It’s 1:52pm on the last day of school. There are about two dozen sixteen-year-olds in my 7th block class sitting in a giant circle. No one is on their cell phone. No one is distracted. Everyone is focused, attentive.
The conversation dances across topics and disciplines: history, literature, pop-culture, student’s life experiences. Students chuckle at inside jokes and raise their voice during moments of passionate discussion. They self-regulate talk time and find opportunities to bring in their more introverted peers. One girl shares a powerful personal story, tears welling up in her amber eyes. Her classmates offer support and encouragement. The dialogue continues. As the clock ticks towards 2:10, the class asks if they can go around the room and share how my class affected them this year. Now tears well in my eyes.
In my district, receiving an “A” for the year exempts you from the final. None of the students in my room that day were exempt. The Socratic Seminar was their final.
It began with a single question—a lone thread that had been weaving its way through my curriculum since the first day my students set foot in my classroom:
“What’s the relationship between individuals, groups, and systems and what role does power play?”
This broad conceptual question created endless entry points into the conversation. They railed against the systemic oppression portrayed in “When They See Us,” drawing comparison to the ways Big Brother sought to stamp out individuality in “1984”. They compared the recent drama on the cheer squad to the power struggles that emerged in “Lord of the Flies.” They explored the ways charismatic individuals gain political power by mobilizing disaffected groups in both “Julius Caesar” and in modern elections all over the world.
I’ve always been a “why?” guy—reading, writing, and talking about “big ideas” was why I became an English teacher. Since discovering Julie Stern’s Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding I’ve been able to create curriculum that carefully and intentionally equips students with the knowledge, vocabulary, and opportunity to have the powerful questions I’d always wanted to have in my classroom.
Julie’s work helped me realize “when we organize our curriculum through fundamental and powerful concepts, ours students are able to transfer their understanding to new situations and apply it in unique ways” (Stern et al, 2017). My best one-off moments in the classroom did that already. Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding helped me realize how to replicate them and why they should become the anchor of my practice. Conceptual Understanding and Learning Transfer opened new portals of possibility to moments of connection, meaning making, and discovery. It’s helped me be the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.
To be clear, teaching this way takes brain sweat. There are no silver bullets or quick fixes in a field as complex as education. Before teachers can ask their students to think about their content conceptually, they must do it first. Some questions of conceptual relationship emerged more quickly, already articulated by our standards—the relationship between claims and evidence in argumentation; the impact conflict, characters, and setting can have on theme; how structure influences the effectiveness of analytical writing, etc.
Other questions required deep reflection and discussion about the messages and meanings we want our students to glean from our class—what is the difference between knowledge, truth, and belief? How do our culture and cognition shape our biases? How do power, control, class and status influence personal relationships?
Understanding how our brain organizes conceptual knowledge (Anderson, Krathwohl 2011) helped me provide my students with a shared language and form to have reflective, meaningful conversations about the world and their experiences. Think of it as grammar for human condition. In a time of increased anxiety and superficiality, my students have been able to examine themselves and connect with each other through our exploration of these deeply human ideas.
Despite the complexities of teaching for learning transfer, it’s surprisingly easy to start incorporating parts of it into your practice. Start with a concept attainment.
- Pick a concept
- Search for it in Google Images
- Print out examples
- Ask students to list the common features of each example
- Have students infer and define your chosen concept based on those common features.
Boom! Your students are thinking conceptually.
Or, ask your students a conceptual question. How does scarcity impact empathy? What’s the relationship between supply and demand? How does environment shape culture? Then have your students explore that relationship in several different contexts. These question stems from Julie Stern are an amazing starting point for any teacher looking to dive in to conceptual understanding and learning transfer.
Teaching for transfer has had a huge impact on my students. Here are two quotes left on my end-of-year survey last Spring that really impacted me, though many expressed similar sentiments.
In some ways, teaching for transfer is a simple reframing of how I present content. In others, it’s totally challenged how I look at my curriculum. That’s what makes it so powerful. It’s intuitive enough to be accessible, but transformative enough that it can push every aspect of your pedagogy to new levels.
I can’t wait to see how it will continue to change my teaching this year, and am even more excited that I’ll be able to share it with teachers all over the world in the days ahead.