Strategies for Building Greater Sophistication of Conceptual Understanding

The following are suggested class activities for guiding students to a more sophisticated understanding of a concept.

  • • Post the concept generalisations in your classroom and ask students to make connections to them throughout the lesson. Through a unit of study, add to the list as students develop additional connections. Additional examples of this were explained in the previous section of this chapter including working word walls, organisers and individual concept maps.
  • • Develop quick debates around problems, issues or controversies related to the concept. For example, while studying a text about the pros and cons of technology, the teacher may pose an evaluative question to relate the content to the concept of “change”: “Does technology bring about positive or negative change for the human experience?” Students may stand on opposite sides of the room to support their point of view through a quick debate on the issue. Debates can also be centred around two contrasting concepts. For example, when studying Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, students may debate whether the art displays the concept of hope or despair, supporting their ideas with evidence from their art. The concepts of “hope” and “despair” can then be connected to the unit concept such as “power” by asking students to make connections to generalisation statements.
  • • Guide students to examine concrete details of a text, art or an experiment; ask them to consider how they might represent a big idea or concept. It is often beneficial to do this first with a familiar visual and then with lesson content so they have time to focus on the concept development process with something easier before delving into new information and conceptual development. For example, a student may view a car advertisement and note specific details about the background scenery. The larger idea represented by the scenery is the concept of “freedom” or “escape”. Children’s books are also a good way to introduce how concepts are represented by characters and plot events. For example, the concepts of “deception” and “judgement” are evidenced in Little Red Riding Hood. As more sophisticated texts are introduced, students should be able to associate concepts with specific characters or symbols. For example, in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I like to see it lap the miles”, the train is symbolic of the concept of “human progress” or “change”. As students continue to examine the patterns of the train in the poem, they can make generalisation statements about change from this evidence.
  • • When students are engaged in a close reading of a text, develop text-dependent questions that relate to the concept. For example “How does the author define truth?” or “What textual evidence supports the generalisation ‘perception of truth varies’?”
  • • If students need support in developing concept generalisations, scaffolding can be provided by giving students a word bank. For example, the teacher may state, “Based on today’s lesson, write a generalisation that includes ‘power’ and one of the following words: change, risk, vulnerability, conflict.” A sample response might be “Conflict results from an imbalance of power”.
  • • Ask students to evaluate generalisations as part of problem-solving within a discipline. The generalisation “structure promotes function” can be explored by evaluating the best structure that promotes function after considering multiple solution options. The following are examples:
    • - Math: formulate the best ratio(s) for a bridge design to carry a specific load.
    • - Science: justify why their choice is the best bioengineering design for solving a specific problem.
    • - Social studies: what criteria you might establish to determine the best way to structure a law to solve a problem?
    • - English/Language Arts: evaluate the best way to structure an essay for building an effective argument in order to persuade your solution.
  • • Concept generalisations and definitions can be debated or explored through multiple points of view. Specific examples for application:
  • - Students explain contrasting ideas about truth from the perspectives of M.C. Escher and Plato.
  • - Venn diagrams can be used to compare and contrast perspectives on concept generalisations and definitions.
  • - Students compare their individual findings from a scientific experiment as related to photosynthesis and the concept of systems.
  • • Students make real-world connections to reflect on the implications of the concept on their own life or other aspects of society. This is critical to help students understand the relevance of the content to other aspects of their life and the world around them. One way to organise these ideas is through a big idea reflection guide. An example is noted in Fig. 5. Although the guide in Fig. 5 is targeted towards reading and analysing a variety of media, teachers can connect any concept and subject area together to determine the relevance and significance of the content.
  • • Students identify problems associated with the concept in relation to the content area. The following are problems that relate to “power is connected to a source”:
Big idea reflection of concepts to the real world (Used with permission from Mofield and Stambaugh (2016b)

Fig. 5 Big idea reflection of concepts to the real world (Used with permission from Mofield and Stambaugh (2016b)

  • - Social Studies: Power is connected to the source of wealth — the distribution of wealth influences problems associated with social class structure.
  • - Science: Power is connected to human interference. Human interaction with plants and animals within ecological systems can pose problems within those systems.
  • - English/Language Arts: Power is connected to a character’s decision. A character’s decision influences additional conflicts within the plot.
  • - Math: Power is connected to sample size. An outlier within a small sample size will not accurately reflect the sample representation of a population.
  • • Students examine the concept as a factor of causality. For example, the teacher can pose questions such as “How does structure promote function? How does order affect outcome? How does freedom for a specific group cause changes in social structure, economics, politics and culture?”
  • • Students reflect on lesson content by relating newly learned content to concept generalisations on exit slips as they leave the classroom.

It is important to note in each of these examples show how students are consistently linking concepts and principles to content and processes such as the scientific process, mathematical problem-solving and literary analysis. Conceptual development is not accidental but is a deliberate and ongoing approach to connect facts and skills to larger ideas so that the transfer of learning occurs within and across disciplines (Erickson, 2012).

 
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