Thursday, January 16, 2014

Using in Good Faith: Chapters 6 and 7 of 21st Century Skills

The situational irony of writing about these chapters at this point in time hits like a ton of bricks.  I am encouraged and required to take classes such as these to make me both a better student and a better teacher.  At this very moment, the state and district I work for are slashing education funding with what seems to be an ancient stone viking axe blunted by wind, sea and bureaucracy.  At this moment in time, I am planning for the rise of my student load by 20% and an end to teaming opportunities for project-based cross-curricular learning all while developing myself professionally to be better at just that.  I laugh on an intake of breath to hide my frustration that the list on page 89 tells me that one of the fundamental tools needed to support 21st century learning is educational funding while ours is disappearing at a ludicrous rate (they passed right by ridiculous).  That irony aside, these two chapters are both enlightening and reaffirming of the ideals I have always held dear and worked hard to live up to in my professional practice.  

Problems and Questions:

The idea of asking appropriate questions at the appropriate times seems like common sense to those in the business of learning.  Inspired by the very question posed by Einstein and discussed in chapter six, my students and I have agreed that we will always ask childish questions and demand to not be answered in childish ways.  We want to find explanation and depth, not a yes, no, or because I said so.  This has led to fantastic questions posed in our energy project as starters and the work we have done with our engineer partners has pushed our students into new levels of thinking.  We have over twelve separate energy-based questions moving forward at this time including some asking how we can design a cheap and portable device that can be dropped in rural third world areas with access to small amounts of running water for the purpose of creating small amounts of electricity for multiple uses.  The prototype design looks great and using the skills shown in the figures from the next section have shaped and driven our process further than I had originally thought possible.  

Answer and Solutions:

Using the concepts and information from this sections as well as the graphic tables from pages 92 and 93, my collaborating team adjusted our original parameters for the project from the student perspective.  Allowing students to follow either the Science track or the Engineering track has led to multiple projects based on both areas.  Groups wanting to focus on experimenting with new ideas were able to follow the Science track to create plans for experiments to test questions raised by their research.  One group is currently designing a vacuum in which to test the affects of various elements on stripping pollutant molecules from coal before burning it.  Following the inquiry and new questions loop, they came up with the idea of cleaning the coal first before needing to clean the results of combustion.  Another group focused on utilizing flexible solar panels to power deer-repelling devices along sections of train track heavily traveled by the ungulates.  This idea, following the engineering cycle, has been the topic of heavy discussion with our engineer partners and the idea has evolved several times with exciting discussion and ideas.  Having these visual cues present in all of our classes has led each teacher into discussions within our own disciplines for non-related curriculum.  Not only do they help shape the projects our students work on, but they coincide with the learning taking place with the instructors as well. 

My Learning:

Chapter seven had far more benefits for me than my students.  The project bicycle model helped to de-clutter my understanding of the execution of this project.  At the point I began interacting with this chapter, I felt overwhelmed by the shear amount of work, communication, and planning that was demanded for successfully completing this project.  Having it laid out and explained in the chapter allowed for me to take a step back and look at my planning and implementation.  I will admit that my own lack of understanding the logistics of such a project had been hampering both my and my students’ experience.  After reading this chapter and thinking on it for a number of days, we actually discussed it as a class and now use the bicycle model for the project and check in with our progress at the beginning and end of each project week.  We also start most new units in other areas with Tom Kelley’s phrase, “How might we...?”  We have even revamped how we learn complex grammar units by asking questions like, “How might we explain sentence structure in algebraic formulas?”  The answer to this takes longer than I have left, but the results are amazing and the connection that both math and language are simply our brain’s recognition and use of patterns both amazes and confounds students and teachers alike. 

The rest of chapter seven sings the praises of project learning and reminds us of where it working and how it is successful.  The chapter ends in a way that brings me to my knees in shame over some of the experiences we have had with team disfunction throughout the project.  We created groups based on personally chosen interests and availability of projects.  The social ramifications of students in this age group working so closely has led to many in-group disputes and the need for mediation has arisen multiple times.  While we have been successful in making the required adjustments and communicating the need for respectful collaboration, it will save a lot of time and stress to follow the guidance for team designing on future projects.  

It is now time for me to walk stop reflecting and plan for another day in the job I love.  While working through this allowed me the momentary consolation that comes with focus on bettering myself and my students, the creeping reality that it will be much harder, if not improbable, to plan and implement projects such as the one inspired by this book.  I am told by veteran teachers that the pendulum swings and that one day we will be back to a situation in our state and nation where people who scream about the importance of education will stop trying to use politics to undermine it for their own purposes.  Moments later those same teachers suck in their breath and remark how it has just never gotten this bad.