BLC11 Big Take-Away? Problem-finding is the Next Big Thing

BLC11 Big Take-Away? Problem-finding is the Next Big Thing

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One of the threads to emerge out of a number of terrific presentations at November Learning’s Building Learning Communities 2011 conference in Boston was the idea that we are shifting to a new pedagogy.

We might describe the old model of teaching–let’s call it “education 1.0”–as a problem-solving pedagogy. In it, students are asked to solve hundreds of trivial problems in textbooks and worksheets. Page-tall columns of algebra equations come to mind immediately, but we find equally dull work in other subjects, too: book reports in language arts classes, listing provinces and their capitals in Social Studies classes, for example. I realize I’m being a bit hasty here. There is a good argument for drilling in order to build skills. There is also great value in just knowing things. However, it’s not hard to see that if this is all we do we are in danger of creating a classroom of highly skilled but not very imaginative or creative students. This is the lament of China’s education leaders.

Education 1.0 was replaced by a problem-based learning model–let’s call this education 2.0. Here, curricula and student work are driven by relatively complex problems meant to give purpose to the sort of drilling that went on in vacuo before. In order to solve a problem, students–it’s believed–will naturally search for and hone the skills they need to solve it. The critique heard at BLC 11, quite loudly from Ewan McIntosh, is that these problems are artificial. The answers are already known by the teachers or some other authority so the problem is not in fact a problem to be solved at all. More importantly, as Dr. Eric Mazur and Dr. Steven Wolfram pointed out in their keynotes, this sort of contrivance does little to prepare students to be the life-long learners schools universally claim they are creating. Again, I’m aware I’m taking some liberties. It is indeed well worth the effort to walk through some old problems just to see how others went about solving them, to study their methods, as we say. This is what Newton meant when he said he stood on the shoulders of giants. He did not mean, however, that the purpose of that study was to add another hammer in the problem-solving toolbox. He meant the purpose of that study was to find where old methods were insufficient for cracking open knew knowledge.

So here at BLC 11, the buzz is about giving education 2.0 another turn turn to create a problem-finding pedagogy. Let’s call this education 3.0. Here we want students to engage with problems to which even the teachers do not know the answers, to engage with the “unknown unknowns” as Ewan McIntosh says.


It’s there in the terra icognita of knowledge that learning gets exciting. Discoveries in this area have genuine value not just to the student, but to everyone. I’ve heard many teachers express chagrin at the way students toss out their notebooks at year-end. But if those notes aren’t much more than a record of drills–the equivalent of a record of the pushups one has done all year–I can hardly fault the students. Indeed, I think we have a serious moral problem if we are compelling students to attend classes and don’t help them produce something of intrinsic worth.

Something else exciting happens when we pass the edge of the knowns, too, I think. Students are encouraged to work at a very high level of thinking when they are asked to analyze a collection of data, judge it’s worth, synthesize it and draw out a question for further study. (I wonder if structure of education itself inhibits, even excludes, higher-order thinking. That would make the efforts of teachers to encourage students to think more deeply and richly largely misplaced. If we want to change behaviour, we have to make sure the environment supports the new behaviour. It’s a study I’d like to pursue.)

Wolfram created his fabulous apps to relieve the students of the burden of trivial calculations so that they can apply there mental energy to finding the new problem in set of data. Marco Torres looks at apps like Thumbjam and Hex OSC Full  the same way, as tools that let the non-piano player get on with making a soundtrack for a video, for example. (Hans Rosling, not at the conference, created his Gapminder software for the same reason.) I am proposing a model workflow for a problem-finding school that could employ these tools and get on with finding new problems:

This is a sketch. I need to spend some time thinking about what this looks like in practice, especially across all the grades. But I’m suggesting that as the students consider the questions in the diamonds, they must do some hard thinking. They would also have to think carefully–critically–about where to get help. I can see links to building social networks and teaching social search here.

I am especially interested in the final question–“is it worth keeping?” That question, essentially, replaces the final exam. (There’s probably another loop in here that asks if we ran another iteration of the problem would we find a better answer.)

Students also have to consider how they will store that data for later use. I favour a bucket to hold huge piles of unstructured data that users can can reorder as they need, hence my note to tag rather than file. It seems the semantic web, which would be ideal here, is still a ways off, but there are ways to set up unstructured data collections even primary students could use. We had a custom-built prototype bucket at my previous school and I am pretty sure one can build a good workarounds using a combination of off-the-shelf tools. (More on that later.)

I’ll spend the next few weeks of summer tinkering with this plan and have it ready to run with my students when school starts in the fall. In the meantime, I’d appreciate any thoughts.

 Cross-posted in my own blog, A Stick in the Sand.


Rethinking Science Education – An Interview with Bob Goodman

Rethinking Science Education – An Interview with Bob Goodman

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In this conversation, Alan November and Bob Goodman, Director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, discuss the inspiring work he is leading in the redesign of science curriculum. Through a logical reorganization of content, a rethinking of what good homework looks like and a robust teacher development program that has been initiated, students are graduating high school with an understanding of science at a depth that is truly remarkable.

The curriculum being used in this endeavor is free and open to use by anyone. It can be found at

Also, Bob will be a presenter at the 2011 Building Learning Communities Conference being held this July in Boston. For more information, and to register, visit our conference Web site at

Fostering Change Through Leadership – An Interview with Dr. Eric Williams

Fostering Change Through Leadership – An Interview with Dr. Eric Williams

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In this episode of the November Learning Podcast Series, Alan speaks with Dr. Eric Williams, Superintendent of the Yorktown School Division in Yorktown, VA. The two discuss the important role of a leader in setting policy, modeling the learning process and encouraging expanded learning opportunities for students, teachers and school administrators for the purpose of building a solid foundation for learning in a 21st century school environment.

Dr. Williams encourages your questions and comments through his Twitter account and his blog.

Also, Dr. Wiliams will be a presenter at the 2011 Building Learning Communities Conference being held this July in Boston. For more information, and to register, visit our conference Web site at

Digital writing teachers explore

Digital writing teachers explore

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In late June, YWP paired with some teachers from the Green Mountains Writing Project (the VT chapter of the National Writing Project) to lead an intensive week-long course on Digital Writing to a dozen teachers. It was exhausting, fascinating and — the good news — we were able to try out a couple of things we plan to do with participants of my pre-conference workshop next Monday afternoon at the BLC2011.

What was most startling to me was the degree to which teachers demanded — and got — extra time to go deeper into their interactive projects. We focused all the daily quick writes, reflections and activities around a theme of discovery and had the teachers do things that, sometimes, allowed them to go deeper with earlier writing. I’m not sure we had fully intended the outcomes, but it was truly inspiring to see that adults can learn in many of the same ways as children.

We had the teachers do some quick writes based on words or images or a series of images or sounds. We had them reflect on one point in our discussions that stood out. We had them create fiction and poetry and essays. We had them do a Five-Card Flickr exercise and then had them respond to five related photos we chose and then collaborate on creating a best story out of it. We had them bring in a picture of an elder and write a story about them and then podcast it and then add a music track to their podcast.

They loved that one. And they did it in stages, first the short piece which they revised on the basis of comments and their own desire to improve and tweak. They then recorded themselves narrating the piece. They revised some more and re-recorded. They then added a music track.

One teacher did a piece about her husband’s mother who had died when she was 23 and he was only five months old. The teacher was fastidious and abosorbed, making sure her recorded voice sounded strong, making sure the wording was just so, making sure the music did not drown out her narration. Her piece was powerful and heartfelt; you had a sense of the woman. What was most amazing, though, was the teacher’s desire to do the woman honor. She was nervous about how her father-in-law would react, specifically, would he be annoyed and tell her, “You never knew her.” and grumble away. I have not yet heard back from the teacher, but I imagine a much different picture, her father in law tearing up, being moved by a daughter-in-law who would go to such lengths.

Another teacher wrote about a rock, yes, a rock. But not any type of rock; one that was shaped like a frog which has, all her life, watched over her favorite swimming hole in a lake in Ontario where she goes every summer. “All four seasons Frog Rock sits patiently.  Watching.  Waiting for his little children to arrive.” It is no wonder that she’s so appreciated by her students.

And another wrote about someone she had met in college who died early, unexpectedly but who had always wanted to fly, “to get his wings.” As the teacher writer put it, “Emory had dreams and aspirations as we all do. He earned his wings on June 17th, 2003, but they were not the wings that he, I, or anyone else expected.”

What was so moving about this class was how the teachers leaped at the opportunity to create, to be students, to be like their yearlong charges. It was great to see what they produced, the risks they took and, in the process, the community they created. I so wish there was more time in the year for teachers to do this sort of thing. The teachers have continued to connect online, to read each other’s posts, to comment.

We are seeing the same behavior on a number of the school sites where the kids, simply, can’t stop writing, can’t stop connecting and are posting work their during summer vacation. I visited a summer writing camp at one of the schools last week. The kids were busy with writing when I walked in and, when they were done, we all moved into the computer lab where they did a free write to a piece of music that a friend of mine wrote. Then we talked. I was reminded by the snippet of sound I have included here, some of their reactions, earlier in the year, when asked what they thought of their digital writing classroom, how the writing — not the judging — is the important part.


The teachers in our course felt the same way — how the opportunity just to write and to learn and to explore without being judged, fostered engagement and growth. These teachers, like the students we work with, took creative risks in a supportive digital community. They helped each other take those risks. And they were deeply rewarded. So was I.

I’m looking forward to BLC2011. Hope I meet you.

Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont that works with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in an effort to improve students’ writing skills and digital literacy. He will be presenting at both the pre-conference and main conference at BLC2011. To see the project’s work, visit or He can be reached at ggevalt (at) or 802-324-9537


Creating Sustainable Change – An Interview with Jennifer Beine and Andrew Zuckerman

Creating Sustainable Change – An Interview with Jennifer Beine and Andrew Zuckerman

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Welcome back for another episode of the November Learning Podcast Series. In this episode, Alan November, Jennifer Beine and Andrew Zuckerman discuss the long-term collaboration taking place between November Learning and Lawrence Middle School as the two build capacity leading to sustainable change amongst the school’s administration, faculty and students.

Jennifer and Andrew will be presenting a session at this summer’s Building Learning Communities Conference titled Creating Sustainable Change. This session will dig deeper into the ideas discussed in this podcast. To learn more about this session and about BLC, visit


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