Looking Under the Label: A Journey in Deeper Thinking

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Exploring deeper learning through the study of ‘labels’ in a first grade classroom.  

Deeper Learning is not an exotic new curricular approach that requires big projects – it is a frame of mind about how to approach all aspects of learning – even seemingly trivial details – in a deeper way. We open the door for deeper thinking when we challenge students with questions that invite them to explore the conceptual basis of apparently obvious concepts.









I was visiting a kindergarten class who was studying the concept of a ‘label.’ The teacher modeled how to identify a label by pointing to a strip with the words ‘Wit Bud’ (white board) taped to the top of the white board. Everyone knew that was a label (or at least when the teacher asked if it was a label, they all agreed in one enthusiastic YES!). She then invited the children to examine a variety of texts and identify all the places they found labels. The children went to work, most eagerly turning pages and calling out when they saw labels. Some wrote them down. Others raced through the pages and didn’t see any at all, but with teacher encouragement, began to find them.

As they were reading, I looked around the room and the walls were rich in print. There were four different alphabet charts, one made by the class. There were labels on many items in the room, on the table, the loft, the word wall, the character traits, etc.









There were other words displayed that were not labels, like the learning targets for the day, reminders of what to do when your work is finished, and on the door, in large letters was the word “JOURNEY,” which was the theme of their expedition (think of an expedition as a “deeper project”).

SL Labels










They came back to the circle, excited to share the labels they found in their books. Everyone had found some, and it seemed like they all understood what a label was. In many classrooms, the ability to recognize labels would demonstrate sufficient understanding, and they would move on to the next lesson.

I asked the teacher if I could pose a question to the class. I pointed to the word “JOURNEY” on the door, and under it “PREPARE” and “SUCCESS” (they were preparing for fieldwork at a reservoir). I asked if they thought JOURNEY was a label and most of the class said, “Yes.”

One child objected, “No, it’s not a label.”

“Why not?” I challenged.

He couldn’t say, but did suggest, “Well, it would be a label if you moved it over there,” pointing to the daily schedule. Curiously, the daily schedule was labeled “JOURNEY”, consistent with their theme. Every day was a journey for these kindergartners.

“You mean if I put the word “JOURNEY” on the door it is not a label, but if I put it on the daily schedule it is?”

“Yes, it’s about what place it’s in.”









Suddenly there was animated discussion. Some argued that it couldn’t be a label in one place and not in another. Others countered, “It has to be in the right place. It has to be the name of the thing it’s on.” This began to make sense to more and more of the class. A label is a word that is attached to something it identifies or describes. Placement has everything to do with it. The “ahas!” of understanding began to shine through the “OK, I got that, what’s next?”

The teacher’s lesson was successful for students to practice locating labels in the room and in books, but when a question forced them to examine the blurry line separating a label from what it is not, they had to think deeply. Asking the right question provokes the kind of grappling that stretches thinking beyond the skill of identifying a label, to deeper understanding of its actual meaning. If we challenge our students with the right questions, they will begin to develop the habit of looking for deeper meaning themselves.

Dr. Dorothy Frayer developed a model (the Frayer Model) and graphic organizer as a tool to analyze the nuanced meaning of any concept. The part I like best is looking for non-examples, like JOURNEY on the door.

What examples do you have of concepts you thought everyone understood, but found out they didn’t? What questions have you asked that revealed superficial understandings and opened the door to deeper learning?


The original post appeared on January 22, 2014 on eleducation.org/news/label-journey-deeper-thinking. Reposted with permission.


  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (steven.levy@cace.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.

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