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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

21st Century Skills--Innovation

As Tom Friedman noted a while back in his NY Times column (7/13/11), employees of the future will survive depending upon their ability to add value to their jobs, in other words, to think beyond defined expectations, to be able to innovate. Employers are looking for people “who can invent, adapt and reinvent their jobs every day, in a market that changes faster than ever.” (p. A47)

More recently we’ve had

research on successful countries, developing nations that are growing prosperous largely because of their abilities to do the same thing, innovate, to create new ideas, products and ways of living.

In Why Nations Fail (2012), authors Acemoglu and Robinson note that the US, Britain and European countries prosper when compared to other countries. Why is the US so much richer than, for example, Egypt? In part because we rid ourselves of dictatorial powers and shared control with all citizens. “We, the people. . .” are in charge.

As noted historian Niall Ferguson observed about this book, “Without the inclusive institutions that first evolved in the West, sustainable growth is impossible, because only a truly free society can foster genuine innovation and the creative destruction that is its corollary." (emphasis added)

What does this “free society” mean? That we as citizens have a good measure of control over our lives and ways of prospering. Some have less than others.

When you can take a plot of land and carve out space and time for your own plantings and ingenuity, you will invest more in it, rather than, as serfs during the middle ages, having to give all products to the lord of the manor. We have a stake in our future

What does this have to do with schools?

In our classrooms we as the educators have opportunities to do what Pat Burrows does in her Catalina Foothills 8th grade English class does. Provide students with choices:

I give my students choices on a regular basis. Those choices range from choosing from menus to demonstrate their proficiency in a skill/knowledge to making decisions about using technology or other resources. Bottom line here: if my students do not feel that they have any power when it comes to what and how they learn, they don’t `own’ their learning and become`bystanders.’ (Barell, 2012)

It’s the same way with emerging nations. If the people feel they have control over over access to and use of certain natural resources and can devise ways of making money therefrom, then it stands to reason that this country can grow and prosper.

Innovation is also fostered by an educator’s creating a more authentic problem-based curriculum wherein all students can pose good questions, conduct purposeful research, making findings, think critically and creatively and draw reasonable conclusions.

Students in Mary Darr’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) middle school classes (Sandusky, OH) have been, for the past two years, been learning how to collaborate with friends in order to solve problems such as:

How to attract `Tweens to the Cleveland Indians ball park

How to use vacant properties along Lake Erie for profit.

How to rebuild the Cedar Point roller coaster rides to attract more customers.

During these intensive learning experiences, students often struggled with collaborating and learned that “TEAMWORK” was the most important ingredient for success. They were also able to create novel solutions to well-stated problems, solutions that often intrigued the adults who reviewed their ideas (e.g. using mood indicating colors on the roller coaster handle bars, “Acting cool in front of friends would be difficult if the lap bar turned a color that showed nervousness.” ).

As we are learning from books like The Idea Factory (Gertner, 2012) about how Bell Labs created/invented the transistor and laser, it’s vitally important for creativity to have people with diverse experiences and backgrounds working with each other. The best solutions come when people with different perspectives collaborate with each other. Hence, problem solving in schools should be conducted with students with different experiences and talents. Diversity of input is key.

In addition to having some control over decision making within a problem solving context, and having problem solvers with varied talents, another element within our educational systems that can foster innovation is our openness to mystery, novelty and, of course new ideas. Not all adults are comfortable with the new thinking of our children and students, new thinking reflected in such questions as:

Do you think that angler fish think humans are fish sometimes? (kindergarten)

How big will space be when it stops growing and when will it stop growing? (kindergarten)

Why are mountains necessary? (grade four)

What if a planet spun out of the solar system? (grade four)

How much g force can a person bear during a coaster ride? (grade eight)

What if there were no gravity on the moon? (grade nine)

Suppose Holden Caulfield (Macbeth, Jefferson, Marie Curie, Cleopatra) lived today? (mine)

These are just a sample of the kinds of questions we might encounter when we provide students with some control over their own educational destinies within a problem-oriented curriculum.

There’s little or no preparation for such innovative thoughts. What we need to do is respond in ways that encourage the original thinker’s creation, urging him or her to share their thinking, to take it further and suggest the kinds of resources that might be necessary to find answers, if there are answers. For some this might take gradually moving beyond our comfort levels into those domains where novelty prevails. As one teacher in the STEM projects noted, “We were out of our comfort zones!”

So, countries and classrooms thrive on innovative thinking, when citizens in both environments have choice, emotional and intellectual support and are confronted with challenges of a high order wherein all can participate in their own fashions.

I never realized while I was a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University in Dwayne Huebner’s curriculum theory class that his introduction of the concept of who controls which decisions, when and how would be so vitally important to my work as an educator and to the prosperity of persons as well as developing nations.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

21st Century Skills

“How do we know they’re getting better?”

This is a question I started asking many years ago while working with a national educational organization. I wanted to know then if there were ways of determining if our students were getting better at critical thinking and problem solving.

One respondent commented, “I don’t think we need to be reductionist about it.” Seemed to me he thought we needed to look at students’ growth only in terms of numbers. We dropped the subject until about three years ago when I began asking the same question about what we now call 21st century capacities or skills--inquiry, problem solving, critical/creative/reflective thought and uses of technology.

Corwin has just published a book by this title focusing upon how some outstanding educators grades K-8 have been answering this quetion. They work in schools such as Partnership 21, STEM, International Baccalaureate and traditional schools.

There are many amazing stories within this new volume and one that I am especially fond of is related to an earlier post, “STEM changed my life.” Here I related the story of Karla, an eighth grade student in Pearson Middle School during her challenge with a science, technology, engineering and math project to build a better roller coaster for Cedar Point Amusement Park.

We also learned from interviewing these students on several different occasions that the most important learning was “TEAMWORK!” Virtually every student, in grades 6-8, noted how difficult this was--working in teams to solve problems.

One CEO, Carlee noted, “I like my team because were are able to bounce ideas off each other and work well to get everything done.”

Emmy said, “Working together is important because you all have to be on the same page, and if you’re not you get off task.” (Barell, 2012, How Do We Know They’re Getting Better? Assessment for 21st Century Minds, K-8, Corwin)

But not all teams were as successful. Sydney noted that “you have to learn to deal with arguments” and with those who do not participate. Some groups were able to achieve consensus. But when I asked one CEO what she did with disagreement, she replied, “I told them what we were going to do.”

When Mary Darr, the leader of the STEM projects, and other teachers realized through observations that teams weren’t working well together, she often brought them into her office and asked questions such as, “What if we follow your solution? What are the consequences?” and “How are these two ideas alike? How might we combine them?”

Mary worked with students’ struggles to build teams where collaboration was the essence, where students listened and bounced ideas off each other; built upon each other’s ideas and were able to arrive at reasonable decisions by consensus.

During subsequent team challenges their abilities to work together improved markedly.

Today, teams work in all fields of human endeavor from sports, medicine, engineering to education, and the military. What is the essence of good team work? Being able to work for the good of the group, not always feeling that one’s ideas are the best but keeping your eye on the intended outcome.

As somebody once noted, “There’s no `i’ in `team.’”

Phil Jackson, the NBA’s most successful coach observed in Sacred Hoops (1995), quoting his former NY Knick coach Red Holzman, “

The power of We is stronger power of Me.”

And, “Working with the Chicago Bulls I’ve learned that the most effect way to forge a winning team is to call on the players’ need to connect with something larger than themselves.” (p. 5)

This “something larger than themselves” might be the goals of the team--to do your best, as John Wooden coached; the desire of every family--develop its health, welfare and collective joy; the aspirations of a concerned citizenry--to preserve the essence of our democracy; the vision of an action group--to save the planet.

This might or might not be hard for Carlee and her friends to grasp, working for something larger and more significant than our own egos, our own successes, and today, how wonderful it is that there are in every walk of life people who recognize daily that power in a team’s committing to goals representing

an ideal worth striving for, the betterment of the human condition. Perhaps in every walk of life with some notable exceptions.

Carlee and her friends might just have learned life’s most important lesson.