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Learning Made Simple
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Brenda Dyck reflects on how she came to the revelation that simplifying classroom procedures and directions was key to meeting more of her students' learning needs.


Did you hear about the old woman who spent a week in a shopping mall because she couldn't find her way out? She bought food during the day and slept on a bench at night. Being a spatially challenged person, I find this scenario quite plausible. I have felt disoriented in facilities that apparently made sense to those who planned their layouts. When you don't know where you are, you might feel panicky, frustrated, or embarrassed.

As an educator, I make a living helping students maneuver through the "malls" of learning. Some students breeze along with a seemingly natural sense of direction. They need little assistance in sorting through the learning expectations given them on a daily basis. However, I also see students who struggle with how to reach their learning goals or students who are downright confused by what teachers ask of them. Teachers, myself included, often mistakenly assume students "just know" what we want them to do. We create procedures or goals that have little meaning to students. Like those shopping mall planners, we create them without thinking through all the problems our students might face in understanding them.

I recall a number of the assignments my son brought home during fifth grade. Not only were the instructions vague but he was asked to carry out tasks that required skills he had not yet been taught. Working with him at home proved to be a case of "the blind leading the blind" as I tried to direct him toward successful completion of each assignment. I found myself teaching him skills such as the business letter format, how to summarize research, and how to prepare for an upcoming test. I often wondered why I, as a parent, was teaching those skills and if the teacher had given any thought to the directions provided for students.

In a moment of honest reflection, I considered the possibility that my students and parents might feel the same way about my assignments. My reflection prompted me to experiment with ways to better explain skills and procedures that had proved too complex for my students to grasp. I forced myself to dissect the directions and assignments I had given and to exclude from them anything that was unessential to the core learning.

Pick De Bono's Brain!

As I searched for ways to simplify my classroom systems, procedures, and directions, Edward de Bono was a constant source of inspiration. I found myself picking de Bono's brain -- by frequently referring to his book Simplicity. That book fueled ideas for weeding out the unnecessary complexity in my classroom learning environment. In my quest to simplify learning for my students, I continue to be challenged by some of de Bono's "simplicity" principles, including the following ones:

* In order to make something simple; you have to understand your subject very well.
* Almost anything can be simplified further.
* It is essential to be very clear about where, why, and for whose benefit simplicity is being sought.
* Though the whole task may seem impossibly complex, each small step can be simple and do-able.

Following are brief descriptions of some of the tools I implemented as a result of my reflection on the student assignments I gave:

Assignment Sheets. I had always been frustrated by the discrepancy between my assignment expectations and the resulting student work. Cognizant of the fact that many of my students were missing important parts of my verbal directions, I prepared detailed assignment sheets that stated -- in checklist format -- each of my assignment benchmarks. (Find a link to a sample assignment sheet at the end of this article.) I encouraged learners to check the box next to each benchmark as they included it in their work. Students found it useful to see "how" I intended to mark the assignment. Providing students with the assignment and assessment sheets up front informed students about what I expected and how I planned to mark it. That eliminated the guesswork for my students; it also helped students produce work that was closer to the assignment standard.

Working Papers. The "working paper," another support tool I developed, walked my students through the steps of their writing assignments. The tool reminded them of specific elements that should be included. (See links to sample working papers at the end of this article.) Working papers provided a model for disorganized writers; they broke down the task into manageable steps for students who were immobilized by the "immensity" of an assignment. Working papers doubled as evidence of the students' writing process.

Graphic Organizers. These powerful thinking tools enabled my students to see where they were and where they were going. I created graphic organizers, which I called "process charts," to clearly demonstrate for students

  • the steps in performing long division,
  • how to successfully complete a science fair project,
  • the steps needed to achieve a career goal,
  • a way to follow the plot of a story, or even
  • what needs to be done to ready the classroom for end-of-day dismissal.

Flashcards. Placing the main bytes of information from a unit of study on flashcards provided students with a practical review tool that helped keep the important facts fresh in their memory. This ongoing tool was especially useful for getting a handle on the extensive vocabulary that is part of science, social studies, and language curricula.


  • Edward de Bono Personal Site This Web site offers information about the work of Edward de Bono, a leading authority in the field of human thinking.

  • Graphic Organizers Browse through a number of graphic tools designed to support student learning.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Westmont Charter Public School, a school for gifted and talented children in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In addition to teaching sixth grade math and science, Brenda is also the school librarian. She has written for various educational periodicals and is a teacher-editor for MidLink Magazine.