Could we crowd source concept maps for what we teach? #ResearchED #Touchpaper

notatextbook

At ResearchED Birmingham last weekend, Alex Weatherall and I used our presentation to sound out the delegates on an idea that stemmed from our previous discussions on Touchpaper Problem 4: determining the complexity of a concept. Many thanks to everyone who attended and listened to us. Even more thanks to those who have since been in touch with reviews, comments, questions and suggestions.

Physics concept map

I have blogged previously about why a concept map is a useful thing:

  • … it makes you think about the order you do things in as a teacher.
  • … it helps you pitch work at the right level for your students.
  • … you can become more confident in sequencing units of work.
  • … it identifies gaps in your own subject knowledge.
  • … it provides you with a diagnostic for correctly identifying your students’ misconceptions.
  • … it can help you pre-empt difficulties.
  • … it involves identifying threshold…

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Touchpaper Problem #4: Complexity and the Common Core (Pt. 2 of 2)

I’m working outside the zone of reality these days. I’ve been away from the classroom just long enough to imagine myself returning in April to teach concepts to my students. Yes, concepts – not test questions. In my last post, I looked at the Common Core standards and picked one to analyze, to try to determine the complexity of one of its concepts. I found a lot of standards that didn’t measure up to my own standards of what makes meaningful curricula. But I was curious about the following:

Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
a. Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
b. Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.
c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
d. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation.

It describes a skill I want all young people to have – the ability to read something and talk about their impressions of it intelligently with others. God knows we want more media commentators and politicians to learn this kind of ability.

But when I step back into the zone of today’s educational realities, I know that Pearson will develop a standardized test question that claims to provide authentic assessment of this standard. Authentic assessment of the ability to participate in a social conversation, decontextualized from any social interaction. In turn, my teaching of this standard will be shaped by the test question. Instead of teaching the concept, self-preservation will force me to teach students to gain maximum points on the test question. And not just my own preservation to keep my job, but my students’ preservation to pass a test that they need to gain a diploma – their ticket to any future in America.

But let me stay in my zone a little while longer. This post is a continuation of my attempt to apply a model to determine the complexity of a concept, that was discussed during the Touchpaper Problem Party at the Institute for Education on January 28th. In my previous post, I gave a little history of our team workings and wrote about the difficulties of even trying to define the terms needed to tackle the complexity of determining complexity in a concept (meta, huh?). As several members of our team have noted, this problem may be unsolvable, and we may be chasing our words and ideas in circles. But I was the member of the team who showed up as the self-described pragmatist. I didn’t want an endless, circular discussion, but instead wanted a way to gauge the difficulty of concepts, and find a systematic way to determine what makes a concept difficult for my students so that I can help those with the greatest need achieve at high levels. I have now narrowed down the concept to a “reference” in the context of referencing evidence. Which means making an allusion to a text.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 6.30.17 PM

which depends on the following, which will be highly specific to the context of the text provided. I don’t really think these belong on our original idea of the map, but I think there may be a lot of Humanities concepts like this that are highly specific to context. Learners have to be able to generalize the concept of making a “reference” to wide range of sources.

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Many of the students I teach are going to have delays (sometimes significant ones) in reading comprehension. If the student reads more than two grade levels below the reading level of the text, I can provide an accommodation to provide the text in an alternate form, such as audio or video. This will help with the decoding dependency, but it still isn’t going to help if the student doesn’t know the vocabulary used in the text, or if the student doesn’t have prior knowledge of the topics from the reading. These are often where my students get stuck. In our meeting, we also discussed that there are other factors, which may be different from our dependencies, but which influence the complexity of the concept from the learner’s perspective. For example:Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 6.31.46 PM

So, as a teacher, I have to start with formative assessment, and I don’t mean any of those hokey “fists of five” gimmicks. I mean, I need to use my knowledge of my students and a quick assessment of how much they got out of last night’s reading, figure out where the gaps are, and then try to fill them. We discussed incorporating a taxonomy like the SOLO here. I’m sure I will need to do some pre-lessons to cover vocabulary and gaps in prior knowledge before we can engage in any discussion that has a chance of including everyone. What else?

They need to find an idea from last night’s reading and paraphrase it. This requires them to be able to pick out specific ideas that might be important to our discussion, and put them in their own words. All those linguistic issues arise again.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.19.20 PM

Students also need to know the definition of the word “reference (n.)” and “referencing (v.)” There are possible misunderstandings, which Alex Weatherall had called counter-intuitions at the Touchpaper Party, because here I am using the word “reference” differently from the way I use it when I ask students to cite a reference in a research paper. There, I am focused on teaching students to follow a highly specific style of annotation. Here, I ask them to talk about last night’s reading in a way that relates it to today’s conversation. So that confusion could cause a type of complexity that needs to be addressed.

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Ok, I’m sure I left a lot out. But possibly the learner now has an idea, ready to relate in conversation with a group of peers. Now he or she must talk in the group about that idea at the right time and in the right way. The student will need many more concepts and skills to effectively demonstrate the ability to “stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas” But I had isolated that single concept nugget of “referring to evidence from texts” and will leave further exploration of our concept map to other members of our Touchpaper team.

Tag – someone else is “it.”

Touchpaper Problem #4: Complexity and the Common Core (Pt. 1)

In case you think this is going to be one of those rants (or if you’re looking for that sort of thing) let me start off by saying that I haven’t yet chosen a side in the Common Core Wars. When I left Tennessee last August to begin my UK Fulbright project, my county was just beginning to implement the new standards and I jokingly told my colleagues that I was going to let them fuss and fight over the standards, but to get the mess cleaned up before I got back – didn’t foresee what a joke that was going to turn out to be. So, I’ve been here in England for the past few months touring schools, writing, and thinking about the big picture, but in less than two months I have to go back to work and teach the standards that I have heard so much about, but haven’t really looked at very closely.

While I’ve been in England, I’ve also been part of a blog/twitter community that shares ideas about big questions in education. Some of us met at the Institute of Education in London last month at the Touchpaper Problem Party. I was part of the group that discussed Touchpaper Problem #4 – how to determine the complexity of a concept. You can see some of our early discussion in the post and comments on this blog by Laura McInerney, the writer and organizer of the Touchpaper Problems.  Even before we met, we saw that we might run the danger of talking ourselves into circles over this problem, so we tried  to set ground rules. We agreed that defining our terms would be one of the toughest jobs and that sometimes we would just have to just agree on a definition so that we could move our thinking forward.  Here is one comment that shows how hard it was to even get started on the problem.

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Then, our team leader, Micheal Slavinsky wrote a blog that defined some terms and established some “given” conditions, which you can read here, but I’ll copy the basic definitions, to foreshadow my upcoming conflict. (I’ve read that this builds tension and makes the reader want to continue reading.)

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Then, it was time for our team to meet. There were eight of us at the party table that day, sharing ideas and some tasty chocolate biscuits. Alex Weatherall brought a promising 3-D model of how to map out complexity, and his idea, borrowed from the computing world, about measuring the dependencies of an idea, that served as our basis while we hammered out details. As an example, Alex mapped the complexity of the concept of a force in Newton’s Laws of Motion. After the party, he posted his map and some thoughts on his blog here.

Meanwhile, I went back to Leeds and decided to try our ideas on my own, analyzing Tennessee’s Common Core State Standards.  I thought I could kill two birds, as they say, by taking a close look at one of the new objectives and trying out the model for complexity at the same time. I teach several different classes in my work, but two that I teach pretty often are 11th and 12th grade English. When I started looking through the objectives for the courses, though, I found myself pushed right back to our starting point – defining terms as basic as “concept.”

Lots of the standards address skills, rather than anything I would include in my definition of a concept. Here’s one:

Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

Now, there was a very similar objective to this one in the old Tennessee English standards and, frankly, I’m surprised that this one made the cut for standards that are advertised as “fewer, clearer, higher.” Since I couldn’t seem to find a root concept in this standard to teach, I kept looking.

Next I looked at this one:

Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
a. Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
b. Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.
c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
d. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation.

Well, there is certainly a lot to deal with here. Remember that Michael had talked about the difference between complexity (many steps) and difficulty of the concept. Several of the standards are multi-step processes like this one. I was reminded that, when we met, I had talked about the ‘task analysis’, an effective tool often used by special educators to break down complex (multi-step) tasks into discrete, definable chunks and then analyze each step to teach it systematically. We can also look closely at an an individual step to determine the factors that might give a student the most difficulty.

So, I decided to look only at part “a.” and determined that the first bit, “Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study” describes student behaviors rather than concepts, but the second part, “explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from text and other research on the topic or issue” contains a concept that is often difficult for the students I serve. The concept of “evidence” as it is used in this sentence might be a good candidate for an English concept that I could analyze using our map.

It took so long to get to past the definitions of the terms, though, that I will have to do the mapping and analysis in a future blog. Unless someone wants to tackle it for me…

TouchPaper Problem #4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?

I will be attending the Touchpaper Problem Party in London in a couple of weeks, and will be working on this problem. Certainly, with all my years in the special education classroom, I have given this a good deal of thought, but it’s difficult to put them all into an organized structure practical for planning instruction. Any thoughts out there that I might bring with me?

Laura McInerney

This is the fourth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?

In my estimation, this is the hardest of all the problems, but it’s also really important.

As a teacher I was constantly trying to figure out “how difficult is this material?” and gauging whether I needed to edge it up or scale it down depending on the students I was teaching. But: how do we know if something is complex?

I remember working with a history revision class who were learning about the appeasement. I didn’t think appeasement would be a difficult concept. I mean, kids appease each other all the time in the playground when they, say, allow an older bullying set of kids to play football with them, even if they don’t…

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