No Brainer: What we can learn from teachers who create in their classrooms

This past week, I traveled to the Upper Grand School Board in Ontario to provide feedback and guidance on the development of their curricular units. One of the most powerful moments happened on the fifth day with the Vocational Technology Education teachers. Now, I want to give a disclaimer right up front — I met my husband, a Culinary Arts teacher, at my high school, and I am a passionate advocate for teachers who not only keep students from dropping out of school, but also teaching them much of the core content areas through application in their particular domains.

The goal was to write essential questions to focus critical thinking, problem solving and deliberate practice in their specialized classrooms. As we were developing these questions, we discussed what teaching and learning looked like in their environments. The auto repair instructor nonchalantly stated, “My curriculum is really shaped by the vehicles we service. I teach based on the problems we have to solve. You never know what you are looking at until you put the vehicle on the lift.”

I was stunned by the magnitude of what he was saying and the casual way that he said it. “So, based on the problems you see in your shop, you design the lessons so that a novice can see the tools and techniques for a repair and a more sophisticated mechanic can do the work with feedback and guidance from you?”

“That’s right. But don’t all teachers do that?”

He looked around at his colleagues… the Culinary instructors, the Carpentry instructors, etc.… and they shrugged their shoulders to indicate that it was a “no-brainer.” Of course they design backwards from authentic and immediate applications of the soft and hard skills that govern their vocations. This is what normal looked like in their teaching world.

• Give an unpredictable problem or complex task.

• Assess the situation to design the best course of action.

• Work as individuals or as a team to implement.

• Get feedback from peers and instructors to ensure high degree of quality control.

• Evaluate results.

• Do it again.

The simplicity and sophistication of this learning structure is profound. An authentic inquiry, problem or challenge inspires intrinsic motivation in the students so they can withstand the deliberate practice, the setbacks, and the ability to grow from feedback.

How might this translate into all content areas? Consider the following prompts.

• What do experts do in the discipline? What tasks, problems, challenges and questions do they solve? (This will focus on the short-term and long-term transferability in the discipline.)

• Given such tasks, problems, challenges, and/or questions, can you preview them at the beginning of the unit or course? Can you revisit them throughout to provide focus for the student? (This will provide a reason to acquire the knowledge and skill.)

• Can you build in consistent moments for feedback? (This will create a collaborative learning environment as students should work together with their peers as well as the teacher to complete the task.)

• Can you review the results when the task is completed? (This will evaluate individual or group performance so that students can set challenging, yet worthy goals for the next time.)

Here are examples of the essential questions the teachers came up with that day. Many of these questions are applicable in a range of content areas.
• How precise do I need to be based on the product (and the specs)?

• Which measurement tool (scale) is most appropriate for a given task? How do I use it properly to produce a quality product?

• How do I use what I already know to make sense of this current situation?

• How do you adapt techniques if the most appropriate equipment/ingredients/resources aren’t available?

• How do I increase efficiency without sacrificing quality?

• How do I choose the right material/tool for a task to keep the customer/client happy?

• What are the sounds/smells/sights/texture that I sense that indicate there is a problem?

• What professional language (terms, abbreviations, and symbols) is common in the work environment? How can I remember?

• What things do I do to show my professionalism? Where do I need to improve?

• How do I learn most effectively?

• Is this good enough? Is it done to a high standard? (different standards in each industry; getting it done right vs. meeting your own high expectations) Could it/How can it be made better?

• How do I know the customer /client/instructor is satisfied with both product and professionalism?

What essential questions can you liberate or tweak to make them applicable to your content area or your school? What tasks or problems inspire your students? Would love to hear your ideas.

For more information and ideas, check out my latest book: Breaking Free from Myths about Teaching and Learning (2010)