Watching Children Learn
One of the most meaningful things that I get to do as a teacher is to watch my students learn. What makes it most exciting and interesting for me is observing this learning through their eyes and their contexts. I have several Flip Cameras located in the classroom long with my Point and Shoot camera and the students will ask me “where is the camera?” “can we use the camera?” “we just did something really cool, can we record it?”
The first big project this fall in the STEAM Lab was the construction of Rube Goldberg machines. Students were grouped in teams of 5, not the optimum size perhaps, but based upon 6 tables and 30 students per class and 11 classes in total. You can imagine the amount of activity and experiences happening during any one moment of the 50 minute class period. Often too much for a single person to be able to observe, comment on, and monitor, as well as explain, assist, find materials for, and prompt groups when they get “stuck”. Having cameras that could be picked up and used by students at any point in the class gave me a window into the student’s work that I might otherwise have missed.
Each project my students participate in has a documentation component. The cameras provide a seamless way for students to document and think about what they are doing. Getting students to document their learning and their exploration of materials, concepts, and ideas can be a difficult task. Using design journals or handouts to encourage students to write and plan is one way to go about it. Planning is an important part of the process, but students (and many times adults) are often impatient and want to just start the project without spending too much time on the “thinking about it first” portion which can take on the characteristics of school that many students have a difficult time with. The sitting still, blank sheet of paper and pencil on the desk, outline of requirements on the board, mind racing with the typical things that occupy a middle school student’s mind, these are all in conflict with each other.
There has to be a space where the planning, thinking, design, making, experimenting, testing, reflection, iteration can exist in harmony and equal passion. The other important detail that must be visible is a way for the teacher to be able to get a glimpse of the thinking and ideas that each student is swirling around in their head as they work through the project. Using video and photography has opened up this space and provided an additional format for students.
Looking through the photographs that the students make while documenting their work has allowed for a different insight into their thinking and their ideas. Working with 6th and 7th graders, the expectation when you give them a reflection or a worksheet, is that the teacher provides the questions, or the prompts, the check off list. The adult in the room has decided what is most worthy of discussion, what learning is to be addressed, what questions should be answered. When I look at the projects through the eyes of my students I discover what they think is important, what they are discovering, what is new and exciting for them. I also get to see the focus and concentration in their approach to the work that is often captured unexpectedly or in spite of the enthusiasm that is also displayed. The cameras are available at any time, and students understand the basic expectations, they are documenting their work, their process, their ideas. Pass the camera on to the next team when you are done, don’t worry about editing or viewing the photos until I get them uploaded on the Google+ photo album.
- Photographs of Rube Goldbergs by students (Google photo album)
- What can happen when the teacher is not looking! (Vimeo video)
Photographs can tell one part of the story, video can tell another. With the addition of a sound track or voiceover, the students can explain their work and speak about the process and what they have discovered. It offers insight into the project, and can also address some of the more formal learning targets that the teacher might have for the students and the project.
The documentation of student work can provide evidence of student learning and understanding. Looking at student work is a process that is worthy of exploration. There are several formal methods or protocols that can be used when looking at student work (see http://www.lasw.org/methods.html for more detail). My interest in having students explain and show their work comes from what I often perceive as a tension between the pre-defined expectations often outlined in the rubrics and “students will be able to…..” messages that are more often written for administrators then for the students.
Half-way into the first year of the STEAM Lab at my school, I am focused on the need to identify methods of measuring student understanding in ways that are embedded and natural to the hands-on, constructivist learning that takes place in the room. I am looking forward to working with several other STEAM and Maker teachers in the NYC education community over the next few months and seeing where our ideas might take us.