Welcome to my blog!

“In general let every student of nature take this as a rule – that whatever his mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction, is to be held in suspicion; and that so much more care is to be take, in dealing with such questions, to keep the understanding even and clear.” (Francis Bacon)

Welcome to my blog, where I ponder education research, cognitive psychology, and classroom practice. Here is a selection of posts from the past few years:

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What I’ve learned so far about…concept maps

Despite waxing poetic about microcredentials before, it has been almost two years since I’ve completed my first one. It seemed about time to rectify that, so I completed the Mapping Concepts microcredential. This post explains how I use concept maps in the classroom.

What are Concept Maps?

Concept maps have become one of my go-to review activities for lessons. You may know them by another name or in a different form, but this is how I use them in my lessons.

First, I usually model what I expect to my students. I get them to volunteer some vocabulary words from the unit. I write two on the board, draw a line between them, and write on the line some sort of connection between them. Connections can be wide ranging. One may cause the other, or be an example. Connections can be similarities or differences. I take a few more vocabulary words, and add them on, developing more of a map structure and showing the students how one term can have multiple connections. If I have samples of maps from a previous lesson, I will show students those as well, as the student-made maps are more extensive than my whiteboard sample.

Then, I display using a projector or write on the whiteboard a list of vocabulary terms and concepts from the unit. Students work individually or in pairs, but I tend to do more of the latter.

And, that’s it. I find students are usually quite focused on the task. When they get stuck, I suggest words that they could pair together or that they could add to the map, and that is usually enough to get them going again.

Why Use Concept Maps?

If you are familiar with my blog, you are familiar with my argument regarding knowledge. Rich, developed schemas of knowledge are important for students to have in long-term memory. The maps help students network concepts together and supports schema development.

The mapping activity also strengthens memory. Creating connections is a form of elaboration. You can combine it with another study strategy and have students treat it as retrieval practice. When I do this, I have students work from memory for a period of time, then allow them to check their notes; however, anything they add from their notes must be in a different colour, so they can see clearly what they know and don’t know.

As well, the maps help students see the importance of the different terms. Rather than a seriously of isolated terms, they accumulate to form an understanding of the topic and discipline. Mapping it out visually makes that more apparent for students.

Example of a Concept Map

My current school has a strict policy about not posting student work on social media, which I am completely fine with. So, in lieu of student-made examples, I have instead made my own.

I am also completing online IB training so, in the interest of treating this as a learning exercise for myself, I mapped the IB learner profile characteristics.

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It was a useful exercise, in helping me see connections between the different attributes.

Well, this is highly unusual. A short blog post. Hope it was helpful, and you find a way to use this activity in your own classroom!

#debatED: The Social Studies Curriculum

Previously in my #debatED series, I pitted against each other two research papers on iPads in the classroom. This time, I look at the arguments around the social studies curriculum, specifically those advanced by Kieran Egan.

For those coming from a British context, where history and geography are split into separate subjects, this discussion may seem pointless. However, in the United States and Canada, these subjects are combined into a single class, social studies, often while mixing in other disciplines such as politics and economics. The final form this takes is variable. The course may nominally be called social studies, but the disciplines remain firmly separated; for example, there may be two history units and two geography units in a given year. In other manifestations, history, geography, economics, politics and other disciplines are swirled together. Alberta uses the latter format, or at least it did when I completed high school. Each year of high school social studies was orientated around a common theme: Grade 10, globalization; Grade 11, nationalism; Grade 12, liberalism and ideology. Different historical topics and current issues were touched on as they related to the theme. Another variation is to have social studies in the younger grades, and then split in into its disciplines in the higher grades, similar to how science splits into chemistry, physics, and biology. Ontario does this.

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Reflecting on Rubrics

Rubrics are like multiple choice questions. They are difficult to write, but if you put the time in and do it well, you are saved from later work and frustration. A good rubric makes grading complex tasks easier, as the criteria and degrees of quality are clearly defined and leave less room for doubt and indecision. However, there are a lot of bad rubrics out there (I’ve certainly written a few myself), and seeing as I have been working several rubrics recently, I thought the topic of writing and using rubrics merited some exploration.

What Are Rubrics?

A rubric is “a type of matrix that provides scaled levels of achievement or understanding for a set of criteria or dimensions of quality for a given type of performance” (Allen & Tanner, 2006). To put it simply, criteria down the lefthand side, and levels of performance along the top. I feel silly defining a rubric for teachers, but it is helpful to understand the components of a rubric, as all must be carefully written for the rubric to be an effective tool.

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I’m in a course. This is how I am studying.

I am currently enrolled in an online course for cognitive psychology, which culminates in a good ol’ fashioned exam. So, in this post, I am going to demonstrate how I am practicing what I preach and employing effective study techniques.

First, I already read the textbook. Like, a year ago. Which does make it easier for me to use these techniques, such as spreading out studying over time. But I’ve used spaced retrieval practice to study for an English Literature exam before, for a course I completed over a couple months, so it is still a realistic strategy.

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Learning Rainforest Workshop

On Saturday, I attended a workshop by Tom Sherrington, on the ideas behind his book The Learning Rainforest.

To understand why this is significant for me, you need to understand my context.

My teaching career has been split between Mandalay, Myanmar, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. While both cities have their strengths and things I enjoy, you wouldn’t describe either as a buzzing metropolis. Teaching conferences and weekend workshops are rare events.

So, I make my own PD. Books, Blog posts. Twitter. Scrolling past pictures of ResearchEd and other events on the other side of the world, hitting ‘like’ and ‘retweet’, wishing I could be there.

So, when I saw on Twitter that Tom was going to be in Bangkok, and I can hear from, in-person, one of the people who have shaped my thinking on education, I jumped at the opportunity. And it came with a copy of the book, which is a bonus, because I haven’t read it yet.

Sunburnt from a beach vacation in Phuket and fighting a cold, I scrawled twelve pages of notes in that drama classroom where Tom presented. A lot of it I was already familiar with, from my self-guided PD. Here are some things that were new to me, or challenged my thinking on education.

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What does the research say about…expertise and problem-solving?

In this series, I read through some academic research, try to understand it, and think of what it might mean for the classroom. This is not a literature review or extensive analysis: just a classroom teacher, trying to learn more.

Problem-solving is one of those 21st century skills we are suppose to cultivate in our students, but while these skills are frequently promoted, people seldom dig into what they mean and look like.

To better understand what it means to be a skilled problem-solver, I’ll be looking at The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, specifically the section on expertise within professional domains. Of particular interest is problem-solving being domain-general or domain-specific, and implications for how we teach students to be effective problem solvers.

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