A couple of weeks ago, I took a long train trip. I suppose that "long" is a rather subjective term. So, let me say it this way. I spent three days traveling from my home in Washington to the town in Texas where I grew up---nearly door-to-door service. While most people I tell this story to cringe in horror---Trapped on a Train! Waste of Time!---for me, it was delightful. It was the first full week I've had off in a year, and having someone else "drive," cook, clean, and treat me to wine tastings for three days was a little bit of heaven (and not nearly long enough). It was also an opportunity to be anonymous for a bit. In fact, I think that is one of the most appealing things about taking the train...not just for me, but for a lot of people I met along the way. Everyone talked about themselves in terms of where they were going---not where they'd been. They didn't define themselves by a job. Conversations felt a little different. Interestingly enough, many of the conversations on that trip turned to Technology. I didn't bring up the topic, but there seemed to be a pervasive belief that Technology Was Very Important. If you're a regular reader here, then you know that I struggle a lot with whether or not that statement is true.
Technology has a bit of a starring role in Chapter 4 of The Purposeful Classroom by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. And as I read, I couldn't help but think of the various conversations I'd had on the train.Technology is such a mushy word (Are we talking hardware or software? Does it have to be digital or will any sort of tool do?), but within the context of the book, definition is not as important as the role it can take with establishing relevance for students and purpose in the classroom. Fisher and Frey describe the roles technology can play as students find, use, and produce information. (Unfortunately, the book went to press before Google's Wonder Wheel went defunct last summer.) To me, this is technology in its proper place---something I meant to blog about after my post on being App-rehensive about the infusion of tablets into classrooms. I see way too much confusion out in the edusphere about "student-directed" vs. "student-centered" learning. And what I like about The Purposeful Classroom is that it provides a firm, but even, hand to bridge these two ideas, even though it never uses these terms.
In Chapter 4: Ensuring the Purpose is Relevant, there is a good discussion at the beginning about relevance---a term does not refer to just one thing. Relevance can take the form of curriculum (which is where we most often try to pigeonhole it), but it can also be found in the connections we make for students (to the "real world," to other learning, to their own lives), as well as the products we ask them to develop. Relevance is an amalgam. And for me, this is an important point to carry forward. Technology is a way to make purpose relevant for students, but it is not the only way. I wonder now about the conversations I might have had on the train. They obviously thought technology was important...relevant...but were seeing it as more of a goal than an entry point.
If relevance represents the push of student-centered learning, then Chapter 5: Inviting Students to Own the Purpose responds with the pull of student-directed. I have to say that this was my favourite chapter. It's the shortest one in the book, but it packs the most punch in terms of implications for the classroom. There is a brief overview of motivation (goal theory is missing...sigh), followed by a look at helping students identify purpose statements. This is something that I would like to explore further upon returning to the classroom, because I didn't take this concept far enough with students. At the end of a grading period, each student and I would look at their performance and I would ask them three questions: What are the strengths? What needs improvement? What should the grade be? Looking back, I should have built out the second question. We did talk about what students could do---how to focus on improving, but I should have had them do some goalsetting...something we could both refer to in the coming weeks.
The final chapters (6: Identifying Outcomes Related to Purpose, 7: Knowing When a Learning Target Has Been Met) describe specific instructional, assessment, and evaluation strategies. A lot of what is included here is just part of good teaching: cooperative learning, peer-assessment, feedback, rubrics, various assessment formats. There might be nothing new here for a good teacher, but all of the ideas are good reminders about how the pieces should fit together.
If you have the opportunity to read The Purposeful Classroom, I am sure that you will have your own "a-ha's" along the way. Whether you are new to the profession and are looking for some extra support---or an old hat (like me) who needs a booster shot about working with students to set classroom goals---there is something in there for you.
I'll be attending a keynote address by Doug Fisher next Friday and then spending a few minutes talking with him about the ideas in the book. If you have questions or comments to share, I'd be happy to pass them along. Many thanks to ASCD for a copy of The Purposeful Classroom. This has been a great opportunity for me to learn and reflect on my classroom practice.