July 14

“Sam,” or Differentiated Learning in #PBL

In my Meliora social studies class last year, I had a student I’ll call “Sam.” A bright eighth-grader, some of his ability to learn is impeded by a variety of sensory issues, and by his tendency to get distracted.

Since the students conduct two major research projects during the year, I invest significant time early in the year developing research and media literacy skills. We talk about the attributes that make one source reliable and another not. We discuss how to deal with situations where different sources have conflicting information. And so on. As part of that learning process, and throughout the year, I ask the students to conduct online research activities, and to share their findings.

The first time I asked Sam and his classmates to carry out one such task, he lost his composure because he felt overwhelmed. He was familiar with using books and other print resources, but was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with using the Internet and online databases for this kind of work, especially in a dynamic, “do it now” environment.

To complicate matters, Sam had arrived in class with a relatively black and white view of the world, and was disconcerted when I asked questions that challenged this rigid perspective. Over a period of several weeks, I communicated with his mother a number of times, working with her to identify ways to make Sam more comfortable with these open-ended kinds of tasks.

I recognized building trust was key, as is the case for all students. They need to feel we are supporting them, that they are in a safe place where they can exhibit uncertainty and can make mistakes as we challenge them to stretch and further develop their capabilities.

They need to feel we are supporting them, that they are in a safe place where they can exhibit uncertainty and can make mistakes as we challenge them to stretch and further develop their capabilities.

One breakthrough in this regard took place early in the school year, when I discovered Sam is rabid about statistics. I had given two assignments comparing characteristics between several Asian countries and the United States. One was a land mass analysis, the other related to human populations. Sam arrived in class rattling off detailed information, along with the results of several other analyses he had independently conducted. Taking note of this, I sought other opportunities to infuse statistical research and analysis into assignments and discussions, as it provided one way to grab his attention and encourage him to look more deeply into topics. By asking him to lead in-class research related to statistical data, I repeatedly validated that he is a capable student. I also used these opportunities to broaden and deepen his critical thinking, asking more complex questions as his skills improved.

Over time, Sam became more comfortable and more confident, especially in his ability to truly listen, and in his ability to clearly articulate his point of view. He discovered for himself there are many viewpoints, that not everything is “right” or “wrong,” that we can respect others even when we disagree with them.

Zone of Proximal Development by Dcoetzee is licensed under CC BY, via Wikimedia Commons

This example illustrates one of the great liberating qualities of PBL. We can differentiate learning using our understanding of our students, providing voice and choice which allows the students to start within their (comfort) zone of proximal development. From there, we can challenge them to dig deeper or wider, or to learn a new method, steadily expanding that zone.

In a discussion with Sam’s mother during the second semester, she practically glowed as she spoke of his academic growth, especially his improved critical thinking. She chuckled as she said, “when he looks at Wikipedia articles now, he criticizes them for the inaccuracies he finds.” Bravo, Sam. And, bravo PBL!


July 14

“Primitive Art” – a #CLMOOC 2017 Reflection

We are wrapping up the first formal week of #CLMOOC 2017, where we were optionally (after all, everything in CLMOOC is optional) invited to add an introduction in Flipgrid. Flipgrid is a video-only platform, and my CLMOOC colleagues have used a variety of methods to introduce themselves; some funny, some serious, some silent.

I had the idea to create a video that emulates an old-style flip book, so went searching for a tool to use. I found FlipAnim, which seemed quite straightforward, a web-based app which had a short learning curve. The first (disappointing) thing I discovered is there is no “erase” or “undo” capability. The only way to remove mistakes is by deleting the whole “page.” The second “problem” with this tool is that the drawing is done using one’s computer mouse.

Even though I am left-handed, I have always used a right-handed mouse (maybe for the same reason I still use right-handed scissors – lack of availability when I first started using the tool?). When I was faced with the prospect of applying my atrocious right-handed drawing-with-a-mouse skills, along with the can’t-undo-mistakes reality, I sighed and considered finding a different app.

Then I thought better of it, and simply drew. I accepted that the result would be “primitive” at best. And discovered it was so liberating to play! I was relaxed and reckless as I created my crude facsimile of a girl with wild hair, and as I hand-wrote, er mouse-wrote my “credits.” Yes, the result is primitive, but it was such fun!

This experience ties in with the Twitter chats we had a few days ago, where a number of us acknowledged we feel we aren’t artists, that we are “bad” at art.

Our perception that we are not “artists” usually starts at a young age, oftentimes as the result of a classroom experience. My absolute favorite example of using a positive, iterative process to improve work comes in the form of “Austin’s Butterfly,” from Expeditionary Learning’s Ron Berger. In this process, instead of telling students their work is “bad” or “good,” peers offer “kind, specific and helpful” feedback. If you haven’t watched this video, DO! It provides such a superb example of how first-grader Austin steadily improves his work based on peer feedback, and how closely his final product resembles the photograph he was using as his model.

Confidence in the ability to continuously improve one’s work is a characteristic identified in Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets. It is interesting that many of us who participated in the CLMOOC Twitter chats demonstrated a fixed mindset regarding our artistic ability.

As we explored this discomfort and feelings of inadequacy further, we talked about the need to “play” with art, to have fun. Algot Runeman reminded us periodically how we need to treat ourselves more kindly, and to continue practicing. To allow ourselves to “stumble,” and to measure progress over time.

The point about the importance of play is well-argued in Stuart Brown, MD’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. As he says, “[p]lay is a state of mind, rather than activity” (p. 60). He further states “the impulse to create art is a result of the play impulse… art and culture are something that the brain actively creates because it benefits us…” (p. 60).

Now, I’m off to color.