Thursday, May 30, 2013

Before Reality Beats Imagination

Remember what it was like to be a kid?  Remember what it was like to have dreams and a world full of ambition?  Remember the first thing you ever built?  I sure do.  It was a foot stool I made with my grandpa.   That thing must have had a hundred nails in it!  Back when we didn't have a care or responsibility in the world we all had an insurmountable drive and a load of creativity because we didn't know any better.  We only wish we could have that back as we get older.

In the "grown up world" we are so concerned with meeting quotas and producing numbers and "fitting in the system" that we forget the importance of our creativity and ability to solve problems.  We can get so entranced that we fail to realize the value of hard work we learned while having fun building our first treehouse, or when we learned to ride a bike.  We focus so much on how to fall in line and into a system that sometimes I wonder if we know how to think on our own.

I was a teacher in the TAP System this past school year.  For those of you who don't know, that stands for Teacher Advancement Program.  To summarize quickly, career teachers are observed and given a score by Mentor teachers, Master teachers, and School administration.  Career teachers as well as Mentors and Master teachers are given a score 4 times throughout the school year.

Recently I had an evaluation in which I received a score of 5 in the area of problem solving.  The scoring scale ranges from 1-5, with 5 being the highest.  I was so happy with the 5 because of he particular area it was in.  I teach engineering, so you can imagine the ability to problem solve is a high priority for me.  However, problem solving is so much more than that.

To me, problem solving is one of the last areas of creativity left in education.  This is an area in which kids are still allowed to come up with their own solutions to problems.  My evaluator asked me, "how do you get kids to understand the importance of problem solving?"  As I thought about how to answer the question I paused for what seemed like an eternity.  I answered with, "because they need to understand the importance of thinking and putting thoughts into actions while learning to take calculated risks and knowing that learning from failure is sometimes acceptable."  Thinking further, I should've added that the teacher needs to act more like a guide rather than a critic to setup the successful culture for problem solving.

As I gave my answer not only did I think about my students at school, but also my 5 year old daughter.  I began to question if I'm giving the opportunities to think creatively, yet learn something that might make the world a better place at the same time.  While I realize that building tree houses and riding bikes aren't worldy contributions; the value of finding innovative and more efficient ways of doing something can create a lifelong learner.  I hope I'm able to continue this vision throughout my career and get my mind off of promotions and other distractions.  Indeed, these are the kinds of activities our youth and world need . . . not learning how to be a part of the process.  After all, we can't hold onto the hands of our youth forever.  What future will any of us have without the ability to problem solve?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why Can't Everyone Think Like Me?

Being a teacher has proven several things to me throughout my career.  Perhaps the most important is that my students rarely think the same thing I do.  A few years back I read a book by Chip and Dan Heath called, Make It Stick.  The book was about ways to be successful in having others listen to what you had to say.  Recently I remember thinking more and more about the “Curse of Knowledge” referred to in the book.  This means several things, but to me, it means that I take for granted that I already know something and simply assume others have the same idea.

If this year has taught me nothing else, it has taught me the value of modeling.  I’ve learned that I should model what I want the students to do.  For example, if I want them to walk down the hallway in an orderly manner then I should do so.  If I want them to design something in engineering class a certain way, then I should show them that.  One thing that continues to elude me is modeling my thinking.  How did I come to certain conclusions?  Why did I get that conclusion?  Students need to see the thought processes we use to come to conclusions.

People have a hard time thinking abstractly yet often this is the type of thinking expected.  Students often become frustrated but elated when they’re told to create.  They love the idea of creating, but they want to know finite or detailed information like: how much, how long, how will it work?  There are lots of folks who can see the finished product, but struggle to determine how the person got there. 

One exercise I do with the students is to have them write step by step instructions on how to do something and hand those instructions to another student.  Students often leave details out of the directions because they assume people know the details or will automatically do it.  Sometimes students think these “thought” details will be seen as non-essential to completing the task.  If you want to see an interesting breakdown of the human thought process just have someone else write step by step instructions for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!

We need to give our students the same insight we use when making decisions or we most likely won’t get the result we were looking for.  Understanding how students think is important to this development.  A fun activity I have done with co-workers at different schools is the North, South, East, and West Personality traits.  The results are very enlightening and can also help us to better understand how others process thoughts. 

Here are some strategies I’m going to try using more of:
  • Draw more diagrams and pictures (always heard they were worth 1,000 words.) 
  • Write more of my thoughts on the board for kids to read. 
  • Create more podcasts of me working with projects or just of teaching moments in the class.
  • Explaining to students the process of how I came to a solution to a problem. 
  • Have students explain to me how they came to conclusions.
  • Ask scaffolding questions to help guide students to answers rather than provide it for them.