Academic Skills, history, Pedagogy, teaching

Information Reorganization Sensation!

I wasn’t entirely sure how to title this post without seeming entirely boring or trite, so I’ve likely found a middle ground that is both. Oh well.

In any event, I’d been thinking about what guiding principles and approaches have informed the way I go about approaching conceptualizing, planning, and implementing lessons. I’ve been challenging my own thinking about this issue as I’ve reading some books, notably Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion and Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth and his 1999 book, The Schools Our Children Deserve, that have made me reflect on my own practice and how I assign work, design lessons, plan units, and identify learning objectives and goals. I’ll likely have something more to say in response to these texts and their ideas once I’ve finished all of them, but in the meantime I thought I’d put together a visually-focused post about one of my central tenets in teaching: in order for learning to be effective, students need to actively reorganize and reshape the information and content they’re presented with in some meaningful way.

Relatively early on in my teaching career I culled a bunch of my old files and assignments from my 10th and 12th grade history classes (for some reason, my documents from 11th grade were AWOL, and I think I’d been too mercurial at the end of 9th grade to anticipate the need to hold on to these materials for the benefit of my Presidential Library) and looked back on them for ideas that I could bring into my own classroom. In reflecting on my 12th grade AP European History course by looking at the notes I came to realize that that course was driven by the encyclopedic knowledge of the instructor, as my notes were very thorough and factually-oriented. I also remembered how frequently I took tests and wrote in-class essays that year, as a large part of the binder is dedicated to returned tests (which were graded and returned at a remarkable rate…I don’t know how he did it, really).

By contrast, my 10th grade history folder is filled with a much more varied assortment of assignments, handouts, charts, and other materials that were, in retrospect from my current vantage-point as a teacher, much more geared toward helping students learn how to make sense of historical facts. Of course, my 15 and 16 year-old self was totally oblivious to this pedagogical strategy of trying to develop self-reflective and self-aware learners, but I guess the techniques worked nevertheless as they provided an outstanding foundation for my later history coursework throughout high school, college, and now graduate school.

So, in reflecting on all these materials in this first year of teaching, I  began developing a philosophy of how to approach history in a way that would avoid the common, and seemingly tempting desire to focus on dates, names, facts, and other trivia that can quickly overwhelm those who attempt to treat the subject as a memorization challenge. Rather, I would push students to attempt to meaningfully reorganize the information they read in a different, and often condensed, manner. After seeing the struggles of those who attempted to memorize disconnected facts and disjointed narratives, I realized that this process of information reorganization can help students much more effective construct meaning for themselves, which, incidentally, helps them remember the material better! Although this process takes a bit of a leap of faith on the student’s part, once they’re able to recognize that actively reshaping the information themselves does in fact help them with retention, they tend to move away from their prior studying approach of “me vs. this massive pile of facts.”

While talking about this approach of information reorganization in the abstract is all well and good, I figured that it’d likely be more resonant if I included some images of what I’m talking about with some brief explanation of what these approach (ideally) accomplish. In fact, many of the following examples are of my own devising, which is not surprising as going through this process of information reorganization is still a major strategy of mine in terms of helping me learn the material myself so that I’m able to teach it (and particularly teach some different approaches of how to learn it) to my students.

Exhibit A: The pièce de résistance of Information Reorganization – Charles Joseph Minard‘s graph of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812

Charles Minard's 1869 chart showing the losses in men, their movements, and the temperature of Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign. Lithograph, 62 x 30 cm. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Genius! Sheer genius! Really, this thing is amazing. If you’ve never studies this closely before it is definitely worth a look. The way in which Minard blends geographic, demographic, chronological, and climatological information all together is really incredible. What an innovative synthesis of different source material into a simple graphic that not only helps you get a clear sense of change-over-time and significance, but lends itself to repeated investigations. Wow. Okay, enough gushing over that, let’s move on.

(P.S. Sorry the image is cut off [if you’re reading this on at the WordPress site]. If you click the link, [or subscribe to the RSS Feed and read it in Google Reader] you should be able to see the whole thing)

Exhibit B: Charts!

Charts make pretty frequent appearances in my constant quest for information reorganization. They’re inherently easy to design — the real challenge is just picking what to put along the top row and down the side column. Moreover, they allow for an easy condensation of lots of info and lend themselves nicely to developing compare and contrast-style writing assignments. This particular chart is a picture of notes I generated during a class discussion about how the political, social, and economic aspects of Mesopotamian river valley civilizations are reflected in the textbook (bottom row) and in the Code of Hammurabi (top row).

Students seem to like this approach as well, and I’m always excited when I see students going above and beyond when using these techniques independent of any direct cajoling on my part. This example, which is an epically detailed chart of the U.S. Presidents created in preparation for the AP Exam, was made by a former student who excitedly shared it with me to just to prove how “chart-tastic” she’d become. Needless to say, I was proud.

Exhibit C: Graphs!

This particular graph reflects the notes I created for myself to lead a discussion of the trajectory and different phases of the French Revolution. I covertly drew on Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution framework and helped the students work to identify how different events reflected different level of “revolutionary-ness” (which is what occupied the Y-Axis). At the end I revealed Brinton’s model and we compared how our own assessment of the French Revolution meets Brinton’s model. I particularly like creating graphs as it helps develop a visual representation for change-over-time processes and pushes the students to take an active role in deciding what qualitative measure to use on the Y-Axis, (The X-Axis, unsurprisingly, always remains “time”), and in deciding what events constitute meaningful markers along this trajectory.

Exhibit D: Graphs! Now with Concepts Overlaid!

Former student's computer-created notes based on class discussion G.W.F. Hegel reading.

Former student's computer-created notes based on class discussion Marx and Engels reading.

These two images are, as the captions note, a student’s computer-created notes based on our reading of some excerpts from Hegel and Marx, which we study in the context of the Industrial Revolution. However, in order to add a layer of complexity to these readings (particularly the one from Marx, who doesn’t have the most glowing reputation in Texas, oddly), I shift the focus to the historical philosophy — dialectical materialism — that Marx espoused. Not only do I strive to have the students understand Marx’s message in light of his historical context of the mid-19th century, but I also work to get them to see Hegel’s influence on Marx’s vision of historical development and the role of human autonomy in that process. Needless to say, the idea of a dialectic and how it’s present in these texts is a tough thing to understand. So, as a way to make it more accessible, I lead the students through this graph-creation exercise where we talk about the structure and idea of a dialectic and then re-read these documents closely to see where each author makes references to historical events and constructs an argument about why human history moves forward. These graphs are the end product of those discussions.

Exhibit E: Free-form webbing/bubble charts

Former student's free-form webbing diagram/bubble chart review sheet for Final Exam

Using this review technique always seems to require the biggest leap of faith on the part of students. In contrast to a linear chart, which bears a resemblance to a worksheet and appears to have a clear teleological goal (e.g. “when I fill in all the boxes, I’m done learning”), this free-form webbing/bubbling lacks such definitive reference points. Likely because it doesn’t have the solidity of a chart, nor does it include my direct guidance, students find this process-oriented review technique disorienting as it doesn’t have a clear start or end point. In fact, as an end product, this type of information reorganization is distinctly useless to other students, but is also sort of useless to the student who made it. Rather, its value comes from the process of its creation, where, moreso than some of the other techniques I’ve written about above, the student becomes the active molder of facts from the past — assigning them value, importance, thematic categories, and relations to other pieces of information.

However, in contrast to some generic bubble chart examples I’ve seen, I think the real value in this exercise comes from how one labels the lines that connect the terms and what directional arrows one puts on the lines. Again, by labeling the lines, the student is forced to actively shape and assign significance to the facts, which can help them see causality, similarities, differences, and changes over time. Of all the review activities, this is the one that I most directly cribbed from my 10th grade history teacher as I found a version of this assignment (which I need to take a picture of and post) in my old binder and thought it’d be good to bring into my own classroom. This approach is one of my favorites and actually serves as one of the ways I still plan for and conceive of ways to sequence materials in academic units.

What other information reorganization approaches do people use in their classrooms? Which approaches seem to be particularly helpful? What other techniques are useful for helping students actively reshape the material they read and give it more resonance?

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5 thoughts on “Information Reorganization Sensation!

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