Using catalyst materials

To identify a shared priority (real life concern) of the students.

One way to identify the interests or concerns of adults is to invite them to respond to an evocative prompt (an object, picture, dialogue, headline, etc.) that depicts a problem or a concern they have experienced. We call these materials “catalysts” because they are effective in stimulating a response – adults have something to say about them. Some examples of catalyst that have worked well are:

  • a picture of a clinic waiting room
  • a newspaper headline about something happening in the local school or neighborhood
  • a dialogue that depicts an uncomfortable conversation between a worker and supervisor
  • a photograph of teenagers hanging out
  • a chart of the change in the minimum wage versus the cost of living over the past 20 years.

Catalysts such as these can draw out student interpretations of what’s happening, why, and what can be done about it. They provide the teacher with information about students’ prior knowledge and their level of interest in the issue. Once a common concern is identified, the class can consider the skills necessary for addressing that concern or they can think about how a particular skill they need to develop can be practiced as they explore the issue . For example, adults who are worried about affordable health care might calculate their annual health care costs to practice math, investigate health care proposals to practice computer research and reading, or document their experiences of the health care system to practice writing.

One approach to discussing the catalyst materials, and the issues they raise, is to use a discussion format that follows this sequence:

Description: What do you see? What’s happening here?

Reflection: Does this ever affect you? How?

Analysis: Why do you think this happens?

What questions do you have about it?

Planning for action: What would make this situation better? How can you make your needs heard?

The results of this discussion can shape a class project that builds skills in very contextualized, purposeful ways.

Used in Teaching/Learning Examples:

Heritage Books