In their words: Talking about Big Ideas

As I wrote here and here, my collaboration partner and I have spent a lot of time developing effective learning maps for our French classes. (If you’re not familiar with learning maps, they are essentially a blueprint for assessment in a given subject area for a given grade level. This book is highly recommended if you want to learn more.) Our BC curriculum redesign is centred around big ideas in every subject area, and then attaches content and skills to those ideas. This can be a complex structure for students to understand, and it needs to be put in more relatable terms.

Now that we have taken our curriculum document and adapted it to the current form of our learning maps, the next step is to communicate them to students. These can’t be jut teacher documents. If students are going to use them, grow with them, give feedback with them, and more, then the understanding has to start right away. The understanding also has to be in terms that they choose or are familiar with. If I communicate with them in teacher words and teacher concepts, then we don’t arrive at personalized learning.

At the beginning of the course, the most important thing students need to understand is the overall structure of the learning map. They need to understand that there are 5 big ideas, but they also need to understand what a big idea is. To most of them, that’s just a teacher term and I needed a way to make it personal and accessible.

dog tennis ballIn our community, pets are popular – kids love having dogs and cats, and many people can often be seen walking their dogs in local parks before or after work and school. So when I asked my class how many of them had dogs, several hands shot up. The first person to get their hand up was a young man in the back of the room named Oliver. So, I started by writing on the board

Oliver has a dog.

I asked what else they knew about dogs, and I was given the following information:

Dogs come in many sizes.

There are many breeds.

There are lots of colours.

They like to run and play.

Some people are scared of dogs.

Some people like dogs.

It’s also important to note that this question didn’t exclude anyone. You don’t have to own a dog, know anyone with a dog, or even like dogs in order to know something about them. I recorded all their ideas on the board without commenting, and then asked them to have a conversation in their table groups. I asked them to decide which ideas (from the list) could be considered “big ideas”. After a couple of minutes, the decision was:

Dogs come in many sizes.

There are many breeds.

There are lots of colours.

They like to run and play.

Then I asked them what it was about those ideas that made them “big” and the others “not big”. After a couple more minutes of discussion, they said that these ideas were big, because they are more like categories. There are other things you can say about them and other information you can include. Once you say, “Oliver has a dog,” that’s about as far as you can go with that idea. When you say, “Dogs come in many sizes,” there is a great deal of information that can be added.

I asked them why they had decided that the last two sentences didn’t fit, and they had two main reasons – one was that they felt that the sentences were more about people than they were about dogs, and the other was that there was less that you could say about it. It was a smaller category than the others, so they said it was a mid level idea.

I felt that they had a pretty good grasp of what a big idea was, and so I gave them the learning map and explained that the 5 big ideas on it are things they will learn how to do in many contexts, with different verb tenses and different information. Because they had already formed their understanding of a big idea through their own discussion, this was a pretty easy conversation. Had we not started there, I think it’s safe to say we would have had to take much longer to get to understanding.

As we started to go through the footnotes and check understanding of those terms, we got to the one that refers to the use of context as a strategy for understanding and communication. Context is one of those abstract concepts that students have heard about and can sometimes come up with examples for, but they struggle to verbalize what it is. Coming back to the sentences about dogs, we talked about the fact that, because of their experience seeing dogs in the real world, they already have a context for understanding the sentence about colours. There are some colours they would expect to see on a dog, and some colours they already know they would never see on a dog. Their brain can put those limits in place based on experience, and they don’t really have to think about it a lot. They were entertained at the idea of a purple dog, but it was an easy way to show that the more experience you have as a learner, the easier it is to understand context.

Other ways to begin the conversation around learning maps include asking students to have a conversation that uses previously learned information. Allow them to write notes if necessary. Once they finish the conversation, ask who used notes, prompts, information posted in the classroom, etc. and who didn’t. Using the performance statements, guide the conversation about where they are on the map if they require support in order to communicate.

Once students recognize where they would be on the map, offer another opportunity for them to try the same thing again with less or no support, and see how they do.

After a couple of opportunities, have a conversation about strategies that can be used to review or learn material at home. Each student will need different things, but the idea is to show them that they can take ownership of their own learning. If they need to review a certain body of vocabulary, I asked them to make a note in their planners/wherever they record their homework to look at that information or work on that skill again when they go home. They don’t have to wait for me to assign something for homework – if they recognize that something needs to improve, they can choose to work on it.

It’s important that these initial stages are not assessed for marks, not even to get a baseline assessment for the teacher’s grade book. I was taught to do that early in my career, but I have thrown that thinking out based on how my students have responded.  They need this to be a learning opportunity, and not a high stakes situation where students are being assessed. They can recognize that at some point they will be assessed and think about what they will need to do to get ready for it, but their willingness to work on that will be greater if they get the opportunity to improve first.

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