I recently enrolled in a leadership course with Maxine Driscoll and Think Strategic to continue developing my own understandings about leadership and how to approach the changes needed in education today for learners in the 21st century. I haven't made it past module 1 as the reading list is long and rigorous. Currently, I'm making may way through Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. This book addresses the need for schools to develop the cognitive abilities in our students for the needs of the future.
The minds he addresses are: disciplinary, synthesizing, creating, respectful and ethical minds.
As I read the chapter on the the disciplined mind, I saw the direct correlation to the work of Erickson and Lanning with concept-based curriculum and instruction as well as the framework of the Primary Years' Program. Howard Gardner defines the disciplined mind as: "the mastery of major schools of thought, including science, mathematics, and history, and of at least one professional craft." He addresses the issues that arise when our students lack a disciplined mind as they are unable to think conceptually, or apply the knowledge in more than one scenario. They may memorize facts about a particular discipline but are unable to demonstrate deep understandings as their teachers have not enabled them to have sufficient experience with the discipline from a variety of entry points, have not enabled them to make connections to concepts or enabled them to demonstrate understandings in a variety of settings or using a scenario that is entirely new to the students (formative as well as summative). I like how Howard Gardner referred to his theory of multiple intelligences in this context. If you approach a discipline with his theory in mind then there will be a variety of entry points and ways to learn about the discipline that enable students to experience it differently and develop understandings. Students don't need to just memorize the facts in mathematics, history or science. They need to understand how things work, generalize about process and apply theory to new scenarios.
Concept-based curriculum and instruction addresses the disciplined mind as the teachers plans for conceptual understandings before beginning the unit, scaffold the thinking through questioning and facilitates inquiry that connects to concepts. Tools are provided for organizing knowledge in order to facilitate connections to concepts so that students are able to generalize and make transdisciplinary connections.
Our education system depends heavily on standards/outcomes to identify the knowledge our students must learn and know. But simply filling our students with knowledge without facilitating rich discussions through conceptual questions and tools for recording and organizing information will not suffice. It has to be intentional, both thoughtfully and deliberately planned. Do not assume your students will move beyond the facts independently. Understandings are constructed through a variety of experiences working with the knowledge and considering different contexts. It really is essential for educators to continue to learn new ways to prepare for and facilitate concept-based inquiry for the development of deep conceptual understandings.
Howard Gardner offers 5 tips for improving your teaching:
Upon a visit to Reggio Emilia, Italy
When I first learned about Reggio Emilia’s approach to learning, I was forming my research questions for my final Action Research project to conclude an M.Ed. at George Mason University. I was interested in finding a variety of ways to capture the conceptual understandings of my students who had not developed sufficient English language ability to express themselves, as they would have liked. My professor recommended that I check out the work of Loris Malaguzzi and The Hundred Languages of the Child. The deeper I delved into the resources I found about the municipality of Reggio Emilia and its approach to learning, the more I wanted to be a participant in an International Study Group. This April, I was able to attend along with one of our ECC teachers and what an inspiring experience it was for us both.
Values and Beliefs
We saw the positive impacts of the goals set by the community of Reggio Emilia back in the late 1940’s at the close of World War II; goals to build a community that created new identities and new rights for women and children. This was based on a series of choices; cultural, ethical and political in nature. These goals were intended to foster community participation and innovation in education to make the child a priority in order to build a positive, respectful community for the present and future. A new life, a new way, new values and a new community by committing to the commons, values for the common good.
As the school I’m working at is currently walking through a combined CIS/NEASC self-study, our staff is in in the process of re-evaluating our mission, vision, beliefs about learning and teaching and the roles we play as leaders and teachers. We are searching for the impacts of our endeavors, reflectively searching for evidence and pondering actions we might take. Have we achieved our mission? Are we on the road to achieving our vision? These are big questions and require a lot of thought.
This experience at Reggio Emilia enabled to me to see concretely what it looks like when a school system and the community work together to achieve their goals out of a common vision and commitment . The people of Reggio Emilia that I encountered were caring, respectful and helpful. They have a multitude of programs to reach children (0-12th), the elderly and for interaction between all age groups. Their annual municipality budget sets aside 13% for the early years programs. This community reaches out and welcomes visitors, immigrants (17%) and anyone who engages with their community.
One strong value of the Reggio Emilia educational project was to make visible the educational contexts and children’s learning inside the schools and outside in the community. Learning is visible wherever one looks in the early childhood centers and schools. The materials and partially constructed projects left accessible in the ateliers, piazzas and classrooms show the thinking and understandings that are forming. The learning panels published and posted on the walls demonstrate the pedagogy (why), the process (how) and the conceptual understandings (what) the students have developed as a result of the progezzione (project). Publications are produced annually about the projects completed and gifted to parents. Projects are shared with the community in a variety of creative ways.
Parents are welcomed into the schools to demonstrate the value of participation. They are encouraged to come into the piazza, casually drop their children and chat with teachers about life to pass along important information or ask questions. The face-to-face interactions are highly valued and emails are avoided. Parents elect leaders to work alongside the teachers to promote learning and participation within the community. They can suggest field trips and assist with projects while in process and in the publication or presentation of projects to the community.
We had the opportunity to learn about two very important projects: the rights of the child and the hospital through the lens of the child. Both projects involved the community and resulted in action that impacted the community positively. Why? The community used the children’s ideas to publish and display these rights in all the schools as well as to make them available to the public through buttons and postcards. At the hospital, the children decided to gift their thoughts to make the hospital more welcoming. These thoughts were organized and artistically displayed by the Reggio Emilia atelieristas. Now patients in the hospital can get some respite from their fears by reading the thoughts of the children, thoughts that provoke smiles.
Learner and Teacher Agency
The PYP is releasing enhancements to update their framework and align it to the current research on learning and teaching. There is a new focus on agency and the learner’s voice, choice and ownership. I’ve been pondering this as I wondered what it looked like in action as well as what shifts our staff would have to make to say we both value and empower agency.
The teachers of Reggio Emilia value the child to the extent that is agency in action; it is embedded in their practice. They listen to the voice and ideas of the child, documenting the learning process and thoughts through pictures and anecdotal notes. The documentation guides the decisions about learning. It is visible in the centers on clipboards, binders and portfolios.
Teachers are knowledgeable about childhood development; stages of development and take research seriously but do not allow that knowledge to limit their ability to personalize the education for their students. They do not categorize their students into developmental boxes. It does not become a barrier. They honor and respect the child and the fact that each child is unique. All decisions appear to stem from their values and beliefs about the child. They allow their students to develop strategies for finding knowledge and support them throughout the process within their zone of proximal development. They allow their students to spiral back to what they know naturally as they attempt to spring to a new level of development.
Teacher agency is visible through the professional development time they use to collaboratively discuss their experiences each week about the learning that is happening. They work together to overcome difficulties, challenges and find the best way to respond to the ideas and thoughts of the children as they thoughtfully steer the projects through provocations, discussions, reflections and time for experimenting. They work together to consider ways to re-launch a project that may have stalled slightly and continue extending the project to build new understandings. This belief statement resounded with me deeply, “I learn with you and you learn with me.” It is an atmosphere that does not value hierarchy but rather cooperation and collaborative reflective practice.
Creativity, Motivation and Curiosity
In this environment, creativity abounds. The walls and displays are student made. Beauty is everywhere. It is fostered and the children’s innate need to make things beautiful is honored. I never saw any child bored or acting out. The environment was relaxed, not tied to a rigid schedule, but allowing children the freedom and time to explore their curiosity. Children actively engage in projects for extended periods of time. The content is relevant and is founded in questions the children have so their interest is peeked. They investigate answers through concrete experiences with materials, field trips and experiments. Technology is a tool that is used when they find themselves unable to solve problems without it. The environment is rich with materials and places to explore the answers to their questions.
They foster creativity by pursuing creativity themselves. At Reggio Emilia, collegiality is the key to sustaining creativity. The teachers read about it, surround themselves with creative materials, attend museums and art exhibits. They discuss ideas together and allow ideas to flow uninhibited. The children are their allies in creativity and are prompted to join in the discussion.
Tips from Reggio Emilia:
Dreams and Goals
Now that I have had this experience, I am pondering ways to share my experience with my colleagues; an experience that left me profoundly impacted. I consider the ways we as a team can change the way we see our roles to minimize the hierarchy and increase the amount of collaboration for the benefit of all stakeholders. I’m excited about the shifts in the PYP and can now visualize learner agency (students and teachers). Together we can explore more deeply what that means for our students, parents and to each of us personally. We can reimagine learning and work to increase participation of all – our students, our parents, our teachers, our support staff and our leadership team.
I wish to experience that value and idea of professional development….”I grow with you and you grow with me.” and I look forward to exploring ways to make my beliefs about the child visible to our community alongside my colleagues.
Once you begin working with students to identify their conceptual understandings, it becomes somethings that drives you as an educator. It is so much fun working with students to draw out and write generalizations or statements of understandings as they move through the inquiry cycle. In the thinking classroom, we facilitate the thinking through a variety of strategies. One of these is through the use of concept maps. Concepts maps can be created by the students independently, in teams or as a whole class. They can be drawn or constructed with cards to move around. They can be plain, use images or be color coded. There are so many ways to construct them. Students can organize them to make sense out of their learning and draw lines to connect concepts that have more than one connection. Many classes will stop at the concept map. You can take it to the next level by asking students to write generalizations using their concept map as a guide. Concept maps make the learning process more visible especially after having investigated their questions through experiential learning.
This month I was working with a Grade 2 teacher to model this strategy. Grade 2 was investigating How We Organize Ourselves. Our central idea was: People create organizations to solve problems and support each other. We were in the Sorting Out stage of the inquiry cycle and the homeroom teacher and I were interested in checking our students' understandings to date. I took all the concepts the students had discovered in the unit of inquiry thus far (it was about the fourth week) and created cards for sorting and color coded them.
I asked the students to sit in a circle on the floor and we worked together to organize the concepts. As I placed the concepts on the floor in front of them, I asked students to identify where they believed it should go. They were asked to explain their thinking and justify its place in that particular order. All students were engaged in the thinking and trying to decide the best fit for the concepts.
Once we had the concepts in place, I moved to the white board to guide the class to write a generalization together. I asked them to tell me what they understand about organizations now. I wrote 'Organizations' on the board. Then I told them to look at the map and think how we can use the concepts to explain what we know about organizations now. I reminded them of the no, no words: is, are, have and pronouns. I asked them to think deeply about strong verbs. There were moments when it was very quiet as students stared at the board, then the concept map and thought about strong verbs.
The first phrase we produced together was: Organizations use teamwork and collaboration strategies...
so I added the word 'to' and asked them to continue thinking about our understandings. Wait time was so important here. I gave them time to think and then we were able to add:
... to solve a mission for changes in the world.
Our generalization after several weeks of investigation was far stronger than the central idea our teachers generated for the unit as you can see below:
Teacher generated: People create organizations to solve problems and support each other.
Student generated: Organizations use teamwork and collaboration strategies to solve a mission for changes in the world.
Next time I try this, there are some things I will do to extend this.
- Yarn strips could be used to make connections from one concept to another when they can fit in more than one place.
- Each column could have its own statement of understanding
- Students can reorganize the concepts at the conclusion of the unit to see if they had different ideas or reasons for placement.
Writing generalizations are great for formative assessment especially if you keep a space on the walls in the room for class understandings that is accessible to all. As the class moves from one line of inquiry to the next, writing generalizations together or independently help students to organize their minds and track their learning. For younger students, that may mean modeling and joint construction such as I did with grade 2 until they are able to create their own concept maps. I encourage you to give it a try and begin teaching inductively. Guide your students to discover the understandings through concrete experiences and it will be far more powerful than unpacking the central idea.
For the past three years, I worked with grade 2 as a homeroom PYP teacher. I wanted to share an approach I took to number and the concept of equal groups. We began the year working with skip counting and using skip counting to find patterns in number. Then we began to build on their understandings of partitioning. We looked at how many number combinations we could find with a given number using the number of the day strategies. My goal was to make sure math was always fun, concrete, relevant and challenging. As we moved through addition and subtraction strategies, we continued expanding on number strategies for patterning and partitioning with numbers greater than 50.
Later in the year, we began to inquire into equal groups using multiplication, division and fractions. As we worked with multiplication using arrays, making equal groups with manipulatives and then pictorial drawings, an idea came to me. I began to see how students could learn to move between multiplication, division and fractions through the conceptual lens of equal groups. This idea fascinated me and I began to design learning engagements for using number flexibly. We focused less on traditional algorithms and memorizing math facts and more on thinking about number conceptually. We talked about equal sharing and writing math stories. We continued building on their understandings of fractions of a whole by moving onto fractions of equal groups. Students learned to show equal groups in multiple ways and eventually, we worked with word problems. All of the work we did moving between those three ways of seeing equal groups made the process of learning time and reading a clock fairly simple. They had a clear understanding of skip counting and fractions by then which made reading a clock and understanding how it worked a straightforward process.
Click here to download my Equal Groups Pack.
Following that session, we continued to make connections between our professional learning communities (PLC's) and CBCI to develop further our understandings about the value of CBCI. I provided each PLC with a T-Chart to compare CBCI with their inquiry topic. While some were investigating Understanding by Design, others were looking into methods of inquiry, multilingualism, strategies for ELL to use in inquiry or visible thinking tools. As a staff, we were able to make many connections between CBCI and our PLC's.
Finally, I shared some of my own learning journey as I had moved from project-based learning to concept-based inquiry. I shared some of my personal questions, frustrations and ideas I had found to both deepen and capture conceptual understandings. My goal was to show them the complexity and validity of the journey I had pursued by making it tangible. I shared my struggles, my fears and victories, and my passion for growing and deepening my own understanding about CBCI in the classroom.
We resumed the CBCI course content with a different vibe in the room. There was more interest, more questioning and buy in. Teachers actively engaged in discussions to plan their units of inquiry using the framework of CBCI. At the conclusion of the training, I saw some true shifts in understandings. The most important lesson I learned from my reflection is that learning must be relevant for all - both students and teachers. They must know why.
As a concept-based inquiry teacher, I am fascinated with ways in which we can guide students to use their critical thinking skills to find the big idea or produce their own unique generalizations to express understandings about the unit of inquiry. While working with grade 5, I explored the use two different tools to draw out those understandings. I wanted to know if they could produce a generalization that extended the central idea since they had already been exposed to it. Secondly, I wanted to know if they could generate a generalization about the transdisciplinary theme, How We Express Ourselves.
To address my first goal of extending the central idea, I gave each student a concept wheel (see figure 1). Because this was their first experience with this tool, I guided them through each step. Together we decided on the concepts we had learned about and used those as our categories around the concept wheel. I observed the students thoughtfully engaging with the engagement which meant we had reached that synergism of thought connected to the 3D curriculum (see figure 2). They were able to write a variety of statements, demonstrating both conceptual understandings and knowledge gleaned from our inquiry around the question posed in the center of the wheel. I then asked them to write a big idea using the concept wheel as a starting point. This was too difficult and I got a lot of thoughtfully confused looks. So, I wrote the central idea on the board:
People express ideas, emotions and reflect social issues through their art.
But I challenged them to extend it. I asked them the questions, why and so what? This resulted in some nice generalizations but it would have been better if they had never seen the central idea in the first place. I would like to try it again without the central idea on the wall and see if we come close as a class to writing the intended understanding. I will repeat this exercise with grade 5 at the end of this upcoming unit to see if there is a difference.
The following day, we thought about our transdisciplinary theme and how it related to each student personally. I developed a tool with questions drawn from our central idea and lines of inquiry with our TD theme at the center (see figure 3). This was also the first time I tried to draw out their new understandings of the TD theme. I am still in the process of developing my own understandings about the best way in which to do this. I realized some of my questions were difficult to answer for some of my students. I realized it is important to continue to develop metacognitive thinking skills in order to learn and know more about themselves. so not all of my students were using enough reflective or metacognitive thinking to be able to interact with the graphic organizer. It will be a skill that I would have to continue to build with them.
What is my take away? I see that learning to use these types of tools and becoming a CBCI teacher is a learning curve that takes practice. Each time will get better and as I learn to scaffold the thinking better, the results will get better. It also means more collaboration with other teachers pursuing the same approaches to learning. Discussing our attempts, reflecting together and finding ways to improve together is much better than trying alone. I encourage you to make connections with others who are also working to improve their skills and understandings about CBCI.
"The Big Idea," Global Women Network, Eva Smith, 2014.
Erickson, L, Lanning, L. and French, R. (2017). Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom, 2nd ed. Corwin: Thousand Oaks.
As an international educator, I work with colleagues in my local and global network regularly to implement inquiry through concept-based approaches to learning and teaching. It is a journey of discovery, learning and growing our own understandings about the ways children learn.
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