photo of Chris PrestonChris Preston is a 7th grade science teacher at Nagel Middle School in Cincinnati’s Forest Hills Local School District. He enjoys “challenging myself, colleagues, and my students to push the boundaries of teaching and learning.”  Chris has presented at regional and national middle-level conferences and has co-authored a professional journal article.  On Twitter: @cprestonrunning

by Chris Preston

Can middle school students inventively think? As part of a Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) team, I joined four of my school colleagues this past year on a journey to figure out the answer to that question. What we found humbled us. Not only are middle school students capable of inventively thinking, but some of our teaching practices actually hinder students who might otherwise push the limits of their own inventiveness.

Middle school students view inventive thinking as “smart,” “new,” “creative” and “out-of-the-box.” When asked what “out-of-the-box” means, students told one of our team members: “You are the box. This classroom is the box. This textbook is the box. A rubric is the box.” When students work with rubrics, they said, “we have everything we need for an A after the first day or two. What next? We aren’t really inspired to push ourselves because we don’t have to.”

OK. So, as teachers, what should be our reaction? Our PLP team, which consisted of five teachers of three separate subjects from five different interdisciplinary teams, needed time to process what we were learning about student perceptions. We fumbled through some conversations about the meaning of inventive thinking and how we might make it happen in our classrooms. Some of us, through opportunities offered by High AIMS and the Forest Hills School District, had been trained to use the framework of Problem Based Learning (PBL) in our classrooms. We designed units of instruction that (we hoped) focused on the 21st century skill of inventive thinking for all learners. We delivered instruction, gathered video evidence from our classrooms, and collected student survey responses throughout the year.

The results were interesting. We began to coalesce around several unifying ideas.


Unifying Idea #1: Authentic Tasks

Whether it was using modern-day technologies in a Social Studies classroom to solve problems in ancient Rome or creating an interactive exhibit in Science class for a local Children’s Museum, each of the units we designed had a unique authentic task embedded into the design. Students were motivated not only by the grade or grades they would receive but also the understanding that they were grappling with authentic problems and someone was listening to their ideas:

“I was most passionate about the Roman Time Machine because of the trust you had in us to choose our own experts and style of project.,” one student said. “This really showed me all the resources that are available and allowed us to branch out.”

The units were not perfect, but we did upset the routine in our classrooms. We put windows in “the box,” allowing students to see through our structure to a world they were being invited to design and create. At the conclusion of our instruction many students commented that they would approach solutions to questions much differently in the future: “It changed how I look at projects,” one said, “by really opening up my surroundings to more insightful sources of information, and not focusing just on knowledge I can find here at school.”


Unifying Idea #2: Connected Learning

As the result of our second unifying idea — Connected Learning — students came to realize that there are people in the world who are interested in what young people think and can help students understand information they’re interested in.

We pushed students to develop questions associated with tasks within the units. We made it mandatory for each student to make one contact outside of our building. The contact could be through an e-mail, a phone call, an IM chat session, a video Skype session, or through the use of other 21st century tools. The contact also needed to provide useful information: contacting the U.S. President is noble but might not yield anything. Contacting a local business owner, university professor, governmental leader, physician, or meteorologist might be more appropriate.

Students were amazed that they were allowed to send and receive e-mails during class to someone who could help them with their ideas. Social communication, to them, was something to be used outside of school, not as a classroom tool for learning. How many teachers would consider letting a student use his/her cell phone during class to join a conference call with a journalism team from a major regional newspaper? Before this year we might not have designed experiences that required such authentic connections to be made.


Unifying Idea #3: Collaborative Learning

We had the misconception that collaboration meant students working in groups, dividing and conquering bulleted lists from a teacher-generated rubric. Although collaboration can happen within the classroom in student groups using a teacher-generated rubric, what we discovered was different and more profound.

Collaboration can have two parts. During the first part students develop their own individual ideas pertaining to an authentic task — ideas rooted in reason and logic. The collaborative piece is students asking each other rigorous questions: Why are we designing our solution this way? Why did we choose this person to contact? Students commented repeatedly about the opportunity to work with students from other classes and, in some cases, other teams in our school. “We were able to get with other people that were in other classes, we got to make our own decisions on what we wanted for the project and what style of project we wanted to do, and lastly we had to get it done by ourselves.”

We found that the job of the teacher in these classrooms shifted from the main giver of knowledge to someone who coaches students toward solving an authentic problem while helping them connect content along the way.

We’ve been asked, “What next?” We feel as if our work to understand teaching in the 21st century has just begun. Addressing the skills and tools to equip students for the invention of new ideas and products in a constantly changing society and economy will be a battle that should continue to engage teachers and schools for years, if not decades, to come.

Find out more about the Nagel Middle School project (and watch a video clip) at the Action Research area of the Powerful Learning Practice website.

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Sheryl is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Powerful Learning Practice. She works with schools and districts from around the world helping them to infuse technology into their curriculums and by leading other digital conversion efforts. Sheryl also consults with governments, educational organizations and non-profits in development of their various professional learning initiatives. Sheryl is a sought-after presenter at national and international events, speaking on topics related to digital and online learning, teacher and educational leadership, online community building, and other educational issues impacting children of poverty. Sheryl served on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Board of Directors for six years. She co-authored The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age with Lani Ritter Hall. Sheryl has four children and four grandsons, Luke, Logan, Levi and Tanner and a trio of dachshunds. You can find out more on her blog and on Twitter @snbeach.

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