How Big Ideas Benefit Kids

School News
Originally published in Tuesday News January 26, 2016

You’ve heard a lot about the things we’ve accomplished in the last few years and the big ideas that illuminate that path that we have developed for our community. Significant investments in teacher professional development; the leaps we’ve made in technology; the push toward differentiated instruction; new spaces designed to organically support 21st Century skills; Professional Learning Communities that create engaging curriculum. More. 

The smiles on the faces of the children, and the fact that they run to their classrooms in the morning indicate enthusiasm for learning, but it’s often a mystery as to how our big ideas and lofty ideals actually reach the students and help them “Learn More.” 

This morning, Lower School Director, Mrs. Schlossinger, kicked off a new series for parents designed to answer exactly this question and provide a window into the classroom. Today’s topic was Depth and Complexity Icons, which are, essentially, 11 tools that lower school teachers are using to guide discovery across many disciplines. A series of symbols (icons) represent different paths of inquiry and specific prompts that can be used to help direct exploration of subject matter and provide opportunities for differentiated instruction. For example, one is focused on identifying patterns, another on considering perspective, and one on ethical issues that might be relevant to the subject at hand. 

“OK, I’m going to reveal a series of pictures,” said Mrs. Schlossinger. Unbeknownst to the 20+ parents who crowded into the library, today, they would be students. “I want you to gather in groups of three to four and determine the big idea for our next unit of study.” 

The first image was a tree frog leaping toward a tropical canopy. “Who thinks they have an idea?” she asked. Next was an image of a ski jumper mid-flight, then a balloon hovering above the ground, a meteor approaching the Earth’s atmosphere, a whale breaching the surface of the ocean, and a rock climber throwing himself from one precipice to another. The visual learners in the room were clearly engaged. 

“Do you think you have it?” Mrs. Schlossinger asked? “ Discuss this with your neighbors, then we’ll go around the room and I’d like each group to share their conclusion and how they arrived at it.” The extroverts in the group broke the ice, eager to share their ideas and then willingly volunteered to be spokesperson. The critical thinkers tallied similarities and differences and delved into the metacognitive question. The more interpersonally minded helped guide the group to consensus. Models of 21st Century skills abounded. 

One group of parents noted that all but one image depicted something floating, with the exception of the meteor, which clearly was falling. Therefore, they noted, they believed that the big idea was gravity. Mrs. Schlossinger asked, “Are you ready to know what the big idea is?” The room was silent with all eyes on the teacher. Even those who typically gravitated toward distraction desperately wanted to know the answer to the riddle. “It’s flight,” she said. 

Next, the groups were asked to “get on their devices” and find the four elements of flight. “When you have the power to do your own research and discover things,” noted Mrs. Schlossinger, “It’s much more powerful than being told the same information.” The value of the lower school one-to-one iPad program, and the importance of cultivating research skills at a young age was apparent. “Now, I’d like each group to act out these four ideas,” said Mrs. Schlossinger, which it turns out are lift, weight, thrust, and drag. The parents laughed as they awkwardly struggled to illustrate abstract concepts without the comfortable crutch of words. The byproduct, laughter, it turns out, makes things more memorable, and for the kinesthetically inclined, this was an opportunity to deepen meaning.  

Cutting the lesson short, Mrs. Schlossinger released the parents from their roles as students, explaining that this was just one example of how a lower school teacher might introduce the concept of flight in a science class and how these exercises provided myriad departure points for exploring new ideas in depth. Much more effective than sitting quietly, listening to a lecture comprised of a litany of concepts, right? 

Depth and Complexity Icons are being used heavily in grades 3-5 and are expanding into grades K-2. This structure can be universally applied as a framework across all disciplines. It is just one of the many tools being used by our teachers to reach diverse learners where they are with what they need

Developments like this are a direct result of the school’s leaders and faculty taking part in professional development and collaborating to create and cross-pollinate ideas through Professional Learning Communities. They are supported by the technology that we’ve put in each classroom and throughout the school, and by the new spaces and furnishings that allow small group collaboration and facilitate multimedia-empowered, guided discovery. 
The goal of Mrs. Schlossinger’s parent coffee’s is to provide transparency about how we are applying best practices to benefit students. They are also an opportunity for parents to learn about specific areas in which they are interested. Check the VMS Community Calendar for upcoming installments of the Lower School Parent Coffee and make plans to join us.

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.