Concept Based Instruction/Teaching

My school is looking into moving towards concept based instruction as a way to help students understand each subject’s “big idea” better. This sounds good. Who wouldn’t want students to understand the “big ideas” of math/science/English/social studies?

However, I am not sure what this approach practically entails. This blog post is my first exploration into concept based instruction, my attempt to understand its “big ideas”.

Concept Based Teaching is “driven by “big ideas” rather than subject specific content (Erickson, 2008).

Teachers apply this method by “leading students to consider the context in which they will use their understanding, concept-based learning brings “real world” meaning to content knowledge and skills. Students become critical thinkers which is essential to their ability to creatively solve problems in the 21st century.”

The “big idea” of concept based instruction is finding ways to help students become able to transfer their knowledge to new situations. Transfer is great, and I am all for it.

What are concepts? topics vs concepts.PNG

So far, I am largely liking what I am reading regarding concept based teaching. The initial definition gave me some pause with “leading students to consider the context”. Why lead them when I can just tell them and then get them to apply it? But I was comforted by Josh and Joanne Edwards statement, “As we present it, concept-based instruction must begin with content skills and knowledge established by local standards and curriculum guides.”

I am going to end this article here for two reasons. One, I am finding the vocabulary of concept based teaching very difficult. I need to do a lot more reading before I can understand it (It seems like concept based instruction is just trying to build student schemas deliberately. I am not sure why they don’t use the established language for this and invented “new” terms.) Two, I am tired.

Part 2
Part 3

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Book Review: Bringing Words To Life

Authors: Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, & Linda Kucan

Rating (out of 5): ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

To put things simply, this book should be considered required reading for teachers. Its strategies and concepts are applicable for every subject at all grade levels. The authors do a tremendous job of accessibly distilling research into a book for teachers. As you read through the book you will notice that it is well researched and builds towards a common theme: In order to learn new words students need multiple exposures in multiple contexts with multiple opportunities to use the words in multiple contexts.

This may seem obvious, and hopefully it is. However, the reality is that in many classrooms, this does not happen. The book gives teachers numerous strategies to remedy this educational malady.

The book is divided into 10 chapters. The first walks you through the rationale behind “Robust Vocabulary Instruction”. While the rest give ways to apply the approach in the classroom.

I found chapter 2 to be particularly insightful. This chapter walks teachers through how to choose vocabulary words. It guides the teacher through a vocabulary selection process involving the somewhat vague but still very useful word tiers (Tier 1, Tier 2, & Tier 3). Essentially, Tier 1 words are common and used often in both reading and writing. Tier 2 words are common in writing, but not as common in speaking. While Tier 3 words are content specific.

Tier 1

Tier 2

Tier 3

Cold

Happy

Crazy

Expand

Depress

Consequence

Weathering/Erosion

Peninsula

Allegory

The authors argue for teachers to focus on Tier 2 words because they are widely applicable, used in many situations, and Tier 1 words tend to already be known while Tier 3 words tend to be taught as part of the standard course content.

Chapter 3 answers the questions of when?, How many?, and How? to introduce vocabulary words. It found that, teachers can introduce the vocabulary word as it appears in the text, provided the word can be immediately understood when accompanied by a short explanation (a phrase or a sentence). The explanation must short because, when reading a text, the focus ought to be on comprehending, not vocab building. Words should be taught before they come up in a text when those words essential for understanding the text’s message. It is also important to limit the amount of words introduced to avoid overwhelming students’ working memories.

The authors recommend teachers teach between 6-10 words spread over 5-9 days. To implement this, regardless of which Tier the words happen to be in, they promote introducing half of the words on day one, and the other half on day two. Throughout this timeframe, It is important to repeatedly have students refer back to and use the words.

As far as how to introduce new words, the authors recommend avoiding asking students, “Who knows what word ‘X’ means?” The reason is that, a student may give an unclear/incorrect answer which can lead to other students learning an incorrect definition/association. Instead, teachers should provide student friendly definitions and an immediate chance to apply the word in a simple context. Over time, as the students are using the vocabulary, their teacher should ensure that they use the vocabulary in situations that offer both different contexts and difficulties. This will help ensure students are able to know, understand, and apply the word and it increases the chances of the word becoming part of their used vocabulary. The rest of the book digs further into the “how” of how to teach vocabulary.

A lot of the insights from this book may appear to be commonsensical because the ideas are so simple (Ex: multiple exposures helps students learn). But consistently applying them well is a challenge.

Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Bringing-Words-Life-Second-Instruction/dp/1462508162

Day Two: Messy Labs and Learning

I am doing a long term lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Click here to read about day one.

Day two was much less stressful for me because the setup portion of the lab was complete. My students just needed to use the aquaponics system to make observations. We have made observations before, but always of inanimate objects, where there is a clear focus. Living organisms move and react to stimulus, making it difficult for students to choose an organism or behavior to focus on and observe.

I did not calculate this new difficulty into my planning. I assumed that an observation was an observation. I reviewed how to make good observations with my students in the warm up, had them practice on their own with some quick examples (courtesy of my actions), then we made observations from a video of my own fish tank, finally I set half of the class loose on observations (remember, I only have enough supplies for ½ of my students to use the aquaponics systems at a time). The other half of students were given a reading about how beavers interact with their environment.

My biggest take home from this lesson was, equipment limitations stink. It would be much easier to do this lab if each group could work on it at the same time. That being said, my students were focused and working hard throughout the lesson, both the observers and the beaver researchers. The observations took longer than anticipated due to the novelty of observing moving organisms. I had planned on having each group make observations, but there simply wasn’t time. So, the other group will make observations in the next class.

The other take home was more obvious in hindsight. I should have found a reading that directly related to our aquaponics system. I want my students to have the knowledge to apply what we are learning (ecosystems and organism interactions) to multiple situations, which is why I have given them the reading on how beavers interact with their environment (which is excellent, check it out if you teach science: Beavers and the Environment). But, they struggled to pull the information out of the text for two reasons.

  1. Taiwan does not have beavers, so my students are very unfamiliar with them. The brief mini-lesson on beavers and the environment was insufficient to allow them to make the connections I was hoping for.
  2. They have not mastered the concept of organism interactions within a familiar ecosystem, so they cannot yet effectively generalize the concept.

Doing a lab with half the class at a time has been challenging and helpful for me. It is helping me hone my classroom management strategies and therefor grow as a teacher. For the rest of this lab (about 1 month) I will ensure that the half of the class not using the aquaponics system will be doing a task that is directly related to aquaponics. And in the future, we will generalize the concepts (organism interactions) starting as a whole class.