Developing Critical Thinking through SOLO

One of my big focuses for the year with my class is around developing critical thinking. In particular, this was a big focus last term as we worked on our eco-houses. It was also the focus of a recent observation by my syndicate leader. We use the ARA Pathway coaching framework for our observations at school, which is really helpful in enabling teacher reflection. As part of this, we set a follow up goal, for where to next, and part of my goal was to blog about critical thinking, as this is always a good opportunity for me to reflect and process ideas.

 

In term one, I visited the local college, to have a look at a science lesson and see what our students are heading to next. The thing that really struck me was the way the teacher actively talked to the students about how they could use the language of SOLO to deepen their thinking and explanation. I’d used SOLO in previous years, but hadn’t really taken my students through the language of it this year. We started using it to form success criteria in term one with a book/movie comparison, and I built on this in term two with a piece of writing we did around significant family members for Matariki and as part of an empathy building focus (something we’re definitely working on as a class).

 

Using the SOLO symbols on the board with levelled success criteria helped my students to see the progression of ideas and the relationship between them. I start with multi-structural, because by the time we get to looking at the actual explanation through writing, student’s already have an idea of what they are looking at. Acknowledging this with my students – actually pointing out that they have already passed prestructural and unistructural stages – seems to instantly give them a positive jolt, an ‘oh yeah, I can already do that, so I’m part way there’.

 

The thing I really like about using SOLO in this way is that it forces me to really tease apart what I am looking for in regards to critical thinking – how easy is it to just say ‘I’m developing their critical thinking’ without actually really being clear on how you are doing that. This in turn makes it clear for the students what the process of developing their critical thinking looks like, and in turn has led to much better writing/explanations of their ideas.

 

I’m still very much developing my understanding of SOLO, but I definitely think that getting in and giving it a go has really helped me come to terms with it and I can see hugely positive benefit it is having with my students. I guess now I am wondering where to next with it as so far I’ve mostly focused on it through explaining ideas in writing (it’s been amazing for developing students’ ideas strand). I’d like to try it in different contexts. With our modules for next term, there will be good opportunity to continue it in writing as we look at persuasion and cause and effect around global issues, as well as looking at static image, film or debate to present ideas. I can see how I could use it really effectively to help support students through starting to unpack cause and effect of some of the global issues they are passionate about. I’m also interested to see how I can use it to support learning in our integrated maths topic to do with fuelling athletes. Not quite sure what that looks like yet though.

Modular Learning

I keep finding it hard to write a blog post. Hard to find time to stop and actually write a reflection. Which is not to say that reflections aren’t happening, just so often lately they don’t end up getting written. Actually, when I say lately I really mean the last year and a half. When I first started challenging my pedagogy and the way I did things in the classroom, I found that writing was really helpful, and easy to manage, but as I’ve become more settled with being unsettled, I’ve found my writing has tailed off. Which is a shame, because I know it is a really useful tool to help me process things.

At the end of this term, it will be 2 full years since I started teaching in a totally integrated style, and while it hasn’t always been easy, I’ve certainly never wanted to turn back. One of the things I love most about the way I do things is that it is constantly evolving in response to the needs of my students (this is the 3rd class I’ve worked with in this way).

This year I have 29  year 7 and 8 learners. As with most classes I have a real mix of students. They are a very lively and outgoing bunch (for the most part) and have such a huge amount of energy. They love sport (first time I’ve every had a class that loved sport so much), enjoy art and LOVE singing. Most of them will give anything a go at least once and as they will tell you – they are highly motivated by food. Seriously, we even had to include it as part of our class values at the beginning of the year – we value food. They crack me up regularly and they are COMPLETElY different to the class I had last year.

As with the previous two classes I’ve had, we base our integrated learning around two modules. These modules are a combination of two main subject areas (others might be involved but are not the primary learning focus) based around a context. One is also maths and something else based, and one is always English and something else based. Most of our learning is worked into these modules. Extra things such as languages, te Reo and various other projects that are happening around the school i.e. this term wearable art and science curiosity clubs, syndicate arts opt-ins make up the rest of our timetable. The modules are inspired by the way they do things at Hobsonville Point Secondary School, but I’ve adapted it for my context. You can read more about how I started this here. And how it develop here.

Usually I give modules equal weighting – i.e. a 50/50 split. Once, last year, I disastrously tried to fit in 3. Turns out two is plenty for a term. I generally work on a term by term time frame, mixing it up each term to keep my interest and my students’. This term I’ve mixed things up a bit, trying a 30/70ish split for our two modules. Instead of a module A and a module B we have a big module and a small module. The reason for this is primarily because one of the projects we are working will start to cross over into English as well as maths and science when the students get into some information report writing. So I thought rather than limit the scope of the module, I’d extend it slightly. Like I said, always adapting…

So anyway two modules this term – Small Module: Stars and Seasons: Exploring poetry and the night sky. This module focuses on English and Science (you’ll see there is quite a strong science focus this term – quite deliberately). We are looking at what happens in the changing seasons, and how this affected by the movement of the planet. Students are exploring poetic language and metaphorical devices to express their understanding of each season. We are also including some work around Matariki as part of this. As with all good intentions, this hasn’t quite gone according to plan. With so many disruptions in the first half of term due to Stage Challenge and all manner of other cool stuff we haven’t managed to complete this as early as I wanted to, but it’s wrapping up and will hopefully be finished by the end of next week. I’ve also found it challenging to balance the amount of writing the students need with the science concepts I wanted to look at. Probably a lesson for me in not over planning.

Our Big Module has got the students super excited at the moment – Playing Houses: Design an Eco-House. This module focuses on English and Science/Technology. Students are designing their own eco-house following the design process, and researching and inventing their own technologies and scientific principles to include. The maths focus is geometry and measurement with a particular emphasis on shape, scale, perspective, area and volume. The science/technology focus is on researching and developing understanding of ideas in science with a focus on sustainable building practices. It’s hard to believe just how highly engaging this is for my learners. The last week has seen them drawing their houses in 3 dimensions from an isometric perspective (a particularly challenging feat when your house is not a simple cube – and most aren’t!) and then begin looking at floor plans. This week we have been looking at the different shapes used within our houses and the advantages and disadvantages of such shapes in building. The depth of thinking has blown me away. Students were identifying things about their design (and mine) that I hadn’t even thought of, such as the way a curved roof would minimise exposure to the wind and allow better dispersion of water across a green living roof. Our next step with this is to look in more depth at placement of houses, positioning and the best angles for getting maximum sun for passive solar heating, and then move on to planning and researching and then writing about a specific technology that the house uses and the creating gardens.

As you can probably guess from my enthusiastic descriptions – I am particularly enjoying and excited about the big module, though I’m also really looking forward to seeing the rest of the poems come together too. I’ve set myself a goal to blog more – so expect to hear (read?) more about how these modules are progressing soon.

 

Exploring Themes

This term we are reading the book ‘The City of Ember’ by Jeanne DuPrau. We’re reading this as part of a focus on dystopian fiction over the year. Our school wide, year long focus for 2015 is sustainability, so this is the sense through which we are exploring dystopia – as sustainable (or otherwise).
The City of Ember is a particularly interesting read with a sustainability lens. The book opens in the prologue with the builders of the city discussing how long the city will last and how people will know when it’s time to leave. We then fast forward a couple of hundred years to a classroom where the class 8 students (equivalent of our year 8) are waiting to receive their job assignments. We follow two main students as the begin their jobs, and lives as adults (yes, at 12, and yes, that blows the students minds!). As they settle into their responsibilities as citizens of Ember, they discover that the city is not built to last, and in fact was never intended to last. Things are falling into disrepair and one day, the lights will go out for ever.
You see Ember is a city in darkness, though we do not know it at the beginning Ember is built deep underground and sustained by electricity generated from a hydroelectric generator that uses water from an underground river.
We’re about 4 chapters in at the moment, and the students are really enjoying it. In our literacy focus session yesterday, we explored some of the imagery and themes a little bit deeper.
We started off with 3 portions of text from the book, which described what Ember looked like and how it worked.
Students then had to discuss the question – ‘What sustains life in Ember?’
They came up with all sorts of ideas:
But eventually, we distilled them down to one main one – electricity. Without electricity there is no light, no warmth. This led us into a discussion about themes and ideas that run through books. We focused on the idea of light v. darkness and talked about how this links into the citizens’ greatest fear – that one day the lights will go out and com back on.
We used the text to look for evidence to support and back up our ideas and talked about how we can use quotes from the text to support this.
I then asked the students to discuss why the city was called Ember, and to make connections with all that we had discussed that afternoon. They came up some really interesting ideas that I hadn’t even thought of (I love it when that happens!).
We then took one of two phrases/themes – either the word ember or the theme of light versus dark and using a limited colour palette we created quick images that represented this. On the back of these we then wrote a list of words or phrases or ideas that we associated with the picture.
We will use this to build understanding of metaphor and simile over the coming weeks.

Building Learning Power

At my school we practice building learning power, Guy Claxton’s innovative approach to learning to learn. Personally I think it’s brilliant. It builds students’ dispositional thinking to enable them to experience success in their learning. It gives them strategies that they can use to negotiate difficult situations in their learning and elsewhere in life too. It builds on the key competencies, adding a richness and depth that I find really engaging. Plus it has given our school a common language to work with as we learn, grow and explore.
I’ve been practising building learning power for the last 3+ years now, and I can really see the positive benefits it has had with my students. However I wonder whether I have taken it deep enough. Yes, I use the language, but have I really allowed it to change my teaching practice, to filter down into ALL of my conversations in ALL learning areas ALL of the time? Probably not. That’s a big ask. But I can look at my progress, and I can hold this as an ideal to work towards. (Yes, that’s me, forever the optimist!). I love the phrase that teachers at HPSS use – ‘warm and demanding’, by which they mean being kind, compassionate and approachable, but also having high expectations of students, staff and selves, and finding ways to raise them up so that everyone achieves their potential.
So how am I being warm yet demanding?
Firstly by not shying away from tough questions. My students this year, seem to be taking a bit to wrap their heads around the type of questions I’m asking – not so much of the what, where, who or when, but rather why and how might we? I also believe in reciprocity – if I’m going to ask my students tough questions that challenge them to actually think about their ideas, rather than just remember information, then I need to take their questions seriously too.
I need to have high expectations of my students and myself. I need to communicate these clearly but gently, and make every effort to help my students reach these expectations. My expectations need to be a realistic stretch for my students and they need to be differentiated so that they can all experience success.
I need to be kind, compassionate and considerate and gentle with my students, other teachers and myself. I need to place value, and spend time helping my students to tend to their Hauora, their wellbeing, and of course I need to be approachable. I need to ensure that my busy-ness doesn’t get in the way of spending time getting to know my students, particularly in the mornings, which is so easy to do!
I need to ensure I create rich programmes that are engaging, require critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, innovation, while giving students scope for some self direction. And this brings me full circle back to Building Learning Power. By moving beyond a traditional knowledge dissemination model of education, we allow students more freedom to develop their dispositional thinking, to learn how to be learners, what works for them and what doesn’t. To fail and grow from it. To wonder. To question. To try. To succeed.

In Class: Introducing Grit and Growth Mindsets

Last week, I introduced my students to the idea of a ‘growth mindset’ and ‘grit’ today. It was interesting.
I began by writing the two words on the board and asking the students to think, pair, share about what those phrases could possibly mean. It took a bit of unpacking, and quite a lot of persuading to get some discussion out of them (they are a VERY quiet class). I can see that’s something we’ll need to work on this year. But we started to unpack what the terms actually meant. The students seemed to get growth mindset a bit more readily at first, but grit quickly caught up.
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The initial brainstorm

We talked together about how it can be hard to have ‘grit’ or a ‘growth mindset’ all of the time, and how we often find this easiest when we a re pursuing our passions. On big sheets of paper I had written 3 questions:
What are you passionate about?
What ‘lights your fire’?
What do you care deeply about?
Students then had 5 minutes to answer each question by writing their answers around the question on each piece of paper. It was lovely to see the things that are important and get to know them a bit better. Of course there were lots of expected answers – sport, family, animals, food, but there were a few unexpected ones too – wifi being top among those! I shared my answers with the students, explaining that reciprocating is really important to me (education, design and the people in my life, respectively if you were wondering). I then talked about 6 things I had written on the board under two headings, 3 Things I believe and 3 Things I Know.
3 Things I Believe:
  • Failing is good. Failing forwards is even better.
  • Everyone can succeed.
  • Life is as good as you make it.
3 Things I Know:
  • You all have huge potential.
  • I will work my butt of this year to make learning work for you.
  • Fun is essential.
I’m not sure how much the students have taken it on board yet, I suspect they won’t really until they see it in action, but for now I’m just going to keep saying it and doing it until it does sink in.
Collaging

Collaging

We finished off by creating either a brainstorm, a collage, illustrations or a list showing what we understood by those two terms. The searching and finding of images and discussing with their friends really helped to solidify their growing understanding, and, given how reluctant they are to talk at the moment, was also a great way for me to check their understanding too.
Half a week later, it’s been interesting to see them start to take these concepts on board, while I haven’t heard the terms come up in class, I have definitely seen them in action. Can’t wait to get more in depth with these concepts over the coming weeks!

Something for the Week

Oops! It’s Tuesday night and I’m just publishing this now…. Nevertheless here are some interesting educational goodies from my meanderings around the internet over the last week.

Modern Learning Environments in NZ Schools – 3 excellent Case Studies

I’ve been hearing great things about this book – #EdJourney by Grant Lichtman

14 things that are obsolete in 21st century classrooms

Exploring ‘grit’ and growth mindsets with yr 7 and 8 – Kerri Thompson

I really want to read this book

Former colleague/tutor teacher, Jason Ataera talks about leading change within schools

Maths ARA Analysis 1

Lately there’s seems to have been a lot more discussion about the need for critical feedback and reflection as journey towards a learning renaissance. @geoumouldey and @mattynicoll in particular talk about this on Twitter. Personally I couldn’t agree more, but it was this week that everything seemed to click into place.

I was lucky enough to have my awesome syndicate leader Louise come and observe me teaching maths at the beginning of the week. One of the things I really like about having someone come in when you are teaching is that they notice all the things you don’t – all the awesomeness but also the things that could be improved, and I particularly value the detailed feedback Louise gives.

We use a framework called ARA – Aims, Reality, Actions to discuss and reflect on our practice, and target these around observations of teaching and learning so that we have a second person to discuss our ideas with.

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In this lesson we were using lego to build Aztec pyramids and then recording the patterns we noticed as part of algebra.

Lesson Context

Students were using Aztec pyramids as a context for building understanding of number patterns and algebraic rules. We were practicing tabling the patterns we noticed in a square-based step pyramid using a 3D model built out of lego. We worked together as a group with a shared model and recorded the information together. Students were then given opportunity to create their own pyramid and identify the patterns they could see within these. Once they’d identified the pattern they had to figure out the rule. The follow up lesson the next day was then on how to encode the rule use algebraic norms.

 

Aims

All students are given support and opportunity to share, collaborate and engage with learning.

Students are given opportunity to make connections between practical and abstract ideas.

This will be evident when:

  • Students build, create and notice patterns
  • Students can explain changes to a pattern in mathematical language and record these ideas using algebraic concepts
  • Students interact with each other and work collaboratively to share ideas

 

Reality

Students were highly engaged by the maths warm up game and were all involved in discussion about it. Students made choices about they level they worked at and were able to self-evaluate as they worked to ensure it was a good challenge but not too hard. Student would have benefited from some more feedback time to discuss strategies beyond their own group. The main teaching was highly engaging, all students were actively involved in the task. Discussion and practical hands on materials that weren’t traditional ‘maths’ materials drew students into the problem. I used questioning to build the understanding slowly and to encourage students to notice and make connections to other areas of maths. We discussed misconceptions so that we were all on the same page. Students enjoyed a short burst of discussion followed by time to get ‘stuck in’ to the task.

The observed reality was verified by student feedback that Louise recorded and also her notes and feedback from the observations as well as my own reflection. I think the lesson was successful. Students were all engaged and very motivated (never underestimate the power of lego!). They were active in both discussion and practical tasks and were challenged to find the links themselves.

 

Actions

Although the lesson was successful, I can still see a number of next steps and ways to tweak it. Firstly I want to continue the hands on approach but try different materials – maybe toothpicks and plasticine. I think this really benefited the students as they could take an abstract idea and represent it visually. I want to continue to focus on this for a bit longer even though they got it once to make sure the conceptual understanding is really embedded and understood at a deeper level. I also want to continue get students to work together on their maths, as this seems to provide far deeper learning. I need to provide scope for challenge by extending the context (or having a extension of the context ready to go – perhaps a ‘how might…?’ question). And finally I want to end the lesson with more opportunity to reflect on what made learning successful and draw more explicit links to Building Learning Power – i.e. actually commenting on the skills as I see them being used.