Thursday, September 19, 2013

Using Concept-Based Charts to Focus on Conceptual Goals

While my previous post looked at students using facts skillfully based on what students should be able to do, we must also be supporting students in their development of conceptual ideas.  (Jeffco teachers will notice that report cards elevate these two descriptors as 1) demonstrates understanding of social studies concepts and content and 2) applies skills and processes of social studies effectively...see the blog post that digs into those descriptors.)

Conceptually speaking, every content area has its most significant concepts.  The most significant concepts of a content can be seen as big ideas or as organizing concepts.  In addition, essential questions are written so students apply inquiry to uncover what we want students to understand.

As a classroom tool, teachers might consider creating a chart that communicates all of the concepts for a unit.  The essential questions can be used to help students and teachers stay focused on the unit's conceptual goals, while the words and phrases (big ideas and organizing concepts) can be included to help students and teachers discuss and use the conceptual language of history, geography, economics, and civics. If we build expectations around the regular use of academic vocabulary, then students will eventually view the use of academic vocabulary as the norm.

Some of you might be interested in looking at the framework for Preschool-12th grade Social Studies. This 

For teachers interested in viewing examples of the social studies concept-based classroom charts by grade level, access the appropriate grade level document.


For RIGOROUS learning, begin by thinking about what STUDENTS WILL BE ABLE TO DO

If we plan with the end in mind....
in the end, we want students to use knowledge skillfully. 

(We also want students to use knowledge to explain their understanding of conceptual ideas. For this post, I'm going to focus on how students use knowledge to successfully show what they are able to do with that knowledge).

If we begin by considering what students should be able to do, we are carefully considering how students are going to use their knowledge.  We have the end in students will use their knowledge.
First, consider these real life examples where we keep the end in mind:

If we purchase a hammer, we don't decide how to use the hammer after the purchase.  We purchase the hammer knowing exactly how it is going to be used in a particular project.  We need the hammer for a particular purpose before we purchase the hammer. My goal is to use tools effectively to construct something.

When I'm on the internet reading information about nutrition and diet needs, I'm doing it because I know that I want to start eating healthier and smarter.  My goal defines what I'm going to learn. My goal is to analyze foods to develop a plan for healthier eating.

If Halloween is around the corner, we don't grab bags of candy from the store and then decide how to use them.  We grab the bags of candy knowing that they're needed for Halloween traditions. My goal is to offer the best candy possible to gain the admiration of neighborhood kids.

In gardening, we have a sense of what things we want to grow and the function those plants will have in our cooking after they develop and ripen.  It doesn't make sense to grow something without knowing how it will potentially be used.  My goal is to arrange items in a garden so they grow successfully and meet my needs as a cook.

If I'm a college student who needs a job, I know that my goal is to locate the critical attributes of a resume so I can write an effective resume.  I don't learn critical attributes for a resume and then suddenly decide it would be a fabulous time to write a resume.  My purpose for knowing information is established in advance.
When a teachers uses desired results for learning, they might begin with what students should know.  Why wouldn't we?  That's what we've always done! Tony Robbins stated, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."  Maybe it's time to change our approach to thinking about instruction.  What if we start with what students should be able to do?  After all, the rigor of learning partially lives in what students should be able to do...THE SKILLS of the practitioner!  Here, you'll see some sample statements for what students will be able to do.  Think of this as a potential starting place for your planning. 

As students progress through the grades, what they are asked to do builds in complexity.  Teachers will notice this, which means that the teacher should consider some significants questions as part of the planning process.  Planning for HOW students will show what they are able TO DO means that the teacher is automatically shifting his/her thinking to ASSESSMENT of what students will be able TO DO. Check out the questions on the right to inform what this thinking might look like?  Notice how teachers intentionally invite students to transfer and apply thinking strategies (traditionally taught in reading) and writing to learn (modeled and intentionally taught to writers).

Last, go back and see what students should know.  You may notice that the things students should know are simply the supports for what students should be able to do.  The things students should know are players in the game...they're actors in the play....they're pieces in the puzzle...droplets in the wave)(you catch my drift).

It's a slight paradigm shift in thinking but it might be a very important shift that will allow you to focus on the rigor that we want to bring into our classrooms!

What are your thoughts?

How does this approach to thinking challenge your thinking?

What do you understand now that you didn't understand before?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Connecting Facts/Details to Concepts in Changing Face of North America

This week, I had an excellent conversation with teachers about the unit Changing Face of North America: Emergence of a New World Society.  In this unit, it's easy for teachers to think that lots of content information is important.  As we look at concept-based instruction, one thing we have to remember as teachers is...more information does not necessarily equate to smarter students.  Concept-based instruction involves helping students to connect the facts they learn to the broader, more enduring concepts.  In turn, we asked this question. "How do we support students in connecting facts/details to concepts?"  For teachers who use a notebook or graphic organizers to help students track their conceptual understanding, we discussed how students would come back often to these notebook pages or graphic organizers as they learn more factual information and work to connect these facts to different conceptual lenses.

The use of essential questions is connected to inquiry (and to concept-based instruction).  As students learn more information, they can approach each essential question with greater complexity.  Essential questions are written with students as the audience while their corresponding understandings are written with teachers as the audience. 

Last, when teachers look at the Stage 1 Desired Results for a unit of study, there are content specific words and phrases that can also be used by teachers and students in classroom conversations (and writing).  These words and phrases are Big Ideas or Organizing Concepts.  In this unit, these words and phrases are connected to history and geography.  Teachers might consider how to weave this vocabulary and these ideas into classroom discussion (and writing) knowing that these big ideas and organizing concepts continue to appear for students from preschool through 12th grade.  
As we move ahead in our learning about concept-based instruction,  explore how students might use a notebook or graphic organizers to connect student learning to the unit's concepts (essential questions, big ideas, and organizing concepts).  These connections help students to make sense of their learning so the unit is not about a string of facts; the unit is about broader concepts and students have the opportunity to connect the facts/details to the broader concepts.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Western Hemisphere: Current Events 2013-2014

The goal of this blog post, which will be updated throughout the 2013-2014 school year, is to provide news stories from the Western Hemisphere that would be appropriate to discuss with students.  Quite frequently, I notice how teachers use current events in their classroom.  Consider this...How might the study of current events connect to curriculum goals within social studies so students come away from 6th grade have a richer sense of what's going on in the Western Hemisphere? How might I support students in applying a political, economic, or social/cultural lens to understanding current events?  As students track stories, teachers might further develop student sense of place by placing stories on maps of the Western Hemisphere. (The most current stories will be at the top, and I'll update as frequently as time permits.)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Uncovering Conceptual Ideas by Connecting Learning Activities to Essential Questions

     Concept-based instruction involves a paradigm shift for educators.  Lynn Erickson, author of Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (2007), offers a crucial philosophical foundation of concept-based instruction.

umbraco.MacroEngines.DynamicXml"The paradigm shift, to shape the conceptual mind, requires teaching inductively to the concepts...using the topics and facts as a supporting tool rather than a final destination.  There are two important points to this statement. 1) Teaching inductively means that students are guided to understanding concepts.... The (concepts) are not generally taught directly as facts because this robs the student of the opportunity to think things through to deeper levels of understanding."  (p. 34)

I like to think of it this way.  When I receive a news headline update on my phone, I begin down the road towards understanding the story.  When I read an article about the story, I understand the story a little more. When I watch a tv segment about the story, I understand the story even more. When I read editorial pieces sharing broader perspectives about the event, my understanding continues to expand.  Over time, my understanding of the story continues to grow, each experience (news headline, article, tv segment, and editorials) allow me to slowly uncover a richer understanding of the story.

When considering the desired results within curriculum, we might begin by looking at the conceptual ideas that we want students to understand.  To complement these understandings, teachers are given essential questions, which are written for students and can be used to guide the inquiry and thinking of students.  Essential questions are not answered after one classroom experience, their complexity is revealed over time and we might consider how planning a unit of study incorporates the opportunity for students to revisit an essential questions.

* * * * * * * * * * * 
Consider how this might play out in a 4th grade economic unit on Choices and Opportunity Cost (Economics).

1. Essential Questions: "How do people make thoughtful decisions?"  and "How do you know when you've made a good decision? How do you know when you've made a bad decision?"  (When students answer these questions at the start of the unit, they'll bring their background knowledge and reveal what they understand about these ideas.  This gives good information to the teacher to inform instruction.)
2.  Learning Activites: Teacher engage students in learning about choices (daily and financial choices).  Students also learn about opportunity cost.  When students have a variety of choices about what to do with their free time, they make a choice. The next best alternative that is given up is the opportunity cost.
3. Revisit the essential questions.  A teacher might say, "Based on what you've learned about opportunity cost, what other thinking can you include in your answer to the essential questions?"
4.  Learning Activities: Teachers engage students in learning about risks associated with choices (daily and financial choices).  As people make choices, adding the variable of risk helps students sense that this can also influence a decision.
5. Revisit the essential questions.  A teacher might say, "Based on what you've learned about risk, what other thinking can you include in your answer to the essential questions?"
6.  Learning Activities: Teachers engage students in learning about positive and negative incentives associated with daily choices and financial choices.
7. Revisit the essential questions.  A teacher might say, "Based on what you've learned about positive and negative incentives, what other thinking can you include in your answer to the essential questions?"
* * * * * * * * * * * 

In this example, student learning does not stop with facts.  Student learning goes deeper as students continue to connect facts back to broader conceptual ideas.  In doing so, students revisit essential questions to uncover a concept over time, just as a news story reveals its depth and complexity over time. To me, this is one way to take the philosophy of concept-based instruction and implement its ideas into instructional practice.  

How do you see concept-based instruction playing out in your classroom?