pbl

On the Power of Inquiry and Language

#DigiURI Reflections (Part 1)

On ancestry and identity [Street art in Providence, RI]

The 2019 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (#DigiURI) was a five-day, immersive workshop experience which took place in the Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies, in the University of Rhode Island, Providence. The program is the brain child of Julie Coiro, who joined forces with her dyad partner Renee Hobbs to bring to life one of the most intense and insightful learning experiences I’ve had to date. And mind you, dear reader, I have had my fair share of deep learning experiences. Lucky me 🙂

There is certainly a lot to process still. And I must say that I was privileged to have been accompanied by a group of brilliant Brazilian educators, all engaged in the promising Educamídia program, set forth by the Instituto Palavra Aberta and supported by Google.org. Educamídia was created to empower educators and educational organizations, as well as to engage society in the process of youth media education by developing their communication potential in various media.

This week, my dyad partner Carla Arena and I had the chance of sharing some of our most powerful takeaways from our experience at the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (video above). We chatted in Portuguese then (we are Brazilian), but I would like to begin sharing my most compelling insights with you in this post.

Inquiry at the Core

I had already been made aware of the fact that inquiry-based learning approaches are truly in the center of powerful learning experiences. My experience in DigiURI really drove that home for me. I found myself fully immersed in thinking, creating, communicating and building meaning, both on my own and collaboratively. The constant sharing among all participants was very powerful. The digital artifacts which we created as the outcome of our collaboration were purposefully designed because they were a natural result of the powerful process in which we engaged, in constant reflection and feedback loops from our dyad partners. Inquiry-based learning is the pedagogical pathway that naturally pulls in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. It also naturally elicits the meaningful use of technology. It’s the pathway to follow for ‘minds on – hands on’ learning.

Inquiry at center – the sketch I created and that served as inspiration for our DigiURI project

Use Language to Change the World

Inspired by Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, Kristin Ziemke struck a chord when she talked about literacy development in young learners, and how powerful it is when kids begin naming the world – their world. Kristin made us aware of the power of visual literacy, and also of the meaning making process that we engage in when learning to name our own worlds. Therefore, changing language is part of the process of changing the world. And that, my friends, is exactly what happens throughout the inquiry-based learning pathway. Language is used to empower, to set high expectations for students, to reflect, and to communicate learning to the world.

Kristin Ziemke in her keynote (photo by Carla Arena)

…to be continued soon

Still more on the power of images, how it connected to leadership for me, and digital empathy.

A Long Trip Beckons. Be Guarded.

Lands End, San Francisco, CA. June 21, 2019. This video is how I felt after the three days I spent engaging in PBL World 2019. Clouds dissipated, and I could clearly see ahead, a new horizon – it had always been there.

I explain.

This was when I came to the realization that I had been going at innovation in education from peripheral perspectives – educational technology, technology integration, active learning methodologies, digital citizenship, media literacy, deep learning, 21st century learning, maker-centered learning, social-emotional skills development – all terms that we hear being thrown around when innovation in education is being discussed and advocated. Those are all great, but they are all peripheral. They orbit around a core which is pedagogical, and that is project-based learning.

PBL is the pedagogy that naturally pulls all those components. Sustained inquiry generates critical thinking as a natural byproduct of collaboration and communication for an authentic purpose, to solve an authentic problem. Technology serves a concrete purpose, that of documenting, demonstrating and showcasing learning. Tools for student creation, though not for the sake of learning a new cool tech tool, but to make learning visible.

PBL mobilizes the whole individual – teacher and students alike. Projects is how people work together to create things in the world. However, PBL requires a very specific type of teacher, a true educator, awakened and moved by the vision of equity in education. Meeting each student where they are, hands on, minds on work. Beautiful work.

Providence, RI. July 14, 2019. The Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. #digiURI

I am about to get further down the rabbit role. Moved by this insight of PBL as the core pedagogy for all things innovative about education, I am looking to explore this idea: what does professional develop that will inspire teachers to become PBL educators look like? How might we support teachers in their journey towards the development of the refined pedagogical skills that will enable them to sustain inquiry-based learning in partnership with their students?

 

A possible map (above).

It’s as the Lands End fortune teller showed me.

        

It’s all good. I’m in it for the long haul. Let the learning explorations begin. I’m getting those #rhizo14 feelings all over again.

Reflections on Context

I teach English as a foreign language to Brazilian upper-middle/middle class teenagers aged 14 to 17. All of them are at that stage of their educational trajectories where they are being primed for academic life in university. A vast majority of them go to renowned private high schools whose core goal rests in getting their students into the best universities and colleges in the country. That means that these kids are being prepared for competition, especially those who are aiming at prestigious careers, such as Medicine or Law, to name a few.

Pedagogically speaking, these kids’regular schools are pretty conservative. Students are grouped in large numbers (30 to 40 students) and classses are delivered lecture-style, with the teacher being the expert in charge of passing on the knowledge necessary for these kids to make it to the next big thing in their lives – college and the prospect of a promising professional life, which will provide the means for ensuring a comfortable life, much like the one they already have with their parents. Another contextual aspect particular to our city (Brasília, the capital city of Brazil) is that a career in public service is also among many of these kids professional future prospects. Being able to pass a public examination for a prestigious career in Congress, for example, means high salaries and life-long professional stability. On top of that, many of these kids parents are civil servants themselves, naturally being role models for their kids.

It’s a culture of competition the one in which our teenage students are born and raised. High-stakes tests are the gateways to a prosperous future, and the gatekeepers are the schools and teachers who make getting as many of their youth as possible inside a good university their highest priority. Schools actually use college entrance exam rankings for the purpose of advertisement. They are highly competitive and lucrative enterprises. It makes perfect sense that these schools prepare their students to do well on tests. After all, we live in an assessment-driven culture. Students’ performances are measured and primed for passing tests, and passing tests equals successful professional future. It is common for these high schoolers to spend their Saturdays taking tests at school and spending their whole week, mornings and afternoons, in school, both attending their regular classes and engaging in academic activities, such as writing workshops, where they practice writing academic essays in a product-oriented approach.

These are only some aspects of the cultural fabric of which we, EFL teachers, are also a part. It is our goal to teach these kids English, the language that will open even more doors to a prosperous future. Any job or career worth pursuing nowadays requires individuals who have very high levels of proficiency in English. These kids’ regular schools fail at teaching the language itself, since their goal is to prepare them to pass a test about the language, something which they can do without being able to speak or write fluently in English. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to teach these kids the language itself, and not only about the language. Our classes are taught in English, and we adopt a no-Portuguese policy in the classroom. We adopt communicative methodologies, aiming at developing students’proficiency in English in all four skills, understanding (reading and listening) and producing (writing and speaking) the language fluently and accurately. A majority of our students start their English studies with us as little kids, staying with us until teenagehood, when they will have reached upper-intermediate to advanced levels of English proficiency. By the time they reach these high levels of English proficiency, most of them will have been studying with us for about 6 to 7 years.

The schooling experience of most of the teenagers that I have in my upper-intermediate and advanced level English classes is a very traditional, teacher-centered, high-stakes-test driven experience on a daily basis, as I have briefly described above. It’s a grinding routine in which they wake up very early, have classes the entire morning, have lunch (many times at school) and come over to our institute for their twice-a-week English lessons. Their classroom experience with us is different from their experience in their regular schools in some aspects. Our classes are smaller, with about 18 students in each group. The classrooms themselves are smaller and we adopt a U-shaped seating arrangement of desks. As I’ve mentioned before, we adopt communicative methodologies. Our teachers are trained to facilitate classes that are student-centered and dynamic, fostering plenty of genuine communication. We adopt course books that are the core of these classes, though teachers are encouraged to make the necessary adaptations to course books in order to address their students needs. Group work and pair work dynamics are widely adopted and are an important element in the communicative dynamics implemented in our classes.

Still, my teenage students are tired, and understandably so, given their high school routines. And even though their schooling experience with us bears many differences from their regular schooling, written tests, essays and grades are also important components of our courses. They need to do homework, write paragraphs and essays, and take tests on grammar and vocabulary, as well as reading and listening comprehension. I have often felt that my classes might be coming across as more of the same for my teenagers, despite all my efforts to engage them in energizing discussions and collaborative dynamics with their peers. I mean, these kids have been our students for nearly a decade. It’s as if they have already been intensely exposed to our repertoire of communicative dynamics and activities, no matter how much we personalize and adapt and revamp what goes on in the classroom.

I’m thinking of ways to rethink their engagement. I’m thinking, and looking around, and getting acquainted with other pedagogic practices. Lately something has caught my attention – project based learning. I have been really curious about it and on a quest for learning more about what it is, and how to implement it. I want to write more about it soon, but for now, I will let these reflections on my context sit in my mind a while longer.