Tag Archives: student centered learning

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I will never forget the advice that Eric gave me early in my teaching career.

After my first year teaching social studies at an alternative high school, I was laid off due to being the lowest seniority. My principal told me not to worry, that it was just a formality and that I would be brought back in the fall. So I didn’t sweat it or look for another job. At the beginning of August she called and told me the bad news. Unfortunately I would not be brought back due to financial reasons. My wife was 8 and ½ months pregnant with our second child and we would have no health insurance. I was a bit freaked out, not having a job with the start of school fast approaching.

Days before school started I applied and was hired as a technology teacher at the middle school where I student taught. Eric, the previous technology teacher, showed me how the class was designed for students to rotate weekly to different technology and engineering stations (it was STEM before someone invented the term. Does that make me a hipster?).

I was excited, but stressed by my limited time to prepare for this new class and knowing that I would soon be on paternity leave. Eric told me not to worry about knowing how to do all the stations myself. “Just let the kids figure it out on their own,” he told me. “If they get stuck, have them problem solve. Check back in with them later and have them teach you how they did it.” He told me to learn who the students were in the class who became experts at certain stations and refer the other students to them when they had questions.

It was definitely a “fake it ’til you make it” strategy. And I have never stopped using it, because it EMPOWERS students.

Even when I know how to do something I have my students figure it out on their own or talk to other students. I may point them in a general direction or help them figure out the best search term, but I avoid giving direct answers. It all goes back to “whoever is doing is learning” and I don’t want to steal the chance from students to figure something out by themselves.

This strategy is also freeing because I don’t have to be the expert of everything. I can say, “I don’t know. Let’s figure it out.”

Instead of answering questions, I teach students search strategies to find the answers themselves. In my personal life, I use YouTube all of the time to figure out things that I don’t know, from how to prune my grapes to fixing something on my car. If our students are truly going to become “lifelong learners” than they have to figure out how to ask and answer their own questions.

One thing I will say to students when they ask me a history question that I don’t know the answer to is, “I don’t know. Why don’t you research that and come back and tell me what you find out?” Students are motivated to find things that they can teach me!

A specific example of fake it ‘til you make it, is that I like to use many online tools with students. Instead of using whole class, direct instruction to teach lessons on how to use an online tool, I tell students to figure it out for themselves. I quickly learn which students excel and direct other students to our class expert. I will have these expert students lead a workshop on the online tool for those who may need some help.

This strategy creates a collaborative culture with students depending on each other for help and success. They learn that the teacher doesn’t know everything and is learning too. It also grows confidence in the student experts as they lead workshops for their classmates.

Flex like Stretch Armstrong

 

From https://images.vat19.com/covers/large/the-original-stretch-armstrong.jpg

This is the third post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

Flexible

I remember as a kid that Stretch Armstrong was definitely the ultimate Christmas present. I am pretty sure that at some point I “accidentally” punctured or cut him in someway just to figure what exactly was inside his amazing body. Teaching with the PBL framework can feel like you are getting pulled in many directions at times between student voice and choice, community partners, and your regular teaching demands. Teachers who are more flexible have, dare I say, a less stressful time with PBL and their students benefit from the freedom granted.

Improvisation

The most flexible teacher that I know is my friend, Nate Langel. He is a science teacher who is willing to do anything to get kids excited about learning. Want to do an integrated project, he’s in. He doesn’t worry about timing with his calendar or standards. He knows that he will make it work with the NGSS emphasis on practice and application. Want to partner on a project about poverty, the problems of industrialization, or water? Nate is leading the charge!

What we can learn from Nate’s approach is that he often starts with a great project concept, not the standards. Then he looks through his content and finds the standards to match. This allows him to be flexible to all kinds of project ideas that at first glance, might not “look” like they fit his class.

The other thing that Nate does well is that his students do not perform canned labs but design their own experiments around a problem or theme of the PBL project. He encourages students to research and come up with crazy hypotheses that students can test. “Normal” in his classroom is to see every group of students working on a totally different experiment towards a common group of standards. Kids love the opportunity to be creative and ask their own questions.

Road Tripping

Maybe you are not ready to be this flexible yet. How about starting like another colleague of mine? His students were creating PSA’s around the topic of invasive species. A group of girls approached him about a local problem. The airport was using a de-icing agent on their runways that was ending up in the nearby stream and polluting it. They wanted to research the effects. He let this group do a separate project while still meeting the content standards. You might guess that this group was more invested in the project than the rest of the class and did the highest quality work.

When you run a student-centered classroom with voice and choice, then you have to be flexible to where students decide to take the projects. It’s more of a road trip to your learning goals than using GPS. Of course, Google Maps can take you anywhere by the fastest route and help you avoid construction, accidents, and tolls. But sometimes the “obstacles” are where the greatest learning takes place.

Starting a PBL road trip means that you know the destination of standards and enduring understandings that your class is headed for, but let students choose the route and where to stop to take selfies along the way. Students learn how to manage the project and themselves, and are more motivated along the way.

Killing a Project

Sometimes projects go off the rails. There are always unforeseen difficulties that arise with school events, student groups, and the logistics of working with your community partners. Acts of God can throw a monkey wrench in. We once had to cancel our field trip to local factories to launch a school wide project because of a snow day. Then the community partner cancelled an appearance the following day because of the storms. PBL teachers have to be willing to improvise when things don’t go as expected because I can guarantee that challenges will come.

One year my students made Choose your own Adventure videos about World War I and World War II. This was a whole class assignment of 50 students working together to research, storyboard, write a script, make props, act, film, and edit the final product.

Things went south in so many ways. I did not create enough structure for the students to organize and complete the project (yes, teachers can be too flexible). There were miscommunications; students forgot costumes at home on filming day; everything took longer than expected; filmed scenes were lost as we had no system to get the files easily from the cameras to computers for editing. 

After a few weeks, one class had very few final videos completed and the other class had a hodge podge of scenes done. Neither class was anywhere near a final product and would probably need weeks to finish. My teaching partner and I made the decision to kill the project. Sometimes it is necessary to discard a project that isn’t working. We reflected on the obstacles with our students and were able to improve our processes for future projects the rest of the year.

Teaching with a PBL framework is going to bring some unsuspected challenges. Being flexible ensures that you honor your student’s voice and choice and may also help you to keep your sanity!

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

Student-Centered Teaching

This is the second post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

Why do we teach? A basic question, but how you answer may reveal your philosophy. I would argue that no one’s content is so valuable that kids are going to suffer in life if they miss it. The core of what we do isn’t curriculum, standards, or academic growth. Nope, it’s the kids. So making them the center of your class makes sense. Let’s look at some examples of what that might look like.

Space

The first time I enter a classroom, I observe the space and make some assumptions. Are the desks in rows facing a screen or are there chairs in groups facing each other? Does the teacher’s desk and “personal area” take up a huge chunk of the room? Do the walls have student work showing creativity or does it look like a Pinterest page vomited on them? Are there past projects, supplies, or “junk” laying around demonstating that students make things or does the room feel sterile?

All of these things are evidence of whether the adult teaching or students working is the center of the teacher’s philosophy. Room design communicates to students the culture and values of the teacher from desk alignment, to alternative seating choices to light and decorations. Is it about efficiency and beauty or conversations and inquiry? Student-centered teachers exhibit kid’s work as the theme of their space.

Active

Teachers who have already experimented with projects of any kind, even if they may be dessert projects, are taking the first steps toward PBL. If you have kids making, kids working in groups, or kids presenting in any fashion then you are taking baby steps toward a student-centered philosophy. If you have ever run a simulation, used skits or drama, or run a genius hour then you are more likely to shift to PBL easier.

Teachers with an active classroom of students moving out of their seats and working in groups are more comfortable with PBL. They understand that silence often implies consent to teacher control and that productive noise is evidence of learning. They understand the energy generated from a healthy buzz of working kids.

Why Over What

For years I taught U.S. history, making sure we “covered” all of the standards by the state. But in my mind, the standards and yes, even the project students were doing was not the end all, be all. I had my own set of goals for all of the students in the class. It was my “why,” my enduring understanding.

For me there were 3 things that I wanted every student to learn and U.S. History was the vehicle that I taught threw: 

  1. BS detection
  2. Multiple viewpoints
  3. Empathy

BS detection is important so that my students are critical thinkers. I don’t want them fooled by “fake news” from any political viewpoint. The multiple viewpoints of historical events lead to my final goal of empathy. I want my students to understand others’ views so that they can step out of their own biases and care for others.

Student-centered means teachers are more concerned about the enduring understandings of their content discipline than about any specific standards. It is about developing successful humans, not making sure that students know all of the curriculum.

Culture is Everything

I believe everything that we do and don’t do in the classroom creates our culture. Every word, activity, conversation said or omitted tells students what is valued. The layout of the room mentioned above, greeting students at the door by name, and developing relationships all show students that they are valued.

My mantra for students is a culture of “Trust, Respect, Responsibility, Effort.” At the beginning of the year, in a stern voice with no smile I tell students, “If you have to go to the bathroom or get a drink, don’t ever ask me.” I pause for effect, secretly enjoying the concerned looks on their faces. Then I continue with a smile, “Just go.” I tell them that they don’t have to earn trust in my room but that trust is assumed until broken. I talk to my students as adults, not talking down to them.

Student voice and choice is a key component of PBL and many teachers are comfortable giving students choices over content, products, or assessment methods. But student VOICE won’t happen without a strong culture.

One year early in our Civil Rights project,  a conversation about discrimination turned into an open mic of students sharing stories of when they were treated unfairly. It wasn’t in my lesson plans for that day, but it was one of the most powerful feelings of community in the classroom that I have ever been a part of!

Sally raised her hand and shared that she was gay. She shared the pain of being rejected from her church youth group and her previous school. The culture in our class was strong so that she felt safe to come out in front of everyone. Sally continued to use her voice to stand up for LGBTQ rights. Student-centered isn’t satisfied with student choice, it promotes student voice and amplifies it.

Being student-centered is the most important trait of a PBL teacher. This teacher doesn’t “own” the space, but designs it for group work and shows off high quality work. Their class is active with the healthy buzz of kids working on projects. PBL teachers know their why of putting kids first is more important than their what of content. They work hard to establish a healthy culture of caring and respect where kids know that they are valued and safe.

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

How do we move to student centered learning?

Yong Zhao wrote an incredible, research based piece arguing the way that schools should be. It is a lengthy piece but you should read it in its entirety right now! No really, go do it.

Now that you have finished I want to respond to his recommendations at the end with some questions. I want to make it clear that my questions do not come from a perspective of disagreement, but rather that I find his writing to be a strong theoretical argument that I agree with. My questions come as a practicing teacher wondering how to implement his recommendations and from the challenges that I see in my classroom. Although I am a skeptical person, these questions are in the spirit of how to make this shift happen on the ground level.

My main question is how do we structure this kind of learning environment? I am going to explore this from two perspectives. First from an elementary point of view and next from middle and high school.

If we start students out in a school that is entirely student driven than I think it could work naturally. Students would never be “poisoned” by motivation killing things like forced AR reading logs, boring worksheets, and other adult proscribed manipulation. I do believe that humans are naturally curious and enjoy learning things that they choose to learn.

I truly can see this approach working and I believe that it has been done in systems such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools.

Developmentally students change in middle and high school and I have harder questions about Yao’s approach there. First of all, if students were in this kind of environment their whole lives and never experienced “traditional,” controlled schooling than maybe it would keep working for all students. I never seen this in action, so I don’t know. Part of being a teenager is finding one’s identity and I wonder if “fighting” against schooling would happen for some children no matter what the environment?

In my PBL school we have lots of voice and choice (but not the level of freedom that Zhao recommends of no classes or curriculum. We still teach to the standards). I see some students thrive when given the chance to explore their passions in class. I see other students whose default choice is to hang out and not do much when given the opportunity. They would rather play games, watch videos, or text/talk to their friends.

How do we handle this in Zhao’s recommendations? Do we allow students to “detox” from being forced to learn for a period of time? (this question deserves its own post). Is this a result of years of boredom in schooling that had no purpose to them personally? How do we shift students from a traditional, adult controlled model to a student centered one? How do we deal with students with little motivation? How do we deal with students who have personal and family issues that are much more important and often overwhelming to them than anything at school?

I would love to see a follow up to this theory piece dealing with how we should structure, if at all, student centered learning and how to successfully shift classrooms to it.