I have spent the last two days in a workshop with James Anderson at Roedean School, Johannesburg, learning how to go about designing units of work to embed Habits of Mind into the curriculum. It was an engaging, empowering and inspiring process: not always easy, but always fun! Habits of Mind is a set of 16 thinking dispositions which successful thinkers employ when they are faced with problems which they don’t immediately know how to solve. While good teachers have always taught these skills or dispositions in some form or another, usually by modelling them: often they have not been taught explicitly enough. Because there has not been a common language to describe them, often they have been lost in the day to day grind at the chalk face!
What made the workshop exciting for me in particular was that it gave me a time to reflect on my practice and wrestle with ways of embedding cognitive education in my units of work. As an ICT teacher, I felt the additional call to think about ways in which the affordances offered by 21st century technologies could be employed in this initiative. In this blog and elsewhere I have discussed the need to go beyond Flipping the Classroom (doing what used to be done in school at home, and doing at school what used to be done for homework) and spoken about Flipping the Curriculum, an idea which is starting to gain traction. I have a slightly different take on what this means, than Salman Khan, for example. I see it as reversing the traditional conecption that the curriculum consists of a range of content outcomes, facts that children need to know, to which good teachers tacked on the critical thinking bits. We need to conceive of the curriculum as being the teaching of critical thinking, and the content as the bits that are added on as needs be. In an Industrial Age children needed to be taught a set of basic facts and skills to prepare them for a world of work. But in the Information Age, where information is accessible anywhere, anytime, it no longer seems so necessary to teach facts, and it seems far more important to teach the critical thinking skills that allow us to evaluate those facts.
Habits of Mind is one of the most coherent expressions of what critical thinking skills could usefully be taught in schools to help prepare students for the 21st Century and beyond. At Roedean we have just begun this process, and I was one of the teachers who volunteered to help teach in the introductory programme, teaching about the Habits of Mind explicitly. The next phase is to embed these Habits of Mind in every lesson so that it becomes part of every day teaching. The workshop given by James Anderson was intended to set us on our way.
The basic approach that James taught us was to start by identifying what Habits of Mind our students needed development in, and seek a match between that set and what set of habits could usefully match the content outcomes of our unit of work. There is no point in trying to teach “striving for accuracy”, for example in a unit of work which does not demand accuracy, or teaching “creativity” in a unit on measurement! But equally, it does not make sense to teach a class “working interdendently” if they are already very good at co-operation and collaboration. You need to match the needs of the class with the suitability of the content. These thinking outcomes together with the traditional content outcomes become the outcomes for the unit of work.
The hardest part, for me, was learning a new vocabulary to express my learning outcomes. Strangely enough it was not the Habits of Mind outcomes that I found tricky, I was learning the vocabulary from James. It was the content outcomes. I guess I have always balked against Outcomes Based Education, certainly in the form it was adopted in South Africa, and its alien vocabularies. In my lesson plans I have always used a much more traditional vocabulary. I prefer the word aims to outcomes. In a training context outcomes are achieved in a given space of time. In an educational context, progress never ceases, and the journey is never ending. Reaching one milestone means setting a new target, and some get there sooner than others. As an English teacher, I was only too aware of the fact that I would never see the outcomes of my work because, to be blunt, anything trivial enough to be achieved in a single lesson was, well, trivial! At the end of this lesson the student will be able to write! I don’t think so! To my mind the aim of improving writing is not trivial, and I spent much time teaching strategies to help, but there is not a single day when suddenly your class can write. Their writing gets better, sure, but even Shakesperae could improve! So I used the term aims in all my lesson plans.
But I digress! James has a very useful way of expressing the Cognitive outcomes in ways which get around the problems I have detailed above. He uses several categories: meaning, capacity, alertness, value and commitment to speak about different aspects of each cognitive skill. By using these categories to analyse the coutcomes, a far richer, and more focused approach is possible. I have a feeling that what I need to do, as a teacher of ICTs is to use similar approaches in breaking down the content aims and objectives. I have a gut feeling that Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy is a tool that will help me achieve that, and this workshop feels like the first steps on that journey for me as a teacher.
After identifying Cognitive and Content outcomes, James had us identify Assessment Tasks which would test for these outcomes, and then finally work on lesson activities that would “teach to the test”. I have to say that this makes perfect sense to me, as a way of designing a unit of work. Teachers are very good at designing activities, but not that focused when it comes to defining clear goals. As I say, I really struggled with the content goals. What should an ICT teacher be teaching in 2011? Word? Spreadsheets? PhotoShop? Blogging? Twitter? What about Information Literacy generally? I don’t have a syllabus handed down from curriculum committees, ICTs are not in our core curriculum! By comparison to the muddled thinking in what documents are available, James’s Outcomes made perfect sense!
My challenge then is to re-design the ICT curriculum to incorporate the Habits of Mind, and use this opportunity to make sense of the changing face of computer skills training to re-think the content as well. This is both a challenging and tremendously exciting task, and one that I take on with relish!
Bring it on!