51 posts categorized "Education Research"

July 26, 2015

The weakness of the network to nurture curiosity

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While search technology made the process of seeking the answers to our questions easier and quicker, social technology and our networks have had a paradoxical effort. Has the ease of 'asking' numbed our curiosity to investigate unknown knowns for ourselves?

There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.

With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”...

Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.

Craig Blewitt. Thanks to Matt Esterman for the initial hat-tip to this.

It's not just our students who have become this Generation Ask - their teachers, in droves, sit on Twitter asking questions to the network, whose answers are waiting there to be found. The technology of our networks risks turning us into lazy researchers, for one.

But more worryingly, not doing our own homework, our own research, and relying instead on what others perceive to be 'right', means that we don't accidentally rub up against the interesting tangents that always come with one's own, personal, more time-consuming research.

The unknown unknowns remain untouched in this age of the network, and each individual's 'filter bubble' merely narrows down those chances further. The more our networks act as a magnifying glass on the loudest voices, the less likely we are to see the bigger picture, the whole context, and gain the depth of understanding we would ideally seek.

Pic by Kate Ter Haar

July 07, 2015

"I like it" is not good enough

Creative conflict is the ability to agree to disagree, and use the disruption of a disagreement to make your work better. It relies on the partners in disagreement to both be on top of their game, both of them respectful of the other's views on how something might be made better.

Teachers seek this creative, quality feedback discourse every day in their students' work. But every month I bump into another educator who will not "believe" that the practice I'm sharing with them will make their students' outcomes better. The frustration of practice being negated by a simple "I don't believe this will work with my students / in math / in this school" is hard for me to mask - if you want to know one of my 'buttons', press this one.

The video clip I show in return, helps those who don't understand creative conflict get the point, without having to take it personally. It also shows the subtle difference between simply taking research "as is", and having a critical eye on the research.

Barenboim's masterclass pianist plays at a dynamic which is not written in the piece (like a teacher choosing to ignore what a piece of research says). When pushed on why he does it, he says: "because I like it". Barenboim has two options in his potential reply. One would be:

"But the manuscript says this, so play it like that".

This is the musical equivalent of what might be said by the emergent research-led cabal who wouldn't have a teacher teach a certain way unless it had been researched robustly that way first.

Instead, Barenboim asks him to reflect, to think about why he's taking the manuscript / the research and interpreting it differently, in his own style. It's an example of the fine line between virtuoso and just getting it wrong, in spite of what the manuscript suggests you might do for 'success'. And the clip makes the subtle, nuanced point in a way far more subtle and nuanced than most edu-speak can ever manage.

May 18, 2015

Does your country need you? One out of five kids say "no"

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Almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them. In a country that has in many ways never felt so optimistic and excited about its future, this should be a momentous wakeup call, a call-to-arms for the whole community. The line comes from the opening page of Sir Ian Wood’s report on how employers and education might manage a genuine culture of partnership, and answering this claim was the palpable bone of contention during an evening last week of discussion, talks and food, with some of Scotland’s education leaders and management, at SELMAS.

In Scotland, based on my experience and the stories told at Thursday night’s event, I’d suggest that there are three fatal blows to closing an achievement gap, most of them rooted in how education and business choose to play with each other. I'm going to walk through them over a few blog posts to come:

1. For some schools and businesses there is a lack of interest in partnering - the “what’s in it for me” just isn’t visible.

2. For other schools and businesses, there is a lack of knowledge on how to partner and what to partner on - “the what’s in it for me” is maybe agreed upon in principle, the enthusiasm is there, but what the “it” might be is the challenge.

3. Finally, for some schools, there is a genuine disdain and contempt for working with any organisation that is not their own, and publicly funded. Here, business and schools can't even agree to play with each other.

May 17, 2015

Whole-school language of learning, or everyone for themselves?

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A large part of NoTosh's time with schools is spent helping leaders and teachers decide upon common languages of learning. Having a shared vocabulary to describe what we're doing means we spend less time working out what we mean, and more time talking through the nuances of what makes one piece of practice exceptional and another less so - and we can all then improve together, based on what works best.

Feedback is arguably the one element that everyone says "we do that well already, and we do a lot of it!". We have trouble sometimes even engaging teachers to want to think about this more than 10 minutes, because everyone feels they're "feedbacking to death" already. It is seen as a given that feedback is the element that, when done well, can improve the quality of learning more than anything else.

But it's not that feedback is important that is worth exploring. The interesting part is seeing how to engage students in peer- and self-assessment much more, and to make any teacher-led assessment worthwhile. Recently, I've been working with schools where the main battle is getting students to see peer- and self-assessment as being just as important as teacher feedback.

Alex Quigley's school have been exploring how to seam quality feedback throughout the institution, through a whole-school approach to feedback. And this feedback policy has, in fact, replaced their marking policy. His latest blog post is a rich example of how to go about a whole-school language of learning around one element - feedback - and reap the benefits of a coordinated approach in the way that each department then adapts this for their own context.

Picture: origin unknown

January 10, 2015

The Devil's Advocate... or how to kill creativity

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I do love my weekend dose of Hunting English, and this week's post was an interesting look at the role of Devil's Advocate in decision-making, and in learning:

In an election year, a time of miracle cures and vested interests pushing their cargo cults, we should pay heed to the Devil’s Advocate’s role in “suggest[ing] natural explanations for alleged miracles, and even to bring forward human and selfish motives for deeds that have been accounted heroic virtues”. When we are presented with the latest miracle cure for all our educational ills – be it teaching ‘character’; possessing a ‘growth mindset’; the latest technological wizardry; the latest research evidence; a new school structure or savior school leader; or even a newly ordained Secretary of State for Education – we should seek out natural explanations and ask challenging questions.

I left a comment on the post, with a caveat on the way the role of devil's advocate is taken, that I've learned over the past 8 years working in both education and in creative product teams:

I've had a mixed relationship with the devil's advocate role (and even the film ;-). I've found it useful before, when I've been it, but always wondered why I was irked when someone started with the phrase "just to be the devil's advocate...". It was reading Stanford creativity researcher, James Adams' Conceptual Blockbusting and then Tom Kelley's Ten Faces of Innovation that I discovered why that particular blanket role is not as helpful as approaching it with a specific goal in mind. Kelley's suggestion is that it can be approached from one of these ten creative team roles, roles I recognise in the creative industry teams I've worked in. I've talked about the effort in avoiding a black and white, yes and no "devil's advocate" type role in my new book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas.

One of the key reasons for doing this, is that when most (unskilled) devil's advocates adopt that role, the put the onus of proving or disproving a state on the person making the suggestion, meaning that, over time, there is more chance that people resist making potentially risky or alternative suggestions to the status quo.

In short: it can kill creativity and innovation. When people play the devil's advocate well, they are often the ones presenting the evidence that might suggest an alternative viewpoint, and opening an opportunity for learning. When they just state the opposite, based on gut feel or personal opinion, it can be the most demoralising blow to people trying to advance their own knowledge, their team or the field.

Pic CC by Shallom

January 03, 2015

Dispositions of thinking, from design thinking

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The problem with "design thinking" is that everyone thinks they do it already, but they all do something different. And, far too often, evidence of actual student 'thinking' is hard to spot in the various products, 'maker' outputs and endless movies produced in these 'design thinking' 'projects'.

For my colleagues and me, design thinking is giving careful consideration to what kind of thinking you want to undertake at what specific moment of learning. It's brutally simple, hard to pull off well.

It means that you have to know what kind of learning is even possible in a given project, with what kind of content, and what skills will be required to access that content with the minimum viable teacher assistance beyond teaching those skills, or marshalling challenging discussion. Above all, it's about making sure that students know

  • what they've learned,
  • how they know they learned it, and
  • what their next step might be.

Often, as in the picture above of some of my students on a Sunderland Uni media degree, there is little being 'made' or physically constructed (so often, design thinking is perceived as being about craft, design or tech), but all their thinking and discussion on the issue at hand is made visible, as evidence (for themselves) of the answer to each of those key self-assessment questions.

But NoTosh is not alone in its efforts to help educators understand how to put more of the learning onus on students. Harvard University, no less, seeks dispositions of thinking that are not dissimilar, and in many cases identical, to what makes up the impact of design thinking that we see in our schools:

  1. The disposition to be broad and adventurous
    The tendency to be open-minded, to explore alternative views; an alertness to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
  2. The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity
    The tendency to wonder, probe, find problems, a zest for inquiry; an alertness for anomalies; the ability to observe closely and formulate questions.
  3. The disposition to clarify and seek understanding
    A desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to unclarity and need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
  4. The disposition to be planful and strategic
    The drive to set goals, to make and execute plans, to envision outcomes; alertness to lack of direction; the ability to formulate goals and plans.
  5. The disposition to be intellectually careful
    The urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
  6. The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons
    The tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
  7. The disposition be metacognitive
    The tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one's own thinking; alertness to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.

This new year, we will be overhauling our NoTosh website to reveal more of the ways we've helped schools, and they've helped themselves, to become more robust in delivering on these dispositions with their young people.

March 21, 2014

Lessons from Disney Pixar on how creativity leads to more summative success

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Pixar, since it was purchased by Disney, gives off an air of resilient creative and commercial success, but the journey is rarely that smooth. In fact, the more creative the output, the more commercially successful it is, for Pixar at least, and the processes used by the teams is remarkably close to what we see in highly effective classrooms.

During a keynote en français in Québec, I wondered why learning today sometimes felt less personalised than 30 years ago when personal computers first hit my primary school. Inspiration came to me from my daughters, Catriona and Anna, as for the nth time they sang along to the karaoké version of Disney's Frozen title track, Let It Go:

I was fascinated by the obvious success of this film in hooking my kids, and wondered if I might be able to make some links between what we know works, from the research of Dylan Wiliam, Hattie and the like, and what we see works in the creative industries with films like this. Much of the insight comes from a new book by Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull, which is released this April: Creativity, Inc.. Excerpts from the book can be read in this month’s Fast Company.

1. We all start out ugly

“After the original leaders of animation left Disney in the 1990s, the new people running things were from production. And they brought their values, which were to keep the production people busy and productive with one movie after another. So story development was organized in the same way they organized production. As a consequence of this "feed the beast" mentality, a balance was lost at Disney.

“The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It's a baby. It's like the foetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar's stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it's not attractive, and it requires protection. When I was a researcher at DARPA, I had protection for what was ill-defined. Every new idea in any field needs protection. Pixar is set up to protect our director's ugly baby.”

This process is markedly not just a creative one - it involves critical thinking, too. But the point at which critical analysis is introduced is, well, critical. Too early, you kill your baby before it has a chance to grow fully. We do this all the time when we survey progress too early, or don't know what the purpose of an immersion period is.


2. We’ve been through the process ourselves. We share the language and steps

“People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things--in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie's writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees.”

Key to making sure that the balance is struck, and struck at the right time, is having a process on which you can depend, and which everyone in the team can trust. Most creatives we know at NoTosh use design thinking, or some version of it. The language between each team is different, but the language within each team is shared and common.

They all recognise that in the initial period of immersion it is too early to make the call as to the worthiness of any given problem or challenge. By synthesis they know that there is an opportunity to critique, to make sure that we’re headed on the right path. By the time you enter the ideation, prototyping and feedback loop, you are constantly starting and stopping, but each idea is small enough, light enough and on strong enough foundations of the immersion, to cope with tweaks, both major and minor. New ideas can get ditched easily, with a fresh crop of better ones emerging from the dust of the feedback.


3. Decide on your rules

“Earlier, before the screening, Pete had described what they'd come up with so far. "What's inside the mind?" he asked his colleagues. "Your emotions--and we've worked really hard to make these characters look the way those emotions feel. We have our main character, an emotion called Joy, who is effervescent. She literally glows when she's excited. Then we have Fear. He thinks of himself as confident and suave, but he's a little raw nerve and tends to freak out. The other characters are Anger, Sadness--her shape is inspired by teardrops--and Disgust, who basically turns up her nose at everything. And all these guys work at what we call Headquarters."

“That got a laugh, as did many scenes in the 10-minute preview that followed. Everyone agreed that the movie had the potential to be, like Pete's previous film Up, among our most original and affecting. But there seemed to be a consensus that one key scene--an argument between two characters about why certain memories fade while others burn bright forever--was too minor to sufficiently connect audiences to the film's profound ideas.

“Midway down the table, Brad Bird shifted in his chair. Brad joined Pixar in 2000, after having written and directed The Iron Giant at Warner Bros. His first movie for us was The Incredibles, which opened in 2004. Brad is a born rebel who fights against creative conformity in any guise. So it was no surprise that he was among the first to articulate his worries. "I understand that you want to keep this simple and relatable," he told Pete, "but I think we need something that your audience can get a little more invested in."

“Andrew Stanton spoke next. Andrew is fond of saying that people need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you're faced with two hills and you're unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it's the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one. Now he seemed to be suggesting that Pete and his team had stormed the wrong hill. "I think you need to spend more time settling on the rules of your imagined world," he said.

“Every Pixar movie has its own rules that viewers have to accept, understand, and enjoy understanding. The voices of the toys in the Toy Story films, for example, are never audible to humans. The rats in Ratatouille walk on four paws, like normal vermin, except for Remy, our star, whose upright posture sets him apart. In Pete's film, one of the rules--at least at this point--was that memories (depicted as glowing glass globes) were stored in the brain by traveling through a maze of chutes into a kind of archive. When retrieved or remembered, they'd roll back down another tangle of chutes, like bowling balls being returned to bowlers at the alley.

“That construct was elegant and effective, but Andrew suggested that another rule needed to be clarified: how memories and emotions change over time, as the brain gets older. This was the moment in the film, Andrew said, to establish some key themes.”

If it takes a long time for Catmull to describe the formation of rules that guide the creation of a film, it takes an equally long time to make them clear in a learning situation. Taking Dylan Wiliam’s five key areas that teachers and schools might develop, one might feel that there are ready-made rules about “the way we should teach and learn”, ready to take off the shelf:

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But schools need to have internal discussions amongst staff about how to internalise these into the story they are trying to tell, with their clientèle in their locale, work out what the rules of their game are. Then teachers have to have the same conversations with their students, taking time out to think about thinking, to learn how to think - those learnings become the rules of engagement for the class, keeping learning on the straight and narrow, even when a project is complex, even when the project team is only seeing trees and no forest.

 

4. Know how to take feedback, and find a producer to help you through it

“An important corollary to the assertion that the Braintrust must be candid is that filmmakers must be ready to hear the truth; candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of things that don't work. Jonas Rivera, the producer of Pete's film, tries to make that painful process easier by "headlining" the main points of a Braintrust session--distilling the many observations down to a digestible takeaway. Once this meeting wrapped up, this is what he did for Pete, ticking off the areas that seemed the most problematic, reminding him of the scenes that resonated most. "So what do we blow up?" Jonas asked. "And what do you love? Is what you loved about the film different now than it was when we started?””

Getting critiqued is never pleasant, even if you’re used to feedback and feed forward from your peers. Despite the feeling that we give good feedback to students, teachers are, in a decade of seeing their feedback on conferences, less strong at giving feedback on their own learning. It takes work, effort, energy and sometimes a little painful learning to get feedback that is, in the words of Ron Berger, Kind, Specific and Useful. In the film industry, the Producer’s job in these “brain trust” advisories is to capture that feedback, headline it and begin to make it as useful as possible for the Director, who’s just had his worked critiqued, and might feel a bunch of things, not all positive.

In a classroom setting, when we are giving and receiving feedback, who is the third person playing the role of Producer?

 

5. The Pupils' View

During my talk, I asked a group of seven students to act as my own braintrust during the talk, providing me with the actions they as students might undertake to make a vision of a more shared learning journey come true, and to highlight which elements of this (new and slightly too hot-off-the-press talk) I should emphasise in the future. Here's what Marianne, Laurie, Marie-Pier, Roxanne, Mathieu, Éloïse and Joana from l'Ecole des Sentiers put to me via Twitter, and what I read out as my conclusions for the talk:

  • As students, we must also get involved! When teachers offer ideas using technology, they are easily discouraged, but students also have their long journey to undertake, too.
  • We must show them that we are interested and we are ready to encourage. Teachers feed the enthusiasm of their students.
  • We should be encouraged to be creative, to risk failure to rise, dust ourselves down and be better next time. Do not prioritize performance above all else.
  • As students we should create a school forum where everyone would be comfortable giving their ideas and asking questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to assert your ideas, as the opinion of the students is also important. We have a head on our shoulders.
  • And sometimes we can see things from another side :)
  • Our idealistic idea: find a way to finance the purchase of tablets for each pupil. There’d be no more need for a heavy textbook, manual or notebook. And we could connect with interactive whiteboards, with communication between student and teacher encouraged. There’s also an ecological advantage.
  • Students want to be involved in the course. No more lectures. Students could also talk in front of the class, expose other ideas, what we have understood. Help us not to have to depend on teachers so much.
  • Students would be able to give their ideas, eg for course topics or written work ... All ideas are welcome.
  • Suggesting an idea is the best demonstration of intelligence.
  • Do not aim solely at the acquisition of specific skills encourage overall development.
  • We must be able to define our own rules :)

En tant qu'élèves, on doit aussi s'impliquer! Quand les enseignants proposent des idées en utilisant les technologies, ils se decouragent facilement. Donc les élèves on aussi leur bout de chemin à faire.
Il faut leur montrer qu'on est intéressé et qu'on est prêt à les encourager. Les professeurs se nourrissent de l'enthousiasme de leurs élèves
On devrait être encouragé à la créativité, le risque, à tomber pour se relever meilleur. À ne pas prioritiser les performances.
En tant qu'élèves nous devrions créer un forum école où tout le monde serait bien à l'aise de donner leurs idées et poser leurs questions
Pas avoir peur de poser des questions et de s'affirmer, car l'opinion des élèves est aussi important. On a une tête sur les épaules
Et on voit parfois les choses d'un autre côté :)
Idée idéaliste: trouver un moyen de financer l'achat de tablettes propres à chaque éleve. Plus besoin de manuels ni cahier de notes,
Et connecter avec les tableaux interactifs, la communication élève-prof est favorisée. Avantage écologique également
Les élèves veulent être impliqué dans les cours. Plus de cours magistraux, les élèves pourraient aussi parler en avant de la classe, exposer
Aux autres leurs idées, ce qu'ils comprennent. S'aider entre nous et ne pas dépendre des enseignants
Les élèves aimeraient pouvoir donner leurs idées, par exemple pour les sujets de cours ou de productions écrites… Toute les idées sont bonnes
Une idées c'est la plus belle demonstration de l'intelligence
Se developer en tant que personne a l'école. Ne pas viser l'acquisition de compétence trop spécifique et encourager le développement global.
Il faut pouvoir définir nos propres règles :)

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September 04, 2012

If you could only teach ten points, what would they be?

If you were to look at your school year ahead, and choose only ten things to actually teach explicitly, what would your top ten lecturettes be?

 When we're working with teachers on our take on Design Thinking, one of the hardest concepts of change for folk to get their head around is that teachers can teach a lot less to achieve much more. In that initial "immersion" into an exploratory area, students need plenty of content made available to them, but they don't need taught it. They just need rich resource and time. Here's how some of our Brisbane Design Thinking School teachers approach that immersion stage, by trusting their students and doing their best to "get out of the way of learning":

 

Immersion from Danielle Carter on Vimeo.

So counter-intuitive is this point, that we normally end up referring to research that shows how much we can learn without being taught. Sugata Mitra's hole in the wall experiments in India are indicative of what can be achieved when children with no or little education, and no English, are given lots of content and time to grapple with it together. Within months, by coaching each other and playing, they become fluent not just in a new language, but also in the science or maths concepts they've been playing with:



Likewise, there's some compelling research showing how much more learning takes place when students work collectively in a team, coaching each other to create a team-based product of learning with individual accountability built in. The effect of cross-age or cross-ability coaching is equivalent to every student, not just the one "being coached", having one-on-one teacher coaching. There is double the amount of learning, in fact, than when the teacher is leading learning from the front (evidence from Dylan Wiliam's Embedded Formative Assessment, page/reference unknown at present time).

And there are also personal stories; not highbrow, large scale research, but it makes the point powerfully, too: we don't need to have teachers teach for learners to learn:

Last year, while sitting with Sugata in a pre-keynote speakers' room, I showed him a video I had shot in the car a few months previously. It is my daughter Catriona, sitting in her seat, singing along to the Beatles. The interesting thing is that she knows all the words to the song, verbatim, having never been taught them. Not only that, but having not had a CD player in the house since she was born, and having only just got a CD player in the new car, she had never heard this music before, either. Except for the nine months she was in the womb, when we did have a CD player in the house.

 

If you were to look at your school year ahead, and choose only ten things to teach, what would your top ten lecturettes be?

August 22, 2012

What's the difference between PBL and Design Thinking?

Bianca Hewes and some others were last night asking some good questions to seek out the difference between design thinking and project-based learning (PBL) as techniques for use in the classroom. These kinds of questions we explore through out workshops with educators around the world, and there's an explanation developing in a book I hope to release soon. In the meantime, here's a quick and dirty take on the question from me:

For much of the past three years my colleagues and I been working through a specific innovation process with educators on the one hand, and non-education organisations on the other: media groups, technology startups, fashion companies, the UN, political parties... The process is design thinking.

When we work with creative, government or political organisations, the approach is a logical extension of what they're doing, a welcome structure through which to explore a wider scope of a given challenge.

When we work with schools, we're taking the Design Thinking process and marrying it with what we know from research about what makes great learning. However, there's a piece of vocabulary that often gets in the teachers' way of seeing what design thinking might bring to the learning process: PBL, or project-based learning. "It's just PBL"; "This is the same as CBL": the understanding of a model which is close, but not quite the same to design thinking, makes it harder to spot the differences and additional elements that could help enrichen practice.

So what are the key differences between a PBL project and one where design thinking is mashed with what we know makes learning great? (N.B. Following some criticism on Twitter, I feel it is worth pointing out that these reflections are just that, reflections on practice I've either observed first hand or have researched online. Don't get mad: comment and take part in the discussion).

0. Important point: there's probably less of a #PBL vs Design Thinking distinction to make, but rather, how can design thinking add to existing well-kent pedagogies of PBL?

1. A PBL project tends to explore a relatively narrow subject area, with a narrow essential question
In many, if not most PBL, projects I've seen, the project is defined by the essential question(s), which often sound like curricular checkpoints, or which funnel learning down a particular pre-defined path. In many, the groupings of students and their activities are defined (the film crew, the researchers, the presentation-makers, the event organisers).

In Design Thinking, the goal is to explore the widest possible area(s) for longer, to offer a good half-dozen or more potential lines of enquiry that students might end up exploring. The essential question(s) come much later in the process (as much as half-way through, in the synthesis stage) and...

2. In Design Thinking, the students, not the teacher, write the essential question(s)
In PBL, the teacher does a lot of the learning for the student: taking a large potential area of study and narrowing it down into a manageable project question. The teacher often delivers a "brief" for learners through two or three essential questions, much in the same way as a client delivers a brief to a design firm.

In Design Thinking, the teacher avoids asking a question at all, and comes up with what we call a generative topic (from David Perkins' work), a curiosity-mongering statement that opens up an area of study, doesn't narrow it down. The questions that come from this investigation are the ones that students will go on to look at in more detail, come with ideas around solving or presenting.

Design firms like IDEO and our own web designers at NoTosh often take a brief from a client and then through their research, they change it. However, in learning, the use of a generative topic from the start speeds up the process, and teaches this skill of "helpful disobedience" of the brief. There's little difference, in fact, between a traditional project-based learning experience and a deep design thinking experience if the educator is giving a brief: design thinking merely adds some structure to PBL, a new vocabulary, and, it seems from every workshop I spot online, lots of LEGOs, pipe cleaners and post-its. There is more to Design Thinking for learning than this utilitarian service-improvement model that's currently getting big airtime!

A large part of our work with educators is working on how to develop higher order questioning skills in students. So many Design Thinking projects we observe elsewhere at the moment are based around relatively lower order questions, or on just school/community improvement. Design Thinking can be so much more than this, but it takes the marriage between Design Thinking as a creative industries process and the best educational research we can find. It's hard to find people teaching Shakespeare, religious studies or mathematics through the process, the very things we're seeing educators through our work begin to achieve. Core to raising that ambition is raising the quality of questioning in both teachers and students, something that remains untouched in most schools.

3. The ideas of what students will produce in PBL are often set by the teacher.
In Design Thinking students make the choice about what their prototype will be. Prototype or product ideas for learning are often set in advance in a PBL project ("you will produce a film", or "you will be able to use multimedia and text").

In Design Thinking the decision about which medium to use to show an idea lies entirely with the students, and again comes later in the process, when they know more about the initial exploratory topic.

4. Design Thinking provides a set of vocabulary that increasingly makes sense to employers in the creative, financial and governmental and innovation sectors.
The biggest challenge with PBL is that it was invented for education by educators. Design Thinking was created 30 years ago by a product design outfit (IDEO) as a way of working and thinking, to help provide better solutions to clients. The process helped bring about the graphical interface and computer mouse. It's now coming into the language of many large firms as they seek a more structured way to innovate.

The language PBL uses is, by contrast, inconsistent and not usable outside the classroom. So, using a process that encourage deeper, wider thinking AND helps develop a life skill provides great value to learners.

5. And what about Understanding by Design..?
When we first came across Understanding by Design, or UbD, it felt, in the words of those harnessing it, very similar to their first impressions of design thinking. However, there's a key difference. UbD involves the educator deciding on a final view of success and working back from that, designing learning towards the final goal. Design Thinking does it the other way around.

UbD almost tries to give students the impression they have choice, responsibility for their learning, real things to create in order to learn, but in fact, it fails to respect the choices learners make, as tangents are a) less likely to appear (the immersion phease of research at the beginning is narrower by design) and b) less likely to be given time and resource by the teacher when they do appear (such tangents are off the goal that the teacher has already set in mind).

Although controversial to say, I feel that UbD and many project-based learning approaches do nothing but disempower the learner, or at least not empower them any more than traditional coursework and chalk-and-talk. It's maybe less the approach that is wrong (since depth and higher order thinking is a staple of most guides to project-based learning) but the practice that ends up occurring as people find themselves pushed back into the status quo of assessment accountability and content coverage fear from their superiors. As a result, many design thinking projects we see are too narrowly designed around school or community improvement, something Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools have been doing (better?) for scores of years. Why are we not seeing PBL or Design Thinking taking place across whole school curricula, from Shakespeare to science, school canteens to Cantonese?

It's time people look more seriously towards the amazing work done by educators in Europe and Australia, where design thinking is truly stretching the scope within which learners operate. There. I said it! :-) And I promise that over the next six months we'll share even more of those amazing learning stories.

This is a brief outline of five key differences between the two approaches. As I wrote above, there is a new book coming out soon from me outlining the amazing work done by our Design Thinking Schools and creative clients around the world. This will provide the depth that some folk might want after this briefest of explanations. We also run intensive workshops for educators and creative firms, wherever you are in the world, that help enthuse staff and set them out on the journey towards more student-led learning. If you're interested in one of those, just get in touch.

August 13, 2012

SOLO Taxonomy: giving students a sense of progress in learning

I am here

Without a sense of progress you cannot be creative, so what language can we offer students that enables them to take control of understanding where they are in their learning?

One key notion about creativity is that the ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process: knowing when something feels 'done'. Knowing when you're stuck, when you're done, when you're at the end of that chunk of learning is essential. It gives that indication that you need to go back out and get some more insights from someone or something.

Knowing where you are in your learning requires a language, a rubric of some sort, and one which fits the bill really well is John BiggsSOLO Taxonomy (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes). This is a thinking tool which I came across from Chris Harte in his Cramlington Learning Village days. Often, the language used to frame learning in the SOLO Taxonomy is used by the teacher to assess learners' progress, but far more powerful is when the learner him- or herself is encouraged to use the language as a self-assessment tool. Giving the rubric to the learner by making it clearly visible in every classroom increases their capacity to take ownership of their future direction of travel.

The SOLO Taxonomy is like a stepping stone progression through the perceived understanding of a given area. We use it in the ideation phase of our design thinking work to test how rich an idea might be, or whether more immersion in the topic needs done to add depth to it:

SOLO Taxonomy Stepping stones

 

The model provides five levels of understanding of a given topic or area of learning:

  • Pre-structural - The task is not attacked appropriately; the student hasn’t really understood the point and uses too simple a way of going about it. In languages, this feels like knowing odds and sods of language, but never being able to pull together a sentence for oneself. 
  • Uni-structural - The student's response only focuses on one relevant aspect. In a languages classroom this might be where a student can answer a specific question with a very specific answer, but can't go "off piste" linguistically.
  • Multi-structural - The student's response focuses on several relevant aspects but they are treated independently and additively. Assessment of this level is primarily quantitative. In a languages classroom you might see a student able to link together some obvious connections of language, but still unable to pull the conversation around to other related areas.
  • Relational - The different aspects have become integrated into a coherent whole. This level is what is normally meant by an adequate understanding of some topic. In a foreign language this might be the capacity to speak the language well enough to understand and be understood, but perhaps some of the cultural impact or context is still lost.
  • Extended abstract - The previous integrated whole may be conceptualised at a higher level of abstraction and generalised to a new topic or area. Here, in a foreign language, we can imagine both a linguistic competence but also the capacity to develop an understanding of how that language has impacted on its culture, on other cultures, on literature and so on.

Tait Coles describes how he put it into action with phenomenal results in his classroom, and David Didau builds on Tait's thinking and provides some resources to get you started:

 

Additional links (14/08/12):

Pam Hook, a New Zealand educator who has taken Biggs' thinking and created many of the graphical rubrics and other resources you'll see peppered around the web, provides a rich bank of practical advice and printables to get you started on her site. If you're starting a school year, her downloadable slideshares will help you help colleagues make sense of how this can change practice.

Have you been using the SOLO Taxonomy? Want to start this new school year? Let me know in the comments how it impacts the capacity of your students to take control of their own learning.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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