Are we asking the right questions?

The more I read the more I wonder what I am doing in an education system that doesn’t enable more enlightened education.  Gove and any number of educational legislators tinker on the edges of reform but essentially leave it in a post industrial model.  Grant Wiggins says it better than me, but I do think the world is in need of wholesale reform in the outcomes from education.

The thing I am probably most frustrated by is the engagement disconnect that leads students to only value that which ‘counts’ towards something (an exam or grade card) and even then the motivation is limited to getting the grade not what we learn.  Intrinsic motivation and engagement has long been my aim with literature and writing for real purposes and audiences.  But short of standing for election, let’s look at how project based learning might be a step in the right direction.

With words like challenge, problem, project, service and inquiry prefixing based-learning, this sounds promising.  Buck Institute for Education calls these the “X-BLs” C-BL, P-BL, P-BL, S-BL, I-BL. I can see PBL working well in sciences (I believe this started with medicine teaching) and in maths and other areas. But, as an English teacher I have a bit of a problem with ‘problem based learning’, the word problem suggests something that needs a solution and I am not sure that within language arts there is a categorical solution to the ideas presented (as illustrated below the literal nature of categorical answers often misses the point):

Photo Credit: dullhunk via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: dullhunk via Compfight cc

But with texts, ‘problem’ might be replaced with issue. I was first introduced to the idea of issue based learning. Design for Change by a friend of Kiran Bir Sethi of Riverside School in Ahmedabad.  In her school students are encouraged to: FEEL any issue that bothers them, IMAGINE a way to make it better, DO an act of change and SHARE their story of change with the world.

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The issue is that to make this work schools need to be open-minded in terms of: flexible timetabling, broad curriculum and liberal assessment.  Until this is allowed to happen, we have to think about how to make it work with the strict confines of subject specific domains. I think in English lessons planning project based learning is dependant on not looking at a text in isolation.  The problem is we look at texts, pull them apart and the only outcome is an essay or an exam.  In reality a text provides empathetic understanding of a range of experiences, events and relationships that we can vicariously live in, it can also provide real situations for writing, research and involvement with issues that they would otherwise not be able to access.  This is one form of inquiry based learning, without being able to transport in a time machine this type of inquiry would be essential.

When I read the heading Make just one change I was relieved to think one change would be enough (although it happens in six stages).  If we follow the six step process that Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana suggest, it might look like this:

Step 1: Teachers Design a Question Focus.

One example might be a holocaust unit that would marry well with history projects on WWII.  A question focus might be “What would it be like to live in Nazi Germany?”

Step 2: Students Produce Questions. Students use a set of rules for producing questions without assistance from the teacher. The four rules are: ask as many questions as you can; do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; write down every question exactly as it was stated; and change any statements into questions. 

Questions might look like: “did they go to school?” “what did they eat?” “what did they do for fun?” but as is paramount to this type of leaning this cannot be surmised only experienced

Step 3: Students Improve Their Questions. Students then improve their questions by analysing the differences between open- and closed-ended questions and by practicing changing one type to the other.

Step 4: Students Prioritise Their Questions. The teacher, with the lesson plan in mind, offers criteria or guidelines for the selection of priority questions.

Texts that could be used are many: The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne; Night – Elie Weisel; Book Thief – Markus Zusak; the Graphic Novel Maus and maybe excerpts from Ann Frank.  This could be done with extracts (although at least one full novel would be best).  In a school with parallel English classes, it could be managed with each group doing different ones (enabling differentiation and cross-group sharing – even quad blogging if I).

Step 5: Students and Teachers Decide on Next Steps. At this stage, students and teachers work together to decide how to use the questions for constructive purposes, such as formulate a topic for a subsequent in-depth seminar.

It seems to me that this is where technology might impact the process with Google, Youtube and endless other resources to supplement the thinking and reading.

Step 6: Students Reflect on What They Have Learned. The teacher reviews the steps and provides students with an opportunity to review what they have learned by producing, improving, and prioritising their questions.

If this worked as a shared unit with other groups (or more globally) then technology could again be employed in the sharing and reflecting on the outcomes.

Other ideas might start with a text such as AK by Peter Dickinson: a novel looking into the plight of child soldiers, this could be coupled with research and perhaps a look at issues around the Kony campaign in 2012, both positive and negative.  Where appropriate this might become a service based learning outcome with Amnesty International or equivalent.
Or a question such as What makes us afraid?: a Gothic Horror project with Poe short stories and extracts from Frankenstein and Dracula – I have done this with curtains, candles and lights out and has lots of potential for fun and frights.
I love the idea of inquiry leaning and want this to be the future of radical educational design.  Until then small steps might takes us there.

One Comment

on “Are we asking the right questions?
One Comment on “Are we asking the right questions?
  1. I think what frustrates me is this isn’t anything new. We’ve been talking about PBL for close to 20 years now and yet we do not see it widely adopted in schools or within school cultures. Once in a while you’ll get a PBL unit but what if the whole school ran this way? What if the whole class ran this way? Could it? Probably not in the current system were freedom is taken away because we all have the same test to pass at the end of it all.

    It’s funny how we talk about wanting students to be individuals and then standardize them via testing. Seems counter productive to me.

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