January 24

“There’s a whole lot of talking he’s not doing”

“There’s a whole lot of talking he’s not doing.” This line comes from The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom. A character named Belle is quizzing another character, named Will, about a third character, Lavinia, whom Will has recently visited. Belle is asking what happened during his visit, and she correctly discerns that his responses express only a fraction of the whole truth.

Although there is ongoing debate about exactly how much influence each single component of communication has, it is universally accepted that non-verbal communication is more potent than the words we use. Landmark studies conducted by Albert Mehrabian in 1967 concluded that only 7% of our communication is related to the words we use. Mehrabian asserted the vast majority of what an interlocuteur “hears” is based on intonation and facial cues.

There are many criticisms of the exact percentages, and what exactly Mehrabian measured. However, even the most skeptic critic would acknowledge that nonverbal cues are more important than the words in a message. This particularly complicates communication in the digital world, where much of our communication is through text modes. How exactly should I interpret the “tone” of an email? But I digress.

Educators are typically in face-to-face communication with their students. So what, exactly, are we communicating to our students with our nonverbal cues? What are our facial expressions communicating? What does our body stance say? When the words are positive in nature, is our tone supporting that message?

Just as importantly, are we truly “listening” to our students? When Ashlee says “I don’t care,” what is her body language saying? When Jayden is unable to make eye contact, what is really going on? Are we taking the time to truly understand our students?

In a high quality project, students make their work public by sharing it not only with the teacher but also with each other, experts, and other people beyond the classroom. This occurs both during a project, as part of the product development and formative assessment process and at its conclusion, when the product is shared and discussed with an audience. ~ from A framework for high quality Project Based Learning.

And, what are we doing to help our students build their communication skills? Long identified as one of the 21st Century skills, and also identified by Tony Wagner as one of the 7 Survival Skills, it is imperative we help our students develop their ability to communicate clearly and effectively.

The high quality Project Based Learning framework (#HQPBL) recognizes this necessity, so communication is woven into projects. As students develop their projects, they are called on to communicate with each other, with subject-matter experts, a public audience, and with themselves through reflection. Another reason #PBL rocks!

January 18

Climbing Mountains, Part 1

Yesterday’s Memoir, Biography & Autobiography class was nothing short of exhilarating. We have been reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and the students and I are enjoying it tremendously.

The students are raving about this adventure story and how they can hardly put it down. One student came to class after reading a few chapters and said, “he [Krakauer] is a walking dictionary. I had to look up so many words.” It struck me that the storytelling must be exceptional (it is) to propel a student to persevere through many unfamiliar words. 

I am always gratified when a mentor text generates such positive response, because students are much more willing to analyze the work. It is easier for them to identify the characteristics which make the story so interesting. These particular students are in the midst of a semester-long narrative nonfiction writing project, and an engaging text such as this one makes it easier for them to absorb the “tips” that will help them in their own writing.

To guide our discussions, we are using an adaptation of the Nonfiction Discussion Sheet detailed in Harvey Daniels’ Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. One of the steps in the students’ process is to create a sketch related to the reading, “a drawing, cartoon, diagram, flowchart — whatever.”

As illustrated below, some students are totally enthused about this part of the process, others not so much. Nonetheless, even the simplest drawing provides insight into something the student got out of the book, especially as they explain their sketch.

      

The most exciting part of yesterday’s class was the passion brought into the conversation about whether climbing Mt Everest was something the students would be interested in doing. Some would, some wouldn’t, and we explored the many reasons why (or why not). As one student described the thrill of rock climbing, another expressed their fear of heights. It is always rewarding when students feel comfortable to show vulnerability.

For me, the most enlightening (and disheartening) part of the conversation centered around the students’ perspective on why climbing Mt Everest, once a topic of high interest, no longer is. More on that in the next post.

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 11

Why I do #PBL

Sheri Edwards recently posted about how working on hobbies helps instill a desire for #lifelonglearning and a willingness to #struggle. She pointed to #GeniusHour as one way to incorporate student-centered hobbies during the school day.

Absolutely! In my #PBL practice, I put a lot of thinking, planning/designing and #reflection into finding ways to make the academic work the teens do as compelling as possible. I apply the High-Quality PBL framework to my designs. As part of that framework, I offer students a lot of #VoiceAndChoice in how they develop their projects and in how they present their evidence of learning.

I commit to implementing projects that challenge, engage, and support students as described by the six #HQPBL criteria.

Notwithstanding, there are times I get frustrated with what I perceive as a lack of enthusiasm, or a lack of devotion to their work. It is in these moments that feedback from an outside audience reminds me of how capable these students are.

At our student showcase in December, a group was presenting a video documentary. They encountered some technical difficulties related to projecting from a laptop to a large screen. With no apparent anxiety, they persevered in their troubleshooting and soon the video was smoothly rolling for the audience to enjoy.

At the end of the showcase, one of the audience members came up to me and said, “Wow, it’s amazing that they knew how to fix the problem! I would have had no idea where to even start!”

It is true that my students, through regular practice, develop a variety of technology skills. Since they use #realworld tools and apps, and sometimes know more about the technologies they are working with than I do, they become adept at figuring things out. When they encounter #failure, or a product works differently than they expect, they momentarily retreat. Then, they consult among themselves, look at YouTube videos, “ask Google,” and occasionally even ask me.

In other words, they are #problemsolving, one of the “Seven Survival Skills” identified by Tony Wagner in his work on transforming education. It is moments like these that cause me to recommit to the chaotic, messy, exhilarating process called project-based learning.

January 9

Team Formation

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford discusses heterogeneous vs. homogeneous teams. He cites a 2009 study where college students were given the task of solving a murder mystery problem. Some of the groups were composed of four friends, others included three friends and a stranger.

The groups that included a stranger were much more effective at solving the mystery. 75% of the time, they came to the correct conclusion. The homogeneous groups correctly solved the problem only 54% of the time, while people working individually were successful only 44% of the time.

Interestingly, Hartford writes, the participants in the heterogeneous teams “didn’t feel very sure that they’d gotten the right answer” and “felt socially uncomfortable” [p. 50]. The homogeneous teams “had a more pleasant time” and (falsely) were more confident they had found the right solution. In other words, the team members’ perception of how their team performed was out of sync with their actual performance.

The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how things seemed to people in those teams: team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogeneous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well. Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, p. 50.

The debate about team formation in K-12 education continues to thrive. In this Edutopia article, Ben Johnson argues both sides, but ultimately concludes students blossom more in homogeneous groups. In 10 Reasons to Use Heterogeneous Teams, Dr Spencer Kagan argues for only heterogeneous groupings.

In education, we often look at grouping through the wrong lens, wondering how effective it will be to put students with different abilities in the same group. My hackles raise with the term “ability,” since it is based on a questionably valid definition (and data) as to what “ability” means. It also assumes a steady state, in other words that a student will always have the same level of “ability.”

One way #PBL (project-based learning) shines is that it accepts (just like the #realword does) that each student has different assets to contribute to a team. When (heterogeneous) teams are formed, the key to success is in identifying which role(s) fit each member of the team based on their unique talents and skills. As they succeed in the given role(s), students develop confidence and a growth mindset, the understanding they have the power to become ever more accomplished learners.

January 7

Unfocused Attention

I’ve been feeling totally unable to stay focused, that my attention divided in so many directions that in the end nothing gets done. In addition to teaching my #PBL classes, I am working on some micro-credentials. My husband and I are also planning a cross-continent move in the next six months. And, since we have lived in the same home for 18 years, there is major decluttering to be done!

Tim Harford, in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives reassures me that “…having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention - we’re like tourists gawping at details that a local would find mundane…” [p. 28]. He further states, “…while we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another…” [p. 28].

Which is perhaps what led to using picture books in my literature and storytelling class this past week. As I document here and here, I’ve been reflecting on how experiences with books and reading at an early age gives kids a huge advantage in their future success in school (and life!). Not only does reading with our children provide them with exposure to and modeling of the reading process, it creates a positive emotional connection to books and reading. As this Washington Post article points out, it also helps them become “empathetic citizens of the world.”

Study after study shows that early reading with children helps them learn to speak, interact, bond with parents and read early themselves, and reading with kids who already know how to read helps them feel close to caretakers, understand the world around them and be empathetic citizens of the world

So, I should not have been surprised when my teenage students expressed such glee when I assigned them close reading of picture book biographies. Perhaps they are also feeling the nostalgia of their younger years, being read to by a caretaker.

January 4

Mind the Gap

At the end of each semester, I have my teen students reflect on the whole semester, their work, skills development, and my effectiveness as a teacher-facilitator. One tool we used popped up repeatedly as “disliked:”

“Not using trello, it didn’t serve us much purpose.”
“I learned how to use Trello, even though I don’t like it.”
“I like the course, I just really don’t like trello.”

As a project-based learning (PBL) practitioner, one of my objectives is to help students develop project management skills. This is one of the central elements of high-quality PBL. Not only are these skills useful for PBL, they are valuable in real life and the real world.

This is the second year I have integrated Trello into my courses. In prior years we used paper calendars to identify tasks and due dates. This provided some rudimentary information, but Trello provides much better depth, such as helping identify dependencies between tasks and flagging problem areas.

Trello by Wikimedia Commons shared under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

This is also the second year Trello has met with resistance from some of my students. As I think of ways to overcome this, I am reminded of one of the principles I learned last summer in the Bright Morning Art of Coaching workshop. Elena Aguilar has studied resistance in adults, particularly among teachers.

Aguilar’s general belief is that when people are resistant, it is not because they are unwilling, but rather that they have a gap in skills, knowledge, capacity, cultural competence or emotional intelligence. She has created a tool called “Mind the Gap,” which helps coaches identify the real reason people are resistant.

In the case of Trello, my hunch is my students have a gap in skills or knowledge. Although we do a low-stakes skills workshop at the beginning of the year, I suspect it was not effective for some students. So, back to the drawing board.

December 30

Mentorship and #PBL

I am madly reading (reading madly?) in order to achieve my 2018 100-book goal that I set on Goodreads. I was in a 10-book deficit position a few days ago, and am pleased to report I have only four left. I must acknowledge I have made a couple of recent visits to the library looking for “skinny” books to make the task seem more realistic.

In the process, I also worked through a few books that have been on my “I need to read this” list for a while. One of them is Teach to Work, by Patty Alper. An accomplished businesswoman, Alper is also a board member of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which promotes focused, project-based mentorship as a way to engage students and prepare them for real-world endeavors.

As I note in my Goodreads review, I rated this as a 3.5 because Alper devotes a fair portion of the book to anecdotal storytelling of student successes. The stories are admirable and encouraging, but offer the reader no specific guidance in achieving the same outcomes.

Fortunately, Alper redeems herself with an appendix at the end of the book, which is a “Mentor’s Resource Guide” of organizations that participate in student mentoring programs.

This book also served as validation that project-based teaching and learning, when focused on #realworld projects, is a magnificent way to engage students, and to help prepare them for adult life.

December 28

Rebooting a Consistent Writing Habit

I’m so pleased my #CLMOOC colleague Anna started a conversation about a 150-words-a-day writing challenge. I oftentimes imagine my CLMOOC colleagues to be “perfect,” consistently engaged in connected learning practices, including writing/blogging. In a sense, Anna’s admission of her “failure” was an invitation to (re-)develop the habit of writing consistently. 150 words a day seems achievable.

I find many excuses for my inconsistency. I’m too busy designing and finding resources for my next #PBL (project-based learning) class. As part of that effort, I investigate and learn to use relevant, #realworld technology tools so that I can incorporate them into the projects my Meliora teens develop.

Pondering Thinking Idea by chamaldo shared under a CC0 Creative Commons license.

Simultaneously, in the back of my mind I am often contemplating the possibilities of offering effective PBL courses in an online environment. When these musings come to the foreground, I wander down many rabbit holes pursuing ideas.

I’ve dabbled in becoming familiar with Appreciative Inquiry, and pondered ways it could be applied in education.

I’ve also been steadily working on completing some micro-credentials, including Google Certified Educator Level II. Preparing for the exam requires time and focus.

Then there is the large unfinished work of writing “something,” (it started as a blog post and has morphed into a much larger entity) to demystify the many variations on project-based learning methodologies.

At the end of the day, these are all excuses. One of my objectives as an educator is to reflect on my practice. And, in all honesty, reflexive writings are an effective tool to help clarify and find answers to my various contemplations.

Person Writing on Notebook by Tookapic shared under a CC0 Creative Commons license.

So, I’m in! Now I need to go discover what the dots are all about in #MoDigiWri.

April 27

#PBL as Professional Development (Part 5 of 6)

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

Testing

The testing step is where the rubber meets the road! Each team presents their proposed solution to a large public audience, which may include outside experts, administrative decision makers (who may have already participated in the process), and other community members. The audience participates in assessing the solution, providing formal feedback to the team. This feedback serves as further formative assessment.

กลุ่ม ทีมงาน ข้อเสนอแนะ ยืนยัน sprechblasen เมฆ by Pixabay shared under a CC0 1.0 license.

Based on feedback, the team may need to return to the implementation step to further revise their solution. Testing is therefore another iterative step and time must be allocated for at least one revision cycle.

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

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