Archive for October, 2014

Is inquiry based learning student focused?

To some, the title must seem a ridiculous question; “of course it is!”  Bare with me…

I’d just like to present a quick moment of pause as we continue our industry wide rush into: inquiry process, 3 part lessons, 21 century learning, and student engagement as a focus.  While I find these are all good things to consider or are good approaches to use in a classroom, I want to point out that we have shifted away from the more student focused differentiation and focus on individual student needs to an assumption about how all kids learn and what all kids want.

These are all good strategies and focuses, but we are leaving the individual analysis and response that is the hallmark of differentiation for the belief that these strategies are a miracle catch-all for everyone?  Perhaps they are, but only if we infuse differentiation.  Are we sure that these “new” strategies equally meet the needs of all our students?  I am not convinced because I know someone who will fail to learn, grow, and achieve in these engaging, rich, inquiry focused and technology infused investigative pedagogies…that person is my son; he has autism.

My son’s autism is quite pronounced and a real barrier to these learning environments-the ones that involve social skills, discussions, compromise, social queues, and group coordination.  He, and others like him, will not learn successfully in these styles; he needs one-on-one, transmissive, route learning.  Granted, he may represent an extreme end of our educational spectrum, but assuming you agree and see how these strategies will be a barrier and a hindrance to him, we have to ask are selves, “who else?”

If it won’t work for my child, we cannot posit that it will work for everyone; once we have accepted that, we must work on who else, how many, and what to do about it.  What about the introvert? What about ESL learner?  What about marginalized groups that feel the power imbalance in society: visible minorities, TBLG youth, students with a non-verbal LD, and the like?  What about the bully…sure we can work on his social skills, but what about his academics? How will his/her participation affect the learning of his/her peers?  What other groups/individuals might not enjoy the benefits of these new pedagogies?  The way we teach creates our LD’s; what we value, determines which students will be successful and which won’t.  Why is this not part of our discussions—how can we modify these strategies…is it too early in the discussion?

I liked differentiation; I know no one is telling me I can’t do that within these strategies, but no one advocating the point anymore either.  Are these new techniques truly student centered or have we shifted to a more standardized model while seemingly trying to address student needs?  The discussion has been too general; people have assumed if they meet students’ needs, then they meet the
needs of all students.  People have assumed equity in learning and success….why?  Is it warranted?

Lots of questions in this post; they are honest and not rhetorical.  I’m not sure what the answers are.  I like these strategies that a couple of years ago we called 21st century learning skills.  I just don’t know how to come to terms with their possible inequities.

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Clay Shirky–Cognitive Surplus Assignment

The class I had last year was great in so many ways.  Sure there were some behavior issues, but generally, they were an energetic and happy bunch.  One thing that made them unique in my experience is they tended to shy away from class discussions.  Though good workers, individually and in small groups, the large group discussion didn’t produce a lot of apparent engagement.  I traditionally rely heavily on in class discussions; as such, we went a little faster than I’d normally go and a hole opened up in my long range plans.  Not wanting to run poetry as my only unit in language block, and not yet ready to start up their final presentations that would end their yearlong research, I was looking for something to do.

I had an assignment based on Clay Shirky’s article “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus “ that can be found at: https://tuckerteacher.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/mini-unit-clay-shirky-and-social-surplus/  I had tried it before in June or in small doses like if half a split was on an extended trip or such.  The results were always mixed, limited, and somewhat muddled.  Whatever the reason, I decided to give it one more try.  I modified the assignment a little bit and presented it to the class not really knowing what to expect.  Well, they, by-in-large, took off with it.  It was the highlight of the year for many; it has become one of my “flagship” assignments; students were so excited about it, that they showed up this year with their ideas ready (which created minor problems with the brainstorm section…).

It went so well last yea, that I let it run much longer than I intended.  I feel students got a lot out of it.  I am still finding ways to leverage it into better assessment and evaluation but it lead to so many mini-lessons on learning skills, specific content, social skills, problem solving and personal growth that I have come to really value it.  This year, instead of one chunk in April/May, we are working through it part of every Friday.

Last year’s projects:

  • A radio station: We bought a raspberry pi computer and a few other components.  While one person (and I…and my brother-in-law) was working on the technical and software aspect, the others were developing their shows and the advertising/surveys/other that went along with it.  There were a lot of problems to be solved with the tech (thanks Glen!!) but in the end, they (and I) learned a lot.  What I liked most about this group was that the project met their diverse interests.  The artistic student was interested in making their banner, posters, etc.  One was interested in the Tech. 2 were interested in the programing.  I’ve never seen a group work on so completely different aspects of a single goal
  • Bird houses: I remember being a little disappointed with this group’s choice.  They were very strong academically and had a strong social conscious.  I was hoping for something a little more hard hitting.  Well, I approved their plan; in truth, I thought they’d finish early and do another project.  Instead they worked long and hard; I think this group got the most out of it.  Researching, problem solving, team work, logistics, etc.  There were a lot of obstacles and skills to learn.  In the end, they made 13 bird houses (PS: if any of this group is reading this: I still have the bird houses….please put them up this winter so that birds can use them in the spring).
  • The Art Club: One group ran an art club for primary students. They were the best planned group I had.  Every time I had a question, they had thought of it already, and had a good workable answer.  Students in this group got to show strengths (planning, organizing, creating) that I had a hard time seeing in more traditional class work.  The primaries loved their club; they got to make a craft every week for 8 weeks.  I think members of this group were very proud of their work and happy with the opportunity
  • The Movie: though this group had some logistic problems, some focus problems, and the movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination, they had fun, worked on social and learning skills, were quit pleased with their work and success.  The Group was likely a little large and had trouble finding specific tasks for everyone to do at times, but they all came together to make a product and everyone say it through to the end.  I wish I could see their movie again
  • The Youtube Channel: this group wanted to make a Youtube channel that would host Minecraft instructional and walkthrough videos. Technical problems, logistics, and even a little problem with focus made this project seem a little less successful than I hoped, but in truth, they still worked on planning, brainstorming, problem solving, and all the other skills associated with group work and projects.  While their product never really took off, they had a lot of success in learning to compromise, learning the technology, and attempting to create.  There are well positioned to be more successful next time
  • Wilderness Survival club: another group wanted to learn about wild edibles and other wilderness survival skills.  The first researched and learned some skills, found some opportunities to practice and eventually decided to apply their skills by running a club for other students to teach and share what they had learned.  Eventually, we took a small group out into the woods Wednesdays after school to do: shelter building, fire starting and theory, and navigation.  Everyone, even myself, had fun.
  • Orienteering obstacle course: The final group learned orienteering skills and developed a course for their peers in a local green space. It was a very well organized and fun event for the class and a great day outside.  Even undercover police came to check it outJ

This year, the groups are again working on a diverse group of activities: a cooking club; a group making art installations around the school; a movie; another attempt at a Youtube channel;  buying, building, painting and engraving games on picnic tables for the school yard; a mural on the wall of the gym; an outdoor permaculture garden and classroom; and homemade T-shirts to raise money for a local animal shelter.   It’s going to keep the kids (and me) busy….I’ll let you know how it goes.

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