Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Content is not the point

Standing on a piece of Africa in CT
Controlled chaos is what it may look like (or worse). Or maybe sometimes it looks like laziness (God, I hate that word). Either way, it was my geology class. I call it differentiated, but really, it's an experiment--a dream, maybe. A new kind of school, maybe. A mistake, maybe, but I don't think so. And darn it, I'm proud of these kids.

They had lot's of choice, that's for sure. Every unit, an "assignment," with curriculum-dictated content-based objectives, but (and here's the key) open-ended products. Students can make presentations, write essays, build models, produce videos, posters, workout videos (more later). They make their own learning plans and set their own deadlines. (One got angry at me at first... about the no-deadlines part--wanted more structure. "That's fine, we can do that for you," I said.)

They need to get at least 60% on each assignment (graded by rubric). Otherwise, they are incomplete until they improve it (my attempt at the "mastery" model). I also tried to keep track of their progress on GLEAMS (social skills, goal-setting. etc.), but more on that in a later post.

But one day, earlier in the semester, I was doing some grading on a Saturday. I watched a video produced by a group of my students. They read from notes (*grits teeth*). At the end, they joked, laughed, swore... and forgot to edit it out. They learned nothing, I thought. What a disaster, I thought. My experiment is not going  well at all, I thought. I've failed, I thought. My ideas about learning are all wrong, I thought.

Then I thought... wait: but didn't plan it all by themselves? They may not have learned a ton, but then a again, didn't they? And do they learn more from the typical lecture? And they planned their own learning! They. Learned. By. Themselves. (With my guidance.) And what's more important? Filled-in-blanks-vocab or... this.

Since then, I went back and forth: Between...
  • worrying that we were not covering enough content... and enjoying myself,
  • worrying they are not working hard enough... and enjoying watching them learn,
  • focusing on "failures" (the guy who sleeps and "youtubes" away half the time, the boys who snapchat each other, the chronic absences of a couple of students, the cut-and-pasting from the web, the gaming of my system :-l )... and focusing on successes (the Earth cake, the awesome volcano art, the "Earth goes to the doctor" story, the innovative mountain-building models, the final project that nailed the reason gems are found in only certain places, the self-imposed deadlines being met, self-created goals being achieved, and the fact that they are learning to learn, the fact that they sat there every day (at least some of the time) planning, researching, producing. 
And that's what's important.

Content? Yeah... I think they're getting that too (as a bonus), but content is not the point. How many people know what a subduction zone is or can tell a metamorphic rock from an igneous rock. And really, what difference does that make in an age when we can Google the answer in a second. But what difference does it make if you know how to ask a question, find the answer, and learn?What difference does it make if you can set a goal, plan, and produce? All the difference.

And they did. Ten units. Ten projects. All individually planned & executed. I'm not bragging on me. I'm bragging on them.