Master's Project: Self-directed learning in the science classroom

Well...to be precise, it's titled "Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom." Catchy, I know.

To be honest, this is a bit old. I thought I had posted this a long time ago, but recently realized I never had despite always meaning to do so. I implemented this project in the spring of 2010 and officially submitted my project in June of the same year. It won me a "Scholar of Excellence" award, so it must be at least somewhat decent. 😉

The Goods

Though the full paper may not be of interest to you, let me recommend the Lit Review. I went through many, many papers on constructivist environments and instructional technology's impact on student learning. It'd make me very happy if anybody found this even remotely useful.

I've decided to release it under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so have at it. Here's the full paper in variety of formats for any of your consumption needs:

  • Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom

Description

Simply put, students worked in teams of four to five and shared a team blog. Students investigated any topic that interested them around the general theme of climate change. Students were tasked with researching the topic and sharing their learning and questions on their blog. There were no due dates (other than the end of the school year), though students were all required to write a certain number of posts and comments on their classmates' posts (for more details, check out the Project Design section of the paper). For a bit on the rationale, here's an excerpt from the Introduction and Rationale:

The purpose of the educational system in the United States has been described in many different ways depending on the viewpoint of the individual doing the describing. Creating individuals able to become positive members of society, providing skills for the future workforce, or preparing individuals for an uncertain future have all been cited by various people and organizations as the purpose of schooling- each relying on their own value set and particular social and political biases. While there is no doubt that these various beliefs about the purpose of the American educational system have been true, and may continue to be true in various times and places, it is this author's belief that one of the more important goals of the educational system is to create life-long learners who will be able to actively and knowledgeably engage in whatever ideas and issues may cross their paths. As specific information and skill-sets are quickly changing due to the rapid increases in knowledge and improvements in technology the importance of teaching students specific content information decreases while the importance of teaching students how to locate, evaluate, and interact with knowledge increases. As what it means to be productive members of society or effective members of the workforce changes, the ability for individuals to understand how to learn new knowledge when they need it is more valuable than simply falling back on information learned through formal schooling.

If schools are to become a place where students learn how to interact with, challenge, and develop new knowledge, then the traditional classroom structure- that of the teacher as the primary source of knowledge and assessment- needs to change as well. Students should be given a chance to work out the solutions to problems that do not have predefined answers. In doing so, students lose their status as passive recipients of information and instead become active creators of knowledge. A method of implementing this might be built on the problem-based learning (PBL) model that has been used for many years in many content areas with various age levels. The incarnation of PBL envisioned here provides students with real-world problems to solve that do not already have easy or "neat" answers, gives students the freedom to explore down side canyons as part of the problem solving process, allows time for students to share their ideas and work with others, and provides support and time for students to document and reflect on their learning and problem solving process.

Let me know what you think or if you found anything useful for your own purposes.

Work in progress: Project Climate

I'm definitely overdue for a bit of in-progress analysis of Project Climate (as described here). We've been at it for a few weeks now, and we're in the final stages of the project as a whole.

Makin' me proud

  • Quality of product. The quality level of the students' writing and thinking on climate change related topics is impressive. Take this student's entire work, for example. The posts are a great mix of information, opinion, and insight.
  • Staying engaged. I was afraid as we began this project that students would grow tired of it and lose momentum and enthusiasm. So far this hasn't been an issue, and the level of engagement seems to have increased somewhat as students became more comfortable with the format.
  • All of you. We've gotten quite a good response from those of you in the Twitterverse & beyond. Students really enjoy getting comments from people outside of the school and from around the world. I'm not sure this would've been possible without twitter1.
  • Rethinking learning. A student's reflection & self-evaluation of the project says it more eloquently than I could phrase it:

As far as the learning part goes, I’m not sure anything I have learned would be on a test. I have learned things that no one could learn from a text book because they are objective to the point of teaching people the facts. I haven’t learned the facts, I don’t know the carbon emissions of countries by heart, I don’t know all the projects people have set up to help solve global warming, and I don’t think that I should. I have learned far more important things. I have learned that you don’t have to be wealthy to help others, maybe it’s even the opposite. I have learned that you can fix a problem you didn’t cause. I have even learned that people of different cultures and different native language can work together to make a big difference.

The not so great

  • More parents. I stink at parental involvement. I should've done a better job at communicating with parents and getting them involved in the project. I sent out a letter early in the semester explaining what we'd be doing, but didn't do much since then. Next time around this needs to improve.
  • Self-evaluation. I wanted students to be intimately involved in the assessment of their work. Unfortunately I didn't get started on doing this with students until recently. Self-evaluation will still play a role in the students' final assessment of their work, but I didn't set up the framework early enough to have it play a major role.
  • Not enough experts. I managed to make contact with a couple scientists who were willing to help out- but I  should've put forth a better effort to get people working in and around climate change issues involved2
  • That great story. I don't have a student who was totally struggling and then suddenly became engaged in the project and subsequently committed their life to being a climate scientist- or anything close to it. Some students aren't as engaged as I'd like- many of the same who weren't as engaged pre-Project Climate. I'm not sure if this is really a negative or just the way things are. I would've preferred if all the strugglers suddenly became over-achievers, but perhaps that's a little optimistic.
  • Lack of local knowledge. I haven't done a great job of sharing what we're doing within my own school as I have with those online. I've told a few other teachers and a couple administrators about it, but I'm not sure any of them have actually looked at any students' work. I'm not so great at self-promotion, especially in person.

Next time around

I'd like to run this project again in future years. From my (biased) perspective, the students are actively involved in selecting their specific topics and as such are finding it easier to really dig into the content. Student learning seems to be high. Classroom happiness is high. It's a fun time to be in the classroom. However, we're spending essentially 5 weeks studying climate change. Is that too long? Is the depth of learning worth the loss in breadth of learning? Will students bomb the standardized tests because we traded electricity & magnetism for Project Climate? Will I get support from the administration in the future?3

Help 'em out

Students are still writing and reflecting on issues of climate change. They'd still love your thoughts and comments on their posts. Check them out:

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  1. If you're sick of seeing me posting #ProjectClimate tweets, don't worry, the project will be over soon. 🙂      (back)
  2. Big thanks to Eric Heupel for coming in and explaining to students his work involving the effect of warming waters on native fish populations in the Gulf of Maine.     (back)
  3. I did run this project by my principal and curriculum coordinator before it began, but at that point it was hypothetical. Now it's real and eating up nearly a quarter of a quarter of the school year- and totally different from anything the other teachers with the same class are doing.     (back)

Week 1: Self-directed learning Project

As the project introduction date loomed closer and closer I was getting more and more nervous. "Am I really ready for this? Do I have everything together? Will the students buy in?" I'm not sure I've ever been so nervous about unveiling a big project despite being more prepared than I've ever been.

Setup

The project introduction date has come and gone, and we're nearly done with our first full week. I've mentioned this project in the past, since it's kind of a big deal1, but if you'll allow me a brief overview of the setup:

  1. Students are blogging in teams of four. Each week of the project a different student is "editor2."
  2. Students individually select a topic of interest under the broad umbrella of "climate change."
  3. Students research their topic, investigate their topic, and attempt to contact experts in their topic.
  4. Students write posts to share their learning and reflections along the way.

Come join us

As part of this project students are required to contact people who actively work in and around issues that relate to climate change. Although I want students to learn from experts in the field,  I'd also like them to get perspectives and feedback from people of all types outside the classroom. I invite and encourage all of you to comment on any student posts. You can find my students on these 5 team blogs:

Great stuff

As of this posting, students are just starting to blow up the blogosphere with some great posts. From looking at the energy bill, to the BP oil spill, to tropical diseases, to positive effects of climate change, to the effects of climate change on the clothing industry, there are many good thoughts and ideas being put out there.

Now I'm worried they're working at such a high level that there isn't much room to improve. 🙂

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  1. For me, anyway. It's my Master's project and a type of learning environment I'd like to work in more often.     (back)
  2. Editors are responsible for reviewing and approving all posts before they're published.     (back)

Me to Neil deGrasse Tyson: Let's do this!

I've been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson for a long time. He's even my friend on the facebook1.

Today, however, he earns a new level of respect plus several thousand cool points. Thanks to a post over on Stop Trying to Inspire Me, I found an interview he did with Linda Holmes for NPR where he discusses science literacy and education.

You should read the entire interview (it's not too long), but here are some of the good bits:

NdT: The center line of science literacy -- which not many people tell you, but I feel this strongly, and I will go to my grave making this point -- is how you think. If someone comes up to you and says, "I have these crystals. If you rub them together, it will heal your ailments." I don't want you to say, "Oh, that's bunk." No. Because extreme skepticism, such as that, and extreme gullibility are two equal ways of not having to think at all. And I don't think I'm the first to say that.

So the thought is -- what's your next thought when someone approaches you with the crystals? It should be, "How does that work? How do you know it works? By what mechanism does it work? How much does it cost? Where did you get the crystals? What evidence do you have that it would work on me?" Start asking questions. And people who are just charlatans out there, or are self-deluded, you'll reach a point where they don't have answers to those questions, because if they did, they wouldn't be trying to sell you crystals.
...

NdT (speaking on how we inhibit curiosity): You're afraid your dish might break, so you tell them to stop playing with the china. Well, what's the cost of replacing your dish? A few dollars. If it's expensive, maybe twenty dollars. Why is it that you don't spend that, but you'll easily write a check to send your kid to some fancy school for thirty or forty thousand dollars a year? "Oh, because at the end, they'll have the degree from this school." It ain't about the degree. It's about: How do you think? That doesn't have to come from an institution, it comes from your trajectory through life and whether your appetite for learning, whether your urge to query the unfolding of nature around you is nurtured or quelled. That's the difference. "Squashed." "Quelled" is too calm. "Squashed."

What happens, the kid goes and plays in the mud. "Don't play in the mud; you'll get your clothes ..." There's bugs in the mud. That's kinda cool. They turn over a rock. "You'll get dirt on your clothes." There's millipedes under the rock. Let the kid find the millipedes. Plucks the -- off the rose -- "Don't break the rose like that; that's a rose." No, they want to see what's inside the rose; it's kinda interesting. The middle is not the same as the outside. Let the experiment run its course.
...

NdT: Who is it that we say are the best kids in the class? The ones that shut up and pay attention to the teacher, not the ones who are jumping up and down and breaking things. Kids should be allowed to break stuff more often. That's a consequence of exploration. Exploration is what you do when you don't know what you're doing. That's what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn't be discovering anything, because they already knew what they were doing.

This is a fundamental disconnect between what's going on in the educational system and what it takes to be a scientist. So the system does not promote interest in science. People who are scientists today are scientists in spite of the system, typically, not because of it.

LH: So there's a lack of support in the educational system for science, but not necessarily in the ways people would think about.

NdT: That's correct. There's a lack of support for scientific curiosity. There's a curriculum, there's a book ...

And then, near the end of the interview, he drops this:

NdT: "They told me it wasn't going to be on the test." "Oh, I should know that -- I got straight A's." See, the measure of what they should know comes to them from their grade, not from the act of gaining insight itself. So I don't ... I'm going to ... it's not time for me to do it yet. I'm saving up for it.

LH: Saving up for what?

NdT: Saving up my energies to make that case. I mean, it's in this interview now, but I'm not ready to make that why I show up on television. There's still some universe things I want to get off the table.

LH: But ultimately, that's your bigger agenda.

NdT: I'm going to be in your face.

LH: You're going to be the pro-curiosity guy.

NdT: I'm going to be back in your face. That's right.

Well, Neil deGrasse Tyson, this is something that I'm trying to get done in my classes this semester. I've outlined my formal plan, I've discussed very similar ideas about scientific learning & curiosity, and I'm trying to push the whole "engage your curiosity for science" bit with my students. I know you're a busy guy who has "some universe things" you want to do first, but when you're ready, I know a science teacher in Groton, CT2 who'd love to work with you to help revamp science education. Drop me line. Seriously. Let's do this.

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  1. It's pretty rare to have an astrophysicist that can discuss his field in a way that is interesting and informative to non-science fold. My students recognize him nearly instantaneously thank to several video clips I've shown them which happen to feature Dr. deGrasse Tyson.     (back)
  2. That'd be me, for clarification.     (back)

Science and Self-Directed Learning

I've just completed my Master's Proposal1. While the process wasn't exactly enjoyable, I did enjoy being required to sit down and think through a pretty major student-centered unit from beginning to end.  My hope in designing this unit was to hopefully narrow the divide between how a scientist does science and how we teach students science.

I'll give you the quick & dirty summary below, but if you'd like to read the entire proposal: Have at it.

Goals

  • Make learning about science more like doing science
  • Allow students the freedom to follow their passions (within a broad framework)
  • Connect students to professionals who actively work or participate in their area of interest
  • Foster creative thinking and problem solving skills among students

In the first few weeks of the semester students will be introduced to:

  • the ideas behind the project and goals of the project
  • tools that will allow them to communicate and collaborate with classmates and outside collaborators
  • participate in smaller projects designed to grow independent learning and monitoring skills

The Main Thrust

  • Within a general topical framework (in this case: global warming), students will investigate topics and ideas that they find intriguing and interesting.
  • While there will be no set groups, students interested in similar topics may choose to investigate these ideas together. If they want to follow different paths later, they can freely dissociate as well.
  • Student experimentation, observation, and investigation will be encouraged.
  • Students will be expected to take their investigations beyond simple internet research.

Assessment

  • Students will meet at minimum twice a week with me to discuss what they've learned so far, problems they've run into, and future topics of investigation.
  • Regular reflections will be expected from each student. These can be in any format.
  • 5-minute "What I've Done So Far" presentations will be given by each student two weeks and four weeks into the unit.
  • A final demonstration of learning will conclude the unit. The demonstration can be done in any format that can be shared online. The emphasis of the demonstration is to show the depth and breadth of the students learning.

I Still Have Questions

  • I feel I can accurately assess student learning throughout this project. I'm not sure how to actually give students letter grades.
  • I'm worried about kids buying into the whole thing. Perhaps this is just unnecessary worrying, but I'm having nightmares of students just sitting around for 6 weeks twiddling their thumbs. What can I do to buy them in?
  • I want to connect kids to "experts." These "experts" don't need to all be climate scientists2, just people who know or have some experience on the topic. This means you. And your friends. And your colleagues. Participation could range from something like mentoring a student, to a one-time Skype chat, to simply commenting on student work.
  • Can you help?

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  1. WOOHOO!!     (back)
  2. Though if you happen to be a climate scientist, we'd love to have you help out.     (back)

A couple quick links

I haven't had nearly as much time to think or write about my Master's Project as I'd like. However, a couple quick links to people who seem to be thinking along similar lines:

1. Scott Meech at Tech & Learning

Scott describes 5 steps toward using technology as an environment for learning (and identifies popular and his own picks for tools to aid in each step):

  1. Researching
  2. Reading
  3. Archiving
  4. Reflecting
  5. Participating

He goes into more detail and it's worth the read1, but these steps fit nicely with the three general steps I have in mind for students while working as self-directed learning in the science classroom:

  1. Selection (choosing learning goals, identifying resources to help meet those goals, content selection)
  2. Performance (working towards learning goals & mastery of content)
  3. Assessment (primarily self- & peer-assessments)
  4. Repeat

This process is surrounded by Monitoring, or self-assessing ones progress, identifying weaknesses, and focusing on strengths. I feel Scott's ideas flesh out how technology might interface with my ideas here. Details are still pretty fuzzy, but my neurons are firing happily when I think about it- telling me it must be on the right path.

2. David Warlick: A Few Shifts I See Happening

The venerable Mr. Warlick lays this down:

Shifts in Education
Not that we stop doing one and replace it with the other.  This is not a dicomedy
F r o m T o
• Classroom/Workshop Learning (time/place-based)
Network Learning
• Institution Dependent Learning Independent (self-directed) Learning
• Literacy Learning Literacy
• Lifelong Learning Skills Learning Lifestyle

Right now I'm on solidly the left, frustrated because I want to work my way more to the right, but not able to make much progress because of time and commitment constraints. If I could only take a month sabbatical or two to really hash these things out...

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  1. Scott also provides a link to a presentation he gave recently that relates to all this. I haven't had a chance to sit down and check it out yet (I will), but I already recommend it. I'm sure it's worth it. Also check out his blog. (back)

Tim Gunn & the role of a teacher

As mentioned in previous posts, I've been spending a lot of time reading research and thinking about my Master's Project. I'm working on a self-directed learning1 unit in which students choose their own specific topics of study within a broad category (i.e. climate change) and follow their interests and passions while documenting and publishing their learning as they go.

Through all of this, my biggest struggle has been working out exactly what the ideal teacher's role should be in this type of environment. There needs to be guidance, scaffolding, and assessment, but how does a teacher do those things effectively in a self-directed learning environment?

I knew regularly talking to students and discussing their progress and understanding of their topic and learning was a must, but I was struggling to picture how that looks.

Then it hit me.

I've watched a few episodes of Project Runway2, and though I'm not really big into fashion design, I did realize there was something relevant going on here. For each episode, contestants are given some design challenge (i.e., make a more fashionable postal uniform) and given a limited time frame in which to complete their outfit. After working for awhile, Tim Gunn (one of the hosts) goes around and talks to each of the contestants about their designs. It's brilliant.

Conversation, questioning, and critique: Clip 1

Tim Gunn goes around to the contestants asking them how they're doing and to explain their design. He'll point out things that don't look right, offer suggestions for improving the design, praise designs that are well-developed, and overall do what he can to help and support the designers without interfering too much with their particular senses of fashion. Tim Gunn doesn't force his will on them but he does learn a great deal about who they are as a designer and their ideas behind the design. The best part? At 1 min 25 sec: "I don't want you to ask me that. I want you to ask yourself that." Pushing for self-assessment. Nice.

Joining a community of practice: Clip 2

In this clip Tim is more forceful. Wendy (a contestant) designs clothes for lower-end/more practical uses. However, the focus of the show (and that of the judges) is definitely "high fashion." Tim takes her aside, validates her viewpoint as being important and necessary, but goes on to suggest that if she wants to be successful on Project Runway that she rethink her viewpoint. In essence, Tim is trying to help Wendy join the "high fashion" community of practice.

Notable differences

The designers on the show are already members of a community of practice. They want to be fashion designers and, for the most part, they are familiar with what it means to be a designer and are motivated to pursue that route. In my 9th grade science class not all students will be as interested in the material. Those that are interested in the material are probably not familiar with what it means to be a scientist or act scientifically. Fix? More support. Tim Gunn stops by once or twice in a 4-6 hour design session. I'll have to be constantly circulating and talking to my students. Giving them stronger nudges than he does & providing more guidance.

Application

Teaching students to be able to regulate their own learning and follow their own interests will probably be more challenging than it should be in our schools. Students have been trained to expect the teacher to tell them what to study, how to study it, and when to study it. It will take time and support to help students begin to take control of their own learning. To do that, the teacher is going to have to step back from the lead role, and start a role similar to Tim Gunn's. Talk to individual students or groups. Give feedback, offer suggestions, but allow students to express their personality and follow their interests.

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  1. hat tip to @msansonetti for helping me discover that name (self-directed learning). I found lots of great research using those search terms.  (back)
  2. Wikipedia article for Project Runway if you're unfamiliar.   (back)

Designing a student-centered classroom

Part of my Master's project involves creating a project/problem based learning (PBL) environment for my 9th grade science classroom. I'm getting to the point where I need to start nailing down some specifics, so I'm going to lay down what I'm thinking here (publish-then-filter, right?). Your comments and critiques are welcome.

I've seen several example PBL units that gave students one specific question to solve. They may have been good prompts, but the problem I have with this method of PBL is that it seems overly prescriptive. It doesn't give students much room to follow their own interests. I'd prefer to leave things much more open to student choice. Currently, I think I'd like to give students a general topic to frame their investigations (climate change or evolution of the universe, for example) and allow them to follow their interests to specific areas of study/research that they find interesting.

Goal:

Create at minimum a unit where students choose their own topic of research and follow their passion in determining it's continued direction. I want students to be able to follow their interests and passion wherever it leads them (with some limitations). Students will be expected to document their learning and do some sort of public exhibition at the end of the process.

Challenges:

  • Overcoming student expectations of school and science. In my experience, students expect to be told exactly what to study and how to study it. When given some choice they're often uncomfortable and unsure of how to proceed (I know that's how I reacted). Also, science is generally perceived as being a bunch of information and facts that they need to learn. Science is more about what we don't know than what we do know. I'd like students to ask questions that haven't been answered and try to figure out the answer.
  • Choosing a research topic. In theory, I'd like to simply say, "Research an area of climate change (for example) that you find interesting. Ready? GO!" I doubt this would work for several reasons. First, if students don't have any real background knowledge about climate change then they may not be familiar enough with it to be able to pick something that interests them. I'm torn on how much information I should cover before starting the student-directed phase. Second, students are unfamiliar with being able to control their learning in school. I'd expect a lot of uncertainty and frustration from students if I left things so open. At the same time, I struggle with giving students example research questions since they often just choose an example to follow instead of following something that they find intriguing.
  • The state standards (see recent posts). In all likelihood we're not going to cover as many content standards using this format. Depending on what topics the students choose they might not cover many content standards at all. I'm OK with this. My administration may not be. I found some research to support my position1, but that may not mean much to those who hold the power.
  • Fostering reflection/collaboration. I want students to be as focused (if not more focused) on the process they're going through as they are on their end product. I'd like them to reflect daily on what things they're having success with, what things they're struggling with, and what methods they're using. I also want students to be aware of what all the other students in the class are doing. Creating an environment where "collaboration through the air2" is possible- where students can freely leave their projects and go help other students who are struggling- is very important to my vision of how the classroom should run. Since this is (sadly) such a foreign idea for many students, I'm debating whether or not there needs to be some at least semi-formal structure to encourage it.
  • Documenting the learning. I want this to be a major focus of this project. I'd like students to have some artifact- digital or otherwise- that allows them to look back and see what they were thinking and doing with their topic throughout the entirety of the project. I'd like some analogue to the Reggio Emilio approach to documentation- but I'm not sure exactly how that plays out in a high school environment. At this point, I think giving students the option of how they choose to document their learning is okay. I'll give several examples of formats they could use (pictures, videos, written documents, audio notes), and several methods of organizing their documentation (blogs, wikis, etc.).

What do you think?

I feel like I've got a pretty good mental vision of what I want to happen with this project, yet I still have a lot of work to nail down the specifics and make it sound all scholarly. To date I've been reading lots of research and have a lot more research left to read. However, I'd love hear your thoughts on the challenges I've laid out above.

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  1. Students engaged in PBL gained less knowledge than students taught in traditional styles, but the PBL students remembered more knowledge several months later. They were also shown to have better problem-solving skills, be more open minded, and perform better on tests. See p. 567 of: Fallik, O., Eylon, B., & Rosenfeld, S. (2008). Motivating teachers to enact free-choice project-based learning in science and technology (PBLSAT): Effects of a professional development model. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 19, 565-591.  (back)
  2. I believe Gary Stager used this phrase, or maybe it was Peter Reynolds of FableVision?  (back)

A new project- Introduction

Though delayed by a trip back to Michigan, an excellent week at the Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute1, and now a week in Chicago while my wife attends a conference for work, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my Masters project. Today, sitting in a coffee house on Michigan Ave., I started the writing. In the spirit of "publish, then filter," I'll be sharing my progress here.

Below is a basic introduction and rationale to my project. What I'd like from you:

  • What do you think?
  • Where are my ideas weak? wrong? incomplete?
  • How could it be improved? modified? focused?

Feel free to be as critical as you'd like as long as the reason you're being critical is to help create a better project at the end of this process. 🙂

Rationale/Introduction

The purpose of the educational system in the United States has been described in many different ways depending on the viewpoint of the individual doing the describing. Creating individuals able to become positive members of society, providing skills for the future workforce, or preparing individuals for an uncertain future have all been cited by various people and organizations as the purpose of schooling- each relying on their own value set and particular social and political biases. While there is no doubt that these various beliefs about the purpose of the American educational system have been true, and may continue to be true in various times and places, it is this author's belief that one of the more important goals of the educational system is to create life-long learners who will be able to actively and knowledgeably engage in whatever ideas and issues may cross their paths. As specific knowledge and skill-sets are quickly changing due to the rapid increases in knowledge and improvements in technology, the importance of teaching students specific content knowledge decreases while the importance of teaching students how to locate, evaluate, and interact with knowledge increases. As what it means to be productive members of society or effective members of the workforce changes, the ability for individuals to understand how to learn new information when they need it is more valuable than simply falling back on information learned through formal schooling.

If schools are to become a place where students learn how to interact with, challenge, and develop new knowledge, then the traditional classroom structure- that of the teacher as the primary source of knowledge and assessment- needs to change as well. Students should be given a chance to work out the solutions to problems that do not have predefined answers. In doing so, students lose their status as passive recipients of knowledge and instead become active creators of knowledge. A method of implementing this might be built on the problem-based learning (PBL) model that was originally developed for medical students but has since been applied in all levels and disciplines. The incarnation of PBL envisioned here provides students with real-world problems to solve that do not already have easy or "neat" answers, gives students the freedom to explore down side canyons as part of the problem solving process, allows time for students to share their ideas and work with others, and provides support and time for students to document and reflect on their learning and problem solving process.

The model roughly outlined above might also be used between teachers to help them improve their teaching and the culture of their school. In this case, the real-world problems might be, "How do we improve communication between teachers?" or "What lessons and teaching models work the best?" or one of many other issues or ideas that could improve their skills as a teacher. As with the model used in the classroom with students, groups of teachers should have the freedom to explore ideas and issues that branch off from the original problem statement. Time must also be made for teachers to interact and share with one another through this process. This time might not necessarily be spent face-to-face, but rather online through various collaboration or communication tools.

As teachers utilize similar methodologies together through professional development as well as with their students in their classes, the two reinforce each other. Tools used to improve communication between teachers exploring an issue on how to change school culture, for example, might also be used to help students communicate with each other during their exploration of how the world might deal with the lack of oil as an energy source, and vice versa.

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  1. posts on this topic coming soon(back)