Creating High Performance Learning Environments

Project based learning lesson

The first video surrounding project based learning with Donna Migdol, is the most valuable for me. I try to bring more project based learning to my science classes. However, I’ve been learning on the job with very few resources and little in the way of established curriculum.

Migdol’s methods for creating iterative design are so important to the creative and learning possesses. I had an “ah-ha” moment when I saw two things she did. The first was stretching the projects over several days, and the second was student centered feedback on the progress of their projects.

Besides my twice yearly science fair, the other projects I’ve put in the class have been very guided and typically completed in a single lesson. Sometimes this is effective for certain project but I’m not taking enough advantage of iterative processes. As Migdol pointed out, she is able to treat student guided feedback as a sort of formative assessment. Wonderful! I need to take the time do this in my classroom. I’ve also put in place a note taking policy this year so the “chiming” and note taking will work well.
Coming from my own software writing prospective, iteration is everything. Removing the fear of failure and providing the opportunity for feedback is imperative for any creative work. A great example of this is the marshmallow tower challenge.

In the contest, groups of people must build the tallest tower possible with a limited number of dry spaghetti noodles and a marshmallow on top in a limited frame of time. Comparative studies of MBA to students versus young children found that on average groups of young children outperformed the average business student groups. This was due largely to the propensity for planning and debate in the business groups while the young built, rebuilt, rebuilt, and rebuilt. Perhaps their elders had been taught to avoid failure to a point of negative returns.

Migdol also uses simulators on computers. I also do this. They are great for providing a safe sandbox for an idea. Also no fear of failure here. One thing I should point out is her great use of classroom space when using the simulators. She place the students against the wall for this individual work. It’s very useful for keeping students focused and observing the students’ work. I only have this luxury in one of our classrooms where I, unfortunately, don’t teach very often.

You can find a batch of wonderful science simulators at:

She also makes great use of the idea that limited options make for more creative students. Not only is this smart for the budget, but it’s also a truism in my own experience. I dual majored in art, and in new situations where we had limited resources my work was more consistent. I, by the way, was a better science major… oh well, all’s well. In any case, I think I might switch a few or Migdol’s few supply choices. Sand paper and rubber strips are not the most effective demonstration of friction when handling a metallic rolling object. It’s unlikely that the students would come upon the few ways they might use them effectively, as anything more than an obstruction.

I don’t really care for the idea of slotting kids into roles within their groups, but I love the use of active recording and reflecting on the process. It would be helpful in my ESL classroom. I could make it part of the note taking.

Chinese math lessons

Wow, a Chinese lesson I can actually understand. 一二三! I so smart!… Okay, I’m not a linguistic master. I believe this is a great example of Chinese education at it’s best… and worst. This sort of Chinese teaching is sort of a mastered art and many of the techniques are difficult to implement outside of this style. It would be easy to criticize individual components of the style, but you have to look at it as whole, what it does, and where it does it.

It is perhaps an oversimplification to say that Chinese education is for memorization and procedure. Yet, it is good at those things. In some subjects, memorization is an excellent part of mastery. And is half of the creative process. The kinds techniques seen in that video, with the kids acting as a unified orchestra, are effective in producing students who can artfully execute certain tasks. But this shouldn’t, I my opinion, come at the detriment of the other half of creativity, the wide and deep thinking of connecting ideas.

Additionally in the article, it’s pointed out that the teacher does attempt to address critical thinking. She does this by placing problems in scenarios or case testing them. But the method for doing them seems to be limited call and response or quizzing with the students. And as the article points out it seems that there is the same sort of pressure to teach to the test in China. In fact, it’s even worse. The test is everything.

You might also, say that it is teacher centered, but in a typical classroom of over fifty students the teacher as a masterful conductor can be a beautiful thing. However, smaller classes should mix it up a bit in technique. Those conductor skills only go so far with a four piece band. I personally couldn’t imagine trying to bring these techniques into my classroom. It’s the exact sort of thing my students want to avoid. Though I admit, I once heard a cheer group cheering about Mendeleev and the periodic table on the NPR show Radiolab. I, now, can’t seem to locate the episode, however I remember desperately wish I could use it to help the student memorize the periodic table. That would be a high standard and the Chinese techniques would be perfect.

Whole brain teaching

We have an old British soldier at our school who has endless techniques for managing the classroom. He’s a master at it. I admire his ability, and I have picked up many ideas from him. However I find that many of this techniques are bordering on teacher centered, I feel are detrimental to the kids in the long run if done in every class.
Since I try to use more project based learning, I feel part of the classroom management should be emergent form the function of the task at hand. Migdol’s group meeting, for example, were orderly both because of moderation from the Migdol and also a common understanding among the students about the task at hand.

In looking at many of the methods on the Whole Brain Teaching, WBT, website, I found many interesting methods. Many of them integrate kinesthetics. In university I took dance for elementary education which integrated dance in other subjects as a method for teaching young children. In practice I’ve found these methods hard to implement with my students. The are strong willed group of high school students. I once tried to get the to have them simulate chemical bonds through dance… a process which resulted in me needing to break up a screaming match between three kids. They had a lot of opinions about how the electrons should be correctly interpreted. Not that WBT is endorses that, but I simply can’t imagine my students embracing many of these ideas.

I feel that the WBT is awesome for management and high standards in any group of students who requires more discipline. This varies by subject and age. It’s great for younger students where is teaches students to think about their actions. It might not be as useful in project based lessons where freedom is more important.

Setting high performance expectations among my students

I have learned the most from Migdol’s project work. I teach chemistry and physics right now. I need to also implement iteration into my projects to promote higher standards. It would help me preform formative feedback and reduce free of failure.

The Chinese memorization technique might be helpful for are certain tasks… maybe I can get them to memorize the periodic table this year. However, I won’t be using them much if at all.

I can’t see myself using many of the WBT techniques with my high school students. But I’m going to look closer at their techniques for group management since I feel I could really improve on that.

There are two other key concepts I will be using to promote high standards. Firstly, growth mindset will clear the way of individual hang up about not being “good enough.” Secondly I’ll push my student to think wider and deeper about problems. This means connecting ideas and going beyond the required course work to seek out understanding and creativity.

Creating High Performance Learning Environments

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