Saturday, October 9, 2010
Students love to learn. Yet, ask them if they love school--and the answer is usually 'not so much.'
The expectations some students bring to college from high school are to get only A's and to never, ever make mistakes. Learning in college and at the university level expands those earlier boundaries to build the intellect and to identify the the shades and gradations between "the right answer" and "the wrong answer."
In an exercise that I modified this semester I stumbled on learning how students can come to see mistakes as a natural part of the process of discovery and invention (not to mention the Scientific Process).
"Test Pilots" is the title of a an exercise for building critical thinking skills I created about a year ago for the six teams of four students each in my Introduction to Mass Communications sections. They are assigned 25 Days to Better Thinking and Better Living by Linda Elder and Richard Paul.
The first two semesters I used the activity, I simply asked the students to teach the concepts to the class and the results were usually wooden. Mind-numbingly wooden.
This semester I tried something new. Students were assigned to select four days in the text and the corresponding topics and activities. Their job would be to "test pilot" the recommendations from the text in the weeks prior to the presentation. Their presentations would not teach the concepts, but report on their experiences trying out for one full day the concepts in their lives. The reports were to include both their successes and failures. I told them to expect there would be errors, mistakes, other surprises and discovery as part of the process.
The results were surprising. The wood turned to a bonfire.
A near-fatal car accident a student's grandmother suffered with a four-time DWI offender, and the surprising correspondence that developed between the perpetrator and the victim. A domestic violence offender's profound gratitude for her husband's forgiveness that created a home and family that is now strong and healthy. A teen's learning about the importance of patience in teaching values to very young nieces and nephews whose parents have lost their children's custody. The joys of volunteering each summer now at a camp--learned after a judge once ordered the student to perform community service-- "I do it now every summer because it makes me feel good."
The group that presented were four young women, aged from late teens to early 30's. They prepared a powerpoint following the 6x6 rule (no more than six words per line, no more than six lines to a page). It served as a clean and informative outline of the concepts contained across their four chapters. Their stories were then woven around the ideas they tested ("Don't Be A Top Dog", "Control Your Emotions", etc.)
One of the keys was their telling their stories about their trials and successes in applying the concepts without having the burden of explaining the text. Their own experiences did the job and made the text's ideas clearer to all.
Another was the safety the group developed. The ideas they were learning had meaning to their lives. The critical thinking skills they learned and applied were cemented in the telling and in the listening among the class who were their audience. You could have heard a pin drop.
I learned that stressing that mistakes were OK was the doorway to the success of the activity. Mistakes in the activity was what I meant, but students included mistakes in daily life.
Timing was also important. The assignment requires at least 2-3 weeks to complete, because students need time to try out the ideas, but also to become comfortable with each other and to feel safe in the class to share their experiences.
The testimonies the students freely gave about their lives and the impact and power of critical thinking were powerful.
The presentation proved the importance of relating student's lives to what they learn. With equal parts new information and application in everyday life students in the class transformed "school" into "learning."
I would love to share with anyone more about this exercise and to hear about your experiences with student engagement and learning.