Thinking like a child – it may be exactly what we adults need! #21C

So, I just watched a newly posted TED talk by Alison Gopnik: What do babies think?

Throughout the talk, I was fascinated by the experimentation that she implemented in order to test her hypotheses about baby cognition. Looking at the totality of her results, Gopnik posits that babies can decipher what others are thinking, that babies think more like a lantern than a spotlight, and that babies naturally experiment and hypothesize and prototype to test their understanding of the world.

Listening to Gopnik, I found connection with her talk and Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge – the key to building better things is experimenting, failing, and prototyping improvements. It turns out that kindergarteners are really quite good at this reiterative learning.

Additionally, I was reminded of Steven Johnson’s The Innovator’s Cookbook, in which he encourages us to “get a little lost” and “play each other’s instruments.” By placing ourselves in novel situations, we can deliberately disorient ourselves and return to our “baby brains.” When we are young, we are all artists, inventors, astronauts, and aliens! Unfortunately, too many of us unlearn these perceptions about ourselves.

We have a great many transitions and transformations to make in school and the ways in which school is structured. I believe our world demands us to re-imagine “school.” Just today, one of the student-learners in Synergy 8 posted this pondering on our group Posterous:

How much in school has changed since the 1800′s?

Posted by  josephka to Synergy-8-2011-12-S1
Even with computers and smart boards not much has changed since the 19th centruy, but why not? the world has changed so much. People don’t have tha same jobs that they would have had 200 years ago. Maybe the system should be changed.

Another Synergy 8 team member commented back:

sumterf just commented on the post “How much in school has changed since the 1800′s?” on Synergy-8-2011-12-S1

I think if someone came to the future from the 1800s, they would recognize that our science, math, english, and language classes are school, but they probably would not recognize Synergy class as school.

And even if you don’t believe that school could stand a makeover, then perhaps you could allow that school should at least be re-examined…re-explored. To stand still is to grow stagnant and to ignore current research and learning from emerging best practices. Let’s employ the scientific method to our own structure…let’s play with ideas and possibilities like a child plays and integrates imagination with future possibility for reality. Let’s tap the butterflys that are our children and learn to flutter from their capacities and potential for creation and reiterative examination of enhancing prototypes. Let’s DO DIFFERENT…to discover and improve our current attempts.

Here’s to playing, to thinking more like a lantern, to trying another’s instrument, to disorienting ourselves, to wanting to know what others might be thinking. Here’s to not yet knowing that math, science, English, and history will be taught separately and from the vantage point of a individual desk and chair.

It’s not about convenience nor convention. It’s about learning!

Embracing the Struggle – Students Wrestling with Real-World Issues

Late last spring, a team of Writing Workshop faculty took a very deliberate plunge into the commitment to “Do Different” (see last few blog posts for reference…if you need to). As a team, they redesigned the 8th grade course called Writing Workshop. In brief, they created a suite of courses from which students could choose – Environmental Studies, Screenwriting, Journalism, etc. All sub-categorized writing workshops would build on the common ground of strong writing. However, students would now possess a more powerful voice in choosing the theme or topic about which they would problem find, problem solve, and…write.

About 30-40 students chose to focus on Environmental Studies. More specifically, they decided to explore global climate change. The teacher-facilitators combined sections so that they could team teach and collaborate more efficiently. The entire cohort utilizes multiple lenses through which to study the issue, and they remain committed to the particulars of writing about global climate change – how we use writing and complex communication to build understanding and/or persuasion around the issue.

In Linda Darling-Hammond’s book Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding, she explains five core characteristics of project-based learning. Among other traits, PBL is “authentic, by posing problems that occur in the real world and that people care about” (35). Global climate change is such a problem. Public misunderstanding and controversy surrounding global climate change is such an problem.

So…the student learners take on these problems and struggle with understanding them. Kudos to them for DOING so. As a team, the teacher learners and student learners are contributing to and maintaining a class blog. Through this tool, the teacher-facilitators have expanded the teacher roster – those people who can participate in the learning progressions of the student learners and the team. Last week, from an authentic blog trail of responses and reactions, the class established a Skype session with James Hrynyshyn. On Tuesday, Hyrnyshyn wrote about the Skype session on his own blog.

I think this is SO COOL! For these students, the learning they are doing about the environment is integrated – science, math, history, writing, etc. are blended disciplines, mixed together in the genuine stew of real life. Technology is not the topic of discussion, rather it is merely a tool through which access to conversations and information is made possible and pursue-able. The learners are not limited by the people in the physical room. Walls are torn down in the name of leveraging tech tools to learn from those who know and participate in the problems in the world outside of school.

The pedagogy and content used in “Writing Workshop: Environmental Studies” is NOT a substitute for the pedagogy and content that used to be “covered” in the course. To think of it as such would make us worry about “what is not being covered” that used to be. This is new and it is important. Critical content, essential skills, and requisite knowledge is being constructed for these learners – in the wonderful messiness of real life. The teacher-facilitators are leading from an emerging future, not from past experience. After twenty years of being a professional educator, I imagine this course is something that the student learners will more deeply remember and call on when they are older. Our future depends on such transformation in schools.

The students could be writing process papers detailing the directions necessary to build a PB&J. Or they could be wrestling with real-world issues and embracing the struggle of finding the “truth” and building upon that solid foundation of learning. I appreciate the choice they have made…a choice to Do Different.

RECOMMENDED: Related post at Wright’s Room blog by Shelley Wright