Thursday, November 21, 2013

The collaborative curriculum

I couldn’t resist telling the Designing Change class students one day that they were taking a class without a curriculum.  If the class wasn’t pass/fail, of course, we wouldn’t have quite this level of comfort.  Yet the design process incorporates skills of collaboration, research, writing and presentation that fit 21st century skills descriptors better than most. 

When we planned a class using the design thinking model for 9th and 10th graders, I pictured several 9th grade boys in particular who struggled with the expectations of sitting around tables talking about literature.  In the English classroom, I always balance discussion with action such as group work, board work, or interpretive work, but the thinking about texts in discussion, later reflected in writing remains at that heart of most English classes.  Even if we move toward production, the act of reading and interpreting will remain central.  For a particular group of 9th graders, this will always be challenging. 

So, when we imagined and then created this class that starts with collaborative activities and then moves into interviews, brainstorming and then physical prototyping, I imagined these kids would become the stars.  And at first they were.  Our first activity, the straw and paperclip bridge, got everyone working with their hands and each other to solve a problem.   And while the enthusiasm for this first problem in this novel class was electric, I noted that the students who took the lead in the discussions and in the presentations, were generally the same students who would have done so in regular class projects.  Perhaps, I thought, habits matter more than skills here and different students would surface as we moved into projects.  And when we moved into our first design problem- a physical problem in the school- some different students took the lead, particularly when computer aided design skills were required to use the Sketchup software.  Yet once that phase was done and the prototypes needed testing or iteration, these students drifted to the margins.  And I mean that quite literally.  It seemed that students who liked working with objects or technology have very different skill sets than those who work with ideas or people, and when the tasks became social, these students check out.  In my circuits around the class, I coached some students to face the group, to move closer, to stop drawing or engaging in other distracted/ing activities.  In our debrief, the division between those who preferred working with people those who preferred technology or objects stood out.  Since then, and despite coaching, the challenge remains.   

Much of the design thinking process is collaborative or social.  Students who struggle interacting with others struggle here.  And what stands out most to me, is that these are the same skill sets that make students successful in ‘normal’ school projects.  So while I imagined the design space being one that privileges non-traditional learners, I’ve been reminded that much of traditional learning and design thinking require social skills. 

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