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What Does All This Theory Look Like in the Classroom?

By Bill Madigan

Poor teachers say this: “Hey I’ve constructed this course and curriculum for you and I can’t wait to do it to you.” – Alphie Kohn

Let’s recap my last few blogs: Howard Gardner makes the case that the new 21st century goal is teaching students to not only be great academics but also respectful and ethical minds. Hallowell illustrated the importance of making connections with and between students and teachers. Alphie Kohn, the well known “constructivist” researcher and speaker, mirrors many of Gardner’s and Hallowell’s ideas. In Kohn’s article “Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find,” he shares eight key elements of “Progressive Education” (What Sir Ken Robinson calls the “agricultural model”). For the purposes of this short blog, we will focus on just five of these elements:

*Attending to the Whole Child: Children should not only be good learners but good people. (Gardener’s Respectful and Ethical Minds)

*Collaboration: The core of this element is collaborative problem-solving that is student-centered. Here learning isn’t so rigidly attached to the teacher’s pre-made plans that are done to the student, but rather critical thinking and problem-solving done with the students.

*Intrinsic Motivation: Focuses on and cherishes a learner's enthusiasm and interest. Kohn derides those who attack this concern as being too “feel good” in his essay “Feel Bad Education.”

*Deep Understanding: Facts and skills do matter, but only in a context and for a purpose.

*Taking Kids Seriously: Progressive educators take their cues from the children – and are particularly attentive to the differences among them – this is “student-centered” at its best.

Clearly, AVID has a historical commitment to these same ideas. Indeed, the AVID College Readiness System is deeply informed by student-centered constructivist philosophy. Students are mentored into whole children by AVID elective teachers and the family nature of the AVID class. Collaboration has been a key element of WICOR for years. AVID teachers teach in ways to best maintain and inspire engagement and passion for keeping intrinsic motivation alive. Socratic Seminars, tutorials, philosophical chairs, reciprocal teaching as well as critical reading and thinking all engage deeper understanding. Finally, taking kids seriously has been central to what AVID has been about since Mary Catherine’s bold experiment over 30 years ago.

So, what does all this theory look like on the ground? I would like to share a project that fulfills Gardner’s, Hallowell’s and Kohn’s ideas in a great cohesive way. This is an inspiring, problem-based project in a San Diego area classroom lead by Gary Kroesch. Gary, who is an 18-year AVID author, consultant and teacher, set up a Wikispace for his students where they researched the issue of obesity in America and the world. (This space can be viewed at http://obesity-a-huge-concern.wikispaces.com/)

His students were to select one of 18 categories related to obesity from which to identify a specific problem and then to create and offer solutions. Some of these choices involved viewing obesity through the lenses of the entertainment industry, or the diet industry, or from the medical perspective in addition to other areas such as the fitness world or policymakers. They were engaged to write and give interviews, email queries or call various institutions and companies for further information. They analyzed the problem, synthesized and finally evaluated various solutions.

Although Kroesch set up the basic framework, the students had a great deal of choice and personal responsibility in this project. This work also exemplifies “student centeredness.” As Kohn would agree, this project is not done to the students, but rather done to the teacher with student choice, interest and input. Kroesch confessed that his role became less of the sage and more of a facilitator and coach of student problem-solving. Not only did he have to guide students through the tasks assigned, but also how to stay vital cooperative teams. Kroesch taught the whole child.

This project required discussion and involvement in a moral and ethical topic where concern for the health of fellow human beings was central to the topic. This sort of project immerses young adults in a genuine issue of personal, local and national responsibility. In addition, Gary’s students experienced Ed Hallowell’s idea of connection, with the teacher and among students as well as the greater community (in fact there have been over 20,000 hits on this Wikispace just this year). Finally, this is the very form of learning championed by Kohn’s idea of “constructivist” education where the students were exposed to several facts and skills, but they were “in a context” and were “for a greater purpose.”

21st century learning needs these other layers of experience and expectation: moral purpose, student choice, collaboration and connection. Unless children get practice and exposure to real-world problem-solving and are allowed to experience the organic nature of struggle with fewer and fewer scaffolds, we risk making adults afraid of risking and working on teams. Howard Gardner bemoaned students that were just good at possessing the right answer when he confessed that most of the students at his own school, Harvard, shared one negative trait, that of “risk aversion.” For the ever-changing brave new world we are entering, this will not do. We don’t need people who are only willing to know the right answer, but rather people who are willing to find the best answer.

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