The seed of a unit

This is not clear in my head, something I am working with. Help me out here....

I really like Sam Sherratt's idea of summing up the unit in one word. It is challenging, fun, and it forces us to focus on the underlying conceptual purpose of the unit. In a concept based curriculum, that is what we should be focusing on, correct? The concepts.

I have been wondering recently as I stare at our schools POI (I really want to look at it and understand it before we change it all) about where some of these units came from. From what egg did they hatch? Some of the units seem very conceptual in their wording, but others feel like a topic based unit that was turned into a conceptual unit. Some of them are not conceptual. I wonder what was the conversation history that led to the development of these units. The turns in the roads. The needs and wants. The personalities behind it and the philosophies that lay underneath. You can tell a lot about a POI by just really looking at it.

The seed of a unit, where it is born, where it springs into existence is important. It's like starting a long line of iterations, or evolutions in a species. Each one affects the previous ones. It grows and mutates and evolves. Here are some examples of what I mean, and be honest if you have been part of any of these conversations, because I think we all have:

1) Starting with Curriculum: We need a unit on "Earth and her layers" because our curriculum has that in there. How can we make this conceptual? That is not starting with concepts. That is starting with curriculum. And its a topic.

2) Starting with an old unit: This unit on Plants is not conceptual enough, lets change it to make it more conceptually based. Lets turn all the lines of inquiry and central ideas into "living things" instead of "plants". That is not starting at the concept either. That is starting from an old topical unit and moving to a new conceptual unit. The seed is topics.

3) Adapt it from another school: Lets just use another unit from another school and adapt it to our student population. First off, we have no idea where those units came from in the first place, so we have no context about the background history. It might be a very topical curriculum, or a rigid state-endorsed thing. It might be a fantastic conceptually based unit, but how does it fit into your schools overall POI, because it is not from your school? "Your" POI, should be unique to "your" school, like each temple in Kyoto is unique to itself.

I guess what I am getting at, if I am making any sense, is that what Sam is asking us to do at the beginning of this post, to sum up the unit in one word, is where we should be starting, not finishing. Start with the one word, the big concepts, and then let it grow from there.

How do we decide the words, concepts, themes, to be explored? I have no idea. I guess they must be negotiated as a school, put into some logical order or framework. It seems like a bit of a work, brainstorming and deciding on the most important concepts to study, and then setting them out in a organized way. There are so many concepts in the world around us, how do we put value on them, organize them, sort them, classify them?


Still, I think it might be an interesting way to go about doing a POI from the ground up. Start with the word, make the unit about that concept, and go from there....

This whole train of thought started when I was asked to make a Parent version of the POI (above) for our Meet the Teacher Night (which turned into an entire curriculum for parents). I asked myself, what is important for parents to know? The Central idea? Key concepts? Lines of inquiry? A key questions? Our Head of School suggested only the main idea, the one big concept that pulls it all together and a light went off in my head. Yes, that is a great way to communicate the POI, but wouldn't it also be a great way to create the POI?


Stretching out ideas for thinking

The idea was simple. Give the kids a map, tell them they are part of a tribe of neolithic nomads, and choose the best place to settle. Parameters were set. A story was hatched.

It could have been a nice afternoon. It could have resulted in a good debate, maybe a list of pros and cons. Instead, I stretched it out, made the thinking more explicit. We went slowly, reflecting at each step, asking what we know and what we still need to know.

We teased apart the thinking, stretched it out, and ended up with the following progression of lessons, and a nice artefact to share with our parents and the learning community demonstrating how we inquire:

Things to wonder about... our perception of time spent on tasks

- the process was largely emergent, and was unplanned from step to step. As a teacher I just listened and looked for gaps in understanding, and then tried to fill them. By the end, they were doing it themselves, saying they weren't ready to make a decision. The extra time spend became a thinking tool in and of itself. Should I have planned something like this out from the beginning? Should I have sat down in a collaborative planning session and created a sequence of lessons like this? Or is the planning time better spent creating the task itself, and leaving the stretching out to the teacher, who is living in the moment with his/her class? How important is learning to listen as a teacher? How can we improve on this skill?

- there are so many thinking skills involved in any provocation that we create; why do we rush from activity to activity? Does the planner leave us feeling like we have to get to every activity we put on there? Does it take our perception of time and shorten our attention spans?

- this took almost two weeks to finish and I admit, while I was spending two weeks on one seemingly simple activity, I felt guilty, like I wasn't doing enough; why is that? Where does this feeling come from? Does the quantity of tasks we do in a unit equal quality? To what extent should we limit the amount of learning engagements and focus on the thinking involved?

In the end, I regretted nothing. It was a powerful progression of lessons, it was intentional yet emergent, and the kids were completely aware of the reasons and the meta-inquiry behind it all.