01 March 2015

Defining Students' Capabilities (What Happened on the Scientific Notation Project?)

What do you think defines more of your students' capabilities to create, the tools you give them, or the content you teach?

Which builds more capacity in our students to solve (their own) real problems, teaching them to ask better questions, or teaching the content necessary to attack those problems?

I had a great conversation with +Jeff Horwitz from Chesterfield Day School in December about continuing to push myself to think out of a box about what problems kids can solve and what products they can create in 2015 with the technology and information available to them. There are skills we teach at the high school level in our career and technical ed and arts courses that 15 years ago a kid may have needed to make a professional-ish product.

When I was a kid...

  • I "published" stories and books by using a printer, our best markers, and those little metal brads and giving them to my parents. One day, I even got invited to an city-wide event where I got to read my story in a classroom of TWENTY-FIVE other kids and parents who were attending the same event.
  • I "produced" songs by recording myself singing along to the radio on a casette recorder.
  • I "interviewed" people from other cultures by making up fake languages and talking into my casette recorder.
  • I "published" a newspaper by drawing a picture in the box and writing on the lines of a pre-printed template on newsprint that my parents bought one time. (And just once. So, the fun was over in an evening.)
  • I saw my grandparents on my mother's side fewer times than I can count on my hands, because they lived more than a day's drive away.

My 5 year old...

  • Has published an interactive ebook and shared it on my facebook with her friends (okay, my friends, their parents, but you know what I mean.)
  • Without even being given the idea, recorded music videos on a Leapfrog Leappad with songs she makes up herself.
  • Has a "fashion" blog with images of her designs that she'll request we post to so she can show her friends her pictures of "horse braids", "tags for charming babies," necklaces, and more
  • Can Facetime her Mimi and Poppa almost whenever she wants, sharing all the latest news from STL to ATL. 

Its hard for me to even imagine what she'll be capable of once she starts reading, but I have a feeling it will only be limited by our ability to get the tools into her hands, and her own imagination. 

I think in a lot of ways, I expect greater creativity and imagination from my preschool-aged children than I might from the high-schoolers in my classroom. Is there a chance our expectations of what they may be capable of is what defines the end product? If something is an "11th-grade" project, what makes it so? Is it the math content from a course they haven't yet taken, or is it a complexity limitation? 

Once you raise your expectations of the quality that students are capable of producing, how do you sell that to your students that have a fixed mindset of what they can accomplish? 

Two weeks ago I gave my Applied Math students a mini-project about multiplying or dividing numbers in scientific notation. I gave them the choice of 4 different questions to research and solve, and a choice of poster, collage, video, or whatever else cool they could come up with as their product. Several students steered toward poster, which was fine, but the disparity between quality was what rattled me for the better part of a weekend. Choosing to work by herself, one student finished her work in 2 class periods (and most of the 2nd was filled with coloring in block letters and graphics on her poster.) I had a group of 4 boys "finish" the same question in 4 class periods with what was probably a level of quality I could have produced in 3rd grade. 

What happened with these boys (the 2nd photo above)? Is it a matter of their teacher accepting this poster as "done," even as I already know that it will barely pass muster on my rubric? Can we mandate creativity in core classes? Do I have to put quality measures in my rubric that really should be assessing a student's learning of the content? 

From my experience, its not enough to give the option of creativity in the classroom and producing cool, quality work. Some students will flourish under that setting, but it cheats that ones who will continue to function at the lowest common denominator. I don't think its enough to show our students what they can do - we have some level of responsiblity to push and encourage them to make it happen. 

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Thanks for sharing!