Posts Tagged collaboration

Big History and the Future of Education Conference 2013

Big History

I have been fortunate to attend the inaugural Big History and the Future of Education Conference, organised by the Big History Institute at Macquarie University, Sydney Australia.  I knew a little of the Big History story and had been looking into the student course. If its new to you have a look at the Big History course ( Big History Project ) it’s free and be aware there is a school version and a general public version.

The Future of Education Conference

At my current school we teach an integrated year 8 Science and Geography unit called Quest. I attended the conference looking for ideas about how to better integrate learning from different KLAs and I was hoping for some insight into the pedagogy that had been applied in creating the course  as well as  the process of designing the online learning pages and activities. My questions were answered beyond  my expectations and I left with some key principles that can be applied universally in education. I also came away inspired to implement the Big History program within a school context and my head is spinning with ideas about how that might be achieved.

Principles for Integrated Learning

We need to see the “big picture” of what we are learning and as educators we can help our students by connecting learning with a narrative.  The Big History Project connects us to the narrative of the universe.  One person I meet at the conference who illuminated this point for me the most was a year 9 student I had morning tea with. She has been participating in the course at her school and her comment said it all “It gives me a reason to learn.”  The pedagogies applied need to focus on critical thinking, that is aiming beyond surface learning, evaluating evidence and making broader connections.  Learning needs to incorporate collective, collaborative learning, with students sharing and building ideas.  The Big History Project achieves many of these principles by having inquiry learning and project based learning built into the fabric of the course.  Learning needs to seek to be hands on, thought provoking, and question forming.  Here is what was outlined as the observable practices of a Big History student:

  • Frame Problems for investigations – regularly question at many scales, including the biggest.
    • Set many problems
    • Drive the learning forward with questions
  • Select and use evidence / sources 
    • Close, analytical and synoptical reading of a wide range of sources: contextualise, corroborate
    • Critical thinking “claim testing”
  • Produce accounts – use multiple large scales and big ideas from many disciplines to write;
    • Narratives
    • Casual explanation
    • Consequential explanations
    • Arguments

Principles for Designing Online Learning (Beautiful Online Learning)

The Big History course site is beautiful, but part of its beauty is that there are clear design principles at work.  The site is designed to be intuitive and easily navigated.  The site remembers that you need to see the big picture before diving into individual elements.  These principles  struck me as they were the same ideas that the team I work with at school had been discussing as we reshaped our year 8 integrated studies online learning pages.

  1. The launch pages show the big picture, it is simple and easy to navigate.
  2. There are clear learning modules, that include easily identified components, content, video, activity etc.
  3. There is a narrative that ties everything together and this is made implicit.
  4. Everything is driven forward (at every stage/level) by questions.
  5. Keeping things visually simple helps make them beautiful

Implementation of Big History in a school.

How should Big History be implemented? At this stage I will only be able to talk in ideals. Every school is different, with different cultures, daily routines, community support, personnel …. the list is endless. What is encouraging about what is present i the Big History course is the built-in flexibility and the ease with which learning can be modified for individual students.  Everything comes in a Word document that can be edited, it is designed to be adapted into different contexts and there is an active and growing community of educators contactable within the Big History course.

Ideally, I think Big History needs to be introduced as a core subject/course.  In Australia it covers a significant amount of the Australian Curriculum (in Science, History and Geography) and it would pain me if this was taught twice within the school.   As this is an integrated course, I think it should be taught collaboratively in a team teaching situation with specialist teachers from both Science and History. The best cases of implementation on display at the conference were from schools that took a collaborative teaching approach.  If we are going to break down the artificial walls that separate and compartmentalise learning into separate subjects why not take out some of the physical barriers too.  Ideally I would run this course in year 9, the outcomes currently addressed link to Stage 5 in NSW, Australia. As a solution to timetabling issues I see two classes and two teachers occupying the same (large) space.

Taking big chunks of curriculum from subjects will mean a need for reprogramming of what is left, and maybe an opportunity for some other integrated courses to be developed in the process.

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Sustainable Homes (project based learning)

This post describes a module of the Connections to the Land unit. A project based learning approach (PBL) was used as a way of bridging the students growing understanding of our ecological connection to the land together with our real everyday existence. Students were asked to design and build model homes and were  informed the homes would be tested by three measures of sustainability.

1 Water: how much water could the house catch and retain. This was tested by poring one litre of water over the house using a shower hose, water was directed from the roof to measuring cylinders via the student designed guttering system. Also ensuring the home was waterproof helped maintain the structural integrity of the home in the final test.

2 Temperature: does insulation help reduce energy use? Could a home be kept cooler by better design? Data-loggers and temperatures probes were deployed and temperature verses time graphs produced.

3 Structural integrity: the homes were lined up on the oval and using a leaf blower we carried out wind tests… none were quite up to the test.

The students were given a price list of materials and 100 credits to purchase what they required. Most opted to use prefabricated cardboard houses sourced from theboxman.com. (See an outline of the information provided to student  here.) Some students loved the ‘shopping’ element of the task and spent considerable time deciding what they would ‘purchase’ while others spent more time ‘tinkering’ with different solutions to the three problems that had been presented.

Overall students thinking was pushed deeper by trying to design solutions to complex real world problems. Problems they will all need to face as our society learns to live in a sustainable way. The groups that produced better, more sustainable homes, spent more time thinking, planning, tinkering, testing, redesign and rebuilding. Good design is often not the first solution you try.

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A driving question is the most important element of a PBL unit

Larmer and Mergendoller (2012) outline 8 factors of good project based learning (PBL):

  1. Significant content
  2. A Need to Know
  3. A Driving Question
  4. Student Voice and Choice
  5. 21st Century Skills
  6. Inquiry and Innovation
  7. Feedback and Revision
  8. Publicly Presented Product

While I agree all are important, I feel the most important factor in good PBL is a great driving question. If you find the right questions then most of the other factors identified are covered automatically. How do you generate a great question and who is the right person to generate that question?

The answer to who should generate the question to me is obvious? If you want students to have a voice and to have choice as well as developing a need to know about some area of content, then they should be generating their own questions. How do we help students generate a question they care about and that covers the content we as educator would like them to learn in a deep and meaningful way?

Here the answer has not always been so obvious but thanks to the work of the Right Question Institute(RQI) and their Question Formation Technique (QFT), the answer is incredibly simple and yet powerful at the same time. So far in my experience it has not failed to generate open-ended questions that cannot be answered by a simple Google search. Outlined here is how question generation was embedded at the heart of a PBL unit.

TeenBrain is a science unit aimed at year 9 students that focused on the content of the traditional control and coordination topic. The unit was divided into four parts; provocation, guiding question development, research and project creation.

The provocation was a series of short videos demonstrating how the teen brain develops from the age of approximately 12 to 25, and how the research presented explains why teenagers often make decisions without fully accounting for risk and long-term consequences. The majority of time during this unit was spent on the research and creation of an information campaign, based on a student generated guiding question.

The most important part of the process in my mind was the generation of a meaningful guiding question. To do this we guided students through the Question Formation Technique from the RQI. The QFT process takes approximately one learning session and is best done in small collaborative groups. Questions generated for research were based on the provocation and a focus question why do teens make stupid choices? As the questions generated for this task were generated by the students themselves they found them intrinsically motivating. Examples of student generated questions include; why do our brains need sleep, is there a best diet for your brain, what can you do to improve memory/learning and how does marijuana effect you brain?

Many of the ‘research’ tasks that formed the third part of this unit were traditional science lesson/experiences, that involved both student centred activities and some direct teaching of concepts, all supported by the on-line learning portal. At the end of every lesson students were ask to reflect on their own groups question and to add a couple of summary sentences relevant to their question in a shared google document. This document became students main resource when they came to designing and creating their information campaign.

Students were instructed to use the information they had collected to produce an information campaign that would influence their peers to make better decisions. Their choice in presentation media was completely open, with some of the following offered as suggestions: a video, info-graphic, poster, magazine article, ios or android app, web-page, comic-strip.  Students worked collaboratively on producing their final product and their focus was maintained by the intrinsic motivation produced from developing their own questions.

John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller, 2012, 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning, , retrieved from http://www.bie.org/tools/freebies/8_essentials_for_project-based_learning,  Nov 2012

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Reflections on ACEL2012

At the start of October I had the privilege of attending and presenting (about Experiential Narrative Learning) at the Australian Council of Educational Leaders annual conference (ACEL2012). I am not sure what I was expecting, but I came away thinking that it was better than expected. In fact I came away with my concepts about my role as a teacher and educational leader challenged and in some ways transformed.

Some thoughts on the conference as a whole.

I really appreciated the attempts at interactivity, including feedback from the twitter stream.  There were times I had thought ‘if not for twitter I would be bored out of my brain.’ Hearing the thoughts questions and feedback of collages brings an interactive dimension to a conference that deepens thinking and learning. The conference rooms themselves were a barrier to better interaction. Rows and rows of chairs is so ‘industrial age’ and does not promote the collaborative learning we are attempting to demonstrate and implement.  There is a place for rows in a keynote, but a workshop should be set up with some kind of natural grouping structure.  How do you get conference presenters to be better at interaction, well it’s probably the same as for in the classroom, model it.  Finding good workshops was hit and miss, but finding the best ones was heavily influenced by the tweets of others.

So what did I learn?

The first two keynote speakers did not tell me anything I had not heard or read before.  Education needs to change from an industrial model to something more engaging. Unfortunately I did not hear what that was from the keynotes. One message I did take away from Dan Pink was we don’t need to be looking overseas for best practice “The best examples of change in schools (for the conceptual/creative age) is happening right here in Australia and NZ.”  We need to look at connecting and collaborating with schools within our own context and culture. The answers we seek are probable happening in the school down the road. This was observable in many of the workshops I attended. The best of the workshops were from practising teachers that are seeking to implement student focused learning that strives to get their students motivated and thinking deeply about their learning.

The message that transformed my thinking as a teacher/leader was from the third keynote by Tim Costello.   I have been teaching globalisation to year 8 students in an integrated science/ geography unit called Quest, for the last three years.  But I now know I did not fully understand the concept or its implications until it was unpack by Tim Costello in his skilful use of telling stories. We are preparing students for a global community, but must help them to develop and nurture their own local communities. Thinking globally but acting locally has taken on new meaning for me. I will strive to get kids to think about their actions on a global scale but ensure they learn to act and connect within their own communities/ families.  I will be striving to get my students to connect and collaborate in classroom activities in a more meaningful way, encouraging all connections within local communities and the wider world. And finally Tim Costello reinforced for me the power of teaching/leading with the use of story. I will be striving to use thick and not thin stories from now on.

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Learning using Narrative: Collaborative reflection, group feedback and individual records

This post describes the second part of an introductory lesson to our year 9 Ecology topic. It uses the technique of teaching with narrative. A description of the first part of this lesson is found here and an overview of the inspiration for using narrative teaching is found here.

In this learning session, students took part in three activities;

  • small group collaborative recount of the story,
  • retelling of the story to the whole class by each collaborative group and finally
  • personal reflection and recording.

In small groups students discussed the journey into the National Park; each member was able to build on the memories and reflections of others to help construct the whole narrative. As I wondered around the groups I was amazed at the level of recall that was present, including details I had not noticed.

The groups where then asked to present their recount to the whole class. But rather than doing this verbally they were ask to create a recount using only symbols. Some traditional symbols from aboriginal storytelling and explanations for them were given. Examples included animal tracks left behind in the dirt, the symbol for a human is also often a representation of the impression their bottom and tools would leave where they had sat on the ground, waterholes and campsites. Students were also encouraged to develop their own symbols using similar thinking process, but no words were allowed.  Each group then presented their narrative recount to the whole class.

Finally students were given time to reflect on the purpose of the narrative and record it how they saw fit in their workbooks or in a document on their digital devices.  In this case many students took digital pictures of the narrative they had produced with the symbols.

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Aboriginal Science and Ancient Teaching methodolgies

Last year I had the privilege of spending half a day in the company of Frances Bodkin  (Aunty Fran), an elder of the D’harawal (an aboriginal language (tribal) group of south-western Sydney). The time spent with her and her husband Gavin Andrews was focused on her knowledge of the aboriginal uses of plants, but it revealed so much more. I think the thing that struck me most was the traditional knowledge they held and graciously shared, based on thousands of years of their ancestors’ observation, can be backed up and explained by today’s ‘western’ experimental science. Aunty Fran describes her people’s knowledge as Aboriginal Science, which I think is very appropriate, and I hope her dream to share this knowledge and have it fully acknowledged comes to fruition. Her book D’harawal Seasons and Climatic Cycles is a great starting place to begin to appreciate the depth of knowledge and understanding her people have to share.

Black science has observation and experience, white science has measurements and experiments. If we put the two of them together we’d get a much deeper science.
—Frances Bodkin, Dharawal Elder, NSW—

In the last 5mins of my time with Aunty Fran she discovered I was a school teacher and told me about a research project she had been working on in schools using stories to teach. Her methods were based on traditional aboriginal teaching methods, from an oral culture that had no written language other than the symbolic art  found painted in caves and engraved on rock platforms.

She outlined that in a typical 60min lesson she would take the class outside into the natural environment and engage as many senses as possible (touch, smell, taste, hearing, seeing, balance as well as common sense). She would tell a story related to key points in the curriculum and then ask students in small groups to reconstruct and recount the story. Students were not allowed to record any notes, until after they had recounted to each other what they learned.  Thus a 60min lesson is broken up into 20mins story, 20mins recount and 20 mins of recording. As Fran outlined this method and the success they had measures ( a year later students could recall over 50% of what was taught) it ticked off a lot of the learning theory boxes for me. The elements that struck me were;

  • Engagement: engaging with story – narrative, space and inclusion of  the senses)
  • Metacognition  and collaboration: reconstructing the story in small groups, produces deeper thinking and
  • Personalisation: recording your personal record of the learning.

These are all aspects that dominate the research literature on how people learn.  I have instinctively included elements of story or narrative in my lessons. I think  statements like “the way humans learn in the C21st has changed” are misleading. Humans now have an array of technology to assist learning, but my gut feeling is that at a biological level we still learn the same way we always have and that the reason narrative is  a part of all ancient cultures teaching practices is because that is how our brains are wired to learn.  The narrative helps us link new concepts to old and allows us to remember the important bits associated with the story. I would also make the bold claim that all children learn similarly and that taking an ancient aboriginal approach to instruction should also work with non-indigenous children. I have since experimented with my own classes and developed a unit around the ecology we teach to year 9 students. I will recount my experiences in future posts.

References

Bodkin, Frances & Robertson, Lorraine (2008). D’harawal : seasons and climatic cycles. F. Bodkin & L. Robertson, Sydney

A great introduction to Aunty Fran was produced by ABC Message Stick  :

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What is 21st century learning?

What is 21st century learning? This is a question I pondered all of last year. My thinking started around what skills will be needed by our students when they leave school, and I was recommended 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times (Fadel & Trilling, 2009), but after reading through this book I was still stuck with the question of ‘what is 21st teaching and learning?  How do I do the teaching and how do I help my students do the learning?  I was left feeling there must be more than teaching a whole new skill set, as these skills could be taught in the same old way, of direct instruction from the teacher.  Surely more has to change than just the skills or content we covered.

Fadel & Trilling  (2009) did help me with my thinking by pointing me towards research into how people learn.  In particular Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (Darling-Hammond, 2008). This led me to ask the question ‘what is the best learning and teaching based on research?’  It is a very different question to ‘what is 21st century teaching and learning?I don’t think we should limit our description of teaching and learning to a ‘time stamp.’ A decade into the 21st century the moniker already sounds dated.

Combining the research on how we learn (Darling-Hammond, 2008)  with research on what teaching practises work, collated by Hattie (2009), I had my thinking about successful learning develop around some key concepts.21st C learning

  • student centred personalised learning paths
  • learning tasks that produce and enhance deep thinking and metacognition
  • collaborative / cooperative learning involving open-ended problems
  • active teacher involvement which most importantly involves formative feedback

Each of these is supported by research to effectively improve student outcomes, but should not be treated as separate elements, rather as a set of integrated, interdependent  areas that support each other in the goal of enhancing student achievement.

These elements will be what I will be focusing on this year, as I evaluate my approach to what I do in my classes.

Darling-Hammond (Ed.) (2008). Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fadel, C., & Trilling, B. (2009). 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Wiley.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

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