Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Designing Learning Tasks So That Curriculum is Intriguing and Meaningful

Like many professors, every year around Christmas time and again at tax time, I am buried in marking. This year, I am writing narrative assessments for graduate students who designed, developed and evaluated eLearning projects across organizational contexts and problems. I am also reviewing student teacher's integrated unit plans, independent inquiries and multiple learning blog postings from a seminar I lead on "Inquiry and ICT Across the Curriculum". I believe that knowing WHY a teacher combines inquiry and technology for learning is as important as knowing HOW to do it. Student teachers need to experience first hand the type of meaningful and authentic learning opportunities that they are being called upon to design for children. Therefore, in my seminar, student teachers learn in a constructivist, inquiry rich studio environment with regular feedback about the strengths and value of their work. Equal emphasis is given to (a) developing a philosophical stance on combining inquiry and technology, (b) evaluating current and projected uses of technology across subject areas, and (c) developing design and assessment skills for using digital technology with learners.

As I read through my student teacher's coursework, I am reminded again that teaching is a profession that calls for intellectual engagement, dogged determination and inspired idealism, imagination and insight -- teaching well is no small task that requires no small courage -- all of which I believe that our current crop of student teachers possess in abundance. The first step to becoming a great teacher is developing a healthy sense of inquiry and adventure -- when anything is possible, then, everything becomes possible... As I review the great tasks created by student teachers, the assessment rubrics and marvel at the examples of projects they have created to illustrate their intent, I feel optimistic about the future of education.

It is a joy to review the student teachers' projects and plans and to have the evidence before me of their determination, enthusiasm and commitment to providing meaningful learning experiences for their students - learning tasks that will engage children academically and intellectually. As I read the student teachers' independent inquiry projects and study the connections and conclusions they have come to, I am confident that they will make the changes that they call for and get others onside. Lucky students; lucky new teachers; lucky colleagues - I hope my own children experience bright and enthusiastic teachers like our graduates during their schooling years.

One thing I want my student teachers to remember is that teachers do not have to recreate the wheel each time -- we can and should learn from the great ideas of other teachers (See Galileo Network Inquiry Tasks by Classroom Teachers). We can analyze the tasks, activities and approaches to assessment designed by great teachers who invite inquiry and ICT into their classrooms. We can examine the great work created by students and analyze how to design tasks and activities that call forth creativity, intellectual engagement and passion from our own students. I strongly encourage my student teachers to resist "ready made worksheets" and to instead, actively study, then redesign and re-invent great tasks created by outstanding teachers to fit their own classrooms, to meet the unique and diverse needs of their own students, to design appropriate assessment practices and draw upon the disciplines in ways that inject new life into the curriculum (thus maximizing a teacher's precious and limited time).

There are some key challenges that teachers need to address when they plan to invite inquiry and ICT into the classroom:
- timetabling and discontinuity between courses and topics (differences between elementary and secondary schools)
- the view of curriculum as coverage versus uncoverage; Inquiry lives when the focus is on knowledge creation rather than information storage and retrieval
- peer pressure from colleagues to "go with the flow", "do not rock the boat" - becoming an excellent teacher rather than just a competent one;
- standardized testing and teaching to these mind-numbing tests;
- unfounded views about "what students want" versus what they really need, which is strong mentorship from teachers who are passionate about learning and their discipline.

Contrast the challenges cited above with our "calling" as teaching professionals, with this challenge: "your job is to make sure that your students experience the curriculum as intriguing and meaningful." As teachers, we also deserve to experience the curriculum as intriguing and meaningful, in ways that feed our inquiry spirit. An inspired and imaginative inquiry task, that is both meaningful and an authentic reflection of the discipline, enlivens not only the students' inquiry spirits, but also our own.

My student teachers have expressed a great range of ideas in their work this semester, and, I am delighted to note, a great deal of determination to bring inquiry into the lives of their students, and into their own lives through meaningful and authentic daily work in their classrooms.

Here are a few great comments on inquiry from student teachers:
- What message does this send to students if everything they learn comes from one resource? MJ: We need to use a range of sources and expertise in our inquiry and the types of inquiry we expect of students.
- In regards to time pressures, on first thought, it seems that inquiry would take longer, but I think if the inquiry is created and planned effectively it will actually save time. As a teacher I need to let go of the time pressures and teach for understanding.
- Worksheets for "dash-two" versus "I sat with the students and consulted them on what they felt they needed or wanted. All of them wanted long term projects rather than small assignments. " MJ: Students want hard fun - I cannot believe that an active and inquiring professional believes that "those kids" actually like, let alone 'need', worksheets...
- What I am finding about conducting inquiries is that they are great for planning cross-curricular activities – which can be very good for time constraints.
- Backwards design - This kinds of uses the curriculum outcome and works backwards to build the whole thing. ... use the ordinary cookbook labs and twist them around to make an inquiry lab. This sounds interesting because we don't have to invent anything new but can use existing material to make something great.
MJ: Yes, Yes, Yes!! Build upon the great ideas of other teachers -- repurpose existing materials so that inquiry and knowledge creation are the goal, rather than information storage and retrieval.

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