Teaching and Learning through Conceptual Understanding: an Example

This past summer I had the opportunity to take a “curriculum camp” with Julie Stern, Trevor Aleo, Kayla Duncan and the whole “Learning that Transfers” crew. Learning that Transfers is the umbrella organization for Julie and the team’s work in Conceptual Understanding.

This is not an informative post on Teaching for Conceptual Understanding. For that powerful method, I’d suggest you visit the Learning that Transfers team at their website. Also, follow the hashtag #LTT on Twitter. This is a post about a technique I used to great effect with my 10th grade English students that is based on the LTT team’s teachings in their amazing book, Learning that Transfers. However, for a quick overview, this video below will serve well.

My students and I started the year with a reading of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (HATSOS). Rather than read the novel as I had in previous years, by splitting the class into groups and having them read by focusing on allegory, satire, the Hero’s Journey, and allusion, I taught them a few key concepts.

Concepts are like nodes on the cognitive web of discrete information. Where a fact about rocks, for example, would be “Wissahickon schist” or “Baltimore Gneiss”, the concept, or node, that connects them is “metamorphic rocks.” So concepts, at least in one formation, are a type of classification. But it goes deeper than that. Concepts act as containers for ideas and actions. Thus, in any young adult novel, one could probably read the novel and identify numerous instances of identity formation. Thus, “identity” becomes a key conceptual lens to read though when reading books like Huck Finn, Invisible Man, The Joy Luck Club.

In our study of HATSOS I identified 5 key concepts: Truth, Identity, Power, Language, all of which orbit around the ultimate concept of “Story” itself. I then divided students into groups in which they would read and annotate the text in groups with their similar concept partners. We did this by using the social annotation application, Perusall.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, I asked students to create a series of three observations about how their concept was crucial to the development of the story so far. Those observations could also be things they’d learned by reading in this way that could be applied to the world outside the text.

Next, students moved into their concept groups and wrote their observations on to post-it notes (one observation per post-it). These were then placed onto special boards I have for just such purposes (they’re called “gator boards”).

Finally, and this is the most important part, after each group had placed all its post-it notes, groups rotated and visited the three other groups’ boards. There, they read the observations and collected two or three observations about the novel through this lens that they found interesting. As a final act, each group had to leave behind a new observation that connected their personal concept, with the other group’s concept.

I know it is impossible to read though just one conceptual lens when more are given; obviously students were always aware of the presence of the other concepts in the story. But by having them focus first through one lens and then giving them a chance to step back and see the novel in a wider sense, understanding better how their peers were reading similarly and differently, students became primed to jump into making deeper conceptual connections within the novel and in the world itself.

This “carousel,” produced some of the most impactful observations at the end of the novel when students engaged in thinkpieces, a type of “essaying,” through exploring their responses to questions they formed using the question stems from http://www.learningthattransfers.com.

Author’s copy of handout from http://www.learningthattransfers.com

Evaluation and The Betrayal of Learning

A necessary precursor to this post is the beautiful, romantic, and wholly human post that Carol Black wrote several years ago on the Evaluative Gaze of schooling and the effect it has on the human spirit to spend 7.5 hours a day under such surveillance.   What is the effect of knowing that we exist in a system that is constantly measuring us and whether we meet the “standard student” profile?  Such an evaluative gaze reinforces the “school as hospital” metaphor:  Students are “sick”, they need to be treated in order to “meet the grade” or to get to proficient/average (see Todd Rose on this–though I’m pretty sure most of us have seen it.  (And if we have, I next wonder…why are so few of us doing anything about it?)).  

If You Never Try, You’ll Never Learn

Let me give you an anecdote.  I spent a week at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking in 2010,  in a cohort of college and HS teachers in a class called “Inquiry into the Essay.”  The first assignment we had was to read through 6 pages of definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary on the word “Essay.”  The impact of that exercise was lost on no one, because after reading them, we were asked to freewrite for 10 minutes on the patterns we noticed, on what surprised us.  Universally it was that only one of the definitions actually sounded anything remotely like what we have taught student an Essay is.  

I do this same exercise with my students before we engage in our first writing exercise.  I did it on Thursday with my students.  In my 10th period class when I asked students to share their observations, the first response was, “I feel betrayed.”  From there, the litany of complaints piled on.  And all of it. All of it! was tied to the fact that writing was always done for an evaluation.  Rarely was it done for any other purpose than “Writing to Demonstrate Learning.”  In my own classes, I tell students that we will strike an imbalance in our writing, as most of the writing we will do will be “writing to learn, to explore, to discover.” I will not “evaluate” anything, There peers and I wiill, however, assess constantly.  Assessment–feedback, discussion, hashing-out–is the only end of our work.  And isn’t this what we want from an audience, from mentors, from teachers?  A chance to enter into the intellectual discourse and to see ourselves not as equals, but as explorers on the same journey to self-discovery, just with different levels of experience? A chance to feel part of a learning community with “better” as the only goal/standard?

My own path has been such in many parts of my identity.  I am not a designer, but I think in designerly ways.  I am not a scientist, but I can think in scientific ways.  I am not an entrepreneur, but I can adopt an entrepreneur’s mindset.  So it is for students in my class.  While not all of them may see themselves as writers, they can learn to think in writerly ways, to approach the world with the same sense of inquiry and wonder as writers and to attempt, through language, to figure out what they are thinking and what they might learn from those questions and wonderings that could be useful, insightful to others, even if it is just themselves.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

And what has it done to my classroom to remove the “evaluative gaze” Carol Black has so beautifully detailed here? (She used to write for the TV show, The Wonder Years.). First is a massive shift in the culture.  My students are no longer up till 12AM sweating out their final drafts (which for many was a 1 1/2 draft).  They are not getting their papers back, looking at a grade, and losing the paper amidst the physical din of a notebook or disorganized google drive.  They are engaging with each other in discussions of craft and inquiry and learning that are real and genuine and appreciative.  They come to see themselves as a community of readers, writers, speakers and listeners, engaged in a curious, wonderful, and often intriguing if not always engaging search for meaning.  

Is it always this way?  Not always. No classroom is a Utopia, and Carol Black, a staunch home/unschooler, would say that the very institution of school itself, even absent grades, has a gaze we cannot escape.  However, the culture of our classroom creates a community that is far removed from the classrooms I remember and hear about…classrooms where rote learning and predetermined lessons about what should be retained and what is most important create learning expectations for students that are alien to their own lives; classrooms that remove the joy and wonder of discovery from their lived experience so that an efficiency can be applied to learning that makes the task easier for the teacher, for the system.

This shift away from grades entails no loss of rigor, for those prescriptive traditionalists amongst you.  In fact, we still hold ourselves to standards, still understand the end of most writing is to communicate with clarity, beauty, and understanding.  We don’t need grades to enforce compliance, to measure the humans in our classroom like so many meat puppets.  

And this is all premised on the simple act of grading…a task for which most teachers never had a class, never studied in any depth, never, for most of us (myself included for 20 years) actually really questioned.  It’s just the way we’ve always done things.

(*For more on this topic, the recent Washington Post article on the work being done by Scott Looney and the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a clarion call. Also, check out the brilliant work being done at One Stone and how they shape the Learning Experience around their Growth Transcript and Disruption BLOB. Also, visit Teachers Going Gradeless. )

STARTedUP At Fluxspace: Feb. 17

On Wednesday, February 17 at 7PM, the Central and SE Regional Chapter of the STARTedUP Foundation will be linking you to the national discussion on Changemakers and the Entrepreneurial Spirit.

The BIG ANNOUNCEMENT here is that our guest speaker will be PayPal cofounder, David Sacks! Please join us via Zoom

STARTedUP is a National Foundation created by educator Don Wettrick to help spread the wealth of learning that comes from youth entrepreneurship. Don’s work as an educator in Indiana has garnered national attention, and he’s leveraged the power of his good works there to bring the excitement of entrepreneurship to students all across the USA.

In our February 17 meeting Don will be discussing the importance of reaching out and netrworking with people whether you know them or not. He’ll drop some tips on how to do this, and we’ll be voting on a Changemaker we’d like to hear from at our March meeting. Here’s a brief overview.

STARTedUP Central and SE PA is affiliated with the National Chapter. All meetings can be attended through Zoom, (Contact gheidt@startedupfoundation.org for the link); however, we have also negotiated the use of the Fluxspace.io Learning Accelerator in Norristown, PA to host our meetings in person for those who are willing to attend. (Please click the link for directions.)

If you are interested in attending in person, you will need to register via Eventbrite. Space is limited.

Fluxspace is affiliated with Corbett Inc. An interior design firm dedicated to improving working and learning environments for businesses and schools around the world. They have the following protocols:

“Corbett Inc/Flux is following CDC and PA State guidelines for businesses, please do not enter our campus if you are feeling unwell or have a fever, if you’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive, has had symptoms within the last two weeks, or if you have tested positive within the last 2 weeks.  Face coverings to be worn at all times, except when eating.  Maintain a 6-foot social distance.  Wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer.”

If you have questions about our live events at Fluxspace, please contact Garreth Heidt at gheidt@startedupfoundation.org

A Gnostic Gospel: Gradelessness in the Time of Covid

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From Amy J. Ko

(Like many teachers, I’m suffering from so many feelings right now.  July is winding down.  I’ve been taking classes on distance learning, working on new units, and rethinking how to build a culture of caring, community, and creativity on-line, as it seems that’s the way things will be heading for a while.  I’m also, as my friend @MonteSyrie notes of himself (and so many educators) mourning a loss of place and self…of who I was in the classroom.

But there are also ample opportunities to do things better, to become more and constantly evolve.  After all, as I often note, we are all human beings in the becoming.  We are all chasing a better version of ourselves…or we should be.

And that’s where this blog post comes from.  How can we be better in the classroom for ourselves and for our students?  Perhaps an admission that love is at the core of our work is a good place to start.  Not that most of us don’t already know that…but, as with so much about love, we may not always show it.)

Three years ago I began moving my classes to a grade-less system.  It is still a work in progress, but it is one I will not abandon.  Still, I sometimes forget that not everyone is in that same headspace.  When I recently came across a blog that recalled a small school’s pivot to standards-based grading during the spring of 2020, I started to think back on all the reasons why I’d switched to a gradeless system.  And I discovered, in the musings recounted below, one more reason–love.

I have to think that there are many teachers who now, in this time of uncertainty and crisis, are wondering how they’re going to grade fairly.  How they’re going to overcome issues of -plagiarism, fair testing, etc.  I also have to think that many teachers and schools will push back with more punitive systems to force student compliance.    Why?

 Rather than trying to create punitive mechanisms that punish students for seeking ways around the system (which, come on…teenagers?  Rebellion…?  No kidding?), what if we were to make a switch to standards-based grading?  It is not that hard a shift, but the culture behind it utterly alters students’ perceptions of what school is and how much more meaningful and purposeful the learning that happens here can be. 

That Culture shift is huge. As Peter Drucker noted a long time ago: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  And really, our schools, at this crisis point…?  If all we’re looking for is a strategy or methods to bridge the gap between now and a return to “normal,” if we’re not thinking about culture shifts, we’re missing a huge opportunity, and we misunderstand the potential of this moment to shift our culture for the better of our students.  We can add as many apps as we want to our “ClassLink” landing page, we can create as many virtual opportunities for kids to meet with us as time permits, but if at our foundation we’re still about ranking and sorting of humans?  The system is built on sand. 

 Given the uncertainties in so many areas of our lives, to what extent does the compliance-and-extrinsic-reward model that grades represent really serve anyone?  Is anyone not getting the fact that compliance and working for extrinsic rewards doesn’t foster meaningful learning for many students? That it certainly hasn’t done much for critical thinking in our country (though I’d not lay all the blame for that at the feet of education)?  One vivid example of the problem with grades is that they perpetuate the inequities in the system and enslave the mind to working for others’ approval.   

Traditional Grading for a VUCA World…Really?

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 And in that, grades don’t serve the country well.  If we look to the numerous future-of-work documents populating the web, there’s little there to support a continuation of a grading system that harms more than it helps, that reports little but how well one meets deadlines and turns in what’s expected.  In a VUCA World, the skills required to thrive in the future are not skills of compliance and climbing the corporate ladder by performing the right tricks at the right time for the right people.  They are far more about experimentation, iterative improvement, innovation, and working for a common good.  Grades and the competition inherent in that system drive all those things underground, and in doing so, bury many a great learner.  

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I’m not saying we’re not already shifting in this direction.  But if school this year is going to be a huge change for all of us, why would we try to stuff the old experience–the good, the bad, and the ugly–into some new box that we’re trying to make just like the old box?  That old box was broken from the get-go; we have a huge opportunity to pivot and change for the better.  If the school in the article I’ve cited can make the change during the spring remote learning emergency, surely we, as a department or as a team can pilot something that could truly increase students’ voices, and promote deeper and broader ownership of their learning.

A sermon of courage, fear, and love

This has been my liturgy for several years now.  I preach it not to raise specters of fire, brimstone, and damnation to those who believe in grades, but to bring those who question the orthodoxy and dogma into the fold.  Perhaps I’m the wrong person for this pulpit/that purpose.  I’ve no real congregation at my school…no one comes to this church; my outreach is paltry and, perhaps, intimidating.  After all, my teachers are offering up a gnostic gospel.  We could be burned at the stake.  But as Parker Palmer noted, it takes Courage to Teach.

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It doesn’t take weeks of work to switch.  What it does take is courage, a willingness to be vulnerable, and a love for others we serve that supplants the power we lose by abandoning the “rod” of grades.  And if love isn’t reason enough to change, I think we’re in the wrong business.  

What (Should) We Talk About When We Talk About Education(?): Freedom, Growth, and the Right Question.

I’ve been reading this morning an incredible overview of bell hooks’ book, Teaching to Transgress. (Huge thank you to Chris McNutt at The Human Restoration Project (HRP)).  hooks should be required reading for all educators, for she persuasively reveals why structures that empower all students are crucial to the continued pursuit of education as a human endeavor in freedom and liberation, and, even more important, to our democracy itself.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 8.08.07 AMThe Human Restoration Project’s review of Teaching to Transgress summarizes part of hooks’ challenge to her readers as a call to change the system of education itself:  “To change education means to rebel against prevailing notions of what education means — to dismiss grading as an inauthentic means of communicating standing, to challenge content relevance and usage, to reinvigorate pedagogy that puts learning in the hands of students beyond faux choice, to create communities of compassion and tolerance by enlightening the prevailing oppressive narrative. ”

I have no problem with the understanding that content itself is important.  One cannot think creatively and critically if one has no knowledge to turn over, probe, question.  However, when students remain mere vessels to be filled and there are no structures to A) actuate the knowledge they attain  in uncertain, ambiguous scenarios, and B) question the nature and origin of that knowledge to begin with, we are in danger of falling into the type of passive and compliant schools we seek to escape with our rhetoric of student-centered/learner-centered-ness.  Mere lip service to these goals only perpetuates “the oppressive narrative.”

At least one major plotline in that oppressive narrative is that learning is actually an

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Source: NYU

exercise in achievement.  That exercise manifests as the incessant striving to jump another hurdle or check off another box.  The oppression here perverts human life itself, turning us into creatures ever driven to get to the next checkbox.  “I’ll have time to live when I pass calculus” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get my masters” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get that raise in salary” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I retire.” 

Many schools are beginning to shift their narratives to more learner-centered methods.  My own district’s shifts to #pvempowers and #pvsddoschooldifferent are a start in moving away from the oppressive narratives.   But they and all such efforts are mere digital rhetoric if we do not act within the spaces those terms create to truly honor the curiosity and voice of all learners.

For me, such action begins with questions:  two of them emblazon the wall in my classroom (see image below).  The first is a question that empowers students to inquiry:  “Why are things the way they are?”  I believe it should be the primary question in all classrooms.  It is certainly the primary question in the mind of a K—2 aged child.

The second question, “How can we make them better?,”  speaks to something we need to recognize more, and to which bell hooks is directly speaking:  agency.  All humans have agency, but schools, in the name of efficiency and normative measures, serve as obstacles to students exercise of that agency.  And as all learning initiates in questions, the greatest obstacle the system presents is the lack of student questioning.

Why are things the way they are...As a debate coach of 27 years, student questioning was central to my practice with the team and in my classroom.  But for most of those years, my classroom students’ questions were based upon free-form generation, tapping into their natural curiosity.  Then, about a decade ago, I discovered the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique.  The Right Question Institute tags itself as a “Catalyst for Microdemocracy” and it founds that democratic action in questions.

Little I’ve done in over 25 years in the classroom has the impact of the QFT.  It is built with simplicity and rigor and it delivers on both areas.  However, one should not believe this is as easy as, “Just let them ask questions.”   Its simplicity is deceptive, and any teacher employing the QFT needs to prepare and establish consistency for the technique to work.

But the results of proper implementation are immediate.  The students are engaged, deeply, in the work.  I’ve seen them lose themselves in developing questions, restating questions, and prioritizing questions, and the thing is, all these questions are coming from them.  Yes, the teacher must have a purpose for these questions, and that constraint helps guide the later parts of the generation process, but it does nothing to change the fact that the students are allowed to “linger at the point of wonder” and touch base with their curiosity in a way that honors every student’s ideas and direction.

While I’ve spoken mostly of the benefits of the QFT to students, make no mistake, the most crucial change the process brings about is within us, the “educators.”  In American public education, we are engaged in the creation of a liberally educated populous.  The word, “liberal,” however has acquired such a political charge that many turn away before understanding the history of the word itself.  Professor William Cronon does such justice to this adjective that I defer here to his brilliant words from the essay, “Only Connect,” which gives this blog its name.

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The worn but valid metaphor, then, is that educators are gardeners, nurturers of freedom and growth, for whom a liberal education is not a tool of some leftist conspiracy driven by trigger words like “social justice” and “white privilege” but rather is the very basis for all the benefits of this, the world’s longest experiment in self-rule.  Thus, education is about liberation, about freedom, about empowering people to take charge of their lives rather than live them as dictated by others.  In other words, it is about questioning our educational systems, our roles in them, our part in forming them, and about narrating our own way out of the oppressive narratives of those self-same systems.

What the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique get so right is the power of questions within democratic structures.  They are not merely methods through which to learn information.  Questions are the main tool of growth, liberation, and freedom.  They probe for information to better inform the polity.  They expose corruption, unmask deception, and hold power accountable.

Could anything be more important in our wickedly complex world?