Posts Tagged ‘21st Century Education’

Earlier this week, I gave an overview of the new Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing course that Peyten Dobbs and I are teaching this semester. Today I want to address a pointed concern about our methodology as expressed by a colleague from our Science Department and then echoed by a commenter on my last post. They raise some terrific questions, and indeed we’ve had some of the same questions ourselves.

Physics teacher (and award-winning edublogger) John Burk first pushed back when Peyten tweeted the first writing prompt we used with the kids:

He was quick to point out that scientific understanding isn’t a matter of “belief” but a matter of evidence and investigation:

Soon afterward he expanded on his reservations in an email:

I find what you guys are doing to be very interesting, and it really sounds like one of the most exciting courses in the school. But I also would love to learn more about the decision to show both An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle. The self-righteous and professionally trained scientist in me doesn’t think that the facts of GW are something that really has two sides . . . I just worry about the the idea of trying to teach about global warming by pulling out two controversial films staked at opposite sides of the spectrum, since this might heighten the “controversy” students perceive, which might be counterproductive for developing a deep understanding of the subject.

Science journalist and blogger James Hrynyshyn chimed in with more of the same after my last post:

Academics and the media have for far too long given climate denial far too much credit. The simple facts are that 98% of climatologists agree with the basic science of anthropogenic climate change. We’re long past the point where that’s a subject of legitimate debate, so why imply otherwise to your students?

Indeed, when climate science gets taught at our school within our Science Department, there is no “equal time” given to perspectives not supported by the scientific consensus.  So why are we going this route in Writing Workshop? Are we doing our students a disservice?

My initial response to these questions is that we’re not teaching a science course but a writing course, and so an understanding of the political debate and the public confusion around the issue is a part of better knowing both the issue and the audience. Moreover, experiencing and understanding and working through this confusion is great fodder for writing and thinking.

As I responded to Hrynyshyn earlier, this is in some ways as much a course in practical epistemology as anything else, as can be seen in the list of “Guiding Questions” that we’re asking the students to continually think about through their writing:

  • What do I understand about the sustainability debate? What do I have certainty about? Where do I still have questions? What would it take to change my mind about my current stance?
  • How do I know what I know? How do I know this? What are my sources of information? How do scientific facts and cultural values influence my opinion? How do I know who to listen to? 
  • What are the personal implications of this knowledge?

Moreover, the list of “Essential Learnings” that we will use to assess our students has language describing their developing skills in writing, research, discussion, collaboration, and presentation—but no expectations for scientific understanding or environmental ethics. We took this stance partly to diffuse potential criticism; we’re not science teachers, after all, and we can’t weigh in as authorities on a politicized subject. But we also don’t presuppose outcomes of scientific understanding because we want to allow space for authentic “uncoverage” (to borrow a term from Grant Wiggins and Jay Mctighe) precisely because we do care about our students’ having a better understanding of the issues in question.

We won’t simply be showing the two films and then turning the kids loose to go with whatever opinions they may have at that point. Wiggins and McTighe propose five steps toward discovering depth, and that’s the journey that we want to attempt together:

  • unearth it
  • analyze it
  • question it
  • prove it
  • generalize it

When Hrynyshyn asks “why expose students to [sources that dishonestly portray the science], unless you have the resources to fairly critique them?” I have to point out that they do, indeed, have all the resources they need. In today’s world, we all do, anywhere that we have an internet connection. As our students try to sort out the claims and counterclaims of the two films, they can email actual climate scientists for clarification! The problem today isn’t that we don’t have access to information but that we don’t know how (or don’t have the inclination) to dig and filter and sift and evaluate. In this respect, the most precious resource that we’ll be making available to them is time. Our role is not to teach them about environmental issues. It’s the (sometimes long, sometimes messy) process of writing and researching and thinking and discussing that will help them learn.

If we presume to predefine the destination, then we shortchange the process. We’re hoping, by starting with controversy, to supercharge it. But it is, admittedly, a little scary to set a ball in motion without having certainty as to which way it will roll.


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Last October, I wrote a post thinking about the 21st Century Education movement that concluded with an idea for a new course:

What if you started a course exploring the issue of climate change with back-to-back showings of An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindlenot in some lame and fallacious attempt to provide “balance” to the topic, nor in a transparent end-run around the integrity of science under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” but as a springboard for sustained and rigorous transdisciplinary inquiry?  Imagine spending the subsequent weeks and months methodically tracking down the claims and counterclaims, learning about the science and evaluating the rhetoric, and devising strategies to separate “signal from noise” in the flood of information about a contentious topic . . . think how many 21st Century literacies—ecological, scientific, media and information, political, economic—such a learning expedition would build and call upon.

Well, I quickly managed to ensnare my friend and wunderkind colleague (and edublogger) Peyten Dobbs to help me propose, develop, and teach the course, and my principal leapt at the opportunity when we presented it to him (having Peyten on board no doubt helped). So here we are, two and a half weeks into just such a learning expedition, one that will likely rank among the most interesting of my career. It’s high time I put up a blog post with a few details and some early observations.

The official title of the course is Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing, and it’s one of a slate of semester-long writing courses that our 8th graders can sign up for as a supplement to their year-long English course. Workshop has been a course offering for at least the 15 years I’ve been here, but this year marks a substantial (and needed) revision in that we’re offering themed sections (others include screenwriting, journalism, and literary magazine) with an emphasis on publication to an authentic audience. Compared to the previous incarnation of Workshop, which had the students writing a series of short papers with perfunctory purpose (a descriptive paper, a persuasive essay, etc) and an audience of one (the teacher), Environmental Writing looks to capitalize on the the allure of real-world relevance and controversy and provide compelling reasons for writing—writing first as a tool for learning about complex issues and later to communicate our findings and positions about what we’ve learned.

True to the blog post that started us on this path, we’ve started the year by jumping straight into the political controversy and cultural confusion surrounding the issue of global warming: on Friday we completed our viewing of An Inconvenient Truth, and this week we’ll begin The Great Global Warming Swindle. We’ll follow these two films with a short piece by science writer Peter Hadfield that takes a critical look at both. By this point we expect the students to feel both bewildered and bestirred, suffering from some serious cognitive dissonance and ready to dig a bit deeper to find out just who is telling the truth, so we’ll set them up in groups to identify and investigate their questions and make sense of the confusion. Ultimately, each group will tasked—after choosing a format and audience—with communicating what they have learned, both about the issue in question and learning in general.

At least that’s the idea. There are lots of details still to be worked out as we go, as we’re not entirely sure what directions the class will want to take and want to leave the options open. So far, we’ve settled into a comfortable routine of watching film for about half the class period and then quietly writing to process our individual thoughts, feelings, and questions. Then again, perhaps “comfortable” is exactly the wrong word—already, I think, the students have a sense for just how much of an intellectual and emotional roller-coaster ride they have ahead of them. Conversely, Peyten and I are pleased that relevance and controversy have animated the classroom and ignited learning as we had hoped. Starting later this week, we’ll inaugurate a class blog where two students per day will give updates, sharing what we’re up to and what they have to say about it—I’ll be sure to provide a link once we have it up and running.

Well, I started this post promising some early observations, but I see I’ve gone on long enough (and the hour is late enough) that I’ll just have to save them for now. I’ve already got several months’-worth of blog fodder after just the first couple of weeks, so watch this space. And fire away with your questions—one of my favorite things about blogging is how comments and push-back from my readers (all five of you) help me question my assumptions and hone my thinking.

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Well, we’re days away from the start of a new school year, and I’m in need of an attitude adjustment, having just come across the trailer to the film Mother Nature’s Child:

I just finished six-days worth of Apple training to build up my digital teaching skills in preparation for our one-to-one MacBook rollout next week, and I had been positively salivating at the thought of what my English students will be able to do with iMovie. So this little clip hit me like a punch to the solar plexus.

The quote in the trailer from Stephen Kellert of Yale University says it all:

Children, in a space of a generation or two, have had a profound change in their experiential contact with the natural world. Children today spend on average over 44 hours a week in front of a monitor of one sort or another . . . children just don’t go out in nature.

And we’re about to give every student in the Junior High a new laptop and markedly increase their screen time as a result?

I’ve written before on my divided mind when it comes to the 21st Century education movement’s fetishizing of technology, and I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’d admit that this boosterism is supercharged by the desire to market and sell product. I’m struck by the astonishing rapidity with which we moved to go one-to-one. If only we had devoted a small fraction of comparable energy and resources to the kind of experiential learning we have spent years talking about.

My Principal and friend, Bo Adams, likes to advocate “both/and” over “either/or” thinking when it comes to balancing outdoor, experiential learning and digital roaming, and last October he commented on my earlier rant by saying “I hope that our school’s push for 1:1 laptops (or other mobile devices) is at least partly for the purpose of facilitating such place-based learning.” I share that hope, and I appreciate that one of his first questions to the faculty this year is as follows:

In the often confusing world of educational acronyms, “PBL” here means “problem-based-learning,” not “place-based-learning,” but Bo is spot-on that the two are an excellent fit. Given the degree to which we’re about to increase our students’ screen time, taking intentional and sustained steps to give them a sense of balance and connect them with the real world isn’t just a cool idea. I think it’s a moral imperative.

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Earlier today, reading some lively back-and-forth comments on the blog written by my principal, I came across this statement by a chemistry-teaching colleague of mine:

At this age there’s a LOT of boring, fact based learning that needs to take place BEFORE deeper, more meaningful, creative learning and problem solving can take place.

Well, I strongly disagree (albeit respectfully, because I really like and respect this particular colleague). I don’t have any problem with his contention that a good education includes a lot of “fact-based learning”—even in an age of hyper-available information—but I disagree that this stage needs to come first or that it’s inevitably boring.

Perhaps the most powerful learning experience I ever had as a student was my original WMA Wilderness First Responder certification class back in 1993 at North Carolina Outward Bound School. From the very beginning of the course, we would start each new topic with a hands-on simulation, where “rescuers” would try (and fail) to make sense of what was going on with injured/sick “patients.” Only after struggling with a new problem—like a patient with abdominal bruising, elevated heart rate and respiration, and dropping blood pressure—would we start to learn the “boring” details of exactly how the circulatory and respiratory systems worked in tandem, or the implications of hypovolemic shock’s progressing from a compensated to decompensated stage. The basic learning sequence was exactly reversed from what my colleague maintains is necessary. Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident I learned far more “facts” in that week-long course than I could have in a whole semester of traditional lectures, and, in this context, none of them were boring. More to the point, nearly twenty years later I still remember most of what I learned. Vividly.

All the research about contextual and constructivist learning tells us something we should already know to be gut-level true, that new information is most readily assimilated when the learner has some sort of internal frame of reference, like prior knowledge (or lack of knowledge, a need-to-know), that gives it a place to stick. Starting with the “facts” before moving on to “meaningful, creative learning and problem solving” seems both woefully inefficient and, yes, boring.

So what does all this have to do with last week’s trip down the Oconee River with Paddle Georgia 2011? Well, I happened to come across this blogversation today as I was editing together some trip video with a focus on my boys’ river education. If you sat them down and asked them what they learned, they’d have plenty to say, I think, but I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of future dividends. Nothing creates a richer, more receptive frame of reference for future learning than direct experience and emotional connection:

For starters, esteemed chemistry colleague, Will and I both agree that we’re ready to learn just what’s going on at the molecular level when we learned how to test for dissolved oxygen in the Adopt-a-Stream training sessions.

Let me say it again: nothing creates a richer, more receptive frame of reference for future learning than direct experience and emotional connection. Which is why I’m still a little skeptical about the headlong rush to embrace technology in education (while my school takes small steps towards more experiential and-place-based learning, we have moved with astonishing rapidity to provide every student with a MacBook).

Anyway, enough soap-boxing . . . let me make a couple of remarks about the video clips.

First, they capture budding naturalist Andrew’s eagerness to pick up critters. He never stopped trying to grab frogs, tadpoles, lizards, salamanders, dragonflies, grasshoppers, fish, water striders, unmentionable squiggly things on the bottoms of river rocks. At base camp in Milledgeville, he proudly informed me that earlier he had “caught something-that-looked-kinda-like-a-scorpion-but-wasn’t” but couldn’t find me to show it off and had to let it go. I’m wondering if I went wrong somewheres in my parenting duty.

Second, I should mention that the tire we barged out was only one of about 70 that Paddle Georgia folks removed on our designated clean-up day. One guy had something like 13 tires either stacked on the deck of his sea kayak or hanging off the sides like tugboat fenders.

Third, who knew kaolin was so cool?

And finally, the last clip is a hat-tip to colleague and educational über-blogger John Burk in the spirit of recognizing and celebrating failure.

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In the lively comments thread following my last post, my long-time friend Mike voiced vigorous opposition to its central premise:

I don’t think that Sustainability or Environmental Science should be a concern of any level when discussing Big-E education (meaning public school). Public education already suffers from big tent rainbow syndrome. The curriculum is ridiculously bloated. I view the insertion of Sustainability and related nature field trips as just one more distraction from the very real goal of remediation and education.

I should mention that I met Mike when we were fellow English Education students 15 years ago.  He had a brief but accomplished career in the high school classroom before moving on to the corporate world, and his wife continues to do terrific work as an elementary school teacher, currently within the Atlanta Public Schools system.  His voice is not one to be summarily dismissed. I promised him a thoughtful response, so here goes . . .

Over the years, David Orr of Oberlin College has been one of the educators and writers to most profoundly influence my thinking (I particularly recommend his book Earth in Mind), and so I’ll start with a simple quote of his that has become perhaps my philosophical touchstone:

All education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong. The same is true throughout all of the curriculum.

It seems patently obvious to me that we have an obligation, in teaching our students about the world they live in, to accurately render their relationship to it. If we neglect the environment in our curriculum, if we teach students that they stand apart from the natural world, then we are lying to them, plain and simple. To give another concrete example, I have written before about this failing in my own discipline and the typical English curriculum in secondary schools:

Literature—with its timeless role of examining the human condition—has always evolved to address the significant issues before each generation. In our curriculum, then, we rightly read and discuss works that deal thoughtfully with weighty and complex themes like race and gender and war. But as contemporary writing rapidly evolves to raise new questions about humanity’s role as a citizen of the ecological community, this new environmental literature has yet to be significantly included in the mainstream educational canon. That omission, I think, does send a message.

And it seems particularly short-sighted to cling to a status quo curriculum that largely and falsely ignores our connection to the natural world at a time when issues of sustainability grow inexorably more important with every given year. Given the current global trajectories of vital environmental indicators—population growth, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and ecosystem function decline—sustainability stands to dominate human affairs in the 21st century. In fact, Orr makes a strong case that our incomplete curriculum not only doesn’t help us understand environmental issues but actively exacerbates them:

Education is not widely regarded as a problem, although the lack of it is. The conventional wisdom holds that all education is good, and the more of it one has, the better . . . . The truth is that without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth.

I’m not willing to go so far and reduce the value of education to such a stark dichotomy, as there are certainly other lenses than the environment through which we can assess it. But he has a point, doesn’t he? Here’s one context where the saying “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” seems penetrating and not clichéd. I don’t see environmental education as a mere add-on to an already overburdened curriculum. Instead, education will have to substantially evolve if it is to reflect and address our changing world.

Nonetheless, before I get too carried away with high-minded philosophizing, let me come back to Mike’s chief complaint, that in the imperfect real world of school, teaching sustainability is just “one more distraction from the very real goal of remediation and education.” That’s a valid and noble concern. In some cases I’d agree—all attempts to teach sustainability are not created equal, and I’ve written before about ineffective and effective practices in this regard. Nonetheless, research evaluating cutting-edge approaches (such as the Place-Based Education and Environment as Integrating Context for Learning models) directly refutes Mike’s claim. Done well, environmental education increases student achievement in key core subjects (not just science), reduces discipline and classroom management problems, and promotes student engagement and ownership in learning. These findings square with my own teaching experiences: I routinely see levels of student enthusiasm and ignition in environmental education contexts that I rarely see anywhere else.  Simply put, relevance matters when it comes to curriculum and our students’ learning, and, as an integrating context, what could be richer and more relevant and compelling and rewarding than the environment?

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During the week before last, I traveled with a group of colleagues to attend Solution Tree’s 21st Century Education Summit in Chicago. It was a largely laudable conference, focused on transforming modern education in order to be relevant in and responsive to our students’ rapidly changing world. Colleagues Bo Adams (my Principal) and Bob Ryshke (Director of the Center for Teaching) do a nice job of processing the various sessions and messages herehere, and here in their own blogs. (Evidently they were communing with their keyboards in the evenings while I went out on the town with my less productive colleagues—shame on us.) Anyway, I found much to think about and much I already agreed with, having long placed an emphasis on the “4 C’s” (Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and Innovation) in own my classroom, in addition to my designated territory within the traditional “3 R’s.”

Nonetheless, with each successive speaker, a part of me became more and more disquieted, as all this talk of “how to prepare our students for the 21st Century” never substantively broached the subject of sustainability.  We heard, instead, a lot of talk about technology and Web 2.0 skills, about wikis and blogs and podcasts and Twitter, about providing and encouraging and leveraging connectivity among our students. Nothing about humanity’s running into non-negotiable ecological limits on a finite planet, about our need as educators to respond to and prepare for the ramifications. Searching for some sign of recognition of the latter, I kept looking at the upcoming session descriptions—surely, I thought, Robin Fogarty and Brian M. Pete will have to talk about the environment in a presentation titled “21st Century Thinking: What Will Our Kids Need to Know 25 Years From Now?” But alas. Kids evidently will need to know they can use their cell phones in class.

At the end of the second full day, I had the chance to raise this concern in the form of a written question for a panel discussion:

We live in a time when the scientific community is sounding alarms that human activity is beginning to alter the physics of our atmosphere and the chemistry of our oceans.  Why, then, does environmental sustainability not even make the conference agenda if our focus is on preparing students for the world they will live in?

The initial response among the panel was one of embarrassed admission, something to the effect of “Yeah, well, it probably should have.” My question then seemed to hit a sympathetic nerve with panel member Elliot Seif—”This is one of my pet peeves,” he started—who launched into some thoughts about how schools need to tackle the subject head on, about how if ever there was a subject calling for deep understanding through the application of the 4 C’s, this was it. “Why don’t more schools teach a course like this?” he asked.  Good question! More on his idea in a moment.

The panel moderator didn’t read out the second half of my question, which went something like this:

Given that societal disconnect from the natural world is the root cause of our environmental problems, should we be concerned that the 21st Century Education movement’s energetic embrace of technology will only further push our students into the virtual world and disconnect them from the real?

I was tactful and didn’t word my question to say that the 21st Century Education movement was “fetishizing” technology, but that’s how I was feeling at the time. One of the sessions earlier that day had been Bob Pearlman’s fascinating tour of innovative schools whose architecture, schedule, and curriculum had been designed to foster 21st century learning, to promote collaborative, project-based, student-centered work. Cool. And yet he shared several short videos in which the the majority of the screen shots had kids staring into a computer screen, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, and almost always indoors.  In fact, the cutting-edge school buildings he showcased seemed not to have many windows at all, and one architectural rendering he put up tellingly showed the interior configuration and the layout of the parking lot outside while the natural areas around the building were nothing but blank space. In a similar vein, in the conference’s single passing glance to environmental education, presenter Chris Dede shared an example of how students could learn environmental science by manipulating ecological variables and monitoring their effects in a virtual pond.  Sheesh. Have none of these people read Last Child in the Woods?

Look, I totally get it that we have a responsibility to help our students learn to productively navigate and leverage their web-and-media-saturated world.  They face an entirely different playing field than we did growing up, and this is one genie that is not going back in its bottle.  So we can either leave them to their own devices as they wander this new terrain or we can give them guidance.  I vote the latter.  But given our predicament, do we not also have a responsibility, maybe even more of a responsibility, to counterbalance the virtual with the real, to offer a compelling alternative narrative and to help our students connect with the natural world and just what it means to be human?

Ultimately, Elliot Seif was right when he suggested that the skills and practices currently branded as “21st Century Education” could and should be a powerful and productive tool for investigating and understanding what will, no doubt, be the mother of all 21st century subjects. In fact, a perfect example appeared in my RSS aggregator while I was in Chicago, in the form of a blog post from naturalist educator “Rebecca in the Woods,” reporting from the Georgia coast. Rebecca reports a great story of how she taps into the learning potential of the wired and connected world to identify a moth she has photographed—and ends up both learning a lot about moth identification and making a contribution to the science of lepidoptery in the process.  Even as digital distractions are leading more and more children to lead increasingly indoor lives, the internet is proving to be an exciting and powerful tool for naturalists and others.  We just need to be appropriately discerning, perhaps even skeptical, of our headlong embrace of the digital world.

As for Seif’s call for a dedicated course about sustainability, one designed around “21st Century Education” practices . . . well, I have a vision of what that might look like. What if you started a course exploring the issue of climate change with back-to-back showings of An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle, not in some lame and fallacious attempt to provide “balance” to the topic, nor in a transparent end-run around the integrity of science under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” but as a springboard for sustained and rigorous transdisciplinary inquiry?  Imagine spending the subsequent weeks and months methodically tracking down the claims and counterclaims, learning about the science and evaluating the rhetoric, and devising strategies to separate “signal from noise” in the flood of information about a contentious topic. What an education in using the “4 C’s” that could be! And think how many 21st Century literacies—ecological, scientific, media and information, political, economic—such a learning expedition would build and call upon. Web learning and digital networking would obviously be enormously important in a course like this, but the context would also prompt students to think about technology from multiple perspectives, would bring our planet back into the conversation.

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