Sunday, May 24, 2015

What is Essential?



...Muisca project continued...

Working with David Sexsmith, we designed a three week project centered around symbolism, character emotions, and the ancient Muisca culture.  The framing of the project and the tools chosen, stretched our concepts of student self organization, particularly with our first trial using Minecraft as simulation.  Here we'll start with the formation of the essential question, and discuss learning "tools" in its broadest sense.

What is essential?

How might we tell the story of the Muisca through the eyes of the artifact behind the glass in the museum?

How might we develop empathy for the Ancient Muisca by looking so closely at artifacts behind glass at the Gold Museum that we transform ourselves into those artifacts and tell the story of the Muisca through their eyes?

How might we grok the Muisca?
(grok: to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed?)

Or perhaps you prefer the provocateur zen awakening method ala Notosh - My Muisca, My Own Eyes.

That is way more fun that starting with:  
  • How did ancient cultures adapt to their environments?  
  • How are communities made up of different people with different roles?  
  • What are the lasting cultural contributions of ancient cultures?

Although, the last one peeks my interest.  Who doesn’t want to play Washers with big metal disks that you try and throw on top of exploding M-60’s?  Tejo is a Muisca contribution to Bogota, and a kind of national sport.  Come to think of it we should try that for our next immersion experience, half the day at the Gold Museum, the other half playing Tejo.  




How we begin a topic of study tells everything about our teaching philosophy, and our belief in human cognitive development.  Children have always been referred to as the future, and they are, but they are also the here and now.  So when we plan essential questions, the focus should not be, as Grant Wiggins warns, the content with a verb at the front, but on the transference, application, and product of knowledge.  Content for so long has been the objective of an education, but over a hundred years ago, Dewey defined knowledge as a verb, an action upon one’s environment.  Our goal was not just for students to report on the Muisca, but to develop an empathy for who the Muisca were, to learn their myths, their tools and technologies, and walk around their villages, narrating through the voice of, an artifact.

Immersion

After a mad dash to hack the Gold Museum, students used a curated museum through the Google Art Project to exercise see-think-wonder routines, otherwise known as grok time.  The “user” of our design experience is really the artifact itself.  We told students, “Your narrative will begin with, ‘I stare at you now from inside this glass case in this museum, but I have not always been here.  My importance was once much greater than the value of my gold.’”  For two minutes of complete silence they silently observed their chosen artifact and then for as long as they could, discussed with a partner as many observable, definable observations as they could about their artifacts.  They are relatively new at this move, and to be honest it is hard not to give in to the “interpret” reflex, it requires a level of metacognition to filter your thoughts and confine them to observation.  




For a whole ten minutes students wrote out their observations.  To teach, an action, often a vocalized action, can also be the action of stepping back quietly, a patience that can be a grueling teacher learning process.  Somehow the act of teaching can be mistaken for the act of constant talking and filling up the thoughtwaves with our own voices, forgetting that it's their thought that matters.  Some teachers instinctively know this, for others like me, it is a matter of trial and error.

A few years ago when teaching a Junior Great Books story, after the first reading I sent students to their desk to write questions they had about the story.  It seemed like such a long period, the task so ambiguous - “Now sit and think of questions”.  Two minutes went by and almost nothing was produced, I was about to cut the activity short.  But then, pencils started scratching across papers, and kept moving for a few minutes.  Students filled the page with questions and some would have kept going without the parameter of time.  After some affinity grouping the class inquiry was more challenging than anything I would have designed for them.

As simple as it sounds, leaving the mind quiet enables self prompted thought.  KWL charts prod the mind and provide a nice before-during-after GANAG-like trajectory to learning but often don’t get to the richness of empathy and wonder.  The samples from the Muisca immersion show this.



Anthropomorphic Jar:  The title means jar with the shape of a person. The figure's eyes and mouth look like three ovals cut in half. The hands remind me of a cat’s paw because they don't have holes when a finger ends, instead they have lines. Look at the colors white, black and orange, they were made in a time when paint was not easy to make. They are earth colors. The person is surrounded by thick and thin lines, which gives me the feeling of the wind and grass. The nose is thin and straight.
third grader in David Sexsmith's class 

…and then continued the next day after a discussion on thinking…

It looks like the man or woman, is taking a rest. Or It might be a storyteller in winter sitting around the fire, getting ready to tell some great stories to a group of little children.  The story might be of how mother earth gave life to us or how the gods chose the first chief.  The jar might be used for putting in water or may be Chicha, the drink that is made with corn. Or It might be an offering for the gods. Or it could be an offering to a muisca chief.
third grader in David Sexsmith's class

This was their first time with this thinking routine so there is a messiness to their metacognition as they mixed observation with interpretations and wonderings, but the real goal was empathy, and who is going to correct a third grader explaining the historical distance of an object interpreted by the colors of paint.  And even more critical, the clarity with which she talked about her thoughts to the class verified how deep the processing had gone.  By the third discussion on wonder students had bonded with their objects and had framed their own inquires around them.  A need to know had been established.  


Spontaneous Learning

We have to be careful with parameters, when we don’t respond to a child’s answer because it isn’t along the thinking trajectory designed by our plans and rubrics.  This example came from a fourth grader last year as we discussed Roman mosaics and a socratic dialogue session was allowed tangential commentary.  I asked the student to stay after class to repeat his ideas.  Some students clearly come with their own prompts.



Howard Gardner talks about how a child's academic life through third or fourth grade should be largely about wonder, and about how our curriculum stretches two miles wide and goes two inches deep, leaving us in a constant state of “covering” material.  We inadvertently gamified learning long ago with numbered levels of competence, and we still “de-incentifize” learning by starting everything with a rubric.  Students will co-create learning objectives but they need guidance, and direct challenges as models. We have to respect, as poet Kevin Brophy explained, a little messiness in their thinking.  Brophy openly talks to these third graders about losing a sense of time when he writes poetry, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as "flow", an engagement in an activity so empassioned that it induces an altered perception of time.




Clive Thompson writes and talks on literacy today, on and offline, and when critiquing George Lucas’ likening his steampunk methods of Star Wars crawl text to poetry, Thompson gives us some great insight into how complicated our concentration is to orchestrate…

What I particularly dig about crawl poetry is how it riffs off the pace of reading. Reading is a weird act of attention. The way we look at text is constantly revving up and down the mental gearbox: We skim rapidly, then suddenly stop and stare to reread and reread, we peek at the end of a piece of text to see how much farther we have to go, we briefly zone out, our eyes saccade along in little bursts. In contrast, there’s something hilariously submissive and unnatural about subjecting ourselves to a poem being read out at a steady pace by a machine. It foregrounds just how slithy our actual attention really is — and the fact that while it’s obviously bad for our cognition to be constantly distracted by shiny objects online, the converse isn’t true either: Attentive, absorbed reading isn’t really crawl-like. Truly absorbed reading is a strange, strange process.

At a Design Thinking workshop with NoTosh at BLC13, they explained immersion in a topic of study as vital to building empathy and understanding - most compelling was their use of video without the audio, having students invent the narration of what they think is going on.  This tapping into agency of student thinking and prior knowledge through formal or spontaneous experience is at the base of this see-think-wonder thinking move.  It is no simple process fomenting empathy.  Without it there is no intrinsic motivation, and without that we are left with reciprocity, or worse, coercion.  The flow that we seek in student engagement comes from having a clear purpose to the application and transference of the content, and that purpose is defined in the immersion experience.

Bridging Symbolic Forms

Leading up to this museum field experience students had studied symbolism through icons on an iPhone, then as they studied Encounter they storyboarded where they sensed an emotional rise in the text from either the character, author, or reader.  Post-its documented student thinking by rows - specific parts of text, graphics and emoticons, and the how’s and why’s of what was happening in student words.  The columns served as timelines starting with the center of where they are in the text, then reading backward and forward to find causes and consequences.  Our big question:  would this transfer over into their thinking about the Muisca narrative to be created?




To deepen their thinking around captured emotion in text and to mosaic and bridge this thought using segments of text, different size and colored topography, emoticons, synonyms, and selfies, students created a collective “emotions in text” book project.  The text segments came straight from their emotion storyboards and provided the context to bridge into other expressive mediums.  By enlarging, changing colors and fonts, students focused on the key words that connected to the emoticon and word symbol for the emotion.  








The selfies for the book iterated an emotion-selfie-synonym project done by Rachel Kreibich’s class the year before when identifying character emotions in Raold Dahl’s Cinderella.  The goal was for students to process emotions through their own affect and gesture, bridging linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic intelligence, incentivized with the selfie, appropriating a cultural mode most commonly associated with inane narcissism and false self narratives.  Why not adapt the fantasy narrative to academic use?  This was inspired by watching my nieces and nephew play with facial expressions to mimic the fish in a book, or play act for the camera in uninhibited forms not normally expressed.




Using Snapseed we taught students to create black and white images to dramatize the lines of affect in the face. Using a thesaurus, tech teacher Diego Lopez guided students through the concept of connotation defined by context, and denotation defined by dictionaries.  The final product, created on Book Creator, curated with Goole Drive, and compiled on one iPad shared out to all students and their families as PDF’s or ePubs downloaded to iBooks.

insert iBook sample here (coming soon)

The Cultural Study

After a round table discussion over coffee in the Driskill with a group of Design Thinkers (the same ones who started the Occupy SXSWedu in the Hilton Lobby) Moss Pike discussed designing collaborative construction projects in Minecraft.  Outside a couple of tinkering sessions no one at my school knew much about it so we invited in the pros for a series of morning sessions.  Third, fourth, and fifth graders showed up to school early, to school us on the basics of setting up collaborative worlds, options for servers, and some basic etiquette on fire and lava and griefing.  From articles feeding in on my Flipboard I had learned enough to know how complex it can get when you start adding mods and coding specific changes.  Our third graders mostly played on tablets so for our first run we decided to stay on the same network at school and build together in class.





The goal was to use Minecraft as a simulation where teams of four would design Muisca villages as we read and study about them.  Their challenge was to learn what a Muisca village needed, design it together, and screencast tours of their village through the voice of their artifact.  Our readings would help them define the curricular pieces - adaptations to the environment, roles in society, religious beliefs, and cultural contributions.  For that we used several websites and Asi Eramos Los Muiscas from the Museo del Oro.  Illustrations in the book and photographs of the Templo del Sol in Sogamosa and Infernito in Villa de Leyva gave us plenty of imagery to get started with.

Warning:  It is Not Just a Game

When you choose a tool to leverage content beware of the humbling you will feel when the tool leverages a culture into your room.  Years ago in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I remember watching second graders play their form of Pokemon on the playground and I remember thinking there is not limit to the quantity and range of abstract content children can absorb, the motivation just has to come from within.  I saw it again watching a first grader read Harry Potter books in Barranquilla.  Now I’m seeing it again in Minecraft.

Six minutes into our first classroom test one girl and created a rounded structure with conical roof connected to pillars circling the structure - a Lego-like version of the Templo del Sol in Sogamosa.  As we read through our Muisca text we watched over their collaborative clusters as temples, underground mines, waterfalls, lakes, underwater palaces, sun dials, markets, and cacique houses took shape.  Getting students to narrate what was happening was near impossible in the frenzy of tactile, visual coordination so we resorted to mini-check ins on their constructions through screen shots and Explain Everything screencasts.  In the end students used Google Docs to create collaborative narratives of their structures which then got presented in front of students, teachers, and parents of the elementary community.



What We Learned

Lava is forbidden.  Don’t play with fire.  We watched a couple of structures masterfully constructed go up in flames, the students sat around the iPad and watched in stoic silence.  In third grade, is someone had melted my Lego constructions to the ground, it would have mandated a tantrum.  Explicitly lay down the challenge, imaginations run wild, and students want to show off their skill set.  Give them an immersion period to teach and learn from each other.  Don’t be surprised when the marginalized learning is suddenly the professor in the classroom - relish these moments, and video record them if possible.  Wrap up the session by projecting that video clip on the wall for some immediate feedback on collaboration and leadership.  Validate these “soft skills” as that kid may not be your linguistically adept performer, but he may be using those collaboration skills to lead the design project for his firm later in life.

Minecraft is a culture.  Sometimes I felt like there was more going on in the affinity space, the rapid collaborative teaching and learning spread through the room, a true social learning experience.  The same inventive thinking, playing, making, and sharing we witness on the playground was in the room.  The culture of child play connecting the classroom culture, and the culture around the game itself.




If we are going to “cash in” on Minecraft to leverage content learning I would tighten the prototype feedback loops, teach a rose, thorn, bud routine specific to content, and I would let students pick the construction challenges from the text.  Let them push each other.  On narratives, the screenshots worked well as screencasts, but I would include short written scripts that could later be stitched into a final narrative.  That way we could get more writing across the curriculum (and this would have made incredible material for a persuasive essay) and a chance to fine tune the language around their topics.  We were rushed but with more time I would extend the final narrative into a longer final production.  Finally, I would move the whole project to the desktop version and invest in a server.  Giving students the freedom to work 24/7 would open up all kind of possibilities.   

Vygotsky brought us multiple variables on children’s cognitive development as he showed how cognition was leveraged by language, tools in the environment, and the environment itself in the form of social interaction and community.  Howard Gardner took this a step further in studying how different children, Molly and Max, appropriated their drawings - the appropriation of tool dependent on each individual.  Max used his drawing as narrative itself creating a kind of storyboard timeline as he narrated, while Molly used her drawing as a kind of symbolic backdrop creating and “M” for her name, then transforming it into bunny ears before it became a talking rabbit.




Stevens, Satwitch, and McCarthy show in their study of gaming effects in students' lives how every student brings their own character traits and design intent into the game and the game changes slightly as each individual appropriates the “tool”.  Observing how character traits affect two students’ playing of a Zoo design game, Rachel and Katarina each used the tool for their own design purpose.  For Katarina, most important were aesthetics and design, and she manipulated the game through cheats ignoring points and rules.  She used the game as a fulfillment of her creative needs.  For Rachel it was all about efficiency and gaining points.  The game was an extension of her tightly scheduled, organized life.  Our Minecraft experience was similar, some students completely intent on the task of constructing the temple of the sun while others were more interested in building a train system for the tour through the village or spawning pigs and cows all over the place.  We allowed self organization of groups but maybe to get things started, strategic grouping might help, or even designating specific roles in the game to push collaboration.


David Weinberger recently debated the dumbness or intelligence of our modern technologies and argued…
Andy Clark is a philosopher who makes a point that we don't know, we don't think in our heads.  We think with things in the world, out in the world. So a mathematician thinks with chalk on a blackboard. An architect thinks with models in her hands or using a straight edge or something. And a meteorologist who is using our old tech, who just has a weather vane is not going to be nearly as smart as a meteorologist who's gather data from sensors around the world, big data put to use to predict the weather down to the hour. That's really, really smart.


I have to agree.  But we are just getting started in understanding the potentials of our tech tools and their implications in learning.  Most of it is so new, and hardly recognized as a valued literacy.  In photographic terms, we are just getting past the heliographic process and are somewhere between the Daguerrotype and Calotype - Alfred Stieglitz and photography as artistic medium could still be a ways off.  The observations from this short first Minecraft experience, the self-organization, collaborative learning, bridging of child and gaming culture into school open up pathways to learning objectives (notice the cautious retreat within the parameters of accepted school culture) that could redefine the roles of teacher, students, and how we perceive school culture.  Student organized learning is happening already, collaboration across time and space, collective intelligence - this is a rapidly evolving culture, it's more a question of how long it takes for our school culture to accept it.

Soon after our first trial we spoke with Matt Richards, Director of The Mind Lab in Wellington.  He runs MineClass, collaborations between students across space and time.  Originally he was experimenting with students working on Minecraft collaborations at different schools, then they would Skype once a week to discuss.   Immediately I thought of other projects developing at our school - Natalia Leon’s third graders designing Wayuu villages to solve modern sustainability problems in the desert.  What if we paired with students in the Guajira and collaborated on village designs that would solve water scarcity issues in the region?  What if those designs were shared with developers in the region for critique?  What if we rebuilt Muisca villages with other Muisca decent students and video conferenced with archeologists?  What if we appropriated the skill set learned by collaborative fantasy gaming to run simulations to solve real problems?  Listening to Matt, I thought what if we could just let students run with it, help them get started with challenges, but then, let them design the challenges.  And then, as Sugata Mitra explains in The Hole in the Wall and Student Organized Learning Environments, step back and salute learning.  The "just let it happen" approach is no slacker take on education, in fact I think it requires a much more attentive facilitator than we are used to.  And I think it is already happening.  Most of us just don't know it yet.






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