The Way to learn is using what you already know to understand what you don’t, not squeezing your eyes shut and repeating things three times like the Cowardly Lion. Clustering, in and of itself, beats learning one piece at a time, BUT … a uniform structure to induce clustering and hold all the pieces together beats everything. You’re familiar with the concept of putting water in a bottle, so you can take a sip whenever you like without going to the fountain. You probably have a pencil cup and gizmo on your desk to hold erasers, staplers, scissors, paper clips, and what not, so you can use them readily. Information slips through someone’s hands like water when they don’t grasp its structure, and gets lost like staplers and scissors when you don’t have a structure to keep them. Students carry book bags, but never think of ways to put different kinds of information in pockets and carry it around all day throughout their lives.
The reason that learning anything—be it athletics, dance, music, cooking, or academic subjects—is difficult isn’t so much the information or subject, itself, as the lack of a plan for learning anything at all. Musicians and athletes learn what they need to know and practice it with a structured plan. Professionals do the same drills and exercises that junior high musicians and athletes do, and interestingly, do them to continually improve the same attributes: the speed, strength, stamina, flexibility, timing, and touch, with which they perform. Do YOU work on them? I mean, actually break the structure of ALL information down into its components, learn about and practice them—outside the classroom, so you can use them well in the classroom.
Searching for brilliant lesson plans, without a cohesive, overall learning plan is like the kids in playgrounds practicing trick basketball shots, who don’t make the school teams because they neglected to develop a plan for learning the skills—how to dribble, pass, shoot, and rebound a ball—well enough to optimize opportunities moment by moment, and minimize mistakes.
An Ed.D. named Greta Nagel wrote a book called The Tao of Teaching applying the 89 lessons of Lao-Tse to teaching, without noticing that The Tao isn't the 89 lessons, but The Way, as Tao means, Lao-Tse derives all of them from illustrative anecdotes and analogies. Sounds easy enough; so does playing basketball and the trumpet.
Or has it never occurred to you that you are teaching students who don’t know how to learn, in the first place? Give them a leg up in class, and for the rest of their lives, and teach them how information works, to begin with. The Idea is to teach this while you teach whatever you are covering each day. Explaining the way you explain things, while teaching them, may seem to take too much time to get through the lesson, but just as working out a few hours a week saves more time than it takes by enabling you to work harder, faster, and easier, the time you spend explaining The Uniform Structure of Information while using it saves the time of repeating yourself and reviewing the information again later. If you aren’t doing this, students aren’t retaining and using the information as well as they might. Reviewing it later, without doing this again, is like pouring a second cup of water through their hands. If someone can’t put 2 and 2 together, nothing much else adds up, or holds up for long.
That said, you cannot—I repeat, cannot—spend a period more wisely or fruitfully than devoting one to this alone. I would go so far as to suggest doing that periodically. Each time you do, nuances of the structure will come to you. Not only is every magazine article and book written this way; every speaker at every conference uses the same narrative structure, different as their content may be. They don’t have to think about the process; the process, in fact, thinks for them. And guess what: nuances will come to your students, which surprise both of you, as well. I was in a 10 Grade Chemistry class where students were focusing on Boyle’s 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: Pressure x Volume/ Temperature remain constant. A student asks if the anecdotes and analogies I use don’t expand the Volume of any given matter, enabling someone to literally remain Cool under Pressure. Any reason our mind wouldn’t work the same way as water and balloons?
The better students recognize and understand how you formulate information this way, equating what they don’t know to what they do know—using constants to eliminate unknowns, as but one more example of the many ways that Mathematics serves as an analogy to Language Arts, so students can again see how all knowledge is interrelated, just as the realms it explains are—the better they recognize for themselves, in a heartbeat, how what they don’t understand is similar to things they already know, all day long, as they say.
That doesn’t mean stopping every time you use one component or another of The Uniform Structure of Information, to point it out, much less explain how you came by it or why it helps the students understand a lesson better. A basketball coach teaching a play doesn’t explain every movement he makes, nor a music teacher every musical phrase; just key movements or phrases to accomplish the play successfully or play the music, not just the notes on the page, which comes up again and again every time they go over different plays or pieces of music. The greatest athletes and performing artists still take lessons that way, and still get into slumps or doldrums that teachers help them overcome. Like those teachers, you will get better and better at discerning what components at what times are critical to using the whole process smoothly, automatically.