Planning learning with the end in mind is a time-consuming task, but the results are definitely worth it. As a teacher, you have a clear idea of what learners need to understand and be able to do, based on the standards, and hopefully, how those ideas, concepts, and skills apply to the real world so that students are motivated, engaged, and an authentic performance assessment can be planned.
If the learners are able to transfer their knowledge and skills to a new situation to solve a problem or create something new, the teacher can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the learners truly understand, and will be able to recall that learning and apply it whenever needed. To me, this is innovative, transformational learning – whether technology is used or not. Quite possibly, an authentic task will require the use of technology – as these are real-world tools. But it is not the focal point of the learning.
Recently, I had the opportunity to observe a group of 6th grade science learners engaged in this kind of transformative learning and performance task. The teacher, Laura Murray, had created a unit using Intel Education Transformation Model – a backwards design process. According to the Colorado Science Standards, students need to be able to understand that objects, processes and events are systems that consist of interacting parts, objects and events can be viewed at various scales, and that change follows patterns that can be directional, predictive, and/or cyclic. Students are to learn about the constructive and destructive earth processes.
Laura’s backwards plan was able to address these understandings and big ideas, and culminated in a performance based assessment where students had the opportunity to apply their understanding in a unique way. Students assumed the role of museum curator –in the far away future. They were able to choose –500,000 or 1,000,000 years in the future! Their task: Create a museum display depicting what the landscape of our area of Colorado might look like in that amount of time.
Prior to this culminating event, the students spent a good deal of time studying geologic periods. You can imagine, to the typical 6th grader, this can seem very abstract – perhaps even a bit dull. But it really came alive for these learners when Laura introduced them to an online resource provided by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They featured a special exhibition on Ancient Denvers: The Denver Basin Project. And –the task that they were given within the role of museum curator was exciting, creative, and engaging. Students had a connection because it was about their own landscape that they were challenged to make a prediction. The students worked in teams to research the exhibits the museum currently offered, read the descriptions, and then used their knowledge and understanding to predict their future landscape. This is a 1:1 iPad school, so they used the iPads to research, draw the landscapes for the exhibit, and write up the description for the museum placard.
The day I visited, the students were working specifically on their understanding of scale. Students were using rolls of cash register tape to physically see and understand the time distance between the geologic periods. They used a scale of 1 millimeter = 10,000 years and had to mark them all out on the tape. One of the things I loved about this as that Laura chose the best tool for the task at hand. Trying to create these models of scale using the iPad might have resulted in students not being able to see the physical distance from one mark to the next, and reduced understanding as a result.
What’s next? Seeking authentic feedback from real museum curators at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Providing authentic feedback is the finishing embellishment on a unit that provided these 6th grade learners with a transformational learning experience that they may carry with them for a lifetime.
Laura has been teaching middle schoolers for 13 years at Academy District 20’s Challenger Middle School in Colorado Springs. She has taught Science and Social Studies in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. She has earned Outdoor Recreation, Business, and Curriculum and Instruction degrees from Colorado State University and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In her spare time, Laura coaches Forensics, is a NJHS sponsor, and serves on many school and district committees. Laura also volunteers with theater programs at Challenger and Pine Creek High School.
The labels that we use matter. At FETC, I was reminded of this when a group of us were treated to a backstage tour of the Polynesian Resort and dinner at the Kona Café. We were escorted around by a “cast member” who made the experience so entertaining and informative. Her commitment to the role she plays is evident. Disney parks are known as magical places – but there are some specific practices put in place to help produce some of the magic that customers experience. One of these practices is the use of the label “cast member.” Think of all that this label implies. A member of the cast, in the traditional sense performs in a show. They create an illusion of another time and place to help transform the experience for those they encounter. This all lends itself to the magic behind the “Magic Kingdom” while communicating some pretty unique expectations to those that serve in the role of cast member, whether they are custodians, servers, or executives.
What does all of this have to do with innovations in education? A label we commonly use to refer to our main customer is “student.” Recently, I conducted a book study for a group of forward-thinking educators of Make Learning Personal: The What, Who, WOW, Where and Why by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey. One idea that resonated with our teachers was a simple shift in language: calling students learners rather than students. This came originally from CAST in the UDL Guidelines 2.0. The thinking behind this is that learning happens everywhere, all of the time. The shift in label from student to learner helps convey this. If we were to list out characteristics of learners and students how would they differ? Below are some of my thoughts. What would you add or change?
And then, in following the #Educon tweets this weekend, this tweet came across my stream:
Calling students “scholars” does not fix the school-to-prison pipeline. You have to treat students as scholars #educon
— Jessica Raleigh (@TyrnaD) January 30, 2016
This totally reinforces my thinking that our behaviors need to change -simply changing the label is not enough. By changing the label we use for those in our charge, we can begin to see them differently. The relationship changes, which will help them begin the shift from student to learner.