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The Atomic Binder

By Tim Bugno, Curriculum Manager, AVID Center

In a recent discussion over dinner with a colleague—one who works extensively with AVID administrators and coordinators—I had an interesting conversation about the usage of binders and the method that she uses to demonstrate the importance of a single system of organization. In her work with various educators across the country, she brings along three backpacks—each containing a binder and an identical set of notes, homework, and tests from the same semester of high school work. She asks for three teacher volunteers from the group and gives each a backpack. The first backpack has a binder with a separate tab for each class, with the various notes, tests, and homework assignments impeccably arranged within the three rings, from newest to oldest. The second contains a binder with all of the same materials, but uses an organizational system that combines some work within the three rings and other work placed in pockets. The third utilizes the “Chaos Theory” of organization—by randomly cramming all of the material into the backpack without any order, the student believes that an underlying pattern of predictability will emerge.

My colleague then asks the three educators to all produce identical articles from the backpack (e.g., Math Cornell notes from October 13 or the Chapter 3 Science test). The results? As you might expect, the most effective method for retrieving work is the binder that has the materials meticulously ordered. What you might not expect is that the second most effective method for retrieving work is actually the backpack that has no organizational system whatsoever. The main reason for this is that the educator generally just keeps randomly pulling papers out and strewing the work all over the floor until they find the material being requested.

It is important to clarify that my point is not to show if you cannot be completely organized, it is better to be completely disorganized—which is precisely the interpretation that my 13-year-old self would have taken from the above demonstration. In fact, most educators can bring to mind some vivid examples of the Pigpen organizers from the classroom that are equally likely to leave key work in a cloud of dirt behind them, as they are to actually retain the material in their monstrosity of a backpack. Rather, the point is to draw attention to the very definition of organization: “the act or process of putting the different parts of something in a certain order so that they can be found or used easily when needed.” This illuminates how critical it is to support students’ ability to effectively organize their materials.

In the dissection of the binder, it is worthwhile to examine a phenomenon among some teachers that has baffled me for years: the requirement of their students to leave class binders in the classroom at the end of each period. My belief is that teachers do this with very good intentions, namely that they can ensure with iron-clad certainty that all of the course materials are pristinely maintained and categorized. The irony is that these teachers have unequivocally created a set of circumstances that ensures that their students, in the very definition of the word, can never be organized. Although these teachers have ensured that students meet the first part of the definition of organization—the act or process of putting the different parts of something in a certain order—in denying students access, they have made it impossible for students to find and use the material easily when needed. There is no place where denying access to course materials is more detrimental to organization than with AVID students who are required to utilize notes during tutorials and to study at night. By denying access for students to “find and use,” they have also denied the ability to organize.

I have often laughed when hearing the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” My mirth stems from a realization that I had as a teenager, which analyzed the quality of the child they were attempting to raise. Over the years, I have tried to coin my own phrase, “It takes a village to raise a productive member of society, but anyone can very effectively produce the ‘village idiot’ without help at all.” (So far, it has not caught on). As a former AVID coordinator, this idea was especially poignant when dealing with teachers who unbendingly required their students to have a separate binder for their specific content class. If the goal is to have organized students so that materials can be orderly, effortlessly found, and easily used, it seems logical that teachers should join together with a team of educators, rather than working in isolation to ensure student organization. When a content teacher buys into the uniform system of the AVID binder, they are also buying into a support system that includes AVID Elective teachers, tutors, peers, and parents supporting the student in maintaining a strong organizational structure—a system that seems like a pretty solid village to place around a child.

Timothy Bugno taught mathematics and the AVID Elective for 10 years at Bear Creek High School in Stockton, California.  He is currently finishing his doctorate in Education focusing on AVID’s ability to support the development of metacognitive skills in students, which helped contribute to the thinking behind this blog.

Be sure to check out Tim's other blog! A 21st Century Troglodyte

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Reader Comments (3)

I had this exact issue on my campus! Teachers wanted students to leave all of their class materials, notes, binder, etc. in their classrooms. Sure this meant the student had the materials in class, but they could not study them or show responsibility for them - and AVID students definitely couldn't use them in tutorials and for binder checks. It was frustrating! The worst part was the message I felt it sent - "I don't trust you to stay organized and be responsible enough to bring this back." Also, what college professor would ever allow students to leave their notes and binders in class? It's setting students up for failure in higher education. I think these teachers meant no harm, and were just trying to make their classes run smoothly, but there's so much more involved here in what you're telling your students. Thanks for this message! I'll be sure to share!

January 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKayla

Really enjoyed hearing the three theories of organization and the experiment of having the three styles find one specific item from their binders---definitely going to implement this 'ah-ha' moment at the beginning of next quarter. The comment above regarding "couldn't trust the kids to stay organized" is something that needs to be addressed with all staff about a schoolwide approach to implementing WICOR...specifically the 'O'.
Thanks for the actionable lesson Tim!

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterschnitzel

Good stuff Tim. Nicely done.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Mosher

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