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Posts Tagged ‘education innovation’

As educators we don’t often question the need for standards. After all, without standards, teachers would teach whatever they want to. Yes. Exactly.

What I am about to say will be considered as educational blasphemy. I have to say it anyway. Here goes: Education standards do more harm than good.

There, I’ve said it. Now I need to defend my claim logically.

When state boards of education and national committees get together to write new standards, they are doing so with the intention of improving learning outcomes in a subject area such as history or math or science. But I argue that higher standards have not and will not lead to improved student outcomes for several reasons: first, standards become an end unto themselves instead of being a means to the end of improved outcomes. This means-ends inversion leads to a myopic focus on meeting standards, as evaluated by high-stakes tests, above all else and to teachers being pressured to teach to the tests in a misguided effort to increase scores. Even if schools are able to increase scores, it does not mean that students are learning more in any long-term fashion. When school funding is tied to meeting standards, district leaders and principals put emphasis on test scores and encourage teachers to do what is needed to improve them. Shifting time and focus toward passing tests moves students away from inquiry experiments, creative projects, and other activities that make learning fun and meaningful, leading to lower motivation. As classes become boring and meaningless, student learning actually decreases and creativity is stifled. The student outcome that society needs the most is creativity. Education standards therefore hurt society.

Second, standards are meant to be minimal guidelines. Any competent teacher should be able to meet standards and go beyond them to teach with the passion that leads to extraordinary education. Yet teachers who do so and step beyond the bounds of the state standards are often censured and cautioned to stick to the approved curriculum. Teachers are forced to play it safe in order to keep their jobs. Extraordinary education entails risk; playing it safe will never lead to students caring deeply about a subject or learning how to be creative innovators within it.

Third, the very notion of standards is based on the idea of standardization of education, to make all education everywhere the same experience for all students for a particular subject. It is saying that all students are like the Model T Ford, which Henry Ford said one could buy in any color as long as it was black. Our educational system has been based for far too long on an obsolete assembly line model, with students as raw materials entering the factory floor, moving through standard classes taught by standard teachers and emerging as standard models of some outdated ideal of an educated high school graduate, fit only to fill standardized roles in standardized jobs. Businesses complain that they can’t find enough graduates who can think for themselves, develop creative innovations, communicate and collaborate effectively, or even complete basic tasks like reading directions or doing basic math problems that come up. The graduates might have passed a standard Common Core math class and know how to do standard rote problems, but when they face anything in the real world that deviates from the narrowly specific problem sets they are used to, they cannot solve the problem. Since life is one big story problem, they are ill equipped to develop creative solutions to even small challenges.

As world problems increase and deepen in complexity, we don’t need standardized graduates. We need graduates who are out-of-the-box thinkers, creative innovators, and problem-solvers who can communicate and collaborate globally. We think that by increasing educational standards we will somehow get the types of graduates we need, but that is simply not happening. No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, have attempted to raise national standards with the goal of improving student learning outcomes. They have failed miserably. Students are less equipped for life now than they were 20 years ago before these laws were passed. This is because standards do not, by themselves, raise educational quality. In fact, they can lead to a vicious cycle of diminishing educational quality as shown by the diagram at the top of this post and again here:

Although education standards are created with the best of intentions, they often do more harm than good.

Let’s start at the top. National commissions, businesses, and parent groups are successful in their calls for raising national or state educational standards and legislatures have passed laws to hold schools accountable to meet them. In order to hold schools accountable, schools must be assessed and the easiest way to do that is through mandatory testing of all students in critical subjects such as math, science, and English. Those schools that do not measure up are deemed unworthy and labeled as failing schools. Principals at failing schools face getting fired, so they encourage teachers, in many subtle and not so subtle ways, to do what they must to bring up test scores. Facing censure themselves, the teachers start to spend more class time teaching specifically to the test, drilling students and forcing them to memorize enough facts to get through the tests. At the same time, since only certain subjects are being tested, schools tend to put more emphasis on those subjects and provide less time in the daily schedule and less funds toward other, non-tested subjects such as art, music, and humanities. This means that students have less opportunities to learn creative subjects. With teachers now spending more time on drill and practice of testable facts, less time is available for inquiry labs, hands-on activities, and creative projects. Classes lean more toward rote learning and become boring and meaningless to students, who now have even less opportunity to find creative outlets. They do not learn how to collaborate, communicate, solve real problems, experiment, invent, tinker, make, or create. They do not learn how to be innovators, only learning how to regurgitate facts on tests. These graduates struggle in colleges and are not prepared to solve the problems they encounter in real jobs. Employers and business leaders call out for students who are better prepared and ask state boards and legislatures to raise standards. And around and around it goes. It is a vicious cycle.

The worst part of this cycle is the wasted potential I see daily in students who are convinced they are not creative, who prefer to read textbooks and answer questions at the end of the chapters because that’s what they’re used to and know how to do and who never get past the lowest level of factual knowledge in Bloom’s taxonomy because tests rarely get past measuring facts. Even if students learn enough facts to pass the end-of-year tests, they do not retain them for long because the facts have no context or depth, and within a month or two they are forgotten. Yet these students come into schools as kindergartners confident in their creativity. Somewhere along the line, as their attempts at innovation are stamped on repeatedly in the name of standardization, they unlearn how to be creative.

Another tragedy of this vicious cycle is that each step in the process is based on faulty assumptions and non-sequiturs. Having high standards and accountability does not mean we have to design more tests. There are other ways to evaluate schools, and higher test scores do not necessarily mean students are learning more and certainly not better. That we have mandatory tests doesn’t mean we have to cut funding for arts and humanities programs, yet that seems to commonly be the case. This is not an either-or proposition or a zero-sum-game, yet most school districts act as if it were. We can emphasize STEM fields and the arts. We can teach STEM through the arts. I have seen it done effectively. I know of a school near Salt Lake City that teaches science, math, and history through dance. Yes, dance, a program that is usually the first on the chopping block of school districts. The students demonstrated the germ theory of disease through a very effective dance routine. I can give numerous examples of teaching STEM through art from my own classroom, but that will be a future topic.

The worst assumption made by the proponents of standards is that the so-called “soft skills” of creative problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking (the Four Cs) are somehow not important for STEM fields and careers. The Next Generation Science Standards actually de-emphasize creativity as a science and engineering practice. Yet all effective scientists or engineers I know of rely frequently upon their creativity and innovation to solve problems that crop up in their research. Creativity is a critical skill, yet our emphasis on standards is crushing it out of future scientists and engineers.

I am in a graduate program titled Innovation and Education Reform but I fear that reform is not enough. What it will take is a wholesale transformation of education, a systemic integration of creativity and innovation into education to meet the needs of the complex problems we face and to stay competitive as a nation. Every attempt we have made at raising standards has merely put more pressure on teachers and students and moved us further away from the model of schools that I have in mind. I would like to see creativity integrated into schools as a virtuous cycle, as shown in the diagram below:

If we teach creativity and innovation, it will lead to more scientists and engineers, more makers, builders, creators, and inventors and therefore to more inventions, more discoveries, more products, more businesses, and an improved economy. This will lead to happier citizens and a better society. The question, of course, is how to move from where we are to where we need to be.

This diagram is more complex but more profound, not because I am claiming any level of profundity, but because the ideas expressed here are rarely examined in this combination. Starting again at the top of the diagram, if we deliberately teach students to be more creative and innovative (how to do this will be the subject of my dissertation) then there are several avenues that should be pursued. The first is that science classes should teach the processes of inquiry and experimentation, or what we used to call the scientific method. Reducing science to a body of facts is to render it dry and meaningless when scientific discovery should be an invigorating and exciting process followed by all students. We cannot expect future scientists to make new discoveries if they do not learn the process of inquiry.

I believe that all schools should have well-supplied and supported makerspaces where students can learn to tinker, make, build, and invent (please refer to my previous blog post for more on this). Part of the makerspace’s purpose should be to teach entrepreneurship and the process of invention, the engineering design cycle, and manufacturing and marketing skills. For a good example of this, look at the Innovation Design program developed by International Baccalaureate. I had the opportunity to be trained and teach this program and it is rare even for IB schools to offer it; mine was one of only a few such programs in Utah at the time.

Teaching creativity should also involve project or problem-based learning (PBL), with a focus on solving problems through design and developing skills for team work, collaboration, and communication. Teaching creativity and innovation through inquiry, making, and PBL will lead to increased scientific exploration and discovery, to more inventions and better products, and to starting up new businesses that will improve our economy and standard of living.

Another area of teaching creativity and innovation that I believe does not get enough attention (and is worth a research project or two this semester) is to teach students how to express themselves through media design software and design thinking skills. Even if teaching these skills only leads to critical media literacy it will be worth the expense in computers and software, but if done right it can enhance students’ creativity through allowing them more avenues to express themselves, to find their voices, to communicate their ideas, and to design educational content that will teach others. I think that we have not done enough research on the importance of training students to be teachers. I follow the old saying (with my own modification): “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Train him how to teach others how to fish, and you feed a village forever.”

Words to live by . . .

With more inventions and products, more educational content, and a higher standard of living we will have more resources available to improve education and other social programs. This will lead to happier citizens. As we teach others how to evaluate media claims and how to express themselves, we will build better informed citizens and allow voices to be heard who have been marginalized before. We have only to look at the misinformation out there concerning the effectiveness of wearing masks during this pandemic to see why scientific and media literacy are critically important social skills. Better informed citizens contributing their own voices will make better decisions both as consumers and as voters, which will lead to a stronger democracy and a better, more equitable society. This entire process will feed back on itself as a virtuous cycle; teaching creativity will lead to more creativity which will lead to a better society and increasing recognition of the importance of teaching creativity and innovation.

Given the complex challenges our society faces, we need to completely overhaul our educational system. I see this as the only way to fully integrate creativity and innovation, which must be done to solve our problems and keep our nation competitive. Now, hopefully, you see the rationale for why I am getting my doctorate and why my dissertation will be about how and why to teach creativity. I can see no other area where I can contribute more.

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Starting out at a new school, I decided it was time to re-examine my personal philosophy of teaching and education.

Over the last several years, as I have been reporting my experiences in these blogs, I have paid attention to how effective I am as a teacher and what sorts of activities and lessons seem to resonate with students and provide memorable learning opportunities for them. From this I have developed my own model of education, which I have shared at conferences and workshop sessions. I will be starting a Doctorate of Education (EdD) program this fall at the University of Northern Colorado, specializing in Innovation and Education Reform. This will be a means for backing my theories up with empirical research, not just the anecdotal evidence I have now. I already know what I want to do for my doctoral thesis.

This is my revised model so far, with examples from my teaching experiences:

Creative Classroom Diagram v3-s

This is my revised model of education, what could also be called the Levels of Engagement model. The purpose of education, in my experience, is to move students from ignorance (no knowledge of a subject) through passive learning (sitting and watching or listening) to active learning (hands-on, experiential) and beyond to creative learning (students as explorers, teachers, and innovators). Students move from being consumers of educational content to interacting with content to creating new educational content or new science, engineering, art, math, or technology. The students become makers, designers, programmers, engineers, scientists, artists, and problem solvers.

I call this the Creative Classroom model, as the goal is to move students from Ignorance (lack of knowledge or experience with a subject) through the stages of being a Passive Learner (sitting and listening to the teacher or a video and consuming content) through being an Active Learner (students interacting with content through cookbook style labs) to becoming a Creative Learner (students creating new content as innovators: teachers, makers, programmers, designers, engineers, and scientists). Let’s look at these levels in more detail. It could also be titled the Levels of Engagement model, as moving to the right in my model signifies deeper student engagement with their learning.

Level 0: Ignorance

Ignorance is the state of not having basic knowledge of a subject. This isn’t a bad thing, as we all start out in this state, as long as we recognize our ignorance and do something about it. What our society needs are more creative and innovative people, not people who are passive or even willfully ignorant.

Ignorance is not bliss. What a person doesn’t know may indeed hurt him or her – if, for example, you don’t know that mixing bleach with ammonia will produce chlorine gas, you could wind up with severe respiratory problems. A basic literacy for science and engineering concepts is necessary for any informed citizen, since we live in a technological age with problems that need solving and can only be solved through science and technology.

If you do not understand science and technology, you can be controlled by those who do. How many people actually understand the technology behind the cell phones they use every day? They leave themselves vulnerable to control by the telecom companies that do understand and control this technology. If you don’t understand the importance of Internet privacy and share personal information on a website or Facebook page, you leave yourself vulnerable to people or corporations that can track your web searches or even stalk you online (or worse). I am fairly ignorant of the basic techniques for repairing my car. This leaves me vulnerable to paying the high prices (and the possible poor service) of a local mechanic, when I could save lots of money and ensure quality if I only knew how to do it myself.

As teachers our first responsibility is to lead students away from a state of ignorance. This seems simple enough, but anyone who teachers teenagers (and even some so-called adults) will know that some of them insist on remaining willfully ignorant, usually because they mistakenly think that they already know everything they need to know, which is never true of anyone. As the Tao Te Ching says: “To know what you know, and what you do not know, is the foundation of true wisdom.” So the first step to becoming a creative learner is to delineate, define, and accept our areas of ignorance.

Most Likely to Succeed quote

A quote from the introduction of “Most Likely to Succeed” by Toni Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. How long will it take before education systems realize that the old factory model of education is no longer working?

Level 1: Passive Learning

When people start learning a subject they are usually not sufficiently self-motivated to learn it on their own – but we hope they will reach that point eventually. Most inexperienced learners are passive. They wait for their teachers to lead the lesson, sitting in their seats listening to lectures or watching a movie or otherwise absorbing and consuming educational content. The focus in such classes is to complete individual assignments that usually involve only lower order thinking skills such as recall and identification. This is the level described in the quote above from Most Likely to Succeed by Toni Wagner and Ted Dintersmith.

At this level, teachers emphasize mastering the facts and basic concepts of a subject. Students are consumers of educational content, but do not interact with it or create new content. Common classroom activities include listening to lectures and taking notes or answering basic questions, watching a video or demonstration, completing worksheets, or reading a text. Student motivation is usually external, based on the desires of parents or teachers and the fear of negative consequences (poor grades, etc.).

Education at this level is all about efficiency but isn’t very effective, since less than 10% of what teachers share in lectures is retained by students beyond the next test. Evaluation is based on standards, not skills. There is always a need for students to learn facts and concepts, but it is better to provide engaging projects where the students will find out the facts on their own as a natural part of completing the project.

Level 2: Active Learning

At this phase, students start developing internal motivation as they engage and interact with content. Students are beginning to explore, but usually through activities that are fairly structured although more student centered than before. These activities are hands-on; students are doing and acting, not sitting and listening.

Common classroom activities would be “cook-book” style labs, with step-by-step instructions and pre-determined outcomes. Students begin to learn observation and inquiry skills, with some data collection in a controlled environment along with data analysis. Teachers still determine if the student has the “right” answer. They start to practice the 21st Century skills of collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Unfortunately, most science classes stop at this level without moving beyond hands-on to the deepest level.

reasons for using inquiry

Inquiry-based learning shares many of the features of project or problem-based learning, in that it is student centered and empowers student voice and choice, allows a high level of engagement and meaningfulness as students take responsibility and ownership for their learning, and teaches resilience, grit, and perseverance.

Level 3: Creative and Innovative Learning

If the purpose of STEAM education is to teach students how to become scientists, technology experts, engineers, artists, and mathematicians then they must learn the final stages of inquiry: to ask and answer questions, to solve problems, or to design products. The purpose of science is to answer questions whereas engineering has the goal of solving problems through designing and testing prototypes. Both are creative endeavors as the result of learning is something new for society – new knowledge or new products.

In the Creative Classroom, the environment is completely open, without predigested data or predetermined conclusions. Students work on projects where they research a question important to them, develop a methodology, decide how to control variables, make observations, determine methods of analysis, and draw and communicate conclusions. At this level, students become innovators or inventors. They synthesize knowledge and apply it to themselves and teach others through writing blog posts, creating posters or infographics, presenting lessons and demonstrations, and filming and editing videos or other educational media. They become makers and programmers, building products of their own design. The students are creating and contributing to society by making new content, knowledge, and solutions.

Learning at this level is never forgotten but is difficult to evaluate with a multiple-choice test, as the focus is on skill mastery and competency instead of easily regurgitated facts. Overall, this deepest (and most fulfilling, motivational, and engaging) level is entirely student centered and driven, with instructors as mentors. Ultimately, once a student has practiced learning at this level, the teacher is no longer necessary; the students will continue to learn on their own, because they are now entirely internally motivated. These are the people that society will always need.

How This Impacts My Teaching:

As an educator, my goal is to move students toward Level 3 activities and projects. Where I succeed, the projects my students work on are meaningful to them, demand professional excellence, use authentic data, involve real-world applications, are open-ended, and are student-driven. The students are required to create, make, program, build, test, question, teach, and design. They are innovators and engineers; they are creative students.

To give some examples from previous blog posts on my two sites:

Rachmaninoff 430-630-1000-s

Representative color image of the Rachmaninoff Basin area of Mercury, created by my students using narrow band image data from the MESSENGER space probe at 430, 630, and 1000 nm. We stretched the color saturation and image contrast so that we could see differences between volcanic (yellow-orange) and impact (blue-violet) features.

My chemistry and STEAM students created an inquiry lab to study the variables involved in dyeing cloth, including the history, ancient processes, types of cloth, mordants (binders), types of dyes, and other factors. We also explored tie dyeing, ice dyeing, and batik and developed a collection of dyed swatches that we will turn into a school quilt. We also experimented with dyeing yarn with cochineal, indigo, rabbit brush, sandalwood, logwood, etc. and my wife crocheted a sweater from it.

2. My chemistry and STEAM students did a similar inquiry lab to test the variables involved in making iron-gall ink using modern equivalents. We studied the history and artistry of this type of ink (used by Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo DaVinci, and many more) and tried to determine the ideal formula for making the blackest possible ink. We also created our own watercolor and ink pigments such as Prussian blue, etc. We used the inks/watercolors to make drawings and paintings of the history of chemistry.

3. My astronomy students used accurate data to build a 3D model of the nearby stars out to 13 light years. This lesson was featured in an article in The Science Teacher magazine, including a video of me describing the process.

4. My astronomy students created a video for the MIT BLOSSOMS project showing a lesson plan on how to measure the distance to nearby stars using trigonometric parallax. It is on the BLOSSOMS website and has been translated into Malay, Chinese, and other languages.

5. My earth science students learned how to use Mars MOLA 3D altitude data to create and print out 3D terrains of Mars.

6. My chemistry students created a 12-minute documentary (chocumentary?) on the history and process of making chocolate.

7. My 6th grade Creative Computing class built and animated a 3D model of the SOFIA aircraft prior to my flying on her as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador.

Kasei_Valles-Mars-2

A 3D render of the Kasei Valles area of Mars, created by students as part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team project. They learned how to download Mars MOLA data from the NASA PDS website and convert it into 3D models and animations, then created an interactive program on Mars Exploration which they presented at a student symposium at Arizona State University.

8. My science research class collected soil samples from the mining town of Eureka, Utah to see if a Superfund project had truly cleaned up the lead contamination in the soil.

9. My chemistry and media design students toured Novatek in south Provo, Utah and learned about the history and current process for making synthetic diamond drill bits. Another group videotaped a tour of a bronze casting foundry, while others took tours of a glass blowing workshop, a beryllium refinery, and a cement plant.

10. My astronomy students used infrared data from the WISE and Spitzer missions to determine if certain K-giant stars may be consuming their own planets. This was done as part of the NITARP program. They developed a poster of their findings and presented it at the American Astronomical Society conference in 2015 in Seattle.

11. My biology students build working models of the circulatory system, the lungs, the arm, and create stop motion animations of mitosis and meiosis. As I write this, they are learning the engineering design cycle by acting as biomechanical engineers to design and build artificial hands that must have fingers that move independently, an opposable thumb, can pick up small objects, make hand gestures, and grasp and pick up cups with varying amounts of water in them.

12. My computer science students, in order to learn the logic of game design, had to invent their own board games and build a prototype game board and pieces, write up the rules, and have the other teams play the game and make suggestions, then they made revisions. This was an application of the engineering design cycle.

13. My STEAM students designed and built a model of a future Mars colony using repurposed materials (junk), including space port, communications systems, agriculture and air recycling, power production, manufacturing, transportation, and living quarters. They presented this and other Mars related projects at the NASA Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

These are just a small sampling of all the projects my students have done over the years. I have reported at greater length in this blog about these and other projects. My intent has always been to move students away from passive learning to active learning to inquiry/innovation. They often create models, build prototypes, collect data, or design a product and it is always open ended and student centered; even if I choose the topic of the project, they have a great deal of freedom to determine their approach and direction. There is never one right answer or a set “cookbook” series of steps, nor a focus on memorizing facts. They learn the facts they need as a natural consequence of learning about their project topics; by completing the project, they automatically demonstrate the required knowledge.

Mars Exploration main interface-s

My students designed, animated, and programmed this interface for their Mars Exploration project, then presented it at a student symposium at Arizona State University as part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program. They build 3D models and animations of Mars probes, such as the one of the MER rovers shown. In this interface, the Mars globe spins, and as the main buttons are rolled over, side menus slide out and space probes rotate in the window.

Some groups require considerable training and experience to get to this level of self-motivation and innovation, and some team building, communication, and creativity training may be required. Other groups move along more rapidly and have the motivation to jump right in. This means that managing such projects as a teacher can be challenging because every team is different. I find myself moving from being a teacher at the center of the classroom (a sage on a stage) where all students move along in a lock-step fashion to becoming a mentor or facilitator of learning (a guide on the side) as students move toward higher levels of engagement at their own pace and in their own way.

As classroom activities become more student-centered, I find it natural to tie in the Next Generation Science Standards. If I do an inquiry lab to test the variables that affect dyeing cloth, the answer is not known before nor the methodology. Students have to work out the scientific method or steps needed by asking the right questions and determining how to find the answers, or to design, build, and test a prototype product. Through this method they learn the science and engineering processes that are one dimension of the 3D standards.

Crosscutting concepts can also be explored more effectively through this method. Inquiry leads to observations, which should show patterns, processes, models, scale, proportion, and other such concepts, which are the second dimension of 3D science education.

This leaves the third dimension, which is to teach subject Core Concepts. This is where most of the misguided opposition to Project Based Learning comes from. Teachers feel that projects somehow take time away from “covering” all the standards. But if we want deep learning of the core concepts of a subject, we can’t expect students to learn them by using surface level teaching techniques that emphasize facts without going any deeper. If I do it right, I can involve many standards at once in the same project and not only meet but exceed the standards in all cases. I call this “standards overreach” and I will talk about this in more detail in my next post.

Element posters and virus models

Projects don’t have to be a elaborate and complex as the Mars project shown above. Here, my New HAven students have created models of viruses and mini-posters of chemical elements. The green plastic bottle to the left is a model of a human lung.

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