Showcasing and assessing Conceptual Thinking

I feel that technology has a really strong role to play in helping students showcase their learning in new and engaging ways. It also offers opportunities for teachers to set formative assessments that offer rich opportunities for quality feedback. Despite this potential, technology is often used as a poor substitute for traditional text-rich tasks and makes very little difference in how students learn and acquire an understanding of new concepts. Students write notes on their laptop, submit written assignments electronically and post and comment on blogs. All of these tasks are really only substituting the basic assessment that teachers have set for years. I always like visiting 1:1 schools and seeing how students work at the coalface. This week I am off to the ASB Unplugged Conference at the American School of Bombay in India, and will see another 1:1 school in action. I look forward to seeing some examples of what students actually do in lessons and to see if their is evidence of the deeper transformational learning experiences that we link to the ideas of a 21st century classroom.

Conceptual Thinking

As a teacher of Economics and previously Geography, the majority of my teaching and learning is centered on conceptual thinking and helping students grasp abstract ideas. Take an concept such as floating exchange rates as an example. Trying to ask students to write sentences of text to showcase their understanding is futile.

Many student are tempted to plagiarise their understanding from textbooks and the internet and therefore have little ability to explain and think on their feet, or to apply these concepts to other contexts. Conceptual thinking is one important area where I think technology can make a great difference in deepening the learning experience to also transform the way that teachers formatively assess learning.

I will explain three tools which I have used which show how technology can help teachers formatively assess how students learn concepts. Each tool is a shift away from text-rich forms of assessment and is focused on using voice recordings to glimpse into the students metacognition. At the ASB Unplugged Conference in Bombay, I will share these ideas and some reflections on how they can be used in the classroom.

Using Keynote to assess Conceptual Thinking

Keynote is a powerful presentation tool that allows students to integrate a variety of multimedia formats. You can drag and drop pictures, videos and easily add a narration that flows through the presentation. The final explanation can rehearsed and exported as a video file, which captures the explanation with a mixture of images and video. The beauty of using Keynote over iMovie is that it is so simple and quick to complete, yet perfectly adequate to showcase learning. The instructions for the task can be set in such a way that students are forced to demonstrate the conceptual understanding. Below is a link to three examples from different subjects. 

  1. The English example, based on a Graphic Novel uses images as a prompt for discussion and thinking about how motifs are illustrated.
  2. The Economics example is a tool to help students apply a concept such as Demand and Supply to a real world example of Vodka and Beer in Russia.
  3. The Geography example uses a digram from the textbook and asking students to explain the concept of erosion using pictures that typify each stage of the river profile.

If teachers craft formative assessments and questions in a way the elicits deep explanations, then these tools can help highlight students metacognition. The oral recordings can be rehearsed and scripted but the best outcomes are when students are forced to explain without the additional support and are thinking out loud.

Using StopMotion and Common Craft presentations

The concept of StopMotion has been around for a long time as a creative tool. More and more teachers are seeing applications of this tool in different subjects including Science. Laptops with built-in cameras or a class set of iPod Touches make the creation of StopMotion explanations relatively straight forward. We have used tools such as FramebyFrame.

The basic premise is that students have to break down a concept or process into a series of component steps, and then explain them in simple language to others. In Chemistry we have used StopMotion to explain different types of chemical reactions. The products are liberal interpretations of the StopMotion concept, but I think the voice over is more important when student are explaining complex concepts. These animations were created in iMovie by either squeezing a series of images together, or by increasing the speed of an existing recording and then adding an audio layer.

The process of students having to teach a concept to others really forces them to question their understanding, to find the links between ideas and to develop mastery. The video below is an an example of some work I helped with in a Chemistry class at UWCSEA.

I see other applications where students use StopMotion to explain topics such as migration using simple props, such a lego figurines, world maps and drawings. Through the process of developing a script and thinking of examples they are showing the explain a story relating to a concept and apply their content knowledge.

Using iPads and ShowMe Apps

One of the most powerful tools for helping students demonstrate their understanding is a new app called ShowMe! available on the iPad. ShowMe is a simple tool, which allows students to annotate what looks like an electronic whiteboard, whilst also recording their voice. The interactive whiteboard concept is really neat and intuitive for all students.

Recently I worked with an Economics class and used the ShowMe app as a revision tool. We asked them to explain one of several ideas that they have covered in class. Each of the questions were very abstract and covered the concepts of revenue and costs for firms. The students were encouraged to visualise the concept and tell a story of an example.

As you can see from the student example, the tool really allows the teacher to see the student’s thinking and metacognition as they explain a concept. In a 35 min class each student produced an explanation and the teacher could later look at the list of presentations linked from a Google Doc. Students could also peer review and look at each others work. Previously the teacher would attempt to conference with each student during the class to see how they understood a concept.

ShowMe is a great example of how you can see the levels of student conceptual understanding very quickly and at the same time students are learning in a powerful way when they are forced to teach and verbalise a concept to others. It is also one of the nicest tools I have seen that shifts students away from the text-rich tasks and encourages creativity.

For a nice explanation of using this technique in Mathematics, have a read of these excellent blog post by a fellow Apple Distinguished Educator, Jennie MagieraShow Me More Maths Metacognition

How do these tools support Formative Assessment?

In my opinion the model classroom in the 21st century is one founded on group work, differentiation, authentic learning tasks, and is a classroom that uses assessment to support learning.

Setting Strategic Questions:
Each of these three techniques offers a glimpse into the students thought patterns, but they are only effective if we are very strategic in setting questions for our students. We need to set questions deliberately, so that we can find out what a student knows. Simple questions such as describe or outline will prompt very descriptive examples of understanding. More complex command terms such as compare or contrast will allow students to grapple with higher order thinking skills and will more clearly show the underlying conceptual understanding.
Quality Formative Feedback:
It is really important to explain to students what they have achieved and where they need to improve. Some tools such as ShowMe point out where students are in their learning and can help identify where they need to progress next and help identify the steps to get there.
ShowMe also allow teachers or peers to comment directly under the students work in a private manner when the link has been shared. If the end product of a Keynote explanation or StopMotion can be shared in an online gallery like Picasa or YouTube then other students can offer feedback. Often it is hard for students to apply the same success criteria as teachers.
As long as we can offer quality feedback to the students when we use tools such as Keynote, StopMotion or ShowMe in classes, I believe the learning has been transformed in a way that was previously inconceivable.
Since I began teaching, I have always had the quote below emblazoned across the classroom wall. I think each of these three techniques and can help they students learn more when they are encouraged to teach others.

Students learn 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what is discussed with others, 80% of what they experience personally, and 95% of what they teach to someone else. ~ William Glasser

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