LESSONS FROM A 21ST CENTURY CLASSROOM
Learning is messy. Yet, everything we're taught to do as teachers is focused on controlling the messiness of learning. We're taught to: * standardize learning * scaffold learning * measure and quantify learning * map learning * create pre-determined learning objectives that are based on a hierarchical taxonomy But learning is messy. 21st century pedagogy is about embracing the messiness, instead of trying to control it. Today I want to share a few of the lessons I learned while integrating Challenge-Based Learning into my FYC class.
A NEW MODEL FOR THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
The design for my Fall 2012 FYC class was inspired by a TED Talk by Dr. Tae called "Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?" In the video, Dr. Tae compares the principles that govern the skatepark with those that govern the classroom. At the skatepark: * everyone learns at their own pace * learning is not always fun * failure is guaranteed and acceptable. Think about the way skateparks are designed: * there are various challenges embedded within the architecture: half-pipes, ramps, rails, and ledges * when you enter a skatepark, there are no pre-determined learning objectives posted on the wall * the individual skateboarder determines which challenges and tricks they take on and in what order and how much energy they put into each * improvisation and innovation within the existing architecture are encouraged * no skateboarder is "the best" * the community is greater than the sum of individuals who make it up because members are encouraged to individuate themselves and then give what they learn back to the community * in the absence of a skatepark, skateboarders will repurpose existing architecture. I wanted to integrate the principles and architecture of the skatepark into my FYC classroom.
21ST CENTURY CLASSROOM INITIATIVE
My first step was identifying a common bond or challenge for the community. In the skatepark, everyone is united by their love for skateboarding. But most students in my FYC class don't love to write. So, I needed to identify a topic that would be relevant to everyone in the class and about which they would be motivated to write. I am a member of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative, a group of faculty, administrators, and staff whose goal is to transform JSU into a 21st century learning environment. My inspiration came one day during a meeting, when I looked around and realized that there were no students on the committee and the students are the most vital component of our university and the transformation we are trying to achieve.
DESIGN A 21ST CENTURY UNIVERSITY
So, I decided to challenge the class to design a 21st century university. I placed no limitations on them in terms of money, logistics, or infrastructure. The sky was the limit and each student could work alone or in a group and could focus on whatever aspect of the university they wished.
WHY COLLEGE? WHAT IS COLLEGE (GOOD) FOR? IS COLLEGE (GOOD) ENOUGH?
My next challenge was to determine how to guide students toward a better understanding of the issues involved in higher education's transition into the 21st century. Almost all of my students were freshman and a large majority of them were first-generation college students. So, they really had no prior knowledge that they could draw upon to help them determine what aspects of the university needed to be re-designed. So, I created a series of essential questions that the students addressed in their weekly writing assignments, beginning with a personal essay on why they chose college, followed by two questions that required them to research various viewpoints and develop their own argument: What is college (good) for? and Is college (good) enough? The students could choose to leave out the parenthetical words if they wished so that they had two additional questions they could address: What is college for? and Is college enough? When I completed the end-of-term course evaluation, this was the one aspect of the class that students critiqued; they did not like having to answer my questions and would much rather have developed and answered their own questions. Obviously, the students had embraced the principles of the learning skatepark much more thoroughly than I had and taught me a valuable lesson about trusting my students to ask their own questions.
BLOGS. GOOGLE+. WEB 2.0.
The next decision I had to make was which tools the students would use to answer their essential questions and design their university. I don't really see the point in asking our students to solve "real-world" problems if we don't also ask them to share their solutions with the world, so I selected blogs as the main forum for the students' writing because of their open and connective nature. Since this was a hybrid class, I also needed a tool that would allow the students to collaborate and connect both asynchronously and synchronously, so I chose Google+ as our virtual classroom; we used it to share links to their blogs and other resources, text chat, and hangout via webcam with up to 10 members of the class at a time. For their design challenge, I provided the students with a list of Web 2.0 tools that they could use if they wished. Every student selected at least one tool from the list; none of the students knew how to use any of the tools, so they taught themselves how to do so as they were putting together their challenge project.
PART POSTER SESSION, PART POETRY SLAM
My final challenge was deciding how students would present their ideas to each other and the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee. I decided to host a research slam in lieu of a final exam. A research slam has been described as part poster session, part poetry slam. Like a poster session, participants display their ideas at various stations; they don't have to do so using posters--they can use slideshows, videos, scale models, etc. They then present their ideas in 15 minutes or less to a small audience who can then ask questions and discuss the presenter's ideas. If you think about a traditional final exam, all of the students are in their seats in rows facing forward, heads bent over their paper, deathly silent, not communicating with one another. In fact, if they communicate with one another, we accuse them of cheating and give them an F. Why can't the learning continue until the very last day of class? During the research slam, my students were laughing and talking with one another and the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members and me, sharing and responding to ideas, learning from and with one another. It was chaotic and messy--and powerful. And much more fun and empowering than a traditional final exam.
I took a sampling of the students' design ideas and created a word cloud. In a word cloud, the more frequently a word appears in the text, the bigger it appears in the word cloud. What stands out to you in the word cloud? What surprises or intrigues you? What words did you expect to see that are or are not here? What do you think is the context of some of the words? Do you think it was a positive or negative context?
Pyramids are so BCE! 21st century classrooms require a reconceptualization of Bloom's taxonomy that is no longer hierarchical and no longer starts with lower-order thinking. At our first CoRE conference, one of the speakers asked the question: What if we taught Bloom's backwards? Whether we re-imagine Bloom's taxonomy as a butterfly's wing, a circle, an arc, a spiral, or a helix, we need to give our students problems and ask them to start creating solutions on the very first day, and as they create, they will have to learn how to evaluate, analyze, apply, and understand and, hopefully, in the process, will have more reason to remember the information they encounter.
I learned a few things from my students during our experiment with Challenge-Based Learning, the most important of which was to trust your students. Remember in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the Nazi shot Indy's father and the only way to save him was for Indy to navigate the challenges that would lead him to the holy grail? Indy was not the expert on the holy grail that his father was, nor did he have faith in his ability to meet the challenges. But his father trusted that Indy could do it. Like Indy, we have to take a leap of faith and trust our students to meet the challenges we offer them.
We have got to de-stigmatize failure--our students and our own. Research has shown that those students who are the most successful in any subject are not the ones with the best aptitude, but rather the ones with the most stick-to-itiveness. We cannot expect the majority of students to persevere if every time they fail, we stamp them with an F, move forward, and expect them to run to catch up with us. Imagine if every time you read a book, you had to take a test on it. Or if every time you wrote something down, someone graded it and marked all of your errors. If you want to take the excitement or passion out of something, grade it. If you want students to embrace the learning challenges your offer them, you have to make it okay for them to fail.
You're always going to have students with low self-efficacy beliefs or who lack the cognitive skills or stick-to-itiveness to do the level of work you expect. But you also invariably have at least a few students who can think outside of the box and meet your challenges head-on. Use these students as models. We know students listen to and learn from their peers more readily than they do us, so let's start using that to our advantage.
In a related lesson, invite and encourage students to be co-teachers. By the same token, you have to be willing to be a co-learner. It's okay to not be the expert.
And finally, I learned that learning is chaotic. It can't be measured or standardized or controlled or pre-determined. We can only map it after it has happened and the map we end up with is not likely to look like what we wanted or expected it to. Because learning is messy. And also unimaginably wonderful. The more we embrace the messiness and trust our students, the more wonderful it becomes.
AND UNIMAGINABLY WONDERFUL
I also learned that learning is chaotic. It can't be standardized, measured, controlled, contained, or pre-deteremined. We can only map learning after it has happened and the map we end up with is not likely to look the way we wanted or expected it to. Because learning is messy. But it is also unimaginably wonderful. The more we embrace the messiness and trust our students, the more wonderful it becomes.
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