Elaboration helps kids learn. Here's what you need to know.
Jesse Finafrock is a middle school science teacher who recently tried out the science of learning-based approach of elaboration.
Elaboration is the technique of helping students make connections between their lives, and what they’ve previously learned, to grasp new concepts and lessons. More specifically, the elaboration strategy emphasizes that students explore a deeper understanding of what they are learning by asking “why” and “how” questions.
“Elaboration was highly aligned with my personal growth goals this year,” Finafrock explains. “My approach is rooted in developing critical thinking, reducing teacher talk and encouraging student discussion, which elaboration serves well.”
Rounding out her fifth year of teaching 8th graders at The Soulsville Charter School and 6th graders at another Memphis turn-around school, Finafrock had different opportunities to try out the strategy of “elaboration.” Specifically, she experimented with how “interrogative elaboration” can work in a middle school science class.
As part of the work, Finafrock worked with researcher Dr. Stephen Chew, professor, and chair of the Psychology Department at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
The best teachers are students; of their students and of their craft. We asked Finafrock to share what she learned from her experience.
Elaboration can serve as a tool to build relationships between the teacher and student, student and student, as well as within themselves as individuals.”
Continuation and Extension of Current Teaching Philosophy and Practice
Like most good teachers, Finafrock was already using several research-proven teaching techniques. Elaboration is one of them. “I learned that many of the methods I was already using in class already fell within the elaboration style, which was affirming and helped me better understand the true meaning of elaboration.”
“For example, a lot of the scaffolded CFUs (“Checks for Understanding” via Bloom’s Taxonomy) I’d planned to align with an elaborative approach, even though I might not have thought that just by reading the definition of elaboration. Science is heavily based on describing one’s experiences and observations, like during an experiment or demonstration.” In other words, the effective teaching of science relies on the effective use of elaboration techniques.
Finafrock also noted: “Presenting a phenomenon to students and observing their questioning of the phenomenon allows the teacher to develop more responsive lessons targeted more specifically at what students don’t know yet and what they have expressed interest in knowing. Being able to explain the ‘why’ behind an idea or concept is the ultimate summative assessment!”
For example, Finafrock adds, “It is more important that a student be able to explain why an object is more or less dense, rather than simply knowing that more dense objects sink and less dense objects float. It is more important that a student understands why or how a particular conclusion was reached, rather than repeating the conclusion itself.”
When students and teachers are encouraged to share memories, discoveries, ideas, observations, and thoughts, relationships strengthen and learning deepens.”
Elaboration is Critical to Inquiry-Based Learning
Finafrock teaches science, which naturally includes inquiry-based learning. As she puts it, “modeling for and guiding students through interrogations equips students to ask themselves the same questions when attacking an unknown problem, or one that they’re solving by themselves.” Students can use their elaboration skills to analyze the validity and reliability of an experiment, sharpening their critical thinking skills.
Still, elaboration looks different in different classrooms. As a middle school teacher, Finafrock taught several different grades and made note of core differences between age groups. For example, her 6th graders had a harder time grasping abstract thinking; they needed more guidance and directed questioning to support connections via elaboration. Her 8th graders, on the other hand, were thinking more about their place in the world and were able to make more authentic connections on their own. They often came up with ideas and solutions Finafrock hadn’t anticipated.
Elaboration interrogation is a great tool to promote discussion between students. They can ask each other questions, and quiz each other.”
Scaffold Elaboration Questions to Avoid Confusion and Frustration
Many students lack basic elaboration skills, so it’s important that instructors who are using teaching elaboration techniques scaffold elaborative questions for these students. Finafrock reflected on how she could adapt elaboration in her classroom by “combining a two-read process, using descriptive elaboration and embedded questioning after the first read.”
“Then, for the second read, prompt more elaborative questioning with a few whole-group CFUs, before moving onto an assessment.” In other words, start with a simple elaboration question, “Describe another example of X,” building to more complex elaborative questioning like, “How is X is related to Y?”
For example, Finafrock had her students review two articles on antibiotic resistance, supported by several related activities like analyzing the text, creating visual representations, peer discussions and more, before being asked to draw connections between the two articles and their own experiences. Allowing student ideas to be presented anonymously also helped generate rich discussion. Finafrock also notes that “elaboration can even be used to encourage student ownership of their learning...over time drawing connections between academic data, life events, behavior choices and instructional choices.”
Elaboration is the technique of helping students make connections between their lives, and what they’ve previously learned, to grasp new concepts and lessons.”
Build and Nurture a “Culture of Error and Collaboration”
For any true learning experience, the teacher must actively create a positive learning environment. Given that learning most often occurs when mistakes are made, creating a culture of error to encourage learning is critical. As Finafrock explains, “faulty thinking can be used as a teachable moment that many students can relate to, and analyze without embarrassment.” This creates a healthier classroom culture.
Finafrock also found that elaboration can help engage otherwise disinterested students, especially when abstract ideas were connected to tangible events or memories in students’ everyday lives. “Elaboration interrogation is a great tool to promote discussion between students. They can ask each other questions, and quiz each other.” Student questions might include inquiries like, “how did your group arrive at your conclusion? Why did your group choose to do X? Can you tell me more about this piece of evidence?,” adds Finafrock.
...It is more important that a student understands why or how a particular conclusion was reached, rather than repeating the conclusion itself.”
Elaboration can Support Cross-Curricular Connections
Making connections using elaboration can be facilitated by the teacher by asking simple questions. “For example,” explains Finafrock, “How is this similar to what you are learning in (math, language arts, music, etc.) class? Or, describe a concept or activity from another subject that is related to our activity in class today.” These questions can often be a little tricky for students who are first learning elaborative techniques, but they “are an important step in opening young students’ minds to the possibilities of connections that they might not have otherwise seen,” says Finafrock.
In this regard, elaboration is a cultural bridge. “We all have implicit bias,” says Finafrock. “Elaboration can be a way to break down individual choices, and reflect on examples from others’ lives.” As Finafrock adds, “we are all more connected than we often realize. Using elaboration regularly in the classroom serves as a reminder that every perspective and experience has value.” We can, perhaps, use each others’ experiences to inform each other on what we share and how we’re different, honoring the diversity of experiences and knowledge in the classroom, Finafrock explained.
Especially when serving at-risk students, the student-teacher relationship is often a prerequisite to learning. Educators must draw personal connections to their students, and elaboration is a ready-made window into each others’ experiences. When students and teachers are encouraged to share memories, discoveries, ideas, observations, and thoughts, relationships strengthen and learning deepens.
Elaboration interrogation is a great tool to promote discussion between students.”
Elaboration as a Social Skill
Elaboration can serve as a tool to build relationships between the teacher and student, student and student, as well as within themselves as individuals. Particularly, in a time of digital interfaces, elaboration requires students to personally connect to those around them instead of through a screen.
Finafrock noted that restorative elaboration practices use “effective questions” to facilitate student reflection and elaboration regarding trauma or conflict. “The student is pushed to elaborate on how they or others were affected by an event, and thereby develop greater empathy and awareness about the consequences of one’s actions,” states Finafrock.
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