Thursday, February 26, 2015

Don't teach concepts to children

Yep! You read it right. Don't teach concepts TO children.

Instead, give your students opportunities to EXPLORE concepts.

Let them DISCOVER the complexities of concepts by INVESTIGATING concrete examples from a variety of times, places, and situations.

In doing this, children will CONSTRUCT UNDERSTANDING of these timelessabstract, universal, and transferrable ideas that we call concepts.

Letting students construct their own understanding of life's BIG IDEAS is known as inquiry, which is more than question asking. Teaching in this way doesn't come naturally to me, so until it does, I've been trying to follow these five steps.

  1. Start with a concept.
  2. Pick a specific, concrete example of a person, place, situation, or thing that illustrates that concept.
  3. Create an opportunity for students to explore that concrete example. 
  4. Check for understanding by having them write a concept statement.
  5. Reflect on their thinking and decide next steps.

If you think using these steps could help your students construct their own understanding of life's BIG IDEAS, try them out and let me know how it goes. That is exactly what one second grade teacher did recently. Here is her story:

1. Start with a concept.

In grade 2, teachers collaboratively decided to have their students explore how people influence the world. During this unit of inquiry, students also explore the genre of biography, as they read about various heroes.

2. Pick a specific, concrete example of a person, place, situation, or thing that illustrates that concept & 3. Create an opportunity for students to explore that concrete example.

During the last several weeks, students in second grade have read, listened to, and watched biographies and have learned a lot about specific heroes.

After all this learning about individual heroes, the teacher posed two questions to the students: "Who is a hero?" and "What is a hero?"

Students responded using the Chalk Talk thinking routine (for more on Chalk Talk, see p. 78 of Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison). In the last step of the thinking routine, when students were sharing the thinking, they identified common themes and ideas that emerged. Those were notated by the teacher and are written in black marker and boxed in the pictures below.

4. Check for understanding by having them write a concept statement. (This step is very similar to the thinking routine Headlines found in Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, p. 111)

The next day, the teacher simply gave students a blank piece of paper and prompted them to write all they understood about heroes. The following were the student responses:

They stand up for people.

(they) doing awesome

Then, the students worked collaboratively to create one, concise concept statement.

When each individual statement was read, the teacher confirmed with the class if it was true or not. Then, students had to decide if the statement had any new information to be added; if it said anything different.

If it did have some new and different information, students had to work together with their teacher to revise the existing concept statement. The images below show the progression the concept statement went through as the class collectively constructed their understanding of the concept of hero.

First, the students started with ...

Next, they added a couple of attributes and took out the pronouns.

2nd graders then added how heroes did this.

To fit better with the vocabulary of the IB Learner Profile, they decided to replace kind.

2nd graders realized that heroes don't just help people.

The students struggled with what is the "right" thing. That value-laden statement is based on one's perspective and is not an absolute truth, so they knew they had to get rid of it.

But the students felt something was missing when they took out that phrase, so they put the idea back in, while acknowledging that "right" is subjective, based on the perspective of the "hero".

At this point, the teacher invited me into the conversation to see what a fresh eye could add. To make sure that "hero" was front and center, I suggested moving the dependent clause to the end of the independent clause.

Then, I suggested to the students that they change some of the wording so that it sounded more like a second grader. Often times when crafting concept statements (sometimes called generalizations, central ideas, or enduring understandings) we create hard-to-understand statements that don't sound like how we normally talk. Concept statements should be written in language that is easy to understand to all who read it.

Finally, I had the students test the statement to see if it was true in any time and in any place. To do this, we briefly brought up "heroes" from different times and from different places that they had already learned about. We decided their definition of a hero held up when applied to all those heroes, so it was indeed timeless and universal.

The students were comfortable that their concept statement encapsulated all the learning they had done up until that point, so the teacher wrote it down on their whiteboard.

5. Reflect on their thinking and decide next steps.
The second graders' understanding of hero is certainly deep and complex. The next step now is to continue to explore the concept of hero: read more biographies, watch age-appropriate biopics, read age-appropriate news articles, interview heroes local to their community, reflect on how their own actions could lead others to believe they themselves are heroes, etc.

As they continue to learn about other "heroes", second graders should be encouraged to continually revisit and revise their definition of hero as needed.

After reading about how one second grade teacher set up opportunities for her students to EXPLORE the concept of hero, instead of directly teaching this big idea to her students, how could you or have you had your students construct understanding of life's BIG IDEAS, known as concepts?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Learning literacy strategies in authentic contexts

Children should learn literacy metacognitive and comprehension strategies in meaningful contexts. When we give our students the chance to refine their use of these strategies in authentic and relevant contexts, they'll more deeply understand why they're using them and the will more likely use them independently, out of the context they were originally learned.

In the Primary Years Programme, we are obligated to contextualize our students' learning by organizing all our curriculum into six transdisciplinary units of inquiry. How lucky we are that the PYP framework requires us to teach in a way that has been proven to be best practice. What is more, when PYP educators teach literacy strategies in the context of the Unit of Inquiry, they're able to cut through an overcrowded curriculum.

For more information on transdisciplinary learning and learning literacy strategies in relevant contexts see:
In second grade, students are busily investigating how people influence the world. During this unit, students inquire into the knowledge concepts of hero, making a difference, and personal strengths. During this unit, they are also learning the literacy strategy of summarizing. 

To help students explore both of the big ideas of hero (a knowledge concept) and summarizing (a process concept), the teacher met with guided reading groups to work with texts that were best suited for the students' developmental reading level.

To start, the students in different guided reading groups read a book about a particular hero. To support the students through one of their first times summarizing, the teacher just had the students write one important detail from the text on a post-it note. She then copied those details on the left-inside page of a folded piece of paper. Then, making sure to include all those details, the students told the teacher a summary of the book, while the teacher notated the students' thinking on the opposite-inside page.

Below are two examples.

Next, students were ready to write their own summaries. Below are two examples: 

The back cover of Carlos's summary book offers the reader a teaser to what the book will be about.

This student decided to highlight important vocabulary on the front cover of her summary book.

This student's summary took the form of a listicle of influences, accomplishments, and personality traits (next picture).

After reading about how this teacher taught a literacy strategy in the context of learning concepts from the unit of inquiry, how could you or have you taught students literacy strategies in meaningful, authentic, and relevant contexts?

Using Thinking Routines at Student-led Conferences

On February 7, 2015, I posted Making Professional Thinking Visible, where I wrote about how our pedagogical leadership team used See-Think-Wonder (a thinking routine from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Morrison, & Church). I received some great feedback from colleagues around the world, detailing how they have used thinking routines in professional settings too.

One educator (Philippa Morgan from the MEF International School in Istanbul, Turkey) mentioned another context she has used See-Think-Wonder (S-T-W). She said she has used S-T-W "as a format for 3-way conferences with my [first grade] students and parents. The familiarity of the routine gave the students confidence as they shared portfolio pieces and the parents were able to follow lead and see a routine in action."

Inspired by Philippa, I shared her idea with a couple of teachers with whom I work. One second grade teacher decided to use S-T-W with her students as a way to prepare for their student-led conferences. Here is her story:

Throughout the last several months, students have been writing poetry and have been collecting their pieces in their poetry binders. To prepare for their conferences, students were asked to look through their binders and reflect on the learning they had done by documenting the things they saw, what they thought, and what they wondered. Some students decided to additionally write a goal for the future based on what they saw in their poetry binders.

Below are seven examples of what students created.

Student #1:

Student #2:

Student #3:

Student #4:

Student #5:

Student #6:

Student #7:

After reading about how one teacher used See-Think-Wonder to prepare her students for the conferences that they'll end up leading, how could you use thinking routines to prepare for or to structure their student-led conferences?