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CLASSROOM REDESIGNED FOR WHAT STUDENTS NEED NOW FOR TOMORROW

A model for teachers to pivot traditional classrooms into growth mind-set and design thinking classrooms that develop skills and knowledge to foster divergent thinkers.

The World Economic Forum has identified the 2020 skills as a vital component to students' development. They produced, in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group, a paper entitled “New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) through Technology.” The paper argues that coupling SEL together with 21st century skills is as important as the foundational skills from traditional academic learning.

Our current brick and mortar model should pivot to purposefully foster the scaffolding of SEL skills. Even in pockets around the world of best practice, students’ skills (SEL & 2020) are a bi-product of good pedagogy or good luck. I have scoured the internet for the scaffolding of these skills or a scope and sequence to develop these skills without much luck. How teachers develop student skills is not an exact science and never will be. However, it will continue to only happen by accident if we don’t change teacher professional development, which currently focuses on classroom management, delivery of curriculum standards, and diversified pedagogies to reach those standards. We need to have teacher development in the scaffolding of these skills. Proof of the importance of collaboration in 21st Century skills is seen in PISA’s new Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) section. Andreas Schleicher, director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD PISA, says, “We look carefully at how the world and the skills that people need are changing, and then we try to reflect that in our measure”.  

How do we pivot the current framework in education to address this issue and develop divergent thinkers instead of stifling their creativity, as considered by Sir Ken Robinson? How do we foster a combination of growth mindset (Carol Dweck, Stanford)  and design thinking process (IDEO Tim Brown) in classrooms around the world while developing divergent thinkers?

I put forth a model for debate that I have tested and refined in my classroom from middle school (6th to 8th grade) and high school (9th to 12th grade). Our middle school conducted school-wide initiatives that brought SEL learning to life, including a Harry Potter week that transformed the school into Hogwarts. This project connected the school’s curriculum to Harry Potter’s world and enabled students to experience the culture with over 1.8 million people worldwide. 

In high schools, the focus on content often gets in the way of developing SEL. I wanted to continue developing what I believed to be good practice in the classroom but wondered how to do it with a setting that has been traditionally focused on preparing students for university.

I believe that students need to feel engaged in the world and must feel like what they are doing matters. However, they lack the scaffolding of many skills and need the classroom setting to help them develop. This setting should permit them to try wholeheartedly with no fear of failure.

The model for my classroom has the structure to be scalable if school leadership fosters a culture of innovation. Tim Brown said it best, “To harvest the power of design thinking, individuals, teams, and whole organizations have to cultivate optimism.” For me, this mind-set means that we become what I like to call “edupreneurs,” with the flexibility to tinker with the culture, design, diversified pedagogy and strategies for individualized learning. Technology integration plays a major part in my classroom, but without great pedagogy, technology becomes an expensive and ineffective substitute for pen and paper.  

My model is a 3-pronged approach that includes Culture, Design, and Passion Projects (www.lifelessonlearning.com)

CULTURE

The first prong is creating the right culture of a growth mind-set and design-thinking process.  This culture leads to divergent thinking and prosperity. For many, this will be the hardest sell of my model because teachers must relinquish control of their classrooms and need to be flexible when analyzing and developing skills, using formative assessments, and guiding the passion projects. Sir Ken Robinson says that, “the role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they are valued.”

The primary goal of developing culture is for students to embrace problems they face instead of fearing them. We use three actions to create this type of culture:

  • Action 1 – Go Slow to Go Fast
  • Action 2 – Challenge Paradigms
  • Action 3 – Embrace the Problem

Action 1 - Go Slow to Go Fast is based on the works of Burgstahler (2010) who believes that teachers need to connect with students on a personal level. Building relationships is a key pillar in my classroom. My students share their passions, likes, dislikes, and issues to build relationships. I give them the opportunity to share through mediums that they enjoy; their SnapChat stories are often the medium of choice. Teachers will never know everything about technology as its growth is exponential. The only way that teachers can work with it in their classrooms is to know that they are not the expert. Teachers can use that to model problem-solving that relies on students for answers.

Mini-challenges over the course of the first 2 to 3 weeks of the school year build relationships while evaluating students’ skills. These challenges include the Lava Walk, egg drop challenge, paper to ceiling challenge, cup-building contest and many more easily organized challenges.  The important part of the mini-challenges for teachers is to learn how each student reacts to these challenges, where they are in their SEL, who takes the lead, who follows, how they brainstorm, and how they communicate.

Action 2Challenging Paradigms starts at Action 1 but is more directly approached between weeks 3 to 7 by overloading the students in different ways. Overloading students with tight deadlines and challenging their belief that they need to have the right answer is how we approach this part of the culture. Having been trained in many years of school that having the right answer is the only goal, this can be challenging for a grade 11 student. How do teachers have the time to address skills with every child in the room?

Video reflections with digital portfolios is the solution that I have found the easiest to manage. Students record a video as they go through a series of questions that help them self-reflect. Like anything, they improve with practice and understanding of what is happening in the classroom. At the end of the year, self-reflections are 15 minutes, on average. Self-reflecting is the foundation to lifelong learning as students assess where they are and where they want to be. The greater educational community, including other teachers, parents and students, can comment on the digital portfolios but for their personal reflection, I keep it between the student and me to build that trust and relationship. Often, issues arise in the video reflections that require both formal and informal conferences.

Frustration happens when students get feedback on their skills and curriculum standards with no marks.  Instead, they receive further questions that continue their development to push against the belief that there is only one right answer or one way of doing things. The frustration is often felt by top students as they have never faced obstacles at school. Facing obstacles will test their resiliency, but it is necessary for their development as they progress towards high stakes and high stress careers that need divergent thinkers. Without developing this tenacity, we will continue to see mental health issues arising in the work force. Tony Wagner says that “Students who only know how to perform well in today’s education system—get good grades and test scores, and earn degrees—will no longer be those who are most likely to succeed. Thriving in the twenty-first century will require real competencies, far more than academic credentials.”

Giving students a safe environment to face what they perceive as failure, or what I like to call getting a life lesson, is predominantly how we move forward. This thinking is supported by Hattie (2012) who says that evaluation and feedback, used separately, foster student success. We would also push that it helps develop SEL and 2020 skills.

Action 3Embrace the Problem is when students embrace the classroom growth mind-set, design thinking process, and self-reflections. Teachers become facilitators in many settings, and the classroom has a buzz to it. It is a collaborative think-tank where everybody is piggy backing on each other to further their Passion Project and understanding of their curriculum essentials while furthering their skills development. The diversified pedagogy in the classroom is often presented as mini-challenges for individuals or groups depending on what we are doing.

  • Using the Nureva Span Wall technology, iPads, Smart boards, computers, and mobile devices, students create a mosaic that represented how they believed a soldier felt and how his senses were assaulted in the trenches during WW1. A typical lecture would have lasted one hour and explored strategies, structure, a few stories, and results of the trenches. This year, students came away with 19 different topics including the animals living in the trenches, medical emergency procedures, censorship of letters, schedule, arms, unofficial peace stoppages, before and after look at the trenches, the atrocities, etc. They collaborated in small groups and as a class, and we had three students monitoring, negotiating, and delegating at the front of the room with the main Nureva Span wall. My role was to facilitate and ask probing questions to further their research.

  • Using our dry erase marker tables, students in small groups sketch-noted similarities and differences between the working conditions of children during the industrial revolution and their own world. Technology integration plays a part as students take pictures of their work, store it, and discuss it further in their different chat groups. This is done because we permit mobile devices in the classroom and have built the trust that most of the times they are using it to further their growth.

DESIGN

The Design of my course is built with the Action to Culture in mind. Skills development is at the forefront with the delivery of the curriculum standards within our flexible structure. As indicated in Culture, the teacher must be able to pivot quickly depending on what is happening with the development of skills. After Go Slow to Go Fast, the learning of the curriculum, their Passion Projects, and the skills students need to concentrate on, influence how the teacher pivots. Flexibility is definitely key as teachers foster the development of life-long learners.

The Design of the course is based on the assumption that we have essentials and extensions flexibility to deliver our curriculum. The essentials are the components or standards of the curriculum that must be mastered by all students and are taught using a variety of pedagogies. The extensions allow teachers and students to delve more deeply into curriculum and explore divergent topics. This facilitates a more individualized path driven by student engagement and linked to their passions. This is where the Passion Projects come into play.

The scope and sequence of the curriculum essentials is done with diversified pedagogy to match students’ needs as well as skills development. The teacher needs to have a firm grasp of the classroom composition to pivot quickly when needed for each individual. This is not an exact science, but with the help of having everything stored in Digital Portfolios (we use Nureva Troove and have used Google Docs or iTunes U) and guiding students to self-reflect every 2 to 3 weeks, teachers are better informed on when and how to pivot.

Passion Projects 

Introduced while building the culture and moving through curricular essentials, is the Passion Project. This becomes a large part of the extensions aspect and is based on Google’s 80-20 work set-up, which gave its employees one day a week to concentrate on their own interests.  An important aspect of the Passion Project is two-fold: individualize their learning as much as possible; and empower students to Embrace the Problem in a design thinking and growth mind-set. Tony Wagner states in his book Creating Innovators: "What do you suppose, some of the most innovative individuals in the world, the founders of Google, Larry Page & Sergey Brin; Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, Julia Child and rapper Sean Combs all have in common? They all went to Montessori schools, where they learned through play." Passion projects become play as students take complete ownership of their learning.

The Passion Project is set-up using design process toolkit by IDEO (Discovery, Interpretation, Ideation, Experimentation, Evolution) in a loop format as we try to prototype the 3 aspects of the project at least 3 times. It starts with the teacher finding about student passions (Action to Culture 1) and conferencing with students to discover possible ideas. Once they are ready, students complete a proposal in their chosen medium. The final product consists of an oral component based on story-telling, a creative piece, and a CEO summary.

Individualizing the content, owning their learning, and creating something genuinely unique in a design thinking process touches the four strategies that Marzano, Pickering and Heflebower (2011) outline for engagement:

  • - using effective pacing
  • - demonstrating intensity an enthusiasm
  • - building positive teacher student relationships
  • - using effective verbal feedback

If my goal is to have skills developed alongside curriculum standards, I need to co-construct with my students rubrics for the Passion Projects (Anne Davies). They will develop expertise in content and will be given complete latitude in their stories (presentations). They are given any medium to do the creative part of their project, but with some structure that changes for each student depending on the medium and student need. Students become the stewards of their time management by being given the opportunity to negotiate different deadlines depending on their progress or situation. They network and collaborate with their peers and experts all over the world in different subjects to help with all aspects of their projects. 

How do we teach empathy in education? Dr. Fernando Reimers describes this need in his first interdependent dimensions of the Global Competencies.  Two examples, which brought out empathy to the forefront, dealt with the Syrian Refugee crisis:

  • One student was passionate about yoga and social rights. After conferencing with me, she decided to look at the history of refugees starting with Operation Pied Piper (WW2 movement of English children away from city centers during the Blitz). Reading up on the trauma of the refugee crisis with the Jewish people after WW2 and the African refugee crisis over the past couple of decades, she realized that reintegration into society caused a lot of anxiety and stress on the children. She decided that she wanted to help. Her story explained and made us care, her creative piece was empathetic and a service orientation skill. She created a Yoga instructional video with Arabic subtitles so that refugees could practice yoga with their peers and build friendships in an inclusive environment that reduces stress and anxiety. 
  • Another student who loves children and wanted to help the Syrian refugee children after seeing the horrible picture of the young child dying that went viral. Being ostracized because of the language barrier was one of her fears after conducting research. She wrote a children’s book and drew illustrations that concentrate on developing empathy in children who will be in the same classes as the refugees. She told the story of a teddy bear who was going through the same traumatic events as the refugees to create empathy.

How do we make education relevant and let kids look at possible career opportunities such as coding or 3D printing?

  • Student loves science and to code. With his passion projects, he looked at the Manhattan project during WW2. In his creative piece, he was pursuing some ideas with drone technology but realized that it wasn’t an option within the time-frame of the semester. He pivoted his creative piece and decided to code a video game on air battles in WW2 to showcase some of the strategies employed in the air.
  • Architecture is the field of choice for another student, and he wants to pursue this passion and develop sustainable buildings. He looked at Albert Speers’ possible capital for Germany had the Nazis won WW2, comparing it to the Capital in Hunger games to showcase the grandeur and impossibility of Albert Speers’ ideas. Many the buildings would not have been possible, and the student wanted to show this by comparing the scale of Speers’ monuments with current monuments in the world such as the Arc de Triomphe. To do this, he printed monuments and the possible buildings in what would have been the German capital. 

How do we let students cultivate an interest in those fields that women have not historically pursued? We let them explore areas of interest with confidence, which you can see in this Passion project:

  • Female student passionate about following a career in Math. Passion Project in Modern History gave her the opportunity to explore how women played a major role at Bletchley Park during WW2 in breaking the codes from the Enigma machine. In particular, she became fascinated with Mavis Batey who is now a hero of hers. In order to showcase some of the frustration felt at Bletchley Park, the student designed an obstacle hunt based on her created code machine which the students need to break to get clues.

Fostering divergent thinkers in a growth mind-set and design thinking process environment that intertwines SEL and 2020 skills with the curriculum standards is essential for a sustainable future. Technology integration is important if great pedagogy is associated with the integration which includes knowing that as the teacher, I don’t have all the answers and that using it as a tool for self-reflecting gives the teacher the opportunity to work on SEL and 2020 skills development with each student. Lastly, this all works only if the teacher empowers the students by building relationships with each of them and trust that they will pursue their passions in your classroom if you unleash the power of all of the world’s possibilities as a teacher.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the life lesson learning classroom model that I am putting forward to consideration in pivoting the existing education framework. 


Armand Doucet is a passionate and national award-winning educator, leader and business professional with a unique combination of entrepreneurial, teaching and inspirational speaking experience. He recently received the Canadian Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence (2015). Armand is well known for his strong leadership and motivational abilities, having led extra-curricular groups and teams of teachers to success in health, education and personal goals. Armand's concentration is how to foster divergent student thinkers while developing skills intertwined with curriculum standards to get students truly ready to make a difference. You can learn about his model at www.lifelessonlearning.com.  

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