Monday, 29 February 2016

Projects, planning and provocation

enGauge 21st Century Skills
Four weeks of school are over! I know that some teachers will be up to their necks in assessment, others will be doing their best to get to know their students and some will be doing Keeping Ourselves Safe or other such topic because that fits with building relationships. Like all teachers, we've been trying to create expectations, understanding and excitement in the class, we want our learners to be engaged, inspired and innovative.

As part of this we utilise project based learning focussed around three core themes each year and the NZ curriculum is then moulded around these themes. The themes are incredibly broad, Inventive Thinking, Digital Age Literacy and Effective Communication. In 2016 we've commenced with Digital Age Literacy first. Specifically, we've chosen to focus on Scientific Literacy, with Basic (numeracy and literacy), Media, Information and Visual Literacy.

For my colleague in LC4, Nicole, I imagine this has been an eye opening experience. Its her first term at HPPS and after being in her shoes this time last year, its quite daunting; new documents, systems, learners, colleagues and school culture. How newbies make their way in this is clearly up to the individual, I found it difficult to adjust to all the challenges and am relishing my second tilt at the wheel.

When teachers discuss passion-based learning they often fret about students concentrating on the bunnies, sports and video games. Passion-based learning can lead to learners building depth in one small area and not necessarily enjoying the true breadth of the NZ Curriculum. Prior to our students beginning projects we invest time and effort into an Immersion stage. Our aim is to introduce students to a "world they don't know". An immersion activity can look like anything, a workshop, hands on activity, workstation, video, app, event, trip, expert etc. Last year I ran immersions in Lego, cooking, infographics, science, Google Doodle Competition and many others. During an immersion it is important to observe/notice what the students are up to, their questions, wonderings and responsive workshops that may be required for their learning. Projects are co-constructed with the children at the completion of immersion.

Last year, establishing how to record their wonderings was a learning process. I'd had a couple of goes at adventure learning at my previous school, but this was on a whole new level! Our first couple of immersions this year have been interesting, a video on the way the brain makes connections certainly excited our students and some activities to make them think about their senses and memory also provoked some thoughts for possible projects. But Nicole and I were clear that we wanted some more focus, and were considering contestable/challenging ideas (vaccine debate, genetic modification, climate change etc) but were naturally worried about how all learners might access these ideas. I approached one of our DPs for warm but demanding feedback, "good theme" I'm told (Prove it) "but you might want to consider an enduring understanding to provide more focus".

With this in mind we're focussed squarely on “Scientists analyze and interpret evidence to solve problems and make decisions.” But when we utilise our original idea of the misconceptions of science, we've got a huge array of scientific immersion activities that can be considered. This American list provides a number of starting points for any science learning as we move into our second week of immersion.

But immersion activities also need to challenge students, excite them and make them wonder.

Nicole and I had been considering introducing the students to Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. I was aware that the proportions were accessible online, that the notion of symmetry and proportion key to this art piece and theory would challenge our students understanding of the human body. Previously, we'd observed students struggling with time and how the use of technology aided in the growing understanding of the human body. It might provoke many to grab rulers and investigate Da Vinci's theories. However, we had some reservations. Firstly, could we find a child-appropriate image and would they react positively, or were we barking up the wrong tree? We decided to park the idea.
At our Tuesday staff meeting, we'd been challenged as a staff to really examine our immersion activities. What modalities of learning were we catering for? While we always looked to make activities fun or provoke feelings and often had actual experiences for the student, often we weren't integrating much learning in the activity. As a staff, we were asked to ramp up the learning quotient of experiences. Challenge accepted.

Reflecting on management's challenge and trying to find a way to put an exclamation mark on the week, we reconsidered our Vitruvian Man activity. I found an appropriate image and a few extras for a laugh, a suitable video explaining Da Vinci, and sourced the proportions/measurements.

You can imagine my anxiety levels prior to the lesson - apart from 2 of our girls I'd never heard any mention of Da Vinci or the Vitruvian Man. This was definitely taking a risk as far as creating and sequencing a learning experience.

A small slideshow, the proportions listed out, making sure we have the rulers sourced, a plan of attack for observing and noticing what our learners got up to and we were ready. As they listened to the my quick introduction to Da Vinci we saw a few interested learners, then a video, a few more still, then Homer, Batman, Garfield and a Stormtrooper - lots more. Then the magic words - "we need rulers so we can measure these things!" They were intrigued, curious and we'd sparked their imagination. "Can we make a hypothesis?" says one, and gets nods of approval from some of her peers.
The questioning, curiosity, engagement and effort that went into the next 30 minutes was outstanding. Most investigated the proportions and tested (with varying degrees of accuracy) Da Vinci's theories, we spent our time recording questionings and comments from our learners or redirected them to their immersion tracking sheet as they looked to finish. All learners were introduced to something new, many were able to record quite interesting wonderings and possible projects. Not all had projects which came directly from the Da Vinci exercise, one was more interested in some of Da Vinci's other inventions and how these are compared to objects today (tanks, helicopters and catapults). Others started wondering about the human body and differences/similarities. While we had imagined that many would go straight to the rulers and the proportions, a handful went straight to devices to investigate more about Da Vinci and is an appropriate response to such a provocation, especially given our overall aim is to introduce the students to a world they didn't know.
As well as recording their noticings, wondering and questions Nicole and I were observing for teaching points for particular students. Some students were having trouble with rulers, converting measurements, working out fractions of a number or had difficulty calculating numbers. All this information was recorded to become responsive workshops for different learners. Nicole ran one such workshop today, the students with some targeted support around measurement all achieved more success using the same Vitruvian Man context. To allow student voice, we also invited students to submit requests for responsive workshops, if the students identified something they'd like to learn.
Our students finding projects isn't the only learning that comes out of these experiences. For some students, it is challenging to work with new or different people, they were actively encouraged to find someone to work with from outside their comfort zone. Others, have need support communicating their ideas, for them this was another opportunity to work with some scaffolds to find another way to share their ideas. Similarly, leading a group or being a follower is another disposition that is appropriate for some of our learners to consider during an experience such as this.
Towards the end of the experience I was buzzing, we'd achieved what we wanted when setting out but we'd done this in a way that met the criteria management had outlined in their challenge to us. I felt we'd lifted the bar for ourselves as a new team at the school and for myself personally when running immersion activities. The true test of this immersion activity, though, will come when we conference our students to co-construct their first round of projects.

Will the Vitruvian Man, or any project derived from that experience, feature amongst the children's thinking?

Perhaps, it doesn't matter as they've still been introduced to a world they didn't know existed.