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Concepts or “BIG ideas” are often used in schools to provoke and extend connections enabling a shift from surface to deep understanding.  They can also be a first step to the deeper notion of “ways of knowing” or epistemic knowledge. 

Concepts help students shift from “stuff I know” (declarative knowledge) to putting the knowledge to use in some way (application and then extension). 

In my work I most often see schools using concepts as inert organisers of knowledge – for example – in strategies where students match a concept or BIG idea to the new learning – an event or a narrative – using SOLO templates (Fig. 1 and 2) or using SOLO Hexagons (Fig 3.) ; and as organisers on a curriculum mapping wall in staff workrooms where teachers talk about “a concept for the term” (Fig. 4) (Tasks at the SOLO multistructural levels of understanding).  

Fig. 1 SOLO Map for matching concepts in geography (Craig Perry NZ)
Fig. 2 SOLO rubric for matching concepts task (Craig Perry NZ)
Fig. 3 Matching concepts with SOLO Hexagons (Alisha Packer NZ)
Fig. 4 SOLO Discuss a biological phenomenon Map
Fig. 5 SOLO Curriculum Wall (Blockhouse Bay Intermediate School (NZ))

It is less common for me to see students using concepts as active systems – for example when integrating ideas in problem solving and inquiry – concepts as things you apply (Tasks at SOLO relational levels of understanding). 

Fig. 6 Using concepts to unpack and extend a topic (Alisha Packer NZ)
Fig. 7 SOLO rubric for making links to concepts

I seldom see concepts used in ways that lead to far transfer of knowledge – transforming student understanding (SOLO extended abstract levels of understanding).

It is true that New Zealand schools design their student learning experiences around many different broad-brush values and belief systems but, this is infrequently if ever around “threshold concepts” for disciplinary understanding. This is a shame, because everything I read suggests that “threshold concepts” are catalysts for the deep disciplinary understanding we seek.

Biggs and Tang (4th Edition 2011 p92-93), promote their use when designing teaching and learning activities, in their popular text, “Teaching for Quality Learning at University, describing “threshold concepts” as follows:

“Whatever kinds of knowledge are being taught, there are some key concepts in a discipline that, once understood properly, change the students understanding of a whole area, sometimes dramatically. These threshold concepts as they are called, bring students to stand at the threshold, as it were of new broad-based understanding. They need to be isolated and emphasised in teaching.  They are however, sometimes troublesome to teach because they make a break with the way the students have been looking at the content. It is important that teachers in a program discuss and agree what the threshold concepts are and how they should be taught.” (p.93 Biggs and Tang 2011)    

A more whimsical description is seen in an opinion piece “Threshold concepts in practice” , where McGowan describes “threshold concepts” as enabling “intellectual wrangling” (McGowan, 2016). When I think about McGowan’s description, I always imagine preparing students to work with horses on the West Auckland sets for Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess.

So, I am hoping that the educators working on the current review of the New Zealand Curriculum – Curriculum Progress and Achievement. will take advantage of the opportunity to move past the old concepts as disciplinary “BIG ideas” rhetoric and reference Meyer and Land’s “threshold concepts” across the different disciplines – so that NZ students can better engage in powerful “intellectual wrangling” across all the curriculum learning areas. 

This is not an unreasonable hope. After all, “threshold concepts” are not new and they are not untested.  Meyer and Land’s ideas have been around for at least 20 years and many researchers have explored the implications of “threshold concepts” in their disciplinary spaces.  They are simply hard to identify and teach for – and classroom teachers engaging with a revised curriculum could do with a hand to target and overcome the many barriers in student disciplinary understanding.

It does not seem unreasonable to claim that explicitly addressing threshold concepts in the current NZ curriculum review has the capacity to powerfully lift the level of teacher professional development and pedagogical content knowledge around disciplinary understanding. This seems especially important with the increasing adoption of inter-disciplinary learning and collaborative group inquiry in New Zealand schools. 

I recommend teachers who are curious, start by getting a paperback copy of Meyer and Land (2012) for their professional library and spend time with colleagues exploring the extensive resources at Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training, Professional Development and School Education

Threshold concepts, are often associated with understandings that are beyond our direct perception – far extend imaginings involving spatial and or temporal scales, randomness, and probability.  For example, an understanding of differing time scales and probability is necessary before students can fully appreciate natural selection and evolution (Tibell and Harms 2017). 

So, playing in the background of my mind at the moment are the various ways in which educators can make this kind of thinking more accessible to students. 

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Ways of knowing

by Pam Hook on July 2, 2021

in deep learning, Science, SOLO Taxonomy

Figure 1. Declarative, Conceptual and Epistemic Knowledge

I am thinking about epistemic knowledge – “ways of knowing”. How I get to add things to the “stuff I know” box – is interesting.  It also requires me to think about the options for critical review of the “stuff” in the box.  And then there is taking things out of the box.  To ask, what are my criteria for deletion, and how as I get older do I acknowledge the increasingly important category of “I used to know, but now I’ve forgotten”?

It turns out my “ways of knowing” include: What I do to understand explain or justify the things I know.   How I investigate, interrogate and validate the things I know.  The processes I use to solve problems. How I accommodate paradox and uncertainty. And how I deal with other “ways of knowing” – ways that might conflict with my ways.

These “ways of knowing” are epistemic knowledge.  They are the processes that allow us to establish knowledge.  In a world where we have lost the universals and increasingly embrace intersectionality it is not surprising that these “ways of knowing” are increasingly categorised.  

One category comes from our lived experiences, the values and beliefs (previous and current) of living with poverty; parenting many children; moving places or countries or jobs in a nomadic lifestyle; of being in a nurturing or manipulative relationship; or perhaps belonging to a religious community. We take these “ways of knowing” and use them to make sense of other aspects of our lives. For example, I have always often used the “ways of knowing” I developed from the years I spent sitting in the Playcentre sandpit with toddlers, lots of sand and only one hose – to understand the power plays in a staff meeting.  Forget the conch – whoever controls the hose wins.  

“Ways of knowing” can be cultural.  For example, mātauranga Māori is a distinctive body of knowledge AND ways of knowing established from a Māori perspective – it represents a cultural way of knowing. It uses kawa (cultural practices) and tikanga (cultural principles) to make meaning of the world.

In schools “ways of knowing” have commonly been categorised by disciplines. Thinking like a historian, a mathematician, an artist or a scientist. For example…

Scientific “ways of knowing” are flexible and adaptive.  Thinking like a scientist includes careful observation of phenomena and then drawing inferences or asking why it happened.  Next scientists generate theories to explain the inferences; and then investigate how well the theories stand up to scrutiny through repeated rigorous experimental testing to determine if the theories are reliable and or valid.

As Mayr describes it: All interpretations made by a scientist are hypotheses, and all hypotheses are tentative. They must forever be tested and they must be revised if found to be unsatisfactory. Hence, a change of mind in a scientist, and particularly in a great scientist, is not only not a sign of weakness but rather evidence for continuing attention to the respective problem and an ability to test the hypothesis again and again.

It becomes apparent that central to a scientists’ “way of knowing” is the questioning of knowledge and opinions – being prepared to revise or change in the face of new evidence. So, thinking like a scientist is always about being open to changing what you think you know, in the light of new evidence.  

When helping students understand disciplinary “ways of knowing” in the sciences it would be a mistake to think about “ways of knowing” as being fixed or ritualised processes. 

For example, when your “ways of knowing” means everything you know in science is up for review, it is not surprising that methods for testing are privileged. But, teaching this in school risks introducing inflexibility. Anyone who has “done science” at school will dredge up memories of “the scientific method”. The steps in the “scientific method” are often memorised and ritualised. And yet this rigidity is counter to “ways of knowing” in science where the methods of testing themselves are always open to critique.  In science, variations on the “as espoused in the textbook” method can be developed, compared with existing practices, and improved processes enacted.

Figure 2. Ways of knowing in science

The alternative – a ritualistic even obdurate or stubborn adherence to a “way of knowing” might have provided advantage in the past (or when introducing new ideas) but later it can risk leaving the “way of knowing” inert, inactive, an anachronism, a process without agency.

 You can see this happening when students have an inflexible understanding of “the scientific method”. They can recall the process steps in the “scientific method” or “fair testing” but have no idea how or why to use them as a “way of knowing.” Certainty without understanding is not to be admired in science. Better is to understand that the scientific method is simply a place holder for the many different processes that can be used to test the reliability and validity of a scientific theory.  The “ways of knowing” themselves can be held up for critical review and evaluation in the sciences.  

And in a rapidly changing world, questioning assumptions in the “way of knowing” – the adaptive thinking of the scientist – is something of a “good thing”.  

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Analysing a health issue

June 28, 2021

Using SOLO Maps to analyse and address a health issue – diabetes in the Pacific. Analysing a health issue – describing symptoms, who is affected, and then explaining its determinants (causes) and implications (effects) on well-being is a significant undertaking. Note: Possible determinants of health include socioeconomic status, education level, geography, cultural identity, social inclusion […]

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Interpreting a historical event

June 26, 2021

It is hard to understand what is going on in the world when everyone is shouting and no one seems to care about the conch shell. There is increasing cognitive load involved when we help students think like a historian. If we accept that determining the significance of a historical account is nuanced work, then […]

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There is magic in graphs

June 23, 2021

“There is a magic in graphs. The profile of a curve reveals in a flash a whole situation — the life history of an epidemic, a panic, or an era of prosperity. The curve informs the mind, awakens the imagination, convinces.” – Henry D. Hubbard Seeing the “magic” in a graph is like the, “THEN […]

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Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle

June 17, 2021

‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’* Embed from Getty Images Exhorting others to “be kind” is not helpful if we don’t take time to clarify what “being kind” is like. Being kind is often used as a place holder for showing empathy (cognitive, emotional and compassionate). An observation that prompts […]

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HookED SOLO Inquiry Byte Template

April 3, 2020

Embed from Getty Images The coronavirus (COVID-19) has prompted teachers to think about how they can help shift student learning from surface to deep when they can no longer rely on being in the same physical space at the same time with students. Teaching has become more nuanced. When working remotely – our role is […]

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SOLO Taxonomy and collaborative case-based learning in ethics

November 18, 2019

I have been enjoying the ideas in a recent research article by Anu Tammeleht et al exploring the learning processes through which Estonian tertiary students (Bachelor, Masters and PhD) develop research ethics and integrity competencies. The article explored the use of collaborative case-based explorations of ethical issues.  The case studies are designed so that students […]

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Melbourne University Network of Schools

September 9, 2019

View this post on Instagram A nice little morning of PD with SOLO Guru Pam Hook. Just helping the old brain absorb the info 🧠 . . #graphicrecording #graphicfacilitation #visualthinking #visualfacilitation #visualnotes #visualrecording #livescribe #livescribing #livedrawing #neuland #sketchnotes #doodling A post shared by Matt Handley (@_highlyvisual) on Sep 8, 2019 at 6:04pm PDT

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SOLO Flashcards

August 25, 2019

Announcing a new HookED SOLO resource. My client schools have been using these SOLO Flashcards for a while, but I only found time to share them in the HookED Store this weekend. It has been a busy year. You can check them out at the HookED SOLO Store HookED SOLO Flashcards – Connectives HookED SOLO […]

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