Symbolics: Making Abstract Thinking Concrete…the How To

10 Jan

Watch the video for further explanation.

If you are reading this post, you have most likely read its companion that explains what a Symbolic is. If you have not, I encourage you to do so before reading on.

In this post I want to give a “meat and potatoes” explanation of how I introduce Symbolics and help students complete each step of the process. I use two fifty-minute class periods to complete these steps, with some of the work completed as homework. I also teach in a one-to-one school, so the transitions from large group discussions to individual work time are instantaneous. You may need to adapt the timing depending on your access to technology.

#1: Begin With a List of Big Questions
At the end of a unit or term, I create “Big Questions” about key concepts and skills we have covered. My examples obviously pertain to an English class, but these questions could easily be adapted to your specific subject. The idea, however, is to ask questions that require open-ended responses, answers that allow for flexibility but also require mastery of course material. Also, I always allow students to create their own questions, with my approval.

#2: Pass out the Symbolic Handout
This is the assignment explanation I give students. Please feel free to adapt it as needed. I emphasize that the process of creating a Symbolic is not a linear one. I’ve laid out the steps in a clear, chronological order, but students need not complete these steps in this exact order. I do, however, walk them through the first three steps as a whole class.

#3: Have Students Answer One Big Question
Either in class or as homework, I ask students to choose one “Big Question” and answer it as completely as possible in fifteen minutes. They might write their answers in complete sentences or bullet points. The key is to get all of their ideas down. I then ask them to identify the three to five parts of their answers. It is important to force the students to use only three to five major “parts” in their answer. You might have to help them combine or divide parts of their answers. Also, students will most likely edit these answers as they create their Symbolic. Of course, this revision process is natural and encouraged.

#4: Show Examples of Symbolics
After the students have determined their answers and categorized the “parts,” I show them what a Symbolic actually is. Regardless of the unit, I typically begin by using the mythology examples I have shared in the companion post to this piece. Of course, you are welcome to use the student examples available at our Flickr group, too. I find that using examples not associated with the unit topic actually helps students think about the process and relationship of the ideas.

#5: Discuss Different Types of Processes and Create Examples
This step might be the most confusing for you, so I have included a video explanation. I begin by drawing the following graphics on a white board. I then lead a discussion with my students, explaining that they need to give me examples of things from their world that operate in these ways. I also ask them to give me other processes not listed on the board.

Explanation of PROCESS I give my students

After a general discussion of the processes, I go back to a few of the example Symbolics and ask the class to identify the type of process at work. I then have them consider their answers to the Big Question and determine which process best demonstrates how the ideas relate.

#6: Let the Students Loose
After determining the way their ideas relate, I typically turn the students loose to work at their own pace. They will complete steps 4-9 on the Assignment Explanation Sheet on their own…in a way. I usually let students work for 10-15 minutes and float around answering individual questions. Based on the questions they have, I will pause individual work time and, using a data projector, deliver three to five minute mini-lectures, explaining how to complete various steps of the process or warning students about something that is confusing to a majority of people. The class runs, then, in blocks of 10-15 minutes of individual work time divided by three to five minute mini-lectures. I also use student examples—at various levels of the creation process—to offer formative feedback to the entire group.

#7: The Feedback Loop
After the Symbolics have been uploaded to the Flickr group, I use a jigsaw discussion format where students present their work to one another. I float from group to group and sometimes share particularly interesting examples with the entire class. After students share their examples in class, I usually make a homework assignment where, over the course of a week, students must view other examples and leave comments for their peers. As this assignment is actually in process, when viewing the examples on Flickr you may not see many student comments, depending on when you visit.

Please let me know if you have more questions by leaving a comment below. I’m happy to respond.

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