I will be presenting at the 30th Annual VSTE Conference in Roanoke, Virginia. My presentation title is On the Road to Deeper Learning, and it will focus upon the vision behind our 1:1 program.
Deeper Learning through Projects, Personalization, and Play
I will be presenting at 12:45 PM on Thursday, December 3 in Williamsburg. The theme of this presentation came from the article that Dr. Gretz and I had accepted into Virginia Educational Leadership this past spring.
I am preparing to move soon, and am going through a lot of cruft that I’ve held onto for a number of years. I’m reading a book, actually, on how to let go of some of this stuff, and not surprising to some who know me, I’m taking the time to “digitize” some of the stuff I can’t stand to part with. This is such an example.
In 1986, I attended Ingomar Middle School in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA. I have to say, of all the years of going to school, this was the best for me. I know it was a combination of caring, awesome teachers, but also knowing a number of kids who I could relate with. I did well in the 6th grade and I hated to leave the next year when my family moved to the Cleveland, OH, area.
The object which I scanned above is a coaster of some sort. We had to take a home economics class, and we learned how to cross-stitch. This was something I created and I have not been able to throw it away since middle school. In part, I have positive feelings about this school, as I have shared. But if it were, say, a concert program, or a report card, I’d look at it, then toss it. But this is different. This was something I put my mind to, my hands to, this is something I made. The object is homemade.
My sentimentality aside, I think it’s worth noting for the sake of this blog post the importance we place on objects we create. There’s a mental distinction I think between a worksheet we fill out, and something bigger, say, like this coaster. The apron I made later in the 7th grade in Ohio wasn’t as good as this in terms of craftsmanship (although, I am sad to admit, I too still own). But this was something I look back on as an object representing some personal success. I learned a new skill, I tried my hand at it, and wow, it had utility beyond, well, a worksheet.
I am not sure what the magic is between an object like this, and say, the worksheet. But in this case, if it was the color, the yarn, the texture, and the perceived utility behind it, it mattered to me. I wonder what my teacher, Mrs. Conrad, would think of me keeping this for so long. What did she intend for her students to do with these, when, say, they’d go to high school? College? Toss them away, no doubt.
I think it may be time to say goodbye to this part of my past, but not before I find value in keeping it so long. As educators, I think we have a duty to give students the opportunity to create things that resonate with them and mean something, well, personal. It won’t always be a physical object, but those are easiest to persist the age of time. It illustrates for me, again, the nuance between personalized and individualized learning. Facts are remembered and forgotten, unused. Emotions remain with us forever, even if it requires holding or touching something from our past.
In driving back to the office from GES today, I caught a bit of an Fresh Air episode on WCVE radio. The full story is available for you to listen to here with host Terry Gross.
I’m always fascinated to learn more about how science, like cognitive science, supports or refutes hunches and practices about learning and teaching. It’s always refreshing to know that a successful instructional practice can be supported through research in neuroscience.
This story reinforced for us that despite the size of our high school students, their brain development and capability are different than what we see in adults. They have some advantages and disadvantages. Especially interesting was the part about new ways of educating medical students to be self-learners, which supports my preference for supporting inquiry in the classroom.
An article from 16 March 2011 by Dr. Alison Gopnik examined the rationale for re-thinking recent changes in preschool education. The findings she shared within the article, not to mention her conclusions, really are food for thought for all of preK-12 education. The conclusions she draws, based on two studies with young students?
> Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. …it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.
Put another way, from the article:
> While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.
Gopnik cites a discovery by a computer learning expert who has suggested that before we can learn from teachers, we learn something about teachers. We understand they have authority with information, and they are very likely to tell us what we need to know. That assumption about the teacher’s role shuts down our motivation for the discovery of new information.
Gopnik is not anti-teacher, as she says “it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free reign.” The teacher’s role remains important, as “affectionate, supportive grown-ups” who can provide “lots of opportunities for exploration and play.” In words I have echoed, it sounds like she is calling for inquiry and support for engagement from teachers, or a “student-centered” classroom.
I participated yesterday in a discussion about learning preferences–specifically in relation to professional development. There were a lot of assumptions made about how professionals want to learn, from “just tell me what you want to do” to “game changing, thought-provoking” open discussions. Specifically, we spoke about people’s preferences about how they want to interact while in a room with peers. Some of us like to sit and hear about a new idea, or how to accomplish a task (like use software). And others want to be “doing” something, whether the doing is “building,” “debating,” discussing, or even “drawing.”
I walked away from the discussion thoughtful, because while I recognize there likely is a range in learning preference, in our field of education, the method of delivery can be learning itself, no matter the content.
I have been to a lot of conferences. Last year I went to a conference where I didn’t present, and I think, it was the first time ever. I was miserable, as I figured I would be. My primary motivation for going to conferences is to present, and also to hear first-rate speakers. Over the years, however, my own preference for sitting back and listening to an amazing speaker has been challenged with sessions where I have been asked to not passively sit, but to stand up, or sit around a table, and contribute. Some of these sessions have been frustrating, but others have been really cool. The coolest ones have been those that went beyond “share with your neighbor” types of 2-minute conversations to something where all of a sudden we’re challenged to build something… together. There’s no time for norming or getting to know folks formally… it’s dive in with your sleeves rolled up.
> My intellectual side will likely always favor constructionist learning. It’s a theory that’s very important to me. It means we don’t learn best by sitting passively, however efficient that may be. It means we’re active. It means we’re applying what we already know to create something new–either alone or with others.
So, one idea folks have used over the last 5 years in more frequency is an unconference format for professional development. Born out of the tech industry, the idea is simple: instead of a pre-organized conference where presenters are building decks of slides with handouts and a 45 minute talk prepared, people of like minds convene in a space and self-organize themselves into sessions based around their interests. Sounds very “loosey goosey” until you realize there are some expectations attached.
According to the link above,
> The unconference format creates space for peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and creativity.
These are my ideas, based on what I have read and have experienced with this format:
- We assume many participants are leaders.
- Participants are open to sharing their ideas and accepting challenges to those ideas.
- You are responsible for growing with the experience.
- Creativity will be celebrated in the sessions.
- It only works if you’re engaged.
So, with likely dozens of ways to lead professional development, it got me thinking if each and everyone holds professionals accountable for learning. Is any expectation for responsibility for learning in a session where you’re talked at the same as for a session where you’re exploring a solution for something you’re really, really interested in? I think the “principal” or the “trainer” role in our field would say yes, we want learners, no matter if they’re teachers or students, to walk away from a training session better informed. If I go to a basket weaving session, I hope when I leave it (however long it takes to weave baskets) that if I can’t yet weave an entire basket myself, I will at least have a deeper appreciation for how one weave’s baskets, or have an appreciation for what it takes to make good baskets. If I’m irresponsible, I’ll sit in the back and read a magazine while others get their materials and give it a try.
I think more often than not, in school classrooms we test this “responsibility for learning” thing at test or quiz time. And instead it should start one day 1.
I do think all learners have a responsibility for their learning, but that cannot obfuscate our responsibility as teachers (or professional developers) to design engaging instruction opportunities that reaches participants on multiple levels: intellectually, emotionally, and creatively.
So, let me land the plane. Let’s take basket weaving as my example. Pick your preference for learning about basket weaving. There are no wrong answers.
- I’ll sit in a chair for 1 hour, listening to an engaging veteran in the art of weaving baskets, who will maintain my interest through her savvy use of slideware (PowerPoint) and her special gift for story telling.
- I’ll sit in a chair for 1 hour, watching someone build a the base of a basket using tools of the trade. If I am interested in this after the hour, I can go to a store and buy the materials and maybe try it out at home.
- I can join others around a round table for an hour, each of us with different experience levels at building baskets (I’m a newbie!), and hear multiple perspectives on how to go about the art and craft of basket weaving. Some participants will have brought pictures of their finished products, and some, surprise, surprise, carry small projects in their oversized purses and backpacks.
- Small groups are formed with chairs, and in the center of the circles made by chairs, are basket waving materials. Together in small groups we are instructed to build our own baskets. Four experts circulate the room helping the novices, while groups naturally are peppered with participants with previous experience. While we were given an hour for the session, we’re welcome to extend the session by eating lunch in the same space.
- I peeked in a room with a “basket weaving” sign on the door, just to see what crazies might come to that session. Instead of going in, I entered the room adjacent, where there’d be a “fair share” of great project-based lessons teachers had delivered.
No matter which number you picked, consider how:
- engaging one session might be versus another,
- how much your own passion or interest in the subject plays into that engagement,
- the type of preparation and expertise required to lead one session versus another,
- your students might think about their next lesson on something they may initially know nothing about, or have any interest in (say, like basket weaving), and what they payoff is at the end of the year, or the end of their career: was basket weaving the important thing to learn? or was it the skills they developed through the learning process? And if you pick skills, which ones will those be? Sitting and absorbing? Storytelling? Problem solving with others in a group? Seeing how their own application of a solution to a problem (in this case project lesson design) could be improved by the experience or expertise of another)?
I’m proud to be a member of VSTE and have served as one of their directors since 2008. Today, Liz Kuhns also serves on their board. Feel free to ask either one of us about some of their free learning opportunities.