Sunday, March 29, 2015

Part One (b): Designing with Both/And's

One of the key ideas behind any planning for experience-based learning is to identify the cognitive skills that are embedded in the text you are exploring. In other words, when you are teaching something you are never just teaching subject matter, you are also teaching a specific cognitive skill. The role of the experience-based teacher is to be transparent and precise in identifying this skill. Experience-based learning, as John Hattie's seminal study shows, dramatically increases its effect when teachers are transparent in making the learning process visible to students.

For example, I might choose to teach a short story like Irwin Shaw's "The 80 Yard Run" not only for its thematic content but also because it is a great text to practice the basic analytic, literary critical skills of reading. On the other hand, if you are trying to practice reading intuitively then a great story to use is Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" because it resists the use of rational, analytic skills precisely because it is a dream. Practicing intuitive techniques for reading is a much more rewarding skill to practice on this text. Looking at the subject you are teaching and locating the cognitive skill at its base is a fascinating exploration and best done with your fellow teachers.

Finland, in fact, has just gone one level better by ceasing to teach "subjects" but, rather, teaching interdisciplinary topics based on skill development. As the Helsinki education manager posited, “We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow."

Guy Claxton has termed this kind of teaching "split-screen" because it has the content on one side of the teaching equation and skills on the other side. Because experience-based learning is always about "doing," there has to be an identifiable skill that is being practiced. (As a side note--"short term cognitive recall" is too often the skill being practiced by students and it is not a particularly engaging one if you are trying to induce an experience in the student.

Teaching "design" is a much more complicated enterprise than simply identifying a skill needed to interpret a short story, but it is an incredibly rewarding one. The important thing to remember is that there are skills at the foundation of the act of designing something that can be identified and their practice is what often makes learning experience-based.

So, what is an example of an assignment that we do at CITYterm that has an explicit design element in it? Once you have watched and listened to something that CITYterm students designed, we can unpack what the skills were that  they were practicing.

One of my favorites, which has undergone a decade of iterations over the past decade, is the Skyscraper Visual Essay. Here is the assignment: "Choose a skyscraper in New York City and, with a group of four other people, design a visual essay of 15-18 images. You may set your essay to music, if you like."

The premise is that as short stories have authors, so buildings have architects. Each is exploring a particular problem in their medium and attempting to create a product that engenders an experience. The assignment has been scaffolded by already practicing reading stories and buildings with parallel techniques. The student's objective (although I use this in the Teaching for Experience summer workshops with teachers as well) is to design an essay that is visual (and auditory) that conveys your experience of the building.

The Flatiron Building circa 1903, with Broadway on the left and Fifth ... 

Click on this link below to watch one recent group's essay on the Flatiron Building (it takes about 2:30 minutes, but you get to listen to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World.")

Flatiron Visual Essay

There is a lot going on in the creation of that essay: group collaboration dynamics, the feeling of being an author making choices and the imposition of an order on a large mass of data. This group's author's feedback write-up revealed an enormous number of iterations in the creation of the piece--particularly the "four image conclusion" that ends with them using the reflection of the Flatiron in the sunglasses to position both themselves and the building in history--pretty inventive.

The process of designing this essay targets three big "Both/And's" (that was what I posited at the end of the last blog post as a crucial idea in making something an experience) that is one of the keys to why adding a design element helps to make learning experience-based.

First, Analysis/Synthesis

Designing something requires that the author(s) be both analytic and synthetic in the same project. You have to be adept at both taking things apart and seeing the component parts of the text you are exploring. But then you also have to be able to take those pieces and re-arrange them in a coherent order that produces an inventive synthesis. And, as Howard Gardner notes, “Alas, under ordinary circumstances, the synthesizing mind achieves little formal attention during school years.” Experimenting with different ways to synthesize things has been something CITYterm has been exploring for seven or eight years.

Second, Convergence/Divergence

Designing something means that you have to converge down onto a solution at the end of your exploration. Designing something ultimately demands it, but students get a great deal of practicing the speed, accuracy and logic of deriving a single, best answer. They get much less practice embracing the ambiguity of seeing multi-layered possible answers to a problem. Divergent thinking, the ability to come up a large number of possible answers to a problem has been generally recognized as being one of the most important tools in creativity.

Divergent thinking – more than a mere tool – is a technique very ...

Third, Routine Experts/Adaptive Experts

Research has shown that "routine experts" are people who accept the technical limits of the problem and get things done as efficiently as possible. Routine experts can be highly sophisticated in the way they work and they can often get better and better at solving problems over time. But the accompanying feeling is often one of fulfilling an assignment--no matter how complicated.

"Adaptive experts," however, tolerate ambiguity for longer periods of time and are more willing to stretch their knowledge and abilities when they are designing something. Assignments that have a modicum of "designed confusion" incorporated into them so that the person completing them has to make choices that make them feel like they are "authoring" something that is new and original will be more likely to emerge as "adaptive experts." Interestingly, David Brooks in the New York Times was just citing having the flexibility to define problems in insightful ways as one of the key 21st Century skills. People with a high adaptive expertise have this capacity to a much higher degree that routine learners--no matter how expert the latter are.

My experience as a teacher has been that schools I have taught in are very good at teaching the first part of each of these pairs--analysis, convergence and routine--but less attention gets paid to the second half of the pair--synthesis, divergence and adaptation.

Experience-based learning depends on using design as a fundamental concept precisely because it combines all of these three crucial pairs in a symbiotic manner. In other words, assignments become experiences more often--and even transformational ones--when let students both dance and choreograph (see previous blog post) in the same assignment.

One of the most rewarding things about experience-based learning is that it has such far reaching adaptations and applications. It is important to remember, and to communicate to students, that the real extension of this kind of learning is the way we design our lives, not just our school assignments.

For me, one of the great "Both/And's" is need/love. Where design takes into account both need and love, then you have something very special in terms of unity and integrity. Look at your own life and see if it isn't true in the way you have designed the way you live on a daily basis.

So I leave the final word to one of my favorite "designers" (he was strict in his parameters, by the way, once referring to free verse poetry as "like playing tennis without a net")--Robert Frost. 

This excerpt is from the end of Two Tramps in Mud Time--

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Part One (a): Designing Experience

I hear and I forget,
I see and I remember, 

I do and I understand. 

--Confucius c. 450BC

At its most basic level, experience-based learning is almost always defined as "learning by doing." While that is helpful in a broad way because it does mean that learning has to be active, it doesn't make the fine distinctions necessary to plan activities that are experience-based. John Dewey addressed this early on in his exploration of Experience and Education, "The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are mis-educative... It is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience, nor even of activity in experience. Everything depends upon the quality of the experience which is had."

So, what influences the "quality of the experience?" One of the most important questions I ask when I start to plan experience-based activities is this, "Where and when in this activity is the student going to be designing something that is crucial to the learning that I want to occur?"

My first understanding of the importance of design came only a few years into teaching when I was coming up with a lesson plan to teach the 1929 Stock Market Crash to my United States History class. I remember this vividly because the son of the Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange was in the class and the class was happening on Parent's Day! My normal style of teaching had been a kind of "Socratic dialogue" in the true sense of that term. By that I mean Socrates always had an agenda (or least the way Plato portrays him) and he, like Professor Kingsfield from The Paper Chase in the last blog post, always had a question that played off the answer the student had just given. After you have been teaching the same material for a few years, you can get pretty good at anticipating what the answers might be that students will put forth, and you can be ready with the next question that will push their thinking in the direction you want it to go.

The class went wonderfully well, I thought, until later that afternoon as I was replaying it in my head I had a startling epiphany--sure I had been pushing the student's thinking in some ways but wasn't it remarkable that they always ended up exactly where I did at the bottom of that yellow legal sheet of paper that I had in front of me with my notes on it?  This was the beginning of one of many pedagogical "dark nights of the soul" that have haunted my teaching life. This one centered upon the realization that, in metaphoric form, while I was very good at teaching my students how to "dance," I should actually also be teaching them to be "choreographers." What I had done, unwittingly, was to take all the design aspects out of the learning that was happening. And the more I looked, the more I saw how I had been doing that not only in the way I taught class, but the way I created assignments, the way I gave feedback and the way I interacted with them. I was a good "dance teacher;" but I realized there was something more that I needed to add. Most people are able to learn to dance to someone else's choreography - think of those Arthur Murray dance centers all over the country, classes for everyone who wants to learn how to waltz, fox trot or tango in the way they've been taught forever. But how many dancers actually learn to create their own choreographed dances of steps, swings, jigs, twists, shimmies, and moonwalks that expand the definition of learning? You increase the intensity and the density of experience-based learning by not only teaching students how to dance but encouraging them to be choreographers as well.

My second glimpse into this area happened not long after that class. It began innocently enough when I was picking my own children up from elementary school. I asked them, "How was school today?" And what I got back was a litany of events about art projects they were creating, math puzzles they were playing with, games they created during recess, plays they were writing to be performed and on and on with great enthusiasm. That evening I got a call from an excited former student who wanted to talk about how she was creating the schedule for her sophomore year of college and how the courses she was choosing all fit together and led toward an internship she was pursuing in the summer that would dovetail with a two-pronged junior year abroad in Scotland and Argentina.

In short, my own children and my former students were eagerly designing things and couldn't get enough of "school." But when I talked to my own students they sounded like the inverse of that position--they were not talking about what they were "doing;" they were talking about "what was being done TO them." Why this feeling exists is a very complicated question, but one reason I realized was that high school students didn't get to design very much. As I ask that question even today--"What was the last thing you designed?"--I usually get blank stares and the mystified retort, "You mean, in school?" The most frequent answers involve "extra-curricular" activities or CD mixes for people they are dating. I also found myself much more willing to create soccer practices and even coach competitive games where my players actively made choices on the field rather then follow prearranged steps.  But it took me years to have the confidence to give up that kind of control in my classroom.

The issue of design is so delicately but firmly tied into student motivation, disposition and sense of purpose that I have found it to be one of the single most influential facets of creating experience-based learning. In recent years, there has been a recognition of the importance of design most notably through the concept of design thinking. The IDEO global consultancy headed by Tim Brown has brought an awareness to this idea as a key not only to innovation but to transformation of organizations. The at Stanford University has also been instrumental in getting the concept of design front and center in all grades K-12. And Dean Kamen's Robotics competition, FIRST, has been gaining momentum every year since its inception in the mid-1990's. So, I think there is little doubt that question, "Where and when in this activity is the student going to be designing something that is crucial to the learning that I want to occur?" is one that will gain increasing attention in all classrooms.


So, what is an example of an assignment that we do at CITYterm that has an explicit design element in it? That will be the topic of the next blog post where we can examine some of the fundamental design principles at the heart of how to give students the chance not only to be accomplished dancers but also inventive choreographers.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Introduction: What Do Experience-based Teachers Think About Learning?

A couple of weeks ago some friends of mine who work in a school in Chicago that I had recently visited called to ask for the best articles I knew of that defined experience-based learning. At first, I was ready to unearth all the wonderful books and articles I had collected over the years--John Dewey, Jean Piaget, David Kolb, Kurt Lewin, Jerome Bruner, Kurt Hahn, LevVygotsky, Kieran Egan and even the recent spate of cognitive psychologists (Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg, David Perkins, Daniel Willingham) and researchers (Ken Bain, Guy Claxton, John Hattie, Robert Kegan, Carol Dweck) that I have spent the past twenty years or more reading--when I realized that I really didn't have anything I could pass on that was written from the teacher's point of view that tried to summarize a definition of experience-based learning. I had a lot of theory-to-practice articles and a voluminous set of studies of best practices, but not really anything that pinpointed what they wanted. I tend to be someone who works practice to theory so it was fun to think of answering their request. Their request was straightforward--"Can you identify FIVE major questions that are at the foundation of the way you plan for learning to be experience-based?"

I should start, however, by saying that I got interested in this whole topic because when I first started teaching I was around teachers (and have continued to be around them throughout my career) whose students were walking out of their classrooms having had, for lack of a better word, an "experience." The kind of learning that was happening was deeper, more lasting, more "mind-blowing." All I knew was that was not how I would describe what was happening in MY classroom, and I was curious about how that was happening in those rooms next door to mine. So, experience-based learning, for me, has always been about the learning itself, not just about the place it is happening. It can happen anywhere at anytime if the conditions are right in the environment and in the learner; I just happen to be lucky enough at CITYterm to be able to radically experiment with seeing how many places it happens and what variations are possible.


However, before I start to unpack the five questions I ask myself when I am trying to be a teacher that practices experience-based learning, it is important to define what learning is as richly as possible.  Take a minute right now and answer that question yourself. What characterizes learning in your class? Describe it in all its forms.  And how do you determine when learning has occurred? Maybe give yourself a couple of examples from the past month or so.

Around the time that CITYterm started, research conducted in Sweden in the 1970's was becoming more talked about in the States. Ference Marton and Roger Saljo were able to identify two different student approaches to learning. Those engaged in "surface learning" focused on parts of what they were reading so that they could memorize material that they believed they would be questioned on later.

For the past couple decades I have been asking high school students the following question, "Assume that I am the cognitive skill God and that I can grant you one cognitive skill of your choice that you feel will allow you to be at the top of your class, what skill would you like me to give you?" In most cases, I have to explain a bit about what a cognitive skill is and give examples of how cognition works in classrooms. But, after that, the vast majority of them give the same answer, and it is rarely the same answer that their teachers give--"photographic memory." Take a moment and think about the possible reasons for their answer. There are many possibilities, I think, but since there are no teachers that I know who focus a great deal on teaching that skill, it is kidn of alarming and depressing that this answer persists. Now do an assessment inventory of an individual student's tests, quizzes, labs and so forth for the past two weeks. After you collect the student's assessments, try to identify the cognitive skills that would have been most necessary to perform at the top of the class and see what you find.

It didn't take Swedish researchers to discover this, however. When I was doing my first teaching internship in a summer school in 1973 (which I was only doing because I got to run the soccer program and was pretty sure the only thing I did not want to do was be a teacher), a movie came out that captivated my attention--The Paper Chase. The movie, in some ways, is an embodiment of all the different kinds of approaches to learning that we are exploring here. Take a moment and watch the following clip starting at 6:27 to 9:10: Paper Chase. 

Professor Kingsfield humiliates Mr. Brooks for his prodigious "surface learning" abilities but identifies another kind of learning--"strategic learning"-- that he explains earlier in the film:

"Why don’t I just give you a lecture? You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. Because through my questions you learn to teach yourselves.... Questioning and answering. At times you may feel that you have found the correct answer. I assure you that this is a total delusion on your part. You will never find the correct, absolute, and final answer. In my classroom, there is always another question—another question to follow your answer. . . . You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer."

This is an important and sophisticated approach to learning that all of the schools I have taught in do extremely well. In fact, they do it so well that their graduates often return from the first year of college announcing, essentially, that they do not have to "do any work" in order to achieve excellent grades. This occurance is another kind of concern, but one I will explore later. This kind of training of minds--the ability to manipulate data, ideas, numbers, equations, images--is much more, as Professor Kingsfield suggests, than just having a surface knowledge.

For the Swedish researchers, however, "surface learning" was in contrast to the group engaged in "deep learning" who were characterized as being in an active search for meaning. In the movie, this approach is what the main character, appropriately named Mr. HART, comes to learn by the end of the film. Ference Marton and Roger Saljo saw "deep learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by re-interpreting knowledge." What I have been doing for a long time now is talking to people (mostly my own students but not only that age group) when it appears to me they are engaged in a "deep learning" approach to their learning. Listed below are what I hear people exhibiting or overtly saying when they are taking that approach.

"Deep" learners have a relationship with what they are learning that can be identified by:

1) a quest for understanding more than knowledge
2) developing multiple perspectives
3) being meta-cognitive (constantly thinking about their own thinking)
4) relating what they are learning to previous experiences
5) being hyper-aware of assumptions that are the foundation of what they are learning
6) feeling that they were the "authors of their own learning"
7) identifying their motivation as primarily intrinsic
8) its deeply personal nature
9) seeking out feedback on how they are learning
10) a courage that invites paradigm shifts in themselves that are transformational

Personally, I think we all need all three of these approaches (surface, strategic, deep) at different times and they are all valuable. I have a surface level approach to driving my car, a strategic approach to following the daily news, and a deep approach to thinking about teaching and learning. Think this through for yourself: when do you use each of these different approaches? And ask your students when they do. Fostering a transparency about a teacher's beliefs about the nature of learning always helps students feel more in control of their own learning and makes the relationship with the teacher more collaborative and less adversarial or collusive.

Lastly Experience-based learning almost always appears to be a "both/and" proposition, not an "either/or" choice. There is not one approach to learning that we use all the time, there are many. In this way the dichotomies that are often posited by nay-sayers -- such as "skills versus content" and "transmission versus construction" -- are red herrings in that they force a choice that leads one away from making learning experiential.

One of my hypotheses about experience-based learning is that it may well require the creation of a specific environment that is peculiarly conducive to development and growth. Almost all of my five major foundations of "experience-based" learning (Design,  Challenge and Support, Collaboration, Feedback and Transfer) contain challenges to the way we operate as schools right now.