Monday, July 30, 2012

Why can't school be like this all the time?

  Last week was the Bainbridge Island first STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) camp. I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the teachers to participate in the inaugural edition of what is sure to become an annual camp. It was a week long day camp with students broken up into their interest area in either Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math.

  There were 8 Bainbridge Island Teachers (from Sakai, Woodward, or Commodore) to support approximately 100 students. There were also 20 volunteer counselors from Bainbridge High School. Needless to say, this was an ideal learning environment.
  The week progressed with each morning having a spectacular science type event followed by three one hour and twenty minute periods spent in your primary class. The entire week held a space theme and we even had a visit from a brilliant NASA astronaut, John Fabian. Students spent the week making rockets, programming robots, building solar cars and editing videos. Students were engaged, intrigued, and learning.

  To get an idea of what the week was like watch the following video which was made by the students in my Technology class:

BISD STEM Camp Video 2012

  This brings up the question, why isn't school like this all the time? Students are heavily engaged in critical thinking, problem solving, hands on learning, storymaking, programming, and just about everything else we'd possibly want for our future engineers and scientists. Students were using angles to calculate the height of the rocket and movement of robots. They were bringing details together to create a narrative about a specific class looking at basic story elements. They were doing 3d modeling and printing their creations to test a hypothesis. Is there really anything more we want?

  There are a few things here that are possibly worth looking at. First off, what students are learning can't be tested. We have some kind of sick fascination with the belief that learning that can't be tested isn't real learning. Over the past year, I feel some of the best learning done by my students wasn't on any subject that could be tested. The most important skills aren't knowledge but social skills, confidence, and self advocacy. We can really only test knowledge. This leads into the next issue about what shows up on standardized tests and state standards.

  For anyone who's read any of the Washington state standards (and leading into the Common Core standards) you'd know that these standards are actually a very good target for learning. They are aimed at broad conceptual points and include the ability to think and analyze, not simply regurgitate. However, somewhere between the standards and the curriculum, this gets lost. Again, if you can't test students to show your curriculum works, how can you sell it as successful.

  But the camp was successful, students learned, and there was no test at the end. Would a test have driven more students to work harder? I doubt it. It also would have made the entire process less fun. But I'm not sure that we could guarantee the same success with 28 kids and no assistants. We had a 1 to 12 student to teacher ratio with 2 high school volunteers per 10 students. We also had a $200 budget for the week per class. I know that public education can't successfully work that way. But maybe if it was just a little more similar...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

3D Game Lab Camp on the horizon

  On top of everything else going on in my life (moving, new job, baby due in August, brother in law's wedding) I'll be embarking on designing my technology classes using 3D Game Lab for the upcoming year. This will be the basis for assignments in my three technology classes next semester. In the future I'll be updating what this looks like in practice.

  For those not familiar with 3D Game Lab it is a web based program being designed by the Boise State University to track student achievement in an experience point completion based model. What this means is that a student has a number of options as far as assignments (called quests) to choose from and each will give an experience point reward upon completion. Completion of certain quests may unlock other quests and the instructor may grant certain awards (called badges) for students that deserve something special for completion of a particular assignment.

  In this model student grades can be based on the experience points that students earn as well as earning certain badges. An expectation for a student may be to earn 1000 exp to get an A as well as complete 3 badges that signify content area completion. However, earning these badges will only grant 500 of the total experience required allowing students to pick which assignments they will complete to earn the remaining points. An instructor could have 3000 possible points from quests allowing students to pick a number of areas that they wish to focus in or allow them to spread out and experience a number of particular areas.

  With a clear goal at the beginning of the quarter or semester, students can pace themselves to reach their necessary goals. Students can also repeat an unsuccessful quest to learn the material and show mastery. Consider how different this is from traditional education. In a traditional classroom you learn teacher selected material and then are tested to prove your knowledge. If you fail to show mastery you are punished with a bad grade and the class moves on to a new subject. If you succeed, you are rewarded with a good grade and are forced to move on to a new subject, regardless of your interest in the area you've just completed.

  This very model turns education on its head. It is student directed and standards based, with clear expectations and endless options. Students are working towards a clear goal at their own pace. They can pick the assignments that fit their interests, current mood, or time available. The education is accessible at home, at school, or anywhere that there is an internet connection.

  Of course this model does have its problems. First off it basically requires a 1 to 1 student/computer ratio. I happen to be fortunate that I have this option in my upcoming position, even if it is just limited to netbooks. Secondly, it assumes that quest completion is equivalent across the board. Regardless of how any one quest was completed, students are essentially awarded the same experience. While instructors have the option to send a student back to do more work on a quest before it is completed, there is something inherently different from a student who is able to complete work successfully the first time with  minimal guidance, and the student that may finally complete it after submitting seven failed versions. Finally, it is still product oriented. Students are required to build something and are ultimately judged on the product rather than the process. Unfortunately, learning remains a process, not a product. I've learned tons by creating something crappy, and I've created things perfectly but didn't manage to learn anything. I'm not sure that this problem can really be successfully addressed in education, but I'm not afraid to hope it can.

  I'm curious to see how this plays out in my classroom and I look forward to make additional reports. While it is clear that education is not the panacea of society, it may be that the internet is the panacea of education.