When at first you don’t succeed….

Our biology/English course recently dived headlong into the world of dichotomous keys. It’s a relatively simple concept to master, but the idea behind the use of dichotomous keys is lost on students. Students view the simple choice between A and B as normal practice in many classes. But the difference is that in those classes they are often told exactly how to define A and B.  A popular video “I Choose C” makes the rounds at teacher’s in-services to demonstrate how the educational system takes the creativity from a student and gives them a tool to solve a task in the classroom–choose C. Not very helpful for the young lady in the video who is being asked to do a task for which she hasn’t been specifically trained. A dichotomous key–on the surface–seems like the same concept. Students must identify one or the other characteristic and move on in order to identify any particular organism.

When our students first begin applying the use of a dichotomous key we begin small–with beans. Even if they don’t quite understand the use, most students can identify a black bean if necessary. When they had to apply a dichotomous key to conifers the task grew more challenging. What we are always amazed by is that the students are often more challenged with having to make a decision from their own knowledge and trust their decision going forward. How does one identify “leathery” in a two dimensional sketch of a conifer branch? The fear of being incorrect in the decision makes some students panic. We always tell our students that they need to make a logical, well-thought out decision and go forward trusting that they have applied the basic tenets they have learned, experienced, and tested. Then trust that their application will lead them to the correct solution. And sometimes, we warn them, they will be wrong. And when they are wrong to evaluate the solution and process and go forward–try something different.

We need our students to graduate with knowledge, but we need more students who are capable of applying knowledge with the understanding that getting the correct solution the first time is a rare occurrence. When at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

What does a typical class look like?

Teachers often inquire what a typical class looks like in a TPBL or hybrid classroom.  Experienced teachers may use the term chaos. Multiple days in the past five years, that word has been used by the teachers involved as well. I have grown to love students who are active and moving. In a typical classroom, it is not unusual to see students moving from group to group in a collaborative effort to improve everyone’s work. It is not unusual that an entire classroom is being utilized–not just the desks and white board. It is not unusual to have students use technology to extend the learning outside the walls of the room–or simply asking permission to ask another teacher down the hall. It is normal to have students talking and testing concepts and sharing out information to everyone in the classroom. It is normal to have students sharing problems with someone else and asking “what do I do?” It is normal that plans may change for that day based on what the students understand or discover. It is normal for multiple assessments to be done on any given day to identify where the class needs to go. It is normal for students to find a single problem that leads into multiple problems to solve.

So when someone asks how do I stand the chaos? I simply smile and ask them to ask my students that same question. I know the answer they will get.

Listening to a World Champion taxidermist explain the design cycle

Armour’s AHS bio/English course along with our math counterpart visited A Tail for Tales Taxidermist to gain a greater understanding of the design cycle along with a lesson on how content areas can not be contained within a single classroom. Thank you Larry Wold—you are the best.

Giving students a problem they didn’t know they had…

Students in a problem based classroom are often presented with a conundrum they didn’t know they had until a question is asked. Although Armour, SD is a rural, agrarian area many students weren’t aware that GMOs affected their individual lives as much as they do. Many of our students had knowledge of the infiltration of GMOs in the daily food supply and the affect on the family farm, but many were simply not informed about either side of the debate.

So, why GMOs? It’s relevant to their lives today. It’s a concern in the media and markets across the world. In science it allows students to examine the natural plant, the genetic structure, the manipulation of the DNA, the workings of a plant, among other things. In math, they can focus on the financial side of our food supply, cost of raising genetically modified crops, how many more bushels can be obtained at what cost, etc. And in English they have to analyze research and biased sources as well as the debate we held in class. History plays a part with that ever present question: What will happen if and what happened before: the law of unintended consequences.

Nothing makes a teacher’s heart swell than when a student says: “I never thought about that before.” It’s a phrase that shows a student’s critical thinking and application to their own lives.

The town hall debate and all classes can be viewed on YouTube by searching for South Dakota Innovation Lab. The GMO link demonstrates what our students can do without direct instruction and some guidance by the side.


PD in Sioux Falls is Huge Success!

TPBL In Action

Last week Mari Biehl and Jeff Schneider from South Dakota Innovation Lab and Dr. Annalies Corbin from PAST Innovation Lab were joined by Dr. Jill Weimer and Elizabeth McMillan from Sanford Research to conduct a professional development course for high school teachers. The largest school district in South Dakota, Sioux Falls, faces issues that many other districts face: standardizing core content in the sciences – biology, physical science or chemistry – to ensure success for all students.  Forty four teachers from Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington High Schools experienced first-hand how PAST can help teachers integrate learning with Transdisciplinary Problem-Based Learning (TPBL).

Our PD doesn’t really look like most PD. As you can see in the photos, we believe in experiential learning, brainstorming and interaction. No lectures but lots of learning. Teachers were asked to select 3 of the 4 sessions presented: Life of a River, Cerebral Matters, The Truth About Sports Drinks and Digging Deep–Garden Science. Each session had the appearance of being specific to one area of science, but actually had a different focus to show that a TPBL approach is a great way to teach, and a great way to learn.

PAST PD Is The Best

While we can tell you that the PD was a huge success, we’d rather have you hear from one of the participants!

“I’ve been a high school biology teacher for 20 years, and this is the best PD ever.”  Thanks Michele J. for the kind remarks!