Sunday, January 28, 2018

Metacognition in the Middle School Classroom

Metacognition in the Middle School Classroom

Middle school kids are learning all the time, whether or not they want to admit it.  So when Emmett’s mom asks what he learned in science and he says, “Nothing,” she knows that response is not representative of what actually have happened that day. However, like many middle-schoolers, it may be what Emmett actually perceives!

Helping our students know what they know is critical in middle school.  

Activating students’ prior knowledge is  one step in the educational process that serves many functions in instruction, but is particularly helpful in guiding the adolescent mind towards monitoring the learning process.
Activating Prior Knowledge
Children learn through new experiences that contradict prior knowledge. Therefore, it is important to help students identify their previous understandings before helping them reach new ones. When students must identify what they know about a topic, they JUMP-start the process of learning.  With “what do I know?” comes “what don’t I know?,” a question that prompts curiosity. 

In science, the “unknown” is particularly powerful, as it leads to investigation and discovery!

Using Prior Knowledge In Instruction

We used to think activating prior knowledge served mainly the teacher, as a means of collecting data to inform pacing and content instruction.  Now we know that if we can activate students’ prior knowledge, they are more likely to become a self-regulating learner.  
According to this 2018 article, metacognition is a skill that sets our higher-performing students apart from their peers. When they think about their thinking, they reach impactful understandings about their own learning processes. Once students can identify what they know about a topic, leading them to “how” they know it is a natural next step that leads them to higher achievement.
Strategies for Activating Prior Knowledge in The Upper Grades

The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the use of phenomena in teaching science content.   This strategy involves students USING science knowledge to explain events in the natural and design world.  Although it can be tempting to explain the "answer" to students, resist the urge!  When students are given opportunities to wrestle through challenging content, they are much more in tune with their own learning! I used this density bottle demonstration on the first day we started our unit.  Students were SO engaged and really wanted to know WHY the beads don't mix, separate to top and bottom and then slowly move to the middle.  They left class wanting more!  As we learned about density over the next week, students began to say Ah Ha!  I know!!!  

Puzzles are a quick way to get students "thinking about their thinking".  They automatically tap into background knowledge and begin constructing a visual on which to add new learning.  Have you ever started a lesson with a puzzle?  

On the first day of our Great Lakes Ecology Unit, I gave each pair of students (smaller groups work best for puzzles) a map of the Great Lakes that was cut into puzzle pieces.  Their task was to put the puzzles together and if time permitted discuss what they already knew about the region.  This can be done with any science diagram and is a sure-fire way to engage kids from the start!  (Be sure to save the pieces in plastic bags to use year after year!) 

Students take time to build on old knowledge and construct new knowledge.   Classroom visuals help remind students of their progress and review essential concepts along the way.  I've found that keeping visuals out for multiple days (sometimes weeks) helps kids with the process.  Here is a visual I used when we are exploring the difference between mass and volume.  

We pass these 2L bottles around so that students can feel the difference in their mass and see the similarity of their volume.  As we work through the unit I keep them on my front table as a reference for when kids are struggling.  Returning back to this visual is helpful as students construct their knowledge of physical properties of matter. 

If we want students to think about their thinking, then we have to engage them in the process.  (Every student, not just the few kids who always raise their hands.)  

    Photo by Munpa Gallery on Unsplash

Try starting a lesson with 3-5 "vote with your feet" statements.  Here's how it works: 

Tell students to listen closely to your statement.  For example:  "There are over 100 different kinds of atoms." If they think it is true they should stand by the door.  If they think it is false they should stand by the windows.  If they aren't sure YET (YET...stress the YET!) they should stand by the board.  Remind students they must move silently.  Once students have made their choices, I have them quietly go back to their seats.  Yup....I DO NOT TELL THEM THE RIGHT ANSWER!  This is key for having middle school kids monitor their own learning.  Kids are naturally curious and will want to know if they are "right."  I tell them "I'm so glad you are curious!  You will know the right answer by the end of the lesson!"

We often use games for review and reinforcement, but they can be a powerful way to tap into prior knowledge at the start of a lesson.  Splat is a low-prep, 5 minute vocabulary engagement game.  Start by picking 10 or so words that relate to your learning goal.  Write the words on the board or on cards that students spread on their tables. Read aloud the definition or a description.  Students compete to be the first one to "splat" the word.  Here is a picture of doing this on the board with fly-swatters, but I really like to also have ALL kids participating at their desks too (minus the swatters of course).  

Looking for more ideas for activating prior knowledge?  Here are some free materials to get you started:

Ecosystem Splat Directions (free download)

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Monday, January 8, 2018

The Power of Visual Note-taking

Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

Notes are a necessary part of science instruction in middle school. Maybe you have students fill in note-taking sheets that you have typed up, or maybe they add their thoughts to print-outs of PowerPoint slides. Some teachers teach outlining so that students can gather and sort content as they read, using textbook headings as their guides.
You know it’s important to prepare them for notetaking they might need to do in high school. But, it’s time to ask yourself: are the note-taking strategies I’m teaching useful for my students?
For some teachers, the answer could be yes. Some students will do well with fill-in-the-blanks or outlines or print-outs of slides. But don’t confuse students being able to accurately complete notes with their true internalization of class material, and just because students can DO notes in these more traditional formats doesn’t mean there isn’t a more effective note-taking strategy for them.
If you’ve started to question note-taking in your middle school classroom, either because you’re wondering if they really “get it” or because you think there might be a better way, then consider trying visual note-taking with your students.
What Is Visual Note-taking?
Let’s start with what visual note-taking is NOT. It’s not students writing down bullet points while they read. It’s not students waiting for “answers” for filling-in-the-blanks with important terms while you lecture or go through a presentation. It’s not even students writing a sentence or two to reflect on what they’ve learned.

Visual note-taking IS a note-taking strategy that involves no words, or a few words arranged visually instead of in the narrative formats we’re used to.
Essentially, students draw pictures to build understanding. This could be illustrations, concept maps, graphics, or maybe even doodles and abstract representations of concepts.
Doodling as a thinking tool gained recognition in a 2014 article by the Wall Street Journal. The study cited in the article explains that doodling can help people maintain focus and retain information. The same could be said of drawing pictures of concepts instead of taking notes in written form.

The idea behind visual note-taking is that students are representing important ideas instead of simply writing them down. This requires making connections between concepts, an important skill for middle school students to practice.
For example:
If students are learning about photosynthesis, drawing the process can take the place of writing a chronological explanation of how photosynthesis works. Through pictures of the sun, plants, soil, water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, students reinforce that these terms are the most important to the photosynthesis process.
Here students created visual notes in teams for photosynthesis, before writing about recording their notes on paper.

There are other forms visual note-taking could take.
Here are some examples:
Narrated Art
After students have drawn a picture of a concept or process, they can record narrative to go along with it. While there is audio narration, students still don’t need to use words in the notes themselves. They can look at and listen to their notes later, instead of just re-reading them.  You've probably had students create short movies in your classroom, but what if they used movie-making to craft their notes? Can students use iPads to create paper-less visual notes? 
Concept Maps
Concept maps might be closest to what we might consider traditional note-taking, in that it involves some words. However, unlike outlines or other forms of written notes, concept maps stress the relationships between concepts. Words and pictures are arranged on the page based on how they relate to each other. Note-takers use arrows, images, and colors to reinforce ideas and show connections.

Visual Interpretations of Abstract Concepts
Drawing a volcano or galaxy or cell is easy. But what about concepts like “gravity” or “scientific method” or “climate”? The way students draw these terms can shed a lot of light on their understandings and challenge them to think critically about what might before have just been a written definition to a vocabulary word.
To Sum Up Visual Note-taking
Anytime we can engage students in critical thinking, we’ve done something right as teachers. Traditional note-taking doesn’t do this for students, because usually it just involves copying definitions or summarizing events.
If we can extend higher level thinking to note-taking, we help our students learn how to effectively process important information.
In middle school, students are at just the right age to learn a note-taking technique that can benefit them for years. They’re creative, invested, and eager to try new things.
Photo by William Iven on Unsplash


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