Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Evolution of My Practice and Why I'm So Excited About Integrative Thinking

Just because students are involved in inquiry and project-based learning doesn't mean they are engaged in disciplined thinking.

It's not about the tech.

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the evolution of my teaching practice, the insights I have gained during this transformation which began in 2009 and the picture that is emerging in my mind about how learning and schools are going to be structured in the future.

In 2009 I recognized that the world of education was rapidly changing and that in order to remain relevant and useful to my students I would need to set aside my belief system about education and learn what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century.  I began this blog in 2010 to document this transformation.

My practice became very technology based as my students and I explored the possibilities of Web 2.0 Tools. From that I learned:

1. How to build a global learning community.
2. How to connect students directly to experts in any field
3. That students are independently building learning communities outside of school that are often more meaningful than those in their day schools.
4.  It is possible to involve students in projects that have relevance beyond the classroom and contribute to the construction of knowledge in the "real" world.
5. That contact with students is no longer within the 4 walls and designated hours of school. Boundaries have shifted.
6. That there are myriad ways for students to demonstrate learning.

All of that work was done flying by the seat of my pants, learning as I went. I was not technologically literate when I began. Twitter, Skype, Blogger, Wiki, and PLN's such as Classroom 2.0 were instrumental in helping me build knowledge and expertise. The projects we undertook are well-documented on this blog so I won't be describing them here. The work we did and the recognition it received were incredibly exciting, as was the unprecedented level of student engagement.  I wouldn't say, though, that I fully understood why we were receiving so much attention. It is only in hindsight that I see that we were inadvertently producing a new kind of student and learner, one that leaders in education are asking us to produce.

Not all the work we undertook during that time was good. There were moments of chaos where I knew students were having fun and were engaged, but were not necessarily using their time effectively to increase skills, knowledge and expertise. As my comfort level increased and understanding of the process improved however,  I began to focus more on pedagogy and how to embed it effectively into this new model of learning. I explored inquiry, project-based, problem-based and self-directed learning with a much greater emphasis on constraints and on carefully structuring the process and monitoring students throughout so that learning and skill-building occur. Again, these projects are documented in detail on this blog so I won't be describing them here. Formative assessment and responsive, personalized instruction during inquiry are competencies I'm continuing to develop.

What I have come to recognize through this work is that just because students are involved in inquiry, doesn't necessarily mean that they are thinking deeply and effectively. This has caused me to adjust my approach to teaching critical thinking. It is also why I am so relieved to have discovered the tools of Integrative and Design Thinking because I think these are missing pieces in the process. They have allowed me to distinguish between critical thinking as an isolated event and. critical thinking as a series of steps  that enable students to fully explore ideas and work through problems while at the same time recognize the limitations of their inferences and conclusions.

Why is this important? Let's look for a minute at the essentials skills of a "21st century learner".

Digital Literacy

The Alberta government lays this out beautifully in The Framework For Student Learning: Competencies for Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens With an Entrepreneurial Spirit I highly recommend reading this document in detail. From it one can see that curriculum as we know it is about to change dramatically. The model that we hold in our heads of what constitutes "teaching and learning" will need to shift.

This shift is necessary given how rapidly the world is changing, particularly with regard to employment. We need to understand and teach to the world our students will have to survive in. Globalization is causing businesses to seek efficiencies - anything that can be outsourced will be. This means that the kinds of jobs we are accustomed to preparing students for no longer exist. Students will need to adapt and operate in ways that are unfamiliar to the people who are currently teaching them. I am concerned about the career and education advice students are receiving in high schools at the moment - well-intentioned advice given to them by people who have by and large been sheltered and protected from the incredible transformation this world has undergone over the past 5 years.  It is our responsibility to be informed and to adapt our practices in order to serve our students or we will be setting them up for failure.

If traditional jobs have disappeared, what kind of work will they be engaged in?  The kind that involves the skills mentioned above. The rewarding work will be highly skilled and collaborative in nature. Workers will need to contend with complex problems where innovative solutions are designed. Empathy - the ability to understand the needs of stakeholders - will be key. Creativity, communication and technological competency will be required.  Workers in many cases will have to design their own jobs by identifying problems, developing solutions and proposing those solutions as viable options to stakeholders. Glimpses of this new world of work can be seen in the following links.

The Helsinki Design Lab
Parson's The New School for Design
The Strategic Innovation Lab

Back to my classroom and why I'm so excited about Integrative and Design Thinking.

 The ability to think critically should underpin all that we do in education. In Ontario, I think we do an excellent job of developing critical thinking skills. Much of  my teaching practice, though,  has involved teaching critical thinking as an isolated event.  A story, for example, is selected and read with the class. Students then respond in ways that develop aspects of critical thinking.  This is not a bad thing. Just as a superior basketball player endlessly practices making shots, exercise in critical thinking is required in order to become better at it. What this approach doesn't do is take students through the full process of problem-solving while exercising their critical thinking skills. It doesn't take them to the next level. It also doesn't give them strategies for working through their thinking to determine whether or not the conclusions they have come to are valid.

Integrative and Design Thinking provide a tool kit to take students to the next level. The kind of thinking students engage in when using these tools is profoundly different from anything I've observed previously in my classroom. They can't help but explore ideas deeply because they use tools that require them to explore deeply. They are given a process for working through problems from start to finish that forces them to contend with complexity and causes them to find many innovative solutions. The process remains open and allows them to be endlessly creative.  The knowledge they must construct is not "googleable", although eventually they will have to seek valid knowledge to build their creative solutions. The level and liveliness of conversation as they engage is wonderful to watch. I have only begun to scratch the surface of how to use these thinking tools, but am very excited by what I am learning because I feel these tools complete the transformation of my practice that began in 2009. It's all coming together. Carefully designed inquiry is supported by technology, but technology is not the driver. A process for critical thinking is embedded in the inquiry in a way that causes students to become better and more innovative thinkers.  That excites me!

On May 15th I have been invited to I-Think at Rotman to share some of the work we've done so far and to see how other teachers are developing Integrative and Design Thinking in their programs. I am so looking forward to this.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Heidi invites you to comment on your attempts to transform your teaching practice.


Creative Commons License
21 Century Classroom: The Amaryllis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at