Countries vs. Continents: A question from the New Teachers Conference
By Melissa Salter (gr. 4-7/SD#41)
The New Teachers Conference is a wonderful place for early career teachers to make connections and learn about what supports are available to them. While manning the myPITA table, I had many wonderful conversations and answered lots of questions about conferences, workshops, and supports. One student teacher asked a question that at the time, I was not able to answer, but now I think I have a few suggestions. This early career teacher said to me, "My students are confusing continents and countries, do you have any suggestions to help?" Her initial instinct was to give them maps to colour, but it just wasn’t working.
This question speaks to the heart of many issues in Social Studies and Science. We are often trying to teach students about concepts that are large in space and/or time. We know as educators that hands-on learning and active engagement are vital for deep understanding, so how to we take abstract concepts and solidify them in the minds of children? This student teacher has stumbled onto a larger issue that has sat with me for about a week, and I think I have a few ideas to help now. As I am currently on maternity leave, I can honestly say that I have not tried all of these specific ideas in my class, but I have worked with all of the processes using different subject matter with success.
Understand the Topic Yourself
First and foremost, you as the teacher need to understand the concepts to the best of your ability. If you understand the key idea that differentiates a topic, it will allow you as a teacher to help students understand the idea. This might mean looking in a textbook, the dictionary, and at reputable online sources. Looking at several sources can help you understand the most important aspects, differences or similarities between concepts and identify what might be challenging for students. Identifying the challenges can help you as the educator identify what needs to be concrete or hands-on in your lesson.
Example: Continents vs. Countries - Understanding the Topic
Continent: one of the main landmasses of the globe, usually reckoned as seven in number (Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Australia, and Antarctica).
Continent: one of the six or seven great divisions of land on the globe
Country: a state or nation; the territories of a nation
Country: a political state or nation or its territory
What might be challenging for learners about this topic?
Concept Attainment- Beyond Monet
Beyond Monet is a text resource I used in my early career that has many interesting points and good strategies for cooperative learning. The concept attainment lesson suggests giving both examples and non-examples in order to help students’ define/create understanding of a topic. A clear description of this idea can be found at: http://www.teachthought.com/critical-thinking/strategies/how-to-teach-with-the-concept-attainment-model/
Additionally, I highly recommend checking out the professional resources in your school library or finding a copy of Beyond Monet for clear descriptions of how/when to use many graphic organizers and/or cooperative learning strategies.
Analogy- Hands-on please!
With large concepts like countries and continents, analogy can be a powerful tool to create concrete understanding. If you can explore a kinesthetic link as well, this will create a powerful memory in the brains of learners.
Example 1: Continents vs. Countries- Jigsaw Puzzles
Visit your local primary class and nicely ask to borrow 5-7 jigsaw puzzles. Try to get puzzles with a different number of pieces and some that are different sizes (6-24). In groups, ask students to first put the puzzles together and give the puzzle a title. Next have them write down facts about the puzzle on a white board or chart paper. Have them focus on quantitative data like size or number of pieces. (Adaptation - Prepare a fact for students who will find this challenging and make sure they have the opportunity to share it with their group.)
Create a chart on your white board or smart board with data from all groups. Ask the students to make comparisons based on the data, maybe even two column notes as a group. Introduce the idea that the entire puzzle is like the continent and the pieces are like the countries. Challenge the students to identify ways the pieces are like countries (example: each has a border) and also how they are different (example: borders can change). Create the same challenge for the continent level (example: some large continents have many countries, while others have only a few). You could follow this up with mapping exercises, or discussions on political instability. The possibilities are endless!
Example 2: Continents vs. Countries- School Diagrams
Give each student a piece of blank paper (14 X 8.5 is my suggestion) and ask him or her to take out 2-3 different pencil crayons and a pen or pencil. Have the students fold the paper hamburger style and label the sides NOTES and DIAGRAM. Give students two minutes to sketch a bird’s eye view outline of your school on the diagram side with one pencil crayon (Outline=Continent). Then ask your students to use the second pencil crayon to draw the rooms within the school (Rooms=Countries). Again, encourage group discussion on how each room is different and has different functions, which may have analogies to different countries. This could even lead to a discussion about how countries within a continent can work together (examples: NAFTA, EU, school play) or against each other (examples: war, school competitions). The analogy can be extended as classrooms change every year you have migration, changing borders, or complete new regimes (a teacher moving schools!). This conversation could go quite deep depending on your grade, scaffolding, and background knowledge. Brainstorm other schools in the area as this could lead to discussion about how different continents have different divisions, concentrations of people, and/or philosophies. Use the diagram/notes columns to record a key, add ideas, and make comparisons.
(Adaptation - before the lesson create your own diagram as a visual to those students who need it (see photo above). Prepare and photocopy two versions for students who need extra supports - one where the student can use two different colours to outline the school and classroom and another where the school outline is provided and they can draw in the classrooms. Notes can already be added and highlighted by the student.)
Cross Curricular Links
Linking ideas across the curriculum (1) makes our lives as teachers easier and (2) creates more strands of understanding for students. I find that there can be many links made between concepts in Math, Science, and Social Studies. Often in Social Studies, students are reading graphs and trying to interpret data. This is a wonderful time to reinforce ratios, percentage, and how data is represented. Language Arts can be found through small group discussion, simulations, and written response. You could focus on non-fiction writing through comparison or stick with graphic organizers and group discussion.
Conclusions- Deeper Understanding
For many topics in Social Studies and Science, the concepts are intangible or of a scale that is challenging for learners. It is our duty to find ways to bring conceptual understanding to students in an engaging way. I have used many cooperative learning strategies, as well as analogy, simulation, acting etc. to deeply explore ideas. Sometimes it works, other times it does not and I try something different the next time. The simple question from a student teacher at a conference made me think about concept based learning and I feel bad I could not answer her question fully at the time. My hope is that these ideas reach her, and if not her, someone else who needs them. I encourage you to take risks as a teacher and push yourself beyond what you have tried in the past when exploring the redesigned curriculum. I challenge you to have fun, engage with students, and watch the magic of connection. I'd love hear your comments back about what worked and what didn't work in your classroom.