Saturday, January 31, 2015

Teaching Conceptually

In the fall of 2012, the Primary Years Program where I work received feedback from an evaluation team that our Program of Inquiry was too knowledge-based, focused on meeting state standards and less on having students develop conceptual understandings. The team recommended that we "revisit the units to ensure that they are conceptual in nature while still hitting the state’s mandated targets."

Since that time, we've learned all about writing concept-based curriculum. (Want to learn what we learned? Here are some worthwhile resources: Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom by Erickson and Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe)

Slowly, our program of inquiry is being transformed, as teachers diligently, meticulously, and collaboratively revise planners, making sure the written curriculum is clearly focused on students learning concepts and not just isolated knowledge and skills.

Something I'm still confused by though is how we put that plan into place. I understand how the written curriculum can be concept-based, but what about the taught curriculum? To help resolve this tension in my pedagogical understanding, I consulted some important resources. (Want to learn what I've been learning? Here are some worthwhile resources: 
Making the PYP HappenMaking Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, and Transitioning to Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction by Erickson & Lanning).

Now when I plan a lesson, I make sure to include the five steps below. Note, these steps do not comprise my entire lesson plan and they are not a silver bullet (i.e. complete these steps and your students will understand concepts!) But it has been what I've been doing lately and what I've been noticing is that it helps me and the students focus on conceptual understandings and shift my focus away from only having them learn isolated knowledge and skills.

  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.
Below, I describe (at length) how I recently used these steps to teach a lesson to third graders about perspective. Check out the slideshow I used to teach the lesson.

1. Start with a concept.

I wanted the students to understand that when people look at the same thing, there are often different perspectives. No perspective is right or wrong, just different.

I was clear with the students at the onset of the lesson that that big idea was our goal. Some might disagree with me and suggest that the whole point of inquiry is to have students uncover the big idea for themselves. If you find yourself in that camp, ask a provocative question instead that clearly communicates what the focus of the lesson is. In this example, I might have asked, "When there are a lot of different perspectives, how do we know which one is right?"

2. Pick a specific, concrete example of a person, place, situation, or thing that illustrates that concept.

Because the third graders with whom I was working were learning about light and space, I decided to have them read different stories from several cultures about the Big Dipper. I was able to find a multitude of perspectives on those seven bright stars near the North Celestial Pole.

3. Create an opportunity for students to explore that concrete example. 

To explore different perspectives, I had the students make their thinking visible using a bubble map, so they could graphically compare and contrast the different perspectives they were reading about.

Typically, I would advocate for getting out of the students' way - literally. Give students the chance to discover the big idea themselves. Get out from in front of the class, while still being there to ask provocative questions, to give feedback, to remind, and to motivate.

That said (or rather pontificated), of the multiple classes I worked with on this perspective lesson, I had one class who were given more autonomy when reading the different Big Dipper stories. As you can see below, the quantity they were able to read through didn't match the classes who worked through the stories as a whole class.

The following bubble maps  came from classes that worked through this lesson as a whole group.

These student work examples came from the class that had more autonomy. These students worked in pairs. 

4. Check for understanding by having them write a concept statement.

Because my goal in this lesson was for the students to understand a concept, instead of being able to do a skill or know a fact, I needed to check their conceptual understanding. I had students show me what they were thinking by answering the prompt at the end of the lesson: "What can you tell me about perspective?" 

Typically, when I have students write concept statements at the end of a lesson, I have them share them in the whole group and I have the students negotiate together to create a whole-class concept statement that we test to make sure is timeless, abstract, universal, and transferrable. To read about how I've done that whole-class negotiation, check out examples with fourth graders, with third graders, and with fifth graders.

However, because of time restraints, I just had the individual students respond to the prompt and I didn't have them share in the large group.

As you look through the examples, remember that my aim was that I wanted the students to understand that when people look at the same thing, there are often different perspectives. No perspective is right or wrong, just different.

This student didn't correctly respond to the prompt. On a scale of 1-5, with 4 being "meets expectations", I'd give this student a 1.

These students also didn't correctly respond to the prompt, but at least their response reflects knowledge they learned during the lesson. I'd give these students a 2.

These students below all earn a 3, but for different reasons.

This student understands perspective, but gives the concrete example to explain, so I can't be assured that she understands this concept.

These students give me a response that shows they understand the concept of perspective, but I was wanting the students to go past the generic definition of perspective. These students do not.

The following students earn a 4, "meets expectations". They understand that when people look at the same thing, there are often different perspectives. No perspective is right or wrong, just different.

To me, these last two student examples earn a 5, because they go past what was expected of them. They have come to understand that although no perspective is right nor wrong, we can learn from other people's perspectives. This is an important conceptual understanding that went above and beyond the scope of this lesson.

5. Reflect on their thinking and decide on next steps.

You can see by my notes in purple above that I reflected on the students' thinking. I was able to do this with the third grade team, by following an adapted version of the Looking At Students' Thinking (LAST) Protocol (p. 263 of Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison). 

In that reflection meeting, I asked the teachers to look at the documentation of students' thinking and respond in three ways:

  1. Students’ thinking - note specific evidence.
  2. Questions.
  3. Recommendations for next steps.

As we reflected, we decided that a good next step would be to explore the concept of perspectives again, but in a different concrete context. Teachers decided that looking at the idea of perspectives in relation to poetry (which is a key part of their next unit of inquiry) will be a good next step, especially for those students who had a limited understanding of this concept.

Making students' thinking visible and taking the time to analyze, discuss, and reflect on documentation of students' thinking helps us get closer to "switching the paradigm of teaching from trying to transmit what is in our heads to our students and toward trying to get what is in students' heads into our own so that we can provide responsive instruction that will advance learning," (p. 35 of Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison).

Above, I've just described what I've been doing lately to help me and the students focus on conceptual understandings and shift my focus away from only having them learn isolated knowledge and skills. What have you been doing lately that has proved successful at getting students to focus on concepts?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Student Engagement: more than being busy

Educators in our school district are focused on increasing student engagement. We intuitively know that if students are going to learn, they must be captivated by what they're learning. But being engaged is more than just being busy. So how do we define student engagement?

The Science House at the Science Museum of Minnesota uses this formula to define engagement:
Talking on Task + Manipulating Materials = Student Engagement

They surmise that if students are engaged, students will learn.

Our Teacher Growth, Development, and Evaluation System plan relies on the following components of the Charlotte Danielson's 2013 The Framework for Teaching to define and measure student engagement:
  • Domain 2 
    • Component 2A: Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport 
    • Component 2C: Managing Classroom Procedures 
    • Component 2D: Managing Student Behavior 
  • Domain 3 
    • Component 3B: Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques 
    • Component 3C: Engaging Students in Learning 
    • Component 3D: Using Assessment in Instruction 
These components give educators helpful parameters and strategies to engage students in "discussion, debate, answering 'what if?' questions, discovering patterns and the like," (p. 69). I acknowledge that if teachers implement such strategies, specifically Visible Thinking Routines that I have relentlessly promoted on this blog, students will be more engaged and more will be learned. However, if teachers want to truly engage students, it will take more than teaching strategies and techniques aimed at captivating student attention. For students to be authentically engaged, curriculum must be relevant, challenging, and significant.

Currently, in our the elementary school, students are often asked to learn literacy and mathematical ideas outside the contexts that these ideas are really for. Getting all students to engage at high levels proves to be extremely difficult, no matter the engagement strategy, when we teach these complex ideas in abstract, decontextualized terms.

Ron Ritchhart, in his book Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It, tells the story of teachers who connect their course activity to big ideas to enhance the purpose and meaning of the work for students. He writes that by doing this, "students become clear about the larger purpose of the class and what the teacher wants them to understand and learn more about. This makes it easier to engage students in thinking because the work itself demands thinking and active exploration." He continues, "the thinking demanded of students is authentic in that it serves particular ends, unlike certain one-size-fits-all thinking-skills programs that might introduce a thinking skill in a discrete context disconnected from anything else students might be doing," (p. 150-1).

Ritchhart thus is advocating for curriculum that is based on students constructing understanding of relevant, challenging, and significant ideas, not delivering insignificant curriculum using engaging activities.

So, if we can agree that to authentically engage students, we need the right combination of engagement strategies and relevant and significant curriculum that is based on understanding big ideas, what are these ideas that are worth knowing about?

In the International Baccalaureate's (IB) Primary Years Program (PYP), the answer is to design a concept-driven curriculum; a curriculum where the understanding of significant ideas is more important than the memorization of isolated facts. H. Lynn Erickson writes in her book Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom that concepts are timeless, abstract, universal, and transferrable (p. 31). But there are many big ideas worth knowing that fit this description. How are we to know which ones to teach?

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest a list of transferable concepts in their 2005 book Understanding by Design (p. 74). They also give tips for finding big ideas within the state academic standards. Erickson echoes this idea by suggesting using the stem, "The student understands that ..." to identify concepts in state standards. She notes that this lead-in phrase "sets up the structure for a generalization sentence - two or more concepts stated in a relationship," (p. 52).

The more I work with teachers at identifying concepts - that is, ideas worth teaching - the more I think that another way to "test" to see if the idea you're considering is a concept is to consider how important the idea is to adults. If adults are continuously wrestling with the particular idea, chances are you're working with a concept.

The bottom line is this: as long as our elementary curriculum is exclusively delivered separately in reading and math blocks with little time dedicated to learning literacy and mathematical processes and strategies in the context of constructing understanding of key and related concepts within the PYP units of inquiry, our students will never truly be engaged with any of it and standardized test scores will continue to lag.

Engagement is more than students paying attention and being busy. In order for students to internalize literacy and math processes and knowledge concepts, they must be taught in the context of learning real-world big ideas; ideas that are timeless, abstract, universal, transferable, and still being discussed by adults.

When we begin to deliver this kind of engaging, authentic curriculum, coupled with employing engagement strategies designed at getting students actively and meaningfully thinking, talking, and working, we will start to see increases in levels of authentic student engagement and increases in standardized test scores soon will follow.