Chapter 9: Helping Students Show What They Know: Building Models And Explanations

AMBITIOUS PEDAGOGY requires us to work on and with students’ ideas— which means we need to find out what they already know and how they think. Specifically, we need ways for students to show what they know at different points along the curricular trajectory. Two practices that serve this purpose are modeling and explanation. These are not just about individual reasoning; they also support a knowledge-building community in the classroom.

Modeling means revising your thinking

All the units described in the book had students produce initial models early in the unit, then revise them midway through, then do a final model and explanation. You can see these benchmark lessons identified in Molly’s , Carolyn’s, and Jessica’s unit trajectories below.

Above: Molly’s class, high school. “What is stressing out the pikas?”

Above: Carolyn’s class, 3rd grade. ““How do we know that losing some of the tropical rain forest is damaging to ecosystems and people?”

Above: Jessica’s class: Seventh grade. “What is happening around Imarvaluk’s island, and far away, that puts this village at risk?”

Templates help students show what they know

The model template matters. One of our Danish researcher-collaborators was working with a teacher in Copenhagen. This teacher had students studying the cause of a historic deluge in the city, both from a climate change perspective and also why it caused so much damage. Students had lots of theories. The teacher’s initial model template, as shown below, was not entirely effective in allowing students to show their theories.

After consultation with our Danish researcher, the teacher re-designed the template and did a different kind of introduction with students. The framing, in other words, was different. The new template allowed students to draw the deluge event from different angles. Surprisingly the students took the new template and cut it in half. The halves appear in the upper left and lower right of the first model.

You can see all kinds of thinking here about the soils underneath the city, the city’s sewer system being tested, and what parts of the local neighborhood had impervious surfaces that allowed water to run off (see blue colors in upper left).

To show the beauty of allowing students to draw different models and have different theories for events, below you can see a mathematically oriented pair of students who used numbers and equations to express why they thought the deluge was so damaging. Both groups of student used zoom-ins to show what was hidden from view.

Help students learn how to revise models

Below is an image of a guide to revising models. This teacher even provided sentence frames for students to use on their sticky notes to express why they were adding to or changing their initial models.

This linked article explains how a layered approach can support students’ modeling and explanation-building. It offers suggestions for allowing students to show the most of what they know.

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