Friday, October 23, 2015

Using Multiple Sources to Examine Important Changes in Metropolitan Communities

In modern social studies learning, we use topics to expose students to broader concepts. In the past, the topic was most, helping students to see how a topic connects to a concept is critical. When students are able to make this conceptual connection, they're able to see the bigger picture.

In my school district, 3rd graders are engaged in a unit where they explore change over time in the Denver Metro area. Conceptually, we are hopeful that students begin to understand that all places change over time for a variety of reasons. The unit has a goal that states students will understand that people, events, and developments influence change to metropolitan regions (and its communities) over time. To help students uncover this understanding, best practice instruction encourages teachers to embrace inquiry and possibly provide some essential questions to discuss within our learning. Essential questions might include:

  • How has Metropolitan Denver changed over time? How has Metropolitan Denver stayed the same over time? Why does a city stay the same AND change over time?
  • What are "important" changes that we might want to see within Metropolitan Denver? What is an "important" change within a community?
  • How do members of government, leaders, and citizens support the development of Metropolitan Denver (and communities within this region)?

As social scientists, we want students to engage with resources that allow them to construct learning. One way to explore this learning is to gather resources related to one type of change that has taken place. As students engage with various sources, we want them to apply critical thinking skills. Learning targets might include skill statements such as:

  • Students will be able to identify the big ideas and supporting details communicated within a source (teachers from the old days call this "taking notes").
  • Students will be able to ask questions when reading sources (including charts, maps, graphs, and infographics).
  • Students will be able to identify how people influence or help with "important" changes.
  • Students will be able to use evidence from sources to explain if a change is "important."
  • Students will be able to use chronology and compare the past to the present when describing how a Metropolitan area changes over time.

Knowing these goals, we might select a set of sources based on any example of important change. Here are some "important" changes that have taken place in the Denver Metro Area and sources that can be used to help students construct their understanding of the change.

Once students have examined a type of change, they might...

  • identify additional changes that would benefit a metropolitan region
  • identify other examples of change within a metropolitan region
  • describe how they (as citizens) can influence change within a metropolitan region

Friday, October 9, 2015

Geography: Students Identifying Opportunities and Constraints in a Place

When geographers look at the big idea of human and physical interaction, they consider 1) how the physical landscape impacts people or 2) how people leave their mark on the physical landscape. To skillfully apply more discrete thinking to the concept of human and physical interaction, students apply the skill of identifying how the local geography provides opportunities and/or places constraints on people. This skill appears in various ways throughout a student's education from preschool through 12th grade and this thinking is part of the national geography standards. (Geography Standard 15: How Physical Systems Affect Human Systems)
To monitor student achievement of this goal, we have to consider what this thinking looks like before we can start to answer the question, "What students artifact would reveal that the student is able to apply this type of thinking?"

What is "Opportunity" in a Particular Place?: Opportunities exist in situations where something can be done.  The national geography standards help teachers to break down this idea.

  1. Opportunity exists when characteristics of the physical environment enable people to thrive and prosper. Some characteristics to consider include climate, water, plants, animals, or landforms. 
    • How might different aspects of the climate in this location create opportunities for people to thrive and prosper in this place?
    • How might the availability (or location) and abundance of water in this location create opportunities for people to thrive and prosper?
    • How might the plants in this place create opportunities for people to thrive and prosper?
    • How might the animals in this place create opportunities for people to thrive and prosper?
    • How might landforms in this place create opportunities for people to thrive and prosper?
  2. Opportunity exists when a place offers activities for people because of the physical environment.
  3. Opportunity exists when communities of people can take advantage of the physical environment.
    • How might a community harness the water supply in this place?
    • How might a community harness the soil to create farming or gardens in this place? What crops might grow effectively?
    • How might a community develop recreational activities in this place?

What is a "Constraint" in a Particular Place?: Constraints exist in situations where people are limited or restricted in some way. The national geography standards help teachers to break down this idea.

  1. Constraints exist when landforms within a physical environment limits human activities. Sometimes features such as mountains, forests, deserts, the slope of hills, or flood plains limit people. These might limit the growth of agriculture, human settlement, or the ability to develop transportation systems.  
    • How might different landforms limit what people can do in this place?
    • How might the construction of shelter be limited by the landforms or the physical features in this place?
  2. Constraints exist when the climate limits human activities. All climates limit people in some ways, including cold/polar climates, rainy climates, dry climates, or equatorial climates.
    • How do facets of climate limit people in this place?
  3. Constraints exist when people must adapt their transportation routes due to the physical environment.
  4. Constraints exist when environmental hazards are common in a location and those hazards limit people. For example, some locations have many tornadoes, earthquakes, sand storms, hurricanes.
    • How do naturally occurring weather conditions limit people in this place?
    • How do the behaviors of people change in response to environmental hazards?
What is "Adaptation" connected to Opportunities and Constraints in a Particular Place?: When people adapt to the conditions of a local physical environment, they are taking a "constraint" and turning it into an "opportunity." Kids might think of the phrase, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." 

What artifacts might students create to show their ability to think this way? This is where the teacher gets to embrace creativity based on the interests of students and the tools available for students to create. As long as an artifact reveals that a students can embrace the thinking, any artifact works.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Analyzing Primary Sources to Develop a Deep Understanding of Perspective

As we all know, teachers of 21st century students are developing classrooms that are part of a paradigm shift in learning. We are not teaching students geography, we're teaching them to apply the skills and processes of geographers. We are not teaching students economics, we're teaching them to apply the skills and processes of economic reasoning. We're not teaching students civics, we're teaching them to apply the skills and processes of active citizenship. And...we're not teaching students history, we're teaching them to apply the skills and processes of historians.

The historical process is significantly connected to the analysis of primary sources. The sources of history allow students to engage with the artifacts and ideas of the past. When students engage with primary sources, it becomes quite obvious that sources reveal perspectives about people, events, and ideas. Since primary sources are created by people in the past, they capture the perspective of an individual (or group) and invite students to ask, "If I were to analyze other primary sources, what other perspectives might appear?"

While primary source analysis is a foundation for historical thinking in all grades, the concept of perspective appears significantly in grades 5 and 6. (In addition, the same concept appears within reading but might appear as point-of-view.) This is no coincidence and the cognition of students in intermediate grades develops in ways where they can begin to see how different people might "view" people, events, and ideas.

The following two videos were created in a 5th grade classroom (Chicago) and the instructional approach might help teachers to consider how this type of learning can play out within any intermediate classroom. Teachers might consider how to elevate perspective when students examine slavery during the colonial era (5th grade) or when students study the era of European exploration and the collision with early cultures in the Western Hemisphere (6th grade). These are just two opportunities where perspective can be explored and there are obviously many more opportunities to explore this concept since history is based on exploring the perspectives inherent within primary sources.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Knowledge: Use it Skillfully, Use it Conceptually

Social Studies has a challenging past where a student's ability to repeat factual content was valued. In our modern society, factual content is at an individual's fingertips. For this reason, a 21st century learner must be able to use information in different ways. This implies that learning in social studies might be simplified into a three-step process.
1. Learners acquire knowledge
2. Students make sense of knowledge through applying it skillfully
3. Students make sense of knowledge through applying it to explain concepts

Let's expand on these ideas just a bit.

How do learners acquire knowledge?

  • One of the most traditional ways that learners acquire knowledge is through the use of traditional texts (textbooks, articles, non-fiction books, and video segments). We ask students to apply literacy skills through capturing the big ideas and supporting details. We might also provide students with a question (or questions) that can be answered through engaging with the traditional text. 
  • Students might also acquire content knowledge through the analysis of non-traditional texts (primary sources, charts, graphs, maps, images, and infographics). This approach is critical for 21st century students who live in a world where they engage with a multitude of non-traditional sources. 
  • Students might experience classroom simulations, direct instruction, or other lessons that are designed to build content knowledge. 
How do learners apply knowledge skillfully?

  • First, we must recognize that we are not teaching students history, we're teaching them to engage in the thinking practices of historians. We are not teaching students geography, we're teaching them to engage in the thinking practices of geographers. We are not teaching students economics, we're teaching students to apply economic reasoning. We are not teaching students civics, we're teaching students to engage in the thinking practices of informed citizens. 
  • When we think of student work, we must consider their work as artifacts that allow us (the teachers) to see that they have the ability to show thinking. Student work, or artifacts of thinking, are designed based on what students should be able to do. These statements (found in Stage 1 of curriculum planning tools) are the skills of a historian, the skills of a geographer, the skills of an economic thinker, and the skills of an informed citizen. 

How do learners apply knowledge to explain concepts?

  • First, we must recognize that concepts are the big, broad ideas of a discipline. In curriculum, they are the organizing concepts and the big ideas. 
  • Concepts are also the ideas that come from a learner when they use knowledge to explain essential questions. Since essential questions are broad and based on a student's interpretation and understanding, we must be aware that students will provide evidence (content knowledge) to explain their ideas...and student answers will vary.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Cultural Studies: Embrace Thinking and Move Beyond a Collection of Information

Let me start by saying this...learning about culture does not mean handing students resources and having them collect information for a report. This is simply research. To understand culture, students must engage in thinking like social scientists. For this reason, I am hopeful that teachers will start to problem solve and grapple with the question, "What does it look like for a student to reveal that they are developing a deep understanding of CULTURE?"

In many grade levels, students examine the culture of people. Sometimes students look at cultures of the past/present or the culture of a region/nation. We use the word "culture" in broad ways because culture is a HUUUUUUGE concept. As adults, we typically understand the nuances of culture. Still, we (adults and teachers) are challenged as we search for ways to support students in understanding the complexity of culture. Before I begin to discuss how students might learn about culture, I want to explore how adults automatically think about the nuances of culture. Here are some examples:

  • Belief Systems: I might find myself listening to stories on NPR about religion throughout the world. If I listen to stories that take place in foreign countries, I often compare how religious beliefs elsewhere compare to the religious beliefs and practices within my own country. I'm making generalizations about one nation and comparing them to generalizations about my own nation. At the same time, I might listen to religious news stories that are from the United States. When I listen to these stories, I often compare these beliefs to my own beliefs. I recognize that culture includes BELIEF SYSTEMS. When I take the time to compare/contrast the religious beliefs of different places and people, I begin to understand the great diversity of beliefs in our world (both now and in the past). In doing so, I also begin to understand a bit more about myself and the cultures to which I belong.
  • Daily Life: I might find myself reading about people living in a different time and place. As I do this, I compare their daily life with daily life in my own country. I also compare their daily life with the life that I live. By comparing/contrasting my daily life with others, I begin to understand others throughout history living in different places. I also further my own thinking and understanding of myself and the cultures to which I belong. 
  • Forms of Artistic Expression: In my study of Mexico, I access information about artistic expression. As I read about and view the art of Mexico, I start to compare this to the art of my country. I also compare it to the art that I feel connects with who I am as an individual. By comparing/contrasting the art of Mexico with the art of my country, I begin to learn more about the different ways that cultures express themselves. I also begin to understand myself and the cultures to which I belong.

As adults, we are able to look at the unique facets of culture. When we read, listen to news stories, or watch a program about people from other times and place, we automatically begin to compare and contrast our own culture to the cultures of others. We also immediately start to explain why we think these differences exist. Sometimes we think to ourselves, and sometimes we have conversation with others to explore this type of thinking, This becomes a natural process for adults due to the exposure we have to people and stories from around the world. 

We must ask ourselves, "What does it look like for a student to reveal that they are developing a deep understanding of CULTURE?" Might I suggest a type of learning process that moves beyond the collection of numerous facts and embraces a shift towards critical thinking about the concept of culture.

Step 1: Acquire and Classify Information - Students access multiple sources and classroom lessons that are based on aspects of culture. As students engage with information, we must ask them to classify information. Does the information help us to understand a facet of Daily Life? Does the information help us to understand technology that was produced by people to make life easier? Does the information help us to understand belief systems? Through classifying information, we provide a scaffold for students to "dissect" culture and develop an awareness of the many facets of culture. 

Step 2: Compare and Contrast Cultures - To make sense of information, we must ask students to compare the details of one culture with another culture. For example, every culture develops forms of government. Comparing two cultures and their beliefs deepens understanding. When comparing cultures, students can look at cultures of the same era, of different eras, and of different places. Compare the governmental beliefs in one culture to the governmental beliefs in another culture. Compare the jobs and economic activities of one culture with the jobs and economic activities of another culture. Compare the forms of technology in one culture with the forms of technology in another culture. Comparing the facets of culture leads provides a more focused task for students.

Step 3: Ask, "Why is that so?" - When we compare and contrast cultures, we might ask, "Why do these similarities exist between these cultures? Why do these differences exist between these cultures?" This allows students to make inferences that lead towards deeper thinking about cultures. Cultures are different for a reason, and we ought to invite thinking that asks students to consider these potential reasons for similarities and differences.

Step 4: Ask students to compare other cultures to their own culture (national culture, family culture, individual culture) - In the end, we want students to understand themselves and their world. The more students make comparisons, the deeper they will understand the big concept of culture.