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.

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.

October 5

STE(A)M vs Humanities: Does PBL apply to both?

Ginger Lewman is a dynamite speaker and workshop guru in the STE(A)M and Makerspace arenas. Check out her blog when you get the chance! I have yet to participate in one of her workshops, but can envision the energy and the “doing” going on as she leads students of all ages through a project. In many people’s minds, the idea of science, technology, engineering, and art all being “adaptable to” or even “led by” projects is reasonable.

I, on the other hand, am way more comfortable over in the Humanities house. History and Literature, yes! Some people have difficulty envisioning these topics being project-based. How do we learn all that content? What about commas and 5-paragraph essays? (Who ever uses a 5-paragraph essay in real life anyway? Especially one written in 25 minutes?) What about the names and dates of the many [dead white guys] of history? This must all be taught in a traditional, text-based, lecture-driven format, right? Wrong!

I was a participant in a  recent Twitter #PBLchat (Tuesday evenings at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time for those interested) where the topic was whether AP courses can be successfully taught using #PBL. The first question we were asked was “What common misconceptions about PBL ( &/or AP) lead many folks to believe you can’t use PBL in an AP course?” Dayna Laur replied “Content coverage is the common misconception. Memorization has traditionally been key. New tests changes have challenged that!” I said “[a common misconception is] PBL, cannot cover required content for Ss to do well on the AP exam.” “Misconception=>PBL is too ‘fluffy & fun’ for AP” was Theresa Shafer’s reply. “There is such a focus on content and strict time constraints” was Tammy Estes Fry’s reaction. Similarly, Jason Reale said “Not enough time to cover the content and do PBL.”

So, if we PBL practitioners believe these are misconceptions, what is the reality of  the learning necessary for students to do well on an AP exam? More generally, how can we effectively use PBL in the Humanities?

Dayna Laur’s book Authentic Learning Experiences tackles this question head-on. Two points she makes have stayed with me. Dayna emphasizes the importance of making PBL inquiries authentic. What does this mean? In a 2006 editorial in the Journal of Authentic LearningAudrey Rule writes that there are four characteristics which are regularly found in authentic learning experiences: “real-world problems that engage learners in the work of professionals; inquiry activities that practice thinking skills and metacognition; discourse among a community of learners; and student empowerment through choice.” In contrast to this definition, “projects” have often been make-work in disguise. “We have a project to make a poster…” “You will re-enact [dead white guy’s] life.”

The other point that struck me from Dayna’s book is that inquiries must be relevant to the students. The best real-world inquiry may flop if the students cannot relate to it.

Which brings me back to [dead white guys]. No student, regardless of ethnicity, cares about [dead white guys], unless he/she can develop a connection. So, why do we insist on portraying history as a series of “important” names and dates that consists of [dead white guys] students don’t identify with? We need instead to make it alive and relevant to them.

Our Meliora students are currently reading Genghis: Birth of an Empire, a historical novel of Genghis Khan’s early life and rise to power. Although their experiences are far removed from Genghis’ life on the steppes of Central Asia, the students are caught up in the adventure of the story. They can also identify with being a child and a teen. At various junctures, we ask our students what their reaction might be if they were in Genghis’ shoes. This requires them to reflect, and to compare the realities of life in Genghis’ place and time with the realities of life today, in the United States. We  also challenge our students to identify leaders they are familiar with, both past and present, who exhibit leadership characteristics similar to Genghis’. This helps them begin to identify patterns in history, and to come to their own conclusion that the past is relevant to today and tomorrow.

Although we do not teach an AP course, we can nonetheless draw parallels between what we do at Meliora and the expectations of the AP World History course. There are five themes which thread throughout the AP course. We  have extensively discussed two of the themes as we have journeyed through Genghis Khan’s early life — “State-Building, Expansion, and Conflict,” and “Development and Transformation of Social Structures.” We have not done this through a dry textbook and rote memorization, but rather through discussions around an exciting adventure story which we use to make connections between Genghis’ time and our own. We have also done in-class research when students lack clarity on a certain question or topic.

Another AP World History objective, as defined in the course overview,  is to “[l]earn to apply historical thinking skills including the ability to craft arguments from evidence; describe, analyze and evaluate events from a chronological perspective; compare and contextualize historical developments; and analyze evidence, reasoning and context to construct and understand historical interpretations.”

Our students accomplish this every year with the multiple projects they develop. For each project, they are required to define and argue a thesis, which they support with extensive evidence gathered from primary and secondary sources. Their argument takes the form of a written narrative, a spoken narrative, or a dramatic performance. To ensure relevance, we allow broad voice and choice in their topic, as long as they remain within the National History Day theme.

Throughout the project development, which consists of many iterations, we constantly challenge the students with questions like “why?” “how do you know?” “what about…” “where is your evidence?” The students ask each other the same kinds of questions during peer reviews. The requirement to think critically, and to communicate their understanding does not end in the classroom. At each increasingly competitive level of History Fair, the students must defend their projects before a new panel of judges. Not only does this provide them with a significant public audience, but it requires them to clearly communicate what they have learned.

An example of a project that substantiates PBL as an effective methodology for the Humanities has Michael Jordan at the center. Not surprisingly, the student who created this project is passionate about basketball. He started his exploration of the topic with the knowledge that Jordan had an enormous economic impact on Chicago because of his ability to draw fans to Chicago Bulls games. The student also knew that the popularity of Jordan’s merchandise gave a boost to the national economy. What the student did not understand was Jordan’s impact on urban renewal near the United Center (stadium). Prior to launching into this project, I don’t think he knew anything about urban renewal. However, due to his research into the topic, and in order to properly develop and support his thesis, the student had to broaden and deepen his view of the “Jordan Effect.” His project went on to become a national contender at National History Day.

You don’t need to take my word for it. National History Day reports that

“[i]n 2010, Rockman et al, an educational evaluation firm based in Bloomington, Indiana, finished a multiyear study that analyzed the impact of National History Day on student learning… NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on standardized tests in all topic areas — including reading, science, and math, as well as social studies…NHD students learn 21st Century college- and career-ready skills. They learn to collaborate with team members, talk to experts, manage their time, and persevere…NHD students are critical thinkers who can digest, analyze, and synthesize information.”

April 15

Deeper Learning #6

As I wrap up my reflections on #DLMOOC, I ask myself “what’s next?” In the immediate term, I have registered for the Design Thinking MOOC starting this week. After all, we lifelong learners need to always be learning, right?

I am also planning to visit Aaron Maurer’s  school for one of their PBL exhibitions. I hope to have a few minutes to pick his brain while I am there, to glean ways to improve my practice. He appears to be an educator that spends a lot of time experimenting with new tools and toys, so I want to learn how he approaches that (and finds the time!).

I have also volunteered to present a workshop on PBL at the Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference that Daniel Bassill organizes. I admire the work he does, tirelessly finding ways to help “youth and volunteers connect in well-organized, mentor-rich programs.”

I am fomenting ideas for additional PBL courses we could offer at Meliora, and am designing an Environmental Science course right now. For some time, I have been thinking about how to structure a course that examines mythology, progressing from classical through to urban mythology. What threads/themes do they have in common? What social/cultural aspects influence them? Do they always have a Hero? And, speaking of Meliora, we really need to revamp the website.

I am also mulling over ways we could offer online courses. How could we make that environment effective? What would it take to generate the passion and creativity exhibited by the student panels we watched/listened to during #DLMOOC?

In the middle of creating and editing this post, I figured out the easy way to insert links. So, I headed back and updated my older posts, to insert links everywhere a reader may want to reference to. A simple example of how learning is an iterative process. My first posts were adequate; I have been able to add some sophistication with #deeperlearning. At some future date, I am sure I will acquire further knowledge on how to use this tool to better or more fully express myself.

Oh, yes, I also need to schedule time to get my certification as a Google Educator.