Imagine teaching a short lesson to introduce students to the concept of a preposition:

Prior to the lesson, on the whiteboard, write the same sentence four times:  The book is _____ the desk. Stand by a desk and hold up a book, asking students to identify the desk and the book. “These are two things, or as we have learned, nouns. Nouns are persons, places, and things. “Now watch me.” Place the book on the desk. “Where is the book?” When the students say on the desk, fill in the first blank with the word on. “How about now?” Place the book on the floor under the desk. When the students say under, fill in the second blank with the word under. “And now?” Place the book in the desk. As students respond, fill in the second blank with the word in. “This one is a little trickier. What do you think? Where is the book now?” And hold the book above the desk. Students may say over or above. Some may say floating, but press them to identify where. Fill in the remaining blank. “I have the same two nouns written four times, but that one word makes all the difference in your understanding where the book is in relation to the desk. That word describes the relationship between the book and the desk. This part of speech is called a preposition, and it helps describe a relationship.” 

You might then offer an exploration of a preposition that explains a time relationship, such as, “I like to read _____ lunch.” You could fill in before, during, or after. You might discuss how such words help an author convey meaning and describe situations, and how they help the reader have a better understanding of the meaning of text.

Over a period of ten minutes, you might explore several of these with your students. In the end, students will become aware of the set of words that describe relationships between other words in a sentence. Note that you did not introduce the list of the twenty or so most common prepositions; you didn’t explain how to find the preposition in a sentence; and you didn’t show students how to identify prepositional phrases, nor that a preposition is followed by a noun. What you did was “trigger awareness” that such a category of words exist, that they help a writer more clearly describe a situation, and that they help a reader better understand the meaning of a passage of text. You introduced the power of prepositions to convey meaning, which will be important to students as they read and write. Students will then engage in a variety of instructional activities, targeted to their readiness level and learning styles, to tackle the skill of working with prepositions.

In the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom (Students Taking Charge, 2011), this short, whole-group lesson to “trigger awareness” in students of skills, concepts, and content is called the Benchmark Lesson. It is a powerful strategy to motivate and prepare learners to dig more deeply into concepts, skills, and content.

While the efficiency-driven, factory model of education propelled the practice of teaching skills from the front of the room to a large group of students, the reality of the learning process points to how ineffective this practice is.

  1. Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): We all have a current body of knowledge, knowledge that we are ready to learn (ZPD), and that which we are cognitively not ready to learn (the Distal Zone.) Effective instruction would target a students’ Proximal Zone, which would be impossible when teaching to a large group of students.
  2. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book, Flow, explaining that we are most engaged in learning when the activity offered is just above our ability level. Again, this is not possible when teaching to a large group of students.
  3. Caleb Gattegno sums up the connection between teaching and learning in his famous phrase, “only awareness is educable.” He purported that a teacher cannot teach a student anything; the teacher triggers awareness; the student is then driven to learn and must personally construct meaning.
  4. Albert Einstein said ,”I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they learn.”

In the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom, teachers do not attempt to teach skills from the front of the room, even for short periods of time, as this will frustrate some and bore others. They use short, whole-group sessions to trigger awareness of concepts related to learning. Even if a student already knows the concept, the lesson challenges them to draw on what they know and expand their ideas moreso than when teaching skills; and fewer students become frustrated with a well-crafted Benchmark Lesson.