Encouraging Teaching With Big Concepts | Steve Barkley

Encouraging Teaching With Big Concepts

Two recent podcast conversations connected on the need to teach with big concepts. Both educators caused me to reflect back on this diagram from Grades K-12 Rebound: A Playbook For Rebuilding Agency, Accelerating Learning Recovery, and Rethinking Schools page 79. (See earlier blog) The authors stressed the need for students to engage in strategic thinking and struggle. They identified that when students were identified as being below the appropriate grade level standard, they tended to spend more learning time with fluency and stamina learning activities and little time in more complex tasks.

I invited Catlin Tucker to join a podcast after I had the opportunity to work and learn with her at an international innovation conference. During a question-and-answer activity, Catlin was asked about the seeming lack of student curiosity in classrooms. Her response caught my attention, and I wanted her to expand upon it in our podcast conversation.

It makes a lot of sense why students aren’t curious from my perspective. They get answers to questions they haven’t asked, and they get solutions to problems they’ve never encountered. This disconnect between their lived experiences and their questions and their challenges, and the experiences they’re having in school must make learning feel very arbitrary and irrelevant for many of them. What is the purpose of curiosity if that curiosity isn’t actually driving learning in the classroom?

I asked Catlin what it would take to change that scenario. What would such a change require of teachers?

She first shared her understanding that teachers are under bombastic pressure to cover content and to stay up to date at certain times in the year with pacing guides in order to prepare students for tests. Teachers need to be asking:

How can I make this relevant for learners within the umbrellas of curriculum and topics and subjects? How can I invite students to play a role in this work? To ask questions? To potentially choose a lens through which to look or a lens through which to approach assignments? To embrace things like the five E’s instructional model, (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) where students are generating a high interest question related to the curriculum that they pursue in parallel to the work teachers feel they must do, guiding students through information and onboarding them, and helping them refine specific skills.

Macro photo of tooth wheel mechanism with LEARNING, CREATIVITY, EDUCATION, SKILL, SYSTEM and KNOWLEDGE words imprinted on metal surface

“Today’s students are part of a hyper-connected world where they have access to a wealth of information, media, and tools that empower them to control how they learn and interact with others. However, many traditional classrooms do not reflect this reality, providing limited opportunities for authentic and meaningful engagement with the subject matter or other students.” 

(Catlin Tucker)

Learning deep and broad was also the center of a podcast I recorded with Dr. Stephanie Sisk -Hilton, a professor in the Department of Elementary Education at San Francisco State University. I was introduced to Dr. Sisk-Hilton’s work through an article in Education Week that described a program her university is offering that leads to a climate justice education certificate for teachers. Our conversation centered on the need for students to engage in big concept learning.

She described that, “for generations, educators were taught that little kids aren’t capable of understanding big abstract ideas. And we’ve actually known for a really long time that that’s not true. We have lots of counter evidence, but a lot of our education system is still grounded in this belief. Oftentimes when we look at what’s taught, particularly in science to younger children, even up through middle school, and sometimes even high school, we tend to see this kind of little pieces approach. We are going teach this little piece and this little piece and this little piece, and then when kids are older and more advanced, they’re going to somehow put it all together. We know that that’s fundamentally not how the brain works. Our brain is constantly making connections and when we aren’t able to connect a new piece of information, we forget it. So, if we’re learning individual facts about basic types of soil but we don’t have any experiences with soil, we’re going to forget that. But if we learn about it in the context of growing food that we’re going to eat and we see the impact of soil on the plants that we grow, then it matters, and we remember it. I think sometimes we think of systems thinking as this really complex thing that can only happen with a fully developed adult brain, but it’s as simple as understanding a garden, which is not a simple system at all actually, but kids can garden.”

There’s always that question, ‘why am I learning this?’ and if you start with a big picture, that question is moot. It’s clear why you’re learning it – because big systems matter.

(Stephanie Sisk- Hilton)

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