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


  1. Very inspiring and helpful too.Hope you continue to share more of your ideas.I will definitely love to read.

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