Posts Tagged cooperative learning

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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Play Predict Observe Explain (PPOE)

For a while the idea of allowing students time to play and explore with equipment or other experimental setups has been an informal part of the learning in my classrooms.  One place I have been doing this since I started teaching is with microscopes. The wonder of microscopes for me has always been seeing the amazing microscopic world around us.  Yet, there is nothing more boring than a prepared slide of cork cells. While a water sample from a nearby creek or pond can keep students exploring for hours, as they chase protozoa and other microbes around a slide and in the process gain the fluency of microscopy skills required to go deeper.

More recently I have been trying to be more deliberate in designing learning that involves this element of playful experimentation.  One way I have found helps with the planning is to add an extra P (play) to the POE (predict, observe, explain) lesson sequence.

SandReaction

An example of such a lesson is the comparative reaction of  sand from Sydney beaches to that of sand from Sydney sandstone with acid (HCl). The beach sand reacts producing bubbles, while the sandstone sand doesn’t.  I gave the necessary equipment (sand and acid ) to my year 9 science class and with some basic instruction asked them to first predict what would happen and then explore with the reactions of the different sands and acid.  I then gave them microscopes to have a closer look at the sand and asked them to explain the obvious difference in reactions.  It was not until some of the students decided to carry out the reaction under the microscope that they spotted the difference between the sands.  There are obvious particles present in the beach sand that react  while there are others obviously not reacting. And at this point, with the curiosity of the students at its highest,  I stepped in with some explicit teaching of reactions between acid and carbonates (shell bits) and the lack of carbonates in Sydney sandstone.  We were studying some geology and the learning outcome  was about what we can infer about the history and formation of rocks and past environments and not so much the chemistry involved. The hands on problem solving lead to students producing a much better explanation of the differences and a much deeper understanding of the geology involved.

A final reflection is that the playing, predicting and observation do not have to be sequential and that in fact they can occur simultaneously or even in reverse order as observations can lead to new predictions and new play.

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Describe a lesson that demonstrates deep learning of your students

Recently I was asked to describe a lesson that demonstrated deep learning of my students. The first thing that jumped into my mind was my Year 9 class that is full of students that ask lots of questions.questionmark

In this class the learning is often driven by the students questions, they come thick and fast and each question demonstrates plenty about what stu

dents already understand and what they want to know next. Follow up questions are often produced that take the discussion deeper into the learning.

In reflection this is my favourite part of teaching, helping students engage with their own curiosity and the production of questions that can drive learning.

I have a number of students that ask questions to the point I can no longer answer, we have to resort to looking it up, deferring to a real expert, or file it away for research projects when they are completing PhDs

What makes good questions possible in a classroom? It comes back to developing good relations with the students. You need to feel ‘safe’ to ask questions, you need to know you will not be ridiculed for asking any question. All questions need to be valued. And if the teacher knows his/her students it’s easy to provide a stimulus that is of interest to the students that provokes them to start asking questions.

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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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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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Connections to the Land: Teaching Ecological Science using Narrative

Here is a description of the first lesson in our year 9 Ecology topic. It uses the technique of teaching with narrative. The lesson was split over two learning sessions. The first described here took the students on a journey into the national park that adjoins our school.

A note about context: Our school is on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia. Although there are a handful of students with aboriginal heritage the majority are representative of the area, being made up mostly of both recent and early immigrants with European cultural backgrounds. Most have had little exposure to indigenous cultures.

The journey into the national park started with an acknowledgement of the traditional indigenous custodians both past and present. Students were painted up with ochre on their foreheads and hands to acknowledge respect for the people and land we were entering. They were informed that it indicated we come with in peace and with respect,  we would not travel to places we were not meant to go or touch anything we were not meant to touch. This was reinforced with a reminder that we were entering a national park and we take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.

The group then made its way to a rock platform that has a permanent small creek flowing over the surface and off an overhang as a small waterfall.  Students invited to have sit on the rock and encouraged to scrunch up and role a gumleaf in their hands to release the eucalyptus oil, taking deep inhales of the oil and thus stimulate their sense of smell, an activity carried out by indigenous children to help retain memory of stories and lessons taught.  Axe grinding groves where pointed out in the creek and a description of aboriginal connection to place and the significance of fresh waters sources was explained. This was linked to our study of ecology and the interconnectedness of life.

Students were then invited to climb around and under the overhang where there are a group of ancient aboriginal stencils of hands and tools at the back of the cave. While these were being pointed out and examined by students again a further explanation of aboriginal’s connection to the land and place where emphasised as was the need for deep respect for such ancient artwork.

Finally as we returned up the hill to the school, aboriginal recognition of the significance of observational science was discussed, such as the use of plants for food and medicine and an understanding of approaching weather and rain that can be gained from observing ant behaviour.

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