On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, making outer space the next battleground of the Cold War. It also sent a shockwave through the American public that demanded improvements in U.S. schools.
With current tensions with North Korea, a renewed civil rights battle, and incomprehensible tragedies like the recent Las Vegas shooting, schools are once again at the forefront of addressing incredibly complex challenges. Teacher clarity shows a strong impact on student learning. With a rapidly changing economy and inability to predict what students will need for the future, how then, do we get clear about teaching students to innovate?
It’s easier to have clarity on learning goals that we already know and believe to be important. The harder part is preparing young people to solve problems like climate change, cancer, global terrorism, and scores of other problems we currently can’t seem to solve.
An Essential Ally of Technology and Thinking Skills
I’m heartened that many teachers and education commentators are pushing for increased infusion of technology and thinking skills. These are key. What keeps me up at night is the often-omitted piece of the innovation conversation. We must honor the research-rich past as we look to the future.
After Sputnik, the National Academy of Sciences convened dozens of scientists, scholars, and educators to examine the fundamental processes involved in teaching science to young people. They concluded that curricula should emphasize the essential structure of each subject which gives students “a sense of the fundamental ideas of a discipline” (Bruner, 1977, p. 3.). This is done through relationships between increasingly abstract concepts, or organizing ideas, that help students unlock unfamiliar situations.
The organizing ideas are what help students remember facts as well as unlock complex situations. Let’s say students study the impact of deforestation in the Amazon. Through this fact-rich context, students should abstract big ideas such as, “human actions can damage or destroy ecosystems, leading to a loss of species.” They can then use this idea to unlock the problem of pollution in oceans and numerous other contexts about ecosystems and human actions.
But most students won’t abstract to the big idea without explicit learning strategies. First, we need to get clear about what those big ideas are in the first place. This is absent from most standards documents. They are implied, assuming the teacher knows what they are and that students will reach these conclusions on their own. Sadly, most don’t.
A Simple Formula to Create Big Ideas
You may find this tool valuable for crafting enduring understandings or fundamental ideas of the discipline:
Concept + Concept = Big Idea
- Lynn Erickson realized decades ago that big ideas are created with two or more concepts stated in relationship with a strong verb (Erickson, Lanning, and French, 2017).
For example, we can ask ourselves:
What is the relationship between freedom and resources in social studies?
Between gravity and inertia in physics?
Between rhyme and mood in poetry?
Between knowns and unknowns in algebra?
Her beautifully simple formula is supported by decades of sound research. The director of the Sputnik-inspired conference concluded, “Grasping the structure of a subject is understanding it in a way that permits many other things to be related to it meaningfully. To learn structure, in short, is to learn how things are related” (Bruner, 1977, p. 7).
More recently, the authors of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy said, “In the revised Taxonomy, we wanted to distinguish knowledge of discrete, isolated content elements (i.e. terms and facts) from larger, more organized bodies of knowledge (i.e. concepts, principles, models or theories)” (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001, p. 42). This distinction is important because concepts transfer to new situations while facts do not.
This year, education researchers wrote, “Students move to deep learning when they plan, investigate, and elaborate on their conceptual understandings, and then begin to make generalizations” (Hattie, Fisher, and Frey, 2017, p.31).
The Conceptual Inquiry Cycle
Once we have the big ideas, what do we do next? Research shows us that students deepen their learning as they transfer it to multiple, fact-rich contexts. Learning then looks something like this:
Let’s take the example of freedom and resources from above. Students could study the recent hurricanes and the impact that access to resources may have had on people’s everyday freedoms. Next, they could use their understanding of that conceptual relationship to study places where drought is forcing many people to move in search of access to water. Their understanding of resources could be expanded beyond natural resources and basic survival to things like job opportunities – where they can then look for the relationship to freedom.
Tips for Transfer of Learning
When we present students with a unique situation and ask them to transfer their learning, there are a few strategies we can use to aid them in this often-difficult endeavor. Try out these helpful tips and corresponding questions as tools for transferring understanding:
- Recognize the concepts that apply: Which concepts are at work in this situation? Which conceptual relationships seem to be shaping this scenario?
- Engage prior understanding of the conceptual relationship: What do I already know to be true about the relationship among these concepts? What specific examples support my understanding?
- Determine the extent to which prior understanding applies: What makes this new situation different from the situations I’ve studied in the past? Is my generalization likely to hold true in this situation? Which parts of my prior understanding transfer and which don’t?
- Modify and refine understanding based on the new situation: How can I reshape my understanding in light of this new situation?
Although our world becomes increasingly complex and often a bit depressing, I have faith that the right kind of schooling can give us a way out, empowering young people to use what they are learning to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.
Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. (Abridged edition, 1st ed.) New York, NY: Person Education, Inc.
Bruner, J. S. (1977). The process of education (2nd edition). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Erickson, H.L., Lanning, L.A. & French, R. (2017). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press
Hattie, J., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2017). Visible learning for mathematics, grades K – 12: What works best to optimize student learning, grades K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.