Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why You Want Needy Students

I'm going out of bounds a bit. This post is not an Instant Idea, but rather a thought to let bounce around inside your head.
I was listening to a talk given by Shane Hipps this Sunday morning. Hipps said, "Do you recognize your need?" When you have need, you seek the solution. You are driven to seek knowledge to help you solve your problem.

You may already notice the transfer to the classroom.

If you dabble in project-based learning (PBL), you recognize the underlying theme of creating a problem for your students to solve. The solution often requires students to learn certain skills and concepts to ease the process of solving the problem.

As a PBL teacher you create need for your students.

If you subscribe to this way of thinking, you agree that it's the students that need to ask the questions, not you. Instead of us saying, "Today I'm going to show you how to make a bar graph." It should be our students asking, "How do I create a graph?" Instead of, "Let me show you how fold a paper airplane that does a lot of stunts." It should be our students asking, "How will I go about choosing the right paper airplane that does the most stunts?"

When need is there, the learner seeks the knowledge. The tricky parts, I've discovered, are getting my fourth grade students, who are used to being told what to do, to become those learners who take initiative and take action, and (even more difficult) letting go of the reins.

Theory in Practice: The Science Process
I put a bag of medium sized foam balls on the table in front of the class. I broke my class into small groups. I then told them that they must decide who will represent their group in the World Championship of Foam Ball Juggling. I showed them what juggling the foam ball looked like (bouncing it on my knee like a soccer player would). I explained that the World Champion would be the one who could bounce the ball on their knee the most times in a row with out hitting the ground.

I wrote down three requirements on the whiteboard:
  1. Organize your data in a table.
  2. Create a graph of your data.
  3. Based on your data, I need you to explain who you choose to represent you in the championship.

Crickets...Blank stares.

My students were waiting patiently for me to give them the "next step". When nothing further was given, slowly (painfully slow), quietly, they began to take action. I saw collaboration. I heard good discussion. I heard respectful arguing. When the required materials (listed above) started coming in, I noticed they were not up to snuff. So I posed this question to each group, "Where could you go to find out how to make a professional looking data table, and graph?" and then walked away. Soon groups were jumping up to get a math reference book to find out how to do it.

The next day, I gave each group a rubric. I told them that the top score is very similar to how scientists in the real world would have to explain their findings. With that in mind,  I asked them to score themselves on how they think they did with their: group work, participation, graph, data table, conclusion statement, and mechanics. They evaluated their progress, and to a group, they went back to refine what they've done.

Over two days, I gave less than a paragraph of instruction--they talked the rest of the time.

Don't get me wrong, I had some stinkers who didn't work, and fooled around, but it gave way to an opportunity for their teammates to practice confronting project team slackers. Not all of the products were to my liking; the data tables and graphs need refinement, but I'd like to believe we took a good step toward true learning.

The experience was 100% worth the anxiety I felt on both days, wondering if they were learning, because I was not their primary resource. Moving from the sage on the stage to playing the supporting role is not easy, but it's worth it. Don't you think?


Melanie said...

I absolutely think so...empowering our kids to take the lead with their learning has great benefits for them. I connect with this when teaching reading and writing and allowing students choice. They make the decisions based on interest about what to read and write about...and I find that by choosing, they go so much farther and it becomes meaningful work.

It is a little nerve wrecking to let go in the beginning...but once students know how to inquire, think and amazing watching what they come up with during the process...and sitting back facilitating that learning becomes easier!

Thanks for pushing the thinking!

Erin said...

I too connected this post to teaching reading. One of the most common ways to teach comprehension is by helping kids with their meta-cognition, thinking about what they are thinking while they are reading.

What if we took this idea to the next level? What if we asked kids to think about what they needed in reading? If we asked them to think about what was difficult for them in reading; vocabulary, sounding out unfamiliar words, reading fluently, etc. Would they be able to recognize their own needs? Would they know what to do this these needs? I'm curious to find out and am going to try to have these discussions with my small reading groups.