Publication Type: Web Article
Year of Publication: 2007
Gail V. Ritchie, an NBCT from Virginia, reviews Garner's book about how to help students develop their cognitive capacities for learning. It includes chapters on the "cognitive structures" recognition, memorization, conservation of constancy, classification, spatial orientation, temporal orientation, metaphorical thinking and spiritual dimensions. Ritchie says that while the book is grounded in cognitive research, it is accessible.
Garner, B.K. (2007). Getting to got it: Helping struggling students learn how to learn. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Getting to Got It! Helping Struggling Students Learn How to Learn
Betty K. Garner
2007 (168 pp./softcover)
$23.95 ($18.95 for members)
Reviewed by Gail Ritchie, PhD, NBCT
Fairfax County, Virginia
Last December, a fellow member of the Teacher Leaders Network, Bev Maddox, posted an enthusiastic endorsement of a book she had just read—Getting to Got It! As I read what Bev had to say, I thought, “This is a book that I and the teachers with whom I work absolutely must check out.” After reading the book for myself, I can categorically state that Bev did not steer me wrong!
Garner’s book is easy to read, full of vital information and practical suggestions, and provides teachers with multiple ways to help students develop their capacity to think. Getting to Got It! helps teachers stop wondering why students don’t “get it” or blaming others for the problem (including lower-grade teachers, parents, even students themselves). Garner proposes that when students don’t get what we’re teaching, it may very well be because they lack the cognitive structures to process and understand the information.
A teacher with many years of experience working with struggling K-8 students, Garner grounds her work within an impressive theoretical framework of research on cognitive structures and mediated learning. She draws on the understandings of Feuerstein, Piaget, Vygostsky, Bruner, Csikszentmihalyi, Gardner, Jensen, Sternberg, and Sousa (among others), as well as her own case study research with hundreds of students, to build a strong conceptual foundation.
She begins by explaining that human beings gather, process, and organize information using cognitive structures, which can be classified into three categories: comparative thinking, symbolic representation, and logical reasoning. The book describes comparative thinking as the springboard humans use to develop the other two structures. In the Introduction and first chapter, Garner explains that cognitive structures cannot be taught, but teachers and parents can help students develop them.
Garner has coined the term “metability” to “describe the ongoing, dynamic, interactive cycle of learning, creating, and changing.” Learning is created or constructed by the learner, resulting in knowledge (a change in understanding). Garner says that The more engaged students are in creating meaning, the more they change and learn. Key to one’s ability to learn, create, and change are the abilities to gather sensory data through experience, reflect upon these experiences, and visualize the information in order to process or make sense of it.
Garner uses the term “reflective awareness” to describe the need for students to “notice and thoughtfully consider the information” that they gather through their senses. Students then process the information by:
* Making connections with prior knowledge and experience,
* Finding patterns and relationships,
* Formulating rules “that make processing information automatic, fast, and predictable,” and
* Abstracting generalizable principles in order to apply or transfer the information to other situations and contexts.
Each of the remaining chapters is devoted to one of the cognitive structures associated with comparative thinking:
* Recognition—“the ability to identify a match or fit between two or more pieces of information.”
* Memorization—“a cognitive structure for storing and recalling information.”
* Conservation of Constancy—“the ability to understand how some attributes or characteristics of a thing can change while others stay the same.”
* Classification—“identifying, comparing, and ordering information or data to create meaning based on relationships of parts to each other and parts to the whole.”
* Spatial Orientation—“a cognitive structure that helps individuals identify and compare where objects and places are in relationship to each other and to oneself.”
* Temporal Orientation—“processing information by comparing events in relationship to when they occur.”
* Metaphorical Thinking—“making sense of information by comparing one thing to another using figurative language.”
* Spiritual Dimensions—“values, beliefs, feelings, assumptions, decision-making processes, expectations, attitudes, and motivations.”
Garner emphasizes again and again that these cognitive structures can be developed but not taught. Teachers can create active-learning experiences, ask open-ended questions such as “what do you notice,” and promote a risk-free learning environment that enables students to develop their reflective awareness, increase their ability to visualize, and strengthen their underlying cognitive structures.
Each chapter contains illustrative vignettes, drawn from Garner’s actual experiences with real-life struggling students. Each chapter concludes with practical suggestions for teachers and other caring adults to use in helping students develop their cognitive structures. The emphasis is not on imitation and rote memorization; rather, the emphasis is on what Wassermann (1990) calls “hands on/minds on” learning.
The book concludes with two appendices. Appendix A contains a lesson plan model designed to promote cognitive engagement, which she calls Explore, Describe, Explain, Demonstrate, Evaluate. This plan reminded me very much of Wassermann’s “Play-Debrief-Replay” model for active engagement in learning. Students first must explore, notice what their senses are telling them, then make connections with what they already know. In discussion with the teacher, students debrief and explain what they have noticed and begin to process the information. Students next demonstrate their understanding of the information by attempting to apply it, and finally, students and teacher reflect upon and evaluate the lesson.
Appendix B is an invitation to engage in reflective research. As an ardent proponent of practitioner inquiry, I was delighted that Garner concludes her book by encouraging teachers to help her “learn more about learning.” She provides the basic steps for reflective research: formulate a question, collect and document data, discuss and analyze data, take action, reflect and evaluate. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this process so closely mirrors the lesson plan model for cognitive engagement we find in Appendix A. It’s a fitting conclusion to a powerful book and really hammered home Garner’s two key points:
1. Each individual has to develop his or her own cognitive structures, and
2. It is never too late to develop cognitive structures.
Although this material sounds challenging, Garner makes it very accessible. I found the book incredibly enlightening, and I believe it will help me tremendously in my work as an Instructional Coach. I can use Garner’s explanations, terminology, and practical suggestions to empower teachers to mediate their students’ thinking. Instead of being frustrated about students’ lack of understanding, they can begin to tackle it by focusing on the development of comparative-thinking cognitive structures through reflective awareness and visualization.
And, rather than having my colleagues rely on my interpretation of the book, I plan to recommend it as our summer reading book, with follow-up dialogue as we approach the the next school year.