Wednesday, June 20, 2012

finding a home for 21st century learning

Students learning about tree measurements on a woodlot
in School District #91. Their teacher established learning
objectives for this project from Math, Science, and
Planning PLOs. photo: Chris Mushumanski 
When I read through the volumes of material about project-based learning (PBL) and 21st century learning (21CL) on Twitter, the BCEdplan, educational journals and blogs, I'm struck by a few assumptions. The first is that students learning will improve by breaking down the structure of a traditional classroom and relying more on mobile technology and distributed learning environments. The second is that students are inherently capable of independent learning and just need the right support in order to flourish. The third is that personalized learning is both a description (attitude) and prescription (educational reform) for  honouring different learning styles and trajectories. I would like to challenge these assumptions and suggest that we should put our 21CL emphasis on our at-risk and struggling learners rather than seeing it as a panacea for what ails the education system in British Columbia, and that PBL should be the vehicle by which this happens.

Here's an idea about what I mean by PBL for struggling students. Every year we teach a few students who are wildly unsuccessful in regular courses. In the third week we recognize the pattern of resignation and by the mid-point the students usually figure out they are just waiting for the course to end and never really intended to succeed. We know that under the surface there is often a student who wants to do well, but there are many layers of resistance that aren't about to loosen in your class of 27. They shouldn't have to sit there for an entire semester assuming they are a failure, killing time and generally making things rough for the others in the class. There should be a dignified place or method for them to address missed learning outcomes to achieve passing grades. In my experience, these are often students with some rough backstories (drama in their past and present homelife that impairs their ability to function), capable and creative in their own way but unmotivated and not very good at adapting to most teachers' expectations. That's a generalization, but I teach about 10 kids like this every year and while I find them frustrating, I also wonder what more we can be doing for them. These aren't necessarily students with learning disabilities, although they have been shunted along in our system and account for a disproportionate amount of teacher time and stress. Our "pyramid of intervention" is not working as intended for these students and the only other default is punishing them with detentions to get "caught up" on stuff they don't care about or understand. There is no money for the kind of one-on-one attention that might mitigate the students' barriers to success, and it would be wishful thinking (and perhaps a bad move) to think we can shift the whole culture of a school to make room in every class for the most reluctant learners. We collect random data on struggling students and process a few with school-based team meetings, but the majority languish in their classes with failing grades and diminishing respect for school, or get a mercy pass and sent on to the next level even though they have met few of the learning outcomes. This is an epidemic in BC, and has made teachers very cynical about Assessment for Learning (AFL) which, among other things, tries to place assessment focus on Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs) and not things like work habits or attendance. AFL is about many other things, too, and like most educational theories, rarely grabs hold before something new comes along. If we actually took AFL as a prime directive and measured student success directly on reasonable expressions of PLOs, these students would be locked in Grade 8 for a decade. We take social progress and non-academic goals seriously, though, so it is not realistic to simply fail a student over and over again, even if we think it is teaching them some kind of lesson.  Nonetheless, a school like mine with 750 students has 50 or more kids that are a bad fit for regular classes... it is for these kids that the BCEd plan was written, whether the authors know this or not, and we don't necessarily need to "21C" the whole system to make space for students that have checked out.

So what do we do? 
Many BC schools have taken on this challenge, and I'd like to throw an idea into the ring -- contracting missed learning outcomes to a PBL Centre. The school sets up a Learning Project Centre (pick a better name, please; I'll call it the Centre) very much like an Alternate Ed room, with access to a couple of decent computers, a large work table, maybe some storage and a few ipads or tablets to compliment what students carry with them. It is staffed by one or two teachers who understand Alt Ed, PBL, 21CL, and are versatile in more than one subject area. The Centre can operate as LA support or Learning Commons overflow while it is waiting for its first referrals, after which it can operate with continuous intake capped in whatever manner the school uses for Alt Ed (e.g. screening or hard number). It would work best if it operates at least a few times a week outside regular instruction time (e.g. lunch, tutorial blocks, after school). Students go to the Centre to construct dynamic projects that are specifically designed to address missed learning outcomes from courses they have failed or are failing. The referring teacher/s "contract" the outcomes, and the student (with the help of the Learning Commons teacher/s) makes a bid proposal for addressing the outcomes. The project must be something the student is passionate about, and should be versatile enough to incorporate cross-curricular outcomes. Students form accountability groups that provide support, help, direct contributions to each others projects, and follow a check-in timeline. The teacher sets up PBL opportunities, develops "flipped" resources (e.g. online content or PBL templates), guides the students' work (e.g. directs their inquiries towards viable research), says yes and no to a few things, provides formative and summative assessment, and communicates with vested partners like the referring teacher, parents, and administration. Very guild-like.  Funding comes from wherever Alt Funding comes from, plus there is potential for the Centre to be registered as a DL school within a school and bill the Ministry for students taking on a composite of courses adding up to some ratio of a recognized course. This already has precedents in BC.

An example
Let's talk about "Liam," a composite of the boy that we've all taught in one form or another. Half way through my Social Studies 10 class it is clear that Liam is not doing well. He misses assignments, doesn't engage in the class activities, has no clue what to do with the test, and blew off significant parts of the big project. He skips once or twice a week, gets stoned drunk every weekend and stoned when he gets the chance.  Liam doesn't access the "flipped" resources for my class online, doesn't want to try make-up or alternate assignments, spends 8 hours a day on his phone, and resorts to confrontation or denial as frontline defense for lack or progress. He simply won't put in the time, using the structures and resources I have available as his teacher, to address missed outcomes, and there is no magic make-up assignment at the end of my course that erases 5 months of apathy. But, and this is important, he is someone's child, he loves mountain biking, he can be respectful, funny, and often surprises you with what he knows. He deserves our best effort, even if he doesn't always earn it. From my course outline, I note that the first half of the course dealt with two big themes (big ideas for the course), about five skills, and nine core learning outcomes, phrased as question. I spend a few minutes with Liam's records in my gradebook program and try to match up the expectations with what I've assessed. Liam has not demonstrated 2 of the skills (as shown by key assignments and quizzes), has not satisfactorily met 5 of the learning outcomes (as shown by a project and some formative quizzes), and has not shown understanding of either of the themes (as shown by 2 summative tests). Yes, there are some zeros there or "in-progress" which will turn into zeros (remember, our "pyramid" never got built), and his mark stands at 36%. This process suggests to me that Liam has not met expectations for about half of the course outcomes so far. I tell him this and ask him to take a look through his work and marks and agree or disagree. He paints a somewhat better picture and we settle on 40%. This is what I contract to the Learning Centre. Liam can do PBL for up to 40% of missed learning outcomes in the first half of the course.  He will use both of the skills he has not demonstrated (plus others!), and his project must incorporate both of the course themes from the part of course he is contracting to complete by PBL.  The students and the teachers involved can figure out what this means in terms of a course mark... the outcomes are the important part anyways.

Perhaps Liam is also stumbling in English 10 (missing skills and 4 core learning outcomes accounting for 30% of the term), and is doing alright in Science 10 but has missed a key learning outcome that accounts for about 10% of what was going on in class.  Liam is now looking at some kind of cool project that employs a handful of skills, brings him to a higher understanding of four big ideas (2 course themes from SS, 1 from English and 1 maybe one Science), and shows accomplished learning related to 10 outcomes from three disciplines. Now that the formula stuff is out of the way, the fun begins. Liam and his PBL teacher in the Centre work through what this might look like, and develop Liam's ability to structure inquiry around his new goals. They develop a timeline, involve a group of students from within or without the Centre (or teachers, parents, or admin for that matter), and work out some basic expectations about where the student will be and when (no reason why part of this can't be "blended," "flipped," or "out in the community." Liam will still skip and smoke weed and drive his mother nuts, but the Centre allows him a more realistic chance of progress than his other classes until such time as he is willing and able to be serious about the other issues. Typically, Liam has already been assigned a block of LA, Distance Ed, Alt Ed., or repeat-the-class and now he can actually use it to create something of lasting value rather than slog through modules or remedial assignments. The PBL can address missed outcomes for whole courses (e.g. in a subsequent semester) or can happen alongside the courses in question (e.g. for missed outcomes from a single term). The PBL could take a month, or it could take a whole year, and could even be used to address extended absence due to illness or travel. The PBL could be completed by a group (each trying to get something different out of it), and the Centre's teacher/s should have an eye for how to celebrate and archive the results so that these "Alt" students' work sets an example for the whole school. The beauty of PBL in this context is that Liam doesn't have to hope that a module or distance ed package exists that will "get him through" with something approximating his missed learning, he can design his path and avoid the kind of learning he has already shown he is unwilling to do.  Modules and DL course take a lot of teacher time to create; directing a PBL contract can be done on the fly and personalized for each candidate.  This takes place on a scale, Liam's scale, that can't be comprehended or replicated at the school, district, or provincial level.

To be clear, this post is a quick draft and I've used many generalizations. I don't mean to imply that my school's Alt Ed program needs to go. Our Alt Ed teacher is an amazing caring person who has helped many kids overcome incredible personal and learning difficulties. I'm thinking more about the dozen or more students I'd like to refer each semester for some kind of help that can't or won't fit with a Alt Ed class, and also trying to sort out where (and if) PBL & 21CL have an appropriate context in a typical school with limited resources and facilities. The number of kids who need some kind of intervention is staggering and growing, and our traditional array of alternative programs and services (and glacial intervention processes) need a new kid on the block.

So what about the assumptions? 
1. Students learning will improve by breaking down the structure of a traditional classroom and relying more on mobile technology and distributed learning environments. Some perhaps, but not all. Students may live on their phone, but they don't learn as much as the folks at Pearson would like us to believe. The trick is not to have students replace traditional tools and teaching with technology, the trick is to realize that technology is an extension of identity and needs to be brought under discipline the same way we socialize for productive, creative behaviours. Sorry to burst the digital immigrant/native bubble, but the current generation of students is not enamoured by technology or tech-savvy, they are impaired by it even as it empowers them to do cool things that were not possible 10 years ago. They are generally less tech-savvy than students from 10 years ago, thanks in part to how the tech is wicked cool and easy to use, and can scan very wide knowledge horizons but do so with less depth or sense of significance. They aren't necessarily dumber for it, but their brains are different and they have had to adapt to a faster pace for everything and less unstructured, quiet, wistful time.  Can't go back, but we shouldn't design systems that make this worse, we should be finding balanced environments and learning pathways that acknowledge the new brain and retain what works really well right now.

2. Students are inherently capable of independent learning and just need the right support in order to flourish. Again, some are, but these are the ones that excel in "regular" classrooms because they arrive with intrinsic motivation and soak up good teaching and class interaction like a sponge. What we do for them already works and is our source of pride. The students least capable of independent learning are the ones we send to Alt programs or Distance Ed schools to complete work or repeat courses. Most BC Distributed Learning programs take the best of the classroom -- inspired teaching and dynamic interactions --  and replace them with dry digital tools. Then they take the worst part of the class -- worksheets and repetitive seat work -- and make this the basis of course delivery through content management systems or stack of paper modules. DL should be about distance inquiry, students taking risks and conducting research on phenomenon, issues, and problems that they wouldn't get near in a regular classroom.

3. Personalized learning is both a description (attitude) and prescription (educational reform) for  honouring different learning styles and trajectories. That's all great, but our system would fall apart if we tried for differential pacing, multi-age groupings, cross-curricular learning environments, selectivity of learning outcomes, and a parent-student-teacher negotiated learning plan for every student. Admin would retire early, parents would balk, teachers would self-combust, and students would enter into a glorious age of entitlement from which our society would not recover. Private schools for the rich, a form of public school "service" for everyone else. O.K. maybe it wouldn't be that bad but my point is that radical personalizing of education doesn't make sense for everyone, but it might make sense for at-risks students that face developmental hurdles from home and school.

Learning paced for each student makes no sense in a regular class that is part of a rigid timetable (something not about to budge any time soon). but it does make sense in the Alt Ed environment reborn as the Centre. Taking the "sage" off the "stage" makes no sense when that teacher is inspiring students and creating a powerful course experience. Sometimes the best place for the "guide on the side" is among students that actually need guiding the most.  21CL, to be taken seriously, would shake up a timetable and teaching assignment in ways we are not ready for, but allowing a specific place to be a 21CL sandbox allows us to see what happens without messing up a whole school. Wild, imaginative ideas, yes, but in a safe environment, i.e. one that does not create fear and chaos.

I think a project-based learning centre is the place to test this hypothesis. Imagine how fantastic it would be for our "weakest" students to show how creativity, inquiry, and a learning environment that honours their identity can set example for everyone else. Our "strong" students do this all the time. Let's see what happens if we give others a little push by way of a crazy scheme that not only expects but trusts that they have something to offer.


Sarah said...

Really interesting thoughts there, and I'm going to sit down some time and re-read that post.

Speaking of the digital literacy issue, have you ever read this?

Kids have a lot of experience in being digital consumers - but not necessarily using the technology to the extent that is possible.

Thielmann said...

I like the article, that is close to the point I was trying to make! I wonder whether all of the current "techsperts" think things are awesome because they honed their problem-solving and creative skills in a pre or early digital world that required ingenuity. What they don't recognize is that their ability to manipulate ideas and create with technology requires outside skills that teenagers are rarely given the chance to develop. Our elementary teachers (even the ones who are still scared by computers) might be wise to stick to crafts and story-time over computer lab time. I have no doubt that creativity will win in the long run, but the current tech fixation can be as much of a hindrance in this realization. It is not an easy position, though. I think I've come to some powerful uses of technology over the last 13-16 years, but it has come at the cost of a few other things (skills, habits, teaching tools, elements of my character) that were once very important.