Picasso’s quote may seem somewhat contradictory as giving answers is not necessarily a useless trait; however, dig a little deeper and it makes a lot of sense. Computers (or rather Google) give us the answers we are looking for — we receive an output for a question asked.

This isn’t necessarily a negative thing — sometimes all we need is a factual response such as a date or a statistic. But there are times when it isn’t about the answer…it is about lots of answers…and it’s about our ability to come up with our own answer(s).


The impetus for this post comes from a conversation I had with a HS English teacher friend. We talk a few times a week about her classes, units, assessment practices, social emotional learning, etc. And it was something that she said a couple of weeks ago that stuck with me.

She was doing a unit that included having a debate as part of the final assessment, and she was giving time for a lot of discussion based activities. But she was finding that between her two classes, one had very rich conversations and one had very flat conversations. She found this frustrating and like any self-reflective teacher, started to ask questions as to why this was happening? Maybe she had done something differently with the classes? Maybe is was the time of day? Maybe there were more outgoing personalities in one class?

There could be a lot of maybe’s as to why the classes were so opposite in the nature in connection to their discussions and they all could have some validity…but I also think there is something else at work here. And as I thought about her context, her teaching style, and the current unit… I wondered if it could be the mindset of the students? Because there was another link that my friend had also mentioned: the class whose discussions were flatter, was also the class that struggled more often at the beginning stages of the writing process.

In thinking about the correlation above, this post will focus on providing some access points before the writing begins to help students (1) engage more actively in discussions and (2) avoid that initial struggle of coming up with what to write about.

THE Answer vs. AN Answer

The vs. An — such a small edit with such big potential.

I vividly remember the moment one of my IB Lang and Lit classes bought into this article shift. I had moved to a flipped classroom framework and a lot of our class time was spent talking in small groups or as a class socially constructing knowledge (under the premise that students had completed the reading and thinking work before class).

The goal of each class was to leave it a different thinker — each student should have learned something new or shifted their thinking on something.

And we discussed how trying to find THE answer to something (theme, character motivation, tone, conflict, etc.) was limiting and unrealistic — not only did it create a paralyzing fear of saying the wrong thing, it made each student a carbon copy of each other. Once they were able to let go of this fear and engage in the group discussions, they were able to generate their own perspective on a topic — they developed AN answer of their own.

Disclaimer: This did not happen quickly! It took a lot of practice and intentional teaching of how to engage in discussions to get to this point. I also relied on the following reminder: “if you aren’t struggling (a little), you aren’t learning”.

If you aren’t struggling (a little), you aren’t learning.

This shift in discussions and a willingness to struggle through their thinking, led to a shift in the students writing as it freed them to take more chances in the connections they were making. They realized that their ideas had validity as long as they were able to show their line of reasoning. And the students started to make connections and assertions I had never thought or read before (which I made sure to tell them) — it was such a beautiful shift to witness.

Cognitive Load, Curiosity, & Confidence

Apart from allowing for more time to discuss/socially construct knowledge and develop their own interpretation…what else was the flipped classroom framework actually doing?

In reflection I see three layers that were working simultaneously: (1) it eased the cognitive load of coming up with an idea when the writing began, (2) it invited students to find a topic they were interested in — you can’t force curiosity, and (3) it reduced the emotional stress of participating in discussions.

1. Natalie Wexler, author of A The Writing Revolution Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades, notes that writing “requires students to express themselves and not merely to receive and process information, writing imposes the greater cognitive load” than reading.

She goes on to explain that our working memory has a limited capacity… so in students knowing (at least generally) what they were going to write about and having some confidence in their ideas, it reduces the working memory load. This allows them to focus on the how of their writing — thinking about syntax, audience, punctuation, etc. (Hopefully with some mentor texts to guide them!)

2. Any time we can include student agency is a win. When time is given for students to socially construct knowledge, the ability for them to find an idea they are interested in increases. And this curiosity can make a significant difference in their writing.

3. There are many students who hesitate (or flat out refuse) to engage in group/class discussions. The flipped classroom model increases the exposure students have to collaborative talk/work time, offering opportunities to build confidence in this skill set and reduce the cognitive load the emotional stress of engaging in discussions causes.

A Practical Application

As I mentioned above, moving to a flipped classroom framework naturally lent itself to activities in class where the social construction of knowledge took place. Yes, it took some work to establish routines and skills to make the discussions effective, but (a) it was worth it and (b) these are fundamental life skills students should be practicing anyway. (I have linked a few resources at the bottom of this post if you are new to the Flipped Classroom concept.)

But, it isn’t the why or the when of this skill set that I want to talk about…it is the HOW. Because I came across a resource on Twitter the other day by Tom Rademacher that made me wish I was back in a classroom so that I could implement it yesterday! And it circles back to our friend Picasso and his dislike of computers…in a world where technology is embedded in everything, Tom sees a purpose to disengage from them as well.

Tom Rademacher‘s beautiful brainchild is called the “Search Engine: Because none of us is smarter than all of us“. And the best part is …you can access it for free (it would have been a little ironic if it wasn’t free, but still SUPER grateful!).

The intentionality within this Google Slides presentation not only establishes a space where students can engage and share their ideas without judgement, but it also empowers them to bring their ideas to the table. The activities included offer strategies that help students to contribute AN answer to the common good of the group — to socially construct knowledge without even knowing they are doing so. Except they will know because in the spirit of transparency, we will tell them that is EXACTLY what we are doing!

Here are a couple of the activities:

When we develop a students ability to critically think we also develop their confidence in what they have to say — and this is directly reflected in their writing. Making time before writing for students to reduce their cognitive load by (1) establishing their own ideas, (2) discussing those ideas with their peers, and (3) processing their new understanding is one way to help structure them for success when they put pen to paper (or fingers to keys).

I know we are closing in on the end of the year, but this could be a good time to experiment with the Search Engine, perhaps with grade 11 and 12’s who might be done with class content but still coming to class? But I see a lot of value in thinking about using the Search Engine ideas at the start of next year to establish a collaborative space to socially construct knowledge right from the start. By putting this time into the pre-writing process it should not only reduce the academic cognitive load — helping those stuck students get unstuck, but it has the potential to reduce the emotional cognitive load — encouraging more voices to come into the room.


A few Flipped Classroom resources that helped me:

  • This Schoolology site is a great resource if you are new to the Flipped Classroom model.
  • Edutopia has this list of guidelines and stems to help establish an effective environment for discussion.
  • Tricider is an easy to use online application that can gather student ideas based on a specific question — beneficial for asynchronous learning.

Not only do I thank you for visiting this site and reading my thoughts…but I would love to hear your thoughts and wonderings, too. Please, leave a comment below, email me at readwritemore@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @readwritemore

You can also see more of my writing (along with the writing of some other brilliant and beautiful minds) at MovingWriters.org

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