Thursday / April 25

The Facade of the Busy Classroom

I walked into a classroom and noticed an Albert Einstein poster on the wall. This wasn’t a particularly unique poster. It showed a headshot of Albert Einstein with the quote, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” I have seen this poster countless times, but on this day, it was different. I was observing students engaging in solving a problem that had not been solved by adults in the history of mankind, and I was caught by how the teacher in the classroom was actualizing Einstein’s adage in her teaching practices. The teacher was having students focus on their imaginations and, when needed, the students would google or ask for the knowledge needed to make a case for their solution. The students were playing the part of experts working with others to create an elegant solution to a specific problem. The teacher was using an inquiry-based method to enable students to discover knowledge, explore solutions, and co-construct an approach to solving a real-life challenge. The students were truly busy using their imaginations!

Should We Expect Our Students to be ‘Experts’?

There is surface plausibility and emotional resonance for treating and expecting students to be experts. After all, that is to bestow upon our youth the belief and expectation that they will solve the contemporary problems of the world, in class, today. First off, it seems to make intuitive sense that if students participate in activities that experts participate in they will more likely become an expert. Secondly, inherent in this expectation is the belief in student empowerment. The idea of empowering students to take ownership over their own learning resonates with how adults feel about their own work experiences (or what they idealize about their work experiences) and how they would, naturally, want to be treated as a child. As such, teachers look to find instructional methods that fit that paradigm.

Unfortunately, there is a major limitation to treating students like experts from day one (or day 417). How students think in their early years differs dramatically from how they think when they become experts (Willingham, 2009). Yes, that’s right. They actually can’t think like experts (yet).

We need to provide students with experiences that enable them to develop into experts while not expecting them to be experts right now. This is easier said than done. Secondly, taking ownership over one’s learning requires a specific skill set and takes a significant amount of time to master.

What’s the Problem with Traditional Problem-Based Learning?

Methodologies such as problem and project-based learning promote the idea that teachers should be facilitators of learning and that students should be busy developing products to present to others. Moreover, they often require that students be held accountable for taking ownership over their learning—without actually providing much intentional direction in the way of how to take on such responsibility (i.e. how to measure their growth, seek feedback based on specific criteria, and how to use metacognitive strategies to reflect on performance).

Interestingly, if an observer were to walk into a project-based learning (PBL) classroom, they would notice that students were incredibly busy working in groups, developing power points, presenting to audiences, and googling answers to their problems. In these scenarios, the students would more often than not be busy and the teachers would be providing resources and supporting them in meeting deadlines. But, what about developing students’ core academic competencies? What about building students’ expertise and content knowledge? The busy classroom is not necessarily the learning classroom.

Enter Rigorous Project-Based Learning

There is an alternative to the shortcomings and roadblocks encountered with traditional project-based learning: rigorous project-based learning by design. This approach stops this faulty thinking and practice at its very root and argues that we, as teachers, must unapologetically cause learning by ensuring students learn core academic content knowledge through our active intervention.

What does this mean, and what does it look like in the classroom? Specifically, we must provide the right support for students as they develop their knowledge and skills across levels of complexity—and we must develop a culture that promotes students’ ownership over their own learning over time. This doesn’t mean that students miss out on rich, challenging tasks or on the opportunity to take responsibility over their learning. This also doesn’t mean that students are not treated with the respect that we would bestow upon others. What it does mean is that we appreciate that children are still developing their expertise and that we must ensure that we provide the right support to get to that penultimate level of mastery.

Rigorous Project-Based Learning does this through the use of three key shifts in instructional design:

  • Design Shift 1—Clarity: Students need to be absolutely clear on what they are expected to learn, where they are in their learning, and what next steps they need to take to advance their learning. Their understanding and use of content knowledge and skills should transcend any project situation or context.
  • Design Shift 2—Challenge: Students need to develop a consistent balance of surface, deep, and transfer knowledge and to thoroughly understand and apply content to real world, challenging problems. Each level of content complexity requires different instructional interventions, tasks, and feedback.
  • Design Shift 3—Culture: Students need to be able to talk about their learning, monitor their learning, advocate for next steps in their learning, and to be a part of a culture that focuses on and models such efforts.

These shifts ensure learners are focusing their mental effort on their own learning and not on being busy completing products. By having students imprint in their memory the key outcomes of our disciplines, they will develop expertise over time. If we don’t, their minds will be filled with cursory ideas about topics and products—leading to impoverished deep learning.

We must bridge imagination with knowledge. Einstein did this. He had a tremendous amount of content knowledge and also the skills to critically and creatively think that allowed him to question and fundamentally change our understanding of physics. We must juxtapose this idea of developing expertise with the idea of harnessing students’ imaginations. By doing so, we focus students squarely on being busy with their learning in productive and meaningful ways.

Written by

Michael McDowell, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Ross School District. Most recently, he served as the Associate Superintendent of Instructional and Personnel Services at the Tamalpais Union High School District. During his tenure, the Tamalpais Union High School District was recognized by the Marzano Research Laboratories as one of the top highly reliable organizations in the United States, and schools within the district received recognitions by the US News and World Report, and honored with California Distinguished Schools accolades. Prior to his role as a central office administrator, Dr. McDowell served as the Principal of North Tahoe High School, a California Distinguished School. Prior to administration, Dr. McDowell was a leadership and instructional coach for the New Tech Network supporting educators in designing, implementing, and enhancing innovative schools across the country. Before engaging in the nonprofit sector, Dr. McDowell created and implemented an environmental science and biology program at Napa New Technology High School, infusing 1:1 technology, innovative teaching and assessment, and leveraging student voice in the classroom. Additionally, Dr. McDowell, taught middle school math and science in Pacifica, CA. Dr. McDowell is a national presenter, speaking on instruction, learning, leadership and innovation. He has provided professional development services to large school districts, State Departments of Education, and higher education. In addition, he was a former National Faculty member for the Buck Institute of Education and a key thought leader in the inception of their leadership work in scaling innovation in instructional methodologies. His expertise in design and implementation is complimented by his scholarly approach to leadership, learning, and instruction. He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Redlands and an Ed.D. from the University of La Verne. He received departmental honors for his work in Environmental Science and was awarded the Tom Fine Creative Leadership Award for his doctoral work at the University of La Verne. He has also completed certification programs through Harvard University, the California Association of School Business Officials, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, and Cognition Education. He holds both a California single subject teaching credential and an administrative credential.

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