Taking the Plunge

Sunday evening I made an important, and now irrevocable, decision.  Even though I understand the importance of student-centred learning,  I haven’t switched to this approach in my Bio 30 class.  I keep thinking, “I’ll do it next year.”  Finally, I stopped and asked, “Why am I not changing this now?”

The bottom line is fear. The biggest fear, of course, being my students not learning everything they are supposed to.  But I am convicted repeatedly by a statement Shawna Stangel made in her blog “…the days of covering must come to an end. If you need to cover something please get a tarp or a sheet, but don’t use that word in reference to teaching and learning any more.” I agree.

The funny thing is, in the end, I think this way will actually be more time efficient, once they develop the skills they need.

This week we’re starting a new unit, a six-week stretch on human anatomy, starting with the brain.  The perfect time for a change.  So I took the plunge.

I divided my class into 5 groups of 5 students; the unit outline I posted on our wiki.  I felt for our first time doing this, it would be prudent to give my students more direction than I hope to be giving by the end.  I outlined 6 areas that they need to learn information on; I specifically included the topic of exploring how the brain learns, so that we can discuss this in light of what we’re doing.  I also provided a few resources to get them started, and included some great TED videos on brain research.  Before beginning, I also showed them delicious and Google Docs.

The product, for this section of learning, is a Google Doc that contains all of the pertinent information, including diagrams. This essentially is their notes for this unit.  However, each group’s document will be linked to our class wiki so that students are able to use all five documents for their learning.

They were really excited to learn about the brain,  and excited to learn in groups.  Then, I waited to see what happened.

Of course the inevitable is technology problems.  We have a Mac lab that is fickle at best. For some, this was a huge issue that consumed most of their class time.

But for most students, technology wasn’t the biggest issue they faced.  It was learning independently and communication.  Many groups sat there not quite knowing what to do on their own.  After allowing them to struggle in their confusion for a bit,  I outlined the three next steps that they should probably take.  A few groups divided the tasks amongst the group members, and then didn’t talk to each other again.

One student asked me, “so, all we do is answer the questions?”  No, that’s not all you do.  You learn it.

I was shocked by their lack of ability to communicate and work together.  The skills that I naturally rely on when working as part of a team, are all but absent for most of these kids, and yet these are some of the most important skills they need.  I wonder how they can be in grade 11 and 12 and have no idea how to do this stuff.

I wonder how, or why, we created a culture of kids who think their goal in class is to find the right answer and then move on. I felt like I had opened the lid of an unknown box, peered in, only to find a festering mess.  To be honest, I’d like to slam the lid closed and pretend like I didn’t see it, but I’m reminded of the quote:

“One must always be aware, to notice — even though the cost of noticing is to become responsible.”

Thylias Moss

And now, I am responsible.  For me not to address this situation, is to abdicate my responsibility as an educator.  And the day I do that, is the day I need to leave teaching.

I honestly don’t believe that it matters, in five years, if my students know what the cerebellum does. Great if they do. But for most of them,  the cerebellum will still continue to function, whether they know how it does or not.  However, if they don’t understand how to function as part of a team, this will be detrimental to them.

Monday evening, with this as the biggest concern on my mind, I was listening to Charles Fadel’s keynote session from the 2010 Global Education Conference, entitled “21st Century Skills: Learning for life in our Times.  In it he delineates the importance of moving from a knowledge-based classroom to a skill-based classroom, skills such as flexibility, creativity, technology literacy, and problem solving to name only a few.

I took this information back to my classroom. Before assembling into their groups, I explained to my students why we are learning in a new format, why this is important to them as learners, and the skills it develops.  I asked if any of them knew anything that we had learned so far well enough to teach it, maybe one or two had, although they certainly weren’t confident about it.  No one knew it as well as me.

This illustrates Ackoff & Greenbergs’ point, “the one who explains learns the most, because the person to whom the explanation is made can afford to forget the explanation promptly in most cases; but the explainers will find it sticking in their minds a lot longer, because they struggled to gain an understanding in the first place in a form clear enough to explain.” It was definitely time for a change.

I used snapshots that I had captured from the presentation the previous evening, to illustrate my points.

I think the above snapshot, taken from Time magazine, was one of the most sobering slides for my students.  They could see that I was not the only one thinking this way.

While we need knowledge, we also need a wide variety of skills to actually do something with that knowledge.  The above snapshot shows what employers list as the most important skills students need in the workplace.

I shared my observations, from the previous day, in regards to the lack of communication and collaboration that I saw in their groups.  It’s not simply about finding the “right” answers, it’s about helping one another, bouncing ideas off one another, and creating a shared product.

With all of this in mind, we headed to the computer lab, which is much more reliable than the Mac lab.  I could tell the moment that their Google Docs were opened and they began working on them.  There were audible gasps. It made me smile.

I know companies spend millions of dollars trying to attract to the attention of teenagers, and yet, with the stuff that matters, it takes so little to impress them. The were shocked by the experience of all typing in the same document, in different colours, and in the end, being able to tell,  who contributes what.  They could see the built-in accountability.

Today was productive.  They began to  communicate and help each other.  Sure, we had to problem shoot technology issues, like how to get everyone in the group on the same Google Doc, but I also got to spend a great deal of my time with my students showing me  their discoveries. I think the most common phrase I heard was, “Mrs. Wright, come look at this!”  Not only did they share with me, they shared with each other. Furthermore, one of my students is excited to share Google docs with his sister, who is in university.

This, in many ways, was a great week.  Everything has changed in my classroom, and until the end of the semester, I will be teaching my students to learn and problem solve, rather than content.  The ironic thing is, I have tried this in my classroom before; however, I always felt like I wasn’t doing my job, and so I quickly reverted back to the old way.  After all, wasn’t I hired to teach them?  But as Oscar Wilde eloquently quipped, “nothing that is worth learning can be taught.”

For me, this is just the beginning.  Two of my classes this semester are being connected with e-pals half-way across the world.  They’re really excited about this, as am I. My ELA 20 class is going to spend several weeks learning in our own version of the TED-X Classroom Project.

Next semester, I plan to have two of my classes paperless, one is a tech class, the other ELA.  If you can’t have a tech class paperless, I’m not sure how it would work in any other.  I’m curious to see how it works in ELA.  But the thing I’m most excited about, next semester, is that I plan to have two of my classes connected with classes in other countries to work on real-world collaborative projects.

It seems in the past two months that everything has changed. I can’t imagine going back to running my classroom as I used; Thankfully, I don’t have to.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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21 Responses to Taking the Plunge

  1. dwees says:

    I had my students in 12th grade start the process off by creating a website (in Google Sites) to hold the structure of the course. This way any resources they find, they can share them to the website. Similar idea though, trying to transition into a more independent system.

    I’m hopeful this website will improve each year as we work on it. It’s more fun working with students rather than lecturing to them, that much I know.

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  3. Shelley you are inspiring. I appreciate the way you described your feelings and the fears you had about moving to a learner-centred classroom. I hope that you will share your reflections on the outcomes of your experiement with us even though eci831 will be over. I also found it interesting how you addressed the issue of students’ lack of communication and team work skills. Do you have a link to : Charles Fadel’s keynote session from the 2010 Global Education Conference, entitled “21st Century Skills: Learning for life in our Times”? and one further note–I wish my grandkids could have teachers like you. 🙂

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  5. Jamie says:

    Wow. Truly inspiring Shelley. I aspire to this form of instruction in my classroom, but struggle every day as to what this looks like with 8 year olds. Right now, it looks like a lot of talking… Great job!

  6. Karen B says:

    OMG Shelley, good for you! I teach bio 30 next semester and have been trying to dream up ways to utilize tech to make the learning more meaningful to my students! Wow, good for you for taking the risk!

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  8. Theresa Murray (@tamurray) says:

    Very inspiring post! I think I am in the same spot as you …. I want to make the change but have not yet done it fully. I am starting to do it more and more but still see the deer in headlights look. After one attempt earlier this year, I turned my business law students loose to create a mock trial for a civil case. Two people emerged as leader in the groups and the rest just did exactly as the leader told them. When we went to run through one, they realized all the things they missed but then we had a great discussion about what worked and what didn’t. It took them a few minutes to be candid – after I sat down in a desk and told them what I realized was a problem with the too large group size.

    • Wow! I love the idea of a mock trial. I think students would enjoy that so much. But I agree with you’re saying, I too am finding it necessary to be really honest with my students.

  9. Lori Meyer says:

    congrats shelley on your journey and most of all on your bravery and willingness to share it! i look forward to reading more.

  10. Jen says:

    It is so great to hear about your success in the classroom. You are, as the others said, inspiring.

  11. Phil Ashman says:

    I just stumbled on your blog from @willrich45 and the serendipity of this post is almost frightening. I teach in a technical program at a college in the Okanagan, B.C. and must have made the plunge into a skills based learning approach utilizing Google Docs/Twitter at almost same time you did. Humbled, off balance, chaotic, excited, frustrated, amazed, uncomfortable and cynical, all describe the roller coaster of emotions for myself and the students. And yes I certainly felt a little lost in terms of my role as an instructor.

    I saw my value in bringing all the ideas together and providing some thoughts from an experienced perspective. I still have one week to go in the class and I’m not too sure how the students have found the experience. I am almost scared to ask..;), but will be giving them a feedback form to fill out during their exam. I would have done looked for feedback earlier, but I wanted to give them time to adjust to the upheaval of their learning mechanics and give the process a chance. Like you I needed to build up the courage to go for it. I actually decided to do it after finding a series of youtube videos that essentially gave the exact same lectures I usually give. I realized then that a “fisch” flip (from Karl Fisch..;)..) was the way to go. The lectures would become there homework and the class time became their time for assignments and collaborative work.

    This class is also split with half the students wanting to be there as it is part of the program they are interested in and half who have to be there as part of another program; the students are overloaded with work in both programs. Motivating and inspiring burned out and overworked students makes for another interesting challenge.

    Anyway, really appreciate you putting some words to the challenge all of us following this path are facing. It’s definitely not the path of least resistance!

    • Wow, this is amazing. I just used reverse instruction for the first time last week! It was a very basic, but successful first attempt. I’m really looking forward to using it again and adding to it from what I’ve learned.

      I agree with it being a huge learning shift for my students, as well as myself. I think the most important thing I’m doing is “retraining” the way my students think about education and learning. Thanks for reading!

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  13. David Wees says:

    Shelley, can you give us an update on how this is working with your students? Thank you.

    • For some reason, I’ve missed this until now. It worked beautifully. My students were much better prepared for their departmental exam than they would have been in a traditional classroom. However, even at the end of the semester they had so much still to learn. I guess all we can do is keep trying!

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