If you want to truly engage students, give up the reins
This is a summary of the talk I delivered at the Norfolk ICT 2011 Conference, expanding on my TES editorial back in January.
During the final half of 2010, I asked more than 1,500 teachers around the globe two questions: what are your happiest memories from learning at school, and what are your least happy experiences?
When I do the "reveal" of what I think their answers will be, every workshop has a "but how did he know?" reaction. It's more akin to an audience's response to illusionist Derren Brown than to the beginning of a day of professional development.
For teachers' answers are always the same. At the top is "making stuff", then school trips, "feeling I'm making a contribution" and "following my own ideas". Their least happy experiences are "a frustration at not understanding things", "not having any help on hand" and "being bored", mostly by "dull presentations". "Not seeing why we had to do certain tasks" appeared in every continent.
Most of these educators agreed that the positive experiences they loved about school were too few, and were outnumbered by the "important but dull" parts of today's schooling: delivering content, preparing for and doing exams.
But while a third of teachers generally remember "making stuff" as their most memorable and happy experience at school, we see few curricula where "making stuff" and letting students "follow their own ideas" makes up at least a third of the planned activity.
Design Thinking: the creative industries' framework for relentless creativity
Coined by design superstars IDEO, "Design Thinking" in a simple form is a four-part process of thinking and acting that I see replicated in every successful creative company in film, television, web startups or marketing with whom I work. I see it in some of our most creative classrooms, too.
It all starts with a genuine realworld problem that needs solving, not a pseudo-problem of the variety we see in textbooks. For example:
- What is the carbon footprint of the nation's shopping basket?
- Who is the biggest polluter in our region?
- How can we make the journey to school safer?
- How can we better use the school budget we have?
We then follow these four stages of problem-solving:
Immersion is not just unleashing youngsters with a sketchbook, or sending them off to Google to find out everything they can on a topic. It's about students working hard to gain empathy with those affected by the problem they've encountered. It's about putting oneself in the shoes of another and capturing all the emotions, feelings, facts, viewpoints possible. This can be done in a huge number of ways, but capturing these insights we must: on digital photographs, cell phone audio recordings or videos, post-it notes, documents...
The most important part is for students not to try to solve the problem, but merely delve into it, and understand it from as many perspectives as possible. It is also vital that the problem comes from the students, as much as possible. Note in this short clip how the 'obvious' learning point of activities around sand is replaced by what the three and four year olds are interested in: the truck that delivers the sand:
Every idea that has been captured needs to be brought together, preferably in a project space, a project corner, so that teams of students can work to find
- information that needs further splitting down
- low-hanging fruit
- outlier ideas that, at first, don't seem to belong elsewhere
Look at the IDEO team in action, one week over two minutes, in this clip, and you'll see how a ton of messy, asbtract information comes together into organised thoughts ready for turning into ideas:
The teacher's role in this stage, as in immersion, is critical, but not as deliverer of knowledge. The teacher's role is that of key questioner. Good questioning technique is the most important skill to master to pull this creative process off, and there are some structures you can use to help. The G.R.O.W model and similar coaching models are such frameworks to help frame questions at each level of the project's thinking (short, medium and long-term):
Mhairi Stratton, formerly at Humbie Primary School in East Lothian, Scotland, introduced me to this way of thinking, and she has seen other benefits coming from this way of 'coaching' students to success:
'The whole school is benefitting because the pupils are involving the other class and sharing their learning with them.
‘Pupils are now identifying what resources they need, and why, and then working out how to source these.
‘This is also having a very positive effect on parental involvement as the pupils are also discussing their learning more at home and often asking them to provide the resources!’
Actually coming up with solutions to a problem comes quite late on in the process. In schools, most of the time, though, the problem has been defined by a teacher or a textbook and most learners are thrust into the creative process at this point, at the point when the process is nearly over!
Ideation can be simple brainstorming, or it can rely on a greater box of mental tools to stimulate better, more unexpected, more sustainable ideas. For example:
- best and worst ideas
- everyone's a consultant, where each individual adds to everyone else's idea with a...
- "yes, and..." statement - ban "no but"; it's anti-creative, and what didn't work last year might work now. Things change.
- 100 ideas now - set your students a challenge to take the available synthesised information and come up with 100 ideas in just one session.
- FedEx days, where you invite learners (and colleagues) to deliver an idea within 24 hours.
This kind of pupil-led learning creates entrepreneurial, confident individuals. Professor Sugata Mitra's work shows that children in Indian slums are able to teach themselves and each other when provided with a computer kiosk on a street corner and access to the internet.
Within six weeks of starting my teaching career in the UK in 2002, I was fortunate to take up a spot on a small delegation to New Brunswick, Canada. There, since the 1970s, pupils have been achieving stellar results through experiential, project-based learning in which they have the lion's share of control over what is learnt, with whom and using what resources. And they have done it in a language that is not their mother tongue.
Yet the thought of allowing 30 assorted children at a time - or 90 at a time in the supersize classes I saw in New Brunswick - "free rein" upsets even the most innovative of educators. Far better to set a project theme for them; at least we know we will cover what we need to cover.
On the other side of the world in New Zealand, at Auckland's Albany Senior High School, deputy head Mark Osborne gives his pupils free rein every Wednesday through impact projects. "It can take weeks of discussion, reading and searching, but once you have struck their passion, their eyes light up and you can't stop them," he says.
Pupils have built a VW "Herbie" car, a rocket and a content delivery platform for the school's plasma screen system, inadvertently undercutting the commercial outfit pitching to the local university by NZ$280,000 (£137,682).
As US academic Professor Roger Schank puts it: "There is really only one way to learn how to do something, and that is to do it."
Over in California stands High Tech High, set up in San Diego in 2000 as a charter school. It was created with support from local businesses as an environment that would help fill the skills and attitudes gaps faced by the area's technology industries. Principal Larry Rosenstock believes that until teachers identify their own passions they cannot hope to facilitate the experience for pupils.
Further up the coast in San Francisco, Gever Tulley is developing his Tinkering School, an educational experiment with big ambitions currently acting as a one-week summer school.
Pupils learn by building bridges from dumped plastic bags, roller coasters from old crates or villages on stilts designed to provide secret niches for reading. The ideas come wholly from the seven-year-old collaborators and staff work tirelessly to spot and reinforce the learning opportunities inherent in the build. Elements of physics, mathematics, design, art, music and language are all wrapped in the vital skills of the 21st century for which there is, thankfully, no subject: ingenuity, collaboration, experimentation, failure and storytelling.
Don't think. Try.
Harnessing entirely pupil-led, project-based learning in this way isn't easy. But all of this frames learning in more meaningful contexts than the pseudocontexts of your average school textbook or contrived lesson plan, which might cover an area of the curriculum but leave the pupil none the wiser as to how it applies in the real world.
There is a line that haunted me last year: while pupil-led, project-based learning is noble and clearly more engaging than what we do now, there is no time for it in the current system. The implication is that it leads to poorer attainment than the status quo. But attainment at High Tech High, in terms of college admissions, is the same as or better than private schools in the same area.
The assumption that pupil-led, project-based learning offers less success in exams is a false but persistent one. John Hunter was the anatomist who defined modern medicine because, frankly, no one else had. He had a saying that has since become the mantra of the modern surgeon: "Don't think. Try the experiment."
Innovations in education that engage young people and have the most profound impact will not occur because someone told teachers what to do and how they should do it. They won't come by tinkering with the curriculum or seeking the perfect balance of assessment. The most important changes in learning this decade will come around because someone, a teacher, maybe you, thought that things weren't what they could be and that something new was worth a try. They will get together with colleagues and make time to talk through the possible and seemingly impossible. And then they will go and try it out.
Don't think (too hard). Try.