Respecting the Student’s Desire to Know
Or, can we afford not to?
I would suggest that respecting the student’s own ‘driving questions’ is a major strategy in the achievement of those standards. Following this assumption, we need also to provide the tools for investigation and to create a school or classroom culture of support and expectation. In order for this model to work, students must learn the requisite metacognitive skills.
“If students are not able to assume control of their own learning, we do them them a serious injustice.”
Where is the ‘locus of control’?
I have always been amazed at the arrogance with which we as a society assume control of a child’s learning as they enter school. From birth and before entering school, children are immersed in a complex, unstructured learning environment. And assuming supportive caregiving, these children learn a wealth of information. They learn the major part of a language (or even more than one!), much about mathematics, science and the world around them.
“Please consider the amount a child learns before s/he enrolls in school.”
How do they do this? Inquiry. Natural inquiry. Curiosity. Questioning. Problem solving. Resolving discrepancies. Trial and error. They are in charge of their own ‘curriculum’. They set their goals…ask their questions… generate their strategies… invoke them… and consider the outcomes. This is obviously an extremely powerful recipe for success. Please consider the amount a child learns before s/he enrolls in school.
What is learning? Cognitive and…?
Think of learning, if you will, as having two major distinct aspects. One is cognitive. The other is ‘other aspects of self’ – including social and affective. In this latter area I would include passion and motivation… the ‘heart’… the ‘fire’. Often learning has been divided into ‘process’ and ‘product’.
However, I wish to propose that we consider both the ‘product and process’ as ‘content’ – in some ways the cognitive aspect. Perhaps we as educators still spend too much time on the ‘product’ aspect of this false dichotomy, yet we do acknowledge and attend to the ‘process’ to some degree. We do address to some extent ‘how to learn’ and we teach strategies for this to students.
We turn process into product!
The humorous part of this, of course, is by the very nature of doing so, we turn ‘process’ into ‘product’ as well. It becomes something else to be tested and measured. Please understand that I do not negate the importance of high standards for either product or process. I have incredibly high expectations for students and would expect high quality results in both these areas. It is how we get there which I question. And the theft of the locus of control for learning in order to focus on curriculum delivery is not the way to get high standards in either the short term nor, in fact, for our larger goal of life long learning.
“The theft of the locus of control for learning…is not the way to get high standards.”
Don’t steal. It’s not nice! :-)
It seems that what we need to do is more fully support the project-based learning model. It is a ‘natural’ model that can be improved and enhanced through some formalization at school. But we shouldn’t rob those children of the most powerful and necessary attributes of learning – those of passion and being in charge of self… of all the meta aspects… of all the ‘fire’ and intrinsic reasons to learn.
So imagine a child as she moves from a world in which she has been the author/producer/director and actor of her own learning to that of mere actor… taking direction from others as to what to learn… to say… to perform. And it is for the next 12 or more years that this is the case… except for glimpses when she is asked to ‘do a project’.
“Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.” (Neil Postman)
Lest you think I am some sort of wide-eyed radical who would like to see the curriculum tossed out the window, let me assure you, that is not the case and it would be simplistic to dismiss me as such. It is not I who is the radical one. It is, on the other hand, radical to take a healthy, inquisitive, self-motivated learner and to institutionalize that learner to the extent that robs them of their passion and motivation in the name of ‘curriculum delivery’.
“It is not I who is the radical one. Those who institutionalize healthy, inquisitive, self-motivated learner are radical.”
Curriculum as a landscape to be discovered
Do I disagree with the curriculum content that exists in government documents? That is a question for another discussion, but for purposes of this article let me answer ‘no’. I believe it is necessary to have this breadth and depth of a knowledge base articulated and available in some organized fashion. It provides a landscape to be discovered, explored and understood through the school life of a student.
Who manages the learning?
What worries me is the way in which it is approached. Let me continue with my previous description of kids before school. Before kids enter school they essentially command both aspects of learning – ‘cognitive’ and the ‘other’. Upon entering school, the ‘cognitive’ is the focus. The ‘other’ is essentially taken over by the teacher. The management of learning is under the teacher’s jurisdiction. It then becomes necessary to contrive activities to engender ‘motivation’ or ‘passion’. And this gets to be the case progressively as the student proceeds through the grades.
Things people assume about me.
- Don’t assume I negate the benefits of ‘direct instruction’.
- I am not laissez faire. I expect and demand high quality work.
- Don’t think I let kids run amok. I am a strict disciplinarian… in that I do not tolerate ‘slacking off’. But I do like a certain amount of ‘chaos’ in my classrooms. But that chaos relates more to ‘active learning’ than to ‘fooling around’.
So… how do we do it?
So how do we start towards this vision? As I suggested, we need to perhaps further adopt a project-based learning (PBL) model. And I believe that students’ driving questions are at the heart of many types of project-based learning. This blog contains many posts related to PBL, questioning, the zone of proximal development and the role of information and communications technologies:
- PBL – Who IS in Charge? What Tools can Help?
- PBL – the New Worksheet
- Scaffolding for Deep Understanding
- PBL? Am I Doing it Right?
- Metacognition: A ‘Way of Being’ in the Classroom
- The Science of Passion-Based Learning
Just how powerful is the role of one’s own question in learning? It may be the single most important factor in learning… both in school and outside school. Passion – the emotional force of a driving question – raises one’s motivation, increases energy and focus, carries one through uncertainty and difficulty, and heightens one’s own expectations.
“Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions, you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner//
…in collaboration with Brenda Sherry
This post was first published in Voices from the Learning Revolution of the Powerful Learning Practice. It was also published on Mind/Shift as What’s the Best Way to Practice Project Based Learning?
Do you want to engage your students in Project Based Learning (PBL)? Maybe you are asking yourself what is PBL really? Am I doing it right?
Well, first of all, the most important thing to understand is that PBL is a construct made up by human beings and so there are lots of variations! And you are entitled to construct your own version, too, within some parameters. :-)
My suggestion is to study many of the great resources that are available to you and then create your own working definition and effective PBL practice. (I’ve included some of my favourite resources below.)
Some Parameters to Consider
I have created this diagram, enhanced by the critical eye of Brenda Sherry, which may be useful as you consider what is important to you and to your students.
We like to think with the frame of continua rather than dichotomies simply because things are rarely on or off, black or white, ones or zeroes! Flipping from one end to the other may not be the best solution for you! You may choose to slide more in one direction as suits your experience, the student’s experience, the purpose, type of project, and so on.
You could likely add other dimensions to consider as you build your own understandings and beliefs!
Who is in control? Who is initiating the project? Whose passion is being honoured with the project? Who is setting the goals, timelines, and motivation? Are you scaffolding the students’ success through templates, calendars, checklists, rubrics or are you unwittingly stealing their locus of control and micromanaging them. Been there. Done that! Thought I was helping them by giving them lots of assistance!
Who is asking the question to be investigated in the project? The student or the teacher? Is the question a ‘deep, driving question’? Is it a ‘fat’ question or a ‘skinny’ one?
If the projects are collaborative in nature, you may wish to consider the amount of interdependence that students have with one another. Are they merely gluing their parts together to make a whole or do their conversations and co-creations lead to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?
Is the content a rich, deep problem space or is it a more narrowly focused content area? Are there natural links to other domains that provide a context or is the content deconstructed to remove seemingly distracting and disparate information?
Are the students involved in constructing new meanings and understandings or are they simply retelling in their own words information they have found during their research? Have you built in mechanisms (blogs, wiki, vokis, public journal writing, etc.) so that student thinking is made visible, transparent and discussable or is most student process hidden and unavailable to others?
How authentic is the problem under investigation? Are students ‘being’ scientists, historians or geographers and so on, or are they ‘studying’ science, history and geography? How much is the project based in the real world of the student? Is it purposeful for them?
Great Resources for Project Based Learning
Chart: Effective PBL Continua by Peter Skillen & Brenda Sherry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
One of the things I have loved over the years is coming to understand the difference between novice and expert learners. I have realized that experts take multiple passes at information and often revisit the same constructs at different times – with different lenses – with new sets of experiences under their belts.
Here I am in this situation myself. I am thrilled with these new perspectives.
I have spent a great deal of my professional life encouraging students to collaborate – both socially and cognitively. This has taken many forms and you can browse other posts in this blog to see those efforts and strategies. As you will see, co-creation of artifacts has been central to those efforts. Co-creation of artifacts is, after all, the heart of ‘social constructionist’ theory and practice.
In studying evocative coaching in the Powerful Learning Practice’s Connecting Coaching course, I have been amazed at the power of co-creation to build trust. I guess it has been implicit in all that I have done. But, now that it has been made explicit for me, I can leverage its power in building relationships and in building even more vibrant learning communities among students and among colleagues in professional learning scenarios.
This opportunity to zoom out and to be open to new perspectives on previous themes is a lesson for us all.
Gaining expertise is a lifelong attitude.
Co-creation of content encourages and supports the building of relationships and trust.
See also Constructivism in Action by @brendasherry
But, I dare say, as with other constructs, each of us has different understandings, impressions, implementations, and nuances of just what co-constructing knowledge means. After all, as is said, “The reader writes the story”.
Did you know that Socrates was extremely upset with the invention and adoption of the written word? He made a number of claims (topic for another post!), one of which was that people would read the printed words superficially and would not – could not – come to deep understandings without conversation. He believed that words were not reality – they represented realities – and, for ideas to be deeply understood, there needed to be conversation, debate, disagreement, clarification, elaboration.
So I will suggest that one of the essential requirements for co-construction of knowledge is exactly that – conversation. This typically involves language – spoken or written – easily accomplished technically in this day and age.
So how do you facilitate meaningful constructive conversations in your classrooms? (It’s nice when they erupt naturally and spontaneously, that’s for sure! So examine the characteristics of that at those times. Check out what’s going on!)
If you are interested in ways of supporting online conversations among students read Scaffolding for Deep Understanding or if you question the benefits of groupwork read Why Should Students Collaborate? Read more
What tools support a socio-constructivist approach to Project-based Learning?
We believe in kids. That’s why we are in this ‘business’ of education in the first place. Yet, much of what we must face relegates us, and the students, to roles and responsibilities that are in discord with this belief. Further to that, I believe that most of us would agree that people, including kids, naturally want to learn.
Students can ‘take charge of their learning’. They have the ability to define driving questions within the context of curricular needs, to set their goals, to generate and implement strategies to achieve those goals, and to reflect on the efficacy of their efforts. They understand intuitively that this can be accomplished best within a social context and with the tools at hand.
This era of information and communications technologies (ICT) is particularly conducive to a shift towards more natural models of learning and away from the factory model of education that grew out of the industrial era. Powerful tools exist for accessing and manipulating information and also for supporting rich communications among people.
I have spent most of my career supporting project-based learning (PBL) because I believe in kids. I trust in their power of self-regulation. I have no doubt in their ability to work together for the betterment of themselves and others. I also believe in teachers. People enter this profession for noble reasons. We want to make a difference — to educate all children to the best of their abilities. We want students to become lifelong learners and teachers understand that to achieve this they must encourage and support the development of self-regulatory skills — the rudimentary origins of which children had when they arrived in school!
For years I have been frustrated with the school system’s inadvertent theft of a student’s locus of control. Before a child enters school, they are full of questions and make much sense out of the rich complexity of authentic situations. Once a child enters kindergarten, the educational system begins to set the learning agenda. Children are segregated into age groups. The curriculum is defined — segmented and sequenced. The activities are organized. The learning is controlled and measured. As the years go on — and students acquire their new roles — their curiosity, passion and motivation to learn measurably decreases.
Neil Postman astutely suggested that,
“Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.”
Project Based Learning
I believe that teachers prefer project-based learning models but in these times of standards and testing they
often withdraw to more didactic approaches.However, I am not so naïve as to think that the use of a PBL approach is enough to cause a radical change in education. But I recognize that such approaches to education are consonant with our deeper beliefs. I am also confident that when schools systems adopt these philosophies and tools — and use them well — the evidence of higher student achievement will be overwhelmingly convincing.
I believe that we cannot raise standards appropriately until we adopt these methodologies.
And so, then the question is, what information technologies support these methodologies? We need to provide environments which:
- encourage and support student-generated questioning
- allow students to make their thinking explicit – both to themselves and to others
- scaffold student learning
- provide for multiple representations of knowledge
- facilitate conversation among students
Many of these can be handled by different applications available to us. Tools that ‘catch and allow for the organization of ideas’ are particularly useful for brainstorming and/or making sense of that which we already know. Inspiration, Smart Ideas, and the outliner of most word processors can fulfill this function. Word processors are also useful as diaries or journals – but likely serve best for a ‘personal’ form of those. It has often been said that we are no longer in the ‘information age’ but rather have entered the ‘communication age’ or ‘creative age’. There is a proliferation of environments in which people may hold discussions. Many of these are web-based in the form of blogs, wikis, Twitter, Skype or Facebook. However, few of these are specifically focused on education (with the exception of Knowledge Forum.) They are, therefore, not designed to incorporate multiple features as mentioned above – mainly because they are often used in ‘social’ ways, not for ‘cognitive’ gain. Not a bad thing – necessary, as it’s said, but not sufficient.
Cognitive Scaffolding – How Do We Support and Encourage Thoughtful Journal Entries and Comment/Discussion
Ah yes, herein lies the greatest problem.
I designed software a few years ago called Journal Zone to try to meet these needs. It was a good first attempt – but didn’t do well commercially. BUT, this is not about selling that product. It’s not available any more anyway. It is about the feature set that embraces a socioconstructivist philosophy and is designed specifically for students to become better learners.
Tools to support and encourage novice learners to think deeply about what they should think about or write about aren’t, for the most part, currently available. It is really up to the culture of the classroom to support deep thinking. It should anyway of course. <g>
But, to have some of these affordances built into the tools would be useful.
I have made attempts at this – yes, with Journal Zone in the past – but more recently, with blogs, wikis and Diigo. It’s a hack, and not quite as integrated as I would like. But if anyone wants to build something with me, please let me know.
I’ll describe the concepts more fully here. Please read The Construction Zone section if you would like a more robust theoretical basis of ‘expert/novice learning behaviour’, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), ‘dynamic scaffolding’, and mindfulness.
I would like to see an online journaling environment that supports reflective learning within a social context. It could integrate three common practices of exemplary teaching – journal writing, collaboration, and cognitive scaffolding. Students would think more deeply, not only about the task at hand, but also about their own thinking and learning processes.
It would be a place where students could write and illustrate their thoughts, plans and ideas over a period of time. Sometimes journals would be ongoing – as a diary might be. At other times journals might be kept during specific projects – to track plans, thoughts, notes, questions, strategies, solutions and so on. The journal entries would be reviewed and commented upon by group members or project partners.
Because the environment would encourage and support social sharing and discussion of these thoughts, it would be an ideal place for students to work together to make sense of curricular or conceptual problems. The distinctive tools (perhaps sentence prompts) would scaffold individual and group learning by helping students in planning, reflecting and commenting effectively on the work of others.
Imagine a student, Sarah, is beginning her investigations into her topic of ‘natural disasters’. Normally, this occurs as an independent activity. However, in this case, Sarah is part of a group of students – each of whom has his/her own topic of investigation. Each student has a responsibility, not just for her own investigation, but also for the projects of the others in the group. (Indeed, each student may have a sub-part of a topic, but not necessarily.) In practical terms, this means that each student works on her own project, but also regularly comments on the progress of the others in her group. As Sarah documents her plans and thoughts, others read them and give substantive feedback in an effort to ‘bump up’ the standard of work.
My research indicated that ‘prompts’ were initially essential to get novice learners to behave more like expert learners – to develop the metacognitive strategies of, for example, generating a number of solution strategies before embarking on one or, breaking a complex project into mind-size parts. Prompts can also assist in elevating the conversation from a social one to a more substantive one. For example, instead of a student merely saying, “I like your idea”, the student might say, “Have you considered…that we studied that hurricane all last month. How has that affected the farming?” The benefits to the recipient of the advice are obvious.
But the students who give the advice also benefit in several ways:
- they intimately learn the subject content of the other students
- they ‘see’ the learning processes of the others (how they ‘think’ – question, plan, solve problems)
- they learn how to be part of a team – an important lifelong learning skill
The first task for each student may be to work towards a ‘driving’ question for the investigation. This may take several journal pages and much discussion with peers to develop a question that meets the criteria. A ‘driving’ question (modified from Krajcik) is defined as one that:
- integral to the curriculum under study
- complex enough to be broken down into smaller questions
- link concepts/principles across disciplines
- anchored in the lives of learners
- engage students in a state of ‘flow’
In fact, the teacher – perhaps in conjunction with the students – may have developed rubrics for a ‘driving’ question. This could be posted in a Teacher’s journal and referred to during these discussions.
Once Sarah has defined her question, she would need to develop her plans for investigation. Again, she does this by ‘thinking aloud’ in her journal and by reading and reacting to the comments of her peers. Over the course of the project, therefore, Sarah and her peers have regular, reflective conversations about every stage of their work.
It is in this way that students feel empowered over their own learning. They set the agenda. They identify and work through the planning, the development of strategies, the accomplishment of their goals. They will be better prepared to meet the challenges of educational standards and of a life of learning within a social context.
Request of You
If you are interested in the processes I used in scaffolding students to think more deeply and to collaborate more substantively in these environments, I would be thrilled to have the discussion. It is my plan to write more about:
- the differences between novice and expert learners
- dynamic scaffolding
- effective collaboration
Please, share your thoughts.
Knowledge Forum – ‘an electronic group workspace designed to support the process of knowledge building.’
The Construction Zone – a theoretical overview of: expertise – the differences between expert and novice learners; the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); ‘dynamic scaffolding’; and, mindfulness.
Diigo – a social bookmarking tool that allows for annotation of web pages
Project Based Learning:
Project-based learning (PBL) is happening in classrooms all over the world. Sort of. I see a lot of kids ‘doing projects’. Teachers design them. Teachers create checklists of the process. Teachers give timelines and ‘check in’ points. The kids immediately Google the topic, grab the information, reword it, toss in some stolen graphics and push forward to ‘get it done’. The focus, for the student, often really becomes ‘getting it done’.
I see project assignments for kids who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) where the work is incredibly ‘chunked’ and scaffolded. These assignments are often more scripted with lists of things to do accompanied by check boxes to ‘help’ the students stay on track.
Oh, I know, that is the extreme scenario! Cut me some slack…just describing the extreme to make a point! :-)
And please don’t get me wrong. ‘Chunking’ and ‘scaffolding’ are exceptionally useful techniques…and, I love effective PBL, but, I have issues with projects becoming worksheets. I have seen this pattern before. (One of the great, and lousy things, about getting older! LOL)
It reminds me of the days of ‘learning centres’ back in the seventies when the idea was that kids would move to various centres in the classroom to engage in constructive learning activities. Conceptually great. Implementation poor…generally speaking. Kids were often seen rotating from one centre to the other after a prescribed amount of time doing, what often appeared to be ‘worksheet type’ activities – SRA Reading lab, penmanship (printing or writing), math dittos – and, oh yes, the occasional ‘listening centre’.
I think that the basic issue here is one of inherent belief structure of the educators and the system in which they are immersed. When new educational practices are ‘rolled out’ in school systems, some time is spent on the overall philosophy and much time is spent on the pragmatic implementation in the classrooms. The former is often ‘watered down’ and the latter is often prescriptive and scripted. This leads to a ‘conceptual drift’. The original idea, in this case ‘project based learning’, loses the philosophical essence in favour of following the prescription. What was originally a powerful, deep, philosophically bound approach has drifted to some skeleton of itself.
CHECK THIS OUT
Please check out this page outlining effective PBL.
- Project Based Learning – Explained: A Custom Video Project with BIE (commoncraft.com)
- Video – Project Based Learning Explained (freetech4teachers.com)
- Supporting Student Voice and Choice Leads to Equity (edreformer.com)
I would like to share with you the story of Hidden – a project that was developed by a student in the 11th grade under the umbrella of Adobe Youth Voices and iEARN. This project then grew naturally into a bigger project as the result of a 10th grade student.
Let me start first by showing you the video – Hidden – by Robin.
PhotoShop – “Creating the images”
We had been learning about the artist, David Hockney, and had practised ‘squaring off’ some images in PhotoShop using the following tutorial:
Robin then saved various layers, and combinations of layers, as jpegs for inclusion into Adobe Premiere Elements.
Adobe Youth Voices and iEARN – “Student in charge”
Adobe Youth Voices is a global philanthropic initiative to empower youth. Svetlana Yakubovskaya from Minsk, Belarus and Juan_Domingo Martinez from Esquel, Argentina led a great online course with 20 or so other educators from around the globe. Then the students and I started our plans for the media projects. It was a challenge for us all to agree on a plan and we changed the plans as we moved through the process. Students finally decided to create their own media arts pieces out of their previous work in Media Arts class. All the results have been posted on the YMCA Academy YouTube channel.
Robin believes that art should not be hidden for only people with money to see. He sees graffiti as a form of art that is available to all.
I believe his work is so successful for several reasons. This project was his. He owned it. He created the idea. He had the passion. He had the motivation. He wrote the rap. He composed the music. He performed it. He struggled with the contradictions. He overcame the ambiguities. He was in charge and maintained focus and effort until completion.
Once posted to the Adobe and iEARN websites, Sasa Sirk from Slovenia contacted me. She is a teacher who is running a graffiti project called Listen to the Walls Talking – an iEARN project. She asked if Robin would be interested in collating some of the works of other graffiti artists from the project. He agreed.
Google Earth as a Multimedia Tool – “Now it gets interesting!”
However, Alex (10th grade) and Robin joined forces and decided to take some previous knowledge of Google Earth and produce a multimedia Google Earth tour of graffiti sites from the Listen to the Walls Talking project. Again, their idea…their initiative. Their passion. To see their results (a work in progress!), download this kmz file, double click it, and Google Earth will open up. Click on the various sites in the sidebar and then click on the placemark to see the artwork from that location. (Here’s how to do that.) In some cases, you will see ‘street view’ of that location as well. (See McDougall Lane in Toronto for an example.) Please be aware that this is a rough draft of an adventure in learning. We, by no stretch, understand the intricacies of Google Earth at this point.
But, as we often say here, “Just go for it! Take charge!”
PROJECT BASED LEARNING RESOURCES
- 11 Social Studies Resources to Try in 2011 (freetech4teachers.com)
- Video: Yes, These Kids Are Google Earth Sky-Diving (crunchgear.com)