April 26

#PBL as a #process within a #framework

Recently, a team of five #Meliora students uploaded a newly refined version of their history fair project. Next week, they will be competing at Illinois History Day, the last step in their quest to qualify as national contestants.

National History Day (#NHD) provides a good example of the Project-Based Learning (#PBL) #process and #lifecycle. Students are first challenged at a local/school level to create a project, within a specified #framework. As pointed out in the High Quality Project Based Learning Framework, and by John Spencer, high-quality PBL is not a free-for-all, but rather #learnercentered work conducted within the boundaries of a defined structure.

The NHD project framework consists of the following specific criteria:

  1. Must strongly incorporate the annual #theme (the 2018-2019 theme is “Triumph & Tragedy in History”).
  2. A choice of five categories: paper; exhibit; performance; documentary; or website. This variety offers students abundant #voice and #choice in the product they create. Ultimately, the product serves as their primary #evidence of #learning.
  3. Constraints for each project category. For example, documentaries cannot exceed ten minutes in length. Conversely, they should not be much less than ten minutes long, (an unspoken rule) because if students cannot find ten minutes of evidence to support their argument, it suggests they have not looked into their topic deeply enough.
  4. Supplementary documentation, including an annotated bibliography and a process (#reflection) paper.
  5. #Public #presentation (#communication) before a panel of judges at each level of competition. The judges use identical evaluation criteria for each category of project, focusing on the clarity and strength of the argument the students develop in defense of their thesis statement.

Nearly every discipline uses a framework or blueprint for their creative work, it’s a writer’s workshop structure, an engineering process, the scientific method, or a design thinking framework. ~ John Spencer

Students have complete voice and choice in the topic they explore, as long as their thesis and argument fit within the framework. In past years, Meliora students have explored topics as diverse as “The Tucker Torpedo,” Women’s Suffrage, Michael Jordan (national contender) and Soul Train (national contender). The topics chosen reflect the students’ interests, while at the same time requiring them to conduct thorough research.

In many cases, the students started their journey with superficial knowledge. As they dug deeper, their knowledge and critical analysis expanded. Not only did they learn more about their chosen topic, but more importantly (shhhhh, don’t tell them), they developed a much deeper understanding of the historical context, content, and relevance.

In my role as #facilitator, I did not “teach” them about their topic. Rather, I asked them many open-ended questions: “Why did [event] happen?” “What else was happening in the [country, world] at the time?” “What was life like at that time?” “How do you know?” I also helped them locate resources, and persistently asked them to use proper research methods.

This year, the most significant #mindset growth this team made was arguably related to an interview they conducted. That one 20-minute activity (plus the preparation work) exponentially boosted their confidence and their belief that they have significance, not only in the teen world, but also the adult world.

As I also write here, students who participate in National History Day create multiple #iterations of their product, refining their work between each level of competition. Since the project framework remains constant, they invariably are faced with making tough decisions as to which evidence is most relevant to their thesis argument. There is frequent anguish as they remove a favorite quote or an image they love, even as they recognize that a particular element is less important than others they need to include.

This refinement process is an excellent tool for helping the students develop #criticalthinking skills. When they are struggling to make decisions and ask my advice, my standard response is, “In what way does it support your thesis?” Often accompanied by sighs and groans, they make the correct decision.

This is the documentary going to competition next week:

For the truly dedicated, here is the team’s first version:

April 23

Intersections of poetry & improv

My friend Kim recently wrote about how she and her students were writing poems using inspiration from three words provided by the students. She describes how in the first iteration, the poems were very literal in their interpretation. Kim then worked with the students to brainstorm imagery related to the words. Finally, she challenged them (and herself) to write a poem using the three words without the poem being about any of the words. As she understates, “[t]his was much more difficult!”

Kim’s observations parallel the learning process of improv, a new-ish endeavor of mine. At the beginning of a set, the performers typically ask the audience to provide one or more words that are then used as inspiration for creating scenes and story lines. Just as Kim describes, emerging players often create scenes that stick close to the literal words, whereas more experienced players use them truly as inspiration and wander much further afield in associations and connections. As a result, their scenes are richer and more satisfying, to both the performers and the audience.

Developing any new competence takes time, practice, encouragement and constructive feedback. I’m fortunate to be learning to perform improv at a studio which swarms with supportive, encouraging instructors and fellow performers. This nurturing environment is part of the culture, fostered by the owner and artistic director.

In our schools, we have the same opportunity, and responsibility, to develop and sustain a culture which encourages students to grow into their full potential.

 

April 5

Evidence, always need evidence

Earlier this week, a group of five #Meliora students finished revising their National History Day (NHD) documentary project in preparation for the next level of competition. NHD projects essentially consist of developing and defending a thesis, a difficult cognitive task for the middle- and high-school students who enter this contest each year. At each level of competition, the students present their project before a panel of judges, who evaluate and provide feedback on the solidity of their thesis argument. Those projects with the most persuasive defense are the ones which advance to the next level.

In the recent competition, my students received feedback that their selection of secondary sources was narrow and limited. The judges knew this because as part of the NHD framework students are required to create an annotated bibliography of their sources.

As I supported them in learning how to more effectively dig through (online) newspaper and other archives, one of the students commented, “we don’t need this article, because we already have this information.” Which prompted me to loop back to earlier in the year, when we discussed reliability of evidence, how we must find multiple sources that support facts or a certain interpretation in order to consider it reliable. We work on #digitalliteracy as we talk about the kinds of digital sources that are generally more reliable, with the understanding that even those must be substantiated.

During the revision process, the students also made some claims I was skeptical of as they developed their historical context. So, I did a little research of my own and presented my evidence, which clashed with their claims. Then I asked them to sort out what they thought the most valid interpretation was.

This experience coincided with my reading of a recent MindShift article on how students are unable to evaluate the credibility of what they read online. The percentages are staggering; 82% of middle schoolers in a 2016 study were unable to tell the difference between an online ad and a news article. Even more frightening is that 59% of adults in a 2014 study couldn’t tell the difference either.

As Sam Wineburg, Stanford University professor states, “rather than teaching them [history lessons] as rules or things fixed in time or set in amber, these are precisely the kinds of things that are worthy of debate.” In Meliora history classes, every topic is open to discussion. I impress upon my students that I am not the “expert,” that they are welcome to challenge any claim I make… as long as they have evidence. As we ask our students “why?” and “how do you know?” during these kinds of discussions, we are helping them develop their #criticalthinking skills.

For the curious, the Meliora documentary project currently in competition can be viewed here.

March 15

Preparing for the adult world through the use of #PBL

I have an admission to make. I am living vicariously through my #Meliora students. A group of five teens has been crafting a documentary project for Chicago History Fair, with the goal of advancing the several steps that will take them to National History Day. This competition asks students in grades 6-12 to convincingly argue a thesis, a skill many students develop only in college.

The Meliora team’s self-chosen topic (a central #PBL tenet is to give students #voice and #choice in deciding what topics they #deepdive into) shines a spotlight on Colleen Moore, a larger-than-life, yet nearly-forgotten woman who was a top salary-earner in silent films; a significant influence on the evolution of American society’s views of women through her “safe” flapper lifestyle; and an investor maven, unheard of in her time.

Through a fortuitous series of events, the students located Moore’s grandson. I urged them to ask him for an interview, the goal being to have him provide them with additional evidence to include in their project. His initial reply to their email request was pretty abrupt, with edges of ice. He pointed them to a variety of existing sources that detail her life and influence, and said he would need to understand their “line of questioning” before granting an interview.

Fortunately, the students had already found and analyzed the sources he cited. I encouraged them to continue to pursue the interview, and suggested maybe his coldness was due to uncertainty around what questions they wanted to ask. I suggested they send him their interview questions, so that he would understand their “line of questioning.”

After receiving their list of questions, he agreed to a telephone interview, which was conducted by three of the five team members. When they actually got on the phone with him, he was friendly and forthcoming with information, and provided very intimate views of Colleen Moore from his viewpoint as her grandson.

It was apparent during the interview that the three student interviewers were feeling nervous. Notwithstanding, they did a stellar job, and obtained the information they were seeking. After they concluded the call, their relief was palpable, followed by laughter, and “That was great!’ They felt exhilaration related to the fact that this hard task they had never tried before had been a success.

This success led to increased confidence in reaching into the adult world. During a recent class session, the team made a series of phone calls to other potential sources in an effort to deepen their understanding and analysis of their topic. Some of the calls led nowhere, others bore fruit. As one of the students remarked, “This is fun, talking to all these people.”

This. Is. What. We. Want: Students. To. Learn. #RealWorld. #Skills.

The students’ project has advanced to the next level of competition), and they are currently in the process of improving it, based on judge feedback, readying themselves for the next level of competition. This iterative approach is integrated into #RealWorld design processes, another way #PBL helps prepare students for the adult world.

February 24

Haptic, Tactile, Sensory, Motor: Crucial to #DeeperLearning

My friend Terry recently wrote about using his mind as a “fulcrum” and physical writing instruments as “levers” for analyzing and annotating (physical) texts. This led to a whole flurry of responses, with many wistfully recalling the “old days” of writing in books, doodling, scrapbooking, etc. There was a unanimous yearning to return to some of those old habits.

This discussion led me to explore (again) the evidence that haptic feedback is a vital, integral part of being human. I first thought of the sensory and motor homunculi, grotesque-looking representations first created by Dr Wilder Penfield in 1937 that illustrate the quantity of grey matter devoted to various body parts. The hands take up a highly disproportionate amount of space, suggesting we are meant to use our hands often and well.

Sensory and motor homunculi by Dr. Joe Kiff shared under a [CC BY-SA 3.0] license.

Smashing Design, an online magazine for web designers and developers, argues in Designing for the Tactile Experience that new and evolving technologies must be mindful of incorporating tactile and motor interactions. Several times, the author emphasizes that meaning is found in our experience of the world, not only in how we act in it, but how it acts upon us. If we are not physically interacting with the world, our experience is being very limited.

In 2016, NPR reported on a 2014 study that showed college students taking lecture notes by hand did better on “concept-application” tests, wherein they were required to apply the lecture information to an open-ended question.The difference in results held true even when the students were given time to review their notes between the time of the lecture and the test.

The need for a tactile relationship to #deeperlearning applies even (more?) at young ages. A 2012 study of preliterate five-year-olds tested the recall of children who were assigned to one of typing, tracing, or printing letters and shapes. fMRI scans showed that a letter recall task recruited the “reading circuit” area of the brain only in the children who had handwritten the letter.

There is a growing recognition within K-12 education that “making” is not only fun, it also aids learning. In addition to the general trend toward “makerspaces” in schools and communities, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education has a Project Zero initiative underway called Agency by Design, which is “investigating the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning experiences.”

I say a hearty amen to Terry’s “Theoria (thinking), Poiesis (making), & Praxis (Doing).”

January 15

More on spaces

I’ve been reflecting on my most recent post and the one before, which discuss work spaces, including classrooms. As I write this, I am in the midst of preparing our home to be sold. To make it more appealing, we have recently updated bathrooms and the laundry room. We are painting the walls to neutral colors. Not my preference, but what buyers want to see.

As I have made decisions on various elements, I have been apathetic. “Is the granite beige enough? It will do.” “Is it a faucet? Does water run through it? Sold.” The updated rooms look fresh and current, so are a success. At the same time, I have no particular attachment to them, as I expect to be vacating this home in a few months. And, since I didn’t improve the spaces for my own enjoyment, the changes don’t reflect “me.”

In contrast, my experience when we remodeled our kitchen several years was joyous. It was thrilling to choose countertops, cabinets, appliances, paint colors… I still love my kitchen.

This small personal example reinforces the various points Tim Harford makes in his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. People want control of their work spaces.

My colleague Sheri Edwards zoomed out further on this discussion. As she puts it, we need a “thoughtful pedagogy” that focuses on learner-centered design. Classroom design is just one part of the picture.

 

January 14

Work Spaces, aka the classrooms we teach in, Part 2 of 2

A “squat, ugly, sprawling” 200,000 square foot structure, Building 20 was designed in a day and built on the MIT campus almost as fast in 1943, to house the Radiation Laboratory, a secret project during World War II. Tim Harford’s story of Building 20 resonates strongly with me.

Just the breadth of ideas that were incubated in Building 20 is mind-boggling. “It was the birthplace of the world’s’ first commercial atomic clock. One of the earliest particle accelerators was also constructed there. The iconic stop-motion photographs of a bullet passing through an apple were taken in Building 20 by Harold Edgerton. It was home to MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, a wellspring of hacker culture… Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle revolutionized linguistics in Building 20… a young electrical engineer named Amar Bose, dissatisfied with a piece of hi-fi equipment he had purchased, wandered … [Building 20] acoustics lab. There, he revolutionized the speaker and established the Bose Corporation.” [p 94]

One of Harford’s central assertions in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives is that, in general, our society values tidiness and aesthetic beauty, yet the evidence points to those characteristics as putting a major damper on creativity. He identifies several characteristics of Building 20 that made it so effective, none of which have to do with tidiness.

The disorganized labyrinth that constituted the space was inhabited by a motley assortment of departments and saw frequent re-configurations of the space. Harford states, “[t]his absurdly inefficient way of organizing a building meant that people were constantly getting lost and wandering into places they didn’t intend to go.” [p 96]

“If you ask the veterans of MIT what a creative space looks like, one building comes to symbolize all that’s best at the university… it was known only as Building 20… squat, ugly, sprawling structure… “ [p 92] ~  Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

This last phrase immediately takes my mind to the Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMooc), an online collaborative community that I participate in. Each summer, this community defines a series of “makes” that participants are invited to engage in.

The makes have caused me to tear my hair out on more than one occasion. Not because someone is dictating what I need to accomplish (quite the opposite), but because I become intrigued by the challenge, and stretch myself to try new tools and technologies. Collaborators in the community act both as mentors and students.

I often encounter #failure, and have to alter my approach, or even totally start over. Additionally, the whole process is often #messy, less than “perfect,” and oh, so much fun! “Making” also broadens my view, and deepens my belief in “failure” as a great teacher.

Harford ends his ode to Building 20 by saying, “… the building’s inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority… to make changes, even messy changes.” [p 98]

Which brings us back to the ownership and agency piece I touched on in my last post. As a #PBL educator, I am accustomed to a lot of chaos. Some of the most creative ideas students have had stemmed from tangential and somewhat off-topic discussions. There has been trial-and-error. And frustration. And disagreement. And, yes, failure. These are all #realworld situations the students are learning to navigate and manage.

Do I ever want to intervene? Yes. And I do on occasion. It is most often the student(s) who request my help, but I also intervene at other time when I feel it is necessary. I don’t offer a solution, but rather ask open-ended questions that refocus the students’ thinking on what they are trying to achieve.

Although my classroom is not Building 20, it is nonetheless developing 21st century skills, including collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and (better) communication. In other words, #Meliora students are learning what the #realworld is all about.

January 3

Read Aloud Already!

Returning to a subject I touched on in this post. I love books.I love reading. I read to my own children, a lot! I realize not everyone loves reading (sad face). Nonetheless, as a parent and/or teacher, it is highly important to read to children.

Reach Out & Read reports that reading aloud “[b]uilds motivation, curiosity and memory,” larger vocabularies (correlated to later academic success), and “[h]elps children cope during times of stress or anxiety.” In spite of these and a number of other benefits, only half of parents read to their children daily, and only ten percent read to their children from infancy.

Not surprisingly, children in poverty are read to less often than children not living in poverty. Regardless of the socio-economic environments our students come from, we need to read aloud to our students. As Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook (one of my favorite resources) says, “[r]eading to children costs nothing! No matter how poor the community, it costs nothing for a teacher to read to a class. They take their library card, borrow a book, and then read to the class. Money has nothing to do with it.”

My last conscious memory of being read aloud to was in fourth grade. After lunch and recess. It was hands-down the best part of my school day. I delight in paying it forward.

August 31

Unintended Consequences

As I stood among the swirling mob, one of the sixth graders approached me. “Where do I go to get my stuff?” In the crowded entryway, there were several tables, with ranges of letters clearly marked, “A-F,” “G-L,” etc. This student explained his last name started with “N,” and he didn’t know which table was his. As I directed him to the appropriate table, a second student tapped me on the arm. “Where do I go…?”

It came as a shock that these eleven-year-old children didn’t understand alphabetization. I imagined that many (all?) of these students have never used a print dictionary. When they need to know how to spell a word, or to understand its meaning, they sometimes enter a proximal representation into a search engine, and up pops the answer. Or, they right-click on the word within a word processing app, and voilà, the correct spelling and/or definition appear like magic. They often have the additional cue of a red underline appearing each time they misspell a word, so there’s no apparent advantage to actually knowing how to spell. Or the sequence of letters and how they are placed in a dictionary.

Recycle Word Dictionary by PDPics shared under a CC0 Creative Commons license.

This disconcerting realization caused me to consider the ramifications of a generation(s) of students who haven’t learned and practiced alphabetization skills. The literature is rife with studies where memory system capacities, especially working memory, are measured and analyzed using span tasks which appraise the subjects’ ability to recall and sequence information. One such task is alphabetization, in which the subject is given an auditory series of letters and asked to rearrange them into alphabetical order and articulate the reorganized series.

The overwhelming conclusion of these studies is that subjects who are able to manipulate longer sequences have better fluid intelligence, and are more capable in many cognitive domains, including problem-solving, reading comprehension, and ability to confidently navigate complex social situations. Because our brains are “plastic” (neuroplasticity), sequencing abilities improve with practice. In past generations, this practice came regularly, while using dictionaries, memorizing information, mentally calculating sums… With the ubiquitous use of technology tools for these tasks, we no longer practice. I wonder what the fallout is?

Atlas, auto map, folded by Pixabay shared under a CC-BY-SA license.

Another example is our dependence on GPS systems to navigate our world.The conclusions from research done to-date are dismal, such as “using a GPS excessively might lead to atrophy in the hippocampus as a person ages, and this could put them at higher risk for cognitive diseases later in life.” Alzheimer’s, anyone? Researchers have also found that subjects who use spatial navigation (in other words, not GPS) have a greater quantity of grey matter, and score higher on cognition tests.

These are but two examples of how technology innovations have changed how we interact with the world. I don’t want to sound alarmist, because I am very fond of the ways technology has made my life easier, such as finding information for this article! But, I do think there are unintended consequences we haven’t considered. Especially ones that haven’t yet had time to manifest themselves.

July 2

#PBL as Professional Development (Part 6 of 6)

Previous posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5.

Evaluation

Once teams are satisfied their solutions are complete, they present them to a public audience. This audience should include all stakeholders: students, administrators, teachers, staff members, parents, other family members, community members, local business leaders, and elected officials such as school board members, city councilors, and state representatives. Experts the teams consulted with should also be included.

During project evaluation, a minimum of these HQPBL principles are being practiced: intellectual challenge and accomplishment; authenticity; public product; and reflection.

The audience participates in assessing the solutions and provides formal feedback to the teams. As such, this step serves as the summative assessment. How well do the project solutions respond to the driving question? How well do they fit within the identified constraints, such as cost and time?

As a final step, the professional development participants reflect on the project successes; individually, within their team, and as a whole group. A preferred way to conduct group reflection is with a structured protocol. This ensures the reflection is purposeful and productive.

All participants also reflect on ways the project design could be improved. This continuous improvement approach results in ever-better quality professional development.

And there we have it. Our professional development participants have completed a full life cycle of project-based learning. Since they have applied the process to meaningful work, and have reflected on their work along the way, their understanding of the concepts, purpose, and steps of the process has increased. When they then use the PBL process in their classrooms, they will feel more confident and capable. Something we all desire in our professional lives.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this process, how you think you could use it in your organization’s professional development, and of course, any suggestions for improvement!