21 Ways to Construct Knowledge

A key function of teaching is to help the learner construct new knowledge.

We work in a schooling system that was designed a century ago, at the height of the British Empire, when transmitting knowledge was a key to success in the Industrial Age. It is fortunate that we have moved beyond the ideas that were promulgated at the time:

  • Teaching is Telling
  • Learning is Listening
  • Correct answer thinking is Good
  • and … Knowledge is Transmitted.

We have, haven’t we?

Many notable educators are pointing out how flawed the current education system is. One of my current favourites is this TED Talk, ‘Build a School in the Cloud’, by Sugata Mitra.

At every turn we are faced with information about what 21st century learners are going to need to face the future and how we, as teachers, should respond. Mitra proposes one schema. There are many others.

Many traditional teaching practices need to be permanently retired, if we have any hope of achieving 21st century compatible learning. For example, in a very popular post, To Worksheet or not to Worksheet? That is the Question the idea that worksheets are even slightly effective is seriously challenged.

More recently I wrote about indicators of depth in learning, exploring the contrast between learning that is like snorkelling and that which takes students on a deep dive.

The ‘deep diving’ analogy takes us to: depth, engagement, challenge, inquiry, RBL, critical and creative thinking, content creation, student initiated learning, choice, curiosity, questioning, formative assessment and so much more! These processes are all the result of helping students to construct knowledge, rather than having them be passive recipients of transmitted information.

Since writing both of these posts, I have had a number of questions about how to replace worksheets and how to help students think deeply about their learning and to construct new knowledge.

Here are 21 ideas to help students process their learning, and check for understanding, for you to try in your primary/elementary or secondary classroom:

In this process, students respond to some input (e.g. a reading, a video, or a presentation from the teacher, an ‘expert’ or a classroom peer — this may well have been ‘flipped learning’ done out of class) by creating one comment(C) and one question(Q). 
In small groups or as a whole class each student takes a turn. The first student shares their comment and asks their question. The second student either shares their comment, answers the first question or poses their own question. This continues around the circle, usually there is only time for one rotation in a whole class activity, but additional rotations are possible, and encouraged in small groups, once students understand the process and can independently manage it. 
Gradually the depth of questions and responses increases and new insights, perspectives and understandings are uncovered.
To build student proficiency with the process, fish-bowl a small group C&Q. Have a group of 6–8 students undertake the process with your coaching, while the rest of the class sit around the outside and observe. Different students can be tasked to note what helps and what hinders the process and what insights/learning are surfaced. A whole group debrief ensures that the observers are accountable for paying attention and observing effectively.

Conversation mapping processes

Useful in processes like C&Q, or while students listen to classroom discussions or take notes, here are a three different mapping tools that your students may benefit from learning to use:

MIND MAPPING — where the key idea is placed in the middle of the page, new ideas branch off the central idea, and sub-ideas branch out as greater detail is shared or uncovered.

CONCEPT MAPPING — similar to Mindmapping, but focused on a ‘key idea’/understanding/concept, and identifying key aspects and relationships to the concept. Graphic organisers such as Concept Maps can also be helpful in supporting students to identify their current understanding and attach new ideas.

CONVERSATION MAPPING — follows the thread of a conversation, with lines between connections and similar ideas. The key here is to teach students how to capture ‘main ideas’, not to record every word! 
I always found it useful to have a volunteer ‘conversation tracker’ (or two) take notes on the whiteboard as a class conversation unfolds. Asking for their insights and debriefing their roles is an important part of making explicit the skills involved and what works most effectively.

Asking Questions

We now know that a key teacher behaviour change, to facilitate improved student learning, is to shift from ‘telling’ to ‘asking’. In the blog post, ‘Who is working the hardest?’ you can read about the shift John made as he moved from answering children’s questions/telling to asking them questions! Dramatic improvements in independence and thinking were seen almost overnight.
We can use this shift WITH students too, including them in the process of learning to ask good questions, enabling them to support their own and others’ learning.

WHAT I KNOW, WHAT I WANT TO KNOW — is a great way for students to establish what they already know and what they would like to learn, questions they want answered or mysteries to be solved. 
This can be a written process in a two column grid, a blog entry or a journal record. 
Being able to return to the lists to indicate new knowledge and new questions (perhaps in a different colour, or date stamped) helps students understand how their learning is progressing over time.

FORMULATING QUESTIONS — the aim here is to support students to ask good questions. There are tools like Question Matrix to support a range of question types and develop skills with inferential thinking. 
Categorising questions into types, also supports students to learn how to ask good questions. Some categories include: predictive, explanatory, summarising and evaluative questions.
There are endless lists of sentence stems (just ask Google) such as …
How is … similar to / different from…?
What is the key concept? Big idea? Main cause? 
What conclusions can you draw from…?
How does … change your thinking?
What do you need to know to be able to draw a conclusion?
What information/ideas/illustrations can you add to…?
What is wrong with…?

Answering Questions

WHIP AROUND — In response to an open-ended question (generated by the teacher, or students, or in processes such as those above) students individually respond in writing, with three thoughts, responses or statements. 
As they write their 3 responses, or after a predetermined time, they stand up. This may be set as a more open ended minimum, of 3 ideas, to even out the finishing times and reduce ‘wait time’. 
One at a time, students share one idea. The other students cross the idea off their own list, if they also thought of it. Once all ideas are crossed off their list, students sit down and listen to the remaining ideas.
A student (or two) could act as record keepers, listing main ideas, if this is helpful to the overall learning design. As in the conversation tracking ideas, learning how to record ‘key ideas’ is a necessary pre-requisite.

RESPOND AND PASS — Selected questions are written at the top of page sheets of paper (for group responses) or A4 (for individual recording). 
Each group starts with one question on a sheet. After a few minutes discussion, the group records ideas related to the question; what they know, questions they have, sources of information to be followed up, people to ask etc.
On a predetermined signal, all of the sheets are rotated to the next group, and the process repeated. I like to have groups record in different colours and to tick off ideas they particularly like from previous groups.
Rotations continue until the sheets are returned to the original group.
At this time, RBL, inquiry learning, assignments, projects etc can be allocated and the construction of new knowledge begun.
In the individual student version, I usually start with a few minutes of reflection and then similar recording. The sheets are rotated in the same way. As each new sheet arrives, previous information is considered, acknowledged and then added to. For accountability or clarification purposes, students can put their initials by their ideas.
As an aside: I have used this process to record acknowledgements for classmates. Each student starts with a piece of paper with their name at the top. The sheets rotate and every student has an opportunity to note strengths, appreciated personality traits or behaviours, thank-yous, compliments etc. Great way to end a term and encourage a positive culture.

STUDENT LED DISCUSSIONS — volunteer students take a question each and 3 or 4 other students join each volunteer to discuss the questions and ways forward.

DOUBLE CIRCLE — students stand in two concentric circles, facing a partner in the other circle (i.e. one half of the partnership in the inner circle, facing outwards and the other in the outer circle, facing inwards) Odd numbers can be accommodated by having two students act as one in either circle, making a threesome.
Questions are considered by pairs for a set time, a bell rings and the outer circle moves (e.g. one place to the right).
Questions can be reconsidered in new pairs, in light of the previous conversation, or a new question be posed.

Demonstrating learning

GALLERY WALK — the product of any of the processes described, or group projects, brainstorming lists, problem solving processes etc can be displayed around a learning space at any time. Displays may be on the walls, or on the desk tops/work spaces where the groups operated.
All students form sub-groups of 2–3 students and are asked to look at the displayed ideas and synthesise them in some way. The focus question should be on display to help the groups become re-focused if needed.
E.g. What can you learn from other groups’ thinking that helps your group?
What three new ideas can you bring back to your team?
If the displays need an explanation, one group member can volunteer to be the ‘guide’ and stay with the report to explain it to visitors.

LINE-UP — indicate a ‘line’ across the classroom, and allocate one end as strongly agree and the other as strongly disagree. Students arrange themselves along the line according to their thoughts, ideas and opinions. A number of students are asked to justify their decision to stand where they did, across the range of possible decisions. E.g. Some strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree and strongly disagree students volunteer or are asked why they chose that place.
After sampling a range of opinions, students can be tasked to talk to those standing nearby about their ideas and reflections on the other opinions, and/or be given an opportunity to change their position on the line after hearing the reasons for others’ decisions. Discussion about the ideas that prompted a movement can also occur.

CHOOSE A STANDPOINT — somewhat like Line up, but students are asked to declare their support or lack of by moving to the ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ side of the classroom or learning space. Similar debriefing processes work here, as for Line-up.

BLOG — writing or using multimedia tools to summarise, reject, respond, question and demonstrate learning in blog form enables students to read and respond to each others’ insights. See ‘Tips for School Blogging’ for more ideas.

PORTFOLIO — similar to/or inclusive of a Blog, potentially paper based or digital, a portfolio is the gathering of evidence to demonstrate learning. In the blog post: Students ‘evidencing’ their learning a range of digital tools are offered to support students to take responsibility fro their learning and the evidence of their understanding, insights, wisdom and outcomes.

Note taking and summary processes

FLAGGING — students use sticky notes, highlight pens, or other marking systems to flag ideas they wish to return to, insights gained or key ideas/concepts.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (or Abstract writing) — asking students to summarise the big ideas they are working with and something not yet understood in a couple of sentences is a great way to help tighten up loose thinking.

ONE-MINUTE RESPONSES — similar to the previous idea, students are given one (or 2 or 3) minute to write a reflection on their new ideas/learning. 
Pair share and discussion can occur next. 
Great way to end a lesson and help crystallise ideas and put words around them.

ONE WORD SUMMARY — ask students to write (or perhaps create) ONE word to describe the key concept they’re learning. One sentence summaries are also a way of synthesising key ideas, creating focus or encouraging reflection about learning.

3,2,1 — there are many versions of this idea, such as:
3 things you learned, 2 interesting ideas, 1 question you still have.
3 key words, 2 new ideas, 1 thing you plan to think more about.
3 questions about the …. 2 predictions …. 1 connection from outside the lesson.
Why not have students create a 3,2,1 to match the reflection needed?

Responding, reflecting or providing feedback

CIRCLE, TRIANGLE, SQUARE — Ask students to respond to each shape as follows: something still thinking about / going around your mind (Circle), a point that sticks out (Triangle) and something that ‘squared’ (or agreed) with your thinking (Square).

PORTFOLIOS (Continued) are great places to store reflection on learning. The blog post: ‘8 digital tools for student reflection on and documentation of learning’offers support with selecting digital tools for documenting reflection.

My Assessment Ninja course picks up on many more innovative and practical self and peer assessment, feedback and assessment talk/dialogue ideas. Check it out, you’ll be glad you did!