Opportunities for Innovation in Traditional Classes

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Last week on Twitter, there was a conversation about whether innovation was necessary in some traditional subject areas based on this criteria identified by George Couros in The Innovator’s Mindset.

I have been thinking a great deal about this because of my own experiences this week. My daughter is really enjoying her Ancient Civilization course. She really likes her teacher and she finds the ancient world; its history, culture and tradition fascinating. There is nothing new about the content in the class, so arguably, a teacher could, for the most part deliver the same content to students because that content does not change.  Is this a reason not to look for opportunities to innovate?

For her culminating activity, Sydney (grade 11) had to create a 3-panel poster board showcasing her research for her chosen topic. There was a choice of topic, but not of the way students could demonstrate their learning about the topic. On presentation day, each of the poster boards were to be displayed, and students walked around to learn about each other’s projects.

These are some of my questions:

-We had to go out and purchase a 3-panel board ($10) and then go back to print colour copies because we have run out of ink. We are often mindful of inequity when it comes to digital access, but wouldn’t a student in a single-parent or low-income family have difficulty getting out, purchasing, and assembling these items?

-The writing which was included needed to be in paragraph form–Sydney knows that her peers won’t read it when they come around, but that ultimately this writing is a requirement for the teacher. Isn’t there a better way to engage students to read the content? How can there be a more authentic audience?

-My daughter is good at creating things on the computer, but does not necessarily feel confident when it comes to “crafty” things (she comes by that honestly). She painted the board, but when she got to school she saw some students’ boards were magnificent.  Despite the fact that she felt she did a good job with the research, she felt embarrassed that the board didn’t really showcase how hard she had worked and the content she had researched because it didn’t look as beautiful as the others. On the other hand, some students who spent an inordinate amount of time decorating the board, did not have the required content and did not do well.  Wouldn’t providing choice allow students to demonstrate their understanding in a way that complements their strengths?

A few Alternatives

Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning is a student-centered approach which works well in content-heavy, traditional courses. Students engage in research about a topic, pose their own questions, refine their questions and may choose the manner in which to best present the information. This is done using a constant feedback loop and instruction is given as needed. A starting question might be, “Where do we see the influence of the Ancient (Mayan, Greek, Egyptian, etc…) on modern day_______ (Literature, politics, architecture, culture, etc…)?” In this way, even if two students choose the Mayan civilization, their projects would be completely different from one another and they can see how the ancient world has had an impact on them.

I used Getting Started with Inquiry as a springboard when I facilitated professional learning around inquiry, but there are lots of resources out there that help teachers move to this model. The difference in this approach is that students take ownership of their learning.

Choice board

Even when teachers don’t use an inquiry-based learning model, a choice board is a good alternative which allows students to select the way in which they would like to demonstrate their learning.  Typically, there is a Free Choice in which students can propose an alternative assignment. What is great about this is it provides students with ideas, while allowing flexibility. Below is an example from a Science class shared with me by Ryan Imgrund.

With this framework, the teacher really helps students ensure they are making a choice which will be sufficiently challenging for them, and also helps to support the research. Most importantly, students can then reflect on whether or not they had made the right choice (metacognition), which allows for growth and learning.

Interestingly, my daughter found a Youtube channel by a teacher, Mr. Nicky, who creates parodies for Ancient History songs. She shared it with her class. This could have easily been a choice for students; it would have been hard work, but also a fun and creative way to demonstrate learning.

Breakout EDU & Breakout EDU Digital

I am a huge fan of Breakout EDU and I’ve written about it before. It’s great to see more and more teachers  bringing these into classes for students to play–they LOVE it!   I am currently co-creating a Breakout EDU digital game with Kim Pollishuke, for an upcoming TVO webinar, and it reminded me how very valuable (and rather simple) it would be for students to create a BreakOut game (digital or physical) as a culminating activity.  So much of the critical thinking happens during the creation of the game. Creating a game would show how students are able to apply what they’ve learned in a course and students can play each other’s games to learn about other topics . It would be challenging, but deep learning often is; and the games can be used for exam review, shared widely with other classes, and used in the future for teaching and learning, so there is an inherent authentic audience. Justin Birckbichler and Mari Venturino have a resource page that would help with ideas for how to present the clues, but students would have to have a good knowledge of content in order to create a good game. To me, this is an ideal way for students to move beyond the memorization of facts.

Other ideas

Check out Nicholas Provenzano’s plan to use Snapchat with the classic novel, Huckleberry Finn here.

There are some good suggestions in this post by Alice Keeler, “Easy ways to Upgrade your lesson from 1900 to 2017”. (Math focus)

As you can see from this post, I think there are opportunities for Innovation in ANY classroom in ANY subject.  Searching for new and better ways to deliver traditional content and to have students understand it, are necessary in today’s classroom.  Yes, at its heart it is good pedagogy–that’s how you know it’s not just new and flashy and shallow. Looking for BETTER ways to invoke deep learning is what I think we need to move towards.

Would love your feedback! How are you looking for opportunities to innovate in courses that are traditionally very content-heavy? What resources do you find helpful?

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