The next few articles will be based on reflections of my time attending the 2016 iteration of the FutureSchools conference and expo, which, for the 2016 iteration, consists of master classes on Wednesday 2nd March, and the conferences and expo proper on Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th March respectively. When I attended last year (2015 review articles here), I commuted down and back each day, a return journey of approximately three hours total, which made for a long and tiring three days. When I decided to attend this year I made the decision that to engage with the networking aspect of the three days, and in order to not arrive each morning already tired, that I would stay in Sydney for the two nights. Accordingly, I wrote this particular article whilst sitting on the end of the single bed in the small (but very clean and well-kept) room, using an ironing board I borrowed from the staff to iron my shirts for tomorrow as a table of sorts, with my notebook propped up on the obligatory teacup provided in the room. It is certainly one of the more bizarre writing setups that I have used.
Wednesday was the day for master classes, with three different full-day master classes on offer (you can read the blurb for each by clicking here, here and here). After reading through the synopsis of each on offer I made the decision that the Jennie Magiera’s (@MsMagiera) facilitated master class, entitled Transforming School Culture: Curiosity Based Learning for Students AND Teachers was the best fit for where I am at, currently, as a teacher in regards to my pedagogical approach and interests and the master class from which I would gain the most benefit vis-à-vis being able to put what I learn into practice when I return to school.
When we started, Jennie stated that she wanted us to think about “…building a culture of curiosity…” in our schools and that cognitive dissonance would be the goal of today, to challenge us and to draw us out of our comfort zones in order to open us up to thinking about questioning from a different reference point. She was open that the day would be interactive, practical and not a five-hour long keynote with some breaks throughout, and that the first activity we needed to do was to smile.
She attributed this activity to Roni Habib (@Roni_Habib) and referred to it as clapping for happiness and that it worked with both children and adults. It was a very simple activity wherein we all stood up in a rough circle around the outside of the room, and Jennie timed how long it would take for what was effectively a Mexican-Wave clap to make it all the way around the room, with the goal to achieve a sub-ten second time. It sounds very simple, and it was, but you could sense the competitiveness in the air the moment a time-goal was mentioned. At the end of the activity, however, everyone was laughing, smiling and had reawakened from their early-morning lethargy that many suffer from in the short period after arriving at work, and you could feel the energy in the room shift.
Jennie took us through an interesting series of analogies and explanations, beginning with Project Based Learning (PBL v1), extending to Project Based Learning (PBL v2) and then to Curiosity Based Learning (CBL). Jennie indicated that she wanted us to think about PBL v1 as a quadrilateral. There are specific qualities needed for a shape to be a quadrilateral though these criteria are quite broad and accordingly many things can be a quadrilateral, though it is often clear when something is not a quadrilateral. To refine a quadrilateral, we need to take the definition a step further. Jennie asked us to think about PBL v2 as being a square. Though still a quadrilateral, it has further criteria that define it as a specific type of shape, and the delineation between a quadrilateral, in general, and a square, specifically, is fairly clear.
The message here is that all squares are quadrilaterals, but that not all quadrilaterals are squares. Jennie stated that
“…all problem-based learning units are project based learning, as in order to solve the problem, typically, there is some form of creation, an output at the end, achieved by completing a project. But not all Project based learning units are problem-based.”
To situate this in a context we can grapple with more easily, we often ask students to create something, a presentation, a diorama, a poster or some other output. However, the question that Jennie was asking, or my interpretation of the question that Jennie was asking here, is how often is the project based on solving a problem, in contrast to creating an output that meets a specific, already known and quantifiable purpose/rubric/metric?
Jennie’s advice was that in PBL v2, a student being successful is not required. In actuality, the greatest learning in PBL v2 may arise from a failure. She provided us with the seemingly trite, but potentially powerful and liberating acronym of FAIL; standing for First Attempt In Learning, and that too often she sees and hears of teachers providing problems that are too small, with teacher’s labouring under the notion that the problem they are working on MUST be situated locally in order to be of significance to them and their learning. Jennie exhorted us to think bigger, to think on a grander scale, and that she and other teachers she has worked with find that the questions, the problems which generate more interest, engagement and learning are those that are deemed impossible.
Jennie gave us a current example from her own career as a Year Four classroom teacher in Chicago, Illinois. Currently, a large contingent of her students are genuinely fearful that if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee in the 2016 United States Presidential election that he will come to the south side of Chicago, put them all in trucks and deport them. The question how can we stop Donald Trump becoming the Republican candidate generated a lot of high-quality teaching and learning moments and is of great significance to those students. This exact same unit of work, if it was to be bundled up so neatly, would likely not interest any Year Four class outside of the United States, and even within the United States, would only appeal to particular class groups, depending on their ethnic make-up, based upon Trump’s speeches. The problem is a large-scale one, not situated locally vis-à-vis their specific school, but it is a large scale problem, that has generated curiosity in the student, which takes us to the next level.
PBL v2 starts with a problem, CBL, the next step in Jennie’s analogy, starts with a question. The problem for the students was that they might be deported if Trump succeeds in his Presidential campaign. The problem generated curiosity which led to the question, how can we stop Trump from succeeding?
This chain of thought brought Jennie to reminding us that children do have an innate curiosity and need to ask questions, particularly as young children (pre-school age), but that the process of schooling often stamps out that curiosity and consequently we need to re-instil in our students a sense of wonder and curiosity, and also how to audit their curiosity in a productive manner.
To achieve this Jennie offered up an activity which we all completed which she referred to as a Wonder Catalyst. In essence, this activity involves providing students with a pad of post-it notes on which they are to write any question that comes to mind, without censorship or auditing for sensibility or practicality or answerability as long as it starts with one of the question stems (who, what, when, where, why and how) based upon a series of images, each of which is shown for a short period of time (I believe each was shown for around thirty seconds today, which was okay as adults, however, I certainly think that younger groups would need longer).
After this has been done, then the auditing process begins. Questions are to be sorted into three question types; those that can be answered simply by asking Siri, or Google and to which a definitive answer is immediately returned, which Jennie referred to as Googleable questions; those that can definitively answered with some research, whether it is through a series of web searches, phone calls, tracking people down to get dates or places etc, which are referred to as researchable questions; and finally, those questions to which, though there are best guesses (educated or not), there is no definitive answer, which Jennie referred to as Wonderable questions. You can see an example of what this might look like below.
The next level in this process is moving away from sentence stems, and towards a shift in mindset towards the curious, asking students to suspend disbelief and ask what if questions. Instead of asking when/where/why/how something occurred, ask what if……something else occurred.
Two tools which Jennie provided us to help with this process were rightquestion.org/education and 101Qs.com, both of which generate a series of images and allows you to note down any question which springs to mind about or based on that image, and to also see what questions have been asked in the past for that image.
Jennie related this process back to Understanding by Design (a topic I have touched upon very briefly in the past, following the Teaching for Thinking conference I attended in 2015), and how the process of planning a unit of work in that model is based upon achieving a particular learning goal, getting to which is based around a single essential question, which may then have three or four guiding questions. It was also noted that utilising prompts to generate questions in this fashion, as opposed to simply telling students to write down any questions they have on any topic, may also help to reduce the incidence of choice-paralysis which may also bring about fear of failure to ask the right questions.
Another method which Jennie said she has used to help generate questions in the past is the Earthview extension for Google Chrome. It sets the new tab background to a satellite photo of Earth, which students then generate questions about in order to attempt to determine what or where the photo is of. Each photo also has a link to Google Earth so that more information can be looked at if something appears that you want to pursue further.
This little segue was the close for the morning session and lead into our morning break, which makes it a good place to stop for today. I hope that you have been able to draw something out of this article, as I have found it useful to reflect upon what I learned this morning, and what practices I want to add to my pedagogical quiver when I return to the classroom. As always, thank you for reading, and feel free to leave any questions or comments below, or to contact me via Twitter if you want to engage in a discussion around this topic, or get more information about anything.
You can find the other articles in this series here.