Design your ideal school: Using skills to complete a task

I have two PBLs going at the moment. This week, I will explore and reflect on the progress of the one in me senior English class. Mind you, these students are those that are quite disengaged with the whole school process. These are the kids who have not found much meaning in school. We go back and fourth about the purpose of school. What I have come to realize form these conversations is that they (and maybe us to a certain degree) mistake “skills” for tasks.”

They seem to think school should teach them menial tasks: write a check (When they say this, I draw a blank check on the board, show them what goes where, remind them that they likely will write fifteen checks a year, and ask if they will never again mention that writing a check is a skill.), how to change a tire (I show them a video on YouTube), how to do this and do that. The list goes on. And in the end, we have a talk about tasks versus skills.

Completing a task takes skills, skills that school teaches through the completion of given tasks. What many schools don’t do well is communicating the skills being used to complete a task and how those skills are used outside of that task.

My first PBL with these students is to design their ideal school (click and you will have access to the assignment and all necessary documents). If you look through it, you will see I make heavy use of the LAUNCH model. LAUNCH-CycleI chose the ideal school so that we could begin the year with an honest conversation about what they expect from school. Especially as they get ready to leave it. I want them the have an opportunity to realize the skills they need and use and have used in order to complete tasks of any levels are skills they will need as they move on.

Part of this is a language issue: I use the words “skills” and “tasks” at every turn with my classes. Along the way, students and schools seem to have confused the terms “skills” with “tasks.” Anyone can complete a task, it is a skill that requires refinement and development. Schools exist to facilitate the learning and acquisition of skills. It is up to the teacher and the school to remind students that the curriculum is naught but a vehicle to teach and utilize and reinforce a skill that can be used beyond math, history, science, art.

In my district, our superintendent has asked that we reinforce what he calls Jeffco Generations. These are closely related to 21st century skills, which many states and districts are tying into a variety of capstones and projects. What’s difficult is many schools continue to focus on “what” in a world increasingly dominated by “how.”  This is where so many of my frustrations come from: when we focus on content and not the skills, many students feel disengaged and lack empowerment.

Types-of-Student-Inquiry

I just handed this PBL out a couple of weeks ago. While the PBL’s inquiry is quite structured, so far students are mostly engaged. Many are demonstrating the skills I hope to see. When I have to engage them in some activity outside of the PBL, they moan that they are not working on their ideal school. However, they have realized that the activities outside of the PBL are designed to support their PBL by providing necessary context in order to provide a more solid foundation for their inquiry. Moreover, these activities assist in the skills they should be using to complete the tasks both inside and outside the PBL.

As it wraps up in a few weeks I will post my reflections. Until then, please take a look at the assignment and let me know what you think. Is there anything I can do better? Please let me know in the comments.

 

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.

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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.

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: 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.