Friday, May 13, 2016

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees: Student Exploration Time

By Darin Anderson

Picture this: You arrive for your first painting lesson from a renowned local artist. Before you lay all the materials you need to begin creating your first masterpiece.

As you settle in with your surroundings, in walks the artist, who begins visiting with each participant about the beauties of art and painting.

You simply cannot wait to get started.

Monsieur Paintbrush walks to the front of the room and begins speaking to the group about the endless possibilities of paints and palettes and prisms of color. He continues into very interesting dialogue about purpose and passion, and you become even more excited to fill your empty canvas with wonder.

However, as the minutes pass by, you notice the instruction, while incredibly valuable and inspiring, has left you no time to do what you came for.

As the artist bids you a find adieu, you leave your still blank canvas and pristinely clean brushes behind, hoping for a chance - next time - to work wonders with them.

Would you stand for such circumstances? Regardless of whether or not you paid a fee for the class, I'm certain you would be disappointed with the outcome. Why, you never even got to open up the paints!

Imagine the thousands of students who walk in and out of thousands of classrooms each school day with the same emotions - "Sounds cool, but I never even got a chance to try it out!"

Now, imagine yet another situation - similar and just as frustrating to our students:

Monsieur Paintbrush walks to the front of the room and instructs you to follow his lead in painting a red flower. He takes you step by step through the process, even stopping the class to ensure that each participant neither speeds ahead or lags behind. "We all must build the red flower as I do," he says.

Since you are a decent painter who has done his or her share of flowers, bushes, and trees, you begin to become antsy and annoyed at the teacher for not letting you "do your own thing" and paint what you want. But in the interest of staying with the group you decide to just remain silent and paint your red flower.

While I understand the need for direct instruction and scaffolding in classrooms, I believe that we often go overboard with controlling the scenario in the interest of classroom management and, honestly, making our own lives as teachers easier.

However, many of our students leave classrooms each day without having had the opportunities to explore and design and create and tinker with (insert content/skills here).

Think of the tools we have in our classrooms that are metaphorically represented by the canvas, brushes, and paints in our story:
Computers and laptops
iPads and other tablets
Video cameras
Student Smartphones
3D Printers (perhaps)
CNC Machines (perhaps)

Not to mention these:
Plutonium (according to Dr. Emmett Brown, it should be readily available these days)

But those "standard issue" tools are only the beginning. Think of a computer (or other device) as a box of toys. In and of itself it is a container with little practical use. However, the inside holds the wonders of the world (and I'm not talking about word processing programs).

For example:
+ Google Hangouts or Skype allows staff and students access to content area experts all over the world.
+ 3D programs such as Tinkercad and Thingiverse make design and creation easily accessible for users.
+ Video and audio creation programs allow students to express themselves as never before.
+ 24/7 discussion and collaboration are a snap with Google Drive and a wide variety of social media outlets.

But here I am preaching to the choir. Or am I?

Please take to heart the memes inserted in this post. Ensure that on a daily basis you are having your students explore, create, design, and tinker with content, skills, and - most importantly - their own thoughts and ideas.

Our world - and their - will be the better for it!

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