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Stop, Start, Continue: Conceptual Understanding Meets Applied Problem Solving

David B Hawley

International Baccalaureate (IB) Chief Academic Officer
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I recently became the Chief Academic Officer for the International Baccalaureate (IB) after more than two decades of working in and leading IB schools. In IB World Schools, we endeavor to create internationally-minded young people who, recognizing our common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help make a better and more peaceful world.

Just prior to taking this position, I led the intense experiential living and learning of a United World College (UWC). I was part of an intimate and remotely-located community of 160 students who lived on the Vancouver Island site, along with faculty and their families, for two intensive pre-university years of transformational learning. Together, we pursued the UWC mission of making education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for a sustainable future.

Every year we built a community that modeled what all of us wished for in the wider world. We created a working campus where everyone had a job. All of these jobs were non-trivial, adult roles. If any role were not fulfilled, the well-being of the campus and the community would suffer. On many days, when we concluded our activities and jobs, we met in a circle and asked ourselves:

  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we start doing?
  • What should we continue doing?

As simple as these sound, they provided us a safe, predictable set of questions that became habits of mind, a way to pause and reflect before engaging in something else. Our aim was to get better at what we were doing.

Humanity cannot wait for students to graduate -- whether or not they are in IB schools -- and get started on doing things that contribute to a better world. We need to give students in every school, at every age, real agency and authentic opportunities to make a difference in this volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous world. With this in mind, we cannot be satisfied only with students learning about the world and developing deep conceptual understanding of multiple disciplines. We need young people building an ever-expanding portfolio of skills and experiences of things that they have done, created, and contributed to -- things that matter to them, to others, and to the world we share.

How might we help to make that happen? I propose three things that teachers need to stop doing, three things to start doing, and three things to continue doing. And I invite your ideas on expanding this list.

What Should We Stop Doing?

Stop teaching as if we have the answers.

Nothing could more powerfully demonstrate an inquiry-based approach to learning, becoming, and doing than to design ways of engaging students with questions to which we ourselves do not know the answers. In this way, students may contribute to both their own understanding and also to ours.

Stop rushing.

We need to slow down the race to cover content. We need to get more creative about ways to focus on key conceptual understandings, and about designing ways to demonstrate evidence of applying these conceptual understandings. Deep learning takes time.

Stop talking.

Even with the most experiential, project-based approach, it would be good to figure out how much time any one person spends talking compared to listening. How much silence is there after any member of a group of learners poses a question? In a classroom setting, what would happen if we reduced teacher talk by 50 percent and increased the pause time between question and response by 50 percent?

What Should We Start Doing?

Start looking for problems to solve, actions to take, and beauty to create.

If we were to do something that really mattered to ourselves, our classrooms, our schools, and our community, the potential for impact would be at once local and global. Start finding ways to engage students in understanding real-world problems, and then support them in solving those problems. Every student should experience the joy that comes with being a unique and positive force in the world.

Start teaching with new discoveries about the brain in mind.

There is emerging evidence that where there is no emotion, there is no learning. Let's bring a full spectrum of positive emotions to teaching and learning. A good place to start is by sharing your passion, personal mission, and the questions and problems that are important to you. Bring all this to your students. And have them bring theirs to you.

Start seeking out authentic, high-stakes audiences for student work.

We often ask students to spend many hours solving problems or creating things that are never shared beyond the teacher or the classroom. Partner with businesses, organizations, and your larger community to showcase innovative work produced by your students.

What Should We Continue Doing?

Continue with your professional development, and model the growth mindset in action.

If we ourselves can't develop and model the 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, and critical and creative thinking, how can we prepare students to master them? Regularly try new things in the classroom, and ask students for their feedback. Demonstrate that education is a lifelong process.

Continue to place our work with students in global contexts.

We share a common humanity, and that's worth finding ways to be mindful of our interdependence. Foster the sense of connection that comes from seeing oneself as a part of a larger global community.

Continue believing in the potential of every student.

Each student can make a positive difference, and each should understand the importance of investing in his or her own well-being along with the well-being of others. We cannot develop ourselves or contribute to the development of others if we live stressed, unbalanced lives. Introducing and modeling habits of mindfulness and doing what it takes to maintain well-being are critical for our very survival.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on what we as educators should stop, start, and continue doing in the classroom. Please share in the comments section below.

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CKL_Lit17's picture

Thank you for sharing this article. I think it is so important to show students that the work they are engaged in has a purpose. Finding authentic audiences for student's work give students a reason to engaged in a topic, learn more and then share the information with a greater audience. Students need to know that their work means something in the global community.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

"Start seeking out authentic, high-stakes audiences for student work." resonated with me. My company has benefited from students asking naive questions about a business project that I invited them to do.

Bob Hyneman's picture

I honestly believe that many of the world's problems are technology based. E.G. the world's oceans and estuaries are becoming polluted, but rather than actually teach the math and science it will take to solve the problem, we program and indoctrinate our kids to CARE more about the problem. We program and indoctrinate them to be "socially aware," and "tolerant."

If Chesapeake will ever be solved it will be solved by a scientist, not by someone indoctrinating kids to blame corporations. If global warming will ever be solved, it will be solved by a scientist, not by someone indoctrinating kids to blindly follow every politician who proposes a solution.

I do not know if this is a mistake that are doing, but I know that as a community of American educators, this is a mistake that we are doing.

Bob Hyneman's picture

Quick example:
In the third grade, I taught my son how to use solar panels and electrodes to turn ordinary seawater into combustible hydrogen, which can be used to power automobiles, heat homes etc. . After it combusts it turns back into water. So far it cannot be done in an economically viable manner, but it can be done.

His school was teaching him to worry about fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, (and his teachers were satisfied with imparting "social and environmental awareness" on him.) If the problem is ever going to be solved it will be solved by people knowing science, not by poltical indoctrination and "awareness."

Bob Hyneman's picture

Here is another example:
In 1893 (or so) a mechanical engineer named Rudolf Diesel invented an internal combustion engine and a home furnace that can be run with vegetable oil. The petroleum synthesized equivalent turned out to be cheaper and is now know as diesel fuel. The technology is over 100 years old, but in that time we have not produced scientists or engineers who can make vegetable oil cheap. Instead, we have produced generation after generation of lobbyists and eco-activists who think the solution lies in higher taxes, more restrictions, and more UN agreements. Scientists can save the planet. Lobbyists and hand-wringers cannot.

Bethany from E.Merging Consulting's picture

I like David's statement about teachers taking care of themselves: "We cannot develop ourselves or contribute to the development of others if we live stressed, unbalanced lives. Introducing and modeling habits of mindfulness and doing what it takes to maintain well-being are critical for our very survival."
What if we considered our own potential as teachers as a model for our student's potential? I find it to be interesting how much faith and hope we can have in the potential of our students, but not in ourselves.

Susan Drake's picture

Hi David: I really enjoyed reading this and learning more about your own experiences and philosophies. One thing that intrigued me was the title " Conceptual understanding meets applied problem-solving". As educators explore inquiry as a way to both engage students and encourage self-directed learning, I think the conceptual understanding often gets short shrift. For me, it is really important to integrate the two together (the Know and Do). And I loved your emphasis on what I call the Be. So important, for example, to integrate growth mindset into everything that happens in a student's life.

Bob Hyneman's picture

I like David Hawley's basic approach to education. (David Hawley is the author of the blog at the start of this post).

His approach is "On many days, when we concluded our activities and jobs, we met in a circle and asked ourselves:
* What should we stop doing?
* What should we start doing?
* What should we continue doing?"

I add to that only that
1. Teachers have enough meetings already, and
2. Such an approach can lead to everyone meeting into a "oneness," as opposed to a "betterness."

In the current atmosphere of teaching there are other parts of his philosophy of teaching that concern me, but I have nothing against the teachers and curriculum writers having regular meetings to repair the curriculum.

DaveEckstrom's picture
DaveEckstrom
Chemistry and Physics teacher from Wisconsin

"what would happen if we reduced teacher talk by 50 percent and increased the pause time between question and response by 50 percent?"

Unfortunately, one thing that will almost certainly happen is that you will be accused by parents, students and administrators of not doing your job.

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