Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Let the Unlearning Begin!

Social Studies - As part of our Student Driven Learning class model, I created a blog space for my kiddos to learn from each other. I'll post an entry with a topic, graphic and some starter questions. After watching video, reading books and online resources, playing games and looking at digital resources, they can begin conversing on the blog about the topic (for example The Salt Trade of Africa during the Middle Ages). This is fascinating stuff and so alien to the kids that they do enjoy learning about it. The frustrating thing for me is that it takes so much time to "unlearn" their old expectations.

"Today I want you to look at the trade routes and think about why they were there. Why was salt so important that it was traded in equal weights to gold? Why did these specific cities emerge? Who controlled the roads and villages?" I prompted the kids with these questions, both verbally and on the blog. I want them to think of the big picture.

"So what's the assignment?" a student asked.

"To learn about the salt trade of Africa," I replied.

"But what's the assignment?" the student asked again.

"Well, I don't really have a written assignment for you today. I just want you to find out more about the salt trade," I said.

"I don't understand," said the student.  Other students chimed in that they don't know what to do if there is not an assignment out there for them to aim for. Apparently there must be a tangible result of their learning or else there is no point. Well, we argued for a bit about the point of learning. Do we learn just to show our learning on a little assignment due at the end of the hour? Why are we studying this if not to fill out a paper or make a presentation of what we've learned? Hmmmm, when kids go home and learn about other things that are not school-related, do they fill out papers to show what they've learned? Are there test questions over the games they learn to play with their families? Sports they learn to play? Pets they learn to care for?

The kids are so trained to expect a written form of expression of their learning that they cannot fathom learning something for the sake of learning it, at least in school. Why is that? I told the class, "For those of you who feel incomplete without an assignment or who feel in your heart and soul that you NEED an assignment in order to learn this cool stuff, you can turn in a one-page summary of what you've learned this hour. For those of you who are comfortable with just learning this because it is interesting, you do not have to do the summary paper." My fear is that if I have some questions to check their understanding, they will only answer those questions as narrowly as possible, fleetingly knowing a few aspects of the salt trade instead of immersing themselves in the story of the topic.

How will I know if they have learned anything? Well, while roaming the room, I observed many kids watching videos from our African Kingdom playlist, reading the digital resources, and even flipping through the textbook. Apparently they were learning about the salt trade without the reward/threat of an assignment. They still have not begun to converse on the blog, but I am hoping that with some encouragement, they will.

Now, there will be a culminating project in a couple of weeks that will include the parts of the African Kingdoms that we've covered. At that point, kids will have a chance to show what they've learned. In the meantime, they will learn for the sake of learning. Let the "unlearning" begin.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Schizophrenia of Education

Social Studies - When I reflect on the changes I've made in my classes and the 20% Time Projects we are doing team-wide (with my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig), I am more convinced than ever that we are doing right by our kids. But when I look outside of our classes and our school, I see a different story. We hear about data and testing all of the time and how it will improve children's education. I have no doubt that some intelligent application of data can improve kids' performance in school, but on what exactly are we asking them to perform better? Most of the time, the answer is "standardized tests". In my view, this is a dead-end road. Education has become a schizophrenic experience.

Teachers and kids know that people learn things by doing those things. The Learning Culture is one in which people immerse themselves in a project and learn as a function or byproduct of completing the project. We all know that we don't really know something until we can DO that something or, better yet, teach that something to someone else. The best learning experiences are ones in which we create something. That is true learning.

Testing, on the other hand, is often focused on isolated skills that are unrelated to anything except the test. There are some tests that are well-constructed and are given in order to identify a weakness. However, typical standardized tests are primarily reading tests lumped together with frivolous details that, in the long run, kids don't really need to know. 

Thus we have the Learning Culture and the Testing Culture. I find the Testing Culture damaging to kids and education in general because it is so limiting. I have seen extreme cases of targeted testing in order to "teach" a piece of minutia so that a kid performs better on...the test. This is a cyclical environment that has no basis in the real world. The data may show, for example, that Johnny did not understand prepositions. So what do we do? We give Johnny more work on prepositions. The reason we do this is because we want Johnny to perform better on the test in the area of prepositions. But my questions is...why? Why must Johnny improve his understanding of prepositions? How is that applicable to his life? 

All of the time that we spend helping Johnny better understand prepositions could be time better put to use having Johnny really learn something. Real learning occurs when kids, through their own drive and desire, try to answer the big questions they have. If we use these questions to stimulate real learning among our students, then we will have done good work. They will read, they will create, they will problem-solve, they will search for information, they will analyze and they will knock our socks off with the quality of their work. Along the way, they may even run across a preposition or two. 

The Testing Culture, that of identifying deficiencies and constructing practice activities for students, is an awesome waste of time. The secret is that no one really cares if Johnny knows what a preposition is and if the standardized test didn't exist, no one would even know. It is not important. We should not focus on the little things and portray them as bigger than they are. Most adults get by just fine without being able to pick out prepositions from newspaper articles. 

If we really want to create a Learning Culture, we have to aim higher. No longer should we spend hours trying to move kids from "terrible" to "average" at something. We have to nurture kids' natural talents and push them to develop those talents. Instead of wasting time trying to get Johnny to learn prepositions (something he will forget days afterward anyway), we should work with Johnny to develop his natural talent for computer coding. We accept that adults have strengths and weaknesses but we don't allow for that in children. If a child has a weakness, we spend hours trying to make it less weak. Why is the expectation different for kids than it is for adults? It is because adults don't take standardized tests (except in certain circumstances). 

If the testing apparatus were to crumble to the ground tomorrow, would schools be any less effective? No. In fact, if there were no testing, we would no longer have to pay homage to the Testing Culture and could work exclusively in the Learning Culture. That alone would be a huge benefit to our kids' education and the productivity of our citizenry.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

From Conveyor of Content to Roaming Reinforcer!

Social Studies - We've settled on a format for our student-driven learning environment. I introduce the learning topic, kids get a few days to research the content using our resource page, we come together for a Socratic Symposium on the content and then kids write a short summary paper on their learning about the content. The resource page that we've constructed includes videos, digital resources and games. There are also many print resources in class for kids to use (and many do). Using this class format, each kiddo can learn at their own pace, in their own way and using their preferred resources.

My role as teacher changes from the Conveyor of Content to Roaming Reinforcer. I get to conference with each student and help them individually make sense of the material. They have questions and while I don't always have answers, I do know where to point them to find those answers. They are beginning to see me not as someone who will give them information but as someone who can show them where to go to learn. Soon, they will have gained the skills necessary to figure out where those resources are themselves.

To me, this is what it is all about - creating self-sufficient, persistent, lifelong learners. If we can cultivate these qualities in class, we will have gone a long way toward teaching them essential skills for the future. I don't want kids saying, "I can't find the answer." I want them to say, "I had a tough time finding the answer but I finally got it." The bottom line is that we must prepare kids for a time when there will no longer be a teacher standing next to them ready to assist them in their learning endeavors. When they fully embrace this message of leading their own learning, they will have learned the most important lesson of the year.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Well, this is dumb!"

Social Studies - Today in third hour, one conversation went something like this.

"Why are we doing things this way? I'm not learning. I learn better through lecture," said a girl in third hour.

"You mean you just want me to talk about these topics so you can regurgitate the information on a test?" I responded. 

"YES!!" said the girl, and a nearby boy echoed her sentiment.

This is where we are right now. While about half of the class is taking to the student-driven model, one-fourth is having focus issues (they go back and forth between their learning goals and a Medieval game called "Forge of Empires" that I offered as an "extra" during this unit and to which they are addicted) and one-fourth is hapless.  The hapless few are the ones with the most ardent questioning about the new class format. It's not that they cannot function (they are some of the brightest students in class) but I think it's because they don't want to put in the work. They want the delivery model. They want the teacher to tell them everything they will need to know for the few days around testing so that they, with minimal effort, can pass the inevitable test.

I told the girl, "That's not the way the world works. When you have a job, your boss will come to you and say 'We have a problem. Here's the problem. Have a solution to me by tomorrow.' Your boss will not come to you with a problem and also a solution for you to implement. If you boss had the solution to the problem, you would be unnecessary."

Apparently she hadn't thought of that. She still said, "Well, this is dumb." I responded with, "Dumb or not, it's the way we're doing things for the rest of the year." The hardcore passivity of our group this year astounds me. Many take no leadership in their own learning and it is because of this realization that I've changed things. The best thing I can do for them is force them to take a more active role in their learning. If they cannot develop the skills they will need to learn independently, then others will out-compete them for the best colleges and jobs and I will be partially responsible because I didn't prepare them well enough. So...whether or not they like it, this is one time that a little tough love is in order. As I have said previously, I do them no service by allowing them to see learning as something that happens TO them instead of something that happens BY them. I have five weeks left to help them begin the process of becoming active learners. Many are on their way but there are a few who are going to need to rethink their role as a learner.

Friday, April 11, 2014

It Only Helps to Cripple Them

Social Studies - Our Socratic Symposium on the fall of the Roman Empire, Feudalism and Manorialism lasted a class and a half. During that time, we had a lively discussion about those learning topics, with the kids relying on the research they did during the previous five days. Just about every student had a computer or device and was either using their notes (or the summary paper they'd already completed) for the discussion or using the discussion to take notes. Either way, they were learning. I think the conversation went a long way toward helping them understand the material.

After we finished, I had the kids fill out a quick survey on Google Forms. I wanted to know how they felt about the new way we are conducting class. 20 of the 38 kids who responded to the survey said they liked the new student-driven class format better than the more traditional class format. Here is one student's response that I thought was interesting.

What I thought was most interesting about this student's response is that he/she didn't like the new format but thought that one of the benefits was that "We learn how to be more independent." In my mind, that makes the format change a success for this kid. My goal is to make these kids more independent because, oh my my, they need it! I read a few times in the surveys that some kids prefer the teacher-lecture model where they passively consume information. Additionally, they thought I was making the change because I was lazy and didn't want to teach anymore this year. The fact that the kids equate lecturing with "real teaching" is not surprising. This is the model I grew up with as well, but that was 35 years ago! Certainly things must have changed! Well, maybe not so much.

The survey responses revealed something that my teaching partner and I realized early on this year, particularly with our group of kiddos. Many students come to us having been spoon-fed information in order to regurgitate it on a test that has no meaning to them at all. They want to acquire the content, put it on a test, and get "their" A. We have made them believe that learning is quantitative and can be measured on a content-based test and that once they have produced on that test, they are finished and free to do other things. Thus, "learning" for them is just something to be done with so they can move on to something they would prefer to do. It's like eating your vegetables before you can have dessert. What I want is for them to view the learning as dessert!

This viewpoint is sad but not unexpected. What we are trying to do through our student-driven learning model is show kids that learning is qualitative, not quantitative. Learning never ends. The sooner they figure out how they best learn and cultivate a sense of independence, the better off they will be in school and in life. We teachers have been guilty of making things too easy on them, parents have swooped in at the last minute to try to "save" them from themselves, and students have sat back and let both teachers and parents take responsibility for their learning. No more! Both teachers and parents must stand back and, with united front, send the message to kids that we do them a disservice when we make things easy on them. They will never learn two important skills we learned as kids: self-reliance and perseverance.

We as teachers may love the idea that if we make it easy on the kiddos, they will score higher on the tests we give. Parents may like the idea that if they hover just a bit closer, their child will be well taken care of. Both ideas are wrong-headed and the antithesis of learning. When we do for them, we teach them that they don't have to do for themselves. When we make things easy on them, they believe the world will be easy for them. When we treat learning like a penance through which they must suffer in order to be done with it, we teach them that learning is contrived and not relevant to their everyday lives or their futures. In short, spoon-feeding material to kids only helps to cripple them. The only thing they really learn is helplessness.

All of these are reasons why we will continue to run class with a student-driven model even though almost half of the kids don't "like" it. The fact that they are learning to be more independent, and they recognize that point, makes it worth continuing. If I can teach these kids one important skill over the last six weeks of school, that one skill would be learning independently. After all, that is what they will have to do for most of their lives. The earlier they begin to acquire those skills, the better teacher I will have been for them.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sometimes Kids Have the Best Ideas!

Social Studies - We are a few days into our student-driven unit and things are going pretty well. There are still a few students who are a bit lost as to the process but they are learning quickly. What I am getting a kick out of is seeing every kiddo in class choosing to learn the material in their OWN way. While they have to do some planning, they have been effective in using their Goals Sheet and the Resource Page that they accessed in the Middle Ages Folder on Google Docs. Now, kids can learn however they choose, where they want (home or school) and at their own pace. As I look around the room, I see busy kiddos. They are not busy because they are given "busy-work" but rather they are busy with the process of learning the way they learn best. If kiddos are given the responsibility of learning, they will do so using their strengths and talents.

In class, kiddos are using web and audio resources, videos, books and other tools to learn the story of the Middle Ages. They are learning the way they learn best using the resources that most coincide with their learning styles. As far as the content of the Middle Ages, I want them to understand the story behind the facts and the "why's" and "how's" of the story. If the kiddos come away from this unit understanding the concepts and ideas of the way things were during the Middle Ages, then we will have been successful.

During class, we talked about the process: reading, watching video, looking at online resources, etc. in preparation for the Socratic Symposium in a couple of days. I reminded them that they would have to write a short summary paper of what they learned during their research and the conversation we'll be having. One kiddo, John, said, "Can we write the paper before the Symposium and use it as our reference during the Symposium?" Well, I hadn't thought of that but I did think it was a great idea. We then pitched that idea to the class, telling them that if they wanted to organize their ideas into their summary paper BEFORE the Symposium, they can do so, with the caveat that they can tweak the paper afterwards based on what they learned during the discussion. Brilliant! These kids, I tell you, they have some great ideas!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Connect the Kids

Social Studies - We set up a classroom blog in order to discuss the major issues of the Middle Ages. A blog seemed to be the best way to encourage discussion even when each kiddo is learning the material in a different way. The conversations, both in and out of class, will help the kiddos understand the material better while they also learn that we can make connections to each other in multiple ways. There is no one right way to learn and with the tools at our disposal, we can go beyond traditional classroom learning.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

I Don't Believe Anymore

Social Studies - The kiddos just got done with the district assessment on the Classical Civilizations of Greece and Rome. This assessment is a test that has been crafted by us (social studies teachers) and tweaked many times. Greece and Rome are fun subjects to learn about. We watch some cool films, read some great book sections and talk about what made Greece and Rome so spectacular. Then, we test the kids. But at what point does the joy of learning about those cool civilizations yield to the drudgery and panic of memorizing the content for the test?

As I graded the test, I felt worse and worse. "Why on earth do we make kids know these details?" I asked myself. "Is it really important for them to know that Augustus was the first Emperor of Rome?" I wondered. No, it is not. Much of what was on the test is irrelevant to their lives and futures. They will probably never need to be able to recall any of this information. Then why must they cram this content? What good does it do? They are trying to fill their heads with facts that we (the teachers) deem important so they can write responses on the test to satisfy some institutional norm of "accomplishment". I do not feel that this is preparing them for their futures. This type of schooling is preparing them for the next level of an educational system that is already obsolete. This same test could have been and probably was given 30 years ago. Have we made no progress in those 30 years? If I were to give these kids the same test four weeks from now, with no opportunity to cram beforehand, how would they do? Terribly. So...are they really learning? No, they are not. This is not the education that these kids need. I don't believe in it anymore.

It is this traditional learning model, one that I think is a detriment to our kiddos today, that pushed me to reject it in favor of a student-driven model. I like getting into the stories of the great civilizations and the great people of history but I want the kids to learn the lessons of those times, not the minutia. I want them to be able to discern the similarity that made both Cincinnatus and George Washington great leaders; it is the idea behind that similarity that I want them to see and I want them to look for it in more recent leaders (Mandela). The kids do love talking about the great stories of history and we will continue to do so but we will not do it with the intention of testing them on the minutia. We will use the content as a means to discuss the issues and when we assess, we will assess their ability to think through a problem. That is the stuff of learning!

I am supposed to give the district assessment on this unit of study, The Middle Ages, after we have finished the unit. I will do so, but will do it in a way that we get to test the test (more on that later). We can see if the kids are learning the concepts and ideas while bypassing the bits of information that they normally cram. Our new model is an experiment in learning. I think it's the right way to go but we will only know once we've been through it. Our goal remains the same - to prepare kids the best we can for their lives tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Active Learning Boot Camp

Yesterday we talked about our Middle Ages unit and how the structure of class instruction was going to change. We talked for a bit about how, for much of their lives, the kiddos have been passive receptors of content. We give it to them, they "learn" it as best they can, we test them on it, they promptly forget it. The cycle continues the next year. It is this passive learning cycle we are trying to break. I told them that it is time to use the last eight weeks of school for an Active Learning Boot Camp!

I gave the kids the learning goals, the resource page (a Google Doc with the online, book and video resource links) for them to use according to how they learn best. "You are in charge!" I told them. We talked about the schedule, how they would have 4-5 days to master each learning goal using whatever resources they felt would help them the most. At the end of the 4-5 day period, we would have a Socratic Symposium on the topic to cement the concept in their heads (after all, I really believe that we learn quite a lot from an active conversation about a topic) and then a short written piece discussing what they've learned. After the first learning goal is complete, we move on to the next. Thus, I hope an active learning cycle becomes second-nature to these kids.

When these kiddos are faced with a problem in school or out of school, I want them to be able to access their skill set to assess the problem, find the resources to solve the problem, and work toward a solution. I want them to have learned tenacity, persistence and to believe in themselves so that when something does not work out, they ask themselves "What's should I do next?" instead of giving up altogether. These are the skills that make kids successful and will be increasingly so in the future. These are the skills that I want all of my kiddos to master in our last eight weeks of school. It's time for Active Learning Boot Camp!