Monday, February 24, 2014

Assessing students understanding of concepts

Concepts are mental constructs that are timeliness, abstract, universal, and transferrable. If students truly understand a concept, they should be able to apply their understanding to different contexts, regardless of time, place, subject matter, or level of abstractness. In fact, “the ability to transfer knowledge and skills to new or similar contexts is evidence of deeper understanding and higher-order thinking,” (H. Lynn Erickson, p. 13, Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, 2007, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press). Erickson states though, that we can’t leave this higher-order thinking to chance. We must set up opportunities for this transfer of understanding when planning curriculum.

In fifth grade, students learn about the concept of expansion and how it impacts cultures over time. At the factual level, students learn about the colonization and settlement of the United States and study in particular the Jamestown Settlement. To assess their students’ conceptual understanding of expansion, teachers created an opportunity for students to demonstrate their conceptual understanding in a different context. First, students create a list of things that have expanded. Then, working with just one event, students identify the cause for that particular expansion and at least three subsequent changes that happened as a result.

Students demonstrate their conceptual understanding of expansion to many different contexts, including their own families, the professional football stadium in the area, and even a local business that has experienced significant growth. In each circumstance, students investigate the reason for the expansion and contemplate the positive and negative changes that happen as a result of the expansion.
The blank graphic organizer students use to demonstrate their understanding on expansion and how it impacts culture.

With this learning engagement, teachers were better able to accurately assess their students’ higher order thinking skills. Did they truly understand expansion beyond the specific case of the Jamestown Settlement? Were they able to apply their understanding to other contexts, regardless of time and place?
Based on this story, ask:
  • How do you assess your students’ conceptual thinking?
  • Do you find it is effective?
  • Is there a way to change how you assess your students’ conceptual thinking to have a greater impact on their learning?

Share your thoughts and ideas by commenting on this post.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Synergy between facts and concepts: Art & 1st Grade

First graders are learning the concept of purpose. In order for students to construct an understanding of this abstract concept, classroom teachers are working with the students on author’s purpose. During their Unit of Inquiry, How We Express Ourselves, students learn the different reasons that author’s tell stories (to teach a lesson, to explain why something happens, to entertain, to retell a real event). Through these concrete examples, students are able to develop an understanding of the concept purpose.

First graders are able to apply their understanding of purpose in art class when they read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. After reading the text, students create masks of the characters in the book. Most importantly, art teachers discuss with the students an artist’s purpose for creating art (to use, to learn, to show others). Specifically they discuss the reasons why they created the masks - to learn about texture, an element of art. Again, by learning concrete examples of artist’s purpose, students are able to further develop their understanding of the complex, abstract concept of purpose.

“To stimulate more sophisticated, complex thinking, we need to create a synergy between the simpler and more complex processing centers in the brain. This interactive synergy requires the mind to process information on two cognitive levels—the factual and the conceptual,” (H. Lynn Erickson, p. 10, Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom2007, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press).

Based on this story, ask:
  • How do you help your students connect specific, concrete facts to timeless, abstract, universal, and transferable concepts?
  • Do you find it is effective?
  • How could you reexamine your practice on creating synergy between facts and concepts to have a greater impact on their learning?
Share your thoughts and ideas by commenting on this post.

Using Google Docs to provide feedback on students’ writing

Fourth graders in one classroom are writing personal narratives using Google Docs, which they have electronically shared with their classroom teacher and other support teachers with whom they work. Drafting in Docs meets 4th grade ELA benchmarks:
  • With guidance and support from peers and adults, use a writing process to develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, drafting, revising, and editing.
  • With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of one page in a single sitting.
More importantly though, it allows teachers to comment on student work through the shared document, which encourages and challenges learners to continually improve their writing. Students read these comments, reply to them, revise and edit their narratives accordingly, without ever having to meet one-on-one with the teacher.

Professor John Hattie researched different influences and measured their effectiveness on student achievement (for a summary of his findings, check out this infographic). He found that providing students with effective feedback has high influence over student achievement. In order for feedback to be effective and useful though, three conditions have to be met: “the learner needs the feedback; the learner receives the feedback and has time to use it; and the learner is willing and is able to use the feedback,” (Sadler in Hattie, p. 153, Visible Learning for Teachers; Maximizing impact on learning, 2012, New York: Routledge).

Here's another powerful example on the effectiveness of critiquing and feedback on student performance: Austin’s Butterfly.

Based on these different stories, ask:
  • How do you use feedback with your students?
  • Do you find it is effective?
  • How could you reexamine your practice on giving students feedback to have a greater impact on their learning?
Share your thoughts and ideas by commenting on this post.