Unlearning the Ropes by Dr. Denise M. Bressler

Unlearning the Ropes

Dr. Denise M. Bressler

Reviewed by Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director

“I now understand that schools are designed for someone like me, but schools are not designed well for the majority of the population.  This is deeply concerning…and it impacts every facet of our society.

School should work well for everyone, but it doesn’t. Our country’s acute focus on grades pushes students to lose their motivation, enthusiasm, and confidence.” (Preface)

I became a teacher a half century ago to make a difference in the lives of my students by using simulation games to engage students in problem solving and decision making as part of their education in world and United States history.  In my tenure as a teacher and administrator, I taught numerous classes on learning styles, differentiated learning, and assessments.

Unlearning the Ropes provides substantial evidence and a new perspective for bringing about change in the culture of the local school district. There are 1.28 million students in public schools in New Jersey and 57,486 in charter schools.  Source  With a dropout rate of 1%, there are approximately 13,000 students who drop out of school each year. There is an annual income gap of $10,000 between a student with a high school diploma and one without one. With two million high school dropouts in the United States in 2019, the amount of lost revenue is $20 billion and $400 million in lost taxes at 20%. Source   Our goal is to educate productive citizens.

Dr. Bressler provides a fresh perspective on the chronic problems of the rigid culture in most schools and local districts, the decision-making process for determining what to teach and how to teach it, and the blind acceptance of the cookie-cutter model of grade-based education. The debates over cognitive and affective learning, cultural literacy and discipline-based literacy, and the authority of the teacher’s grade book over differentiated instruction continue to be the victim of educational gridlock even though the educational research definitively supports choice and activity-based instruction.

The call to action is in Chapter 2: “Instead of focusing on performance, we can help them concentrate on mastery and developing a more positive reaction to failure”. To place this in the context of a meeting of the faculty, department, or Principal’s Cabinet, I will focus my application to the teaching of social studies. The impact of Covid-19 and virtual learning environments is exponentially decreasing student motivation, cognitive abilities, and test scores. While this is an immediate cause the long-range causes of this trajectory are in the rapid cultural and technological developments of the 20th century, which are currently at a heightened level of visibility.

As teachers deemphasized papyrus in favor of video, digital, and oral platforms over the past two decades, the process of transforming information into deep memory was diminished. The steps to thinking involve gathering and organizing information, making notes, and converting text to visual memory to stimulate thinking and deeper memory.  Education is not a strategy for memorizing information and performance is not an assessment with letter or number grades. It is about thinking, experiencing, and solving.  Educators teach students how to learn and the historical content in the learning standards becomes the catalyst for learning.

Dr. Bressler in Unlearning the Ropes directly addresses the benefits of ‘games’ as part of the learning process. The benefits of collaboration, decision-making, problem solving, engagement, and scaffolding learning at higher levels of cognition are clearly explained. My thesis was in simulation games in 1969 and I have observed the benefits of them with my students, children, and grandchildren over five decades. My grandchildren look forward to Fridays when their teacher engages them in Kahoot!  Although I believe their teachers use this as a diversion from the structured curriculum activities, my grandchildren are engaged because the activity is competitive, collaborative, and challenging.

Although games work, students cannot play games in school every day and in the six or seven classes they are taking. If they did, games would have diminishing returns.  However, teachers should be mindful of the benefits of physical education, art, music, and electives where they are standing, participating in movement, and processing information.  For social studies teachers, it is essential to plan a variety of differentiated instructional activities.  Activity-designed instruction includes the familiar strategies of cooperative learning, student presentations, structured debates, independent research, cross-disciplinary activities, partnerships with discipline-based resources (colleges, local museums, virtual field trips, experts, civic leaders, senior citizens, etc.) and simulations, educational games, and virtual reality experiences.

Unlearning the Ropes helped me to realize that teachers know what works effectively and they have access to excellent resources.  The missing links are the current limitations of how we assess what students are learning, parental or community understanding and support for active and engaged learning, and leadership from school administrators. Our current culture in most schools prevents teachers and departments from implementing differentiated instruction, academic literacy, and what I am suggesting is activity-designed learning. 

How to Begin?

For educators who are serious about implementing the evidence-based changes proposed by Dr. Bressler, let me suggest the following:

  1. An audit of student grades on report cards, state assessments, and national tests. This needs to be done K-12 with an independent analysis of skills, performance-based assessments such as essays, research papers, and presentations. If this cannot be conducted as a school or district, begin the audit in the social studies department.
  • Gather and organize data on what students are doing with problem solving, decision-making, and thinking.  Collect anecdotal evidence from teachers and students, in addition to the evidence of rubrics.
  • Conduct professional development with experts in the field through professional learning communities, staff development, or a consortium of social studies departments in schools in your area.
  • Identify schools which have previously implemented (or are in the process of considering) differentiated and active learning lessons and performance-based assessments.
  • Develop a model curriculum in core courses (K-12 if possible) that includes engaging activities, observations by other teachers or independent consultants (retired teachers and supervisors, instructional coaches, etc.), and alternative and performance-based assessments.
  • Educate parents and stakeholders in the community on what is being considered, provide support from local college professors and admission counselors from local, state, regional, and ivy league colleges and universities, reveal your plan for quality control and continuing evaluation, and examples of performance-based assessments. If possible, include the voices of your students and teachers.

It is best to move in this direction incrementally. Unlearning the Ropes presents examples of what meaningful learning is and how and why it is effective. In some ways this is ‘old school’ and yet educators, who are convinced that learning needs to be enjoyable and collaborative, need revolutionary steps to overcome the inherent barriers in their school district.  The lesson learned in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is that the first 20% of schools embracing the new direction will be the most difficult. 

“As a graduate student and an educational researcher, I have seen the standard lecture format prevail in teacher education. If preservice teachers are trained in settings that don’t promote agency, how are they supposed to know how to support agency in their classrooms? In-service teachers realize they lack these skills citing professional development as essential to learning to promote agency.” (page 98)

Pre-service teachers should also read this book and become familiar with strategies that effectively measure learning rather than teaching. Consider the example below asking students to analyze the Battle of Long Island from the perspective of different choices. This was the first and largest battle in the Revolutionary War involving more than 40,000 soldiers. The date is August 27, 1776.

Could General Washington and the Continental Army have won the Battle of Long Island?

How would each of these strategies change history?

Washington should have attacked General Howe immediately after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on Staten Island. Washington had an army equal to or perhaps greater than that of the British in July. (Offense was the preferred option.)Washington should have negotiated an agreement with General Howe realizing that the 20,000 British and Hessian forces were stronger and better equipped than the Continental Army. (Fighting was not an option.)
Washington’s decision to position some troops on Long Island (Brooklyn Heights), maintain a reserve force along the East River in Manhattan, and station backup forces in New Jersey along the Hudson. (Defense was the preferred option.)Let the British take New York and control the New England colonies while regrouping and defending Philadelphia and the Middle and Southern colonies. Use the area of New Jersey to gather intelligence and monitor the British forces. Blockade New York Harbor and cut off supplies to the British army. (Creating a new scenario.)

“When students are given control over their learning, the outcomes range from improved achievement to enhanced motivation, enthusiasm, and confidence.” (page 95)

Research the experts!  Which interpretation do you think caused the American Revolution?

What caused the American Revolution?Supporting a Claim with Evidence
Democratic Movement (Robert Brown, Michigan State Univ.)Ideological Influences (Bernard Bailyn, Harvard)
Economic Causes (Andrew Hacker, Queens College)Class Struggles (Merrill Jensen, Univ. of Wisconsin)

The models above allow students to ask questions, investigate the geography, engage with research, learn from each other, make a claim, and understand the historical account of what actually happened and why it happened. Similar options for learning other issues and events can follow this general model. For example, in Civics, engage students with Project Citizen, in U.S. History, use a Model Congress or press conference, in World History, consider the Model UN or creating a tapestry of social and cultural history.

The advice of Albert Einstein supports problem solving and decision-making lessons, “I never teach my pupils.  I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.” (page 85) The conditions for student engagement and thinking include taking risks and learning from mistakes, the independence to be creative, collaboration with peers and adults, and learning by enjoying.  Schools and classrooms do not need to provide the magical kingdom of a Disney World but they should provide the differentiated experiences of animal kingdom, Epcot, the wild west, and the Hall of Presidents! The ‘Disney experience’ provides differentiated activities with lots of fun.

In addition to providing explicit insights into differentiated learning experiences, Unlearning the Ropes provides personal reflections about parenting, school culture, and adolescent psychology. The book is easy to read and prompts serious discussion about student productivity, the efficient distribution of academic content, and redesigning the traditional model of cultural literacy into academic literacy.

For commercial products on simulations and engaging activities for students in K-12, visit these resources:

University of Maryland ICONS online Simulations 

Brown University Choices Program

Academic Literacy by Dr. Harry Stein

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