Monday, March 4, 2019

Conceptual Understanding

Middle School social studies teachers at Singapore American School discuss performance
indicators from the standards. 

"Let's start with eight minutes and see where you are after that," Julie Stern says as she releases teachers to practice. Middle school social studies teachers are practicing writing enduring or conceptual understandings from dimension two of the C3 standards.

Julie's got me thinking about learning targets and objectives. What do we want to see in classrooms? What do we want kids to be able to say when we ask them what they are learning?

Julie is asking teachers to use dimension two performance indicators to generate the conceptual understandings we want learners to reach. She gave teachers this frame: Students will understand: ___________ (concept) __________ (verb) __________ (concept).  Or, for example, students will understand how the value of a source involves considering its validity (from D2. His.13.6-8). This gets me thinking about objectives and learning targets and lesson planning.

And I am taken back to a literacy institute. I am sitting in a dim, well-airconditioned auditorium listening to my mentor, Janet Allen. She's talking about Hunter's model of lesson planning and she's explaining that we must explicitly teach students how to summarize or paraphrase or evaluate validity even.  We teach the strategy using or in the context of our content and then we apply that learning to produce something. Janet Allen's frame for writing objectives for strategy lessons went something like this: Students will learn how to ___________(strategy) using _______________ (literature/resource) in order to __________________ (performance indicator).

Knowing how is important but so is knowing why or where. Concepts get at the why and the where of information. Concepts build schema. Teaching students to organize information by concept enables them to access that information and transfer it to new contexts. Schema organizes information so that we can knowledge-build.

But do we give them those enduring understandings? Do we put that "objective" on the board? In some places we do. But what if we want to teach from an inquiry stance?  What if what we really want is for learners to do the thinking for themselves, right?

Don't post the "objective" or the understanding, turn those understandings into essential questions and let the questions lead the learning. Of course,  this is Understanding by Design and how we Build Conceptual Understanding.

Good learning with teachers and Julie Stern this week! I love processing my own learning through blogging and by reading other teachers' blogs. You can do that too. Check out the Slice of Life blogging challenge this month at Two Writing Teachers. It's never too late to join in the reading, commenting and writing fun!

D2. Civ. 1.6-8
Different groups hold and use power in different ways, often with corresponding differences in responsibility.
Citizens play a variety of roles to help their


  1. The right questions that establish an entry into finding answers are everything. I remember the jokes about Madeline Hunter, but those frameworks worked. I see too many students who don’t understand the why of learning. And thank you for pushing my learning, my friend,

  2. Thank you for that. Posting objectives on the board has become such standard practice that many don't question it at all. I do think that it makes it more likely the students will learn the posted objective, but I also think it makes it unlikely they will learn anything else. I worried about the relevant learning that is lost because of those objectives on the board.

  3. Taking an inquiry stance makes the learning worthwhile :-)

  4. Love the thinking and the flashback!