Mary Boyd Ratzer: Knowledge Products and the Brain

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The incredible Mary Boyd Ratzer will be speaking this morning at NYLA-SSL. Don’t miss it, New York readers! For the rest of our colleagues around the country, here’s her column from our November 2015 issue, in case you missed it.

If a learner’s brain could talk, it might provide some valuable advice about inquiry. Engaged learning experiences that lead to rigorous knowledge products build in dynamics that work for the brain. The outcome of brain-based teaching and learning is what Ross Todd calls formative knowledge—knowledge that hard wires and becomes the foundation for new learning. Without a knowledge product that demands synthesis and manipulation, use, and application of new knowledge, the brain’s recycle bin gets emptied in two weeks. Stopping short of a knowledge product disempowers learning experiences and learners. Just ask a candid kid about that. You will hear a tasking mindset concerned with “getting done” and giving the teacher what she wants for a grade.

A Day in the Life

Sam and Anna take their brains to school. New factual information floods into a limited short-term memory—also, the bee that got in the classroom, a surprise cupcake for lunch, a new level in a video game, a secret shared, chores, soccer, homework, and the dog all compete for a seat on the short-term memory bus. You get the picture. That is one crowded bus.

Sam and Anna fall asleep, and slow oscillations of electrical energy wash over their brains. Ultimately clearing short-term memory capacity, the brain softens the noise of the day, sorting what is important from unimportant. A deluge of insignificant debris gets softened into oblivion. That which is important becomes stronger and louder, by contrast. Connections consolidate important facts and ideas into solid, lasting knowledge, only to be deepened and more broadly connected through new learning.

Knowledge Products and Inquiry Engage the Brain

Design an inquiry that starts with an essential question, and culminates in a knowledge product. (Mere content “coverage” gets purged as insignificant debris. Why bother?) Bloom’s Taxonomy to the rescue! Synthesis is the tipping point for long-term understanding and transfer. A knowledge product reaches the level of synthesis, and new learning takes up brain real estate.

Knowledge Product Strategies to Engage the Learner

  • Essential questions should determine knowledge products.
  • Build inquiries to focus on a meaningful question requiring investigation— central to the issue or problem.
  • Build inquiries where a learner becomes a subject expert.
  • Guide the learner in the use of quality texts to determine the important big ideas, supporting facts, the strongest evidence for the argument, and the solution for a real world problem.
  • Engage learners in analysis of perspectives, patterns, relationships and connections across sources.
  • Challenge learners to draw original conclusions and generate a product.
  • Support learners in reflecting on new understanding and how it relates to prior understanding.
  • Use a variety of tools and strategies in direct instruction and coaching in the process.
  • Build in a social element—discuss, collaborate, and negotiate meaning.

Your challenge is to design inquiries that culminate in knowledge products—rather than mere “information products”—for long-term, deep understanding of new knowledge.


Transform Your Information Product into a Knowledge Product

Information Product Knowledge Product
Report on a country or travel brochure A narrative, photostory, or series of letters capturing day to day life of a child living in a foreign country, exploring the EQ: How does where you live impact how you live?
A newspaper article on climate change and agriculture Starting with UN World Food Programme World Hunger Map, investigate a location and predict food production now compared with 25 and 50 years in the future, communicating with data in an infographic
A living museum where students summarize a biography of a president Conduct in historically accurate roles an impeachment of Abraham Lincoln using primary and secondary texts
Create a model of a planet Use animation, storyboard, or visual images to generate evidence that a planet’s surface tells the story of its internal and external change over time
Packets, reports, lists, brochures, worksheets Evidence based claims, arguments supported by evidence, debates, mock trials, narratives, solutions, civic action, plans, experiments, podcasts, iMovies, letters, creating or innovating

Mary Boyd Ratzer, MA, MLS, is a professional development consultant who fosters inquiry-based learning and real-world strategies for the Common Core. Formerly she served as a teacher and school librarian at the Shenendehowa Central Schools (NY), and taught curriculum at SUNY–Albany’s Graduate School of Information Studies. She is the coauthor of Rx for the Common Core: A Toolkit for Implementing Inquiry Learning and the two-book series Think Tank Library: Brain Based Learning Plans for the New Standards for K-5 and 6-12. Ratzer contributed to NY State Education Department initiatives involving curriculum, instruction, the Common Core, and school libraries, and in 2015 she received the New York Library Association Outstanding Service Award.

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