Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Geography Lesson: Making the learning visible

I remember being new to teaching and asking students to do complex thinking (analyse this…. Explain that…..etc.) and not really knowing how to help them do it. I have seen teachers that simply assume that students should be able to do it and if they cannot, then it is simply because they are “not that smart”. Fortunately I have learned a lot since my beginning days as a teacher (in fact I learn better now than I ever did). Anyway, what follows is a lesson I gave to my year12 Geography class in preparation for their exams. The intention was to de-code the technical words in exam questions and show that success does not come from luck or being brainy but from having effective strategies and applying effort.

These first slides are from a SOLO Learning team meeting I am facilitating tomorrow Then I get on to the slides I used with my class.

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I first learned about Parts/Whole analysis from a course I went to featuring Robert Schwarts and Art Costa. the work of Pam Hook and Julie Mills aligning it with SOLO Taxonomy is what has really made it powerful for me as a teacher. Anyway, these are the slides I used to introduce this to the class.

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I then went through heaps of exam questions to give a meaningful rational to what I wanted them to do. And to show them how it fits with SOLO

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As this was a revision lesson, we then used their notes and a text book to complete the Parts/Whole thinking map. I had them in groups (two groups doing each of the three parts) and at the end we collated it to create some super good revision notes.

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The first box was just for the detail (I am always reminding them that specific facts and numbers equals merit or Excellence (another good strategy) This is Multistructural thinking or bringing in ideas.

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The next box is about imagining if the part were missing or changed. What might that mean. Always good to use tentative language so the thinking is broadened and not limited. This is Relational thinking or making links

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The last box is all about reaching a conclusion or making an overall claim about the function of the part given the thinking that has been done. This allows students to show extended abstract thinking.

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For students to gain top marks (or Excellence as it is known in NZ) they need to show insight. Below is a visual rubric from Hooked on Thinking (Pam and Julie) that I think nicely shows that insight can be articulated by making some broader generalisations or insights about how the parts might influence each other or perhaps which part is the most significant and why.

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This post was a bit rushed so if anyone has questions or comments, go for it.


Ability Grouping & SOLO Taxonomy

One of the things I have been doing this year, is being Parent Help in my sons yr2 class. I am rostered in for one of the math lessons each week. This post may come across as being highly critical of my sons teacher which I do not want to be as she seems super competent, experienced and the students love her. Also, I am in a very naive position, only getting small snapshots into this classroom. Having said that, some things just hit you in the face and get you thinking.

So…….. In this class, they use grouping where the teacher will have a small group to work with on the mat while the two other groups are engaged at different activity stations or book work. My job as parent help is to keep the other groups on track and help where I can. I like this set up and do not know why I haven’t adopted it in my own High School Teaching – working with small groups and rotating them around. You kind of do it by going to different groups as a lesson goes on but I like the whole kinaesthetic get up and move around stations thing.

Anyway, it appears that the groups are ability based and this is where I have a problem. The groups are the Circles, Squares and Triangles but these students already now that they are the top, middle and bottom.  I found this out because I went to check on the Triangles (my sons group) and help them get organised. Their task was to play some math games in the Math corner. I saw a game that looked good and challenging for where I know my son is at but none of the kids would touch it. Why? Because it came from the squares box and they were in the bottom group and that was too hard for them. I was amazed at the conviction they had and I could not convince them to break the perceived rule that they could only do stuff from their own box. This totally spun me out to the point I spent the rest of the afternoon researching best practice on ability grouping. I am sure that my sons teacher has the best intentions and has diligently set up differentiated learning activities for students so they can work autonomously but in doing so, she is also embedding a belief, as said by one of the girls, that they are not good enough and that they are the bottom group.

I am particularly sensitive to this as one of the things I have to spend a lot of time on in a high school setting is convincing these students later in life about their potential as learners (remember Success = Effort + Effective Strategies). By this time, they no longer think of themselves as the Triangles but rather the “Cabbage Class” or something similar. I was totally freaked out that these 6yr olds were beginning to self label as not good enough and the risk that they will carry this for the rest their lives.

This is being a valuable lesson for me in my own teaching practice and I welcome any thoughts or reflections upon it. From my own thinking and the couple of hours I have spent online researching, here is what I have found and thought so far:

Research about Ability Grouping

I do not want to do a literature review (If anyone has done one, I would love to read it) but there is lots of research that supports both the negative and positives of ability grouping. From my brief look, I think the opposition side to ability grouping wins.

If you are going to use Ability Grouping…

If you are going to use ability grouping, there is a thing called best practice and this is labour intensive on the teacher (thus I suspect not done or forgotten). The main principle is that groups need to be flexible and constantly changing. For example, it is not good enough for a student to be fixed in a math group for the whole year. The teacher needs to be looking for opportunities to move students – for the fractions unit, addition unit, and so on. Even if this is done for social engineering purposes to stop these kids self labelling themselves as dumb, I am all for it. Also if you are going to create differentiated sets of learning activities, I think, the set for the lowest group still needs to have activities that allow the students to surprise you or have a go at more complex tasks. This aligns with a SOLO framework but more on that later.

Also, I believe, that if you are going to ability group, it is essential that the pathway for success to the top group is visible and understood by the students. This is more than “try harder”, it is about making visible strategies for success and helping students improve and be cognisant of themselves as learners.

SOLO to the rescue

Again and again I am reminded how a SOLO framework attends to best practice and the development of engaged, enthusiastic and positive learners who can see a pathway to success rather than accepting a fixed label for their ability in any given thing. Via simple rubrics (like the ones I have posted on this Blog or from the experts like Pam Hook, Julie Mills and increasingly other teaches around the world) we can empower students to see themselves as learners on a continuum where they can identify their own next steps for improvement rather than grow to believe they have fixed ability and a limited future.

Sorry, a bit full on but this topic really got me thinking. I know I do not have a wide readership and this blog is more about me pontificating and collecting my thoughts than a wiki for growing collective knowledge but if you or your colleges have thoughts or strategies on or around ability grouping, I would love to hear and share them.