Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 07 2010

Novice thoughts on Activity-Driven Lessons

There I sat, trying to figure out how to make a 3 x 3 x 3 cube puzzle with five different pieces of no less than three and no more than six cubic units each, with no two pieces being the same shape. Naturally I wanted to be the first one to finish the task, and so I was trying to find the ‘trick’ or at least the best and most efficient way to solve it. I was trying to find the objective of the lesson. I was thinking of this sample lesson as a lesson like ones I’d always known, where any activity is thought up and implemented for the purpose of learning some skill or kernel of knowledge. If I just latched onto that kernel, then I could fast-track myself to the solution and … win, or something.     But what I realized was that the knowledge and skills the activity was meant to reinforce or teach were not the type that I was familiar with. They were so deep and multifaceted and embedded in the problem-solving design process that I couldn’t extract any piece of what a student was supposed to “walk away with.”
… “Odd,” I thought. My first response was to scoff and say to myself “well, this is activity-based learning. They don’t even know what a kid is supposed to learn by doing this!” And implicit in that reaction was my assumption that it must be inferior to a SWBAT and the holy I do, We do, You do. Institute told me activities for the sake of activities are a big no-no. And… they might be. I have reached no real conclusions yet. But I started to think about it:

Our entire school system is standards-based. Someone decides what a third-grader, a ninth-grader, should know. Someone decides what a person should know and be able to do before they graduate from high school. Then we, the well-trained educators that we are, backwards-plan from those goals and figure out exactly what it is our students should know and be able to do before the end of the unit, before the end of the week, before the end of the lesson. The purpose of any activities we do is to help put our objectives and standards, our kernels of knowledge and skills, into a more accessible format. We come up with projects or activities or “real-world applications” because those things make learning more real for our students—more tangible, more interesting, more applicable. But in the end, it’s all about the knowledge and skills. The TEKS. The goal is that our kids graduate with a pre-determined repertoire, a toolbox—and it makes total and complete sense, then, that we measure their success  (and schools’ success) based on tests that assess that repertoire (hopefully in an aligned and reliable way).

These standard knowledge and skills prepare kids for college, which leads them to getting a degree, which leads them to getting a good job. Maybe they’ll even get to use some of their standards-based knowledge and skills in the careers they eventually choose.

BUT. What is an “excellent education”?  Is it something that gives you skills—solving for variables, applying algebraic thinking to geometry, balancing chemical equations, finding the main idea, writing a five-paragraph essay? Something that will get you a better job? Something that will put you on track to Success, to more Life Opportunities?

Maybe.

The Excellent Education that All Children will have the Opportunity to Attain One Day might just be something more. What if it’s something that prepares them for life itself? Something that is about thinking, working, creating, doing—something that turns them into people? What if an Education isn’t Excellent unless it transforms you into a person who will push society forward?

TFA has made me so good at asking “what do my students need to know?” … but when I think about my own development as a thinker and as a human being, and what has been the most meaningful to my life, I wish I was asking, “who do my students need to be?”

I spent all day today at the Academy of Engineering’s Counselor and Leadership Conference. The cube puzzle activity was a sampler of the “Project Lead The Way” curriculum that the National Academy Foundation adopted for Engineering. Two things I learned today, in addition to my funky meta-cognition during this activity, got me thinking about what (objectives or activities) should be driving our teaching:

  1. Engineering, because it is not a core subject for high schoolers, is not standards-based. The curriculum model is “a continuum of activities,” completely project/product-driven, rather than objective-driven.
  2. The “academy” concept is about bringing subject areas together for students to work on something bigger than school—a project that allows the knowledge and skills of each course to serve a larger purpose and lead toward a bigger goal. At first glance, it’s about pipelining students into professions—but really, it’s about making what they’re learning meaningful. It’s about making what they’re learning SECONDARY to what they’re doing.

It’s about making what they’re learning SECONDARY to what they’re doing. What?

People are defined by what they do, not by what they know. If we want to make proactive, independent citizens who will push society forward, we should be asking “what should they be doing?” and not “what should they know how to do?”

On one side, you have:                                                       And on the other:

Standards-based                                                                    Work-based
Objective-driven                                                                    Process-driven
Algorithms                                                                                Concepts
“hoops” (to jump through)                                                Purpose, Utility
Skills, Knowledge, Tests                                                      Products, Coursework

…  I still have a lot more thinking to do on this. But I leave you with an image of some 10th-graders learning ratios and proportions. On one hand, you can have a well-designed ‘hook,’ a SWBAT, an engaging activity, an exit ticket, and later, an assessment that shows true mastery. On the other, you can have a year-long project to improve the community that might require a scale drawing—when you get to the scale drawing part, they’re going to need to know how to use ratios and proportions, so you teach them. Then they use it. Forget about needing a “hook;” forget about coming up with ways to make ratios and proportions not look like math. And then, instead of worrying whether they’ll be able to solve the ratio problem on the next test, you’ll worry about whether they’ll be able to apply knowledge of ratios and proportions the next time they’re working on something and need to look at and understand a scale drawing.

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