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.