Friday, September 26, 2014

Truth, Justice, and American Education: How the Common Core Debate Is As Senseless As a Superhero Slugfest

How does this picture reflect the arguments over the Common Core State Standards?

Think about what the heroes in this picture stand for - truth, justice, and the American way.  However, it's that last idea - the American way - that caused the heroes in this picture to battle each other.  

The Justice League have a more idealistic view of the American way and hold not only the public but also themselves to such high standards.  The Avengers have a more practical view and realize that sometimes hard choices must be made and lines must be crossed in the name of truth and justice.  Though their meaning and methods differ, their intent and purpose are the same - protect the innocent and preserve the common good.

Doesn't that sound like the Common Core debate?  Both the supporters and detractors believe education needs to be "saved".  However, where they disagree is how education should be "saved" - or improved.

However, could it be possible that both sides are misinformed in their approach to supporting and detracting the standards?

The CCSS supporters claim that the standards address the cognitive rigor that will have our students demonstrating higher levels of thinking and communicating deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness of what they are learning to prepare them for the demands, expectations, and responsibilities they will encounter after graduating from high school.  However, there is no scientifically-based research that proves these standards are effective in raising the rigor of student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance.  To state that the curriculum offered by a school or through a publish company is misleading since there are no materials or strategies that have been proven to be effective - only hypotheses and theories.

The CCSS detractors claim that the adoption and implementation of the standards is an attempt for the federal government to have more of say in regards to decision-making with education right down to the school level.  However, the CCSS is not a federal mandate.  It was a state-led initiative that was supported by the current Presidential administration who offered states an administrative incentive to adopt these standards by offering to absolve them to the stringent requirements of No Child Left Behind and a fiscal incentive through the Race to the Top grant that would fund the implementation and professional development of these new standards and the instructional strategies to address them.  To state that President Obama and his administration are responsible for the development and implementation of these standards is misleading since the idea and proposal for the national standards can be traced back to President Bush Sr.'s administration in the late '80s and early '90s (and, interestingly, abandoned by President Bill Clinton - a democrat who advocated for the development of academic standards that were developed by the individual states).

However, both sides do have a valid point.  The CCSS supporters are correct in that the academic standards for student performance and progress should be strengthened and made more rigorous and relevant.  The CCSS detractors are correct in that these standards developed and implemented were thrust upon not only educators but the public as a whole without any opportunity for discussion or review.

So what is the truth about the Common Core State Standards?  

They will not make our students any smarter nor any more intelligent.  However, they hopefully will help our students think deeper about what they are learning and demonstrate and communicate the deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness they develop using oral, written, creative, and technical expression to answer questions or come up with new ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking.

The curriculum materials offered by the education companies do not address the cognitive rigor of the Common Core State Standards.  They may be aligned to them in that they identify the standards that to be taught and learned with the materials they provide, but there is no scientifically-based research to prove one curriculum package is any better than another.  It's all speculation and theory at this point until our students' performance and proficiency are measured by the PARCC or Smarter Balanced exams.

Where's the justice behind the Common Core State Standards?

The implementation of the CCSS is also not a violation of the 10th Amendment, which delegates all powers and responsibilities not designated to the federal government to the states.  The states did not have to adopt or implement the CCSS.  Four states - Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska - chose to establish their own college and career ready standards and assessments.  Indiana has backed out of implementing the CCSS but still maintained their NCLB waiver because their new plan met the requirements of the Race to the Top grant.  Other states such as Oklahoma are either repealing or exploring the possibility of abandoning the CCSS under the consequence of having their federally funding pulled unless they can develop a system of instruction, assessment, and evaluation that meets the criteria of the Race to the Top grant.  The states were not forced or even coerced to adopt the standards.  They were given incentives, but they could have chosen not to take the reprieve or the money.

What's the evil and injustice behind the Common Core State Standards?

The misconception of what the CCSS are and what their intent and purpose are has been so grossly distorted due to this debate.  It's become a Brave New World situation.  There is so much information and misinformation out there that it's difficult to discern what's fact or fiction.

The "bad guys" are those who have fueled this confusion about the CCSS and used them to advocate their personal or political agenda.  The concept and idea of rigorous standards is irrefutable.  Our students need to be challenged and engaged to know, understand, think about, and be aware of what they are learning and how these concepts and content can be used to address, handle, settle, or solve real world circumstances, issues, problems, and situations.  However, what's the best manner or method to do this should be an educational concern and issue, not a political problem or situation.

Who are the "heroes" in this battle over the Common Core State Standards?

That's the teachers - the Supermen and Wonder Women who will use their professional judgment and training to present the concepts and content addressed in these standards in new and novel ways and challenge and engage our students to think deeply beyond the data, details, elements, facts, and information as they are presented.  They are the ones who will take whatever standards are implemented and provide our students with deeper teaching and learning experiences they deserve.  They are the ones who should not depend on the curriculum packages offered by the publishing companies that provide "false promises" about alignment to the CCSS or the politicians who have made this more about their feelings about the current Presidential administration to provide them the support they need to teach.  They are the ones who will create the lessons, the units, and the scope and sequence of the courses that will provide our children with engaging and enriching education experiences.

Let the CCSS supporters and debaters continue to fight each other proclaiming they have the best interest of the community in their mind.  We teachers will be the X-Men and the Teen Titans, fighting the good fight to ensure the American way of equality and opportunity are preserved through our actions. 

- E.M.F.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Relevancy Check: Why Am I Teaching This?

Is It Time for a Relevancy Check?
You know what you're supposed to teach.  It's defined in academic standards implemented by your state and and outlined the curriculum adopted by the district.

You know what your students are expected to know, understand, and do and how deeply they need to know, understand, and be aware of what they're learning.  It's stated in the performance objectives your state's academic standards and set by the questions, problems, and tasks your students your students must answer, address, and accomplish.

However, can you honestly say why you are teaching the ideas, principles, subjects, theories, and topics you you are teaching or even why it is important and vital - or essential - for students to learn these concepts and content?

How often have you been asked by your students - or did you even ask your teachers - why do they need to know this?  What do you tell them?  Do you find yourself at a loss for words and unable to find the connection between academic concepts and real world circumstances?

Then perhaps it's time for you to conduct a relevancy check.

For years, we've been focused on conducting checks for rigor to determine the levels of difficulty and depth of complexity of what we are teaching.  That's what the Common Core State Standards have encouraged and prompted us to do.  However, what we seem to struggle with is to have our students recognize and realize how they can use the academic concepts and content they are learning to address real world circumstances, issues, problems, or situations.

Cognitive Rigor Matrix (Hess, Jones, Carlock& Walkup, 2009)
Hess, Carlock, Jones, and Walkup (2009) developed the concept of cognitive rigor to aligned  Bloom's Taxonomy with Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  They even developed the Cognitive Rigor Matrix to help teachers align the cognitive complexity Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  While most teachers are able to provide questions, problems, and tasks that have students demonstrate higher level thinking, they struggle with challenging and engaging students to extend their thinking across the curriculum and beyond the classroom.

What most teachers seem to strive for yet struggle with is what has become the elusive D.O.K.-4 Question that extends students' thinking across the curriculum and beyond the classroom.  With D.O.K.-4, students are challenged and engaged to conduct research and investigations to solve real-world problems with unpredictable outcomes.  The strive has been to connect the academic concepts and content being taught and learned to real-world situations.  The struggle has been for teachers to think about what exactly are those real-world circumstances, issues, problems, are situations.

D.O.K-4 questions are not just about rigor but relevance - the thinking and reasoning behind what we are teaching and how knowledge, understanding, and awareness can be used to answer multidisciplinary questions and address real world issues, problems, and situations.  The D.O.K.-4 establishes the importance and value - or relevancy - of what we are teaching and our students are learning.

To define the relevancy, we need to consider how deeper knowledge and thinking about academic concepts and content can extend across the curriculum and beyond the classroom.  In order to do this, we need to consider the following questions:

  • How could learning these ideas, principles, processes, and theories benefit our students academically, personally, professionally, and socially?
  • How could learning these concepts and content help our students better understand the past, handle the present, and prepare for the future?
  • What is the connection these subjects and topics have globally, nationally, and locally?
Relevancy Check Chart
In order to help teachers recognize and realize the relevancy of what they are teaching, I have developed what I call the Relevancy Check - a chart that will help teachers determine the connection between the academic concepts they are teaching and their importance and value in the real world.  

The first box is where you will identify the concept, content, subject, or topic you are teaching.  For example, perhaps you are teaching fractions, the American Revolution, plate tectonics, or Macbeth.  The second box is where you will list the performance objectives of the standards and clusters you are teaching.  The next set of boxes is where you will determine what is the relevance of what you are teaching academically, personally, professionally, socially; to the past, the present, and future; and globally, nationally, and locally.

Not all of these sections will be answered.  However, there should be more than an academic relevancy to what you are teaching.  Otherwise, why are you teaching it (because it's in the text or the standards are not a good enough reason).

As we head back to campus for another school year, consider how you could use this chart to help you recognize and realize the importance and value - or relevance - of what you're teaching.  If you can't see the relevancy, then perhaps you need to reflect upon your own depth of knowledge of what you are teaching.

- E.M.F.

(To learn more about how you can use the Relevancy Check or how you can receive a professional development training on how to use this tool, please contact us at erik@maverikeducation.comor visit our website at

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Michael Crichton + Cognitive Rigor + Common Core = Complexity Through Creativity

Each year, districts and schools conduct book studies as part of their professional development plan to learn new insights, methods, and strategies to improve student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance.  The books typically read for these book studies are either education trade books that discuss key issues or best practices in education or leadership and management books that address how to improve operational effectiveness and stakeholder relations.

However, what if this year for the book study your school read a Michael Crichton novel and analyzed and evaluated how his books reflect the kind of learning we want students to demonstrate and communicate?

The Literary Fiction of Michael Crichton
Perhaps you've heard of Michael Crichton's books or their movie adaptations - Jurassic Park, Congo, Sphere, Rising Sun, The Great Train Robbery, Disclosure, The Andromeda Strain, A Case of Need (apparently, there was a film adaptation made in the 1970s), or Eaters of the Dead, which was adapted into the film The 13th Warrior.  Perhaps you've seen the film Twister or watched the TV show E/R.  Perhaps you've read one of his fiction novels that was not turned into a film such as Airframe, Pirate Latitudes, Next, Prey, State of Fear, or Pirate Latitudes.  Perhaps you read his nonfiction work Travels.

If you're familiar with Michael Crichton's works, you know that his novels, films, and TV shows are not mindless tales that showcase nonsensical topics.  They are actually academic and even highly cerebral tomes that address open-ended, thought-provoking essential questions in an entertaining manner.

Consider the topic addressed in Jurassic Park - Should scientists bring back the dinosaurs and reintroduce them into the world and how would they do it?  This would be an interesting topic to explore in a K-12 science classroom studying fossils, biology, genetics, cloning or artificial selection.  In fact, the part of the novel Jurassic Park that explains how the scientists extracted dinosaur blood from fossilized mosquitoes and how the scientists mistakenly chose to replace the unknown DNA strands with amphibian DNA reads like a biology textbook.  It also examines and explores a number of prevailing debate over whether dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than reptiles.

In Congo, Crichton takes us into the heart of Africa where the characters encounter the natural dangers and the political strife occurring in the jungle.  He also examines and explores the controversial idea of the evolutionary connection between humans and apes by featuring an ape who communicates through sign language and savage simian creatures that protect the gemstones the expedition team is looking for whose features and behaviors indicate they are either an ape-chimpanzee hybrid or even a gorilla-human hybrid. 

Timeline addresses time travel, explaining how time travel is similar to transmitting a message via a fax machine in which the original form of a person stays in the present and a "facsimile" of them actually travels through the time spectrum.  Sphere also addresses time travel as well as what lies at the bottom of the ocean in a highly complex, psychological manner.

Most of Crichton's novels  focus heavily on scientific theory.  The Andromeda Strain is one of the first books that presented how the world would react to the spread of a deadly epidemic (in this case, it was an extraterrestrial biological infestation brought back by an American satellite that returns to Earth). The Terminal Man is about unlocking the hidden potential of the human brain.  Prey is about nanotechnology.  Twister is about how to be able to track and predict tornadoes.  Next is another evolutionary story about man's connections to apes.  State of Fear is about global warming and is considered to be one of his most controversial novels.  

Crichton also dabbled in the social sciences with his stories and also addressed some very topical yet controversial issues.  Rising Sun addresses the controversial subject of how Japanese business practices and culture has seeped into American culture.  Disclosure takes a different turn on sexual harassment - male on female - and infers how it can be used for leverage and selfish intentions.  Airframe is about the procedures and politics involved in investigating airline crashes.  Crichton has also written historical fiction such as Eaters of the Dead, The Great Train Robbery, and Pirate Latitudes based upon actual events and people.

What's interesting and relevant about Crichton's novels and stories in their connection to education is not what the stories discuss - although you would definitely learn more about whatever it's discussing - but rather how he presents this information.  Crichton's books are the epitome of metacognition, the ability to use knowledge a person develops through learning to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task or even come up with new ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking.  Each one of Crichton's novels is based upon a hypothesis or notion he has about a particular academic, social, or scientific concept, idea, subject, or topic.  Each novel or film asks a question that he examines and explores throughout the story.  His stories are actually expository and even argumentative writing, and he tests his hypotheses and presents his ideas through narrative.

Crichton's novels are also examples of project-based learning - particularly by communicating his ideas clearly through oral, written, creative, and technical expression.  He teaches us something new with every story.  Think about it.  Did you ever consider dinosaurs could possibly be the ancestors of birds rather than reptiles before you read or watched Jurassic Park?  Was that the "ah-ha" moment you took away from the book or the movie?  Did it compel you to look up and research whether there was any truth to what Crichton suggested?

Crichton's novels also exemplify the depth in which we want our students to think critically, creatively, and strategically and examine and explore through research, investigation, experiential, hands-on learning, and creative design.  He takes us beyond the facts and information as they are presented or provided and challenges us to question what we believe we know and what we are currently learning.  His books could actually be a supplement to any science or social studies textbook or be taught in conjunction with exploration of current events.

Plus, his books and movies are so much fun to read and watch!

How can we have our students' demonstrate higher level thinking and communicate their deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness of what they are learning as if they were Michael Crichton?  

We need to provide them opportunities to express and share their knowledge, understanding, and awareness using their innate skills and talents.

That's what Crichton did.  He used his verbal, visual, and technical skills to present his ideas in a creative manner.  He was also highly intrapersonal in that he was an author who preferred to work by himself (though he did collaborate with his wife in writing Twister and also directed a couple of films such as Coma. Looker, and Westworld).

That's not to say every child should express their learning creatively through a novel or a film or even art.  Crichton wrote nonfiction as well.  In fact, many of his articles are great examples of expository and argumentative writing.

Multiple Intelligence Activities: World War II
Multiple Intelligence Activities: Pythagorean Theorem
To have my students express and share their knowledge, understanding, and awareness like an artisan or thinker like Michael Crichton, I created the Multiple Intelligence Activity grid based upon the Tic-Tac-Toe tool used typically in differentiated instruction that allows students to use their strengths, skills, and talents to demonstrate and communicate their learning.   The projects I included in there were aligned to the multiple intelligences defined by Howard Gardner.  

Each box had one or two very abstract, broad, and complex descriptions of the project the student could develop - draw a poster, write a short story, make a PowerPoint presentation or video, engage in a debate.  How the students designed and developed the project was up to them.  In keeping with the practice of differentiated instruction that allows students to choose how they learn, I allowed them the choice of either working alone, with a partner, or as part of a group or team to complete their project.  I also provided them the opportunity to do a student original combo if they did not like any of the project ideas presented, which meant they could combine one of the projects presented within the grid - for example, turn a short story written by one student into a graphic novel or a film.  They could also come up with their own idea for a project they would want to do that addressed the objective of the unit, answered one of the good cognitive rigor questions of the unit, and also would prompt their audience to think deeply about what they are learning.

Multiple Intelligence Activity: Science Fiction
Along with their projects, each student would have to write a research and process paper that detailed the research they conducted to complete their project and how and why they designed and developed their project as they did.  That's what I would grade since that's really what I was focused upon - how deeply they learned about the concept, idea, subject, or topic they addressed in their project and how they defended, explained, or justified their thinking and reasoning.  I would turn the projects themselves over to the class for grading.  The final week of the unit was the class showcase in which each student or group presented their problem.  My students read the stories and papers and watch the presentations and performances.  After they were viewed, they would answer three questions:
Multiple Intelligence Activity: Animals

  1. How does the project address the objectives of the unit?
  2. How does the project answer one or more of the essential questions of the unit?
  3. What deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness did you acquire from this project?

After the reviews were submitted, my class would engage in a Q & A session with the presenter(s) of the project to discuss how they produced their project and what their intent, message, or purpose was.  Based upon the results of the reviews, the students would receive a grade from the peer evaluation that I would average in with the grade I gave them for their research and process papers.

Teaching and grading like this not only made my class more enriching but also enjoyable and even manageable.  Before this, I would spend days grading a different version of the same project I assigned over and over.  I also encountered the "angry parent" who would be upset about my critique over the quality of the project.  By turning the grading of the project to the students, it relieved me from grading the quality of their project and allowed me to focus more on what I really was concerned about - how deeply did they learn about the concept, idea, subject, or topic and how did they use that knowledge to accomplish the task or create new ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking.

Plus, these projects gave me student-produced artifacts I could use to teach my students in the other classes as well as in the future!  That's one of the essential reasons why we should have our students do projects - to have student-created artifacts, examples, and exemplars that we can use to teach our students deeper and show students what they have the potential to do with what they have learned.  Whenever I presented a story, research paper, video, or work of art one of my former students did, I always had a student who muttered, "I could do that," or even claim they could do it better.  

When we do project-based learning, we're not only allowing students to demonstrate and communicate their deeper knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness using their innate skills and talents.  We're helping these students to develop these skills and talents into expertise they will hopefully be able to use successfully in their personal and professional lives.  We're also thinking about the future by showing our students what they could potentially do with what they are learning and giving them the freedom to take what they have learned and come up with their own ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking.

Just like Michael Crichton did in every story he wrote.

- E.M.F.

(If you're interested in learning how to do project-based learning with the Multiple Intelligence Activity grid or have this training as a professional development for your teachers at your school, please contact me at or visit my website

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Let's Make a D.O.K.! A Game Show Approach to Depth of Knowledge

What exactly is depth of knowledge?

Questioning with Webb's Depth of Knowledge
The framework designed by Norman Webb (1997) categorizes depth of knowledge into four levels. 

D.O.K.-1 questions require students  to recall or reproduce knowledge and/or skills to come up with an answer that is either correct or incorrect.  Questions at this particular level usually involves working with facts, terms, and/or properties of objects.

D.O.K.-2 questions expect students to think deeper about how to answer questions by applying the knowledge and skills they have acquired and developed.  Such teaching and learning experiences involve students working with or applying skills and/or concepts to tasks related to the field of study in a laboratory setting.  They also require students to follow a set of principles, categories, and protocols in order to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task. 

A D.O.K.-3 question challenges students to think critically and strategically how to answer a question acceptably, accurately, appropriately, and authentically.  They challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate higher levels of thinking such as analysis and evaluation but also communicate their thinking and reasoning behind their responses and results.

A D.O.K.-4 question engages students to examine and explore concepts and content deeply and think creatively how they can use their knowledge, understanding, and awareness to answer questions or come up with new ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking about what they are learning.  Such questions encourage students to examine and explore how to address, handle, settle, or solve real world circumstances, issues, problems, and situations through research, investigation, experimentation, and creative design.  They also expect students to express and share their claims, conclusions, decisions, and reasons using oral, written, creative, and technical expression. 

Sounds simple, right?

Then why is there so much confusion as to what qualifies as deeper knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness?  

Why is there so much concern over how students' depth of knowledge of concepts and content will be assessed and evaluated on assessments such as the PARCC or the Smarter Balanced exams?  

How would you explain this academic concept to a new teacher who has just entered the profession or moved from a state that had not adopted the Common Core State Standards?

How would you explain this cognitive schema to a veteran teacher who is used to aligning their instruction to the categories within the Cognitive Domain of Bloom's Taxonomy or its revised version which has split knowledge into its own dimension?

How would you explain this instructional focus to parents and students who for years have been instructed, assessed, and evaluated based upon how much they know, understand, and can do rather than how deeply they know, understand, and aware of a concept or content in order to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task?

How can we develop instructional activities and assessments that not only stimulate student thinking and deepen their knowledge, understanding, and awareness about what they are learning but also measure and monitor the level of thinking and depth of knowledge they can demonstrate and communicate?

We can teach them like game show contestants.

Now wait a minute.  I'm not suggesting we turn our classroom into entertainment centers in which students compete with their classmates as to who can answer questions, address problems, or accomplish tasks correctly or successfully for a prize or reward.  I'm suggesting that they can use the format of questions, problems, and tasks on various game shows to challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate different levels of knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness.

D.O.K.-1 activities generally resemble the kind of questions contestants are asked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Jeopardy - multiple choice or short answer questions that require demonstrating and communicating factual knowledge of specific details, elements, and information correctly.  The questions asked on Jeopardy are similar to how we assess and evaluate our students' factual, procedural, and conceptual knowledge of the subjects and topics they are learning - asking them to recall, recognize, and remember specific details, elements, facts and information correctly.   Such questions are more difficult than complex, requiring students to work hard at remembering so many details correctly, which is why Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Jeopardy are two of the most difficult game shows on the air.  However, such questions can help students develop the knowledge and understanding they will need to think deeper about what they are learning. 

D.O.K.-2 activities are similar to the competitive tasks presented on shows such as Top Chef or Hell's Kitchen in which contestants expected to use conceptual and procedural knowledge to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task.  These shows are like a lab experience in which students actively apply their knowledge, understanding, and skills to complete and are evaluated based upon their ability to produce a correct, desired, or specific result.  It expects students to use what they have learned to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task.  As with Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef, D.O.K.-2 questions focus heavily on skills-based performance, expecting students to demonstrate their ability to use the factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge they have acquired in a specific area, discipline, or subject.

D.O.K.-3 activities are similar to the problems and tasks presented on game shows such as Survivor or The Apprentice  Both shows are prime examples of problem-based learning that challenges students to think critically and strategically about how to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task.  They also emphasize collaboration in that the questions, problems, and tasks posed, presented, and provided cannot be answered, addressed, or accomplished alone or immediately.  D.O.K.-3 activities are like the competitions on Survivor and the tasks on The Apprentice in that they are highly complex and focus more on the process in which a question, problem, or task can be answered, addressed, or accomplished.

D.O.K.-4 activities are like Shark Tank, which essentially is project-based learning and even engineering design.  A person thinks creatively about how to design and develop an innovative or inventive plan or product that addresses a particular circumstance, issue, problem, or situation; plots out the plan or produces a prototype; tests their idea or design; and then presents their conclusions to a panel, defending, explaining, and justifying their reasoning and results.  Project-based learning should mirror the experience of Shark Tank in that students should be expected to present what they have designed, developed, or done and have their project evaluated by the teacher and their peers as to whether it answers the essential question of the unit or class, addresses a particular objective, and teaches them something new about the concept or content they are learning.

So when you are planning your D.O.K. activities this year, consider which game show your question, problem, or task will appear and how it expects to students to demonstrate and communicate their thinking - and let's make a D.O.K.!
- E.M.F.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Transformer Education: Project-Based Learning in Disguise

How can project-based learning be like a Transformers movie?

Think about the Transformers movies.  They are grand spectacles that are highly entertaining visually.  We don't see these films because of the depth of the plot, the characters, or even the themes it addresses (though the first one could be analyzed for how it conveys an enduring understanding about the relationship between a teenage boy and his car).  We see these films because it is "cool" to see how the Transformers transform back and forth from a robot to a vehicle and because the visuals are like the art of a comic book panel coming to life.  The films are successful because they are dazzling.

The Transformers movies are also highly criticized for being empty and lacking any deeper meaning.  They are pure spectacle, which Aristotle defines in his Poetics to be the least important component of a dramatic tragedy, focusing on the sensory effects: costumes, scenery, the gestures of the actors, the sound of the music and the resonance of the actors' voices.   The substance of a drama is its plot, the "representation of human action" and one of the objects of the performance along with character (defining who the character or individual is) and thought (how the individual makes their decisions).  In essence, Aristotle believes tragedy is effective when it focuses more on substance than spectacle.

Can't the same be said about project-based learning?

Project-based learning is one of the most creative best practices, instructional methods, and active learning strategies we educators can use to challenge and engage our students to demonstrate and communicate their deeper knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness about the concepts and content they are learning.  It also supports education and performance in areas that are not considered (but should) to be the "core academic courses" - the fine and visual arts, career and technical education, and physical education.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)
Since the 1990s, project-based learning has been emphasized, encouraged, and implemented in K-12 education to motivate our students to want to learn, to learn applicable skills that promote college and career readiness, and to support talent development.  Teachers proudly show the projects their kids do in their classes and for their assignments.  

How many classrooms and schools have we been in where the walls are decorated with the artistic works of the kids?  How many thematic nights have been presented by the school in which the library or cafeteria is turned into a museum featuring the dioramas and models designed by the students?  How many classroom performances have we been to where the students gave dramatic interpretations and presentations of what they are learning?  

We've even used project-based learning as a means of addressing the cuts made to the arts, career and technical education, and physical education in which the delivery of instruction is project-based learning.

Project-based learning is highly creative and promotes creativity.  However, does it foster and prompt creative thinking?

5 R's of Problem-Based Learning defines creative thinking as "a way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests unorthodox solutions (which may look unsettling at first)".  When our students are expected to think creatively, we're not asking them to draw, act, or sing.  We're challenging and engaging them to think about what they can design, develop, invent, innovate, plan, produce, or come up with to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task.  These are the questions we need to ask students when we want them to demonstrate the highest level of cognition according to Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.

What Is Creative Thinking?
Creative thinking also correlates to metacognitive thinking, which Krathwohl (2002) explains as the process in which individuals think critically and strategically about how to use certain knowledge and skills accurately and appropriately and also develop self-knowledge and new ideas, perspectives, processes, and ways of thinking.  It is the ultimate level of acquired and developed knowledge that has students making decisions about how to use what they have learned or even coming up with new, innovate, and inventive knowledge about concepts and content they can validate through research, investigation, and hands-on learning.

Creativity is the medium, manner, or mode in which creative thinking is expressed.  This is what the projects are.  Each project a student produces represents the individual perspective and thought process of the person who designed the project - how they interpret the information, see the world, and share their vision.  This is why each project designed is unique to its designer or developer.  No project will typically be the same unless the student is expected to follow a set list of directions to produce a final product that has been already been defined and determined (for example, building IKEA furniture).  That's not a project.  That's a task.

The problem with project-based learning is that we focus more on the output or result than the process - or, in other words, we care more about what the student produces than the extent the student needed to research and investigate the necessary data, details, elements, facts, and information they needed to develop the project; the manner in which they designed the project; and the intended message of their project.  Instead, we typically judge a project based upon its aesthetics - how does it look and how well did the student meet the expectations for the task.

This is what I mean by Transformer Education: Project-Based Learning in Disguise.  Like the Transformers, we're focused more on the spectacle or presentation of the project than the level of thinking the student demonstrated and depth of knowledge the student communicated in designing the project.  The project highly entertaining, appealing, and interesting, but it lacks substance - like a Transformers movie.

Such project-based learning is merely "educational arts and crafts", an extension of what Calkins (1998) and Schmoker (2007) notion of "literary arts and crafts" that simply have students making "stuff" in the name of creativity and creative expression.  While I do not agree with Schmoker's notion that such learning is not purposeful, I do echo his sentiments that the creative expression provided through project-based learning that has students demonstrating their ability to create and communicate their depth of knowledge, understanding, and awareness of their knowledge and thinking must be more insightful and intellectual.

Another problem with project-based learning is that we often assign students the same project to do.  We have all students create a diorama, a model, a poster, a performance on the same concept, idea, subject, or topic.  Every student in class designs some kind of artistic representation of the solar system.  Every student writes a short story in the genre being studied in class.  Every student writes the same report.  Every student creates the same model of the atom.  Again, this focuses more on the output, production, and result than the thought process behind its design.

Critiquing project based upon their quality rather than depth also can cause conflict.  How many incidences have you experienced or heard about in which the parent confronted the teacher upset by the grade their student received on a project?  How many times have you found yourself questioning who truly designed the project - the student or the parent?  How many times have you encountered a situation in which the student addresses all the criteria of the project but the final product they turn in is a mess?  How many situations have you had in which the project becomes too overwhelming for the student or the project does not work properly on the day it is presented?  What do you do in those situations?

Project-based learning should not only be about the final product but the process in which the project is designed.  The emphasis should not be about how spectacular the project looks but rather how substantial are the concepts, ideas, subjects, and topics the final product addresses.  The evaluation should be not on the project itself but the level of thinking and depth of knowledge students expressed in their design, invention, plan, or production.

To engage students in deeper project-based learning, students should be expected to accompany each project with some form of communication - oral or written - that details the research involved in coming up with the project, the process in which the project was designed, and the intention or meaning the student hopes their project conveys.  I used to tell my students that this was the special feature on the Blu-Ray/DVD in which the director provides commentary how and why they set up a sequence of shots, the Behind the Music interview in which the musician explains why they wrote the song and what it means, or the interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actor's Studio in which the actor explains how they approach a role.  Not only does this serve as documentation of the work that went into designing the project but it also teaches students how to explain their ideas and thinking for all to understand.  This is what I would grade - the research and process behind the project.  That's creative thinking.

Whenever my students did a project, they had to accompany it with a research paper written in MLA format that defined what the concept or content the project addressed, the specific facts and information related to the concepts and content, and the credible sources they cited.  They also wrote a process paper in which they documented how they designed their project and identified the intended meaning and message behind the project.  These papers were like the placards that were featured with exhibits in a museum (In fact, in my dialogue - or rather, debate - with Mr. Schmoker about the academic merit of dioramas and projects, I asked if he would be more accepting of such activities if students were required to accompany their projects with documentation of their research and design process.  Unfortunately, we had to agree to disagree.).

Why Is She Smiling?
To model this process with my students, I showed them a picture of The Mona Lisa and asked them why she is smiling.  My students came up with some great hypotheses and ideas, but the truth is we do not know the answer because its painter, Leonardo Da Vinci, never provided any explanation nor left behind any documentation explaining what the painting meant, how he painted it, why he painted it the way he did, or what the intent, meaning, or message of the painting was.  Then I asked, "What impact does not explaining our thinking have on the world?" This was a topic I had my students write about and debate in class.  It also allowed me to make my point as to why they will be expected to write a research paper and document their process in designing their project.  They should not deny the world the meaning and method behind their genius and thinking (or madness, as I would jokingly tell them).  A creator can design, develop, innovate, invent, plan, or produce, but a creative thinker can explain the thinking behind their creativity.

The projects did not have to be grand scale models, visual presentations, or performances.  I informed my students that a project what a product that demonstrated and communicated their depth of knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness of what they have learned.  It could be a research paper, a report, or a personal narrative.  

The projects were long term projects that generally took the entire scope of the unit to complete, which was about four to six weeks.  The last week of the unit was devoted to project presentations.  Each student was expected to present their project.  If it was a project that needed to be experienced by an audience, it was presented to the class.  If it was a research paper or report, it was discussed in a Socratic seminar that the student who wrote the paper and I would facilitate.

I would grade the research and process papers the students submitted along with their project.  Then I'd let the students in the class grade the projects.

As I'm certain it is for many of you, I find it difficult to grade a student based upon the quality of a project - especially the more artistic it is.  There are some students who simply struggle with the ability to draw, to build a model, to sing, to act, to dance to stand up before a large crowd and perform or speak, or even to work with others in a group.  Perhaps that's not their area of strength, skill, or talent.   What am I doing by forcing them to do a project that may push them out of their level of comfort but backfires by asking them to do something they simply cannot do for whatever reason?

I also found it very boring and dull for me to grade the same project.  It became more tedious and time consuming for me to grade the project than probably for my students to do the project.  I also struggled with what exactly was I grading - the substance or the spectacle of the project?  Was I truly grading them based upon their deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness of the concepts and content I taught them or was I merely comparing the quality of each project to another?

M.I.A.: World War II
That's why I gave my students a choice and voice when it came to project-based learning.  I used the Tic-Tac-Toe grid that's often used to differentiate instruction in project-based learning.  Each box represented one of the multiple intelligences defined by Howard Gardner.   I called this the Multiple Intelligence Activity grid or M.I.A.   However, instead of having the students choose three different projects that are listed diagonally, horizontally, or vertically, I would provide them a simple idea they could do for a project.  It was their responsibility to develop and expand upon the idea to make it their own.  
M.I.A.: Pythagorean Theorem
For example, for visual, I would say, "Turn the story we are reading into a graphic novel," or, "Write a song explaining how to apply the mathematical concept we are learning."  They could also choose whether they wanted to work on the project with a partner, in a group, or by themselves.  They could also choose to combine the projects to develop a project with a larger scope.  For example, turn an original short story written by one student into a graphic novel or a video.  If they didn't like any of the projects I suggested, they could come up with their own project and pitch it to me, explaining how it addresses the academic standards that needed to be met or exceeded in the unit (which I would identify at the beginning of the unit) and which driving questions the project would address.

  The students would evaluate the project by responding to the following question:

  1. What academic standards and performance objectives does the project address?
  2. What essential or driving questions does the project answer?
  3. What did you learn about the concept and content we have addressed in this unit from the project?
M.I.A.: Animals and Plants
Once the students turned in the responses, the student or students who developed the project and I would go over the responses.  If a percentage of the class were able to clearly recognize what standards and questions the project addressed and explain what deeper insight the project provided them, then that percentage was averaged into the grade I gave the student for their documentation of their research and process in developing the project.

Not only did it have the students feel as if they were involved in the decision-making of the class, it allowed me to determine just how deeply did the students understand the concepts and content I was teaching them.  If they could recognize, understand, and determine how these projects addressed the performance objectives and essential questions of the unit, then I knew they "got it".

M.I.A.: Science Fiction
As you can see from the M.I.A. activities I listed, the projects were pretty spectacular.  However, what made them substantial was the requirement for the documentation of the research and thinking behind the development of the project and also providing my students the choice and opportunity regarding how they would develop their projects.  I have some great artifacts from these lessons that I not only used as exemplar text in my classroom but also in my professional development trainings.  It's also nice to take the projects out from time and time and reflect upon how much these students enjoyed doing these projects.  Many of them even progressed to turn their experiences into a career, becoming engineers, artists, athletes, and performers.

This is how we can make project-based learning a more substantial experience not only for our students but us teachers and not have it become as spectacularly empty as a Transformers movie.

- E.M.F.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Going D.E.E.P.E.R. with Problem Solving and Problem-Based Learning

What exactly a problem?

Is it a circumstance that can be addressed?

Is it a condition that can be cured?

Is it an issue that can be resolved?

Is it a situation that can be handled?

Is a problem all these things, and can all problems be solved?

Not necessarily.

Most problems cannot be solved.  In fact, most problems in real life are only addressed, handled, resolved, settled, and even avoided.

Take a look at the articles featured in the newspaper, the stories in the news magazines, and the reports featured on the local, national, and cable news networks.  Each one is a real world problem that needs to be addressed, handled, resolved, or settled.  

However, education, school, and teachers teach us every question has an answer, every problem has a solution, and every task can be completed.

That's not problem solving.  That's solving problems.

Problem solving focuses more on the planning, process, thinking, and reasoning involved in addressing and handling circumstances, issues, problems, and situations rather than the solution itself.  The solution is the measurable example or outcome of the problem solver's thinking.  It is also not final or finite.  What is a viable solution presently may not be in the future.  With problem solving, as the adage goes, just when you think you have the answers, the question changes.

When we teach problem solving to solve problems, what we're actually doing is expecting students to attain an answer, conclusion, or solution.  What we should be teach students is how to think critically and creatively, examine and explore deeply, work collaboratively and responsibly, and communicate clearly their deeper knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness of the process of problem-solving.

Teaching problem solving involves students learning how to engage in two different processes we explain using the acronym D.E.E.P.E.R.

D.E.E.P.E.R. Problem Solving
D.E.E.P.E.R. Problem Solving involves students thinking strategically how to solve a problem by identifying what the problem is; examining and exploring all alternatives, options, and possibilities through research, investigation, and experimentation; picking the best solution; evaluating and explaining their thinking and reasoning; and reflecting and reporting on what they have learned through their education and experience. The ultimate goal is to find an acceptable or appropriate resolution or solution.  The scientific method is an example of how students would engage in D.E.E.P.E.R. Problem Solving.

D.E.E.P.E.R. Design
D.E.E.P.E.R. Design involves students thinking creatively how to design a plan or prototype of a product that will address, handle, settle, or solve a problem.  While the process is similar to D.E.E.P.E.R. Problem Solving, the end result is a plan or product that can be used to handle or manage the circumstance or situation. It combines both the critical thinking of problem-based learning and the creative thinking of project-based learning.  Engineering design is an example of how students would engage in problem solving using the D.E.E.P.E.R. Design method.

D.E.E.P.E.R. Review involves students analyzing and evaluating how a particular issue, problem, or situation was addressed, handled, settled, or solved and coming up with their own ideas and recommendations as to how they would deal with the problem. In these situations, the problem has already been identified and solved, and the student is expected to review how the situation was handled or what they would do with similar circumstances.  Case studies and literature reviews are examples of learning activities and experiences in which students would use the D.E.E.P.E.R. Review method of problem solving.  

The process and thinking students demonstrate and communicate depends upon the type of problem they are expected to address, handle, resolve, settle, or solve.  

Is this a well-structured, tame problem such as an algorithmic or mathematical story problem that has a clear, definitive answer?  

Is this an ill-structured, complex problem that engages students to choose from a list of possible and potential solutions, troubleshoot how to address the problem, come up with a diagnosis and hypothesize how to treat the condition, or think strategically and tactfully how to accomplish their goals within a certain time limit?  

Is this an ill-structured, wicked problem that continuously changes and evolves over time and has no clear or universally acceptable or agreed upon solution?

These are the types of problems students will encounter in their personal and professional lives.  Some problems may be difficult yet simple to solve, having a clear cut solution that takes time and effort to discover.  Some problems may be more complex, requiring students to demonstrate and communicate higher and deeper levels of knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness.  Some problems may be so complicated that finding an ultimate solution is near impossible.

So how can we develop problem-based learning activities that will teach students how to work with such a variety of problems?

Jonassen's Typology of Problems
Jonassen's Typology of Problems provides a framework of problem types we educators can use to develop deeper teaching and learning experiences that will teach our students how to work with the type of problems students will encounter throughout their lives academically, personally, and professionally.

Tame problems are the types of problems typically presented in school - problems that have simple, clear cut solutions.  What students should be provided are examples of the complex and wicked problems they will encounter in the real world.

Decision-making problems require students to make a choice from a list of alternatives, options, and solutions.  Examples of such problems would be choosing who to vote for in an election.

Troubleshooting problems expect students to figure out why something is not working and fix it.  Examples of such problems would be determining why an engine is not running properly and making the necessary adjustments to fix it.

Diagnosis-solution problems take a more scientific approach to troubleshooting, challenging and engaging students to use their education and experience to hypothesize what the problem is and how to treat the condition.

Strategic-tactical problems are goal-oriented and constrained by time.  Such problems occur in athletics and sports when the clock is ticking and the quarterback or center needs to determine how to execute a play successfully before time runs out.

Policy analysis problems have students examining actual laws, policies, and rules and determining their appropriateness and effectiveness.  Examples would be reviewing the amendments of the U.S. Constitution to determine whether the intent behind the law remains pertinent and practical or even the applicability of school rules and policies such as dress codes.

Designing and planning problems engage students to think critically and creatively how to fix flaws, innovate existing designs, or invent new plans and products that will make products work more effectively and efficiently.  Examples would be how to innovate the design and workings of a cell phone or computer or create a new product altogether,

Dilemmas are social problems that cannot be solved - only addressed, handled, settled, or avoided.  These problems are the most wicked and tenuous, involving so many stakeholders with multiple interests and investments in both the problem and the solution.  Universal acceptance of a solution is near possible, which is why such problems are so difficult to solve.  Examples of dilemmas includes issues involving education, immigration, politics, poverty, and socioeconomics.  The arguments surrounding the Common Core State Standards is an example of a dilemma that can only be addressed, handled, settled, or avoided.

The 5 R's of Problem-Based Learning
When developing a problem-based learning environment and experience, consider these questions that address the 5 R's of Deeper Teaching and Learning.

  • Rigor: This is defined by the performance objectives and learning outcomes documented in the Common Core State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the state content area standards.
  • Relevance: This addresses the "big ideas" of the disciplinary area and the enduring understandings of the concept and content being taught and learned.
  • Relationships: This identifies who or what can help the student solve the problem accurately and appropriately.
  • Results: This sets how students will demonstrate and communicate their ideas, reasoning, and thinking behind their solution.
  • Reflection: This engages students to consider how they can develop what they have learned and experienced into expertise that will  help them address similar issues, problems, and situations they may encounter in their academic, personal, and professional lives.
When developing problem-based learning activities and experiences, keep in mind the focus should be more on the process involved in addressing a problem rather than the solution itself.

- E.M.F.