STEM is a skill, not a curriculum

Occasionally, when thinking without a harness, there comes the time to rant, this rant is brought to you by buzzword creators everywhere. I am sick to death of people jumping on the STEM bandwagon. As a content, STEM means nothing. As a skillset, it means quite a bit as it is a process of “doing,” which utilizes various principles of design thinking.

All good teaching uses design thinking to a certain degree. Principles of design are in good art classes, English classes, history classes, sciences classes, math classes. Just good classes. STEM is not exclusive to the domain of left brain oriented curriculum, in fact, STEM thrives on the right side of the brain, which is why STEM is quickly becoming STE(A)M, with the inclusion of the Arts.

What worries me is when parents will ask a school if it is a STEM school, the principal might invariably say, “Yes, see the sign on the building, it says so right there!” The parent looks at the sign in glee as she believes her child will be given an education focused on a curriculum. And, I fear, that is how it is sold. And there will likely be nothing different offered in that school.

If the same parent asked my school if we are STEM, I would argue that yes, we are. The parent would like to see the sign, and I would argue that STEM principles are embedded in all that good teachers do. My school encourages our teachers to foster some sense of inquiry, and from there develop the principles of design thinking. As well, we are an International Baccalaureate school, which means those classes are developed around inquiry, the foundation of STEM. That, in fact, is the big difference between IB and AP in my mind: IB begins and ends with inquiry and skills, where AP has a tendency to focus on content first, skills and inquiry second.

IMG_2064
Students working on spaghetti towers. After, they reflected on how they used each of the 21st Century Skills.

If you have been following my writing, you know that I am a fan of the 21st century skills. So often, my students tell me that school doesn’t teach them anything they will need in the real world. When they say this, they are referring to skills like writing a check, paying taxes, balancing a check book. When they bring this up, I make a quick demonstration on the board of how these basics are done (with a few snide remarks), and let them know that these are not the skills that they actually need.

The skills they need in reality are not so obvious. The problem is that teachers often do a poor job of informing their classes of the skills they are utilizing in completing a task and what this skill means outside of their classes. If we want our students to be empowered learners, they need to know the skill they are utilizing in the completion of a task to understand content is necessary beyond the walls of that class. Content should be a vehicle to teach a skill that is used outside of that content.

When I had my students building spaghetti towers in class a couple of weeks back, one class got into a heated argument to define assistance. A group used materials attached to the ceiling to provide support for their tower. They argued that it was not different than using tape affixed to the table. Other groups argued that this violated the rules. So I gave groups time to develop their arguments and sought an impartial judge in the form of our calculus teacher, and they presented their arguments to define what is and is not assistance.

When we open our classes to the idea of using content to develop skills, these conversations with students become real and authentic. Students should realize that a class is not so much about the content as it is about the skill and what that skill means outside of that class. I try to be intentional in each class about the skills we will be working on and how these are used beyond the walls of my classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I love everything STEM. What I don’t like is when schools place a label on their building and claim to be something outside of a normal high school. STEM is developed around skills, not content. Every school should be a STEM school. Even without the label.

Losing the straightjacket

I often tell my students that they shouldn’t let school get in the way of their learning. They are baffled as they tend not to separate the two ideas. When I tell them not to let school get in the way of their learning it comes down to a few items: their focus on a grade, their need to follow instructions (when detailed, step-by-step instructions are not present, they tend to freak out), passively waiting for the teacher (me) to pass down information that will be on the test. This list could go on, but I figure you have an idea of what I am talking about.

So many of us are stuck in that place where we know what is important for our students, yet we are judged on various scores that have little to do with what is really important. So the question comes is how can I teach the skills I know my students need, yet get them ready for the mandated assessments that the system needs.

One teacher I worked with many years ago said that if you teach them well, they will do fine on the tests. I love that idea, and it has stuck with me for a long time. There are times when I figure I am on to something good. And then those times when I really want to crawl under a dark porch and rock myself to sleep. But that is what happens when we take risks.

I have written several pieces since I started this blog regarding PBL in my classes. While not that answer, PBL is part of the solution to the question of having students engage directly with essential skills, yet address the needs to do well on mandated assessments. It is part of that good teaching of which my friend spoke so many years ago. Recently, Forbes published a fantastic article about the difference between IB and AP. I teach both and have to say I much prefer IB over AP, but that is another topic. In the article, Peter Greene drops this beauty:

Imagine a test designed to energize instruction rather than strap it into a straightjacket. That would be cool. Inspired teachers lead to inspired students– what an idea.

Let that sit in your head for a moment. I wonder, however, if it is more than only the test that puts so much of teaching and learning in a straightjacket. Let’s pull our view back from the test to the idea of school. The idea of school as an institution places much student thinking and teaching in a straightjacket. So much that students and teachers are not as inspired as they could be. When students set their sights on the grade, on the GPA, on the test score, because the teacher’s teaching is focused on the grade, on the GPA, on the test score, creative inspiration on both ends is harnessed.

So I begin this year with this mindset: What can I do to make sure that my teaching is not in a straightjacket and thus student learning in my classes is not in a straightjacket as well? I worked hard last year on incorporating PBL in my classes, this year will see that amped up with a stronger emphasis on keeping my students more fully engaged via inquiry and design thinking. This year, as with last, I am teaching the entire spectrum of ability levels. I have IB and AP, along with those kids whose acceptance of school is tenuous at best. Both ends of the spectrum struggle to take their thinking out of the straightjacket for a myriad of other reasons, many of which I hope to explore this school year in order to let go of the straightjacket, both mine and theirs.

I want to close with the title of my website and what it means. So much of what we do in our lives, we do with a safety net of sorts. I have always felt that teachers need to practice what we teach and preach. I preach the gospel of reflection and creative, critical thought through writing. I want my students to take intellectual risks with their thinking. I want them to think without a harness. What a sham if I didn’t do the same.

What about you? What is your goal for the year? How do you go about practicing what you teach?

Reflecting on recent TOK PBL

As I have noted, in TOK the ‘P’ in PBL is focused on a problem. As I develop my PBL, I think about Jaime Casap who says that we need to stop asking kids what they know, but what problem they would like to solve. And while these are strong students, they are not at the total free inquiry place yet. So I gave them the problem of looking at a root cause for mass violence in our society, and present a viable solution for that problem.

And as I sit here having evaluated their work, I feel like it went pretty darn well.

The highlight of the assignment was when I passed it out and one of my students raised her hand and said: This is not a TOK assignment! I was giddy that they are beginning to realize what is and is not TOK. As any TOK teacher might acknowledge, half of teaching the class is helping students recognize what is and is not TOK. So I led the class to the reflection essay, which is TOK thinking. With this settled, they got to work on their problem: to explore what they feel is a root cause of mass violence and present a viable solution.

I stepped back and listened in on their conversations and their understandings. Over the course of the project, they had been presenting and sharing articles they found which address issues of concern regarding behavior and our understanding of behavior from the human and natural sciences. From these articles, they made connections with causes of mass violence. As they worked on discerning a root cause to mass violence, they pulled some of these ideas out and began to make necessary, foundational connections to address a root cause of violence.

When it came time to present their findings, their biology teacher and our school resource officer were fully engaged. The students were empowered as they owned the learning. All instruction during the course of the investigation had been done, to a certain degree, by them. All learning was their own. So when they presented, the joy was in their voices and their faces.

But, as noted, this was not the TOK part. My goal was that if they had knowledge they produced using the skills of the human and natural scientist, then their TOK reflection would be that much more meaningful. It would have been had I constructed the knowledge question better and more appropriate to their project. The knowledge question I gave them for reflection was: How can language of the human and natural sciences lead to understanding of human behavior? While it is evident how this question emerges from the inquiry, the question was not effective in making the necessary reflection I had hoped. Regardless, they did well from a TOK perspective, though a few missed the “of” in the question, which fouled up their responses, but some made effective connections with their inquiry into mass violence. Others did well in exploring the knowledge issues of language in understanding behavior. Next time I will focus the question more explicitly to their inquiry.

In the end, I am happy with how the project went. When we return in the fall, they will do something similar with math. They will be reading The Universe and the Teacup and I figure they will follow some line of inquiry whereby they use mathematical thinking to derive a solution to a problem. Though this time I will put the inquiry into their laps. With some guidance.

 

PBL in TOK: Violence in America

I meant to send this out last week, regardless, here is a plan I put together for a quick PBL in my TOK. Take a look and feel free to advise me for next go around about what I could do for it.

Many thanks and we are almost there to summer.


Scenario: The US government has called on experts to help the populace better understand acts of mass violence in the US today. As it stands, the government is still struggling to understand root causes as it and the American people usually want immediate fixes; however, the government has come to realize that in order to deal with the situation knee jerk reactions will no longer cut it. As a result, both the government and the American population need to have a better understanding of root causes. Therefore, the government has called upon you to present your findings at a symposium which seeks to address two issues:

  • What is a root cause to acts of mass violence in the United States
  • What is a viable solution to deal with that cause?

On May 21, 2018, we will hold a symposium where candidates will present their findings to a committee for review. Presentations will be used to explain your understanding of a (not the) root cause and a (not the) viable solution and how you will go about transmitting this understanding regarding acts of mass violence to the people of the United States.

Ideas to consider for presenting your understanding to the population, but not limited to:

  • PSA
  • Website
  • Informative brochure
  • Social media campaign
  • Whatever your mind wishes…

Issues you might consider as you develop your thinking:

  • Responsibilities (as a citizen, community)
  • Social expectations (from society, gender)
  • The role of language in understanding behavior (human/natural science)
  • Socialization (human/biological)
  • Cultural expectations (shared and personal knowledge)

As you develop your response, use the articles you (should) have been reading last week. There have been some solid understandings regarding this issue that have arisen from many of these articles. To ignore them will provide a very narrow and think understanding.


Following are scoring criteria and guidelines:

The purpose of the presentation on the 21st is to “sell” your project to a government agency who will use whatever your ideas are to help people understand mass violence in America today. You will want to consider the best manner about selling your idea. Issues you will address in your presentation:

  • The facts behind your thinking
  • Your understanding of a root cause and a viable solution
  • Your reasons for the project
  • How you think it will be effective in helping others to understand the issue with some clarity
  • How you came to this understanding as a root cause of violence

Presentation evaluated using the following:

  • Poise
    • Well spoken
    • Rehearsed
  • Logical development
    • There is a clear flow of information
    • Introduction is engaging and seeks to pull the audience in
    • Flow of ideas is natural
  • Clear knowledge and understanding of issues
    • Use of human and natural sciences
    • Provides viable solution
  • Developed explanation of ideas and information
    • Use of academic support
    • Consider multiple perspectives

Project evaluated using the following:

  • Creativity
    • Presents the issue in new manner
    • Provides unique insights
    • Demonstrates critical analysis and understanding
  • Sustained inquiry
    • The project should demonstrate inquiry into the subject
  • Research based
    • While not overly technical, the project should be convincing and based on research

Reflection (It is in the reflection where TOK will happen) essay (to be completed individually):

  • Write a 750 word essay that seeks to answer the following knowledge question: How can language of the human and natural sciences lead to understanding of human behavior?

 

Four strategies to avoid burnout

I have been doing this teaching thing for a touch over 22 years now. Weird to think that I have been doing it longer than my students have been alive. I have, in fact, been doing it long enough that I now have students who are the children of some of my students from many years ago. When the first of those kids came along, I almost feinted.

As many of us old farts will attest to, there comes a time when we are asked how we avoid burn out. How have we done this for so many years (with the exception of one semester, my entire career has been at the same school)? While it isn’t easy, it isn’t difficult to avoid burnout either. Some suggestions that have helped me along all these years.

I have noticed that the teachers who burnout the easiest tend to be the either the most passionate or have no place whatsoever in the classroom. To the passionate teachers looking for an out, keep reading. For those teachers who realize you are not suited to the classroom, thank you for having the courage to try. Following are some strategies I have used over the last many years to keep me afloat in this profession.

Strategy #1: Throw away last year’s plans…

The teachers who don’t seem to burnout the easiest are those who do the same thing year after year after year. However, these teachers also tend to be the least exciting. They likely don’t burnout because they have their lessons and grading down pat. These are the teachers who still use the same overheads they used 20 years ago when overhead projectors were high tech. These are the teachers who spend their teacher prep days at the beginning of the year making copies for the entire semester. You know this teacher. You have had this teacher. And like me, you probably entered this gig not wanting to be this teacher. Perhaps you don’t use the same handouts and the like, but you’re feeling some burnout. Get rid of last year’s plans. Start over. Try something different with your classes. You might have the same content, but that doesn’t mean you have to teach the same lessons. Let’s face it, what worked last year, likely won’t work for the students you currently have. Don’t do the same thing year after year after year.

Strategy #2: Change your schedule…

A few years back I was in rut. I was looking at want ads. I was looking at what I could do to get out of the profession. I did the math to see what it would take to retire early. So, rather than do something irrational I walked into the scheduler’s office and told her to take my honors English class off my schedule and replace it with co-taught English. In case you’re wondering, co-taught English is as far on the opposite end of the spectrum of honors as you can get. A good chunk of my career has been in advanced classes. This change has done absolute wonders for my perspective as a teacher. It has re-energized what I do. And, it has impacted how I approach my AP and IB classes. If you’re struggling, and it is possible, change a class in your schedule.

Strategy #3: Work with the new teachers…

A couple of years back my school got an infusion of new teachers. They came in with some new ideas and approaches. Where many of us old farts might look at new teachers and say, “BAH! You kids and your new fangled ideas. You’ll learn!” Don’t say that. Sit with them. Learn from them. Mentor them with an open mind and you just might learn something, too. Felicia entered this crazy world of education four years ago after 20 years in retail, a good chunk of that time in management. I have learned so much from her and other new teachers. Their enthusiasm can be infectious. Sometimes it will need a dose of reality, but buy into their enthusiasm. Don’t crush it. Help it come to fruition. There is something quite powerful about reigniting a passion.

Strategy #4: Learn something new…

I am not making this up. One year, close to 17 years ago, when I was almost done with this teaching thing, I wrote the following for my technology goals: I plan on utilizing the light switch so that my students will be better able to read and write. I think about that and I want to vomit. Challenge yourself with focusing on new. New strategies. New technologies. This year I have been working extra time on incorporating PBL in my classes. Trust me, I have messed up more than I have succeeded. But I have had some great success with incorporating these strategies into my classes. Today, in fact, Felicia and I just enrolled in John Spencer’s Design Thinking Master Course. I have also attended many Google Summits, reading conferences, a variety of IB conferences, some design thinking workshops. As well, I have been working on certification in working with ELL students. But whatever it is, challenge yourself to learn something new. It doesn’t matter, as long as you share your struggles with learning with your students. Let them know it is ok to try something new. To experiment. And to fail and work harder to succeed.

There you go, four strategies to help avoid burnout, none of which make heavy use of alcohol, though that has been considered (all right, it has been used) a few times. Sadly, it is easy for teachers to burnout, especially now, when it seems the world wants our collective noggins on a plate. As well, we are at that point in the year where there are exams coming up and standardized testing season on the back end. The pressure is being felt on so many ends.

Either way, hang in there and don’t let the bastards grind you down. Here’s to learning and teaching. Something I hope we are all passionate about. What are some strategies you use to avoid burning out?

Problems leading to projects in TOK

The IB curriculum begins and ends with inquiry. Where AP (which I also teach) focuses so much more on content, IB revolves more around the skills necessary to create knowledge in a given content and understand the concepts of that content. IB doesn’t focus on the answers, rather how one arrives at those answers. Students are asked to think like a historian, a scientist, a linguist. In Theory of Knowledge (TOK), the central concern is developing critical thinking skills as we examine how knowledge is acquired, created, and produced. Because of this, inquiry is the beginning, middle, and end of TOK. So, when we consider PBL in TOK, the “P” is about a problem and the project is about doing something through inquiry with that problem. And all of this in order to understand the concepts of the acquisition, creation, and production of knowledge.

If there are a thousand TOK teachers, there will be one thousand different approaches to TOK. As one of my trainers told the class, make sure the class works to your (the teacher’s) strengths. By which he meant, whatever content I use to teach the skills and concepts of TOK, I need to make sure these are issues and concepts which I can speak to. In addition to the content, there is also the organization of the class that will also vary from teacher to teacher to teacher. As far as I am concerned, I like to open my year examining the four ways of knowing (WOK) I will focus on over the course of the year. These WOK are reason, emotion, sense perception, and language.

I have always wanted to include elements of PBL in TOK, which I have written about previously. In one of George Couros’ sessions I attended at the recent Colorado Council of the International Reading Association, he showed an early video put out by Google to explain Google docs in “plain English” and what other teachers had done with similar videos:

And I thought this could be a fun way to have my TOK students demonstrate their understanding of a WOK. So I came up with the inquiry question: How does a knower determine the best WOK to use in acquiring knowledge in an area of knowledge (AOK)? The students were allowed to choose an area of knowledge and make a similar video to the above in order to demonstrate their understandings regarding the question. In addition, the students had to present a definition of the WOK and the role it plays in creating knowledge along with acquiring knowledge.

Here are a couple of samples:

Reason:

Sense perception:

As these are new TOK students, their understandings are not nearly as developed as they could be, but the videos each present minds at work. As I noted in my previous post about PBL in TOK, TOK really happens in the reflection of the activity. And this exercise was no different. For the reflection, the students had to respond to the following from the TOK subject guide:

On the one hand, WOK are the tools that answer the question “how do we know?” and on the other hand they help us answer the question “how do I know?” Discuss this using your two WOK and one AOK.

The essay is where reflection took place and where I was able to see both TOK and IB thinking happening. This served as a wonderful summative assessment in order to determine if the goals for my unit had been reached.

George Couros recently posted how best practices in education were once innovations in education. Check out the graphic he included with it:

Process-of-Innovation (1)

When it comes to TOK (all classes, actually, but TOK especially) there needs to be a deep and close relationship between the student and the concepts of the class (there really is no content to TOK, we have heavy concepts). I hoped that by including a bit more creative expression in the use of these concepts, it might help the students develop a better, more personal understanding with them. As I looked over their reflections and listened to their presentations of their videos, the students do have an effective understanding of the WOK and how these are used, their limitations, and how we as knowers make up for those limitations.

As I reflect on this exercise, there is something I would change. I didn’t have the students do enough work ahead of time to make sure that they were on the right path. I have to remind myself constantly that, though these might be hard working students, they are still teenagers. As such, they will take the quickest path to completing the assignment as possible. I was no different (in fact, I was a lot worse when I was their age). If I want my students to get more out of any PBL, there needs to be more in the lead up by to the presentation. This is where the LAUNCH process and design thinking comes into play.

As I move on, I can see how adding these components will help my students develop that close and personal relationship with the concepts of TOK. How do you use PBL strategies engage your students to develop deeper understanding of concepts?

Someone who believes in them

I teach a couple of classes of at-risk and low performing students. These are students who have been told their whole lives by grades, family, teachers, assessments that they are not smart, that they can’t handle heavy thinking, that they can’t handle independent, critical thought. And while many do float to these expectations (I will forever be indebted to Mike Rose for the verb “to float”. If you have never read his essay, “I just wanna be average,” stop what you’re doing and read it now), many move well beyond them. As Felicia might say, “These kids don’t need to be saved, they just need somebody to believe in them.” I tell you, that woman is smart.

Over the course of last semester, we had done some fun, hands on type of PBL, but I wanted to push their thinking. I went to The Buck Institute’s website (BIE), and I did some searching around Google and Twitter for what could be a fun, intriguing unit. When I found the “Cool with School Rules” project, I had an idea and I developed a unit on ethical decision making with then end goal of examining school rules. I designed the unit around three primary forms of ethics: utilitarian, obligation, and consequential. When I presented the unit to the classes, given this group of kids, they were baffled (one asked if I mixed this class up with my Theory of Knowledge class) about why we would even bother talking about such inane topics. But, several were curious and actively engaged in thought experiments and the like. And many chose not to.

But then, without them knowing that they were going to engage in some PBL, I had the principal come in to class one day. He told them that he had heard we were studying ethics, so he figured they might be the right kids to help him out. As he said, “There are many students in this school who are having a difficult time following rules and just being damn civil to each other.” So he wanted some help in motivating students to be better, behave a bit more civilly, and respect the building and what we are trying to do a bit more. So he asked my classes to help him come up with strategies. He gave us four weeks to come up with something. We would need six.

He left and we got right to work. My students divided the building (hallways, library, bathrooms, cafeteria, gym/weight room/locker rooms), and groups took sections to work on. In the process of completing the assignment for the principal, they had to base a lot of what they did and say in one of their three ethical frameworks.

Using the launch process, the students were able to engage with ethics in some form of concrete reality. As well, we introduced other questions regarding rules and culture and the manner in which these play a role in how people act and behave towards each other and their environment.

The PBL was designed with all of the necessary elements:

  1. We launched the project with the principal coming in and presenting a real, viable issue. After he left, the students spent time brainstorming in small groups what they knew and understood about school rules and why they may or may not follow rules. These conversations were rooted in the ethics we had studied.
  2. From this exploration, the students were able to develop questions. This is a difficult part for many students, these kids are certainly no exception (in their mind to ask a question is to admit you might not know everything, you might be wrong, or you might actually care). However, with the right tools and framework, some of these kids came up with some solid questions.
  3. They spent some time studying more ethical decision making strategies and other ideas that people had done to create a culture where people wanted to be there. And they came up with some answers to their questions. Again, some had well developed answers while many had very thin answers. Regardless, they worked within these ideas and concepts.
  4. From here, they spent time in their assigned areas of the school and took notes and studied the needs of these areas. They also studied what some other schools had done with posting rules in some creative manners. With all of this knowledge, they came up with their ideas for posters and slogans.

IMG_1071Over the course of the next few weeks, my students worked on coming up with ways to engage students to behave and follow rules. The students were reflective in their own struggles with rules and school and applied what they knew of themselves and their friends to what they felt might motivate others.

When the principal came back after six weeks, the students presented their ideas to him. As you might expect with a group of at-risk and low performing students, many didn’t get as much done as they could have, but some did exceedingly well (many students still argue about the “broken windows theory”).

IMG_1069The principal, however, was so impressed with one group that their posters are hanging in bathrooms around the school (these are the pictures presented). They took the approach of making memes to remind students of expectations for the bathrooms.

The beauty of a well executed PBL, as I am beginning to learn, involves so much. In the case with at-risk and low performing students, most need a bit of structured and guided inquiry. This group needs explicit deadlines as at-risk and low performing students tend to struggle with self-direction. They also need explicit rubrics and guidelines. They need all of the requirements of good PBL as outlined by The Buck Institute.

IMG_1065When reflecting on the process when they were done, many students, including two in the group who have their memes hanging, said that for the first time in their 12 years in the education system, they felt their opinion was valued and they were taken seriously. When the principal was in the room listening to their presentations, they felt like he was genuinely interested. Probably because he was. He wasn’t there to grade them. After each presentation he offered his advice and that if they wanted their posters or ideas presented to the school, this is what they would have to do.

According to BIE there needs to be some sort of authentic, public demonstration, because far too often, students present only for the grade book. When the principal was there to listen and to pry and to advise, they realized that this was for real. And for just a moment, there was somebody else in the room who believed in them, which is what they really needed.