Friday, May 31, 2013

One size does not fit all... when it comes to change

One size does not fit all. We hear this all the time these days when it comes to innovation education, and I agree with the idea. The saying seems to fit my own school especially right now. Listening last night to Juliette LaMontagne from Project Breaker speak about Breaker projects and using Design Thinking, I realized that project based learning is a piece of the puzzle, but not the entire solution, or perhaps not yet anyway. Students still need to learn some content in order to have a frame of reference. If you don't know that an area of study exists, it is impossible to use that information or to become impassioned by it. Students also need to understand and know some basic things-not just skills. Historical periods, changes over time, branches of biology: students need to be exposed to knowledge. And stuffing content into their heads only to have them spit it back out on a test is not the way to go about doing this, but they still need exposure to different types of knowledge. I think of my own passion for interdisciplinary teaching and learning and how excited I was when I first began to realize the world was this interconnected place. I would not have been able to come to that realization if I had not been exposed to different types of disciplinary knowledge. Not that I had to memorize it-as an art historian I am still embarrassed that I have no recollection of most dates-I google them-but I had to know and understand the existence of this information in order to be able to make those connections.

Students also need to be exposed to different fields or disciplines, so that they can figure out what interests them. If you don't know anything about chemistry, how do you know if it interests you. Thus, I think there is still plenty of room for disciplinary teaching and learning in schools. Once students have a basic understanding of a field, then they can be asked to use knowledge and ask bigger questions allowing them to delve deeper.

And the way it stands right now in public schools anyway, teachers must still deliver content so that students can jump through the standardized testing hoops that allow teachers to be "rated" and students to be evaluated. If there is a paradigm shift to be had right now, it would be to bring down the testing companies. Ask yourself, as a parent, teacher or student, who benefits from these standardized tests? Certainly not students, although right now they are the benchmarks for college acceptance. Certainly not teachers, because if you've ever taught anyone anything, you know that the teaching and learning experience can't be evaluated by a fill in the bubble test. And as a parent, ask yourself about how much time your child has or will spend studying for SAT's, ACT's, AP's, PSAT's, etc.

So how do we create meaningful experiences for our students while still ensuring their success on these benchmark tests? I think we have to tweak curriculum and make changes where we can. We can't undo the need for students to take these tests and succeed, but we can change our classroom practice so that students have experience with open ended questions, learning to frame questions, exploring their own interests within parameters, and learning about process, empathy and collaboration. It is frustrating because it is slow change, but it is still meaningful and it makes a difference. I know it from the excitement I see in my own students when they are given these types of learning challenges.

Slow and steady wins the race... when it comes to changing schools. Or at least I hope so.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Time for passions

A student said something yesterday that really struck me and may seem off topic at first, but stick with me for a bit. Rachel, a junior in high school who is making a documentary as an extension to a research paper, and purely for her own enjoyment, said that it was really hard to find time to work on it, because she had so many other things she HAD to do. Her parents want to make sure she keeps up with the parts of her school work that are graded and therefore "count." She has to start thinking about college visits. She has exams and final projects to prepare. The documentary, although it is the thing she cares about most and is incredibly meaningful and pleasurable to work on, comes last and therefore often doesn't get worked on for days at a time. As I was listening, I thought, well, that's me. I know that making art makes me happy, but why does it always come last in my life, so often that I haven't made any for months? Rachel met with her teacher to talk about it and her teacher suggested that she schedule blocks of time into her days that would be documentary work time. And I thought, why don't I do that?

When I first graduated from college, where I was a studio art major, I remember feeling like I'd fallen into a void. There was no one telling me I had to make art, and no one giving me assignments. I felt lost. I knew and still know that creating things makes me happy, helps me work through stuff in my life and is just plain good for my state of mind, but it always got pushed to the last thing and then there wasn't time. Eventually you lose the habit of making. Well, I think Rachel had provided me with an answer. I have to schedule time-real blocks of time-in my google calendar with a reminder programed into my phone.

And, I thought, what a great life-lesson this is. Rachel has found something that she is passionate about, but by grappling with this issue now, she will know what to do when she leaves school and suddenly doesn't have anyone telling her what to do and when to do it. She will simply schedule it into her day. It seems so simple. Why then, has it taken me 53 years to get this?

I know that I'm not the only one who has felt that loss after graduation. My own daughter has talked about it. If innovation education is about teaching habits of mind, then this is one habit that needs to be taught. Find out what you are passionate about. Then, find a way to do it. And if it doesn't fit into your work day-if you are not lucky enough to make money making art, or documentaries, for example-then schedule that time in there. Our students are so used to being programmed every second of every day from early childhood on, that when they graduate it can be daunting. Faced with that void looming ahead, many are anxious about what they will do. If they have discovered something that makes them happy and they know how to create time for it, then this structure will stay with them through their life and sustain them through the rough times.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Play: First of all, very few kids nowadays really get time to play. I don't mean playing sports or playing a game or anything organized that involves adults, but rather the play that's just messing around kind of play. When I was young, most of my after-school time wasn't structured. My Mom would gladly give me any art supply I wanted and anytime I was bored, I would pull out paints, pencils or the like. Every summer, I spent three months on a lake in Vermont with few organized activities. We swam, boated, hiked, and hung out with friends. Perhaps it seems, by our present standards, that some of that was 'wasted time,' but I would argue that this time was invaluable. I learned to figure out what I liked to do and ways to do it. And I played with other kids in unstructured ways. We built lean-tos in the woods, we built rafts and had competitions to see whose would float longest, we caught minnows and we just plain played. The point of all this is that kids need to play.

I am an art teacher. More and more I see students who don't understand how to play. They want to hurry through an art assignment and get a grade. They have no understanding of the joy of process: how wonderful it is to get completely caught up in making something; the feeling that time has stood still because you are so absorbed in the process of creating; the wonderful sense of making without really knowing what the ultimate product will look like. This state of mind is very good for you it turns out. It has been identified as the state of "flow" and has great benefits psychologically. There are other ways of describing this state, but if you've ever been totally caught up in something so that time passes without notice, or something has felt totally effortless, then you've experienced this state of mind. And if you've experienced it, I'll bet it felt good.

I think our students need to experience this. But in the world of 52 minute periods, bells, tests and other restrictions, they have learned that school is not the place to do it. I admit that a 52 minute period makes it hard for a child to get truly involved in a project. In my architecture classes, I see it everyday. My students are disappointed when I tell them they have to clean up. They are so involved with building their models, that they don't want to stop. They work through lunch; they come back after school; they don't want to go to other classes. Students often pursue their passions outside of school on their own time.

So here's the real question: how do we work within the parameters we have in place and still encourage our students' curiosity? How do we fully engage students in projects, so that what they are learning is interesting and useful? How do we encourage them to "play" with ideas, information, questions? How do we get them involved in the PROCESS?

I'd love to hear your thoughts. More of mine later...

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

So I've been thinking a great deal about education lately and I decided to do what all my students are doing.... blog about it. I was one of those people, about 15 years ago, who was daunted by the idea of just turning on the computer. The I began using it bit by bit in my teaching practice. First, I started a Moodle for my AP Art History class. I found images online and made PowerPoints-no more slides for me. I  posted homework and asked questions of my students, to which they responded online. They were not nearly as impressed as I was-being on the computer was second nature to them. A few years later, I went to work at a laptop school and my knowledge grew exponentially! We were encouraged to be paperless. We corresponded with parents, teachers and students via email. All my students took notes on their laptops-that took a little getting used to, but I found that I liked it. They could look something up during a discussion and it only made the class richer. It forced me to move around the room and they got used to me being behind, in front and in the middle of the room checking that they were on task. Being at this school changed how I worked, taught and thought.

I was talking to my students last week about how thinking has changed because of the internet. I know that my brain works differently. I don't remember little details or dates-I look them up. I write differently. I wrote my masters' thesis by hand. Notecards divided up into piles. An outline written from the piles. Sections hand written and then physically cut up and moved around and pasted back together--with glue! The final product was typed. On a type writer. Now, by contrast, I sit down to write and it feels like a brain dump. Then I go back and reread and cut and paste to move things around--no glue needed, just a click of the mouse. The way my brain approaches writing is just different. I see the same approach in my students when they do an in class essay on the computer. There are few outlines in the room, but students are busy writing from the moment you let them begin. They go back afterwards and organize, rewrite and rearrange.

So what does all this mean? Our students' brains are different, the structure of the world is different and we need a new paradigm for education.  Why teach content and rote memorization if they can pull their phones out and look up the information? Some students are good at playing the "school" game. They can get good grades and pass the tests, but to what end? When you talk to students now about their education, it is often seen, at least where I teach, as a means to an end: getting into a good college. But what happens if you 'do school' well, you jump through all the hoops... then what? Do you graduate from college prepared for what's out there? Judging by my own children and thousands others coming out of college now, the answer is no. So, how do we prepare students for a future world--or even for the present one? What skills and abilities do they need to go out and make a difference, find meaning in their pursuits and survive and be successful in today's world?

Innovation education experts have been looking and identifying these skills and there are many good books out there on this topic. As a teacher, I think we need to help students discover what they are interested in and why what they are learning matters. This doesn't mean we get rid of content. Students need to be exposed to all kinds of disciplinary knowledge, because how do you discover what you are passionate about if you don't know about it? We need to tweak how we teach. We need to help students pursue what they are interested in with more open ended assignments that allow students to shape them to fit their own areas of interest within a larger topic. This doesn't mean a free for all, just a rethinking of how assignments are framed.

One of the things I notice about students today, is that they are uncomfortable with a question that does not have a right answer. They want to know if they are right and if they are getting the "A." Give them an open-ended question, and some of them are frightened. How can they figure it out if they don't know what you, the teacher, wants them to produce? Assignments that give parameters but don't have only one answer force students to think for themselves. And these assignments leave room for students to be individuals.

Students also don't know why they are learning what they are asked to learn. Often, they cannot see any connection to their own lives or the import of acquiring this knowledge. If the material is not relevant, they won't remember it. If they don't use it to do something significant, they won't remember it two weeks after the test. Since so much content is available online, why not teach students to ask questions and do research about a topic that they can use in a meaningful way? Why not let students try to make a difference in the world now? As one of my students said the other day, 'I'm alive now!'

So, that's just my first stab at this. Coming soon, my thoughts on how important it is to make things, to take things apart and to play. Please let me know what you think.