Thursday, November 24, 2011

Synergistic Thinking

I have been involved in an interesting conversation on PYP Threads about whether or not we should display central ideas for each Unit of Inquiry to our students. I find it an interesting thought and something that I had never really considered before. I've generally gone through a fairly standard format at the start of each UOI, unpacking the central idea with the students and discussing what each element means. For those who are not familiar with the PYP, a central idea is an overarching 'big understanding' statement that guides the inquiry and encourages students to explore and question whether or not they agree with it. It is made up of two or more concepts in relationship with each other. For example, our current central idea is "Beliefs influence people's live's" with the two linked concepts being beliefs and influence.
Referring back to the discussion about displaying central ideas, the question was posed that asked if we should display central ideas. The rationale for the question was that if we give the students the answer at the start of the unit, are we robbing them the chance of learning through inquiry - instead transmitting knowledge to them?
The discussion on the ning centered around a belief from an educational psychologist named David Ausubel. His theory describes that by providing and scaffolding enough information in advance, students are able to focus on a big understanding and this helps them to learn. By having central ideas displayed to students, they are having their attention focused on the concepts at hand.
The argument put forward in the discussion states that if we are showing the central idea to the students, and therefore focussing their attention, are we robbing them of the chance to inquire into it themselves? Considering the PYP is based on an inquiry approach to learning, I think this discussion has some merit. I'm not sure that by displaying the central idea we are providing students with any answers, as such, as we can't be sure of their level of understanding. But I have been thinking a lot about the aspects of inquiry learning lately and thought that this may be a useful technique to try out in the classroom to help encourage deeper levels of thinking among my students.
Concept based curriculum allows us to spiral the students' thinking as they go through the grades and develop deep understandings. However, it can often be difficult to assess whether or not the students have truly grasped the conceptual knowledge within the lens that they have been working. This brings me to synergistic thinking.
I first heard this term used by the first-lady of concept-based curriculum, Lynn Erickson. She recently presented a keynote speech at the IB conference in The Hague. I have attached a link for this speech here, unfortunately I wasn't able to embed it. The slideshow that she refers to during the speech is this one:

Erickson states that curriculum & instruction must create a synergy between the factual and the conceptual levels of thinking. This sort of thinking enables students to be comfortable working at both the factual and conceptual level. An example, highlighted in the video, is of a student being able to provide two factual examples that could support her conceptual 'big idea'. Another way to create this sort of thinking would be to address things between two conceptual lenses (the example in the video uses the lenses of perspective and behaviour) and ask the students to think about the relationship between the two.
By not displaying the central idea at the start of our Unit of Inquiry I am hoping to encourage synergistic thinking. The students and I have discussed the organising theme for the unit and also talked through the lines of inquiry. I have challenged them to try and create their own central idea for the unit and already I have had a couple of suggestions. They haven't quite hit the mark yet but have lead to some questions that we can explore throughout the unit. I am hoping that by encouraging the students to consider the concepts that could be connected to make the central idea they will be thinking about their conceptual understanding. By challenging them to provide examples of proof for their central ideas they will need to connect factual knowledge to a conceptual lens and this will hopefully lead to them achieving deeper understanding.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Graph of the Day

I thought I would share an on-going data handling activity that has been working quite well in my classroom. It's called Graph of The Day and was introduced to me by Christine Orkisz Lang at ECIS 2010 last November. It's premise is fairly simple however if it is done well the effect can make quite a difference - as I have discovered.

The activity is completed daily and can range from 5mins to 30mins discussion time - depending on how much you have. I start off by drawing a commonly used graph - bar, line, pie - and representing some data on it. I try to link the data authentically to my students' learning wherever possible. For example, this week I created a graph the described the favourite simple machines in Grade One as we are coming towards the end of our unit of inquiry on forces and machines.

As the students arrive each morning they know that they have to examine my graph and see what it is about. They then have to take a post-it note, write their name on it and describe something about my data or graph. Once everyone has arrived and we're beginning the day I take some time to go through some of the observations with the whole class and we discuss the elements of the graph and what it is describing. This is also an opportunity for me to ask questions for specific students, or the whole class, to take the learning further. Eventually I will hand over the reigns to the students and they will each be in charge of creating Graph of The Day on a rotational basis. I think the responsibility of creating their own work for the class to look will produce some interesting graphs.

I keep all of the graphs folded over on a bulletin board so we can use them again and again. By having the students post their notes I have ready-made formative assessment data that I can use to plan future learning engagements and I can also offer feedback directly to specific comments and students, or as a collective if there is something that the whole class requires. I can also choose how much to scaffold the graph by removing elements (to ask more of the students' interpretive skills) or adding elements (to model certain types of graphs).

So far it's been successful and is something that I can carry on throughout the year. Here's a few examples from this week: