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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Instructional Design

As many of you know I have been involved in a pilot project with the University of Virginia to support Digital Fabrication  in schools and kids thinking and working with software and tools that allow them to “ make to learn.” This creative work supports students as they think spatially, looking for connections and patterns and solving problems.

I’ve been asked this summer to work on some activities for next school year, and I’m finding myself thinking more and more about instructional design as I do so. I know I’m doing this backwards–I have these tools that I am trying connect to the curriculum and figure out activities that fit both. I know the technology–and any activities– should come after I figure out the learning objectives. However, to get these tools used by teachers, we have to provide some examples–paint some pictures, if you will–of how they can be used effectively and powerfully, to support the standards we have to teach.

As I struggle with this task–writing short activities that help teachers envision how to use the tools and that let students work with real tasks and concepts–I’ve realized I don’t know if I can write short little activities that last a day or two to teach a concept using these specific tools without a larger context.

I know that may sound stupid, because most ED schools and most principals expect that teachers can certainly write activities that last a day or two to teach specific concepts…I mean, come on–how many of us have had to write lesson plans and turn them in for a class or to our principals at some point?  What I’ve realized, though, is that I generally don’t write those daily lesson plans–at least not at first. As someone who constantly is looking at the big picture, I think about wholes–not from part to whole–so the activities I do are usually part of bigger explorations of big concepts–and the activities evolve and change as students work.

I wrote a while back about teachers as taskmasters–where I say,

…teachers must be MASTERS of task-making. I do not mean in the traditional sense of the word, as in making sure the work gets done, but as in MASTERFULLY crafting tasks. These tasks should be ones that engage, teach, allow for diversity of thought, stimulate creative juices flowing, and evoke a proud sense of accomplishment. They may even take on a life of their own, resulting in students taking the task to places the teacher may never have envisioned. Through rich tasks that demand rigor in thought and performance, that elicit cooperation and teamwork, students may also discover a passion for the subject or the discipline as well.

In trying to “masterfully create tasks” with the digital fabrication tools, I am finding myself somewhat trying to artificially infuse the task with minute, discreet standards instead of going for big conceptual understandings.  For me, the power of kids working with tools that allow them to move back and forth between 3-D and 2-D is the spatial thinking and reasoning skills they develop–the ability they show when they construct and deconstruct  and reconstruct  shapes and figures and realize the relationships between those things.  So where in school do we honor those spatial thinking and reasoning skills?

I can help my students make ramps of various sizes and dictate they be certain sized angles  to show they can measure angles. But what I want them to do with ramps is explore Newton’s Laws–and build ramps of various angles to explore which angles make a ball roll farther–or stop it sooner. I don’t really care if they can measure an angle to the nth degree–what I want is for them to understand whether to increase or decrease the incline when needed to change the momentum. I want them to intuit and UNDERSTAND how and why an object in motion tends to stay in motion–and I want them to look at access ramps to buildings differently as we work through our thinking so that they look at inclines everywhere they go and wonder.

I can help students build something that will allow them to demonstrate how tectonic plates work, so they can see how “the earth moves under our feet.”.  Again, though, I don’t see how I can do that in a day or two–meaning really an hour or two, since that would be a day or two in science class. When I work with my students, there is a context–prior activities and future work we’ll do together, and that leads my questioning, my prep and the materials I provide for my kids. How do I describe that well in a lesson plan?

I’d love to watch–and question–and wonder– as kids create light mazes to explore refraction and reflection, and then tie it to how we can measure the distance to the moon with a mirror, but again, this is not a 1-2 day lesson…kids need TIME to explore, to design, to try, to fail, to refine, to try again, and to learn from both their mistakes and their successes. How do I share that in a short lesson plan?

I can have conversations all day long with a colleague or my principal about my year long goals, my plans, my month long goals, my “big picture” think.  I can share the activities I have planned and those I keep in my pocket ready to go the minute I need them. What I can’t do to the minutiae place is talk about what I’ll do tomorrow because I have to live thorough today with my kids first. What I’ll do the second day depends on how the kids reacted and what they did the first day. A TON of what I do is based on the kids getting in there and mucking around to figure out their questions and then figure out how to answer those questions. I ask questions that will get them thinking more deeply about the concepts and skills they are using in bigger contexts than the ones in which they may be currently working.

So, for me, it’s not about the standards, but the larger, overall curriculum.  It’s not about the little skills kids are supposed to need to pass the test, but the understandings they’ll need to be successful as scientists, or mathematicians, or writers or actors or ditch diggers or any other kind of thinker who thrives in our complicated world.  For me, it’s not about the answers, but the questions. . . . so in a community where those evolve from the student work,  how does one write up a “lesson plan?” The planning is ongoing and continual. How does the lesson plan fit into the instructional design of the thinking and questioning and collaborating and teamwork and planning and experimenting and refining and testing and evaluating and hypothesizing and refining and trying again, etc.? And how do we share our instructional designs so that others can understand all of the nuances of questioning, thinking, planning and refining we do in the moment?

I can use these tools.  I can envision how to use them in powerful ways. I can set up great situations for my kids to use them in meaningful ways.  What I’m struggling with is how to write that up so that anyone else can understand my thinking. Teaching–and designing for learning– is such a complicated set of skills. How can anyone even entertain the idea that robots or technology could replace us?

I know I need to change my perspective so I can get over not sharing the whole kit and caboodle, all of the unit thinking…and figure out how to help others who are not familiar with these tools to see how incredibly powerful they can be.  Suggestions?

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


6 thoughts on “Instructional Design

  1. Paula- I love your thoughts!!! It does get overwhelming. I’m in the trenches right there with ya sister!! 🙂

    Posted by Gia DeSelm | July 12, 2011, 11:32 pm
  2. Hey, Gia,
    How are you? Was just thinking of you yesterday! Heading to a meeting this AM with the other teachers who are in this too, so will be good to meet and talk together–I’m sure they’re not obsessing over it like I am. 🙂 Wil share when we get some done! Thanks for the camaraderie!


    Posted by Paula White | July 13, 2011, 7:50 am
  3. Check out this program
    If teachers are allowed to carve out the time, and students are genuinely interested, this wins over a lot of hearts and minds

    Posted by timmcclung | July 13, 2011, 8:30 am
  4. Paula, this is a good conundrum to share – thank you.

    I wonder about what the system wants – does it want the lessons and units, or does it want the development of a teaching corps that helps students explore a domain – or several domains at once – until they begin posing their own questions and looking for help in setting up investigations to answer those questions?

    While I think that modeling some instructional strategies is probably of help to teachers approaching inquiry for the first time, I think narratives like yours – narratives that describe your process and demonstrate that it does result in self-evident student learning – are more valuable.

    I would never withhold and idea or refuse to share a lesson, but I would so much prefer setting up and sharing opportunities for inquiry classroom capacity-building.

    What if you and/or your students write narratives of specific set-ups and the projects that result from them – share out what happened as a lesson plan that might happen for someone else?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 13, 2011, 9:36 am
  5. Carol Black just brought this video, made by Priya, to my attention yesterday. an incredible capture on what it means to listen.
    wisdom and salt water:

    Posted by monika hardy | July 13, 2011, 11:05 am
  6. Paula, much of what you say rings true with me. I don’t (and often can’t!) do daily lesson plans because what we do in class really depends on where we are in the process. When working on a long-term project, it is good to have daily goals to make sure the class is moving toward the end goal, but every day brings a new challenge and the process is at times unpredictable.

    I wonder if you can pair each tool with a larger understanding and work back from there? Meaning “tool X will help guide students to a deeper understanding of Y” and then plan for Y instead of X?

    I agree, it is backwards, but maybe it will help you with planning.

    Also, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with introducing a tool using a finite lesson and following up with a conversation with the teacher about how this could lead to a deeper understanding.

    Posted by marybethhertz | July 16, 2011, 1:11 pm

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