As I taught middle school, I sometimes looked up from my writing workshop classes and wondered whether I was doing my students a disservice by not standing before the class and teaching skills like note taking, diagramming sentences and subject-verb agreement (for the upteenth time in their school career). I was painfully aware that soon my exuberant 7th graders would enter the sterile hallways of the high school next door, and teachers would gauge their intelligence by an ability to sit still, be quiet, and follow directions. I wondered if imagining a story as the primary goal in the classroom, and then editing drafts to ensure grammatical correctness was ultimately harming them, more than helping them as they did it day after day.
Late at night I thought about my future students being in the high school classroom and being required to take notes or demonstrate test taking. I thought about their future college experience and the need they would have to endure really boring lectures that stretched on forever about Hannibal and Goths and 1066. I thought about those things usually wondering if Hannibal, the Goths, or 1066 had anything to do with each other – and realized I didn’t even know, and then I thought about the logic of preparing students to do things that didn’t matter to their quality of life or learning at all. I thought about my conviction that Grade Point Average (GPA) is an indicator of success in college – but not necessarily success in life. I considered the people I knew who carried high GPAs in high school, and evaluated whether they were happier, more self actualized, or any more fulfilled than those who graduated with a C average. And then, my conscience salved, I discarded those thoughts and slept – until my internal battle began again.
I am probably not alone in this battle for student souls. It seems really clear that primary researchers in education (Dewey, Bruner, Vygotsky) didn’t reference note taking, test taking skills, or mastering discrete skills in isolation.
Ultimately, I maintained my stance that allowing students to learn through creation was more important than preparing students for future imperfect schooling. (This is probably the reason my principal gave me very bad evaluations on my application to graduate school). I felt at the time (perhaps arrogantly) that I understood what Piaget meant when he described motivation. I still believe (maybe equally arrogantly) that I understand it. For me, motivation is the process of taking what we already know, and then making something to represent it – and then finally adding something new and slightly more difficult and seeing how this fits. In my mind – this is creation in a nutshell.
I believe creation is the vehicle that makes the schema visible, and teacher-guided integration of new information into the schema is the vehicle that makes learning visible.
I don’t teach 7th graders anymore. My students are in-service teachers who are seeking a Master’s degree in Educational Technology at the University of Alaska Southeast. I also teach international professionals who are seeking an EdD at the University of Liverpool. In my current institutions, I see clearly that the ability to create a representation of understanding is the basic skill students must possess. This skill allows myself and my colleagues to evaluate whether other, more discrete or specific skills have been learned.
Now, we can’t just say “create!” and stand back and watch the magic. We still have to teach (even at Master’s and Doctoral level :-)) – give the students a hook, activate their prior knowledge, and get them excited. Then, as they create, we need to ask questions to help them make their thinking concrete, and to find out what they think they should do next. But in the end, after we have done this work, I think we’d be thrilled at the learning language we hear, and the authentic representations of learning that we see.
I work hard to help K-12 teachers convince their administrators that creation isn’t antithetical to demonstration of standards or testing. I challenge you – over the next week, to choose one standard and use the UBD template to design a very small activity related to this standard that includes students creating something (even different somethings) to demonstrate their knowledge. Make your rubric – then do the activity. Then let me know if you think I am right.