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. 

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