Concept driven learning…

Some ‘big ideas’ about concept driven learning:

(From this week’s little #pypchat on Twitter)

  • The world is changing. Knowledge is changing. The ability to view the world with a more flexible mind is invaluable. (Steve)
  • Concept based learning is about big transferable ideas that transcend time, place, situation. (Ed)
  • Content just focuses on facts while concept focuses on making sense of those facts and the world around us (Christianne)
  • Content based teaching may not get beyond information transmission/superficial learning (Gillian)
  • Concepts are a way to organize and make sense of learning. Connect disciplinary knowledge.  (Miranda)
  • We can’t possibly teach everything that is important, but we can teach the big ideas. (Alexandra)
  • Concept based learning is a framework to study everything. So much information. Content can change, concepts stay the same. (Mega)
  • Information is useless unless you can do something with it. (Lynne Erickson)
Big Ideas in the classroom.

Since I no longer have my own class, I relish opportunities to get into classrooms. This week I’m team teaching in Year 5 with Rubi… and team learning. We bounce ideas before class, observe and listen to the kids and change the plan as the learning unfolds. The ‘topic’ is energy, but it’s inquiry learning and it’s concept driven. 

The first provocation is a video showing the effects of an electricity blackout. The students’ questions are quite specific to the incident, and we realize we need to change the plan already. We ask the kids to revisit their questions and ‘grow’ them, this time considering big ideas, transferable through time and place. It only takes one example from a different context to get the idea and they are away! This round of questions is about electricity and alternative power sources, not just the blackout they saw.

Rubi introduces a second provocation to further develop their thinking. She puts on music and asks the kids to dance and jump around. There is lots of noise and energetic movement, kids remove their sweaters as they warm up and a good time is had by all (except the class next door.)  We ask the kids to discuss in groups how this activity connects to the first provocation and then come up with further questions.  This round of questions is about different forms of energy, where they come from and how they are used.

Sorting Questions.

With each question on an individual sticky note, the groups sort the questions in any way they like. Before they start I ask them what they see as the purpose this activity. Mia says it will make them read everyone’s questions and think about them. Liam says it will help them organize their thoughts. Amanda says it will  help them check their understanding. Josh says they will have to justify their thinking.

Some groups sort the questions by topic, others by big ideas. One sorts them according to the PYP key concepts. Some groups sort and re-sort in different ways. Some sort them into deep and shallow questions, open and closed questions. I’ve seen Rubi encourage this this kind of thinking by having kids analyse questions through the question quadrant. They use the language: ‘That’s a closed question,’ ‘You could just google that,’ ‘ That’s too narrow, how do we make it a bigger idea’? ‘That’s just about facts, it’s not deep enough.’  We gather the questions, type the whole lot and cut them up, ready for sorting the next day.

To sum up the lesson, we ask students to give it a title. I ask what a title does and they tell me ‘It sums up what’s important,’ ‘It tells you the main idea’, ‘It tells you what it’s all about’. ‘It makes you want to know more’. Their titles fit the bill!

A conceptual central idea.

We introduce the central idea: ‘Our use of energy has an impact on the planet.’

Each group now gets the whole class’s questions and the task is to sort the pile into two groups… Those that relate to the central idea (the overarching conceptual understanding.) and those that don’t. The students are totally engaged as we move between groups and listen to the rich conversation. There is much debate and it doesn’t take long before they decide they need three groups or even four, because it isn’t as simple as that! Through the process, questions are further developed and refined.

Key concepts.

The key concepts which will be our lens for the inquiry are function ( how does it work?) and responsibility. We ask the students to get the laptops and create a quick cartoon using Toondoo to show their understanding of one of the two concepts in a clever way. Some create cartoons that connect to our central idea, others show examples that connect to their personal lives. The choice is theirs – the results are creative and thought-provoking! Back in groups, the students now pick out questions relating to each of these  key concepts….

Big ideas about the learning:

Officially, there has been no teaching yet. A few video clips, some ideas on the class blog to think about and the time described above spent provoking and developing thinking.

Yet, already…

  • Students have risen above the facts and are thinking on a conceptual level.
  • They are making connections with prior knowledge and constructing meaning for themselves.
  • They are asking and answering questions, organizing ideas and justifying their thinking.
  • The so-called ’21st century skills’ of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration are all evident.
  • A host of other trans-disciplinary skills are being practised.
  • Curiosity has been sparked and there is excitement about taking the learning further.
  • Every single one of our school’s learning principles is evident.
Images: Responsibility by Amelia, Function by Gabi

Learning today…

One of the requirements for an application to Google Teacher Academy is to create a one minute video on classroom innovation…

Here’s what I learned:

  • You don’t need to know anything about video to create one.
  • Process is far more important then product when it comes to learning (We should always assess that, rather than the end result)
  • If something is worthwhile to you, obstacles can be overcome.
  • You can make up for lack of skill if you are resourceful.
  • A cartoon can deliver a powerful message… useful when time is limited!
  • Support and encouragement  can come from interesting, sometimes unexpected places… in this case Vancouver, Brooklyn, Chennai.


100th post!

This is my 100th post and I dedicate it to my friend in India.  If not for his encouragement and support, I would never have started blogging! Here’s our story…

A year ago, I was exploring online cartoon programs to use with my class and discovered ToonDoo. It’s a wonderful tool for enhancing learning and encouraging creativity. (Also great for illustrating ideas in my blog posts!) There are endless possible ways teachers can use it to engage their students and learners  can use it for expressing their learning. I was pleased to discover that ToonDoo supports Hebrew, but wondered how to get around the possibility of inappropriate content as it’s a public site. Sure enough, ToonDoo offered a private secure option for schools called ToonDoospaces, which was just getting going at the time and we decided to participate in the beta trial.

The support was excellent as we figured out how best to make it work for us and we got exceptional personal attention from Raj, officially Product Manager but his business card calls him Chief Juggler! As we engaged in conversation on ToonDoo issues, he and I discovered several common interests. We are both interested in religions and languages and were interested to learn more about each other’s. My son and daughter in law were planning a year of volunteer work in India and I was interested to find out as much about this fascinating country as I could. We struck up a friendship and began to chat online about religions, about India, about languages and cultures and education.

Soon after that, Year 6 students at my school were learning about our Asian neighbors and Raj agreed to interact with them on Skype. He answered their questions about India in a most engaging way, responding personally to each child and involving them in a conversation. Teachers present were ready to have him on staff right away, due to his natural manner with the kids and his ability to make the information so accessible and easy to understand. Read more about that here. Next week he’ll be answering questions from our Year 4’s as part of their unit on understanding other cultures.

In December, my husband and I visited India to see our kids and gain a better understanding of the work they were doing there. To our surprise, Raj decided to come to Delhi for a day and meet up with us. We thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent with him and marveled at how well we got along, despite difference in age, religion, background, culture and language.  (Not really. His English is excellent).  Read more about that here and here.

We have since met again, in Singapore when I went with 2 colleagues to the IBAP conference and Raj was there exhibiting ToonDoospaces.  As my colleague Layla said, having Raj with us added a further dimension to our time in Singapore, as we saw things through his eyes and gained a new perspective. Raj has a son in primary school and he was interested to learn from us about the PYP and the way teaching and learning works in Australia.


Somewhere in between all this, it was Raj who encouraged me to blog. I didn’t think I had anything to say and I had no idea how or where to begin.  He helped me get started and was my first, somewhat critical reader.  And along the way he has offered, not just a different perspective on a range of subjects and experiences, but also encouragement and online technical support whenever I needed it for this blog.

And here I am now, part of the exceptional blogging conversation that exists between educators wordwide. I never expected to have any readers outside of my own school! I could never have imagined how much I would learn from blogging or how it would connect me with other educators.  I am an addict…

Update 17th October 2011: Since I am linking to this post today, I’ll add that I have since met Raj again in India and that he has further connected with students at my school for a range of inquiries in the past couple of years. He recently answered questions from a group of students about child labour in India. Earlier in the year he created a wonderful photo album of the Hindu thread ceremony to accompany his Skype sessions with Year 6 classes for their inquiry into coming of age ceremonies in other cultures. Soon he’ll be participating (hopefully with kids this time) in the Year 6 inquiry into our neighbours in the Asia Pacific…. again.

Establishing a culture of thinking #2

I wrote in a previous post, about establishing a culture of thinking and referred to Ron Ritchhart’s 8 cultural forces of a thinking classroom.

Time for thinking
Expectations for thinking and learning
Opportunities for engaging in thinking
Routines & Structures that scaffold thinking and learning
Language & Conversations that name, notice, and highlight thinking
Modeling of thinking
Interactions & Relationships that show respect for students’ thinking
Physical Environment in which the process of thinking is made visible

‘Work’ does not = learning.
For learning to occur, thinking and understanding are required!  The cultural forces communicate to our students that thinking is expected and valued, what kinds of thinking will be happening and how learning and thinking will be managed and documented.

In that post, I talked about ‘thinking time’.  Another of the ‘forces’ that define a thinking class, is ‘routines’.  ‘A routine can be thought of as any procedure, process, or pattern of action that is used repeatedly to manage and facilitate the accomplishment of specific goals or tasks’.  Ritchhart says that just as you have housekeeping routines and management routines in the classroom, thinking can become a routine too.  Like all routines, thinking routines need to be clear with a few steps, easy to teach/learn and remember, applicable across a  range of contexts.  As a result, Project Zero’s suggested thinking routines are crisp and catchy, while creating a structure for complex, higher order thinking.

Today my class used a routine, called ‘Colour, Symbol, Image‘ which requires selecting a colour, a symbol and an image to represent the essence of the topic or text  studied.  This can be done on paper or digitally, but the computer makes it easy to insert symbols and find appropriate images, with no artistic talent required.  Here’s an example showing my colour, symbol and image of choice to represent the essence of my blog.  I only thought of using Toondoo to create it, after the class had done theirs in boring old Word!!

Cultural forces in a thinking classroom: Part 2: Routines

Making foreign language learning more engaging.

I read a post this week about the challenges of making the teaching of grammar less boring in foreign language lessons. While I know that it’s important to teach grammatical concepts and rules, it’s the application that makes the learning worthwhile.  If the students know they will have meaningful opportunities to apply their language learning and to create for an authentic audience, they will surely be more engaged.

Our teachers explored a few such possibilities today and, while we teach Hebrew, these ideas could work for any language.

We started by looking at ways to use Power-Point to enhance second language learning.  Inserting sound creates all sorts of opportunities for the students to record themselves, thereby practising important reading and speaking skills.

  • Insert a series of images into slides and have students record a story based on the images (insert sound, select record).  This can be written first and corrected by the teacher, then read out, or students can simply improvise and tell the story right away.
  • Students select their own pictures or take their own photographs to use for their story. You can see an example in a previous post here.
  • Students work in pairs to create a conversation which they record, based on the selected images.

The slide show can be uploaded to Slideboom, or another such site, so that the link can be shared with parents and others, so that there is an authentic audience for the students’ creations.

Most of the above can be done with Voicethread too, adding the extra dimension of allowing collaboration. You can see see more detail in a previous post about Voicethread, with examples here and another example here.

  • Start with an image or a series of images and have students speak about them in the foreign language (using those newly learnt grammatical skills!)
  • The students can be added to the teacher’s Voicethread identity and everyone takes turns to talk about the image or set or set of images.
  • The students can login and add their own comments or storyline to the images.
  • Other students and parents can record comments on the final product.

If you have ever read this blog, you will know that ToonDoo is one of my favourites! We have our own school toondoospace, which is a secure, private version of the online comic creator. These were the ideas that came up in today’s session for using ToonDoo to practise language skills:

  • Students can choose one panel to create a scene illustrating new vocabulary.
  • They can use 2-3 panels to create a story, adding text bubbles, incorporating new vocabulary and grammatical constructs.
  • Several toons can be combined to create a toonbook.
  • The teacher can create the first scene of a cartoon story and save with the ‘let others redoo’ option. Students can then continue the story.
  • As above, except the teacher gives the middle panel and the students create a beginning and end to the story.

My friend for the week is…

Family legend has it  that when my sister-in-law was at boarding school, she would write home saying ‘My friend for the week is…’  It seems there were so many new people to engage with that she was able to find a new friend each week.  That’s similar to the way I feel about all the web 2.0 tools that I could use in my class!

When I first began exploring web 2.0 tools, I wanted to experiment with each new one I discovered! But I realise (I’m an Aussie, that IS how you spell realise)  that it’s important to remember that the tech tools you use in your classroom need to support learning.  It’s about the learning, not about the technology itself.

So bearing that in mind, here are two of my favorite web 2.0 tools for the classroom . These are the ones that I keep coming back to because they have been so successful in engaging my students and enhancing their learning:

ToonDoo is a wonderful online comic creator. Anyone who regularly reads my blog will know what a fan I am, since I regularly use my toons to illustrate my posts. Our school has it’s own ToonDoo spacewhich is a private, secure site for our students to create toons, express their creativity and demonstrate their learning. It’s excellent for second language practice too. I blogged about it here.

I find Voicethread a versatile tool for conversation around images.  You can upload images or videos and comment either by typing or by recording your voice.  Others can participate and comment, which allows for collaboration as well as feedback.  Again, it’s great for second language practice. See examples here.

And here is a new ‘friend for the week‘, with which I have begun to experiment and whose usefulness for my students’ learning, I have yet to assess:

Primary Pad is a web-based word processor designed for schools, that allows pupils and teachers to work together in real-time.  It is a very simple, straightforward tool for collaborating on a document simultaneously, which young kids could easily manage. My head is already buzzing with possibilities for how it could be useful for learning.  More on that next time, after my students have experimented.

New series: ‘My friend for the week is…(via Phyllis.)

A day in Delhi with Rajendran…

I blogged a while ago about the virtual visitor from India.  We had met through ToonDoo and Raj agreed to interact with our students through skype, as part of their inquiry into life in India.

He is now real. I spent a day with Raj in Delhi last week and it was great fun!

The main purpose of our visit to India was to see our  son and daughter-in-law in Gujarat, so time didn’t permit a stopover in the south.  However, Raj made the trip from Chennai to Delhi for the day and we were able to consolidate our online friendship.

I loved the opportunity to chat face to face over chai, with someone of a different nationality, culture and religion and yet find plenty of common ground.  We share an interest in languages, religions, teaching and learning, reading, using technololgy to enhance education…

Walking through the market, Raj explained that the hawkers are illegal and he introduced the vegetables I had not been able to recognise.  At the Gallery of Modern Art, he told the mythological tales behind some of the paintings we saw.  He negotiated the rickshaw price in Hindi with the driver, although he suggested that hiding me from view would have got him a better deal!  Everywhere we went, he pointed things out, explained, told stories.  And everywhere he engaged people in conversation in his charming manner.

It’s wonderful to live in an age where such meetings are possible!