Why are “bloopers” celebrated while “mistakes” are feared?

Near the end of every student video project is the bloopers real. It’s, by the look on their faces when the project ends and the bloopers begin, they’re favorite part of the project by far.

How strange that in a video project mistakes are captured and unnecessarily added to the end, while in 99% of school life mistakes are feared, avoided, hidden, covered over, judged, or even punished.

What can we do about that?

Should vocational education be a part of plain, old education?

I was reading an interesting New York Times article by Christina Hoff Sommers about how grading practices create a bias that affects male academic success.  Interesting stuff, but what causes me to write today is the mention of a word that I haven’t heard since my days in Rappahannock County, VA: vocational education.

Since I was young the term “Vo-Tech” or vocational education has been synonymous with “remedial”–trade-oriented learning for the kids for whom traditional education is not a good fit.  But the increased attention toward “work-readiness” and project-based learning makes me wonder if vocational education can point us in a slightly different direction.  Can science students learn about volume and pressure by learning about how an engine functions (and comes to not function, as my 1980 Datsun 510 once taught me)?

What can we learn from vocational education as we prepare the classrooms of the next 50 years?

PBL = most people’s jobs

Pop quiz, hot shot.  Who wrote this?

…my primary responsibility was to develop the project plan, maintain communication between the client and the project team, and provide intellectual leadership to the various modules making up the project.

Long story short, I was wandering the website of a consulting firm looking for biographical information on a volunteer that was due to write for the edu180atl project, for which I work as co-editor.  When I came across this little tidbit, it occurred to me that this consultant does on a regular basis what I aspire to do in my classroom: Project-based Learning.  He probably doesn’t call it PBL.  He calls it “his job.”  Many of our students will endeavor to “develop project plans,” “maintain communication,” and “provide leadership” in their future careers.  Worksheets help them build a skills base, but engaging in formative and summative PBL helps them put those skills to work.

The phrase that struck me, the one that pushed me to open a new tab on my browser and begin fleshing out these thoughts, was provide intellectual leadership.

Can I do that for a living?

I love teaching Spanish.  More importantly, I love teaching children.  But truth be told, I’d rather spend my time and my passion providing intellectual leadership and inspiring my students to do so in kind.

Perhaps those that fear that content will be subjugated to the so-called “soft skills” often associated with project-based learning” might take comfort in the notion that the degree to which content is stressed in PBL, such intellectual leadership may be provided, either by the teacher/facilitator or by the students themselves.

Looking downstream

Birke Baehr identified a problem.  The food we eat destroys our bodies and the planet.  So he started talking to people.  And if this video is any indication, Birke Baehr can talk:

As I turn my eye to end-of-year assessment, I would do myself well by asking myself, “What do I want my students’ final artifacts to be?”  A TED Talk would never result as the final artifact of a student’s learning in my classroom.  But, oh to be the teacher that inspires his student to further his learning, to ask “the next question,” to seek out professionals, to follow his passion…

How can my students finish the year in such a way as to prompt them to continue their internal dialogue?

In need of a starting point? Look at New Tech High School.

You may notice a theme from my recent and future posts: catching up and reconnecting.  I spent the summer being a husband, handyman, sojourner, and experiential learner, but happily, I’ve let my reading, thinking, and writing lapse.  So I have a lot to catch up on.  I don’t regret the lapse; rather, it’s been a welcome break.  Some I will pick back up faithfully, other things I will let slip into the ether of forgetfulness.

My school began the conversion from PC to Mac in March, and one of my “catch-ups” has been to empty out my old PC, sift through the stacks of docs, apps, emails, photos, and video, identifying chaff and wheat.  Here’s a piece of wheat for you:

I read an article for a cohort of which I was a member recently in which the author describes the very plain and simple premise behind the pedagogy of the New Technology High School in Napa, California.  The article, “Students thrive on Cooperation and Problem Solving,” published anonymously on Edutopia (http://edutopia.org) on October 18, 2006.

New Tech teachers build their instruction around eight Learning Outcomes — content standards, collaboration, critical thinking, oral communication, written communication, career preparation, citizenship and ethics, and technology literacy — which they embed in all projects, assessments, and grade reports. Instructors start each unit by throwing students into a real-world or realistic project that engages interest and generates a list of things they need to know. Projects are designed to tackle complex problems requiring critical thinking. The school’s strategy is simple:

  • To learn collaboration, work in teams.
  • To learn critical thinking, take on complex problems.
  • To learn oral communication, present.
  • To learn written communication, write.
  • To learn technology, use technology.
  • To develop citizenship, take on civic and global issues.
  • To learn about careers, do internships.
  • To learn content, research and do all of the above.

None of this is new, of course.  But I enjoy the simplicity of these eight guidelines and the reminder that content is not king, but must be integrated into the previous seven guidelines.

My only redaction in this list is #2.  At least at the younger levels, problems don’t need to be complex in order to recruit the skill of critical thinking. As an eighth grade teacher, since my focus on communicating in the target language, I aim to present very simple problems early on for two reasons.  First, if the problem is a simple one, they can put their sharpest thinking into their use of language.  Second, simple problems require the least input from me.  I can stay out of the doing process, and focus on facilitating conversation, providing sources of information, and assessing student work.

PBL is a forking path

So, if you’re like me, and you’re wondering how to frame your instruction for the beginning of the year, perhaps starting with these eight guidelines might help.  I’ve decided to give them a try.  I’m not sure what the result will look like.  But like any genuine learning journey, I can determine the point of origin, but where the destination lies will depend on the many points along the path.