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?

 

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?