Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nonlinguistic Representations

While graphic organizers (and other forms of nonlinguistic representations) have been part of many teachers' "bag of tricks" for decades, recent brain-based research highlights the necessity for teachers to consistently and pervasively incorporate nonlinguistic modes of learning into the daily meaning-making work that students do.

Bob Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock (Classroom Instruction that Works, ASCD 2001) note that "the more we use both systems of representation--linguistic and nonlinguistic--the better we are able to think about and recall knowledge" (p. 73). In the typical classroom setting, however, students primarily read and listen to gain knowledge, thus using only one system--linguistic or verbal--to learn. The more we as teachers as construct instructional opportunities that require students to visualize, draw, improvise, move, use manipulatives, and do other non-verbal manipulations of concepts, the more their brains are actively making meaning.

Nonlinguistic representations should add to, elaborate, or deepen a student's knowledge (Marzano, p. 74). As the student has to "transfer" facts, concepts, and knowledge to a "different" form (representation), his level of understanding increases. A novice user of nonlinguistic representations will find a plethora of online graphic organizers from which to choose (just google graphic organizer), but the real learning happens as students become adept at creating their own organizers to help them make meaning.

The organizer can't be the end itself--it is only the vehicle or tool to get at meaning. Using some sort of nonlinguistic representation because "it's required in my lesson planning" can result in busywork for both student and teacher, rather than a tool to get at deeper understanding. When planning a lesson, think about some of these questions:
  • How can I help students organize this information more efficiently?
  • What's another way to "see" this information?
  • How is this new information like something else my students might already know?
  • What background information do they need to understand this?
  • What is really important or key to understanding and what is "extra"?
  • How might I scaffold this information for my nonlinguistic learners?
  • How am I asking my students to think?
  • How is the information they need to know organized?
Answers to these questions can guide you to effectively using nonlinguistic representations to increase your students' understanding.

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