Grant Wiggins made me do it

Grant Wiggins published thoughts yesterday on students taking the French Baccalaureat. Admittedly, I know nothing about this test, and, from what I gather, this is tough test. The philosophy portion challenges a test taker to think in broad terms, open-ended terms, with no exact answer. Sandy’s France posts this year’s philosophy questions for you to read at your leisure. What really interested me was Grant’s take on these types of questions.

Note that the questions are all framed in a way that teachers have long been trained not to do in the US, i.e. frame open-ended questions in a format that suggests that there is a simple yes/no answer to them. I hope you agree with me that these questions actually sharpen thinking and thus show the need for a good argument better than many of the wishy-washy open-ended questions people often give students to write on.

He states that teachers have long been trained not to ask open-ended questions. As I went through my teacher readiness program through the University of Akron, there was a professor that pounded the need to ask convergent and divergent questions so as to acutely know student’s comprehension of content, and create an expansive, almost dream-like, atmosphere that allowed for open thinking. Now, I am one person who recalls being taught to ask open-ended questions that have an answer, your answer, based on rational thinking supported by evidence. I read a few of the questions on the bac and asked myself how I would go about answering these questions. Needless to say the questions are complex, and complex questions that force critical thinking cause consternation and distress because there is no easy answer.

I am a technology integration specialist and teach four computer classes at Brecksville-Broadview Heights Middle School and reflect regularly at Sync Tech. When I ask questions that are open ended, and I do this a lot, I usually get blank faces because the question has no definite answer. The blank faces are also a result of kids lacking experience to answer these kinds of questions. If there is no apparent and quick answer, kids tune out rather than delve into deep thinking to try and answer the question. Obviously this is a problem.

The problem is two fold where I teach. The first is the amount of time teaches and students have to experience learning. Forty-three minutes constitutes a period and students have eight of them during the day. Know that I am not bashing my school, but it points out a very apparent problem and the problem is no real learning can happen in 43 minutes worth of time. One could argue the learning of facts and steps in a process and dates and other such things is learning. Ok, I agree, but facts are forgotten. By real learning I mean the mental gymnastics students go through to grapple with a problem or paradox that causes them to pull from prior knowledge and problem solving processes to derive an answer that not only shows creative thinking but creates new knowledge. This new knowledge is what will be remembered and encoded because of the wide context of the question and the complex answer given.  Shuffle kids from one period to another and in those few minutes factual learning takes place with teachers shoving the information into the students and then assessing facts, and when the facts aren’t mastered teachers wonder why the kids aren’t learning.  Kids aren’t learning because they are not spending time on open-ended questions that cause them to use content to solve problems and think critically.  The other problem is the current atmosphere of high stakes testing to measure the growth of every student. Lets be honest. Teachers teach to a test and while they may espouse teaching critical thinking, most of the learning strategies have to do with rote learning so students can pass a test.  And, because students have to pass a test, the learning goals are really about AYP.

If our students are going to compete in a global society, they need to be taught how to think in a global way to solve problems that have not been encountered yet. The bac is right on par if you ask me. Let’s see how students at all levels think by answering complex questions so we can see the true grit of the mind divulged in words penned on paper or device that expose critical thinking as a way of assessment and not answering fact based questions. We have a long way to go if we are going grow a society that excels in thinking and solving problems in broad contexts.  However, the current state of testing is forcing us into an acute and narrow minded focus on facts vs. critical thinking.

Behind the Digital Media Eight Ball

In the article by David Bornstein titled A Digital Tool to Unlock Learning he states:

One way to help students gain agency over their own education is through technology. Despite the Internet revolution, the field of K-12 education has been relatively slow to respond to digital media.

As a tech coach for sixth and eighth graders, it is important for me to not only show the webware (web software or Web 2.0) kids can use to deepen their learning but to coach, or facilitate, how to use it creating new knowledge for themselves. This isn’t an easy task either.

Students are used to having information downloaded to them from a teacher where the teacher stands in the room talking while the kids sit silent. Passive learning dominates how schools go about the practice of education. I decided to do quick web search and found a site called blurtit which stated passive learning in this way:

The term passive learning is defined as that type of learning in which it is assumed that the students will enter the course which they want to study with open minds, which are like empty vessels or sponges, and the teachers will merely fill the minds of the students with knowledge, simply for the sake of securing better results in the examination.

Isn’t this true of how we, and I mean education in general, view learning? Maybe there are barriers in place that prevent us from having kids “gain their own agency over their own learning.” Those barriers may be the physical setup of the school, number of students in the class, lack of technology, lack of funding, or the school learning atmosphere. If kids are to own their learning then the barriers need to be removed. Some of the issues I stated above would be very difficult to overcome and even if there is one solution other little problems crop up causing further consternation. However, this is where it is vitally important for leaders to step to the plate and find solutions that work though they may be imperfect.

Even with barriers in place, students need to be brought to the point where they own their own learning. Teachers are to step down from the front of the room, discontinue downloading of information, and allow students to have freedom to explore how to learn while facilitating self-directed learning. This isn’t easy. It is time consuming. It takes a lot of energy. But in the end, kids have power over their learning.

photo credit: krazydad / jbum via photo pin cc

Constructing learning spaces

Many of the tweets I follow are links to other online resources. A few of them focus on transforming education. One transformation that needs to take place are the learning spaces in which kids learn. The traditional learning space has desks neatly in rows, chairs pushed in, a book shelf and such. Ryan Bretag says this well:

In many classrooms, the picture is all too familiar: desks in rows, a clear front of the classroom, podium off-center in the front, etc..

This has been widely written about in other places so I need not summarize what is meant by a learning space. Learning spaces, physical or online, cannot be an after thought as we engage digital learners in the 21st Century.

As I think about my own teaching I come back to the idea that I like students constructing knowledge vs. downloading it. This is tough for kids to do because it requires thinking beyond the page of notes the teacher has provided, or the PowerPoint slides. Students just struggle with this because they are not told how to learn it, or if it is an activity, how to complete it. This means kids have to use their brain power to link concepts together, evaluate them, or deconstruct ideas to get to the real meaning. Because I like knowledge constructed, how I set up my online spaces matters to students for if the learning space is confusing, so is the learning. Here is an example. The sixth graders I teach need to have a strong working knowledge of Google Apps for Education at BBHCSD because all of their work, more like most of it, will be created in this suite. So, the first thing I taught was how to get around and Google Drive. I led a discussion about creating a voice presentation and that images as screenshots needed to be taken. The screenshots were taken and then viewed as a VoiceThread about how to make a VoiceThread. Well, I thought it was straight forward until I saw students really had no idea how to conceptually put it all together. In this case, the learning space called VoiceThread posed the problem, and the learning was confusing because VT forces someone to construct their learning by putting pictures and thoughts together in a comprehensive sequence.

A few ideas I think about when constructing an online learning space:

  1. Start with the end in mind. What is the assessment or product?
  2. Know your goals and clearly explain these to the students.
  3. Facilitate learning and not just downloading it to kids.
  4. Connect generalizations you want kids to learn.
  5. Have students reflect on their learning throughout the project.

photo credit: ckaroli via photo pin cc