“We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey.
This week I am taking part in Project Zero Classroom- a week-long course run by a research group at Harvard University. The course focuses on understanding and enhancing high-level thinking and learning in different contexts. Most of the participants are from America although a large number are international participants.
If today is anything to go by, I wonder if I will be able to type a coherent sentence by the end of the week such is the level of intellectual intensity.
This is not a traditional ‘sit and get’ conference, but one that stretches your mind in unexpected ways.
Today I’ve created, documented and spent a lot of time reflecting on my practice as a teacher.
David Perkins set the scene where he talked about the wild and the tame. Learning on ‘the lawn’ where things are tame. Follow this formula, circle these key elements, list these facts.
This is schooling.
Kids learn the parts but do not put them together.
Kids spend time learning about the rules without playing a game.
Nice, neat, tidy but kind of boring.
Then there is wild learning – the real-world gritty problems with no right answer.
It’s complex yet Perkins argues that it is our responsibility as educators is to make the complex worlds of scientists, artists accessible to kids.
We need to create junior versions of the world as it is now in our classrooms, for our children to make sense of as mathematicians, artists and scientists.
Perkins ideas really resonated with me. I love ‘wild learning.’ It’s what gets me up in the morning and my classes tend to be a little wild.
Yet there has always been a nagging concern in the back of my mind.
While there is a lot of good learning going on, there are many moments of chaos. More importantly there are moments where the children could have stretched their understanding far more but I wasn’t teaching them the tools to do this.
I wasn’t taming the wild.
This where I found the study groups and mini-sessions really useful.
The first mini-session I attended was an exploratory session on Creativity and Collaboration in Maker-Centered Learning Environments.
I have dabbled in making in class over the years and the kids have loved anything that involves creative challenges. However in taking the role of the observer in my groups creative challenge a few things clicked.
I was able crystallise the importance of how technology can be used to document the creative process. Taking pictures of what was going on and annotating them, sharing them via social media channels enabled me to tell a story quickly and effectively.
When it came time to share, I was able to quickly show the important parts of the story. What I found difficult was throwing away the bits that weren’t.
From this experience, I know that I need to be mindful of teaching children how to observe and give feedback on their learning.
As an observer I had an important part in the creative process, charting the course of ideas and how they developed during the process. As a teacher I spend a lot of time observing the kids but do the children in my class really observe each other to help improve their learning?
Am I too focused in on the individual at the expense of the ideas?
This was the key point of the session, western culture tends to idolise our heroes (and also our scapegoats). By looking at how important ideas develop, we can see that they are the result of interactions of many different individuals.
As a teacher I need to look beyond the label of ‘creativity’ and think about the attitudes that I need to nurture in class to develop these. Communication, empathy are just as important in developing creativity as risk taking.
The next session looked at how we could use visible thinking in language arts.
After being given a poem to read, we needed to focus on what we saw. I immediately found myself wanting to describe what I thought I saw, while largely correct by not spending time really looking at details I didn’t have enough details to be able to build understanding.
This lead me to wonder.
Am I jumping to creative tasks without giving enough time and space for children to soak in the details and build their understanding from the bottom up?
I need to be saying ‘What makes you think that? What makes you say that?’ a lot more in class.
After looking at the details we were moved into teams where we were asked to demonstrate our understanding through drawing, movement and music.
My group approached this topic with a sense of dread. We had a bunch of musical instruments but were stumped. We were hung up on our lack of technical know-how and felt right out of our comfort zone.
Then I had a sudden flash of insight: garageband.
If this poem were an instrument, what instruments can you hear?
This poem has contrasts, how is contrast shown in music?
From these questions I could find some loops that represented our ideas. We then discussed how the loops needed to be mixed to convey the big ideas of the poem and added in a repeated key word from the text to draw our audience’s attention to the power of the word.
Technology enabled us to communicate ideas where none of us had technical proficiency, we could focus on the big ideas and learning but still use the creative process to communicate through music.
What was amazing as creator was hearing others make the links to the ideas we were communicating through music and then building further understanding. The movement group wanted to know what would happen if we mixed their dance with our sounds.
The really interesting thing about this poem is that my understanding of it changed over time as each group shared their ideas. It reinforced the importance of the doodling the children in my class started doing last year during read alouds. I need the children to share more about the thinking behind their sketching and help them to use different forms of the arts to show their understandings.
As I wound up the day, I strolled around campus with my head spinning trying to make sense of all I experienced today. I found myself desperately wanting to create something, anything.
The late afternoon sun was blanketing in a golden light but sadly I left my DSLR back in my hotel room.
I won’t make that mistake tomorrow.