Reflection & Recapturing the Adventure in Learning (Part One)

Image: The Principal of Change, George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset

Setting the stage:

Three years ago, I set out to recapture the adventure in learning through a Rowland Fellowship.  I embarked on an amazing journey of discovery–visiting innovative schools, attending conferences with innovative educators, and embracing innovation as a matter of course.  Three years later, I’m still chasing adventure, working to encourage and implement the innovation I saw elsewhere into our small Vermont school. It’s been a slow process. Personalizing learning takes time, among other resources difficult to come by.  Still, I’m inspired by the hard work taking shape.

With each day I teach over the two decades I have already logged, I am reminded that

teaching is a practice that must continually be improved.  

This year, I practiced in the role of technology integrationist for Lamoille Union, a 7-12 school in Hyde Park, Vermont. In addition, I co-taught two classes: a semester-long course called Exploring Education (with my colleague, Pat LaClair) and another semester-long business start-ups course (with my colleague Bob Fredette).  Both classes had small enrollments of students (cannonballers like myself) in grades 9-12 who took a chance on a new way of doing things.  

Act One:

I dove deep into personalization this fall in Exploring Education. Our small group of seven students in grades 9-12 rolled up their sleeves and worked to make change at our school through the open PBL (project-based learning) structure of our class.  Over the course of the semester, and through a lot of research, our students decided on three main focus areas: flexible learning spaces, project-based learning, and revamping our proficiency based graduation requirements.

“Pretty much our entire class was just based off of how you wanted to learn and what you wanted to learn…It was really fun.”

The essence of the class was this: choose something you’d like to change at our school; create a presentation, and pitch it to decision makers.  Once our students chose an area on which to focus (a feat in and of itself), they did just that. They presented their pitches in January to our superintendent, director of curriculum, high school and middle school principals, two department chairs, and two guidance counselors.  

Backstage:

With each passing class, Pat and I struggled to find the best means to assess our students’ learning.  Did we really need to assign a grade to a design thinking challenge?  It felt as though that grade would somehow cheapen the experience.  

Eventually we came to the conclusion that meaningful reflection was the only logical answer.

We asked our students to consider these questions and craft a response.  Although we read them, we never graded the students’ responses. They remain in our Schoology course with the blaring blue “needs grading” flag beneath each student’s name.  And we never graded them because they were shallow. They were curt replies to our attempts to deepen understanding through what we thought were probing questions. However, from conversations with our students, I knew the writing didn’t accurately represent what they had learned.  And I started to wonder…

In retrospect, I can clearly see the disconnect between traditional grading and assessing project work.   Two of our nine students were on a traditional grading system, and the other five were on our new proficiency system.  In our minds, we had adopted the proficiency philosophy, and our discussions about how to translate an “emerging” grade into something between 1-100 shone a spotlight on the arbitrary nature of traditional grading.  For us, we felt that it was perfectly suitable to simply say that everyone was progressing. That said, it was clear to me that our students didn’t fully understand how to engage in the process of reflection.

I envisioned something similar to how this 4th grader reflected on her learning experience.  Was it too much to ask high school students to think about why they thought the way they did?  Was metacognition out of reach? Believing that more practice would help, we asked that our students reflect often on their experiences–from empathy interviews to school visits–and they still struggled.  We finally pared down and simplified our approach; we asked a few focused questions and drilled the WHY, and we started to see success. How do you feel about this? Why do you feel that way about it? What does that lead you to think about?  Why? Why? Why? We had to embrace our inner toddlers. We realized that there is so much UN-learning that must happen around quick answers and shallow thinking, and that takes time. Here, a great example to illustrate that idea:

The Backwards Brain Bicycle: Adventures in Unlearning & Relearning

In Handbook for Personalized Learning for States, Districts, and Schools, Murphy, Redding, and Twyman discuss metacognitive competencies (one of which involves “evaluating one’s own behavior” (23).  The authors call attention to the fact that it takes “a period of years” to adequately teach these types of skills (23).

In short, I needed patience.

Creativity: the cure to “you don’t know what you don’t know”

You don’t know what you don’t know.  And ignorance is not necessarily bliss.  How do we encourage our students (and even ourselves) to push past this block and discover what lies beyond?  

I visited NuVu yesterday for their Student Exhibition Night and was blown away by the young people whose excitement, passion, and willingness to talk about the design process was exquisite.  They spoke about projects they had developed–like a mechanism to help seniors stand up (as opposed to rocking back and forth in hopes of creating momentum to propel oneself out of a chair).  They shared stunning wearable art designed in collaboration with Heidi Latsky Dance–a company who celebrates diversity in its members–both disabled and not.  They created a Door Bot that opens doors for those bound to wheelchairs. 

In short, I was impressed.  The real bang came the next day, though, when I was able to chat with three girls involved in the designing of costumes for the dance company.  One student was from a public school and one from a private–two girls who had clearly developed a friendship through their work together.  We spoke about the transition to NuVu, and what challenges they faced.  Here’s what they told me:

“We just had to figure it out.”

“Coaches would lead us in a studio for a few hours and then they’d say, ‘Okay, now go do it.’ and we were like,’What?! I don’t know how to do that…”  And here’s the beauty:

the coaches didn’t tell them.

Crazy, right?!  How many times do your kids pester you for answers and  you finally give in and tell them just because it’s easier or you don’t want to listen to them whine anymore?  (Okay, maybe it’s just me.)

But that’s not happening at NuVu.  Students are figuring shit out.  And they’re designing prosthetic hands, interactive clothing that celebrates and brings attention to those lost to police brutality, interactive marketing tools…

Knowing my own tendency to “over help” and thereby cut off at the knees my own kids’ persistence, I pushed on this idea.  I wondered how they retrained their brains to adopt a new sort of thinking.  “What did you do when you were asked to brainstorm in a studio?”  The girls laughed, recalling their first studio where they would throw out an idea followed by an immediate discrediting–“oh, that will never work…”  They identified how short-sighted and self-limiting they had been, and how long it took them to develop the skill to think big, to dream the impossible in order to scale it to possible.

This is the beauty of design thinking, and why I think we need to embrace it regularly in our classrooms.  Being brave enough to dream the impossible, to share it with a group, and discuss how it might one day become something…that’s the magic of learning.  When we are so afraid to fail all the time, how might we redirect?  Might we start with our old habits of self-limiting narratives, and push past them to something else?

Authentic project-based learning (like what’s outlined in the Buck Institute’s HQPBL framework) is one way forward.  

If we want to graduate creative students who demonstrate skills, are truly lifelong learners, and persist as a matter of course, project-based learning is a clear path toward exactly that.  

If you’re not sure, take Sinek’s advice and step outside your box for a few minutes before you return to your classroom.

Spirit animals & the power of reflection

While I would be proud to present my spirit animal as the wise owl, the shrewd wolf, or the majestic eagle, I share a far more ridiculous reality: SQUIRREL!  No, really.  It’s SQUIRREL!  It’s my inspiration junkie self finally coming to terms with the beauty of this animal in its abrupt pivots, its nimble movements over unstable terrain, its rapid adjustments and keen senses.  Squirrels are adorable bundles of explosive energy and it’s difficult to predict where they’ll go next.  I’m down with that, and it took a trip to SXSWEdu and a chance meeting of a fellow SQUIRREL! for me to identify and embrace this fact.  I understand its significance and importance in my life, and now I have an answer when someone asks that most revealing of questions as a conversation opener.

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Look at this guy…so ready to go get ’em!  Photo: Anthony Intraversato

All this erratic squirrel energy demands balance, and that prompts me to reflect on reflection.  I’ve pondered the place of reflection in the new educational landscape, and part of my struggle remains the time it takes to sufficiently reflect.  Who has time for reflection when you could be DOING something?!  Then my mind goes all John Dewey on me and I remember my wits:

“We do not learn from experience.  We learn from reflecting on experience.”

He’s looking all Uncle Sam with a pointy finger in my mind, but okay.  I believe this.  Reflection is important.  And our students do not have a firm grasp on what it means to reflect.  (Honestly, they’re more SQUIRREL! than I am.)  While co-teaching our Exploring Education class, Pat LaClair and I found ourselves mired in attempts to help students reflect.  We failed.  Often.  We started by asking thought-provoking questions.  We shared examples.  We asked what our students thought about their experiences and then we asked WHY?  Why did they feel this way?  While we eventually made some progress from relatively shallow answers to more in-depth thought, I was left with two observations:

1. reflection is absolutely imperative to deeper learning.

2. we need to vary our approach.

How might we do that?  Some moments of inspiration hit hard last week while I was in a workshop at SXSWEdu led by  Dan Ryder and Amy Burvall.  The two have created an incredible collection of activities in Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom that promise to develop metaphorical thinkers, and I believe that this is one way forward with reflection.  In a world of SQUIRREL! type thinkers, these activities are quick, fun, and genuinely compel students to reflect and think deeply.  With Legos.  And Oreos.  Check out our exercise in representing a social issue with Oreo:

That toilet?  Come on!  Brilliant.  We had two minutes and an Oreo.  Take a second (SQUIRREL time) and consider the kind of thinking one has to engage in to bring to life this simple creation.  It’s metaphorical, right?  And metacognitive.  It’s creative, and it’s deeper than even a thought-provoking question might elicit.  While I believe that written reflection is integral to learning, we need additional formative opportunities to help students move toward deeper reflection.  With short activities such as these (heavily weighted with fun), students can begin to develop the kind of mindset that deep reflection requires.

Dan and Amy: thank you for pulling together an amazing collection of “reflection recipes.”  It’s perfect for this SQUIRREL! and I know it’s going to be spot-on for those in my class…now what was that about design thinking, deeper learning, and wait, SQUIRREL!

Dan & Amy’s book can be found on Amazon.

Game design & Proficiency Assessment: LUHS students capture the adventure of the Renaissance

Are games really a viable option for assessing student learning?

The social studies department recently invited me to a meeting to deliberate this question.  Lively discussion ensued about how one might really assess learning by asking students to create a game.  Among the comments were these:

  • There is already a great game out there about trade.  Maybe we should just have them play Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan).
  • How much time is this going to take?  A test will only take part of the period.
  • I don’t know how it will look.  What do I tell students if they ask me questions about how to design a game?  I’m not sure I know how to do that.
  • And finally: we agreed to try this.  Let’s do it and see how it goes.

I understand the fear.  It is disquieting to ask students to do something that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with yourself.  But.  BUT.  Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and you agree to figure it out together.  (See Innovator’s Mindset: risk taking.)  Here’s the thing: games are a second (or first?) language for our students.  They speak game fluently.  They know health; they know roles; they know many things about games you’ve never heard of.  The most important thing you need to know as teachers?

Students love games, and they can and will take your content and turn it into a game if you give them the time and some guidance.

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Trade routes & settlements: a game board in design

“I get it,” one teacher said to me when I walked into his room later that week to find groups in deep and eager conversation about their game design.  He looked at his room full of engaged–no, empowered–students, looked at me, and said, “I see what you’ve been trying to do.”  I’ve been working to help teachers take games seriously over the past couple of years, and it’s a goal often lost in the proficiency/personalized learning shuffle.  The real work has been in showing teachers that games aren’t something in addition to the changes they are making to implement Act 77; they ARE the change.  Just one piece, but one that deserves attention, because

games and game-like learning are excellent vehicles for meaningful content delivery and assessment.

Take the social studies proficiency that was the focus for this unit: P.I. 9 (Economics): I can analyze how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources have contributed to conflict and cooperation within and among countries.  Perfect platform for a game, right?  Yes, Klaus Teuber already created something awesome, but let’s see what the students can do with this.  

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Classic Monopoly remade: Renaissance resources dictate a new take on an old favorite

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Candyland revamp: the Renaissance magic is in the cards

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Playtesting a take on Trivial Pursuit

While some students modeled their games after board games we know and love, some embraced their creativity and truly went rogue.  One group created a game where Heaven and Hell were the ultimate end–dictated by choices and currency exchange, often connected to churches.  (Interesting social commentary, too.)  Another group created a game based on settlements and trade routes whose success is dictated by not only the resources accrued but also by luck and happenstance.  While I reminded students of the importance of starting any good game with the ultimate learning goal, I also asked that they elect one member of their group to be the “fun police” (originated and coined beautifully by the Institute of Play).  They had a great time creating game mechanics that left players “dead” or headed back to start because of plague or other catastrophes.

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Bad eggs lead to death.  Good life lesson?

 

Sure, the games look good.  But are they good?

What are students really learning through game design?

Let’s talk about the proficiency first.  I took a stroll around the room of game designers and asked them to tell me how their game would teach players about scarcity, trade, conflict and cooperation.  Yes, there were blank stares.  But when I prodded a bit further, every student was able to explain in vivid detail how their game play addressed exactly those concepts.  Whether it was the act of trading resources of varying value, losing valuables to thievery during the New Age and gaining advantages as the culture shifted, or dictating card values based on resources, the students were able to explain how players would engage with the content.

A quick google form to garner feedback and reflection post-game creation also allowed students to reflect on the proficiency:

proficiency reflection

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Travel through the Ages: resource allotment from Renaissance to Reformation

That content holds a place in students’ overall education, but in my mind,

the true power of game creation is in the focus on transferable skills.

Here’s what two students had to say about how game design helped them practice communication skills:

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And problem solving:

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Is it worth the time commitment?

If you want students to delve into deeper learning, you have to provide the time and space for them to do so.  While you may not know how long it will take, or how it might look as things unfold, or if you’ll have the answers students seek, I implore you to

 give yourself permission for things to get messy

for there are tangible rewards on the other side.  Take the risk.  Cannonball.

 

Resources:

Institute of Play’s Game Design pack : in-depth game design guide brilliantly designed & executed

Game design handout for students : the handout used by the social studies department for this unit.  Thanks so Amanda Denison for creating it!