored. A child might write in simple sentences: “My mother is a nurse. She wrote my note.” Grammatically, we would like the sentences to be complete. We would like to have a period between the two sentences. Competent performance in lower elementary school might be measured by such achievement.

At a later stage of development, it is natural for children to seek a greater economy of style. Just as a toddler might practice walking faster as they gain confidence in their mobility, students begin to see the opportunity to increase speed by combining sentences. They might, for example, speak the sentence, “My mother, who is a nurse, wrote my note.” Technically, what the child has learned to do is to embed a non-essential clause into a main clause. Note that, if you were to read that sentence aloud, there is a tendency to raise and lower intonation around non-essential phrases and clauses. That is why there are commas in that sentence.

Now, as children acquire the capacity to make these combinations in oral discourse, it would be surprising if they did not also seek to transfer that capacity to their writing. This opens up the possibility of discussions of the “intent” associated with productive writing. Is it possible that linguistic intent could be defeated by limitations involved with the act of writing? For many children, the sentence in their heads (the “My mother, who is a nurse, wrote that note.”) gets stopped in mid-stream and the child writes, “My mother, who is a nurse. She wrote that note.”  The intonation contour and the flow of the thought gets interrupted by performance constraints (perhaps by the physical act of writing, perhaps by perceptual salience, perhaps by short term memory). At this point, we have a problem. The same child who could write those thoughts as simple sentences, now has a sentence fragment and a certain problem with awkwardness. So, is this linguistic progress or is it regression? Is this a miscue or an error? Personally, I would argue that it is a miscue and that, in this case, it is a good miscue because it is an indication of linguistic development that will eventually be very beneficial to the development of writing fluency for the child. It may seem counterintuitive, but miscues are often a sign of progress.

Assuming that the child’s writing develops normally, the child might very well correct the punctuation problem as they become more accustomed to such embeddings. They may even be able to use this pattern for a few years before they begin to test the upper limits of expression. They might reach a point where they might feel, “Well, if I can embed one thought, might I be able to embed two?” When it reaches that stage, they may in fact conceive of a sentence that looks like this: “My mother, who is a nurse and who took my temperature, wrote that note.” However, since this sentence is a bit more complex because more information is embedded, there is a chance that there will be a sentence punctuation issue propping up that is similar to one that the writer had earlier in their linguistic history. They might write this sentence as, “My mother, who is a nurse and who took my temperature. She wrote that note.”

Now, I think that this developmental sequence is pretty accurate for many writers. Viewed from a grammatical perspective, we are looking at an error. Viewed from a child’s perspective, we might be looking at a miscue. So what is a teacher to do? Grammatically, the student is not following the rules for the punctuation of non-essential phrases and clauses and the child is not writing in complete sentences. The safe bet is to re-teach the grammatical principles involved. But are safe bets always the wisest ones? Does the misdiagnosis of a problem result in misinstruction? Does valuable time get wasted when we fail to account for miscues in learning?

The temptation to review the grammar involved in a case like this can be quite strong. Fast-forwarding over a series of grammatical terms and rules, however, is not likely to work. This is probably because, as they write, students do not think to themselves, “I think I will insert a non-essential clause here and punctuate that with commas”, any more than adult readers of this post might say, “My, I think that this letter home to parents might sound just a tad better if I used a gerund as the subject of this sentence.” There is the world of grammar, and there is the real world in which we live.

There is even a selfish reason why teachers might want to consider this miscue versus error issue, and that has to do with teacher evaluations. In New York State, we are now assessing teachers based on their student test scores. I am very much against doing this, and I have a number of reasons for feeling that way. However, the one that connects to this post has to do with the developmental progress of children as they learn. If we were to look at a child’s ability to write in sentences as a key performance criterion, we might actually see progression and regression year to year for psycholinguistic reasons and not for pedagogical reasons. A child at the end of one year might have few sentence fragments because they are writing in simple sentences alone. The following year they might score lower on a formal assessment of their productive sentences because they are transitioning into a more fluid and appropriate linguistic style of writing. There might very well be regression that the teacher in the following year would be held accountable for. Then, the child might plateau out for a few years (to the benefit of those teachers at those grade levels) and, in upper primary, the child might go through another phase where they are embedding more information and old surface structure errors become apparent again. Reducing linguistic performance to a number score does not address the developmental issues that govern learning.

I am not at all sure how all of this will play out in the politics of reform, but I do know something that we had better start paying attention to if we want to improve our educational systems. We need to stop confusing reflection and review. We need to get serious about reflective learning, and we need to provide more time for that. We need to get over our obsession with error counts and begin looking at underlying processes and operating strategies that govern real learning. We need to listen to the learner’s voice. We need to be more open to the possibility of miscues as a determinant of student performance because that is what will lead to an economy of learning. We need to discuss important performance variables with our students, to adjust our lesson designs accordingly and to use formative assessment in meaningful ways within our classes. We need to respect both the child and the learning.