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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Increasing Student Agency through the use of Awe

Do you remember the moment that you decided teaching was your career?

Some of us maybe still searching for that moment!

For me, it was in Year 6, as we did the time honoured “light” unit of work. My teacher was eccentric but in one moment helped to define the direction of my professional life. Wrapped in his white lab coat and armed with 4 D-cell batteries, alligator clips, a jar and one of my pacer leads, he made magic happen!

"Let there be light!"

In that moment he captivated all of us with awe. I cannot remember the exact details of what he was teaching but I remember the experience of seeing the light illuminate from the bottle.

There is a constant tension between what we need to teach and what we as professionals know our students need to know to apply this understanding. Frequently, these two don’t perfectly match and as a result, there is a tension. Teachers often try to find the links to draw correlations between the two but an essential and often overlooked element to this connection is awe.

AWE: Amazement + Wonder = Engagement

The more teachers I speak to the more I hear the desire to have student’s access deeper learning. This requires students to think, question, pursue, and create—to take agency and ownership of their learning. When they do, they acquire a rich understanding and the skills that they can apply to become more competent learners in and out of school.

This means we allow them the opportunity to show what they know and then take control of their learning, taking it to places we as teachers could not have even dreamed.

By allowing students to take control of their learning they begin to gain the space to wonder and confront the mysterious. They inquire, ponder and critically think with eyes wide open the beauty that surrounds them. When students stand in awe they experience the source of true Art and Science that generates wisdom and understanding.

When we experience awe it changes our mental models of thinking, filling us with sense of vastness and perspective.

As teachers, we have the privilege to help students understand and process the experience of mental growth at a deeper level. We can do this by finding ways to empower empathy, contextualizing on a personal level the encounter.

We must realize it is disruptive, we can choose to either embrace and encourage it or shut it down.

As with teaching 20th-century skills, we need to be deliberate and intentional. My intention is to create a hunger for learning so the tools I use must serve that purpose.

Tools such as:

  • Genius Hour/Passion Projects
  • Minecraft
  • Coding
  • Makerspaces
  • 3D Printing
  • Augmented Reality
  • Mystery Locations/Virtual Excursions
  • PBL
  • Blogging
  • Digital Portfolios
  • Social Media
  • BreakoutEDU
Too many of us get caught up in the glam before doing the diligence, chasing the next trend. I use these because they have demonstrated through research and evidence to enhance the engagement levels in my class. It is important to remember what works in one place may not work in another so a large 21st Century saddlebag for the learning journey is essential.

A sense of awe is important whether teaching English, Art, Humanities or STEM. However, there are no test that measures awe—or any curriculum, anywhere, that contains a section on wonder but history testifies that it is the greatest driving forces behind innovation and invention. As a result, we can only look at its product.

A Quick History Lesson
On a Stanwell Park beach, Lawrence Hargraves made aeronautic history when he strung together four box kites and hovered 5 meters above the ground in front of a group of skeptical spectators.

He had a sense of wonder, inquiring about the physical forces that allow birds to fly. Using this sense of awe the designed, prototyped and tested his theories and opened the door to other inventors and pioneers.

Building on the understanding of Hargrave and buoyant by the success of their 1902 glider, the Wright brothers recognized that much hard work lay ahead as they moved forward towards the creation of the propulsion system. They were not deterred by this but motivated.

There are countless examples of awe being the spark for curiosity from Thomas Edison with the light bulb, Ada Lovelace creating the written instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s, Steve Jobs with all of his “I” things, or Taj Pabaria a 15-year-old student made famous by a 60 Minutes segment, who is considered to be just one of the next generation of entrepreneurs. Their engagement and success derived itself from a sense of amazement and wonder.

Traditionally, subjects are taught separately. The notion of STEM/STEAM education places value on the real world integration and backward mapping. This emphasis puts them at the forefront of education and the new economy.

  • It takes its theoretical roots from Dr. Seymour Papert, founding professor of MIT Media Lab & the research colleague of Jean Piaget.
  • It integrates the design thinking pathway where the student - empathises, defines, ideates, prototypes and tests.
  • It empowers imagination and new ways of thinking about how things work.
  • STEAM embraces new technologies and applies them in novel situations, growing the sense of amazement, wonder and engagement with the world around them.
Dr. Seymour Papert (2016) states “Education has little to do with teacher explanation & more to do with student engagement with the material.”

So through STEM/STEAM we have students engaged with material to create a sense of amazement and wonder. As a result, we find:

  • They are problem-solvers, able to frame problems as puzzles.
  • They are innovators, with the power to pursue independent and original investigation.
  • They are inventors, meeting the world’s needs by creatively designing and implementing solutions.
  • They are self-reliant, able to set agendas and work within specified timeframes.
  • They are logical thinkers, able to apply mathematical concepts and make advanced connections to the real world.
  • They are collaborators, able to flourish in-group settings.

My questions:

  • If this was a leveling gauge where do we sit with student inquiry?
  • What is holding us back from empowering students to go after the moonshots?
  • Could we use a little bit more awe and inquiry to increase student agency?
The funny thing, when we let go, students will surprise us. Now the unit I mentioned earlier, I had the privilege to teach to my Year 6’s this year. Guess which free inquiry experiment appeared?

That’s right the pacer pen light.

To close, William Damon (2008) put it this way, "This is how all young people should feel about life. Idealism, high hopes, enthusiasm and a sense of awe and wonder in exploring the world around them."

Let’s work towards awakening a sense of passion, awe, and inquiry in all areas of the curriculum.

Damon W (2008). The Path to Purpose, Free Press, NY
Macinnis P (2016). Teaching children wonder and science
Mackenzie T (2016) Types of Student Inquiry via Anna Carswell
Pappert S (2016) Quote from Creating Modern Knowledge Conference via Zeina Chalich
Sheninger E (2016) Inspiring Students: Bringing Awe Back to Learning
Sherrington T (2013) Great Lessons 8: Awe
Zakrzewski V (2013). How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Is there a need for Social Justice in Schools? Part 2

This is part two of the Need for Social Justice in Schools series.
Headlines such as “PISA shows Indigenous students continue to struggle” (ACER, 2007) reflect areas of real inequity in Australia’s education system. Reports (Thomson, 2008) indicate that Australia's lowest-performing students are most likely to come from Indigenous communities, geographically remote areas and poor socioeconomic backgrounds. These results indicate that in Australia issues of inequity need to be addressed to ensure access to quality education for all students (Thomson, 2008).
It is important in terms of equity to consider the choice of knowledge and skills selected for the assessments. To achieve equity the curriculum must include valued knowledge and skills consisting of different kinds of cultural knowledge and experience, reflective of all groups, not privileging one group to the exclusion of others.
The goal of assessment must be that students of all groups have equal opportunity to demonstrate best performance, thus ensuring equitable, if not equal, outcomes (Gray & Sharp, 2001). Wolf et al., (1991) contend that education systems increase equality by the employing performance assessments as they allow for the integration of instruction and assessment in authentic, situated or localised means. This form of assessment is compatible with constructivist theories of learning within and across cultures (Garcia & Pearson, 1994).
The multi-dimensionality and flexibility of performance assessment form the bases of its suitability as an assessment system for a culturally diverse society. Aboriginal society is itself highly diverse with a wide range of linguistic and social patterns and aspirations, from rural, traditionally-oriented bilingual children to urban, English-speaking upwardly-mobile students and a host of variations in between (Warren and de Vries, 2008).
Traditional Aboriginal learning focuses on acquisition of real-life skills by observation and imitation (Folds, 1987). As a result, significant errors in the acquisition of these skills were rare.  The implications for culturally sensitive assessments bring to light the need for assessments to be embedded in whole, real-life tasks, not imposed as isolated, decontextualised tests. Collaborative effort should also be valued in recognition that knowledge acquisition is a social process (Wolf et al., 1991).
In a culturally diverse society, flexible performance assessments are more likely to maximise fairness than standardised testing (Garcia & Pearson, 1994). Through the acknowledgement of the socio-political nature of educational assessment and the elimination of performance deficit theories among minorities the issue of equity begin to disseminate (Habibis and Walter, 2009).
Equity or fairness in assessment is a complex issue. Attention to whether all students have access to learning, how the curriculum and standards are defined and taught and how achievement in the curriculum is interpreted are equally important considerations. As facilitators of learning, the desire is to create a learning environment in which students would question, discuss, gain new insights, and collectively solve problems. In essence the education system requires teachers to equip children with strategies for rigorous intellectual activity (Wiggins, 1993) in culturally relevant contexts and using assessments that reflect and commend each child's progress. In taking this stand, teachers challenge practices that contribute to inequities and make curriculum decision that promote inclusion and participate of all children. This commitment to expertise and professional practice is central to improving student learning outcomes. In supporting current learning theory, honouring diversity and encouraging equitable assessment, situated performance assessments appear to show the way forward to educational justice for all children.
Australian Council for Educational Research (2007) PISA shows Indigenous students continue to struggle, Media Release, Camberwell: ACER.
Folds, R. (1987) Whitefella school. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Garcia, G. E. & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Assessment and diversity. Review of Research in Education, 20, 337-391.
Gray & Sharp (2001) Mode of Assessment and its Effect on Children's Performance in Science. Evaluation & Research in Education, Volume 15, Issue 2, October 2001, 55 – 68.
Habibis, D. & Walter, M.M. (2009), Social Inequality in Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.
Warren, E. & de Vries, E. (2007) Australian Indigenous students: The role of oral language and representations in the negotiation of mathematical understanding. In J. Watson & K. Beswick (Eds) Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Educational Research Group of Australia, Victoria: MERGA Inc.
Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of testing. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Wolf, D., Bixby, J., Glenn, J. & Gardner, H. (1991). To use their minds well: Investigating new forms of student assessment. In G. Grant (Ed.), Review of Research in Education, 17, (pp. 31-125). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
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