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?

Colonized by the grade book

Modern education has been fully colonized by the grade book. As any colonizer, the grade book imposes its values as truth and reality over those whom have been colonized. This is not an easy process as these values often are in direct opposition with the colonized‘s previously held values. Eventually, however, with force and other methods of control, these values will be seen as the only way forward and will not to be questioned. When this shift happens, the colonizer’s ideology becomes reality and the colonized see no other way but that way of life.

My AP class just read George Orwell’s, “Shooting an Elephant.” Every time I use this essay in class, I am reminded why I sympathize with the speaker when he is compelled to use his rifle, which he calls a”magical,” because it transforms him to a man of power and authority.  While I do not have a magical rifle, I have a magical grade book. And like the speaker in the essay, I am forced to use it. And sadly, due to the process of colonization, sometimes that is all the students, like all colonized, understand.

A quick summary if you are not familiar the essay: The speaker of the essay is a British police officer in Lower Burma. As such, he is a representative of the colonizing force from England. The speaker admits early in the essay that “imperialism was an evil thing” and was doing what he could to get away from it. One day, however, the speaker recalls a “tiny incident” which he claims reveal the true “nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” He was called to do something about an elephant running amok in the bazaar. The speaker does not want to hurt the elephant, but with the collected wills of the local population, he is compelled to use his magical rifle and shoot the elephant.

Much like the speaker I am compelled to confront my own elephant, which I do with my magical grade book. My students understand in the abstract the meaninglessness of grades and test scores. They understand that the only people who care about their grades and transcripts are them, their parents, and (to a certain degree) their college application. But the values imposed by the colonizer is quite different. The colonizer seeks to supplant the will of the colonized with the will of the colonizer. This is not an easy process and one that has to be done over and over again, lest the colonized’s will resurge. And so my students focus on the magical grade book.

Every time I read this essay, it seems that the colonizer, too,  must be re-colonized in order to inflict the colonizer’s will upon the natives. The speaker realizes that what he is doing is not the right thing, regardless, he continues with it. He continues to use this magical rifle. He continues to enforce the colonizer’s rules and impose their values.

Just like I continue to enter and ‘value’ grades. And spend the first few days back from summer break looking over SAT, PSAT, IB, AP, and other test scores (I don’t mind data, what I do mind is not allowing my students to be individuals). In doing all of this, I break the will of my students a bit more so that they are fully under the spell of the colonizer.

To push this metaphor of colonization one step further, there is a time when learning is about joy and fun. When the grade book does not matter. A time when school is about exploring. But then enters the test. Enters the venerated test maker. Enters the person who has the fucking audacity to ask if your first grader is college ready? Here, the kid leaves and is replaced with a data point or, worse yet, the stresses of being adult.

I find myself playing into the game. I find myself pulling out my magical grade book. I listen to the crowd of thousands making sure I use it.

As we started to discuss “Shooting an Elephant,” I presented this idea to my students. The irony is they agree. They agree that they are the elephant and the system (through me and the grade book) is taking their will very slowly. They agree that their thoughts about school and education have been fully colonized and they cannot see anything beyond the ‘significance’ of the grade book. They agree that the first question they are concerned about is if an assignment is being graded and how many points it is worth. It seems the more it is worth, the more work they will put into it.

And so I work to combat it. I work to find the balance between satisfying the needs and wants of the colonizer and making sure my students leave my classes with their wills mostly in tact. To be honest, in order to function as a society, we must give a bit of ourselves up, I have no problem with this. What concerns me, however, is the lack of desire for many of my students to learn for themselves in school, to put themselves into their learning. That if we want them to become lifelong learners, then we have to confront the incentive for learning in school. We have to confront the process of colonization through the grade book.

I will be spending some time over the next few posts as I explore some of what I am trying to do to combat this process colonization by the grade book in my classes. Right now, I am experimenting with the grades themselves, I am including some PBL approaches to learning, and other ideas. But I wonder about you? What are you doing in your classes to try and get your students’ focus off the grade book and on the learning? Please share some ideas in the comments.