Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wrestling with Borders: The Project Slice Experience

Last April, I attended the Hewlett Foundation-sponsored Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High in San Diego.  The highlight of my three conference days was the optional first one entitled the "Deeper Learning Pre-Conference Project Slice." 

Curiosity, confusion, and hope had led me to the Deeper Learning Conference in the first place.  I didn't know what a "project slice" was, but I knew enough from the materials on the conference web site to know that I would be required to participate actively in a day-long learning process that was connected importantly to project-based learning.

Project-based learning was something else about which I was still somewhat confused, not so much in terms of its intent and scope, but in terms of its implementation.  I knew it was collaborative, but I was uncertain how and when it was a whole-group, small-group, and individual-student effort.  I didn't understand how teachers ensured that it was both student-driven and standards-aligned, when alignment with standards was an issue. I wondered how its interdisciplinary rigor was ensured when both teachers' and students' goals made the contributions of multiple disciplines essential. These were the kinds of confusions I felt sure I could address by exploring examples and conversing with PBL practitioners, many of whom were at the conference.  

But I had a whole other set of confusions* that seemed more likely to persist . There are so many progressive initiatives and approaches out there -- and they all have trademark vocabularies to go with them.  So whenever I began to think about project-based learning, design thinking, innovation engineering, expeditionary learning, global competence, inquiry-centered learning, to name a few, I had so many questions about the precise definitions of various terms associated with each of them, and about the overlaps and distinctions among them.  I believed, and still do, that they all seek to prepare students for learning and "the pursuit of happiness" in a 21st century world through empowerment, engagement, and deep understanding.  But beyond that, how do their emphases and basic operating principles distinguish them?  My own long experience with the Teaching for Understanding framework no doubt shaped my questions. 

  • What product or outcome is deep, or deepening, understanding supposed to result in for each of these?  
  • When deep understanding isn't the ultimate goal of an initiative, what is the relationship of deep understanding to that goal?  
  • How is -- and isn't -- a prototype a performance of understanding?  What kinds of inquiry can yield prototypes?
  • Must inquiry lead to an action step or a solution in order to have value?  When is deep understanding an adequately valuable outcome? 
  • How, when, and why does each initiative value action and reflection?
I hoped the project slice, defined in an orientation e-mail as "a day long launch into an essential question important to our area," would help me begin to see my way through my forest of questions.  And it did by giving me the opportunity to spend almost an entire day as a learner exploring an essential question:  "How does the US-Mexican border impact our community, and how do we impact the border?"

My key learnings were around the following:  purpose, perspectives, and prototypes. 

Purpose:  As a Massachusetts resident, I came to San Diego knowing that many Mexicans cross the border into the United States in a variety of places and ways.  But I had never contemplated the daily life experiences, as well as the movement, of people living on both sides of the border. I needed to begin to understand border life issues if the day's inquiry was going to feel purposeful, focused, and important enough to engage in whole-heartedly.

The first two project slice activities created and/or deepened our whole group's engagement and purpose. First, we explored a topographical map labeled and annotated in Spanish, which I don't speak. This was billed -- really aptly for me -- as the "Mystery Experience."  Second, we participated in a silent gallery walk featuring many artifacts from a variety of categories (photographs, newspaper clippings, musical instruments, video clips, foods and beverages, magazines, crafts). Our individual responses to an "I notice . . . I wonder" thinking routine formed the basis of an important small group activity through which we wondered, speculated, and developed ideas and questions that we hoped would guide our observations and conversations during out impending field work: 1/2 of our whole slice group was headed to Friendship Park, where Mexicans and Americans can visit across the border through a wire fence; the other 1/2 of us was headed to the San Ysidro/Tijuana border crossing.  I was in the group that, after meeting with a community organizer/regional planner in San Ysidro, crossed into Mexico and back into the US on foot.

Perspectives: In providing us with field journals and encouraging us to shoot photographs and video and to conduct interviews, our project slice facilitators reminded us that our inquiry required our consideration of the views of many -- residents of and workers in both border-abutting communities, researchers, service providers, to name a few. My group was stunned to learn from the San Ysidro regional planner that 80,000 pedestrians and 45,000 automobiles cross the Mexican/American border at Tijuana daily.  The answer to "what are they going and coming for" begged for multiple perspectives -- and that question neglected the perspectives of the numerous people who live and make livings in the communities abutting the border but who generally don't cross it.

There was another way diverse perspectives were playing a critical role in our learning. Our facilitators artfully choreographed our interactions during the day: sometimes we explored and reflected alone, sometimes in small groups, and sometimes as a whole group. Never did we meet in the same small group more than once:  the goal was to  enlarge our individual and collective thinking in part through encounter with the range of perspectives within our own project slice inquiry group, the result of our divergent experiences, knowledge bases, and personal sensitivities.  We were negotiating learning via diverse perspectives in terms of both focus content and inquiry process.

Prototypes:  Back from our experiences in the field, we were next required to create prototypes.  Would I finally understand what  prototype was if I succeeded in creating one?

From many of my conversations with innovating educators, I had understood prototypes as designs that had purpose and satisfied the needs of various people by taking into account their perspectives.   This conception of prototypes seemed a direct reflection of typical dictionary definitions of prototype: "A first or preliminary model of something, esp. a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied."

But our goal for the day had been to explore an essential question and understand a complex topic, not to solve a problem that we hadn't yet identified.  We might have, for example, decided to create a design for a border crossing at San/Ysidro.  But the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry Project is well underway, and there is and has already been much hope, trepidation, and civic activity surrounding it.

So what is a prototype when it isn't the first version of a design or model of something? When our project slice facilitators directed us as individuals to make use of an array of appealing arts/crafts materials to capture and represent the day's most significant insight, fact, or question -- the take-away(s)  that we knew we wouldn't stop thinking about, and didn't want to stop thinking about -- I began to understand that a prototype could be a representation that drew on an inquiry experience, and suggested the next steps in it. It represented the thinking and understanding of the moment, and provided something to share with others for feedback and support.  As such, it was the most preliminary design for what might in time become a final project (and that final project might be a design or action plan) -- not because the prototype's form would necessarily be preserved and improved, but because the thinking it represented would be present in a deepened, expanded way.

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed creating my prototype. We had a very limited time in which both to conceive and to create our prototypes, so what might have felt like a stressful and potentially artistically embarrassing situation, became a low-stakes challenge.  There was no time to weigh better and worse ideas for what to convey and how to convey it.  I had to choose something that came to mind quickly and go with it. What would that be? I thought back to the images, comments, and information that had struck me the hardest during the day: the daily long lines, the omnipresent construction, the dominant commercialism on both sides of the border and its relationship to (or conflicts with?) the civic and cultural goals of the two host communities. Perhaps something about the daily profitable and somehow impersonal yet charged "order" on both sides of the border? There were finger paints, felt, and glue. I could do something to show that I was developing some very preliminary answers to the essential question around which our day was structured. I was beginning to understand something about the impact of the border on people, how they took advantage of it and were in some ways victimized by it.

When we shared our prototypes with the full group -- our facilitators had insisted that we work individually, emphasizing that it was important for us to explore our individual thinking fully before bringing it to collaborations with others -- it was fascinating and illuminating to see the shared and varied impressions and ideas that characterized both the San Ysidro/Tijuana and Friendship Park groups. Personally, I felt creative and enlightened, and grateful again for our facilitators' skill at orchestrating low-stakes presentations of our prototypes with clear instructions for providing feedback to one another -- yet another opportunity to take advantage of multiple perspectives. 

Months later, when I discovered a document from Stanford entitled "Taking Design Thinking to Schools,"  I realized that in San Diego, through playing with materials and ideas in order to communicate and continue working on the border question/problem, I had grown in the "creative confidence" that the Stanford document specifies as the major goal of design thinking in schools. It's a responsive, accountable creativity that's fostered by the Stanford approach, one that mandates strong connections between creativity and understanding.

        Understanding is the first phase of the design thinking process. During this 
        phase, students immerse themselves in learning. They talk to experts and 
        conduct research. The goal is to develop background knowledge through these 
        experiences. They use their developing understandings as a springboard as they 
        begin to address design challenges.

Since understanding is critical to them, prototypes are in some ways performances of understanding. They make use of developing understanding, however, as a springboard not just for more and deeper understanding, but for future actions and/or designs that intend to solve problems, meet the needs of people, and improve the quality of life.  As I look back on my project slice day, I am humbled by how much I would have to learn before I could propose a potentially viable action or solution to any of the challenges being faced at the border.  But even having had only one day of border immersion, I have so many ideas about what I would need and want to explore next. 

So as I look back on my time at San Diego (as you can see, I also had time to visit the San Diego Zoo), I am feeling like I know a lot more about borders in general.  My interest in news related to the US/Mexican border has intensified.  And I've developed some tentative answers to my progressive education initiative-related inquiry questions.  I now have some clearer ideas about where these initiatives are separated by impassable barbed wire fences; where they're separated by chain-link fences that permit friendship, communication, and negotiation; and where the borders separating them are really nothing more than differences of focus and terminology masquerading as borders. 

*I actually learn a lot when I'm navigating confusion of this nature, but I often work with teachers who want to put good ideas into practice, so I feel obligated to get through that confusion.

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