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Bridging the Abstract and Concrete to Impact Learning

Last week, I submitted the first iteration of my annotated bibliography for my dissertation. As I wrote in a previous post, I am exploring a single problem of practice: that many K-12 teachers in the U.S. do not participate in, or have access to, effective professional development specific to fostering their students' 21st century, knowledge economy skills. To research this problem, I have explored peer-reviewed, empirical articles from a historical, anthropological, sociological, and economic perspective as well as through the lens of cognitivism, constructivism, and sociocultural theories.

Justin Reich's (co-author of this blog) keynote about the Greatest EdTech Generation significantly impacted my research for that project. First, I delved deeper into the changing composition of the labor market to better define non-routine cognitive skills as well as the reported skills gaps between current university graduates and industries at the leading edge of innovation. Then, based on the meta-analysis from Freeman et al. that Justin cited, I examined the underlying drivers for why teachers may or may not employ active-learning, constructivist practices. Finally, I dug into the concept of TPACK to see how the interrelatedness of Technological, Pedagogical, and Content Knowledge could serve as a predictor for innovation.

All of these readings presented interesting challenges and solutions at a theoretical level; however, I needed to shift my thinking from the abstract to the concrete. On Tuesday, I had the third in a series of five EdTechTeacher workshops with a group of teacher-leaders at an independent middle school. Though they have been 1:1 with iPads for several years, they now face the challenge of how to progress from simply using the device to impacting learning with it. While my initial thought for the day was to share many of Justin's ideas, I recognized the difficulty in imagining the skills that a current eleven-year-old may need in twenty years. Instead, I decided to ground our discussion in reality and created the case study below to provide a concrete situation on which to base our conversation.

George, Judy, Jane, and Elroy have been charged to design and market a new colony in outer space. They will need to understand the concept of colonization from a historical perspective, conduct ecological research to design their new colony within the environment of their fictional planet, and then use a variety of persuasive arguments to market their colony to future investors. In history, English, math, and science, they will work on this project both inside and outside of class. To be successful, efficient, and effective in their work, you will need to help them with the following tasks:

Task 1 - Active Reading and Research

Each member of the group will need to actively read about colonization and ecology. How will they use active reading strategies with digital sources? How will they organize their readings so that they do not lose track of citations? Do all four students have to use the same tools and strategies? If so, why? If not, what drives their decision making?

Task 2 - Synthesizing and Collaborating

The team will need to synthesize and organize their knowledge. How should they have been taking notes both during reading and in class so as to see themes and trends in their own work? How could they start to collaborate and share their individual knowledge so that they can construct a collective understanding?

Task 3 - Designing and Creating

For a final project, the team will need to share the design for their colony. This final product needs to include research-based evidence as well as present an argument to persuade future investors. How could you scaffold this phase of the process to make sure that students do not lose sight of the primary objective to incorporate evidence and present a persuasive argument? What checkpoints or formative assessments might you build into the process?

Task 4 - Share with a Broader Audience

How will the students share their work? How will the students provide the necessary context so that the learning can be understood by someone who did not experience the entire project? What is the value in sharing with a broader audience?

After reading the case individually, the participants worked in small groups. Although we generated more questions than answers, we also engaged in a more nuanced conversation. The teachers began the day asking "iPad or paper?" By noon, our discussion had shifted to "what skills do my students need in order to develop as effective learners in a digital and physical world?"

In his keynote, Justin issued a challenge to set the right-sized goal for the immediate future. He discussed the value of STEM/STEAM, Design Thinking, and Project Based Learning as strategies for building curricula to foster these non-routine cognitive abilities in a manageable way. The goal of "embracing 21st-century skills" presents a massive and potentially unmeasurable challenge. However, by acknowledging the abstract while situating thinking in the concrete, then we may be able to more realistically shift instructional practice towards a new vision of learning.

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