Saturday, October 10, 2015

Buzzwords are not enough

Visitors to Hobsonville Point Secondary School's beautiful, new modern learning environment are often distracted by the broad open spaces, the bright furniture. However, visiting the school with students in action leaves one with a completely different experience of a modern learning environment. Here are just two examples from my teaching for term three that illustrates this point.

What's a Squircle?

This module combined visual arts and mathematics. Students were exploring geometric properties of shapes, and using these to create screen prints. Using translation, rotation, reflection and in some cases, enlargement, students have created their own tessellations. Students then took a step further and completed a detailed write up, explaining the mathematical principals behind their work of art. 
Student work from 'What's a Squircle?'

 Age of Ultron

This module combined social sciences and science. Together, we have been looking at some of the ideas that sit behind artificial intelligence. In science, we unpacked some of the ideas around circuits including components of circuits, insulators, conductors, types of circuits etc. In other words, the very basic physical aspects of how machines, including smart machines are constructed. Steve Mouldey, my social science co-teacher for this module looked at the sustainability aspects of the rise of the machine, including automation and smart machines. He touched on ideas around economic, social and environmental sustainability. Student learning experiences in this module included modelling of Moore's law and the related chess board problem (see video and images below). We had the team from Thought-Wired in to talk to our students about machine learning. as well as playing with some breadboards, Arduino and also making some wobblebots (checkout the Mindkits website for gear). We deconstructed old computers and servers. Students have even had a go at constructing various parts of a policy statement for New Zealand regarding Artificial Intelligence. 

Student work from 'Age of Ultron'

So what?

I know that the students in 'Age of Ultron' were not just engaged in deep thinking about current, topical ideas, they were engaging with evolving ideas (we have a timeline constructed in class where we track artificial intelligence news as it is released throughout this module). The students were constructing ideas and questions together in spaces and ways where there is no textbook telling them about a single answer, or how to think. These students were dealing with the true complexity of the real world, not some contrived, oversimplified, fake version, and this includes everything from policy statements, killer robots, and even the ethical and social implications of sex robots. In contrast, the students in 'What's a Squircle?' were using existing knowledge of geometry, translation, rotation, properties of shapes etc. to create new meaning, new ideas, new interpretations. Students were not just replicating a method, they explored a method and applied it to create something completely new. Throughout the process, students were able to experience the real problems that occur when physically applying rational mathematical concepts. Students could recognise how two disciplines could find a way to work together.

Intended as a brief snap shot of my practice from last term, I realise that I could easily have turned this post into a buzzword bingo experience. Maker Ed? Check! Authentic and relevant context? Check! Learning from experts (other than teachers)? Check! Project based learning? Check! Elements of design thinking? Check! Blended learning? Check! Robotics and coding? Check! Assessment for learning? Check. Again, much like only looking at the beautiful modern learning environment spaces of schools like Stonefields, Hobsonville Point or Albany Senior, none of these genuinely capture the true complexity of what is going on. Too often in education, we grab the buzzword by the handle, and we leave the very important thinking, the bulk of the suitcase behind (thanks to Creativity Inc. for this metaphor). We look for answers, for recipes, for programmes, rather than actually engaging with the deeper thinking about what is going on, for our students, in the world, in the future. What would our practice look like if rather than talking trends, rolling out literacy programmes and preparing students for the working world (one that is changing so rapidly that this almost seems meaningless)?

The two modules above certainly tick many of the boxes around modern learning practice. I also know that the students were for the most part, highly engaged, they were learning and enjoying it. But is this enough? I hope that the learning experiences that I design changes the way the students think. I hope that the learning experiences I design enables students to collaborate, not just cooperate. I hope that students can recognise diversity (in people, in information, in knowledge, disciplines, experiences, etc.), learn from, and draw on the strengths and weaknesses. I hope to help students discover their passions, so that they may turn them into purpose. I hope to help students tackle challenges, to create brighter futures for themselves, for each other, and the world. I hope that I awake intellectual curiosity and determination. 

Given these hopes, there is no literacy programme roll out that will cover it, and no buzzword without the bulk of its meaning and context that will allow me success. There is no recipe that will allow me to meet these goals. There is however Dr Seuss; "Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!". Here's to term four being about taking the thinking about my practice to a whole new level. Join me?

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