By: Andrew Larson, High School Facilitator
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
For the past several years, I have co-facilitated a course at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School along with a English/ Language Arts facilitator, Veronica Buckler. Note the word choice: facilitated, not taught. The two are not quite the same. Veronica has become a dear friend whose intellect and respect for sound Project-Based Learning practice I will value forever.
Early in our co-facilitation relationship, in the midst of a class discussion about an upcoming project deadline, she stopped and said, “Transparent facilitation moment,” after which we discussed in real time and in front of our students, some aspect of the project that we had not adequately hashed out. In the end, I do not remember if a decision was made there, on the spot (it may have been), or if we said publicly that we would need to discuss that further and get back to students with an answer later.
At face value, this interaction may not seem like a big deal; I think it was. What would have been the result if she (or I) had made a decision on behalf of the both of us that impacted student perception that we were not equal in our classroom roles? How would that have changed the culture of the room moving forward? Even worse, what if I was in a team situation where one thing was said in another room to students, and I did not find out that some project parameters or expectations, that involved me, were changed?
Transparency is a mindset. It is, for many, the most difficult adjustment to make as they transition from a traditional to a project- based setting. I believe that this is hard because people might fear that if they reveal some uncertainty about “the plan” or the direction they might be going, students will lose confidence in their ability to lead them forward. One of my favorite books, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, suggests that demonstrating vulnerability is also the ultimate demonstration of trust. This mindset plays out most directly with our interactions with students in basic ways that are contradictory to how we were trained as educators and how students have come to know their teachers. It must, though, be embraced. Some examples and reasons follow below.
“I don’t know.”
Project-Based Learning promotes divergent thinking because by default, students are asked to develop solutions to problems or challenges that do not have a clear solution. While it is true that as experts in the content we will know many of the key attributes of a solution, we might not know them all, and for that matter, we may not know the best way to arrive at solutions.
To be clear, there are plenty of factors that we are in charge of in the PBL process. Most notable are the content standards and the requirement that students can be demonstrably proficient in that content. Still, though, when we ask students to apply content to solve authentic, real- world problems, there are going to be ample opportunities for us to not know the correct answers to their questions.
At first, it is scary and humbling to admit that you do not know the answer. But being transparent with students demands that you embrace the new reality that information is so absurdly abundant and readily available that if you “wing it,” you can probably expect to have a fact-checker provide a correction in a matter of seconds. I am much more comfortable saying “I don’t know” than providing an answer that I am not 100% sure about and being corrected by a student with a laptop and good research skills. I believe that this attitude fosters the kind of culture where more learning happens together and is more of a give and take between students and instructors. While it is true that a very small fraction of students would prefer a teacher that knows all the answers, most, I think, prefer to know that their instructor is human, fallible, and willing to learn from them as well (and also committed to fact-checking the obscure facts that students are so fond of offering!)
“I’m going to tell you everything that I know about this problem and you take it from there.”
Some will disagree with this one, and I accept that. In inquiry-based instruction, the teacher usually knows the answers and it is up to the students to arrive at those answers through an investigative or questioning process. And the use of those processes is important, especially in science. Plenty of great teachers guide their students to a discovery that is new to the student, but not to the instructor. These can be excellent learning experiences. Many years ago I participated in a two-week, graduate level intensive fellowship in Inquiry- Based Instruction. For two weeks, I felt like our instructor was trying to get us to successfully guess what was in his head. To me, it felt inauthentic. Why not give us more information about what is known, and lead us into the abyss about what is not?
In the last few years, I have adopted a mindset of true transparency with respect to what is already known about a situation. For example, a project that we have carried out for many years, and likely will for as many years as I am an educator, has to do with the pervasive presence of invasive plants along a creek bank near our school. Each year, biology students conduct experiments to try to eradicate these invasive plants. As such, we learn more each year about what works and what does not. Likewise, there are plenty of experts in the field that can speak about scientifically documented best practices for the eradication of these plants. Therefore, when students ask if they can test the effect of root beer on the health of the plants, I will likely reject their proposal (unless they can provide new information to inform the situation, not tested by science.) Others may contend that the pure process of discovery is more important than the outcome. To that, I reply that discovery will still happen, even in a situation where I have been totally transparent; students will still design and carry out an experiment, but it will be based on what is already known by science. That, in fact, is how science really works. Transparency begets more authentic work.
When we start each project, we ask students to take an inventory of what they know and need to know about a problem in order to focus their problem solving. Simply put, I am doing that, too. Doing so ensures that projects will be authentic because the best solution to the problem has not yet surfaced. If it has, it is time to put that project on the shelf, perhaps forever.
“I am going to be transparent with you about your role in this larger project.”
Often, we ask students to contribute proposals, prototypes, or blueprints for consideration by an external body such as a planning committee, city council, or school board. Sometimes, students are appalled when their ideas are not implemented. Transparent facilitation means that students are clear about the reality that ideas may be submitted for consideration. Consideration. Not necessarily implementation. That, we assure students, is nothing to shake a stick at, so to speak. We often have discussions about the slow pace of progress in governmental organizations (even schools.) Competing ideas and not being chosen OR your idea not being chosen is a hard, cold reality of the real world. It is equally important to point out the successes that do occur, when students have a successful grant application or when an idea does bear fruit, albeit years down the line.
Years ago our students participated in the very early design phases of a downtown riverfront design project. We had many very important community partners, including the mayor and city council members, view our design prototypes. Even though our students were given an award for their work, they were put off by the fact that “nothing ever happened” with their ideas. Five years later, the city is inching closer to starting work on the riverfront. These things take time!
The “transformation” from traditional teaching to facilitating PBL is sometimes described as going from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side.” While the analogy has some merit, I reject the “sideline” mentality. I see it more like the “Captain on the Pitch” (a soccer metaphor.) As captain, I know a lot of things about what might work, about how to direct my team, and how to advocate if there is a problem with the forces that be. But success or failure is going to happen together. I cannot guarantee success, and I must be comfortable with that fact.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, transparency leads to trust. Trust is the foundation of every good relationship. And any PBL instructor will tell you that without trust, the crazy sorts of responsible educational risks would not be possible. I started learning how to really guide kids to awesome successes when I started trusting my peers and my students… and I am so glad that I did.
Good facilitation, as well as co-facilitation, starts with transparency.
Andrew Larson is a science facilitator at the Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School and an experienced Magnify Learning workshop facilitator. He manages our regularly updated blog about project based learning with contributions from other PBL facilitators and students. When he’s not doing awesome PBL work, you can find him mountain biking, spending time with his family, or digging around in the garden.
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