Have you ever been in one of those classrooms where the teacher stands at the front, drones on for an hour (or more) and then gives you an assignment to work on prior to a test the next day? As a successful student, you then dig into the textbook and learn just enough of the content to pass the test the next day.
You got nothing from the hour long lecture, you have no idea how to apply the knowledge, and you won’t retain it much beyond passing the test. You’ve just experienced education malpractice. There is a better way!
Welcome to another installment of my education geekery writing, where I apply education theory/practice to our collective search for financial independence. Today, I’ll explore what I consider the most elegant instructional framework, Gradual Release of Responsibility, and how it applies to financial learning and teaching.
If you’re interested in my previous entries on education geekery and applying instructional theories to finances, check out The Zone of Proximal Development: How the FI Community Matters and Misses.
Gradual Release of Responsibility
The gradual release of responsibility is a learning framework that makes so much sense you’ll wonder why you didn’t experience it more as a student. I learned it as a framework for teaching early literacy skills to students.
But, I first experienced it much earlier while working in a cabinet shop. Indeed, it’s the basis for much of apprenticeship. As usual, the most effective learning frameworks aren’t typically bolts of lightning from the sky but instead application of real-world learning.
In my opening example, the professor is taking all of the cognitive load onto himself in the first hour by claiming mastery of everything and then attempting to inject it into the students. This will work for a few students.
It won’t work at all for the others. They will then take all of the cognitive load onto themselves and do all of the work to learn it from a text in a short time.
In either example, the chances of retention are small. The likelihood of applying the new learning effectively are even smaller.
A gradual release of responsibility approach instead intentionally has the teacher assume the cognitive load first, then shares the load between teacher and learner, and finally has the learner assume full responsibility for the learning. This approach improves acquisition, increases retention, and dramatically increases the ability to apply.
All of that sounds complicated, but the beauty is it can be reduced to three simple phrases:
My most successful instructional experiences have all been designed with this approach. Early literacy, advanced math, teacher supervision, and leadership development for adult learners.
Just keeping in mind the simple approach of “I do. We do. You do.” This gradual release of responsibility works.
This is the modeling phase. The teacher shows the learner how to perform the task. It is best to be explicit about the steps, and the why of each step.
If the teacher knows multiple approaches to the task, they can model them. Or, they can model one for this sequence, and model another for the next depending on the difficulty of the task.
A writing teacher modeling use of adjectives to improve descriptions.
A math teacher demonstrating multi-digit addition through the use of grouped objects, then t-charts, and then the regroup algorithm.
Teaching a friend the debt snowball vs. debt avalanche by going through your own debts and listing them out by amount owed and interest rate.
The missing ingredient in the ineffective lecture example above. In the “we do” phase, the cognitive load is shared by the teacher and learner walking through the skill together.
This is effective because it allows the learner to begin constructing actual understanding while working with the task instead of simply performing for the teacher. The learning is scaffolded because the teacher can then provide feedback and adjustment in real time. (Yes, this is why actual one-to-one coaching is so effective.)
To continue the previous examples from above:
The teacher provides a sentence that is bland and lacking description. The teacher asks the student to suggest an appropriate location for an adjective. Once they agree, they test a few adjectives to see which improves the sentence most.
The teacher provides students a partially completed multi-digit addition problem and stacking cubes. The student then builds the problem with the cubes, and the teacher records the answer using regrouping notation. They switch roles and repeat.
The financial literacy enthusiast provides his friend with a list of debts, amounts, rates, and a blank chart. They complete it, ranking once by interest rate, and a second time by amount. Then, they test what each would look like if one applies $500 a month to debt.
In this step, the learner assumes full cognitive load and ownership for the task. The teacher does not abandon the learner, but instead agrees to offer feedback on completion, or support at moments of frustration.
The most effective teachers allows the learner to explore in this phase, not holding them to a rigid approach. This increases the learner’s acquisition and enables the learner to acquire the task in the most effective way for them.
(Note: This is one of the greatest downfalls of traditional math instruction. Students are often required to solve in only the way the teacher understands. The focus, instead, should be on the outcome and ability to replicate the performance. That is – an error that was lucky isn’t acceptable, but an innovative approach that works universally should be applauded.)
For the above three examples:
The teacher asks the student to create a new passage, or edit an old one, with descriptive words that add interest.
The student is assigned a challenge that requires the application of multi-digit addition.
The friend applies the learning to his own list of debts and consults with the personal finance enthusiast as needed.
Apply It In Your Life
I’m betting if you think about your life, when you’ve learned most quickly and effectively it’s through some variation of this sequence.
You saw someone else more experienced do it. Even better, that person was explicit with you about how and why they did it.
You were able to try and perform the task in cooperation with a more experienced person and your skill and understanding increased.
You did it on your own, but someone more experienced was there to offer guidance, feedback, and/or affirmation of your success.
Keep this in mind next time you set out to learn something new. Can you find a more experienced mentor? Even a You Tube video is useful here!
Is there a partner you can learn with? An online community to join?
Then, after you try it on your own who can offer feedback?
If you can intentionally create a gradual release of responsibility for yourself, you are more likely to master the skill you are trying to learn.
Use Gradual Release of Responsibility as a Teacher
The personal finance community is passionate about spreading the knowledge we’ve acquired. It feels a bit like we know a secret that the rest of the world is still blind to. We become passionate and want to get the word out!
Know that simply shouting with a megaphone won’t actually help that many people. It may raise awareness. But, if we want to actually change behavior and learning, can we more intentionally structure our approach?
Can we move beyond just the “I Do” modeling and build intentional interactions around shared learning and individual application? This is the secret to the most effective learning, retention, and application of new concepts.