Masters of Teaching Mind Dump #25: Thematic Learning and Design Thinking

in Educationlast year


You can find previous Brain Dumps here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21. Part 22, Part 23, Part 24

This trimester, I'm only doing a single unit: STEM teaching in the Middle Years. Initially, the unit was focussed on how the transition years for students between the primary and secondary schooling was a bit of a time of chaos and change. Students are facing puberty, a changing perception of their self and identity in society and among peers, moving to a new school, and being exposed to new learning styles and losing the single teacher contact point. It wasn't something that I had really thought about before this course, but in hindsight, these are all factors that really heavily influence the effectiveness of teaching.. which has been shown to plummet in effectiveness during these years, likely due to the lack of care for the non-core pastoral care of students.

Anyway... now, it is assignment time (two days left...). In this assignment, we are learning and talking about Thematic Learning and Design Thinking, and how these ideas and concepts apply to STEM teaching... with a focus on these transitionary middle years.

Thematic Learning is a pretty cool concept... one that seems obvious, but one that hasn't really been implemented due to the way that schools have been set up. So, generally... teachers teach within their subjects and disciplines, and normally the schooling is set up to meet the curriculum outcomes that have been set up to "quantify" student progress and "justify" funding. It is pretty shit... but that is what you get when you have lots of interested parties who are more concerned with things other than learning and subjecting teachers to weird artificial constraints.

It results in siloed subjects, outcomes being the primary goal of teaching in order to meet exam demands, and highly artificial applications of the outcomes. All in all, it makes for a boring course... and bored and disengaged students that will endlessly ask.. "why are we learning this?".

Thematic Learning (implemented as Project Based Learning) puts a "challenge" or "problem" at the core of a lesson sequence. It isn't a learning outcome, but a real problem or challenge to solve. The learning outcomes are accidental by-products of finding ways to solve the problem... so, like much of the Constructivist school of thought, learning is accidental rather than prescribed. The cool thing about the Thematic idea is that it really mimics how we work as humans... in that we learn the skills to solve a problem... rather than look for problem that we can solve after learning some skills!

It also means that solutions and skills and learning will tend to cross across many subject disciplines... just like real life! This was a real eye-opener for me... it seems so obvious after you hear and read about it... but somehow, it doesn't seem to be the way that we have geared most of our education! Well... in trade-based education (like music!) it is more like this, but not so much in academic education.

The second part of the assignment focus is the idea of Design thinking... and again, it is an idea that seems so normal as to be blindingly obvious, but for some reason, we don't tend to do it! In the end, it is a combination of specialist knowledge, teamwork and most importantly constant feedback/iteration. Of course, there are a few other things... but those are the critical ones.

You can read more about a simple exercise called the Marshmallow Challenge. In this challenge, you just need to build the tallest structure possible that is topped by a marshmallow. Groups that tend to do well are engineers/architects (phew... specialist knowledge) and young kids (ability to iterate and just TRY solutions). Groups that tend to do badly are Business Grads (trained to find a single RIGHT solution and act on it) and CEOs (the desire to be CEO of Marshmallow Inc.).. and thankfully, we pay them the most, so our societal priorities are spot on! /snark

Anyway, the key to Design Thinking is identifying the problem and just brainstorming solutions, testing, iterating and improving. This is just like the way that I learn things on violin anyway... but I know that there are many people who will prefer to learn the "best" way to master a passagework... but that seems so tight and scary to me! Little kids also tend to start with the marshmallow first... and build around that, whilst adults tack the marshmallow on afterwards as an afterthought... and the whole thing comes crashing down! It is a really interesting view into how the mind works!

Anyway integrating these ideas into a Project based learning sequence means that students are seeking solutions to investigate and explore that will solve their particular problem... and hopefully knocking over some of those pesky learning outcomes on the way to getting there! Increased student input leads to better engagement and better efficiency of learning... win win! If only the stupid funding bodies and parents could just let teachers just teach...

Anyway, these two ideas are great... and they really should be the way that things are taught in combination with the theoretical knowledge. However, there are always the strait-jackets of the education system that we have evolved over time that have prioritised interesting things... and given that society already best rewards the people who best claim credit (instead of the actually makers of that credit...), I'm not sure that it is something that will ever be easily implemented in full... that said, like one of our past lecturers said... you can only change the system from within... survive, don't change, hold the ideals and then white-ant the system when you reach positions of power! The trick is not to get corrupted...

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