Academic journal article Science and Children

Classifying Classification: Teachers Examine Their Practices to Help First-Grade Students Build a Deeper Understanding of How to Categorize Things

Academic journal article Science and Children

Classifying Classification: Teachers Examine Their Practices to Help First-Grade Students Build a Deeper Understanding of How to Categorize Things

Article excerpt

A few years ago, my school district undertook an action research project to develop performance assessment standards for the scientific processes in our curriculum. We focus on two processes at each grade level. This article describes the experience of a group of first-grade teachers as they tackled the science process of classification, a targeted learning objective for the first grade. While the two-year process was not easy and required teachers to teach in a new, more investigation-oriented way, the benefits were great. The project helped teachers and students focus on "doing" science, developed teachers' formative assessment strategies, and showed teachers the value of allowing students different ways to share what they know or how they do things.

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An Evolving Project

During the first year of the project, teachers focused on understanding what a science performance task was and developing them--fall leaf sorts, magnetic classification, and exploring how spinning tops worked on different surfaces--to try with students in their classrooms. After a year of working with performance tasks in their classrooms, the teachers examined student work samples for each task and sorted them into categories: Exceeding Expectations, Fully Meeting Expectations, Minimally Meeting Expectations, and Not Yet Meeting Expectations (the categories our Ministry of Education uses for assessment and evaluation purposes).

This sorting process resulted in rich discussion among the teachers. They looked at each category, and based on the work samples, tried to describe what the students were able to do in relation to the process of classification as outlined in the expectations in our science curriculum. From these discussions, the teachers drafted a performance standard for each category that described student abilities for the assessment categories (Figure 1).

The teachers tested two or three performance tasks with students each term. During the tasks, teachers listened to student comments while they were engaged with the task or talking to their peers. The teachers recorded students' comments, questions, and connections they made to other personal experiences, often prompting students with questions like, "Have you ever seen something like this before?" or "What does this remind you of?" in order to draw students' connections into the discussion. These comments were recorded on sticky notes and attached to the student's work sample for further reference when teachers analyzed the student work against the performance standard scale.

The teachers soon began to see patterns in the different levels of understanding and skills that emerged from the students. At the beginning of first grade, the majority of students were able to perform simple matching and sorting tasks when the categories were provided. By the end of the school year, most of the students were easily able to create their own categories and intuitively understand the concept of defining features. The teachers found that the more classification experiences the students had, the more students were able to sort and classify things in a greater variety of ways.

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The teachers also observed that some performance tasks were more challenging for students than others; these observations showed the teachers that they needed to fully understand the process of classification themselves in order to make the most informed instructional decisions about where students were in their experiences and understanding. So, during the second year of the project, the teachers developed a classification continuum (Figure 2, p. 28) for themselves, based on input from Bloom (2006), to help them describe how students move through different levels of classification tasks.

The continuum began with matching and sorting tasks focused on examining similarities and differences and moved to more complex categorizing and interpreting tasks, which involved defining characteristics and looking for connections across categories. …

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