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Rethinking How Students Learn: Bob Pearlman on PBL

Bus driver…move…THAT…(school) bus!!!

And reveal the new learning environment of the 21st Century. Is it time for an Extreme Makeover: School Edition? I think so. And so does Bob Pearlman, nationally renowned educational reform consultant.

An example of “connected learning” (see my previous post), this topic is relevant on several levels for me right now. You see, Pearlman is going to speak at Heritage Hall in April regarding project-based learning (I absolutely can’t wait!). I am currently in the midst of dreaming and blueprinting a redesign of our Upper School computer lab. To top it all off, our E21 Team is thrilled about our upcoming road trip to see one of the premier examples of 21st century learning environment (21CLE) in our region – New Tech High at Coppell, Texas.

We all know that students learn best when they are engaged and allowed to do most of the learning on their own. Research has proven such about this generation of students. So what is the best way to accomplish this phenomenon? The successful formula seems to be:  PBL based pedagogy + 21CL environment + performance assessment = meaningful, connected learning.

Pearlman cites a Buck Institute of Education definition of PBL:

PBL is a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

Sounds intense, doesn’t it? It is. According to Pearlman, PBL activities at New Tech schools usually last 1-3 weeks long. Examples include presenting a plan to Congress solving the oil crisis and inventing a sport that astronauts can play on the moon so they can get exercise. Students usually receive a rubric up front, so they know what amount of work will be required to achieve basic, proficient, or advanced scores.

Here’s an idea I absolutely love…when students finish a PBL unit of study, they present to an external audience. That could mean community experts, parents, Board members, other teachers, peers outside of their own class, or more. And students self-evaluate throughout the project and write a summative reflection on what they learned and how the project can be improved. And, in the spirit of 21CL, why not share with a global audience…online?!? This could be done with a partner classroom, or simply through a blog or Wiki open to the world.

So what about changes to the physical environment? 21CLE’s are large open spaces with mobile furniture. Every student has access to a computer. Tables or desks can be easily moved together for collaboration or “break-out” sessions structured around student “need to knows.” Many 21CLE’s use glass walls or windows to make learning transparent to all students and visiting adults.

The best 21st century schools provide every student with a computer, which increasingly means a laptop in a wireless environment. [Bob Pearlman]

But it’s not just about the technology. It’s the pedagogy behind technology that makes for successful learning in a 21CLE. Students use the laptop to conduct Internet research, Skype with experts, work collaboratively outside of school to construct products of learning (i.e. videos, podcasts, websites), and utilize technology to present their findings. In other words, according to Pearlman, “Students utilize all these [digital] tools to be investigators and producers of knowledge.”

At New Tech High in Coppell the school has adopted new language to refer to students and teachers. They have become “learners” and “facilitators,” respectively. Pearlman goes on to describe the physical landscape of NTH@C, both in the classroom and in hallways & common areas. Because our E21 team will be visiting NTH@C in early April, I will save discussion on these revelations for a future blog post. For now, check out these links to five schools ID’d by Pearlman as “the best of the new learning environments:”

Columbus Signature Academy (Columbus, Indiana)
New Tech High @ Coppell (Coppell, Texas)
The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (Providence, Rhode Island)
High Tech High (San Diego, California)
New Line Learning Academy (Kent, England)

The bottom line: These findings, yet again, suggest that our E21 mission is true. We are on the eve of implementing at a 1:1 laptop program – not based on simply dropping in technology, but based on years of our own research about 1:1 and 21CL. Our program is founded on technology rooted in tried and true pedagogy. By moving forward, we further enable our students to go beyond passive consumption of information and actively CREATE their own knowledge and experience true lifelong learning.

And that is what it’s all about, friends.

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Rethinking How Students Learn: Howard Gardner

One mind is not enough. It takes five minds to be successful.

This according to Howard Gardner, author of many books, including Five Minds for the Future. Gardner was selected to write the first chapter of 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn. I found his comments very interesting, and look forward to reading his books in the not-to-distant future. Here are some of the stand-out points I gathered from this selection.

How can we create well-rounded citizens of the future? Howard Gardner says we can give them Five Minds.

Gardner says that there are five minds that educators should strive to cultivate in the future:

  1. The Disciplined Mind
  2. The Synthesizing Mind
  3. The Creating Mind
  4. The Respectful Mind
  5. The Ethical Mind

The Disciplined Mind. Gardner states that there are two connotations in play regarding this mind. There is discipline, as in art, craft, scholarly pursuit, or profession. And then there is discipline, referring to a continuation of practice and hard work to remain at the top of one’s game. Interestingly, he stresses four disciplines for precollegiate institutions to focus on: math, science, history, and at least one art form. It’s not about mastering the content of these disciplines, but rather the skills. Can you think like a scientist? Do you analyze like a historian? Can you appreciate fine art? Gardner says that in previous times, mastery and refinement of a single discipline may have sufficed; however, in today’s world, “mastery of more than one discipline is at a premium.” Bottom line: We must help our students learn to think in different ways.

The Synthesizing Mind. In the Age of Info-whelm, our students are bombarded by information 24/7. As Gardner says, “Shrewd triage becomes an imperative.” Those who develop a synthesizing mind will rise to the top. Synthesizing is not a one-time process according to Gardner; “new information must be acquired, probed, evaluated, followed up with, or sidelined…there is constant reflection and tinkering.” Good synthesizers always keep an eye on the big picture while securing and arranging the smaller details in useful ways; “one must know what works for himself and for those who make use of his synthesis.” Bottom line: We must help our students learn to make use of information and media in meaningful ways.

The Creating Mind. In order to truly acquire a creating mind, one must first develop an adequate level of disciplinary mastery and some capacity to synthesize. Gardner states, “You can’t think outside the box unless you have a box.” Creators must take risks, tackle the unknown, fail, and then fearlessly try again. Creators are motivated by, and keep their eyes on, the prize. Educators must pose challenges, obstacles, and boulders to their students. According to Gardner, if the Disciplined Mind involves depth and the Synthesizing Mind entails breadth, the Creating Mind features stretch. Bottom line: We must help our students learn constructively and in innovative ways, to solve never before seen problems.

The Respectful Mind. Gardner says, this mind “starts with an assumption that diversity is positive and the world would be a better place if individuals sought to respect one another.” Bottom line: We must help our students appreciate the ideas, methods, culture, and values of others in the world.

The Ethical Mind. According to Gardner, a person who has an ethical mind can think of himself or herself abstractly and ask questions about their own quality of life. What kind of worker do I want to be? What kind of citizen am I? What would the world be like if everyone too the stance I do? What happens as a result of my decisions or actions? Bottom line: We need to teach our kids to think abstractly, make predictions about outcomes, and weigh their options against what they know is right or wrong.

In conclusion, Gardner names the Synthesizing Mind as the most important for the 21st century. He goes on to states that integration of all five minds is more likely to occur, and more quickly, when role models – parents, teachers, coaches – regularly display aspects of discipline, synthesis, creation, respect, and ethics.

The (Ultimate) Bottom Line: Show your students how you use all five of your minds.