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.
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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