6 ways to use activity-before-concept to hook pupils in

Want to introduce a tricky topic in a way that works and gets pupils engaged? Then turn to your ABCs, says this teacher

Jamie Schoenberger

retrieval practice pedagogy focus

My first year of teaching consisted of me talking enthusiastically – which felt great until a mentor pointed out I was the most engaged person in my classroom.

However, while I understood their point about needing to take a more student-centered approach to teaching, I had no idea where to begin. After all, the majority of my own schooling had been traditional and it worked for me, right?

However, the world has moved on: we understand better now that traditional instructional methods need to be updated to recognise, if nothing else, the fact information is so readily accessible online.

Students need teachers who can craft lessons that allow learners to explore, engage and apply what they are learning in authentic problem-solving experiences.

This is where the idea of Activity Before Concept, Concept Before Vocabulary (ABC-CBV) has become central to my practice – providing a more student-centered approach that allows students to start to engage and explore a topic before more traditional teaching begins.

Here are some tips for how to incorporate the model into your classroom that I have found work wonders:

1. Begin with inquiry-based exploration instead of a guided lesson

When starting a new concept, design your introductory activity to be open-ended. Phrase the activity as a challenge to try and solve, rather than providing students with set directions.

Using a hands-on lesson on electrical circuits as an example, a guided, more traditional approach would include giving students an ordered set of procedures to follow.

An inquiry approach to the same lesson on circuits could be: How bright/dim can they make the lightbulbs? Can they find an arrangement that would make one light bulb go out while the other stays on?

2. Use probing vs guiding questioning techniques

As students explore, help them explain their thinking by asking probing questions, such as, “What made you decide to add more batteries to your arrangement? What did you think would happen if you added another light bulb?”

If teams get stuck, guiding questions can be used to help them get back on track while problem-solving, “Let’s see, what do we already know about batteries? What is a batteries job in this arrangement?”

3. Follow up with a full class discussion

During their exploration, have teams diagram and label their arrangements and their observations.

When teaching in person, I like to use 2ft by 2ft portable whiteboards which are large enough to be seen by the entire class but light enough for students hold up. When at home, screen sharing their notebook drawings works just fine.

4. Technical vocabulary comes last

Now that students have explored and discussed their ideas, they are primed for a period of direct instruction where the complete picture of the lesson can come into focus.

Students will be able to more easily connect new terms and processes based on their shared experience during the inquiry activity.

5. Have a back-up plan

Inquiry-based activities can often lead to noisy, highly active classroom environments and students may become off-task. I find having an alternative reading assignment at the ready is key in maintaining classroom order and keeping focus on the lesson goals.

This assignment covers the same concepts as the activity however concepts are presented in a more controlled way.

As students often prefer to complete the activity rather than read about it, it can serve an extrinsic motivator to stay on task while exploring.

6. Virtual learners don’t have to miss out

Learners that are participating from home can benefit from this model as well. If using Zoom, breakout rooms can be used for small group work and challenges can be adjusted to use materials students may have at home.

All teams can still benefit from their classmates’ investigations as teams share their findings during the class discussion.

Jamie Schoenberger is a middle school science teacher at Windermere Preparatory School in Florida

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