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Synergy: a course I’d love to take, then teach

November 24, 2010

A few weeks ago, I heard about a new course being taught in the eighth grade at my school. Curious, I asked one of the teachers of the course, J, about it over lunch, and she said it’s a “problem-finding course”. Students identify problems they want to work on, they clarify the problems, pose their own questions, collect data, present data, and work toward a solution. Also the class is team taught by two faculty, one of whom, B, is the Junior High Principal. Holy cow! This sounded amazing. I had to see it.

This is the syllabus of essential learnings for the course:

View this document on Scribd

Today, my colleague, A, and I observed the class during a free period, and we were blown away by what we saw. First of all, the room doesn’t look anything like any of the other classrooms in our junior high or high school. Gone are the individual desks, and in their place are two long rectangular tables seating about 8 kids each, and two circular tables with 5 kids each. The course is a 1-semester elective, and students are near the point where they are wrapping up their group projects. They are divided up into 3 teams working on the following problems:

  • Cell phone policy: the current cell phone policy in the Junior High is that they cannot be on your person at any time. Students are expected to keep their phones in their locker, and they are not to be seen in classrooms, lunch, etc. Students in this group are working to investigate possible changes to the policy, by studying how students might use their phones as learning tools in the classrooms, and how students use their phones now. They have spent some time working collaboratively on a letter to the class dean requesting permission to pilot a study for the students in the Synergy class to use phones during Synergy, and today they just announced the request had been approved.
  • Line cutting in the cafeteria: Line cutting in the cafeteria seems to be a big deal. Lines are long, and students jump in with their friends to skip ahead. Students in this group are working to study the phenomenon, by making observations of lunch lines, surveying the community about the lunch line experience, and timing the time it takes to get through the line.
  • Kitchen Cleanup Duty: One of the chores students must do regularly is clean up the cafeteria. As you might expect, some shirk this duty and leave the cafeteria looking like a mess. Students in this group are developing a survey to investigate student attitudes around kitchen cleanup duty, and look for ways in which the process can be improved.

The class we observed had groups giving updates of where they were in their various projects—the cell phone group was discussing how they’d just received word that it would be ok for them to bring their cell phones to class on Monday, and so they were talking about how they’d do this, and why it’s important that they don’t abuse the privilege by taking the phones to other classes. Two groups were presenting their prototype surveys constructed in surveymoneky. It was truly impressive to watch these groups of 13 year olds go dissect these surveys with the careful eye of seasoned researcher—pushing them away from long comment fields, and toward questions that can be answered quickly and analyzed numerically. As the questions kept firing back and forth two student scribes seemed to be recording every word, and the two teachers seemed to be offering only the lightest touches to guide their progress “Remember, we’re all here to learn from each other,” and “Think about the data you need, is that going to help you?”

Once, B, the principal, had to rein in the conversation by saying the following “I know this is fine tuning work and it requires self-discipline, but we need to get your full attention because it makes a difference in assessing the questions you’ve identified.” I must say that this is one of the few times I’ve ever heard a teacher explain to kids why they should pay attention, and perhaps the only time that reason has been because “we are working on problems you identified and care about.”

You can see further evidence of how awesome the class is by looking around the classroom in the slideshow below. You’ll see the walls covered in early attempts at information design, the boards covered with mind maps. I was also impressed by how how the kids have set up their own class gmail account, surveymonkey account, and other web tools to help their work. This is great organic use of technology, without falling for the “digital natives” trap. The kids can do a lot with technology, but they don’t know everything (like how to make a single selection question in surveymonkey), and so on Monday, they were planning a short session on how to refine the mechanics of their surveys online.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A, and I left the class feeling inspired and full of questions. We wondered how this course came into being, since it seems to be a “make it up as you go along” venture in the very best sense of what education should be, yet the typical way courses are approved at my school is a “give us a syllabus and proposal that spells everything out” sort of process. Could this course have been created by someone other than the principal?

A and I also spent some time thinking we’d love to create a Synergy Too course to follow up on this approach in the high school. But we aren’t really sure where we’d even begin. After a great conversation over lunch with the Dean of Faculty, we realized summer school might be the perfect place to pilot such a venture, and we might begin by simply trying to create an enrichment course to allow students working on the mindset project to explore their own questions in psychology and prepare the project for the next steps, whatever that may be.

It also got me thinking back to the post Frank Noschese wrote about reforming his physics classes to incorporate more 21st century ideas in physics. What would a “problem finding” course in physics look like? Somehow, I’m still intrigued by my previous question about whether or not he backscatter x-ray machines at the airport are something to be afraid of, but the real answer should be whatever questions the kids come up with. And that sounds a lot like what Shawn Cornally and Tyler Rice do every day. Sounds like I need to invest in buying a lot more hardware and power tools for my classroom.

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