Making Predictions Beyond Books: Students Expect What They Experience
A very common reading strategy asks students to make predictions about what is going to happen in a book based on their knowledge of character or plot development. This is a perfectly logical strategy for us to teach and for students to practice, but a new book by Jay McTighe and Judy Willis frames the power of predicting in a very different light:
Experiencing accurate predictions and the resulting satisfaction of goal achievement leads the brain to remember the related choices, behaviors, actions, decisions, and responses and to seek more opportunities to repeat them. Concomitant effects include enhanced attentive focus, motivation, curiosity, memory, persistence, and perseverance.
Jay McTighe and Judy Willis, Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience
When MicTighe and Willis talk about predictions, they are referring to the expectations we hold when encountering a new or familiar situation. If positive expectations or predictions are met, our brains react in a way that makes us want to repeat these experiences.
Predicting School Experiences
Let’s look at McTighe and Willis’s ideas in the context of a writing workshop. When I reflect on my work in classrooms, I can think of many situations where it is clear students are making predictions based on their experiences as writers.
In kindergarten classrooms when I model lessons or co-teach during a writing workshop, this is the most common response I get from students: “Do you want to see the book I’m making?” In light of McTighe and Willis, I realize these students are making a prediction: they will receive a positive response when they share their writing. They assume adults and other writers in the room will want to read their books, and the result will be supportive rather than evaluative. These students aren’t predicting editing marks and criticism. They believe writing is something they can do, and the result is a desire to keep writing.
On the flipside, in virtually every high school classroom, students are often reluctant to share their work with me. To be fair, there are multiple causes: I am a guest teacher, and they are in high school, not kindergarten. One day while visiting a workshop, a high school student said to me: “Why do you want to read this? Are you going to grade it?” He was predicting that any adult who wanted to read his writing and would judge it, so he was acting on this prediction. When I told him I wanted to read a lot of the writing in the class so the teacher and I could decide what to teach next, he said: “That’s weird.” My response was a surprise for this writer, and it would take multiple days of working with these students to convince them that often, teachers read student writing to inform instruction.
Routines to to Build Positive Expectations
We might connect these students’ responses to their background knowledge, but I like the term prediction because it assumes more agency: our students have background knowledge, but they make predictions. So how might we use this research on the power of predicting to best support our writers?
Awareness is the first step. Our students make predictions the moment they step into our classrooms. If some students can’t wait for writing time to begin, they are predicting a positive outcome. If students groan at the thought of writing, they assume writing will be a negative experience, and they make predictions accordingly.
One way to help students make positive predictions is to establish routines that increase the likelihood of short term success. The most dramatic example I have witnessed of students changing their minds about writing happened in a high school classroom. The teacher was moving from a focus on grammar and conventions to a choice-based writing curriculum. When she first asked students to engage in quick writes to start the day, they were confused. “What are we supposed to write about? How long does it have to be?” They were making these comments because they predicted grammar study was the standard curriculum. Progress was slow, but when she continued to ask students to write for ten minutes about a topic of their choice at the beginning of every class, their predictions changed on about the third or fourth day. They didn’t resist as much. They knew they would be asked to write, so they came to class with topic ideas. One day, when the teacher asked her students to look back over the past several days to see if they noticed anything, several mentioned that they were writing more. A few had managed to complete about half a page of writing in the time given, a significant increase from the one or two sentences they completed when the quick writes began. The teacher altered her students’ ideas about writing, and they began to make new, more positive predictions. Over the course of a semester, they began to think of themselves as writers because small successes encouraged them to dig deeper and learn more.
As a teacher, this reflection about how the brain predicts makes me see my work in new ways. I can hone my current strategies with the lens of prediction. I want students to make positive assumptions about my workshop from the very first day they enter the classroom. The more students predict positive outcomes, the more they will look forward to writing, and the more independent they will become.