Building Robust Ideas

I am often asked by those wishing to improve classroom practice, “Where do I begin?”.  Every teacher develops systems to start the school year and I have over the past few years devised, brought together and refined a series of activities to launch students into deep thinking and complex problem solving.  I am deeply grateful to the many incredible practitioners and researchers whose expertise I’ve drawn upon.  I’ve also become better at delivery.  There’s a depth of understanding that allows me to recognize dynamics and take action to deepen student thinking.  It’s a very responsive type of teaching that comes from years of working in one grade continuously testing ideas.

So where do I begin?

  1. … with an activity from this book entitled “The House” that causes students to realize that purpose matters.  It’s not just the activity that matters though, but the conversation that follows.  Strong teachers leverage student insights revealed during the knowledge building circle to build whole class understanding of why purpose is significant.  That is where the learning lies. I sometimes take student insights and create powerpoints for follow-up to reinforce awareness of ideas.
  2. Next comes this:     This text marks a turning point for many students.  Once they understand how neural pathways form,  they become more willing to invest in the hard work of learning.
  3. Then comes schema which I’ve written about previously on this blog.
  4. Next comes an introduction to mental models from integrative thinking.  We explore how ideas are constructed based on the information we pay attention to.  It is always fun to observe students during this activity as their personal mental models are challenged and they must shift ideas.  I’ve also written about this previously.
  5. After this comes an introduction to one of the principles of knowledge building: Improvable Ideas:  All ideas are incomplete. We work to improve the quality, coherence and utility of ideas. We have spent an entire week thinking about how the quality of our ideas are improving as we explore the big idea of ‘courage’.

Reading and writing are done throughout this process, however thinking and learning conversations matter most.  We have daily conversations about how and why  thinking is changing.  Students are not in the habit of meta-cognition and at first find it difficult.  The conversations, however, foster learning through insight.  Students need to be made aware that they should be aware of how and why the quality of their ideas and thinking processes are improving.

Here’s an example of how it works.

We are reading the short story, Mountain Legend by Jordan Wheeler, about a young Cree boy who accepts a dare to climb a mountain.  In the story a character McNabb is described as having two long black braids. After completing several other activities I reread the description to the class and ask what ideas are triggered.  Most students envision an aboriginal man.  We discuss why.  What is in their schema and mental models about aboriginal people and how did it get there?  We make our models explicit so they can be challenged.  I conduct an image search and images of indigenous people with headdresses and traditional clothing appear. Students acknowledge that this is what they imagine.  We discuss why.

I then say, “Now I’m going to show you other images that may challenge your mental models. I pull up pictures of modern day indigenous people: lawyers, pilots and men with short hair engaged in modern day life.  Students are startled.   After a brief discussion I redirect their attention to the improvable idea anchor chart and we use the language of knowledge building to describe what happened.  In this case the quality of their idea about aboriginal has improved.   It is this change in thinking that students write about in their notebooks.

This activity is also a launch for discussing stereotypes.  Being confronted with one’s own stereotypes about others is a more powerful experience than looking for stereotypes in texts. One of the mistakes I have made as a teacher in the past was to devise lessons that taught students to look for stereotypes only in media/texts.  This is not a bad thing, however,  it is important that personal stereotypes and biases be made explicit and confronted.  Students need to be taught a process and and develop a vocabulary to engage with their own mental models.


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