As more and more high school classes have renewed curricula (view the Ministry website with all renewed curricula), teachers are often asking where to focus their change in instruction. Each course has different outcomes and indicators for you to understand (view a Ministry document or an SPS blog on understanding outcomes and indicators) , but there are also some common elements you can focus on that really help direct your instruction regardless of the curriculum you are working on:
- big questions and inquiry
- what students know and can do, not on what you covered
- formative assessment
- variety of representations of concepts, and variety of tasks
- critical thinking and assessment skills
- real life examples
- information literacy rather than information dumping
This blog post contain a quick summary of each topic. Additional posts about each of them will be developed over the course of the year.
1. Direct the learning around big questions and student inquiry
With renewed curricula, a teacher focuses each new topic around the big questions experts in a field are exploring and develops a series of questions that guide the thinking in a theme or unit of student. Each renewed curricula provides examples of the types of essential questions or powerful questions a teacher should use (read a blog post to learn our questions at the heart of renewed curricula). It is a great plan to post the question or questions, and then refer directly to them with each day a new idea related to them is introduced. A big idea is a question that evokes deeper understanding of the crucial issues in an area of study.
Effective questions for deeper understanding:
• cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the key ideas and core content
• provide for thoughtful, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding, as well as more questions
• require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers
• stimulate rethinking of ideas, assumptions, or prior learning
• spark meaningful connections with prior learning, personal experiences, and ways of knowing
read more in the Ministry’s document on Understanding Outcomes
It isn’t enough for just the teacher’s questions to be posted. Students need to be taught how to generate good questions related to a topic (using something like question frames, for example) and then find the answers to them throughout the learning. In many cases, the teacher will need to provide explicit instruction on how to ask good questions. For example, many students will generate questions that have a yes or no answer, or that can be easily googled. Teachers need to steer students to questions that can be debated, require critical thinking or are about considering why.
For more information on stages on inquiry and technical tools, visit the Techy Teacher blog. For sample questions stems for each purpose in a classroom, check out this document from the Ontario Ministry of Education.
Use formative assessment often to focus your instruction in exactly the right place for the students you have right now and what they know today
Formative assessment involves 5 key elements. One of the most critical for renewed curricula is planning instruction discussion, activities or tasks that allow you to see exactly what each student understands. You want to be able to see at a glance what each student is thinking or doing and why, so you can change the instruction to help them with whatever they are stuck on. Because renewed curricula focuses on students using knowledge rather than just receiving it, it is essential that students always have a strong conceptual understanding. They must be able to do more than recognize, define or repeat, and we must change our instruction accordingly and move it up Bloom’s Taxonomy to match the outcomes.
Give students multiple and varied representations of concepts, and a variety of task
Students are much more likely to understand deeply if there are multiple was of representing a concept. Visualization of concepts and hands on manipulations are especially helpful for many students regardless of learning style. In order to get all our students to the outcomes, it is often helpful to use more than one method at once. When student see and hear a concept, then sort examples based on a definition, for example, many learning styles are addressed at one (see a description of concept formation, the instructional strategy described here).
In the same way, a variety of tasks of equal difficulty that allow students to choose how they show they have met outcomes are very helpful. The variety of choices means students can relate the learning to their interests and that they can tackle more difficult learning more easily because they are presenting their learning in a way that is more natural for them.
Require elaboration, questioning and self-explanation regularly.
In order to help students deeply understand and apply in complex, nuanced situations, teachers in all subjects will need to explicitly teach the skills student will need, including:
- how to ask good questions and find good answers
- how to plan and self-assess based on criteria
- how to provide and use feedback
- how to think metacognitively
In all renewed curricula, students are required to use these skills regularly. Unlike curricular content, however, teachers have not always been as direct in ensuring that students have these skills. While curricular content is important, these particular skills transcend specific curricula or grade, and are the things we really want students to understand and use effectively. Like being able to read for information or determine the most important idea in a verbal exchange, these are foundational skills (view a blog post with practical strategies to teach self-assessment and metacognition).
Explain using real life examples and cases whenever you can
Renewed curricula require art students to think like artists and math students to understand rather than just use procedure. In order for these skills to develop well, students need to see them as relevant and attainable. Teachers play a critical role in this perception. Rather than telling students they will “need it later on”, we need to use real examples so they can see it in action now, and hopefully even be a part of its application in the real world.
Teach students how to find, assess, create and use information. They should do this more often than receiving information from you, a video, or a textbook.
Often referred to as information literacy skills and data literacy skills, the things students need to know for finding, assessing, creating and using information are built into all curricula. In science and math, this looks like finding or using data sets, researching a topic or assessing the validity of someone’s data. In English Language Arts, this could be research related to a theme, critical analysis, or assessing a presentation for bias. Because the world is changing so quickly and our students will need to be able to teach themselves reliable information, this is a critical skill for them to have. Some skills to teach:
- How to do an effective search
- Tools beyond Google
- Technical tools for collecting research
- Evaluating websites
This also means a shift in how we teach. When we deliver content to students, we rob them of the opportunity to practice information literacy skills. Regardless of the source of approved content for memorization and retrieval, learning information from the textbook or the teacher does no require the gamut of information literacy skills. There are still many times when we need students to be exposed to correct information quickly, but more and more we need them to make sense of it for themselves and assess it for its validity given their purposes. That is why so many curricular outcomes ask them to do it – although there is the added benefit that it is much more likely to be retained if student makes sense for themselves rather than just listening to a teacher.