Monday, November 11, 2013

"Miss, why are we learning this?"

"Miss, why are we learning this?" When a student asks this question in my class, I know I have messed up. I believe that a student should never have to wonder why they are required to learn something. And no, telling a student that "it will be on the test or the exam" is NOT why they should be learning it and neither is "the result will go on your report". Some things we do in school are much easier to show the relevance, take algebra versus the study of sustainability. Which one would you find easier links for students to relate to?

Lately however, I have become more and more aware that my links to the real world are not sufficient in my hope to engage every student in the classroom. What's more, talking about and showing the links to students certainly do not have the same effects as allowing students to make the links themselves. This of course requires the teacher to step back from sage on the stage and really move into the realm of enabling students to make connections in authentic ways.The extract from Dennis Littky's book, The Big Picture, Education is Everyone's Business, highlights incredibly well what real authenticity might look like, but also, what it might look like if a teacher has enabled their students to make the links rather than telling or showing them.
"The hands on science curriculum I’ve heard so much about turns out to be the kids conducting an experiment showing that Diet Pepsi floats while regular Pepsi sinks. This is learning? No, but to an educator who thinks innovation means simply getting away from the chalk-and–talk and getting the kids involved, it looks good to see everyone in small groups, writing down what they observe. Still, the task isn’t real, and I don’t think there are many kids who really care why one soda sinks and the other doesn’t. 
Here’s a great story about two units done at one of my schools. The first was an election unit, where the kids learned about the current candidates and their stands on things like education and the environment, and then they went into town and actually helped register people to vote. I remember the teacher saying to me, “You now Dennis, the kids did amazing work, really amazing. They registered about 300 people, they really enjoyed themselves. That was a great unit” Everything changed with this teacher’s next unit, which focused on travel. If you had walked into her classroom, you definitely would have agreed that everything looked very good. The kids were all working. They’d each called a travel agent and were planning different trips. They were busy, busy, busy. At the end of this unit though, the teacher came back to me and said, “Every kid got an A on the election unit, but for this one, there were a lot of kids who didn’t do their homework and just weren’t as motivated.” What happened? She wanted to know. What was the difference? The kids knew they weren’t going to go on the trips they planned. It was a good, well thought out lesson. It was very hands on. But it wasn’t real. The work that is done in school looks like real work, but it is not real enough." - From Dennis Littky's The Big Picture. Education is Everyone's Business
The more I read, and believe me, I am reading a lot at the moment, I realise the importance of real world learning. That does not mean learn about the real world. That means we learn in the real world. In the real world, research is step one to help us make informed decisions, solve problems or form an opinion. Research is not an end product. And yes you might become a scientist that does research but how many of our kids become one of those? And what's more, even scientists (and I checked this with my marine biologist and evolutionary geneticist friends) start with research to design their own research project, they use research to design their methods. In the real world we write a letter to a newspaper, a comment on a blog or a tweet, and we send it. Why would one carefully draft a letter, edit rewrite, check grammar and punctuation, ask someone to proofread it for you and then not send it?

So real world, authentic learning... How am I planning on structuring it when I have students again? Well, let me tell you about another exciting pearl of the Hobsonville Point team. The Hobsonville Learning Design Model (or some name like that!).

Although as a teacher I might might find that I already use most of these aspects on this diagram (all drawn directly from the NZC and used to describe the combined learning areas), I realise that often, I stay with the traditional explore, make sense and focus parts. Although I frequently veer off to the generate, test, refine and share parts, perhaps not enough, and in not enough depth. Generate, test, refine and share are the parts where students really gain depth in their understanding as they need to apply knowledge. Now imagine this model, combined with the idea of learning in the real world, and then for good measure, you throw in an aspect of service learning where students are required not only to generate, test and refine, but to do this for someone else. Someone outside the school, in the community, in the world.

But wait, that's not all! Once you have generated, tested and refined, you need to share too. So then you add in this idea of a panel to evaluate the work rather than just a teacher. A panel with perhaps one or two teachers, some peers, an older student, and even the member of the community that the product was for.

Well doesn't that sound far more rigorous and exciting than open your textbook to page 55? Practice makes perfect. But what are you practicing? And how many of your students are learning?

So now do you understand my excitement to start planning for 2014?