Can I please get the Lego out? – A Reflection on Making


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

It all started with one students asking, “Can I please get the Lego out?”

As I had promised the students that they could choose their own activity if they had finished off their work, I got the tub out and the student in question set himself up on the floor. As the session unfolded, student after student came to the meeting place. What started as a case of putting this piece with that soon turned into some sort of battle with the rules of engagement created as they went. What was most interesting was that many of students involved had been bickering of late, unable to play well together either in class or out in the yard, arguing about this rule or that decision. However, for the hour in which they built, not one student complained. Instead students successfully negotiated each step along the way. The only issue I had was that students didn’t want to stop.

When I think back over the year, many of the moments that stand out the most are those that involve students getting hands on:

  • Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden: Stemming from Stephanie Alexander’s initial pilot program at Collingwood College, the aim is to provide students with a ‘pleasurable food education’. That includes an understanding of foods and flavours, as well as an awareness of seasonal produce and waste. It encapsulates many of the aspects associated with permaculture. Instead of focusing on textbooks and set curriculum, SAKG focuses on cause and effect in order to develop a more sustainable food mindset in a collaborative manner.
  • Camp: Whether it be the Year Nine’s exploring the geography of Tasmania or the Year Four’s working in teams to build huts, too often camps are the only time when students get to learn together outside of the confines of a classroom. What is interesting are the conversations and connections that arise out of these seemingly uncommon situations. Often this is a consequence of students been placed in contexts where the only way to work through problems is within a team.
  • Digital Leaders Group: A lunchtime group with the purpose to support students in having more of a say when it comes to all things digital. Although it has not necessarily delivered in regards to student leadership, it has provided a voice and choice for students to tinker and explore with technology. Whether it be competing in a robotics competition (an extension of the elective program into Years Five and Six) or exploring different maker products, such as Raspberry Pi and Little Bits. Students worked together each week focusing on the cycle of what Stager and Martinez describe as ‘think, make, improve’.  
  • Hands On Learning: Designed to support disengaged students from different age groups, the focus is on fostering talents not normally recognised in the classroom. Using project-based learning, the program has included such projects as designing on a budget, building a garden and restoring old furniture. The overall aim is to help young people develop the skills and abilities needed to succeed in work and life like collaboration, problem solving, communication, resilience and empathy.

All of these examples have left me wondering how we might create more opportunities for students to engage in hands on learning? More importantly, experiences that are a part of the core curriculum, rather than just the margins. So what about you? How do you enable making in your classroom? Are there particular programs you run? As always, I would love to know.


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Electives, What is Your Choice?

creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/16593420862

In every school that I have taught, there has been some form of electives in place. From photography to robotics to zoology to outdoor education, the idea is to provide an element of choice and agency. However, this choice is continually contradicted by an essentialist ‘core’ curriculum, where what is taught is decided long before the students arrive. This creates the circumstance where students enter electives feeling that they don’t really matter, for if it did then everyone would be doing it.

Another problem with electives is that they are often decided by looking at the core curriculum and trying to fill in the gaps. The issue with this is that the supposed offer of choice is undermined by the fact that students choose from a predefined list, but often have little say in what actually makes up that list. Although this can be answered by asking the students what they want to learn or are passion about once they are in the subject, there are often expectations already set about what such subjects mean through subject descriptions and historical hand me downs.

I was interested in reading Greg Miller’s post on how his school conducted an enquiry into their elective initiative. Through this process they sort to reinvigorate the various courses to make sure that they were delivering the best learning opportunity possible. As Miller described, the purpose was threefold:

  1. CLARIFY that is, to….. “Make clear or plain” the intent of the Year 9 Interest  Elective Initiative.

  2. DISTINGUISH that is, to…..“Recognise or note/indicate as being distinct or different from; to note differences between” current BOS approved/mandated courses and the  new courses.

  3. INVESTIGATE that is, to….. “Plan, inquire into and draw conclusions about” the best way to deliver Year 9 Interest Electives in 2015.

What stood out was that instead of back filling the subject areas, the focus was placed on the areas of: inquiry, self-directed learning, collaboration and connectivity.  Such innovative practises got me wondering about whether there were any other points of improvement that could be made to the age old elective programs?

One question that came to mind was what if all the electives worked together in a collaborative manner, each addressing a different area, but working towards a common goal? A few years ago, as a part of my Digital Publishing elective, we worked with the Photography, to take pictures of all the students for the school yearbook. However, that was only two classes. Imagine if you had six classes working towards a common goal, at what could be achieved? In conversation, Jon Andrews told me about the Big History Project run out of Macquarie University. Aimed at Year 9 and 10, it is about gaining a deeper understanding of “the cosmos, earth, life and humanity.” As is stated in the introduction, it “offers us the possibility to understand our universe, our world, and our humanity in a new way.”

Going beyond the Big History Project, broadly speaking, Project-Based Learning offers a model to work in a fluid and agile manner. In her work with Learning Futures, Valerie Hannon talks about the power of Project-Based Learning. One of the things that stands out are the many entry points available, whether it be a whole week or a few hours. For example, many schools are using Genius Hour as a means for introducing Project-Based Learning. I wonder if Genius Hour could work in the place of electives? Where instead of teachers taking set subjects, their role is to support students with whatever it is that they are doing.

A similar example to the Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time or whatever you want to call it is the account given by Jon Andrews in the book Experiences in Self-Determined Learning of ‘Immersion Studies’. (You can also hear a presentation of this on the TER Podcast.)  Like an electives program, Immersion Studies Time was a designated time in Early Years designed for students to engage with the Arts. What is significant about this initiative is that it fits with school’s heutagogical philosophy. It is not an event, a one off, rather it is another cog all running together.

I have taught in an environment that ran inquiry-based programs in two hour blocks. Beyond the issue that if there was something on that week, such as sport or a public holiday, students simply miss out on their dose of inquiry. The bigger problem was that, as Kath Murdoch points out, “we can’t expect kids to be curious ‘on demand’.” If such pushes to innovate, to wonder, to be curious are not celebrated and perpetuated elsewhere, then there is a danger that they often go nowhere. This starts, Murdoch explains, long before planning. It is a way of teaching.

What about you then? What are your experiences of electives? Of Genius Hour? Of heutagogical learning? I would love to know. Comments welcome, as always.


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Digital Publishing – My Foray into Project Based Learning

Background

One thing that I have learnt over time is that there is no silver bullet in education. However, there are some things that work better than others. The problem with this though is that you do not always know what the ideal solution is until you are in the midst of learning and teaching. 

I have taken a range of ICT-based electives for a few years now. From Pulp Publishing to Multimedia. One of the biggest changes that has occurred during this time has been a transition from teaching ICT to teaching through ICT. One of the consequences of this change has been the search for the best way to teach technology without actually teaching the technology. One of the answers that I have found is the notion of Project Based Learning. 


I first stumbled upon Project Based Learning via a post from +Rich Lambert looking at the difference between Project Based Learning and Challenge Based Learning. After exploring a range of free resources provided by BIE, such as Rubric for Rubrics, and incorporating some of these into my teaching, I got to a point where if I really wanted to see its worth, that I really needed to enter into it in a more whole hearted manner. I had already seen some of the issues associated with Inquiry Based Learning as the school actually prided itself on being an inquiry school with various ‘critical’ friends, such as Jen Wilson and Kath Murdoch. 


I just needed a little bit of encouragement and that came in the form of a post ‘PBL: Managing the Mushy Middle‘ from +Bianca Hewes. I always felt comfortable with structuring an inquiry unit. However, some of my early experiences with inquiry had petered out in the middle section and dragged at the end. Hewes’ post provided a wide array of resources and was the impetus for throwing myself into the wolves once again. To relinquish control in the hope of empowering students in their learning. I decided that the best place put PBL to the test was in my Year 9 Elective entitled Digital Publishing.

 

Context & Background

Small businesses, home office workers and social organisations often find it necessary to prepare their own advertising flyers, promotional pamphlets, menus, display notices, catalogues, timetables, tickets, letterheads, business cards and web pages. However, the question that people often ask themselves, how can it be done easier and quicker? Students in Digital Publishing will explore different information and communication technologies and reflect upon their potential. This elective will culminate in the creation of the Year 9 Yearbook.

 

Blurb from the Year 9 Elective Handbook

 

If you ask anyone, Digital Publishing is the subject where the students make the Yearbook. What that actually means, no-one really cared too much. So, Just as +Anne Mirtschin describes trialling gaming because she wanted to see their potential, I wanted to trial getting the students to produce real and authentic publications from scratch to see what would happen if students were given control over an authentic task. So other than creating the yearbook, I really had a blank slate on which to work upon. Spurred by +Jim Sill‘s call during his keynote at the Melbourne Google Education Summit 2013 to allow creativity in the classroom and let go, I let go – a bit.
 

Publishing with Purpose

I started the class off with a focus on publishing with purpose. One of the challenges that I had spent hours racking my brain trying to come up with an authentic task for students to complete in order to learn and explore the different ways we can publish digital content. A few years ago, when the focus was on the tool, not the task, I had methodically gone through a range of applications and programs with the students. Although some students got something out of this, surprisingly, there was little engagement overall. I therefore came up with the idea of creating a publication for students and staff focusing on programs and applications to use when programming.
 
In unpacking this task, students grappled with a number of challenges and issues, such as:
  • What programs should be reviewed
  • What should the structure of each of the reviews be
  • What program should be used to create the publication
  • How would the publication be organisation
Each of these questions was discussed by the class in a communal manner. Once this was done, each of the students chose their own program and went about exploring.
 
There were quite a few issues that arose out of the process, such as some students taking more responsibility than others, as well as a lack of care and consistency for the end product. In addition to that, some students took the task as being able to find other examples of tutorials and ‘borrow’ from them. 

Some of the reasons for this were that students did not believe that anyone would actually use the document, even if it were shared with staff and students, because if people really wanted to find such information then they could look it up themselves. Another issues was that I took on the responsibility of being the project manager and bringing the end product together. I think that this was the biggest mistake, because many students showed little care for what they submitted, believing that I would fix up any mistakes.
 

Yearbook 

After my mixed experiences with exploring different types of publishing, I took a different tact with the Yearbook. Instead of controlling the structure of the project, I stepped back. I handed control over to the class and instead of being the focus of the lesson, I stepped aside and simply added comment as a kind of devil’s advocate, querying decisions and posing questions when students stopped talking.

Initially, I had thought that the yearbook would simply be a digital publication, a PDF publication, that students would get access to. With little money in the budget, I was unconvinced as to how we would get the yearbook published. However, the students had a different idea. They did some research, surveyed the staff and students in Year 9 and even made some calls to some companies. Next minute, they had teed up a trial and demonstration from Fusion Yearbook Australia.


Associated with this, the students had looked at some examples of yearbooks and brainstormed a list of things that they thought should be included. Once they had refined this list, they then divvied up the list amongst themselves, with students working in pairs. In addition to the various jobs, such as student profiles, elective reviews and organising photographs, two students were chosen to oversee the whole project, helping out where needed and making sure that everyone knows what needs to be done.


The students then proceeded through what Hewes’ describes as the ‘mushy middle’. One of the biggest difficulties faced was in gathering together all of the content and information. A part of the problem was that the photographs and reviews had to be gathered. In addition to this, just as with the first project, some students put in more effort than others. This led to a tight situation in regards to submitting the yearbook online on time, which meant that instead of having a few weeks to thoroughly edit and proofread the finished product as a class, this process was left to a group of dedicated few, who gave up their own time to make sure everything was as it should be. 


Although I had always intended to implement many of Hewes’ initiatives, such as developing a comprehensive project calendar, creating a contract and constructing a self-assessment rubric, once I had relinquished much of the control to the students, they were sometimes hard to implement. Often, the class leaders thought that some of these things were a waste of time and were really about me taking back control. 


Although running a class on passion led to some great initiative on behalf of some, it still had the problem of everyone being being passionate about the task, which was not always the way. I guess though that this is sometimes the risk, if you are not willing to fail, then sometimes you cannot really succeed. My only concern is that sometimes I felt that the class failed more than it succeeded.

 
Once the yearbook had been submitted to the publishers, the class came up with a list of suggestions for future students and this is what they came up with:
  • Maybe use Microsoft Word, instead of Fusion, unless the Internet is improved.
  • Spend less time planning what needs to be done and more time doing it. 
  • Find an ‘alternative’ to student laptops, as they are too slow and crash all the time 
  • Collect images from the start of the year, rather than wait until the end.
  • Have people should take more ownership over editing of their own work.
  • Be clear and consistent about the fonts, layouts and backgrounds used.
  • Split tasks so that each individual knows what to do to help with accountability. 
  • Develop a ‘cheat sheet’ for students, which include jobs, layout and timeline. 
  • Have a weekly update as to where things are at and a list of any new jobs.
  • Create clear descriptions and expectations for the different roles 
Although I did not agree with all of their points of reflection, it was interesting what the students identified in their sometimes scathing review.
 

Learning is about Lessons Learnt

Some of the lessons that I learnt from the whole unit include:

  • Be more stringent with timelines. That means not only providing the due date, but breaking projects up into its part and providing each of these a due date too. I had encouraged students to set both short and long term goals in regards to the project and was hoping that managing deadlines would be a part of this. However, some students are better at setting goals than others.
  • Plant the seeds for the task earlier on in the year. That means that people need to be aware from the very start where to save photographs or submit reviews to.
  • Be clearer with descriptions of the different roles and the project as a whole. It is funny reading back through Hewes’ post now, especially when she says things like, “I thought team contracts were completely naff. I didn’t use them for years. Now, I think they’re really important documents for my students.” I could not agree more. I did not implement them because I thought that the students would laugh at them, telling me that they were for primary classes. Whereas now I think that they were exactly what was needed, something that they could refer back to, a reference point, a set of expectations that everyone agrees to.
  • Support the People, not the Project. I really did not know where to step in and when to stay out. I was so worried about it being the students work that I don’t think that I got involved enough. Although I helped a few groups solve some of their problems, I think that I could have done more equipping the leaders in the class by sitting down with them and not just discussing the project, but also helping them to better facilitate the project. Although they did a fantastic job, they still needed prompts and guidance and I could have done this better.


In the end, I am not sure that this is the best representation of Project Based Learning or if it really constitutes Project Based Learning at all, for the end goal/product was decided upon prior to starting. However, I learnt a lot about how students learn and look forward to running the class again this year.


Would love your thoughts and comments below, especially about how you think that the whole process could be improved.


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