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

Grace. Now…and For all(ways).


My principal has been posting some moving items on her Facebook page about the upcoming year.  I am grateful for them, for they speak to the affective afflictions that all people in school systems–from admins to students to staff to teachers–are going through.  Today she posted one that resonated with me for the single word it points to, “Grace.” For decades it has been one of my favorite words because of the gift it denotes–a gift we must offer ourselves and others but which, especially in times of crisis, strife, or political infighting, we forget.

This summer I’ve been musing on Grace even more.  Certainly the pandemic has had something to do with that.  As has the revolution in thought and culture stemming from the murder of George Floyd.  And my belief in civil civic discourse having taken such a hit in these past 4 years…Grace there, too, is key.

More than any other thing that has moved me to contemplate grace, however,  is Gilead, 51gwphyskl._sx316_bo1204203200_Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant “wisdom novel” about an aging Congregationalist Reverend, his family, and the things we must learn to forgive through the granting of grace.  No book in decades has so shaken me.  The shift in how I see myself, my role as father and husband, and even as teacher was tectonic.  It is a book as quiet and comforting as a Quaker meeting, and in whose silences and stories we find such grace.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Anyway, my principal, posted this article.  Please read it. Regardless of whether you are a teacher, administrator, or whomever…read it. As you’ll note in my reply to her today (quoted below), it’s as good a recipe for being human as any I’ve seen.

“[C…], you’ve been in my classroom many times. You might recall the way my blackboard looked and the fact that I use a set of “values” to guide the students in my classes (see image). This summer I read a magnificent book, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. So much of it revolves around grace and forgiveness. It moved me in a way no other book has done in decades. Between that and all the thoughts and posts and other readings I’ve done this summer, I resolved to add another word to that board. It is not a value. Instead, it is a virtue, and while we’ll be virtual for some time, the word will play a huge role in the way the class community grows.
That word is “grace.” We all need more of it, for so many reasons this year (and always)–many of those reasons are in this article you posted. (Which, by the way, is as good a “menu” for how to be a decent human being as any I’ve seen in a while.)
Without granting grace to others (and ourselves!) and practicing it as a class virtue, we will not develop the courage we will need to evolve, as teachers, administrators, and learners this year. And we need to evolve. Because without grace, many of us will be unable to imagine how things can/need to be different.
My Classroom with Grace
The greatest tool in Chaos/Crisis is imagination. Teachers, administrators, Students, all the staff…we will never feel comfortable enough to employ our imaginations if grace is not at the foundation of our culture. Permission to research, prototype, and try out new ways of doing things requires grace, because we will, inevitably, fail in some of our attempts. But as the by-now clichéd usage notes, we will be “failing forward,” always in search of the better–the better system, the better teacher, the better school, the better self.
We need grace for that evolution to happen.”

(Cover image by Birgit Whelan)

A Gnostic Gospel: Gradelessness in the Time of Covid

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?


 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.  


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.


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.  

To What Avail…?


I was rereading the blog of Prof. Paul L. Thomas the other day when I came across the quotation below.  (But first, massive props for Prof. Thomas’ work with pre-service teachers.  We need more people like him in those positions.)



Thomas quotes Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

I’d not encountered/remembered this quotation from my previous readings of Dewey.  I wonder…is it problematic?  Does it merely draw attention to the war that’s been ongoing for so long around content and skills, between the conservative wings of pedagogy and the more romantic/progressive wings?

As well, Dewey seems to indicate that winning that information comes at the cost of losing one’s soul.  I wonder if it isn’t possible to gain information and yet retain the soul.  I sure as heck hope so.  Though, I suppose what Dewey’s reacting to is a system that so champions acquisition over meaning and human growth as to suck the soul out of the very natural act of learning itself.

I think about these kinds of situations a lot, especially now that I’m working on a class, inNOVAtion Lab, in which I’m employing a rhizomatic approach to learning, an approach that champions the community as the source of the curriculum.  I’m still navigating the difficulties of moving from a curriculum map to a community that maps the curriculum itself, but if your curriculum map is anything like the ones I have to deal with, I’d rather have the community map the curriculum any day.

I’m not sure what my point is here.  I’m drawn to the work of David Cormier around Rhizomatic Learning, as well as to the writings of Ira Socol around similar topics, and, though I find it far more prickly, the writings and ideas of Gary Stager that stick a knife deep into the concept of curriculum in general.

Certainly a first-world problem, though, given how old “learning” is when compared with “teaching” and the school system itself, maybe not so first-world after all.

Just add water–Is Instant Curriculum in Your Future?

Splash Water Glass Just Add WaterIt’s not an overstatement to note that most curricula in American Public High Schools are bloated.  There’s too much to learn and so our toxic love affair with memorization and regurgitation continues, and only those students who like to play the memorization game feel loved by the system, and those who don’t find themselves jilted or just plain lost.  And while I note that the AP system has made strides to move away from content cramming and into more concept-based classes, the notebooks I’ve seen from students in certain AP classes read like the copied pages of an encyclopedia.

Now, there’s something to be said for the ability to memorize and retrieve information.  Indeed, I’ve benefited to some extent from having such a mind. My two appearances on TV game shows and the infinite nights of bar trivia I’ve attended evidence at least one benefit.  And, of course, there is the cognitive benefit that the more one knows, the more one is capable of knowing.  

But as most every pundit of education has noted for better than 15 years, drowning the brains of captive children with information is a poor goal for education in the digital age.  With the world’s libraries and all their stores of information in our pockets and at our fingertips, information is (clichéd phrases coming…) “ubiquitous,” and that means it’s no longer “what you know, but what you can do with what you know” that matters.  It’s the compelling stories you can tell with the information that will matter more than the knowledge of the information itself. * 

This is, of course, not entirely true.  Doctors, politicians, plumbers, engineers…we would agree that possession of a standard body of knowledge is crucial for them (and us).  However, for most of us, knowing the process of mitosis by heart, or the economic deficiencies of a banana republic…for most of us, those things are not (and here I’ll adopt David Perkins’ standard from his book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World) “lifeworthy.” That is, they are not “likely to matter, in any meaningful way, in the lives learners are expected to live.”  

And so, when I read a recent article by Alden Wicker on Vox about the movement to remove water from many of the cosmetics and cleaning products we use (to reduce packaging, plastics, and shipping costs), I got to thinking, thanks to the musing of Paul Haluszczak of Education Reimagined, about how a concentrated curriculum (focused on vital competencies) could be reconstituted by each learner through his or her own liberal application of “water” which Haluszczak suggests might be learner agency or interest–a sort of “autodidacticism via starter formula,” if you will.  


This concept is reminiscent of an idea I encountered on the website of consultant Christian Talbot–Minimum Viable Curriculum.  An MVC is “centered on just enough content to empower learners to examine questions or pursue challenges with rigor.”  As they explore, they will invariably encounter spaces where they need more information, and so they will grow the curriculum, with teacher assistance, of course.

As such a model would have to be project-, design- or challenge-based, the learning would occur mostly on a “just in time” basis rather than following the “just in case” model we use to stuff so much irrelevant information into our children’s heads.   It would also help focus our pedagogy on the act of learning itself, rather than mere transmission of content.  I doubt there’s a teacher alive who wouldn’t admit that what they seek most for all their students is that they learn how to understand and best manage their own learning processes.  A model like what I (and many others) am scratching at here seems a reasonable and prosperous starting point for such a goal.

I’ll continue to add water to this idea and see what (re) constitutes.  Hopefully, more such posts will emerge.

*(Note here I’m not saying that there is less value in knowing things.  Only that flooding students with content at the expense of building skills in self-driven, self-determined learning is, anymore, little better than treading water in order to cross the English Channel.)