Thursday, August 23, 2012

Getting My Head Around Design Thinking

As someone who has been teaching "at the tip of the spear" for the last four years, in a PBL school that is considered innovative by conservative education standards, I know that telling people that I feel that I am still teaching in the past will make people shake their heads.

In 1992, I graduated with my MSEd from Old Dominion University's education curriculum department and during my time there we were teaching middle school teachers the value of putting students in cooperative groups and using manipulatives or hands on activities to help those students with different learning styles.

Yet, it wasn't until I came to a New Technology Network (NTN) school in 2008 that I finally had a school where you were expected to have students working in groups.  But those guys also had us teaching with this thing called Project Based Instruction.  And, even in the NTN our school was fairly unique because every teacher was expected to be teaching with PBL - even in PE/Health.

Fast forward to Educon 2012 and I am hanging around with some teachers who are teaching in School's of Choice.  Thinking about shifting our school to a school of choice hurt my head.  And after a few weeks I just decided that it was something that would have to be taken on by a much younger person with a higher brain capacity.

In between those two events (2008 and 2012) I had heard more and more about Design Thinking and Understanding by Design and Apple's Challenge Based Learning (which we had sent teachers to in Cupertino).  I saw differences between each of them but not enough to make me think that one might be better or worse for our students so I didn't spend much energy on this topic.

Then came this thought provoking post by Ewan McIntosh which brought me back to his TED Talk that I had seen quite a while ago.  And I started thinking.  And I responded on Ewan's post and he mentioned that the conversation was also going on at Justin Schwamm's Google+ page.  And I submitted some frustrations about trying to do this with our students, in our school district, with our state standardized tests.  Ewan responded with "Try any of the schools in Brisbane with whom we work who will match your criteria.  Or any of the 20 schools, elementary to high school, who more than meet it in Sydney.  Or Rosendale Primary School in London who might well "beat" your mix of teacher experience, testing requirements and student background.  Poverty in cash terms doesn't mean a poverty of ambition."  

Wow, I had been told what I have said to people for many years - the economic background of a student shouldn't limit their capacity to learn!  So, are we limiting our students' capacity to learn by only providing an education with PBL instead of Design Thinking?  The answer, I think, is yes.  What to do about it on the other hand is a whole different stone to turn.

Having seen the push back and fear in some of our veteran teachers' eyes when being told that we are shifting to PBL made me acutely aware of what the reaction would be if we attempted to shift to design thinking.  And, in my opinion, something as drastically different as that needs to have 100% teacher buy in.

So how do I proceed?  Well, to start, I have nearly 300 6th graders coming into our school in 4 days.  I have eight 6th grade teachers who I am asking to use PBL this year.  The teaching experience ranges from 0 to 15 years and six of them have been through PBL training.  I owe it to my teachers and our students to make sure this school year goes well.  Next year we will be adding the 7th grade teachers and I need successes so that the next group of teachers are able to feel as though they will be successful.

Design thinking is the future of collaborative grouping.  When I started on this education journey I fully believed that working collaboratively was the way our students needed to work in their schools. That hasn't changed.  And, as we move ahead with the educating of our children we need to make sure they are also thinking critically.  Are they using their imagination?  Are they asking themselves "What if...?"

As educators we need to loosen the reigns a little more and give our students more ownership of their learning.  They can and will succeed.  We just need to provide a safe learning environment and the spark that gets them motivated to explore all possibilities.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What if Education Were Like Golf?

Watching the PGA Championship  I started thinking about how we expect every student to be the best at everything.  If they aren't making "straight A's" then we, as parents and teachers, have let them down.  But what about golfers?  Do they get straight A's in every facet of their game?  Let's just look at the "Top 10" in the world -  Luke Donald, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Jason Dufner, Matt Kuchar, and Justin Rose.

   Where do they stand in the rankings of 4 categories: Driving Distance, Driving Accuracy, Greens In Regulation, and Putting?  In other words teeing off, getting to the green, and then getting it into the cup.  Kind of like our students at school.  They may be great in their Spanish class but where do they sit in Math, English, Science, and Social Studies?

   In Driving Distance Bubba Watson is first but Tiger is 37th and Matt Kucher 107th!  Of course hitting it long doesn't help if you aren't in the fairway; let's look at Driving Accuracy.  Well Luke Donald is 18th, Justin Rose is 30th, and Bubba Watson is 127th.  Bubba can hit it a ton but he doesn't always get it in the fairway.

   OK, so you don't hit it long or you may not hit the fairway when you do hit it long.  The important thing is that you get to the green in as few swings as possible so that you can still get a par.  They assume 2 putts on every green so that means getting to the green in 2 shots less than the par for that hole and we call it Greens in Regulation.  Since there are 18 holes on a course the best you can do is get to all 18 holes in regulation.  Let's see how our stars do.

   As expected our guys do pretty well with this stat.  Bubba is #1 and Justin Rose is #2.  Poor Adam Scott is 43rd best at this statistic though.  So if he doesn't get to the green as well as the others he must be one heck of a putter.  Wrong.  Adam is 166th in total putting.  Yet, overall, he is 7th in the world.

   What if you had a student who was a whiz at math (top 10!) but was 73rd best of all of  your English students?  Would he stand out as an incredible student?  Or would you assume "he doesn't try" or you just can't "reach him."  And what if he were 25th in Science and 43rd in History?  Where would that have him in relation to his peers?  If there were less than 300 in his class then he might be outside of the top 10%.  That's because we rank our students much differently than we do our golfers.

   Golf rankings, usually, go by earnings.  Win a tournament with a big purse and you can do worse in a tournament with a small purse.  Then just add up all of that money, cumulatively, and see where you sit amongst your peers.  But in education we average their scores.  What would this do to our golfers if we had to take the four categories I chose and we averaged their rankings?

   Our new rankings, in order: Tiger (27th), Jason (48th), Matt & Justin (52nd), Luke (68th),  Webb (72nd), Bubba & Lee (75th),  Rory (77th), and Adam (91st).  So looking at their grades for these "key" statistics we find that they really are just middle of the pack kind of golfers.  What makes them so great then?  Well, on one or two weekends each year these guys can put it all together and beat everybody else at the game of golf.

    Are we willing to let our students have one or two great test grades during the school year and then let them just be average?  What if we took the time to recognize students who outdid their "average" grade each week?  What if we took the time to recognize students who are pretty darn good writers or artists or loved the unit on amoebas?  Would that take away from what we already do or could it spark a drive in one of our students to be the best at some aspect of "their game?"

    Take the time to get to know your students.  Be mindful of how they are doing academically and take the time to let them know when you notice they have done well in another class.  Ask the artistic ones to help you set up or decorate your room.  Ask that whiz in math to help you analyze your class statistics (without the names next to the grades of course).  Let them be the "best" at the part of school they are good at and they might just start working on the rest of their game.  And everything just might come together for that student on your Academic Championship (state standardized test) and they might just win.

Read more here: http://www.macon.com/2012/08/06/2125414/matthew-up-4-in-world-rankings.html#storylink=cpy

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Starting PBL at Decker Middle School

This year all of our 6th grade (core) teachers will be teaching with PBL and will be under the New Technology Network (NTN) umbrella.  In addition to teaching with PBL, the teachers will be grading with Learning Outcomes based upon "21st Century Skills."  The learning outcomes they will be using are Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication, Work Ethic, and Digital Citizenship.

To meet these expectation we had to recruit a group of teachers who were willing to take chances and get messy (as Ms. Frizzle would say).  Each of our teachers came from our district and over half of them came from our school.  But whenever you are introducing something as different as this you have to have buy-in from the teachers and that means everyone had to be willing to commit to the change.

As of this point there are two teams of teachers for nearly 270 students.  These 8 teachers are not only about to start teaching all of their classes with PBL but these teachers are committed to planning what the culture of this school will become and what steps we will take to become a New Tech school.

Some might say that having teachers teaching with PBL is all it takes for you to be a New Tech school.  But there is much more than that simple step.  The real key is building a school with a culture of Trust, Respect, and Responsibility(TRR).  Decker Middle School (DMS) has established itself as a school that is improving and a school that has set in place a sense of structure and discipline.  To try and create the TRR piece without this in place would be much more difficult with our demographics.  Our teachers must learn to set boundaries and then trust that the students will operate "freely" within these boundaries.

Giving more freedom to students can be a HUGE issue for some teachers.  If you have ever taught in a school where there are discipline and consistency issues then you know that it is really nice to have a structured, scheduled, consistent plan for discipline.  And some teachers worry that giving the students more freedom could lead to anarchy.  And the first step towards this anarchy (in their eyes) is working in groups.  We had to come to an agreement of what we could all agree upon as a schedule for successfully shifting to PBL.

Our list of "non-negotiables" had to include the fact that we would want at least one project during the first nine-weeks grading period.  Again, if you haven't taught with PBL, this may seem like a small requirement.  But we have the words "at least" in there.  A couple of our teachers will have their students in groups from day one and will end up with more than one PBL unit during this period.  But those who need to establish their classroom rules and regulations have the opportunity to slowly shift from rules and regulations for students in rows, to the same basic rules and regulations with students in collaborative groups.

Two weeks to go and our teachers have been working as a team.  They have agreed upon norms that we will follow when meeting.  They have created our learning outcomes and the weighting that goes with them for grading.  They have agreed to have a grade-level "project" during the first five days that will cover classroom rules and expectations as well as how to function in a group.  They have agreed to create one full-blown project from Entry Event to Presentation during the first 9-weeks grading period.

I look forward to writing on this blog about their trials and their successes as they go through the year.  I have ideas for them to try and I offer a shoulder to cry on if they fail.   We will be successful because we are already a team.