My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

A Story of Professional Critique

Below is the original article I submitted to High Tech Highs Unboxed. This article was "accepted with major revisions". I was provided with the most clear and challenging feedback on any piece of work I have ever received. This leaves me a little cold to be honest. Why haven't I had this before? or since?

I must admit the motivator of an authentic audience was important, but not as great as the professional learning it challenged me to do.  I would encourage you to read this "original" which is fairly pants in hindsight and then read the final version. The article is followed by the summary of the comments on my submission.

I would like to Thank Rob Riordan, Pam Baker and the Unboxed team for th opportunity.
Introduction Experience weeks
Biannually, we stop using our timetable and organise "Experience weeks". One of these weeks has become our "Sustainability week" for our Year 9 (13 year olds), and it was in this week we decided to apply our learning from our High Tech High visit.

The purpose of the week was conveyed to the team of teachers who were going design the individual projects with two training sessions. One dedicated to what projects are and are not, and one on critique. Of course, I did a project first and used mine as an example for the others to use. The intentions of the week were established as
1. To raise awareness of environmental issues and the positive actions we can take. This was intentionally set as a broad as possible, to allow staff to explore smaller issues more deeply. This is an essential experience for UK teachers as our (unenlightened and backward) government is intent on arbitrary content statements as a "rigorous" curriculum. So much of our teaching is a race to "cover" vast quantities of superficial learning. Don't get me started.
2. To create high quality student projects. Our school as been hosting a Saturday exhibition day for the last 5 years, always successful, but when scrutinising the work it does lack the high calibre of student work we witnessed at HTH. Simply showing the books produced by Jay Vavra, Pam Baker, Jeff Robin et al. is a great way of asking to up our game. In a word inspirational.
3. To allow staff to teach to their passions. Another rare U.K. opportunity. Teachers were also asked to team up into cross curricular teams but this request was an attempt to make the projects more than a science or humanities project.
4. To allow students to experience the idea of school as base camp and extended adult learning relationships. These concepts are taken directly from “Learning Futures” as they exemplify the real world connections that learning needs and struck a chord with the idea of an experience week. I love the Ron Berger quote that’s it’s " more useful to consider schooling not as a delivery system but as an experience”, and I think that these weeks allow us to escape the delivery mentality.
From this the team came up with the following projects.
         Books written for Primary school children
         Video presentation on water conservation
         Sustainable spa
         Swap shop
         Pray mat for Nepal.
         Guide book to local bird watching sites.
         Photography exhibit St Mary’s light house.
         Dance video representing sustainable issues.
         Recipe book.
         Cycle guide to Cramlington.
         Computer game development (based upon Life Below the Line charity).
         World record attempt at the world’s biggest bird box.
From this we were able to offer some choice to our students on the theme or style of project they were to complete.  Due to our time restrictions we were unable to offer Project Tuning, and this is something that would have added so much more to the whole of the week. This will take place next year.
They also established an impressive list of collaborators and visits to enhance the projects. These ranged from Professional chefs to a visit to Hendon Sewage Works and it does get much “real world” than a trip to a sewage works!
 And so we were planned. The following is a brief account of my own experience of running a Sustainability Week Project.
“Wild about Cramlington” Bird Watching project.
For my project I wanted to have a project based around bird watching, a childhood hobby, currently enjoying a resurgence since the arrival of my son Tomas. I thought  it would be a great way of making clear the importance of looking after your local area and generate a bit of local pride (again hats off to Jay Vavra for the inspiration) So the “Wild about Cramlington” project began, I did the project first and dragged Tomas around a local nature reserve, busying myself recording what I saw and understanding what my students would have to do. It seemed easy at this stage, and it wasn’t until I spent an hour making a low quality map of the site that I began to understand what the project involved. I decided a  “less is more” approach and allow space to let the project run the learning.
I plotted a rough calendar for the week, giving it a direction, which began with asking the group (of 28) if anyone was a keen “Twitcher” (that’s street speak for a Bird Watcher), I struggled to quell the ensuing dialogue of the rarest bird they had seen. Actually, I received the stony glare only teenagers can muster, so I asked if anyone had a pair of binoculars and seven or so said they did. We were off!
 We then looked at some professionally produced leaflets and guides to local nature sites and picked out what made them successful. I did include my attempt. We came up with a list that would serve as the success criteria. Next we watched a 5 minute video made by one of our Bird watching experts, which gave tips on how to watch birds successfully.
 A serendipitous opportunity arose when my colleague that was running the project with me was unavailable, preventing the initial planned trip. We were to be confined to barracks. Fortunately we have a huge campus, with areas that are conducive to nature, including a temporal pond.  So off went 28 nascent birdwatchers with field guides and shared binoculars in small groups for an hour and a half to spot birds. What I actually observed was 28 teenagers parading around the school like a bunch of teenagers parading around a school campus, it was rather predictable but still frustrating. I galloped around the campus, suppressing my frustration and asking what had been seen and pointing out things of interest. The two volunteer experts did likewise.
 On reconvening I asked how many types of birds each group had seen. “Four” one group cried , “ Can anyone beat four?” I challenged.  “Yes, we can?”  said one group” “Great” I responded ”How many?” as they tallied up the tension built , finally responding “Six!” . The expectation fell. “So how come I saw 19 different birds and two species of butterfly?”, after a brief silence they correctly identified that I knew what to look for and where to look, and then a revelation. “Sir, you followed those tips, didn’t you?” “Er, yes. Yes I did. Can you remember what they were?” Unsurprisingly, the students named every single one, after all regurgitation is easy but putting knowledge into practice is the difficult and real world thing. This is why letting the project lead the learning is so important. I was rather proud of myself to have allowed it to do so.
For the final hour of the day, we began writing description of the birds spotted and of the site. This was in response to their correct identification that they did not know enough about the wildlife. I was pleased to see a bunch of non twitchers, thumbing through identification guides and listening to bird calls on the internet. Again the project was directing the learning. Some students naturally began drawing the birds, not requested but with Jeff Robin ringing in my ears “Artists communicate” I let them to continue to engage in the required knowledge in any way they wanted.
The next day we left the campus and visited a local nature reserve. The difference in the students, was palpable. The hushed conversations, the points to trees, the pauses and scanning of the horizon and most importantly the “What’s that sir?” questions, all indicated that the students had engaged with the project. On return each student had at least seen 20 different species of bird. One student had seen six species of butterfly, and could not  believe how fun this was. She’d taken lots of photographs and was distraught to find that they had not saved correctly. She determined to return that night to retake some pictures. She did.
Back in the classroom, whilst writing about our observations we began to acknowledge that getting the quality of photographs we wanted was perhaps beyond this project. After a discussion, and several volunteers we decide that drawings would be the most valid solution.
A whole class critique
It was at this point that we carried out our only whole class critique on the species descriptions. This was hard to prove difficult as the students did not know each other or me, nor did I know them beyond their name, highlighting the importance of building a community within classes. I persevered armed with Bergers ’Classroom norms and a single message. “We are going to give one another feedback on our work and we will redo it until we are happy that it is of publishable quality.”
So although on the surface we were coming up with a model of what our species description should be like, it was really letting the students know that drafting is part of being successful and we were going to do it. I asked them to keep all drafts and that I wanted to archive them. It is only in hindsight that it has become clear that it was this overlong 30 minutes was the turning point in the project.
On the third day, the students decided (against my recommendation)  to visit a different location to add to the guide, as “we can’t just have two places to visit”. I could not argue with this logic, and it was nice to see the responsibility be transferred to my students. This was further enhanced by a group of students who were designing the layout of the leaflet who refused to start presenting their ideas, until everyone was present. The sight of one student running down the corridor to a neighbouring room to collect a group working on a computer still makes me smile.
A small legacy arrives
It was also on this afternoon that the defining moment of this project happened. We had been critiquing each other’s work in small groups mostly hosted by but not necessarily instigated by me. One student showed me a picture she had drawn of a Willow Warbler. It was nice picture but did not look much like a willow warbler. So together we came up with three improvements; the shape of the tail, its body shape and colouration of its plumage . She returned the next day with an improved version and the question “What do you think?” It was clear that the body shape and tail were much better, but the colouration and the head shape were not helpful to its identification. I gathered two other students and we critiqued again. Although, I suspected disappointment in being asked to improve her work again she never showed it. I guess (and hope) that she understood that we had changed the rules, and in the process her best just got better. I’m sure she was nervous the next morning, when she approached me with her next draft. It was great. It looked like a Willow Warbler. I asked if it was okay to show the class her three drafts (or as they have become known “ The Birds”) which she shyly accepted and almost hid.  I proudly gathered the class not only to show a beautiful piece of work, but the progress between them and the most importantly the paradigm shift taking place. The students were impressed and said so.
The value of extended learning relationships.
It became clear that the drafting of work was becoming valued when later another student approached stating that he had completed the description for the Goldfinch, and as I inhaled  presented the three drafts he had produced. Momentarily stunned I eventually asked who had critiqued his work. He explained that he had himself after the first draft using the model the class had worked on and then he had it checked by two friends. I felt a little redundant, but remembering the years of experience I have bird watching and that of the experts we helped ensure that the important identifying features of the Goldfinch were prominent. The project once again was leading the learning.
The presence of the experts Phil Allott and Cain Scrimegour was more than just a critiquing and knowledge base. I genuinely believe that their presence helped the students realise that their learning matters to the wider community. It made their learning real. I am indebted to them.
A High Quality Product.
The final two days were planned to provide time to complete and critique the guide and then debrief the process. Time was always going to be tight. Over these days I was particularly pleased with the responsibility shown by the students; they readily offer their work for critique to small groups, reworked drafts, switched groups to support large tasks and they offered honest considered feedback during critiques. However, this was not a perfect group of students nor was it a perfect project. We required frequent prompting, task setting and structuring and  some timely behaviour management. For much of the time I acted as a teacher first and project manager second. We still have much to learn.
Progress was slow but steady and high quality work emerged periodically. Our original deadline came and went and the end of week quiz was shelved. Unfortunately, the debrief became much more independent than I had wanted, but the project needed time and correctly took precedence. The completed guide was something to be proud of and I have used it already as an exemplar to the kind of quality my students should expect to produce. This leaflet and “The Birds” are now associated with critique, and drafting by all our year 7 and 8 students. They respect the quality and understand how they can emulate it. This is a very exciting start for us.
Although I slightly neglected the debrief I feel it has given me an honest voice from my students about their experiences. I asked the students to create a poster, in response to a few simple questions. They typed their answers up neatly and placed them on to a “habitat” poster attaching them to various organisms, helping to capture the process we had been through. So I would like to close this article with my students’ voice almost as a clutch of eggs I am to hatch and nurture.
“Having to redraft felt good as I always knew what I had to improve in next draft” – Charlie
“Redo[ing] work [led to] frustration but [then] realising we had produced better work [which] expanded upon our knowledge” -Caitlin
“ living in Cramlington, we should take pride in what birds we have on our door step”- Anon
“living in a busy area we need to get away and see the wildlife we have in our community” -Anon
“[Feedback] helped me by doing drafts to get my product up to a high standard”
“[The guide] shows others our understanding and widens it.” Phil.
“We drafted our work [several] times....so we could get a quality product we would be proud of! -Rebecca, Jack and Sam.

Final recommendations for revision of :
  • Shorten the article, starting by eliminating or reducing the introductory section. "The article appears to have two quite separate components and tones.  The first one and one half pages are an attempt (I think) to provide context, but offer info that comes off as confusing and disjointed from the project itself.  There's a bit of a "report" tone to this portion of the article.." - "I found that this could be probably better received if it was about 4 pages long and drop some of the wordiness and sidebar comments." [Rob's suggestions: It's the project narrative that is truly compelling. I would say we should put the reader in the midst of it as soon as possible, with minimal context-setting. Virtually all of the introductory material, and especially the section on project intentions, the list of projects, and the references to HTH and HTH persons could be eliminated without damage, to start. The LF notion of school as base camp could be deleted, or perhaps folded into the project description. I would say shoot for a length of 2,000 words.] 
  • Dig deeper into critical aspects of the project. "[Select] those 2-3 aspects of the project that yielded the teacher with the greatest insights around PBL (in concept and/or implementation) and then drilling down to provide more detailed and purposeful description of those elements in order to more effectively communicate the teacher's and students' experience with those aspects of the project....Readers don't need to come away with a full description of the project...but they should come away with a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by beginning to implement PBL in a new context." [Rob's note: I'm ambivalent about these responses, as I find the narrative so compelling. Some of your subheads highlight essential elements of the project. Perhaps some additional or revised subheads could enhance that effect. I do think the last part of the quote above—"they should come away with a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by beginning to implement PBL in a new context"—suggests persuasively the proper aim of the piece—I wonder if you agree. If so, one could think about adding a paragraph right before the student quotes, summing up the challenges and joys of the endeavor from the teacher's standpoint.]
  • Final Edits/Formatting.  "Although the general direction of the article was excellent, the wording of the author made it very difficult to get into a flow when reading. There were awkward turns of phrase and grammatical kludgyness that made me have to go back and reread sections to try and understand the author’s intent."..."There's a sarcastic edge to the writing at times -- I generally like this, but there are a few comments that could alienate readers and are unnecessary for getting the point across." [Rob's note: --It's worth taking a look, though I wouldn't want to remove all of the "edge." See what you think. We may have suggestions as we go to final edits. Please review the GSE style guide (attached) and make any line-edits or formatting changes to align the article with the standards for publication (exceptions: no need for a table of contents and feel free to keep it single spaced).