Thursday, August 6, 2015

Lessons in Education Featuring Gary Larson: Part IV

Written by EdTechManiac, Darin Anderson

In the latest installment of our comical series, we will explore the concept of idea exploration in schools. Let's just hope that no one gets hurt in the process. ;-)

Among other things, Gary Larson is noted for using prehistoric figures to represent modern kinds of thinking. In this comic, we see a group of neanderthals exhibiting modern scientific principles (note the clipboard-holding caveman near the bottom) by conducting a controlled experiment.

What we also have before us is a comedic look at the sheer idiocy of tying a living being to the outside of a rock wheel.

Whether or not he has studied science, modern man understands the basic principles of physics, through experience mostly, and knows what is about to happen to the unsuspecting man...and so we laugh. (Granted, it shows how demented we can be as a society, but that is another story for another day.)

Looking at the paragraph above, which is the most important word to you? Science? Physics? Demented?

I contend that the single most important term is "Experience."

Now, look back at Larson's creation and ask yourself this question: 
Is it not true that the only reason we find humor in this comic is because these men do not have the background knowledge necessary to see an otherwise obvious tragic ending?
We are laughing at them because they do not know what we know. In that light, maybe it is not as funny anymore.

When put into educational terms, how many of our students walk into class knowing as much as WE know? How many of them have had the same depth of experiences as WE have had? The younger they are the less likely it is that they are aware of much of the content they learn about.

Schools often claim that they allow their students free range of exploration and experimentation - that they are free to make mistakes because that's how we learn. But then they are effectively held hostage by mandated testing that does not honor them for experimenting with the 4 answer choices. No standardized assessment that I know of allows students to make a choice, determine that it was the wrong option, and be able to go back and try again.

Or even worse, school and classroom environments create situations where risk takers and trendsetters are laughed at when they fail. Or ridiculed for trying to be "better" than their peers. Or told that being excellent makes others feel bad. Their experiences are controlled, to a certain extent.

Under similar environments would the airplane exist? Indeed, no one makes fun of the Wright Brothers for crashing plane after plane because society now takes advantage of their ultimate triumph everyday all over the world. We are grateful for their experiences and what their failures amounted to in the long run.

What about the kinds of technology we use on a daily basis? Would we all be pulling out our smartphones and strapping on wearable devices if developers around the world were given one single shot to create the touchscreen interface?

The trouble is that legislation and funding and school accreditation are all tied to some extent or another on static, one-shot assessments.

However, not all aspects of education revolve around standardized test scores. That which we do not control, we cannot change. So what can we do?

With educational technology, and many other teaching tools and strategies, we can create environments that foster creativity and exploration and that encourage experimentation. All of these serve to give our kids experience. Here are just a few ideas:
  • Learning Logs or Journals (Written or Audio) - In whatever format they may be, these student-created products provide so much more than just a running commentary of the process of learning. When used to their full potential, logs or journals can become a student's personal portfolio, full of examples of what works and what does not, reflection on successes and failures, and key understandings related to any academic experience. Some of the entries can be teacher recommended, but by and large, log content must be student-generated reflection and analysis. Digital formats, such as a Google Doc, allow for anytime access, which is a stark advantage over paper notebooks. Further, the written word is a vital component of learning, but no one is saying that the logs must be word-processed. Let your students record themselves over a series of PodCasts or audio messages available on most mobile devices and laptops.
  • Grading and Assessing Processes not Products - If all a teacher sees is a student's final product, which may or may not be a success, he is missing out on the whole story. Comparatively speaking, if someone only reads the final 15 pages of a novel, she is left with confusion and an uneducated opinion of the story as a whole. With the advantage of the above-mentioned logs or journals, that same teacher can get a snapshot, aside from classroom formative assessment, that helps give her a better understanding of the students' complete stories - she gets the whole picture.
  • Legal Hacking - The new definition and function of hacking is nowhere near the same as its predecessor, although many of the same skills are used. Today's hacking (aptly called hackathons) refers to brainstorming sessions put on by businesses across the world. Employees and other interested parties come together to code, with the intent of improving, creating, and/or exploring business software programs and other operations. Some companies sponsor time for employees to develop ideas for and work on new apps. Schools, and a few corporations, have taken the concept a step further and provide structured time for "hackers" to brainstorm solutions to local or regional problems, or to come up with ideas for improving, well, anything.
  • Bad Idea Factories and 20% Time Projects - Sometimes the best ideas come from horrible beginnings. The old saying goes that there is no such thing as a stupid question. The same can be said for bad ideas. Even if the result is worthless and/or dangerous, there is something to be learned from the process - if not the product. While I do not condone students burning down random structures to test Freud's Theory of Psychoanalysis (now THAT"S a bad idea), I am a advocate of the process of separating good ideas from not-so-good ideas; the thinking and creativity involved cannot be replicated any better. When classrooms across the country kick off 20% Time Projects, many of them begin with bad idea factories as a way to brainstorm and get ALL ideas out on the table. From those bad ideas grow fruitful endeavors - think manure as food for fruits and vegetables. The 20 Time projects speak for themselves as far as creativity, sustained reflection & analysis, and dealing with setbacks are concerned.
  • Teacher Modeling - This is far and away one of the best teaching strategies out there. Especially when it comes to the concept of learning from mistakes, when a teacher is willing to put him or herself out on the line and authentically "screw up" in front of a group of kids, an environment is being established. However, messing up and laughing it off is only step 1 of the process. From there teachers must explicitly model the additional concepts of reflection, revision, and the good ol' fashioned second try. Or third. Or fourth. It is this almost systematic grit and determination that we wish all kids develop and cultivate in school. Any of the above suggestions will work only if students and teachers are fully participating in the entire process of learning, not just checking in at the end of a unit or at test time.
After Grog gets mowed over by the stone wheel, instead of laughing at him or scolding his cohorts for a poor product and their "what-on-earth-were-you-thinking?" moment, we must revisit the occurrence in terms of what it would look like in the classroom.

Aside from stopping Grog and his buddies before they hurt someone, we should be praising the initiative and ingenuity of the group as it tries something new, or something more revolutionary that has never been done, if that's the case. All of these mini moments - micro-experiences let's call them - add up to create authentic macro-experiences that make a huge difference in the lives of our students.

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