Announcing…Advance Organizers!

Module 5–Advance Organizers

“Advance Organizers are a model for helping students organize information by connecting it to a larger cognitive structure that reflects the organization of the discipline itself” (Dell’Olio & Donk, 2007, p. 388). Much of my teaching occurs in the context of individual appointments with high school special education students—with a large focus on teaching goal-setting and problem-solving skills.  Not only is my purpose to help these students make progress toward their IEP goals, but also to assist them in navigating through their high school years—gaining in confidence and skills to successfully advocate for themselves–both in the present and in the future. Often the emphasis is more on process than specific content. In Classroom Instruction That Works, authors Marzano, Pickering, and Pollack state: “Advance organizers are most useful with information that is not well-organized….for example, an advance organizer might work better as a preparation for a field trip than it would as a preparation for reading a chapter in a textbook that is well organized with clear headings and subheadings” (2001, p. 118). Preparing for life after high school—unfortunately does not fall under the category of being “organized with clear headings and subheadings”.

An advance organizer I might use with an individual student working on self-advocacy skills is to describe the process our family went through to go on a camping trip. I might briefly (verbally) state topics we had to think about as we made our plans, such as: Deciding on a destination, where to stay, what clothing to pack, directions on how to get there, what to eat, gear to take, vehicle to drive, time to leave/return, etc. The advance organizer of the camping trip analogy can serve as a springboard for having a student create a step-by-step plan to accomplish particular personal or academic goals—and to carry out the actual process.  This advance organizer could relate to any type of goal—from preparing for a test, working a long-term project, preparing their senior portfolio, or applying for a job. Students will be required to take into consideration necessary time, materials, schedules, possible need for accommodations, as well as how to ask for assistance along the way. Having students create their plan using an actual visual or graphic organizer –specifically designed in a checklist fashion and customized for the particular outcome–could provide extra scaffolding for students, as needed.  “Ausubel’s definition of advance organizers does not include strict operational guidelines for constructing them….Perhaps the key is flexibility and consideration of the learners and the content” (Dell’Olio and Donk, 2007, p. 394).

This week, one of my colleagues (a fellow special educator) wrote: “My students need social skill instruction and some of my students need things very clearly defined”. She went on to describe great examples of situations in which she effectively uses advance organizers with her students in a very strategic manner.  I then shared that last week (in a far less structured manner), I had an impromptu opportunity to use a “word picture” as an advance organizer with one of my high school boys. He was returning from several days in juvenile detention–following an incident of poor judgment on his part. As he was sharing of his desire to improve, I was reminding him of the fresh start of a new semester. In the process, he was saying “I really do want to make good choices, Mrs. James, but sometimes in the moment– I just get carried away”. Instantly, an image of a lawn mower came to mind, so I drew the analogy of the importance of “hanging on” to the handle and not letting the mower go off on its own, or down a hill. He laughed out loud—immediately getting the point! We then created an agreement that if I noticed him beginning to “rev his engine” in class, that I would quietly come over and ask him how his lawn mower was. We’ll see how effective the strategy will be, but at least he was non-defensive and agreeable to the informal plan. 

The post of another colleague reminded me of the different situations when graphic organizers overlap with advance organizers and times when they do not. This helped me to understand that the seeming “contradictions” in definition do not have to lead to confusion, but simply the realization a method can be used differently in various settings. Perhaps the true test of a particular approach should be based on the effect it has on the student, as suggested in our text:  “…an advance organizer may best be defined by what it does. It allows students to develop and understanding of the structure behind a subject or content area—the hierarchy (Dell’Olio & Donk, 2007, p. 394).

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

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

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