Authentic Work is Hard

Picture of Workshop

Authentic work is hard and requires those engaged in the problem solving process to be uncomfortable and to question what they know and how they structure their knowledge. It’s collaborative. It’s engaging in problems that are difficult to answer, but require answering. 

Over the last two days I’ve witnessed a large group of faculty members engage in a practical problem solving exercise where they created, discussed, critiqued, and challenged each other in ways that led to deeper learning as they worked towards solving the problem. While they didn’t solve the problem, they were engaged in truly authentic work that has moved them along the path towards finding their answer. Why aren’t we engaging in these types of learning activities either as educators or with our students more? 


PBL, TPACK, and the Doctoral Class

Yesterday I “presented” on Shulman’s Pedagogical Content Knowledge, or PCK (1986), and Mishra and Koehler’s Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge, or TPACK (2006), in my doctoral class.  Every student in the course picks a scholar and does a 75 minute presentation on that scholar’s work.  My scholar was Lee Shulman and my focus was on PCK, which by proxy allows me to focus on TPACK which is where my interests really lie.  Many of the presentations thus far have been very teacher-centric where one of my peers does a nice PowerPoint on their scholar and we ask them questions.  However, that is the opposite of what I believe good teaching should be so I went with a different approach.  I opted for project based learning, or PBL.

It’s important for me that everyone is engaged during a lesson, which is what I view these presentations.  We are teaching each other about our scholar.  So doing a PowerPoint just wasn’t in the cards for my presentation.  I had the license to do whatever I wanted so I went down the PBL route.  I used the Buck Institute’s Project Planning Form to complete the lesson plan for my presentation and here’s what I’ve learned after going through this for the first time in a higher education setting.

First, preparation is no less important given the higher education setting.  One thing I know I could have done better was to prepare more for my lesson.  I had my peers creating a professional development plan for schools that I work with to improve the quality of their teaching with technology.  PCK and TPACK were to serve as the foundation of the PD plan.  Beyond that, I gave them free license to do whatever they wanted.  This is where my mistake was.  I should have provided them with key areas they needed to address or the basic structure of a PD plan.  I’m working with both full time educators and full time grad students who aren’t necessarily focusing on K12 education.  Initially, there was confusion of what they needed to do and how they should do it.

Autonomy is a good thing, if you have the time to do it.  I forgot this concept and it ate up a lot of the time I had planned for my peers to work on their project.  However, what I did learn is that giving students autonomy does require them to think and engage.  There were times last night when it was so quiet that it hurt.  I resisted talking to the point that I was beginning to worry my performance was suffering and then self preservation kicked in.  But once they got brainstorming ideas and getting the main components of the framework out on the table, there was a clear enough path to start moving forward.

I also learned that when doc students are asked to do group work, you might have to walk around the room and pick their jaws up from the floor!  I had a feeling that they wouldn’t be prepared to do something this intense, but I wanted to push them to think differently about what constitutes effective teaching.  Too often we are stuck listening to the professor for three hours, and only occasionally do we as the individual get the chance to talk.  I think to an extent that is the case in both of the courses I’m in right now, but the great part is that if we want to say something, we simply speak up.  While I like this about my classes, and to an extent I’m glad they are that way, I am usually left craving more interaction with my peers.  What does the superintendent in my class think about this, or what about the non-K12 educators in the room?  I want to hear their perspectives and how they see what we are learning about in their contexts.

But I also learned that as doc students, we rise to the occasion!  I was happy with how well the conversations played out in my presentation.  I wish I could have been a larger player in those conversations, but I recognize that isn’t my role when I’m the teacher.  Every group was having rich discussion and I tried to guide them best I could to where I wanted to end up.  I’m not sure if I got there last night, at least maybe not completely, but I think I made great strides as an instructor in letting my “students” take control of their own learning.  Then at the end of the class when we came together to discuss their ideas, I was able to add my own two cents.

Finally, I learned that PBL is a great way to have your students help you tackle a problem.  My problem is bad teaching with technology.  Last night I was able to use the collective knowledge of everyone in the room to create the beginning of a PD plan that I can use.  At a more practical level, they essentially gave me the outline for writing my final paper for the course, which will likely take another spin as I look to publishing in the future.  This is the beauty of PBL.  It’s authentic.  That one simple feature is what makes the difference.  There is something tangible that is achieved through PBL.  My example is at the highest level of education, but that doesn’t mean PBL doesn’t work at the lower ends as well.  It all depends on your context.

I’ll close with one final reflection.  As I was walking out of the building, I was thinking to myself, that probably could have gone better.  I wasn’t sure if I really accomplished what I wanted to, but then as I was making my way to my car, one of my classmates stopped me and said that he really enjoyed what we did tonight.  His school will be providing every student an iPad next year and figuring out how they are going to handle the presence of this new technology in the classroom is something they’ve been struggling with.  He said that creating a PD plan was precisely the kind of thing that his school needed to do to really get a handle on the issues of TPACK that will be facing them in the coming years.  This left me feeling a sense of vindication.  It gave me a new outlook on my performance, and even though there were things I would certainly change for next time, I believe I was still effective.  I failed, but it is through that failure that I succeed.  This is why being a reflective educator is so important.  We need to think about the actions we’ve taken and be critical or ourselves.  Sometimes this will be painful, but that’s a good thing, because then we can improve.