Decoding Learning in K16 History Courses

Teaching History Conference, May 7, 2021

Presenters: Sarah Drake Brown, William Cox, Jared McBrady, and David Pace


Decoding the Disciplines

            Decoding the Disciplines is a framework for teaching that is being used to increase learning in college courses in more than 15 countries and has more recently proven to be very effective in K-12 classes as well. Teachers using Decoding begin by focusing on places where many students are having difficulty doing essential tasks in a course and then seek to make explicit just what must do to get past these bottlenecks to learning.

            The seven steps below capture the essence of the process, although the steps need not always be pursued in this precise order.



Stage 1

Instructors identify “bottlenecks” – places where students got stuck in class

Stage 2

Instructors reason through how experts work disciplinarily to do the tasks associated with the bottleneck

Stage 3

Instructors identify ways to model the steps experts take to work through those tasks

Stage 4

Instructors plan for ways that students can practice those tasks and receive feedback

Stage 5

Instructors design ways to motivate the students to improve their ability to complete those tasks

Stage 6

Instructors plan how to assess student learning

Stage 7

Instructors think about how to share the results of what they learned through working through the Decoding the Disciplines model to other colleagues



The Decoding Interview

            As dedicated teachers, we want to share with our students the essence of historical thinking. But, ironically, our own facility in our discipline may get in the way.

When one becomes skilled at complex processes, many of the necessary steps become so automatic that these are unconscious. When teachers seek to share their knowledge of their discipline, they very often unintentionally leave out crucial steps that they are no longer aware that they do. This may leave the most vulnerable students unable to succeed at essential tasks.

            Therefore, Decoding very often entails an interview process that is used to get at underlying tacit[1] knowledge and mental actions used in disciplinary skills. The interviewees typically begin by describing a place in one of their courses where many students have difficulty doing essential tasks, and then they are asked to describe aloud how they themselves would go about performing the tasks which are daunting to many students.

            Initially, interviewees usually offer superficial responses or respond as if they are speaking to someone who already knows what to do. The interviewer needs to ask probing questions to help the interviewee uncover and make explicit their tacit knowledge and mental actions used. In short, interviewers need to find out the mental “tools” interviewees use. To decode, interviewers should cycle among the following steps:

1.     Ask interviewees to start from a specific, recent example when they used the mental action. Then ask, “What do you do?”

2.     Imagine yourself doing what they describe. Are crucial steps being left out?

3.     Ask questions where you don’t understand. Probe where the interviewee cannot explain.

4.     Summarize what the interviewees say; restate their points.

5.     Reassure interviewees that it is okay to not be able to explain their tacit knowledge.

6.     Gently redirect if the interviewees talk about how they teach their students, how they learned it, or if they launch into a lecture.

If the interview seems stuck, you might try the following additional questions, as appropriate:

1.     How do you do that?

2.     What does that tell you?

3.     What information are you getting from that?

4.     How do you know where to focus first?

5.     Why is doing that important?

6.     What do you do next? How does what you did before influence what you do next?

7.     Are you asking a set of predetermined questions (based on some unmentioned heuristic[2])? What are the questions?

8.     Do you choose an option (or strategy) from among several? If so, how did you know which to choose and which to leave out?

9.     If all else fails, suggest an analogy for the mental action. Does this analogy properly represent the mental action?

Key Points:

  1. Confusion. As an interviewer you should not pretend to understand and skip over parts where you feel confused. When you feel confusion, you need to ask more probing questions to reveal the assumptions the interviewee is skipping over.
  2. Digressions. You should try to avoid being sidetracked by digressions. Gently redirect interviews if the interviewees begin to digress into how they would teach students, or how they learned it, or if they launch into lectures.
  3. Interviewee’s comfort level. Notice if the interviewee gets uncomfortable from continued probing. The interviewee’s discomfort is a signal that you have arrived at tacit knowledge that is difficult to put into words. Reassure them that their responses are appropriate but continue to probe at this point.
  4. Reassurance. Continually provide reassurance to the interviewee. Let them know that it is often hard to put into words exactly what they do, and they are doing a great job in the interview.
  5. Working through silence. When you encounter silence, rephrase the question or ask a different question.

If you are interested in exploring Decoding more deeply . . .

  • Join the Decoding the Disciplines website to network with others using the approach through the Decoding website
  • Email with any questions you may have:

[1] tacit: understood or implied without necessarily being stated. Alternative means of making these steps explicit include instructor-generated metaphors, analogies, mind maps, and rubrics. (See Middendorf & Shopkow, 2017, 39-48, 59-63).

[2] mental shortcuts used to make thinking quicker and easier