Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Measuring Understandings of Mass

Sometimes we begin a new maths unit with a provocation to tune the children into wondering about the concept. Other times we unpack the central idea.

Unpacking a central idea is a really useful strategy to being a new maths unit I think. It helps the children to tune in to the concepts and possible skills about to be explored and aids them in reflecting back to past experiences and understandings they already harbour as a launch board to their learning.  

There are loads of different ways to unpack a central idea.

Today I chose the strategy of giving each child the central idea on paper and they identified key words and made notes of what they already knew about it and possible wonderings they may have.

After a few minutes we shared our thoughts together:

Some interesting discussions took place with others sharing theories.  Also, some misconceptions were raised and students helped correct these as they arose.

Unpacking a central idea also gives the children a clear scope of where we are heading and what our ultimate goal is = to have a deep understanding of it. This helps them to appreciate that maths is conceptual rather than merely skills oriented.  

Unpacking a central idea can also be a very informative informal assessment. Observing which children know what and which may need additional support are often found in an unpacking.  

The other important benefit of using a central idea in maths is it gives children ownership of what they want to enquire into.  After a few days of doing activities together as a means of double checking the necessary skills and key conceptual understandings are in place, the children will then take more ownership of their learning by creating their own wonderings to explore.  A central idea gives them a guided parameter to enquire into.  From a teacher's perspective, a strong central idea that children can connect with allows us to stand back and let them take control of what they will enquire into. If it allows a deepened understanding of the central idea, then each child is on target regardless of how completely different their learning and enquiries are.


Pre-assessment is crucial for effective enquiries to take place.  It's important for both the child and myself to be aware of areas they need to learn and might need extra support in.

After our discussion, the children were given our four lines of inquiry and had a few minutes to record what they knew about each. As with every pre-assessment we do, I always say that this is just to help them tune in to what we will be learning about and it helps me to see what you know and what you might need help in finding out.  If you know a lot, that's great. If you don't know a lot, that's great too.  

By letting them know this, it makes the children feel at ease with the learning. Pre-assessments are not a judgement; they are simply a helpful tool.  That's how the children in my class understand them to be.

After recording what they knew about the first line of inquiry:

FUNCTION: What strategies can we use when measuring mass?

They did a talk-n-turn with their table partner sharing what they knew. This short discussion helps the child to clarify in their own mind their understandings as well as broadening this by listening to what their partner knows or thinks about it.

We continued with this strategy for each line of inquiry:

FUNCTION: How can we convert units of mass?

FUNCTION / CAUSATION: How do we use decimals with the measurement of mass and why?

CONNECTION: How do we use the measurement of mass in our daily lives?

The last line of inquiry is really important and I use it in every maths unit. When children understand the relevance to the maths they are learning to their own or future lives, they climb on board when the learning. That connection makes the learning about to take place in the unit relevant to them and they seem to take a greater sense of responsibility towards their own learning because of it.  

The following day we did another quick pre-assessment that related more to the skills involved in the unit.  Again I explained, if you know how to do these, great. If you don't know how to do them, that's great too!  It shows me what I can do to help you with your learning or what I don't need to help you with.

With this particular pre-assessment, I use the findings to group the children for future learning experiences.  They aren't grouped necessarily into equal abilities /understandings, but sometimes thoughtfully grouped into who knows what who could peer-teach some skill or concept.

Gathering these findings also helps me to form groups to explicitly teach key skills that will help them with their enquiries later in the unit. 

From these simple activities, I have a fairly good idea of where each child is at with their conceptual understandings and skills and so now I can more confidently help guide each child to where they may want to take their own learning whilst also tuning them all in to what we are about to enquire into.

Tomorrow, we will revisit our central idea and gather some questions we may already be harbouring to start our unit off.....


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