Moving Every Child Ahead: The Big6 Success Strategy
by Bob Berkowitz • Library Media Specialist Wayne Central School, Ontario Center, New York
with Ferdi Serim • MultiMedia Schools Editor
MultiMedia Schools • May/June 2002
Leaving No Child Behind: High-Stakes Testing as Information Problem Solving
In far too many schools, the prospect of annual testing for all students in grades 3-8 has needlessly paralyzed progress toward education reform and technology integration. As schools circle the wagons to meet the challenge of high-stakes tests, fear-based responses often sacrifice the higher-order-thinking, project-based-learning approaches, upon which successful uses of technology depend, in favor of rote learning. Our cover story features a proven strategy, which instead improves performance by improving thinking on the part of teachers and students alike. The powerful partnership of Bob Berkowitz and Scott Hopsicker, using the Big6 process, gives us a working model for seizing this opportunity to advance effective teaching and learning by treating the tests themselves as information-based problems.

The Big6 is the most widely known and used approach to teaching information and technology skills in the world. Used in thousands of
K-12 schools, higher-education institutions, and corporate adult training programs, the Big6 information problem-solving model is applicable whenever people need and use information. The Big6 integrates information search and use skills along with technology tools in a systematic process to find, use, apply, and evaluate information to specific needs and tasks. Mike Eisenberg, co-creator of the Big6 along with Bob Berkowitz, says, "Our mission is to help all people succeed by becoming better information problem-solvers. We live in an increasingly complex information- and technology-rich world. Information and technology skills are the 'new basics.' Being able to find and use information more effectively is essential to the success of students of all ages—pre-K through adult."

As this is the most vital issue facing our profession, I encourage you to share this story with your administrators, your school board, your community, and your peers. Together, we can work our way beyond teaching to the test, to the higher ground of improved learning for all.

—Ferdi Serim

An All-Too-Common Problem
Scott Hopsicker was a social studies teacher at Wayne Central High School, near Rochester, New York, when he first came to see me in 1997-1998. Even though he'd been at Wayne Central for only 2 years, Scott was a very active and popular teacher. He was involved in coaching as well as teaching and was well liked by his students. But he had a problem. In his first year as a teacher, Scott's students did not perform well on the New York State Regents Exam in American History. Remembering that first year, Scott says, "Only 53 percent passed, and I was horrified. I looked at myself first. I didn't blame the kids. I went to Bob soon afterwards."

Concerned about his students, and wanting to do something to help them improve their scores, Scott spoke to our assistant principal, who suggested that he discuss the situation with me, in my role as the school's library media specialist. Since I'd succeeded in helping students on advanced placement tests in various subjects, perhaps I could help. Scott saw himself as a conscientious, well-prepared teacher. He obviously needed a new strategy. Enter the Big6.

First thing, when Scott came by and dropped off a couple of binders, I said, "I can tell you right now—you probably taught every small fact, being a first-year teacher, and you didn't actually teach concepts or themes." He was more of an instructor than a teacher. Scott recalls, "I presented information and then expected the students to keep up to date on it—I was assuming things."

Eyes on the Prize
What motivates teachers? Student performance! But this involves far more than test scores, far more than "covering the content." The test is nothing more than an interim objective to a greater goal: moving students from teacher-dependent to independent and lifelong learners. People often focus on what they want kids to know and be able to do. We add to this how we want them to be: capable, confident, independent learners.

We wanted to turn the exam experience into the basis for a powerful learning experience. To do this, you have to know: Which race are you running? Which skills are you practicing? If you are in the hurdles, and all you do is practice running, never practicing jumping, on the day of the race, you're going to be in for a sad surprise! So we had to analyze all the skills required and match these up with the processes and how the content would be used to gain these skills.

The Big6: An Umbrella Strategy
The Big6 approach to information-based problem solving provided Scott and me with the tools we needed to reinvent his teaching. This may sound bold, but anything less would not have done the job. Working as his coach and mentor throughout the year, we treated instructional design as a series of information-based problems or decisions. This allowed Scott to change his style of teaching from a content-driven approach to a Big6 information-process-driven approach. The payoff was huge. After 1 year, his students went from a 53 percent passing rate to 91 percent. The next year the rate rose to 99 percent, with 75 percent of the students attaining mastery level. The third year (and beyond) has continued this pattern of success.

Such success required time and effort. For the entire year, I spent 2 hours each week with Scott, along with an additional 2 hours of follow-up on my own as I did my "information professional" homework. Scott spent 6 hours per week of his prep time—at least two of his three prep periods based on a four-day rotation—doing his homework. Then Scott had me come in and observe his teaching, so I could see his styles and strengths, as well as some of his weaknesses. I also wanted to see the kids in action and how they reacted to Scott. Then we came up with activities and projects. He would tell me what content things he wanted them to know. I helped Scott decide what we wanted to base the projects on, and how often. [Editor's note: These experiences form the basis of a new series of Big6 workshops and conference presentations designed to expand the reach of what's been learned. See]

Scott Hopsicker is quite direct and unapologetic. "My goal is to make my students successful on the test. Yes, we use Regents essays and questions, but we really don't water down the curriculum. We did projects in addition to the essay preparation and test-taking work. We created cause-and-effect projects so the students can see how everything is connected together, not just little pieces and fragments. History is all one piece—all one smooth flow. It's kind of like reading a book from start to finish; everything is connected somehow."

Instructional Design: A Series of Information-Based Decisions
We knew that to move from a content-driven to an information-process-driven basis of instruction, we needed to learn more about the characteristics of high-quality instruction, which include the following:

Unlike other information problem solving strategies, the Big6 is both diagnostic and prescriptive. This is the key difference, an empowering difference, to the Big6 approach. We look at the process, as well as student performance, all along the way. We get rid of ineffective practices that are dragging us down. We not only see what's working (and what needs to work better), but we and our students see how to change, to bring us to our goal.

For example, in a content-driven model, we focus on standards, on what is taught (teacher behavior). However, we don't focus as much on what is learned (student behavior) until the test, when it is often too late. Moving from high-stakes tests to higher-order thinking requires a different framework for instruction. Providing the tools and skills to build meaning gives them the foundation they need for understanding, not just regurgitation of short-term factoids.

Discourse: Missing Links to Learning
Teachers don't think like information professionals. They don't ever ask, "How is information in this content area organized?" Scott and I approached history as "SPEFA," the interplay of social, political, economic, and foreign affairs events. We did exercises and projects, which reinforced cause-and-effect relationships. So in learning geography, the impact of a river as a barrier to trade (or an aid to trade), or the different responses to various technologies in different cultures allowed students to exercise their minds, not just their memories. Now I've given them coat hangers, a place to put information, instead of just throwing it into their mental closets. If I present information as random dots and ask students to exactly recreate the pattern, there's no way that will happen. If instead I draw lines connecting the dots, creating a graphic, showing them the underlying structure of the information, they now have the tools to function at a higher level. Their learning becomes deeper and more lasting, as we know from 30 years of cognitive science.

Scott Hopsicker notes, "What I like about the Big6 is that you assume nothing and that it's really common sense. You just apply the common sense you use in everyday life to school things."

We were surprised to learn that vocabulary needs went beyond the content we wanted to teach. Vocabulary within the instructions was a significant barrier for many students, particularly at-risk kids without a history of success and confidence. Students can be thrown off and perform at levels far below their capability and preparation simply by not grasping what they're being asked to do. Scott says, "We focus on difficult vocabulary words in the essay instructions. Instructions such as 'identify and discuss' are different than 'compare and contrast.' Even in high school, students still won't know what those words mean. We quiz them on the words and continually reinforce their correct use."

We used the information we gathered on a daily basis, both in terms of what was being taught, and the feedback we got from student performance. One key strategy we used was having daily quizzes...success breeds success and "points are cheap." Another key strategy was involving parents as part of the solution. (See the sidebars "Scott Hopsicker's Study Tips" and "Helping With Homework: A Big6 Assignment Organizer.")

Scott notes another key student need. "One of the problems students in high school have is writing essays. So we created a new essay strategy for them—how to find, organize, and present information for essays. We used something called the "perfect chart" (see the sidebar "Perfect Chart: Cases and Issues"), which helps the students outline the essay first. The students develop charts, and I develop one, too. My chart is the "perfect" one—it includes all the information needed to get a perfect 100 score on the essay. So, there is no guessing game. The students know exactly what it takes to get a 100."

Another surprise was the balance of content and process. Scott remembers, "I had someone from another school take a look at our essays strategy. She thought we were watering down the curriculum because we gave them the answers in the perfect chart. She didn't understand. It doesn't matter that we're giving them the content—it's the process that counts. We want them to actually spend more time concentrating on how to put [information] in their own words, and spend less time finding it. And, along the way, they are learning the content."

There were two kinds of evaluation: formative and summative. Formative involves diagnosing student performance during learning so that adjustments can be made before students turn in their work (or take a high-stakes exam!). Adjustments may include the following:

Of course, the summative evaluation for this project was the Regents exam. It is vital to keep in mind the power of the affective side. All year long, we'd done this through confidence-building activities, daily quizzes, exposing students to high-quality work, and a number of other strategies. Perhaps the most amazing was the "Academic Pep Rally."

Picture the scene: 130 kids in the cafeteria, as Scott Hopsicker gives the Knute Rockne speech. "You've worked hard, and I believe in you. You will do well. If you get nervous, raise your hand. I won't be able to tell you the answer, but I'll stand beside you and give you my confidence."

Even now that Scott was lured away from Wayne Central and teaches in the Brockport (New York) Central School District, his results have followed him, as he puts the Big6 process to the test, and his students continue to move ahead, pointing the way for the rest of us. You are the most crucial link for making these results happen in your school. We can improve scores by improving thinking!

Big6 Skill 1: Task Definition
  • To move from a 53 percent passing rate to the maximum possible
  • To understand the tasks required of students by the Regents exam and prepare all students to succeed at every task
  • To turn the exam into a learning experience
Big6 Skill 2: Information-Seeking Strategies
To review and analyze all aspects of the teaching and learning process, Hopsicker and Berkowitz relied on multiple sources: review of lesson plans, curriculum, textbooks, classroom observations, student journals. These were then compared to the performance tasks embedded in the Regents exam.

Big6 Skill 3: Location and Access
How many kids truly engage with the information from the textbook? We created guided reading sections, with the 10-15 key sentences found in each section. Students would find key vocabulary, definitions, and explanations. They had to have those sheets with them to walk in the door. It was an easy way to get an "A." Highlighting sections, underlining key words on all multiple-choice worksheets, tape-recording notes and then transcribing them—all contributed to strengthening these skills.

Big6 Skill 4: Use of Information
Students must know what to do with information. Simply knowing the content is not enough. For example, students needed help with vocabulary contained within the questions, not just with the content. Knowing the difference between "identify and discuss" and "compare and contrast" involved learning the processes required for success. This skill had to be mastered first.

Big6 Skill 5: Synthesis
Essay writing was the most difficult task for students. We provided tools, templates, and models to build their skills and confidence throughout the year.

Big6 Skill 6: Evaluation
Evaluation was a continual process, leading up to the "main event" of the Regents exam itself. Students measured their own work against examples of quality work and learned to assess their own effort. More importantly, they came to understand their own strengths and gaps and developed strategies that improved their performance.

Perfect Chart: Cases and Issues

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)—federalism
Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)—property rights
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)—civil rights
Korematsu v. U.S. (1944)—Presidential power
Engel v. Vitale (1962)—freedom of religion
Miranda v. Arizona (1966)—due process

Choose all cases from the list. For each one chosen: 
(1) Show how the constitutional issue listed was involved in the case, 
(2) state the Supreme Court's decision in the case, and 
(3) discuss an impact of the decision on United States history.

Case How Constitutional Issue Was Involved Supreme Court Decision Impact of the Decision
McCulloch v. Maryland Federalism = The division of power between state and national government
Issue: Whether the state of Maryland could tax the National Bank.
Maryland could not tax the bank because it was created by the federal government. Federal agencies are immune from control by the states.
Dred Scott v. Sanford Issue: Whether Dred Scott could sue for his freedom because he was a slave. Slaves are property, not citizens. Therefore slaves can't sue for their freedom. Greater distrust between abolitionists and pro-slavery citizens, making compromises to avoid the Civil War worthless.
Plessy v. Ferguson Issue: Whether separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional. Separate, but equal is constitutional and it does not violate the 13th and 14th Amendments. Separate facilities were not equal for blacks and the decision was later reversed by Brown v. Board of Education. Separate was not equal; segregation ended.
Korematsu v. U.S. Issue: Whether the war powers of President FDR justified placing Japanese-Americans in internment camps. Internment camps were justified because presidential powers expand during war or national crisis. Rights of citizens can be suspended during war or national crisis.
Engel v. Vitale Issue: Can schools force students to say a school prayer to start each day? School prayer was contrary to the 1st Amendment because the Amendment provides for religious freedom but prevents government from establishing a religion. A couple of Presidents since have called for a constitutional amendment allowing school prayer.
Miranda v. Arizona Issue: Can the police deny you your right to an attorney during questioning? The 5th Amendment protecting from self-incrimination and the 6th Amendment providing a right to an attorney were violated by the police when questioning Miranda. All suspects must be read their rights when questioned and have the right to an attorney.

Helping with Homework: A Big6 Assignment Organizer

Assignment: ______________________________ Date Due: ______________

Complete Big6 Skills #1-5 BEFORE you BEGIN your assignment. Complete Big6 Skill #6 BEFORE you TURN IN your assignment.

Big6 Skill #1: Task Definition
What does this assignment require me to do?
What information do I need in order to do this assignment?

Big6 Skill #2: Information Seeking Strategies
What sources can I use to do the assignment?
Circle the best sources.

Big6 Skill #3: Location & Access
Where can I find my sources?
Do I need help? If so, who can help me?

Big6 Skill #4: Use of Information
What do I have to do with the information?

_____ read/view/listen _____ chart and/or write an essay

_____ take notes _____ copy and highlight

_____ answer questions _____ properly cite

_____ other: ____________________

Big6 Skill #5: Synthesis
What product does this assignment require?

Big6 Skill #6: Evaluation
Student self-evaluation checklist:

_____ I did what I was supposed to do (see Big6 #1, Task Definition)

_____ The assignment is complete.

The Big6 Eisenberg & Berkowitz, 1990. Assignment Organizer © Berkowitz & Hopsicker, 1997.

Scott Hopsicker's Study Tips

© Berkowitz & Hopsicker, 1998

1. Time Management:

  • How much time do you spend studying?
  • How much of the time is quality time?
  • Is the time quiet, free from distractions?
  • How much time is spent searching for information?
2. Extra Help:
  • Do I need to get help from my teacher?
  • I can meet with Mr. Hopsicker before homeroom (starting at 6:30 a.m.), during homeroom, during his open periods, for lunch, or after school.
  • Please just make an appointment.
3. Learning Strategies:
  • Rewrite notes/review sheets
  • Redo chapter worksheets
  • Make flash cards: person/term/or event on one side; information on other side of the card: cause/effect/impact/contribution/positive/negative
  • Note blanks: Cover up information in your notes, then write in missing gap
  • Use a tape recorder: Talk into a tape recorder using information, or without information
  • Read chapter and take notes on most important information
  • Review with family member, friend, or classmate
  • Use a combination of techniques listed from above
  • Use any other learning strategy that enables you to achieve your best score.
Formula for Success:

E1 + E2 = E3
Engage (read) + Extract (notes, talk about it, chart) = Ensure (result = better grades)

Communications to the author may be addressed to Bob Berkowitz, Library Media Specialist, Wayne Central School, Route 350, Ontario Center, NY 14520; e-mail: Berkowitz and other trained Big6 Associates are conducting workshops in student achievement and the Big6 and other topics at a number of conferences, including Information Today, Inc.'s Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries conferences []. For more information, visit

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