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

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.  

Redesigning Education: Iterating towards Mastery

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I recently listened to a podcast with Scott Looney, Headmaster of the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio, and also the founder of the Mastery Transcript Consortium.  Mr. Looney discusses not only the project-based work he has introduced at Hawken, but focuses a good deal of his time on the history and philosophy around the Mastery Transcript Consortium–a group of independent and public schools devoted to shifting the high-school transcript away from meaningless letter grades, Grade Point Averages, and Carnegie Units (HS credits) to something more representative of the skills and knowledge students possess and the actual work  they can do….

Post is continued at:  http://plusus.org/redesigning-education-iterating-towards-mastery/