Holistic Learning: Where Students Work Problems That Matter

Today students selected their Project Managers (PM's) and Assistant Project Managers (APMs) for their app teams. They also picked their graphic designers and drew out their sitemaps. They are in the midst of an app building project that will require not only technical skills but will develop individual agency, development of new competencies and learning how students want to interact with the world.

This Month's Question for Cathy Rubin's Global Search for Education Top Global Teacher Bloggers: What should a holistic approach to learning look like and how do we shift the focus from the accountability measures in existence now to one that's relevant for all students in a changing world?

While I've talked about project-based learning recently with fellow teacher Linda Kardamis, this type of student-driven learning is far beyond just a project.

When students form teams based on their ideas and plan and create apps to bring those ideas into reality, they are being given a developmental experience that is transformative.

Problems to Solve

Problems are ok in math class. Why do we treat problems like pariahs in every other class? Students need people problems, design problems, software problems, communication problems, and all kinds of issues to develop problem-solving abilities.

Problems are the canvas upon which we paint a masterpiece of developmental learning that matters.

In math, we write problems on the board. In developmental experiences, problems are written in the very fabric of group dynamics and should be welcome teaching tools, not dreaded things we complain about in the teacher's lounge.

Development Experiences

In Foundations for Young Adult Success, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School research shares,

“Developmental experiences are opportunities for action and reflection that help young people build self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values, and develop agency, an integrated identity, and competencies. These experiences are “maximized” in the context of social interactions with others. Experience must be assigned meaning and be integrated into one’s emerging sense of identity if it is to have lasting or transferrable benefit. Mediating young people’s thinking about their experience is one important way that adults aid in learning and development.”

I consider creating apps an essential development experience in my classroom. I also see this sort of experience happen as students form teams to produce movies, solve problems, and even carry out community service projects that are meaningful to them.

If You Do It For Them, They Develop Little

To me, developmental experiences happen when I allow experiences to develop. For example, we start off planning to make apps, but I guide them through the process of creating ideas for their app first.

I could create a “menu” of ideas from my brain. However, if I've developed the plans – they haven't been given a chance.

If I pick their teams, they don't develop the opportunity to learn how to form groups, how to negotiate, how to determine which students are like minded in their desire to improve the world.

If I tell them precisely the design or color scheme, their graphic designers don't start developing the skills of selecting their own. They also don't engage in the back and forth conversations as they work to please their teammates and come up with a design everyone likes.

It Takes Time to Develop and Learn

One of the biggest complaints some teachers have about such projects is that they take time. And yes they do.

Just as it takes time for a child to develop the ability to walk, it takes time to improve the ability to speak to others with respect. Students need opportunities to negotiate, share ideas, experience failure, and setbacks, and learn how to work with others.

How Do We Measure Developmental Opportunities?

I think the first question to ask is:

  • Does every grade have developmental opportunities? If so, what kind?
  • Are students given the opportunity to invent and create?
  • Are students guided to make teams and work together towards a common purpose?
  • When problems happen, do teachers “tell” students what to do or do teachers encourage problem-solving conversations that encourage progress?
  • Who is in charge – students or teachers?
  • Are we willing to allow the pressure of deadlines, audience, and producing a final product to cause tension and problem resolution?

As for me, I love teaching this way. My textbooks have been long gone off the shelf, replaced by lots of things for making, tinkering, and creating.

And problems are things we work to solve every day. I love being their advisor, their coach, and in some ways their pressure-causing board of directors, but I refuse to be a dictator or problem solver for them. Their problems, their solutions.

Perhaps this is a new way of teaching, but I don't think so. I believe excellent teachers have always created powerful developmental opportunities for students. These opportunities change lives and should be in more schools and classrooms.

Get rid of the Google it and copy it off Wikipedia projects and move more full-bodied comprehensive projects full of meaning and momentum into the classroom.

And then, perhaps, we can develop into the kind of education system that benefits every child.



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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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