Archive for January, 2012

The “Big Idea” of Concept Attainment~

Blog for Survey of Instructional Strategies–Module 4:

Throughout the readings and discussions for this week, I have appreciated the relative “rest” that I believe the Concept Attainment instructional model has to offer us as teachers. While the details (facts) are indeed important and clearly have their place, the overarching themes (concepts) are what we hope will stand the test of time for our students. Were we to simply focus on the facts by “knowing all about something” as opposed to understanding the broader concept, we would have difficulty generalizing to other settings and situations.  In this week’s screencast, entitled Concept Attainment to Structures in Disciplines, Dr. Williams addresses the importance of looking for themes and “big ideas” that are “fundamentally worth pursuing”–suggesting that “the content may change, but the themes remain”.

Colleague, Chris, shares: “…if I teach the students how to solve a specific problem, they only know how to solve that problem.  On the other hand, if I teach the students to solve a type of problem, then the students can solve any problem that fits into that category”. While working with my high school students on self-advocacy and communication skills, I try to keep this perspective in mind. So much of what we try to emphasize is “problem solving” on the broader scale of situations in life, such as how to ask for an accommodation in a particular class. My hope, of course, is that they will internalize the process of; determining the need, the appropriate intervention, and how to appropriately make a request—so that they will be able to do the same in college or on a job, if necessary. I want to teach my students to generalize and transfer their understandings and skills to other settings.

Sometimes by asking students to explain what method has worked best for them in the past, we can customize a system that will work well as they take on new responsibilities of more challenging endeavors.  I believe authors Dell’Olio and Donk address the individualized approach when they say, “In the constructivist view of learning, students construct meaning and make sense of information individually….A constructivist might say that teachers are teaching as many lessons as there are students in the classroom”,(p. 134).

As was shown in the “Private Universe” video, misconceptions often persist long past the introduction of new facts intended to convey a different perspective. Students in the video clearly had to wrestle with “the old” in the face of “the new” as they processed the information. Regardless of the concepts we are endeavoring to teach our students—whether they be specific scientific concepts, the concept of what it means to be a “good student”, or the concept of God—there seems to be a definite tension between “old and new”, as well as a “process” to engage in when coming to a new level of understanding. My understanding of the Concept Attainment model is that this approach provides a vehicle to help students process their thoughts and express their understandings.


Dell’Olio, J. M., Donk, T. (2007). Models of Teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

A Private Universe. 1987. Produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Retrieved from SPU Blackboard, January 28, 2012 from:

Williams, T. (2012) Concept Attainment to Structures in Disciplines. Screencast retrieved from SPU Blackboard at:


Discovering “Induction/Inquiry” processes in our midst~


Reflecting on the readings and posts throughout this interesting week of snow, power outages, and even a state of emergency being declared as a result—I have found myself thinking not only about the classroom environment, but also the context of parenting and family life in general.  The overarching question that comes to mind is: “What examples of processes involving ‘induction and inquiry’ do I see about me, and do these examples lead to effective changes in perspective”? As cited within Dell’Olio and Donk, “John Dewey said that learning is the sum of action plus reflection (1933), (2007, p. 348). This week, our family has had some time for action, but an even more significant amount of time for reflection on our recent experience surrounding my husband’s newly apparent heart condition. Speaking for myself, the impact of the previous “information overload” I have been accustomed to regarding general heart-healthy habits including diet and exercise–pales in comparison to the emergency “Inquiry-Based Learning” experience initiated on January 4th with my husband’s hospitalization for chest pain. “Discovery learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, and problem-based learning all describe students’ experiences as they grapple with a question or problem, engage in a systematic procedure to solve that problem, and communicate what they discover to others. These hands-on experiences provide the aha! moments students will remember” (p. 320). Indeed, our family has experienced aha! moments in these past two weeks—and we have communicated the findings to concerned family and friends!

Throughout the readings of both the materials and posts concerning this week’s topic of “Induction/Inquiry”, I must admit that I have had very conflicting perspectives come to mind and I see definite “pros and cons”. Like a number “fellow special educators” have noted, I too was taught that direct instruction should be the “strategy of choice” in our work with students with special needs. My experience, however, includes situations where this was not necessarily the best choice—for particular classes, as least.  In past years, while teaching Special Education English, I found that when I offered less structured approaches, allowing for more student choice—students became more engaged within the classroom setting. Although the approaches I used in my English classes were not specifically “inductive” in the strictest sense–as described within the examples in this week’s readings, it was a definite shift from my previous teaching approach—moving toward a more inductive process. Characteristics of Taba’s Inductive Model, as highlighted within Dell’Olio & Donk (2007), that were present in my approach were, “brainstorming…full group experience… (and my role as a teacher) to ask a series of questions to facilitate student thinking…” (p. 169).

I agree very much with the statement of Sara, one of my fellow classmates in this course: “I believe in having a balance in teaching and that you can have standards that need to be met but that teachers can still teach authentically”. As with so many situations in our lives—whether it be diet and exercise, or teaching strategies– moderation and balance are key concepts we must keep in mind. Dell’Olio and Donk (2007) state; “Inquiry lessons can be designed around the stages of the scientific method; however, less-structured inquiries can also provide students with discovery experiences….(and) can be developed as single lesson experiences or as extended instructional units” (p. 354).

Dell’Olio, J. M., Donk, T. (2007). Models of Teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Encouraging words…”Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition”~

As I reflect back on this week filled with pondering the assigned readings from the texts as well as the numerous discussion posts, I must say that first great “ah ha” came to me while reading the excellent description by the authors of Classroom Instruction That Works, regarding “effect sizes” in chapter one. I found the clear explanation to set a positive tone and allowed me to more readily embrace and understand the statistics presented, while reading each of the successive chapters. To be honest, this is more of a victory than you might imagine. (Although I am a teacher, I am also a student with a previous distaste for statistics).

Early in the week, before listening to this week’s screencast or even opening the Marzano, Pollack, and Pickering book, I must admit that I was a bit discouraged while reading the discussion question, “Give several examples of strategies used effectively in your classroom”. I am not certain whether this discouragement was due to the natural fatigue I experienced following my husband’s successful, but unexpected hospitalization and procedure to implant 3 stents in his heart last week—or the fact that I do not have my own classroom. Either way, I am happy to report that my attitude is better. Not only have I begun to b-r-e-a-t-h-e again—(with my husband back home and hearing positive doctor reports), but I have also reminded myself that rolling a cart from classroom to classroom as I “borrow” the rooms of other teachers—does not mean that I am any less of a “teacher”. As I work with students–whether during individual appointments in my office, or in a “borrowed” classroom, I employ several of the 9 strategies addressed in Classroom Instruction that Works. The strategy I use most consistently, however, is: Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition.

With regard to research on reinforcing effort, as cited within Marzano, “…one study (Van Overwalle & De Metsenaere, 1990) found that students who were taught about the relationship between effort and achievement increased their achievement more than students who were taught techniques for time management and comprehension of new material” (p. 51). As a special education teacher who has always stressed effective time management with my students, I am interested to also see that another aspect I’ve emphasized is so clearly backed by research. Most of my students have experienced a significant amount of discouragement in school and many, by the time they’ve reached high school, have come to feel quite powerless and at times–unable to compete. Therefore, I make it a practice to help students evaluate themselves on a weekly basis—focusing on incremental changes in their efforts, and corresponding outcomes, as we together look at the data which includes weekly grade printouts from all six of their classes. Marzano states, “A powerful way to help them make this connection is to ask students to periodically keep track of their effort and its relationship to achievement” (p. 52).

Even with students whom I only see weekly, I find that as we together observe and discuss the changes in their performance and grades, I find the truth in Marzano’s statement: “Reflecting on their experiences and then verbalizing what they learned can help students heighten their awareness of the power of effort” (p. 53). I am always encouraged when a student can non-defensively and honestly express to me how they doing, take responsibility for what has been accomplished—and to articulate steps for what needs to be done.

Fellow student, Chris Howell, shared from his experience working with students in an alternative school setting: “I have had students where the “light” has gone on for them. They have learned that with a little effort and trust in their abilities, they can be successful in areas that they never thought they could be. This goes along with a statement in the Marzano book. “An interesting set of studies has shown that simply demonstrating that added effort will pay off in terms of enhanced achievement actually increases student achievement.” (Marzano, p. 51)

I appreciate Marzano’s distinctions between praise, reward, and recognition and his statement that, “we believe that the best way to think of abstract contingency-based rewards is as ‘recognition’—recognition for specific accomplishments” and that “it is best to make this recognition as personal to the students as possible” (p. 58). I believe that the context of a one-on-one conversation with each student—counts as “personal”.

Though I indeed have many areas of instruction that I desire to improve as I work with my students, I am encouraged to see that one of strategies I use every day (whether in my own classroom or not) is so clearly backed by current research.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Cultural Competence–a work in progress~

As a special education teacher in a largely inclusive high school where nearly 40% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch, I am currently working with special education students —ranging from the context of individual student appointments to one or more class periods per day—based on their IEP needs.

Over 10% of our total student population represents families from two local Native American tribes which have teamed together with our district in multiple ways within the past three decades to facilitate significant progress toward many of the goals highlighted within the readings this week.

While I have had the privilege of participating (both as a teacher and a parent) in wide variety of creative activities designed to bridge the cultural gaps, including parent conferences held at tribal education centers, community dinners, reading celebrations, etc. –I still feel the personal need to improve my ability to connect with and embrace cultural differences within my own school and community (we live right on the boundary of one of the reservations).

Within the Synthesis of the Recommendations for the 2008 Achievement Gap Studies, many suggestions are offered for developing relationships between school districts and tribes. One particular thought that caught my attention was, “Teachers, educators and school administrators need to understand that disengagement from the school or not understanding how to help their children with homework does not mean “a lack of commitment to education” (section III, #2). This helps me to see some of my current students’ challenges in a different light. Perhaps it is like having a goal in mind, but not knowing how–or not having the tools to create realistic steps to reach that goal. For example, just because someone is struggling to create or maintain a workable plan to become physically fit, does not automatically mean that a person does not value or desire a healthy lifestyle.

As a teacher working to help my students to make progress and complete steps toward graduation and beyond, I found the following suggestions to be familiar…”(a) provide encouragement, support and respect for their cultural identity; and (b) are flexible and adaptable to help Native students make up for absences and missed assignments due to family issues, losses and cultural opportunities outside the classroom. (p. 12).

I am encouraged to see so many resources highlighted to address the cultural competency need and look forward to gaining new insights.  I so often feel like I’m “just beginning”—despite my status as a veteran teacher.

My number one goal is to see my students as individuals in the context of “their world”–and to be willing to try to see “the world of school”, through their eyes.

Closing Opportunity Gaps in Washington’s Public Education System