PBL in TOK: reflection and what to do with the knowledge you created

I have been working on adding a project based learning (PBL) component to my theory of knowledge class (TOK). The easy part in developing PBL in TOK (if you are in an IB school, acronyms are part of the process, and this last sentence is normal. If you don’t teach in an IB school, my apologies for the acronyms) is coming up with project ideas, the difficult part has been designing effective plans to meet the needs of TOK and provide robust, authentic projects beyond a presentation that lead to TOK thinking.

TOK makes up part of the core of the IB Programme. In order for a student to receive his or her IB diploma, that student needs to succeed in TOK. It is a class where students ask questions about knowledge as knowledge arises from real life situations. In doing so, students ask: What knowledge means, where it comes from, how it is acquired, created, produced, and so on. TOK, therefore, is a class that revolves around epistemology.

While I have been working out how to implement PBL in my TOK (and all of my classes, for that matter), I have borrowed heavily from John Spencer and  A.J. Juliani, their book Launch, as well as the Buck Institute for Education. In the process, I have been putting together a unit planning template from all those resources that also brings in IB requirements. I think I am finally nearing my first use of it all.

As I have been working on PBL in TOK, there has been a nagging feeling that something was missing. I have come to the conclusion that education is most effective when students take the necessary time to reflect on what they have done, what skills they used, and the impact those skills might have in and outside of class. This is essential in IB, as one trait from the IB learner profile asks that students be reflective. And so when it comes to PBL in TOK, I have realized the TOK thinking must happen in the reflection process.

Here is the way I see this happening: present students with a a problem as it  arises out of a real life situation (this is TOK language) from the world outside of school. Have the students use knowledge, information, and skills from one of their content classes to address the problem, go through the LAUNCH process, design a project, implement, present, and reflect. While this does not look so different in any for of PBL they would do in history or math (for example), TOK, therefore, must happen in the reflection and presentation. It is here where they will address the knowledge issues  they encountered during the completion of the project.

IB asks for students “to consider the world” and their “own ideas” in the reflection process. In addition, students are asked to reflect on their “strengths and weaknesses” in order to support their “learning and development.” Imagine asking students to add this to their reflections: “What can you create outside of TOK (or whatever class you might be using PBL and reflections) with the knowledge you have acquired from this project?”

And there it is. Without any real warning sign, I feel ready to implement PBL in TOK. The necessary reflection, which will include necessary ideas for TOK, such as an exploration of the knowledge issues they encountered in completing the project and other TOK themes.

What kinds of questions do you ask of your students when they reflect on a unit? How do you use this information? I look forward to an exchange of ideas in the comments.

Gamer culture

Currently, I am taking a class to get my certification in teaching ESL kids. Here is an essay I wrote for the class. The topic of the essay is about dealing with culture shock. Rather than go the normal route, I decided to write about my introduction into gamer culture through World of Warcraft. Happy reading!


A friend of mine who is more than half Sioux told me that a person who speaks two languages is two people, it is an expression he learned from his grandfather. Travis told me this during a set break when I was sitting in on guitar with his band. That line of his has stuck with me since he laid it out there for me and the universe to hear. He used it to illustrate the significance of having been raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation speaking Sioux and English and the struggles he had when he would visit family who lived off the reservation. I have processed this idea over the years, and I feel that stage four of culture shock (Brown, 1982) gives it the foundational understanding I have struggled with since that night: it is through language that one can be fully acculturated and can be both the person in this culture and that culture. I have said many times that after a few months totally immersed in French culture that anyone, French or American, would have had a difficult time in recognizing that I was American. However, what’s more is this culture transition from shock to assimilation is just as significant in my introduction and foray into gamer culture.

I don’t quite remember the year, but I remember the sensation of logging into World of Warcraft for the first time. It was not unlike going to a new city or country. I was ‘surrounded’ by new sights, new languages, new sounds. When a player enters a massive, multiplayer, online game (MMO) such as World of Warcraft for the first time, he or she enters into a new world and new culture. A world full of virtual ‘newness’ that can be so overwhelming to the ‘noob.’ I remember feeling the “excitement and euphoria” that one often feels when entering a new culture (Brown, 1982). While there are many MMOs and video games out there, there is a common culture and language at the foundation of gamer culture.

I wandered this new world and I began to feel a sense of forlornness. In all MMOs, there are manners in which players can communicate. As for World of Warcraft, there is a general and trade chat where everyone in that part of the realm can see what a player says. There is the private chat between two people, there are small group chats between players in a small group, and there is the guild chat (players in World of Warcraft organize themselves into large social groups called guilds). My first few weeks had me looking to the internet to translate the language I read. Words like noob, pwn, lawlz were foreign to me, as were a variety of acronyms (irl, lfg, afk, brb, ftw) that also sent me to the internet for translation. Asking for help in the general chat could result in mockery, so I found a guild of older players like me, and I would go to them for help or assistance in navigating the communication and traditions I saw happening in the game. Similar to the second stage of culture acquisition, the people in my guild provided necessary support that one often needs when immersing into a new culture (Brown, 1982).

Adjusting to a new culture is difficult, regardless of that culture. Gamer culture is no different. While adjusting to gamer culture through MMOs is certainly not as difficult as adjusting to a new culture in reality, but it highlights various differences in the two worlds to which gamers need to adjust. The “culture stress” described in stage three appropriately notes that as we adjust to our new surroundings we can “accept the differences in thinking and feeling” which surround us (Brown, 1982). With some experience, the ‘noob’ in the game begins to shed some of her innocence of the culture as she begins to use new language and begins to seek out companions for her adventures in the game. As she loses her innocence, she can more easily relate to “natives” and fit into the culture of the game a bit more comfortably.

There comes a moment in every transition from one culture to another where the individual reaches “assimilation or adaptation” (Brown, 1982). I realized I had fully adapted and assimilated into gamer culture when I could easily talk to my gamer students. When I engaged in some of the traditions of the game. When I could easily navigate my way in World of Warcraft. When I could easily enter a new MMO or conversation about a video game. I am truly bilingual and bicultural as I speak the language of gamer culture as easily as I speak my native language. I recognize myself in and out of gamer culture.   

So I come back to Travis and the idea that a person who speaks two languages is two people. The person I am in gamer culture is very different from the person who played with Travis’ blues band that night. Both rely on language particular to that culture, and both utilize words that might be recognizable to those not a part of that culture, however the true meaning of those words are predicated on fluency within that culture. I have to consider the implications on my students. Every new school year, students have to adjust to micro cultures with new teachers and new classrooms. Each teacher seeks to create a culture in his or her room that suits the course and the teaching/learning style of the teacher and, hopefully, meet the needs of the students. Every year I see over 100 new faces as they struggle to adapt to the culture I seek to create in my classroom. Eventually, many develop fluency in the language of my room and my classes, and when they do, they become two people: the student inside my classroom and the young adult outside of it. Until they develop fluency in the language of my room, however, they work to adapt. It is upon me and others familiar with the culture in my room to help the ‘noobs’ as they go through the four stages of culture shock. And when they are able to assimilate, hopefully true learning can happen.

Source:

Brown, H. Douglas. (1982). Sociocultural factors. In Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (pp. 193-196). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Collaboration and the frame of mind

I am a fan of adjusting student groups in my classes. Of course, this drives my students up the wall, but the work I get out of them when they are in groups I set up can be wonderful. When I told my AP English Language and Composition class that I was putting them into groups, they balked and groaned. But, they moved to their assigned spot for the day.

With the students newly organized, I turned on my doc cam and projected a page from my notebook. At the top of the page I had written “What collaboration looks like.” In the middle, written in large letters, “A group of people gathered for a common purpose.” The rest of the page was empty.

I asked them what they feel like collaboration looks like. I poised my pen over the page ready to scribble. And I waited.

For 15 or 20 seconds the silence was deafening. I did not want to start this conversation. I wanted this list to be on them. Finally a kid chimed in: discussion. Good, I say. Tell me more about that, in a collaborative environment, what does discussion look like? A few students suggested some details about the idea of collaborative discussion in small groups. From there, the list took shape and the map filled up. We talked about the role that compromise, performing at the best of one’s abilities, leadership, and ego play in effective collaboration. Most importantly, we pulled this away from school and talked about what it looks like in sports, on a stage, at work, at home.

We talked about what usually happens in classes when they are asked to collaborate. They divide the work up between them, do their own part individually with little communication, and compile their work into one document. They agreed that this is not collaboration. They will readily agree that all they want to do is get their work done so they can move on to better things like Snapchat.

With the mindset established and roles assigned (scribe, researcher, and speaker), students collaborated in small groups with the purpose of using our unit question (What role do social institutions play in determining the level of power derived from authority?) in order to develop a stronger understanding of the arguments presented by Machiavelli, Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The conversations were insightful and productive. I wandered about my room and heard students seeking more depth from their peers as they pushed for deeper understanding in their responses.

From here, we switched to using their collaborative mindset to developing skills and approaches for the AP exam in May. Again, they collaborated and pushed for deeper and richer understandings in order to present a more compelling analysis.

I sometimes forget the importance of getting them in the right frame of mind for working in class. I teach in 90 minute blocks and to spend the first 10-15 minutes helping them to get into the right frame of mind is well worth it. As noted in my post on skills over content, if I want them to utilize these skills in class, then it is upon me to spend the necessary time in order to help put them in the right mindset for using those skills in class. So, rather than a bell ringer activity or whatever they might be called, I wonder if we would all be better suited by letting students know of the skill they will utilize that day and what it looks like.

Skills, not content

I teach a variety of levels of classes. I have the treasured lettered classes (AP and IB) and classes which I co-teach with a special education teacher. I also have one class full of those students who, under normal circumstances, might not have a chance to graduate. And I know that a key to all of these students becoming functioning adults is having the skills needed to function in reality. Not necessarily the skills needed to function in school.

The question regarding the purpose of high school has been running through my head the last few years. The last couple of decades, in my mind at least, the purpose of high school has been to prepare students to become college professors, though only a few will get an education beyond a bachelors degree, much less be college professors. Regardless of this, the system still functions on the idea that all students will go to a four year college and study the liberal arts. The system, unfortunately, has not fully acknowledged the reality that our world is quite different, and the skills needed to survive in that reality have changed considerably. Try as it might, the system has failed to keep up with those changes of reality outside of education.

As I see it, my job is to get students ready to be functioning people in the world outside of the education system. As I told my AP classes the other day, the only people who really care about their GPA or the fact that they have taken AP classes are their parents and their college application. I know this might be sacrilege to many teachers, especially when it comes to AP and IB classes. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t matter what they have learned in any class until they can do something with what they have learned in those classes. As I write the previous several sentences, I think about a former student I ran into a couple of years ago at a restaurant.

He was in town for Christmas break after his first semester away to college, and he told me that high school had not prepared him for college in the least bit. He had taken a slew of AP courses and he did well in them. He was not valedictorian or even the top 10, but he did well enough to get a decent scholarship to the University of Arizona. I asked him where he was struggling the most. His list included, but not limited to, dealing with the work load, the time management, the expectations of self-direction, these were all a shock to him. After our conversation, it hit me, I had been far too focused on the content of the class and not the skills needed to function as an individual outside of school. I had bought into they myth that I needed to prepare my students, regardless of their level or interest, to be college professors. And the questions of my purpose as a high school teacher really began to take more shape.

I have spent the last many years of my career trying to wrap my head around the idea  that content is far down the list of things many of us teach. Until a few years ago, I had had difficulty in determining what that thing was exactly. the answer to that thing finally began to take form at an IB conference whose keynote address was about skills over content. And since that keynote, the idea of skills over content has been taking shape in this cranium of mine. But I couldn’t name exactly which skills.

And that is where I am today. The Colorado Department of Education focuses on five “21st century skills.” Those skills are: collaboration, creative thinking and reasoning, information literacy, self-direction, and invention. Mind you, there are many more of these 21st century skills depending with whom you ask, but I have to be honest, I am down right giddy about this change. However (and this is the hard part), the system in which I still work continues to be focused on content. But (and this is the fun part), the system is changing.

I am one of those people who needs to name something before I can deal with it. During the last several years and these experiences, I can finally name what those things are that I should actually teach through my content. Given this revelation, over the next few weeks, I will be writing about and reflecting upon as I explore those 21st century skills and what I have done in my classroom to address them in my lessons. If I am to insist my students reflect on their process, then I will, too.

The first skill I will explore in some depth will be collaboration. If you have any suggestions about teaching collaboration as a skill through content, please share these in the comments below.

Welcome to Thinking without a Harness

I have been thinking quite a bit this school year about the significance of student (and teacher) reflection. I enjoy spending time in my own head, but often I find I don’t do it with the intention that I really should. I encourage my students to reflect and share their reflections, so I reckon I should too. In so many ways, that is the purpose of this blog and website. I intend to use this as a time to put together ideas and reflect on what I have done in my classes, tried to do in my classes, read for fun (and my classes), and other random writing and thinking.

So let this be a welcome mat to my  blog and my latest creative and educational endeavor. I suppose I should spend a moment on why I finally decided to give this medium a go on my own.

Last week I was at the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association 2018 conference and sat in on a few sessions by George Couros. I was moved. I was motivated. I realized in his session what a sham I had been asking my students to take risks with their writing and their thinking and all the while I was hiding most of my thinking on this computer of mine. Moreover, I realized if I want to improve my craft, I need to get out there more. By that, I mean I need to get my writing, my ideas, my struggles, my successes, my thoughts, all of it. I just need to get out there more.

And so this site was born over a couple of Manhattans with Felicia, my girl friend. I told her of my thoughts to put this together and we brainstormed ideas about the name and the purpose. And here it is, Thinking without a Harness.

Here you will find various pieces of my writing and thinking and reactions and reflections. I will post about teaching, learning, living, functioning, and the like. Take what you will. Leave a comment or two. Join in for the ride.

So, welcome to Thinking Without a Harness. This is my place to reflect and work some thoughts and ideas out in public.  And it starts now.

I look forward to your comments and thoughts and insights. As educators and people, we cannot function well in isolation, so please join in the conversations. I will let go of my safety harness and put my thoughts and ideas out there. I hope you will join me in this endeavor as I put my reflections out there and do what I ask of my students, and not what I do.