A Label Journey to Deeper Thinking
By School Designer Steven Levy
Deeper Learning is not an exotic new curricular approach that requires big projects - it is a frame of mind about how to approach all the aspects of schooling - even the little aspects - in a deeper way. When we engage students in questioning the conceptual basis of what we do in school and life - engage them in deep questions - we open the door for deep thinking.
I recently visited a first grade class who was on the third day of studying the concept of a label. The teacher modeled identifying a label by pointing to the word “white board” in child spelling (see photo above) taped to the top of the white board. Everyone knew that was a label (or at least when the teacher asked if it was a label, they all agreed in one enthusiastic YES!). She then invited the children to examine a variety of texts in pairs and identify all the places they found labels. The children went to work, most eagerly turning pages and calling out when they saw labels. Some wrote them down. Others raced through the pages and didn’t see any at all, but with teacher encouragement, began to find them.
As they were reading, I looked around the room and the walls were rich in print. There were four different alphabet charts, one made by the class. There were labels on many items in the room, on the table, the loft, the word wall, the character traits, etc.
There were other words up that were not labels, like the learning targets for the day, reminders of what to do when your work is finished, and on the door, in large letters was the word “JOURNEY,” which was the theme of their expedition.
They came back to the circle, excited to share the labels they found in their books. Everyone had found some, and it seemed like they all understood what a label was. In many classrooms, the ability to recognize labels would demonstrate sufficient understanding to move on to the next lesson.
I asked the teacher if I could pose a question to the class. I pointed to the word “JOURNEY” on the door, and under it “PREPARE” and “RESERVOIR” (they were preparing for fieldwork at the reservoir). I asked if they thought JOURNEY was a label and most of the class said, “Yes.”
One child objected, “No, it’s not a label.”
“Why not?” I challenged.
He couldn’t say, but did suggest, “Well, it would be a label if you moved it over there,” pointing to the daily schedule. Curiously, the daily schedule was labeled “JOURNEY”, consistent with their theme. Every day was a journey for these first graders.
“You mean if I put the word “JOURNEY” on the door it is not a label, but if I put it on the daily schedule it is?”
“Yes, it’s about what place it’s in.”
Suddenly there was animated discussion. Some argued that it couldn’t be a label in one place and not in another. Others countered, “It has to be in the right place. It has to be the name of the thing it’s on.” This began to make sense to more and more of the class. A label is a word that is attached to something it identifies or describes. Placement has everything to do with it.
The teacher’s lesson was successful for students to practice locating labels in the room and in books, but when a question forced them to examine the blurry line separating a label from what it is not, they had to think deeply. Finding the right question provokes the kind of grappling that makes kids really have to think - beyond the skill of identifying a label, to defining its properties and understanding its meaning. We need to be careful not to gloss over terms and structures and assume that we all have a common understanding of what those words mean, but rather investigate them together. If we do so regularly, students will begin to develop the habit of looking for deeper meaning themselves. Attached below is a graphic organizer developed by Dr. Dorothy Frayer as a tool to analyze the nuanced meaning of any concept.
What examples do you have of concepts you thought everyone understood, but found out they didn’t? What questions have you asked that revealed superficial understandings and opened the door to deeper learning?