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Thursday, September 21, 2017

The $100,000 Glove: Reflections on Object Based Learning

It was March of this year, and as I was walking down the hall of East Middle School, I passed the  library.  A guest speaker caught my eye.  I slid in as unobtrusively as possible, but I could have marched in with clanging cymbals and it wouldn't have mattered; Daryl Woods was keeping middle school students silent and rapt with attention.

Mr. Woods, a manager at NASA who works on programs for the International Space Station, was discussing the final frontier.  I saw an object, a bit frayed and worn, being passed among the students.  As it reached the back of the room, the last student took pity on my curiosity and gave it to me.  It was an astronaut suit glove.  Just as some middle schoolers had done, I automatically slid my hand inside.  A nearby teacher came over to whisper, "That glove has been in space.  It costs $100,000!"

I marveled and made a one-tenth of a million dollar thumbs up.

In all the theoretical, abstract talk about air pressure and solar radiation and the fragility of human life in the merciless vacuum of space that I have read or seen in documentaries, I was never moved as much as I was when wearing that glove.  Someone before me had worn this and touched the cosmos.  And a pair of these cost more than my house.  Space travel was suddenly not as mundane or as easy or as dismissible as our present near-apathy would have you believe.  It was concrete; it was now.  Interacting directly with the object had sparked something in me -- wonder, and whimsy.

And that is what object based learning (OBL) is all about.  It is, as defined by David Smith, a "student-centered learning approach that uses objects to facilitate learning" where students are "interrogating physical artefacts" that become "multi-sensory 'thinking tools'" (per his excellent article "What is Object Based Learning?").    Another powerful OBL definition in under 140 characters:

As the source of the tweet suggests, the idea of "object based learning" could easily go back to the best museum experiences, where the intimacy of literally touching history, or peering at something as close as the end of your nose, invites questions and inquiry.  However, usually a museum suggests the need for a field trip that entails leaving your school.  Or does it?

The public school district in Grand Rapids, Michigan was in steady decline for two decades.   Families fled as the academic performance of the schools sank.  When Teresa Weatherall Neal took over as superintendent, she needed to shake the system up quickly.  In the fall of 2015, one of her boldest moves was placing a secondary school inside of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.   As Beth Hawkins details in her article "When Your School is a Museum," the innovative Grand Rapids Public Museum School earned the district a multi-million dollar grant.  With students interacting directly with the museum's vast collection, it's a perfect example of hands-on OBL.  In a way, it's a "flipped field trip," as the day to day learning occurs inside a museum and home is where they ponder how to next interact with the curated materials or synthesize their schema.  (More on their curriculum and different approach to schooling is available here.) The Grand Rapids Public Museum School continues to add to its roster and it is on track to be a grade 6-12 school by 2022.

Housing a new school inside a museum might be a difficult proposition, especially if you are in a suburban or rural environment with limited large scale facilities.  And yet, many small towns at least have a historical society or a small local museum.  What if a teacher or a school partnered with them?  When inside such a place, what could students learn from their collected objects?  What unique learning would they experience?  And what projects could the students accomplish that will enlarge and enliven the goals of such a museum or historical society for the twenty-first century?


The collections inside a museum create OBL opportunities, but when seen as a whole, the museum invites the idea of place based learning, where the museum itself is the centerpoint of learning on multiple topics.  (Other examples could be learning about the life cycle of trees from being inside an actual forest, or discussing Gettysburg while walking the battlefield.) But OBL could be seen as the heart of several pedagogical overlapping circles. OBL is often a close kin to experiential learning, as the exposure to an object creates a desire to do and apply in order to gain knowledge.  OBL and project based learning also have a relationship, in that both depend on authenticity and impact in the real world.  Certainly one or more of these learning strategies could include OBL.  So how could OBL alone function as an overarching principle in a class?

Here is where the popular idea of "100 Objects" gets traction.  Imagine grounding a class conceptually by teaching history, art, sports, literature (perhaps find metaphorical objects that tie into the text's theme!), math and science through approximately three objects a week.  Try searching "100 objects" in your favorite online bookstore and you can see the depth and variety of subjects that apply this idea.  It has even affected pop culture, as the below Whovian volume I recently found at a used book store indicates:

In a perfect world, you could pass objects of historical significance around, but there are other options:
  • Have students interact with digital representations of actual artifacts, manipulating them in three dimensions.   Smithsonian X 3D has a growing digital repository based on their own enormous collections.  Many of these have built in "tours" that give context and prompt questions about the object.
  • Use a 3D printer to create and print out objects.  In fact, the Smithsonian X 3D site above offers STL and OBJ files you can download and print your own "copies" of artifacts.
  • Use high resolution imagery.   For example,  much art has been captured and can be scrutinized in ways that would be impossible to do in person; macrophotography can be great lead-ins to talking about everyday materials from a different perspective.

We come full circle back to middle school.

A few weeks ago, as I was drafting this entry, my eighth grade daughter had a mock schedule where I traveled through her classes.  Her social studies teacher demonstrated how he shares, about once a week, an historical "artifact."  It may just be a slide on the screen, but the mysterious objects shown without context or explanation spark questions and creative analysis.  What is it?  How is it used?  How would the use and invention of the object be influenced by the time it was made in? His goal is to get students to think like historians.  OBL, practically in my backyard!

If object based learning, with its "multi-sensory" authenticity, creates nothing else but a shift in the pedagogical purpose of a class -- from, say, learning history to being historians -- it has important value.  For that alone, it deserves a thumbs up.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

EdCampKY 2017

When I attended the first ever EdCampKY in October 2014 at Thomas Nelson High School, I was instantly inspired -- some might say smitten, as I definitely fell in love with the "unconference" idea of professional development.  Besides deepening my friendships with several educators, I began new ones that continue to this day.  A few months later, I was asked to join the EdCampKY planning committee, which was extremely flattering.  One of the highlights in the years since was being able to host EdCampKY in Shelby County . . . complete with stormtroopers.

Last Saturday was the fifth EdCampKY, held at Bardstown Middle School, relatively close to the location of the first.  (Thanks to Mike Paul for setting up the location at his home school!) It was another great day of educators sharing and networking:  

As my Instagram pic shows, the next EdCampKY will be held for the first time in Jefferson County on July 7, 2018!  Put it on your calendar!

Two tools from the EdCamp made an impression on me and are worth a mention: Recap and ClassroomQ.   (Full disclosure: both of these were also sponsors this year.)

I have blogged about Recap in a previous entry, but in the time since, they have made major changes in how the platform works.  What was once basically just a free student video response tool has expanded into a structured space for deeper discourse, which Recap calls "Queues."  Students can still make video responses if the teacher allows it, but text responses are also possible; with the ability to respond to other responses, or have a question lead to a sub-level thread of conversations, the conversation can get very detailed and dense!  Last but not least, you can create a "Journey," complete with a short self-cam intro, step by step instructions, and external links.  A Journey would be useful to kick off the Queue (perhaps by building schema before the conversation begins), or as a way to set up students for their own inquiry-based learning.  You can set up a Queue where you can join with just a PIN, which means anyone can start responding in seconds without creating student accounts or rosters.

I discussed Recap in one of my sessions as a useful personalized learning and PBL tool (for example, you could set up a Queue with your PBL unit's driving questions and need-to-know's), but I also used it as a place to capture the reflections of my session's attendees; here's a viewable example.  (You have the option of "opening" your Queue as view only for the public to see without being able to post responses.)

And speaking of "queues" . . . another tool that is extremely simple yet could be extremely helpful was ClassroomQ.  You can create an account for free (more on premium options in a moment).   Next, start a session.  This gives you a class code you can share with others.  Students log in only with their name and the session's class code.  This, quite literally, gives them a giant red button to press if they have a question; they can also add comments.   From the teacher's dashboard, you can see student's requests for help in the order they requested it.  It digitizes the process of "hand raising" to make the teacher's attempt to rotate around the room and assist students much more fair and effective.

The video below gives a demo of the product:

The free version does have limitations; for example, the number of students that can be queued up is only 5.  However, the annual fee is modest, and the Pro version gives you perks like being able to export a log of your session.  (See the chart below for more details.)

And while on the topic of EdCamps and unconferences, one final topic to end this entry.

Shelby County Public Schools will have its own first annual ThinkBIGGER EdCamp on Saturday, October 7!  The awesome and wonderful Heather Warrell will be providing opening remarks.  Tickets are, of course, FREE and we welcome visitors from outside our district to attend.  Come and become our learning partners as we deepen our understanding of what it takes to help our students reach our brand new "Profile of a Graduate."