I notice you’ve got a really beautiful UOI display. What’s that all about?
The current design of my UOI Board, as of Feb 2015.

The current skeleton of my UOI Board, as of Feb 2015 (but with fewer Lines)

Ha, ya, I guess it is colorful, but that’s mostly incidental. For the past couple years I’ve been engaged in experimenting with an action research project to figure out the most effective way of organizing my Unit of Inquiry boards. I think I’m on to something that’s really effective.

You mean it is a good way of communicating what the unit is about? Like the Central Idea and the Key Concepts?

Well, yes, those essential elements are included, but I also want an evolving space for students to display their understandings. As my class moves through the unit of inquiry, we create all sorts of artifacts: diagrams, vocab words, maps, photos, timelines, charts, diagrams. I’ve been creating a place for those artifacts to live.

How does it work?

The wall is structured into four circles. At the top in the purple is the Transdisciplinary Theme, with wedge shaped Lines of Inquiry emanating outwards. The next circle, green, contains our generalizations, and the light blue circle is where we put all the the related concepts we are using. Of course, no concept is trapped within only one Line of Inquiry, so it is a bit messy, but in general, it works. Finally, the dark blue contains artifacts of our significant learning engagements.

UOI Board – Where We Are in Place and Time, March 17 2015.

What about the Central Idea and Key Concepts?

That’s one of favorite parts! The Central Idea is just a giant generalization, so it goes on the green circle with the other generalizations, but in the middle.

And the Key Concepts are concepts, and so go on the blue circle?!

Bingo! Neat and tidy, eh?

This is certainly unique. How did you start this idea?

It’s been evolving over a few years. It started when I got really hooked on the Thinking Routine of Question Sorts, where I would ask students to plot their questions on a two axis scale: generativity vs genuine. But, I went further with it; by assigning a color to each of the PYP Key Concepts, I could make the question sorts even more useful and information dense. My colleague (and “Inquiry Specialist”/Teacher Librarian) Eileen and I would spend hours facilitating students’ debates about if this is a function or a causation question. The Question Sorts routine was great for questions, but not so useful for actually organizing students’ understandings.

Based on the Visible Thinking Routine called Question Sort. Each PYP Key Concept is assigned a different colour. Those light green questions are Form questions, which these students found to be the least generative.

Based on the Visible Thinking Routine called Question Sort. Each PYP Key Concept is assigned a different colour. Those light green questions are Form questions, which these students found to be the least generative.

So what’d you do?

My earliest approach was to simply pin everything — all the questions, artifacts, and vocab words — on a bulletin board. I continued to assign a color to each Key Concept, but other than that, it wasn’t a very organized approach. However I was surprised how even though the location of the artifacts were random, my students still knew exactly where to look when they wanted to refer to something. Our ideas had locations. My guess is that in the same way that we don’t get lost running errands in our neighborhoods, even if it doesn’t have gridded streets, my students had built a mental map of the wall. My students made it very clear to me that they loved having a place for all the artifacts we were creating: a visual scrapbook.

But clearly, some kind of organization was necessary. At about the same time, my G4 team was experimenting with not informing students of the Central Idea, and instead having them discover/create it themselves. I wondered if the Visible Thinking Routine Peel the Fruit might be useful. It turned out to be a perfect fit because the whole point is to drive towards the core of an issue, which in this context was the Central Idea. I loved the visual of the concentric circles, and how there was an underlying structure to the physical space: more central equalled more conceptual. The unit was a huge success, and so I tried using Peel the Fruit for my next unit. It was a disaster.

What!? Why?

I quickly figured out that you can’t use Peel the Fruit if you are going to give students the Central Idea. Peel the Fruit requires them to reflect on what they are learning, and invites them to glue everything together with generalizations. In a way, by giving them the Central Idea I was short circuiting the whole constructivist approach.

So you are anti-Central Idea?

Not exactly. I think Central Ideas are good for the team of teachers who are designing the framework of the unit; it helps us keep our bearings. But I think students need to be doing the work of stumbling around in what they are learning. So I guess I’m not ‘anti-Central Idea’, I’m more ‘pro-mini-generalization’.

So did you abandon Peel the Fruit?

The lesson I took from it was that there could be a place for both the conceptual and the factual. And the circles, I liked the circles 😉 But I didn’t know what to do, until I went to a PD by Lynn Erickson. It was the perfect timing for me, and she blew my mind. By applying her Structure of Knowledge approach, suddenly I could see I could add missing strata between the macro Key Concepts and the specific learning engagements. I could use the Lines of Inquiry as defining the loose areas we would investigate, with the goal of creating generalizations. Lynn helped me realized how I could strengthened the Related Concepts (which had been severely marginalized until then, I admit) and create a deep and meaningful context for our inquiry. And in keeping the color coding of the Key Concepts, my students have a visible reminder of the continuity of those concepts, unit to unit. This year, and specifically in the past few months, I feel like I’ve really hit my stride. The pieces are coming together, and I am so excited to watch what happens!

I’m really happy for you. But it sounds ambitious. How does it go over with the students?  Is it too hard for them?

Yes, it definitely takes time to teach students how to categorize and structure their ideas. In each group of students I’ve worked with, there are some that are naturally more able to play with ideas than others. Challenging? Of course, but never too hard. Plus it was rewarding; kids love to argue with each other and wrestle with big ideas. I think it is a natural result of being human that we want — need — to create meaning and see connections between ideas.

One more question before you go: you mentioned action research. Can you tell us more about that?

Action research sounds a little too formal for what I’ve been doing. I prefer the term ‘tinkering’. Basically, I’ve been trying new things, identifying what is working and what isn’t, and changing things. You know, the action cycle of think-act-reflect. It started a few years back at a different school, and when I moved on to my current position in mid 2013, I just continued right where I left off. Being a professional is awesome that way: I’ll just keep developing and growing wherever I am.

So, what’s next?

Find like-minded professionals. Reach out to others who are taking a collaborative visual approach. Know of anyone? I’d love to meet them!

4 thoughts on “Conceptual Topography: A Visual Approach to Inquiry

  1. Eileen says:

    Amazing, Ric! I forgot how much I enjoyed sorting through all this great stuff with you and your students. Still missing the PYP too! I continue to struggle with being more visual in my teaching. It doesn’t come as naturally to me as it does you.

  2. Shanez says:

    I enjoyed reading all the stuff you have tried and the process you have gone through. I have always found my unit board a mess and not quite figured out how to make it work. Looking forward to trying some new ideas!!

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Shanez for stopping by. Unit boards seem to be messy almost by definition… there is just so much data to incorporate. Or, the opposite, teacher-directed and a little sterile. Good luck with whatever ideas you try out, and be sure to share whatever amazingness you create! I’m happy to offer support and suggestions, if you’d like. Look for me on Twitter.

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