Student subjects in CBL


Challenge Based Learning seems to turn things around quite a bit. I was thinking this photo of a student in year 7 who was drawing a diagram on the whiteboard in the class room.

It was part of the CBL water project and her group had designed a vehicle that could move through an area and distribute clean water to people who did not have access to water – well clean water anyway. The water was made clean through a chemical process and the vehicles powered through solar panels. The group had found out about a particular place in the world where clean water was not accessible. They had devised a solution to this problem through their research which included finding out how water could be cleaned within a mobile unit and how the vehicle could be powered.

So the thing here is that rather than starting with the scientific knowledge, the student started with the problem – the problem that they were seeking to solve – and by solving the problem or trying to solve the problem they needed to find out about the science that would help to solve the problem.

It seems to me like a way of going about learning where rather than starting with the knowledge and then solving the problem this time they started with a problem and then had to find the knowledge to apply to the problem. How can we clean water in a mobile unit in a remote location? The students were making their own inquiry.

Another thing that this photograph reminds me of was the way that the students were using the classroom space during the sessions. The whiteboard became another surface in the room on which to plan and design, make changes and share. It became a tactile and active recording place and enabled to the group to change things around quite easily. So in this challenge based learning project these two things – and what I mean by this this is firstly the way of starting with a problem and then finding the knowledge to solve the problem and secondly using the classroom space flexibly and quite freely –show how this pedagogy works within constructivist discourse and also discourses of openness and freedom which are part of the discourse of the 21st-century learning.

So we could represent this student as a

21st century learner

– not because the photograph was taken in 2014 but because of the type of student subject that is made by this approach to pedagogy.

Is the 21st century learner still relevant?

Do you still hear the phrase ’21st century learners’? It’s a type of catchphrase that identifies students in certain ways – not least as users of digital technologies. It’s a phrase that was used from about 1996 (first appeared on Google in 1996) to describe students of the future as different from students of the past. And it is tied in with claims that education must change. So why do I ask if the 21st century learner is still relevant?

It’s because I think it is important to study how teachers identify students now – and the way that ideas about students as ’21st century learners’ are being adopted now that we are in the 21st century.  It’s also because a Google search for the year 2002 comes up with 58 results but a search for 2013 yields 271 results. This is a phrase that is moderately prevalent in the field of innovative education.

In “Schools and Schooling in the Digital Age”,  Neil Selwyn says ‘there is clearly a need for further academic writing and research that focuses on the present realities rather than future possibilities of technology based education’ (page 103).  I argue that the phrase, the ’21st century learner’ is no longer about what students will be like in an imagined future but about the way that students are being identified now.

And so it is ways of positioning and representing students as ’21st century learners’ that  is one of the underlying reasons for my project.

Selwyn, Neil. 2011. Schools and Schooling in the Digital Age. Routledge, New York.

The past and the future

Whenever I start to write about the way that technology is being used in my class I always end up writing about change. For example I want to write about the way that students use laptops to write but I can only seem to frame this in terms of how it is different from the time when students wrote in their exercise books. I get caught up in how it is different from the past – easier to edit and to write more….. Easier to redraft and to spell check….

When I want to write about students using their phones to make films that they show to the class – e.g recently a parody of the film Bend It Like Beckham – then my writing turns to the ways that students in previous years made films using ‘old’ technology such as a camera. I remember spending hours getting the camera footage on to the computer for editing – finding the correct cables and finding where to put them in amongst the tangle at the rear of the desktop computer and then waiting for a really long time for the file to be copied. It seems to be simpler now to make those films in school. It also seems that the films are more complex than they used to be as students become more familiar with the medium.

I often find myself thinking about the past in relation to the way that schools are now. But then I read about the future of schools and often this is linked to future change – change in the future. I recently read Keri Facer’s book ‘Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change’. Something I really liked in this book was the way that Facer keeps coming back to the present because it is in the present that the future is being built. I wonder how the things that my students are doing now are part of that future?

Facer, K. 2011. Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change. Routledge, Oxon.

21st century learners

Someone asked me a tricky question the other day. He said something like, “so are you saying that what’s happening is that students need something different in order to participate in discourses of 21st century learning or do you mean that there’s a problem with discourses of 21st century learning?”

Well that made me think. If I point out that I mainly work with students who have been identified with ‘learning difficulties’ or   ‘disabilities’ then it might make sense that my first response was that teachers need to help students to participate in 21st century learning – and this might mean taking some time to show students how to evaluate and acknowledge sources, or to set goals for learning. Once upon a time my job as a Learning Support teacher might have been focused on spelling or timetables – now I am thinking more about the skills that students use to find good information on the web, to find what they need and to think about it and then acknowledge (reference) it. I am also thinking about the kind of assistance that might help students to participate in group work and have a role.

But the next day I wondered about the second part of his question. I wondered if there was a problem with discourses of 21st century learning. And this is what I wondered.

If, in order to participate,  students must take charge of their learning and direct their own learning towards their own goals, then what happens? If students use web based resources to find information then what happens? Who can participate in this way of being a student in the 21st century?

Challenge based learning

I have been observing the year 7 students at my school as they work on a challenge to find solutions to an issue involving water. So far I have noticed that several groups are thinking about ways to save lives in the event of a Tsunami. A couple of other groups are thinking about water shortages.

One of the tools we asked the students to use was a question matrix. This was something that I was first introduced to many years ago in a workshop with Michael Pohl. He also had some really cool dice with the question starters on them. The idea is for students to ask broader and deeper questions about their issue, their problem and also about their proposed solutions.

Not everyone liked using the matrix – if takes a bit of perseverance to fill in the whole thing – but it did make them think more deeply about some of the issues. Some students wanted to launch straight in to the solution and make stuff. I must admit I am a bit like that too. Maybe the making, creating and questioning can happen concurrently? I think this is actually what ended up happening.

Moving gently along

Its a new blog for me and just getting started. I guess everyone feels a bit like this – not sure where to start, having set up the page and thought about the title and the design. Then its time to actually write something – commit yourself to the page. Primarily this blog is about language and about technology. It is about my work as a teacher and my work as a researcher. Its about what I think about while I do my job and my research, and it may also be useful for those of you who are interested in language, technology and change.

I have called this blog ‘Budge’ because it is about moving gently along. Perhaps it is a response to words like ‘shift’, ‘upheaval’, ‘unprecedented change’, ‘revolution’ and even ‘innovation’ that seem to pervade education at the moment. Budge is a bit gentler, but its also about movement.

The thing about the name of a blog is that once its out there anyone can see it. And the other thing is that everyone who sees it will immediately make some assumptions about what it is about and, if they do not already know me, about who the writer is. Also perhaps I am not sure yet what this blog will always be about. I guess I will be able to answer that in some future time. So thats it – if you come across this post then its the beginning – on a cold Sunday evening with the sound of frogs outside.