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!

 

April 6

#PBL as Professional Development (Part 2 of 6)

If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

Analysis

We now discuss the Analysis step of using a #PBL process for professional development. 

Ideally, the professional develop group of learners includes participants from both the teaching and administrative staff, in order to develop a cohesive understanding of PBL concepts, and to jointly create solutions.

We begin by using improv games to break the ice and start team building. To further create a positive environment, we develop group norms to guide our interactions. One of my personal favorites is “assume positive intent.”

Yes Letters Tablets” by geralt shared under a CC0 1.0 license.

We then examine the survey results, and ask the participants to identify the highest priority items. The number of topics selected from the list is dependent on the number of participants, with one topic per each 3-4 people. The participants then group themselves into 3-4 person teams based on their highest level of interest.

Each team then identifies the desired outcomes. What do we want the solution to the problem/question/situation to look like? Why? During this step, we do not consider the “how,”; that comes later.

Problem, Analysis, Solution” by geralt shared under a CC0 1.0 license.

And finally, in teams and as a whole group, we discuss the requirements for successful team collaboration. What logistical and strategic components must be in place for the teams to thrive? This is a critical element of overall success!

These analysis activities provide teachers with practice in two of the Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning principles: authenticity, collaboration.

Analysis provides practice in two of the HQPBL principles: authenticity, collaboration

Next up – Design step!

April 5

#PBL as Professional Development (Part 1 of 6)

Just as we ask our students to make a leap of faith to engage in a project-based learning (PBL) environment, we should boldly ask the same of teachers and administrators. An ideal way for educators to develop familiarity and confidence with PBL is to experience it!

I propose to launch educators’ exploration into project-based learning using the Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL), combined with P21 Exemplars to guide their work. First, we ask them to develop familiarity with the framework and with the characteristics of exemplar schools. Participants then respond to a survey which assesses the HQPBL factors and/or exemplar teaching and learning characteristics they think are lacking in the existing school environment.

Then, we guide them through a series of professional development sessions based on the PBL process.

Next post – Analysis step!

HQPBL Framework

  1. Intellectual challenge and accomplishment – Students learn deeply, think critically, and strive for excellence.
  2. Authenticity – Students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their
    culture, their lives, and their future.
  3. Public product – Students’ work is publicly displayed, discussed, and critiqued.
  4. Collaboration – Students collaborate with other students in person or online and/or
    receive guidance from adult mentors and experts.
  5. Project management – Students use a project management process that enables them to
    proceed effectively from project initiation to completion.
  6. Reflection – Students reflect on their work and their learning throughout the project.

April 4

Digital Divide

In a recent #PBLchat conversation, I committed to scrounging up current findings related to the Digital Divide. Et, voilà:

At home:

Pew Research – Digital Divide persists

Some 5 million school-age children do not have a broadband internet connection at home, with low-income households accounting for a disproportionate share.

Pew Research – rural vs non-rural

Rural Americans are now 10 percentage points less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband; in 2007, there was a 16-point gap between rural Americans (35%) and all U.S. adults (51%) on this question.

Communication, Internet, Internet Of Things, Tile” by Pixabay shared under a CC0 1.0 license.

Hechinger – content divide

But now we need to add to the conversation of digital equity. How do you also improve quality of usage now that everybody has access? And not just give in to the whims of advertisers or what surfaces to the top of YouTube.

Common Sense Media – homework gap

Only 3 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said that their students had the digital tools necessary to complete homework assignments, compared to 52 percent of teachers in more affluent schools.

At school:

EdTech – teacher prep, broadband speeds

Recent Education Week Research Center analysis found a near 10 percent disparity between high- and low-income teachers and their access to technology training.

Embrace Digital Literacy” by Wesley Fryer shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Language Magazine – digital literacy

Today’s students carry cell phones in their pockets that are more powerful than the NASA command center that landed men on the moon in 1969, but many still do not have the basic technology skills they need for success in school and in life.

NEO blog – teaching across the divide

Focus on the positive, work with what you have and get creative.

NetRef White Paper: The Digital Divide in the Age of the Connected Classroom

The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.

 

November 27

Shoes = Empowerment

Like many women, I spent years sporting attractive dress shoes. This was followed by years of mostly “comfortable shoes.” After all, they are best for our back and foot health. And, comfortable shoes are, well… comfortable.

Imagine my consternation to recently acknowledge to myself that wearing “tall” shoes contributes to my sense of empowerment. Chunky, stiletto, wedge, it doesn’t matter as long as the footwear is stylish and… tall. I am relatively tall even when wearing no shoes, so those heels shouldn’t make a difference. But they do.

Maybe we should ask our students what makes them feel empowered. We might be surprised.

 

High-Heeled Shoes by Capri23auto is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

 

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!