With Change Comes Frustration… and Learning

With the desire to encourage students to develop creativity and collaborative skills, a 4th grade team of teachers was willing to scrap a traditional project that had been implemented for years, relinquish control, and provide students with some autonomy over the demonstration of their knowledge.

For about 10 years, culminating a unit on electricity, approximately 160 students showcased their knowledge through the creation of an electrical quiz board. With this particular project, there were limited opportunities for creativity and problem solving to be explored. Because technically, the quiz board was limited to 2 formats of completion.

The approach to the final project needed to be shifted. Students were given the prompt to work with group members to address, “a problem in their lives that could be solved applying their knowledge of electricity.” The final products would be presented at an “Electrical Engineering Fair.” With a more open ended task at hand, students had the opportunity for multiple problems and solutions to be addressed- which increased student agency as it provided autonomy over their task, technique, and team- 3 of the 4 “Ts” Daniel Pink refers to in his book, Drive, which examines motivation.

To encourage creativity, students explored different Maker Kits and alternative forms of electricity that allowed them to address their problems from an unconventional perspective.

A FaceTime call with David Patrick, an engineer and green home designer in New York, also allowed students to witness adults as life long learners who address their problems with solutions- as well as the process of developing prototypes and having to learn and adapt to unforeseen obstacles along the way.

The project was a roller coaster of emotions and learning for students. Initially, there was quite a bit of hype over the amount of ownership they had for demonstrating their learning. However, as the building phase began and students ran into hitches and stumbling blocks with their plans, emotions changed. Frustration levels escalated for both students and teachers- as failure was a territory that was rarely experienced and did not play a role in their culture of learning. Students were challenged with the need for adapting their blueprints or starting over completely from scratch. Teachers were confronted with the hurdle of not simply providing answers for students, but responding to students with questions to push and stretch their thinking, while boosting tenacity. On top of experiencing these frustrations, it was an additional challenge for students and teachers to move forward through the process, and reflect on the amount of skill development and learning that was ongoing simultaneously. However, as both stakeholders proceeded, perseverance and creativity around problem solving were exhibited and cultivated. By the time the Electrical Engineering Fair arrived, emotions and excitement returned to where they were at the introduction of the project. What was most exciting to witness was the authentic enthusiasm students had over their own learning, and how devoted they were to completing their product, as they had a personal investment in solving a problem they themselves had identified. Teachers walked away with a wealth of learning as well, upon reflecting on questioning techniques and being a partner in their students learning versus a leader.

While change can be a difficult experience to manage and frustrations have the potential of running high, great learning is there to uncover when willing to reflect and find it.

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