For students engaging in creative personalised learning projects such as a ‘Genius Hour’ or ‘Personal Passion project it can often be difficult for them to uncover the right project. Students have become so reliant upon their teachers to pose them problems that when they are given the option to explore one of their own design they don’t know where to start. This is indeed a significant challenge as we know that our students will enter a workforce and world of learning beyond school where they must be active problem finders. How then might we provide the support they require without removing the opportunity for truly personalised exploration.
Starting at the cause of the problem is worthily. Many students struggle with tasks requiring them to develop creative ideas of their own. This is a common experience teachers face when allowing students to engage in entirely open creative writing tasks. While some students start immediately some deals starting for an extended time and even then, have not been able to identify a suitable spark for their writing. A common fear is that they will pick the wrong idea or that their idea will not be perfect. An easy strategy that often works in this scenario is to set a clear limit and an almost ridiculous expectation for the number of ideas to be generated in that time. As the time pressure mounts students move away from a search for the perfect idea and jot down any and many ideas. This list can become a staring point from which ideas are refined and synthesised. A similar tactic works for problem finding or research question development.
For those making use of thinking routines in their classrooms there are a couple of excellent options to exploit here, the first is a little like the mass idea generation idea above:
Options Explosion - Begin by listing the obvious solutions or Options. Now brainstorm all the other options, generate as many options as you can, combine ideas to create more, allow your creativity to run wild and tap into your sense of wonderment and awe. Review the list of options and identify the ones that are most intriguing. Use the ideas generated to consider new possibilities and new solutions.
Creative Questions - A good routine for developing ideas and for training your mind to think differently. Use it to generate creative questions to explore by following these steps:
Pick an everyday object or topic and brainstorm a list of questions about it. Transform some of these questions in imaginative questions such as:
- What would it be like if . . .
- How would it be different if . . .
- Suppose that . . .
- What would change if . . .
- How would it look different if . . .
Select a question to imaginatively explore. Write a story, draw a picture, invent a scenario, conduct a thought experiment or dramatise a scenario. Reflect on your thinking and the new ideas you have generated. Develop those which seem most useful.
Another take is borrowed from the writing of Warren Berger and ‘A More Beautiful Question’. The idea here is that students generate big ‘Why . . .’ questions which identify a problem they have encountered. From here they move to ‘What if . . . ' questions thinking individually or in collaboration and pose possible solutions. With a list of interesting ‘what ifs’ they move to ‘how might’ questions where they focus their thinking on a gradual move towards implementing a possible solution. A nice way to introduce this is with examples from the world of start-up companies which have exploded on to the market thanks to thinking differently about common problems. Starting with a ‘Why’ question like ‘why can I not get a cab when I need one’ led to the founders of Uber asking ‘What if I could pay for one of the many empty seats in the cars driving past me’ and then on to the ‘How might we turn empty seats in cars we don’t own into a global business’. Similar examples can be found in the story of Air BnB among others and a list of such ‘Beautiful Questions’ can be found on Warren’s site: A More Beautiful Question
Even when students have an idea for a topic they can struggle to turn that into a project or to see the value in their idea. Going from an idea to a worthwhile research project, framed in terms that others will understand and value is not easy and is a challenge for PHD students, let alone sixth graders. To assist with this George Heilmeier working with Advance Research Projects Agency (the people who developed the internet) proposed a set of questions to be used to frame all projects submitted for research grants. Known as the Heilmeier Questions this set of prompts will have students looking beyond the surface of their ideas and getting quickly to what is most important in their investigations.
- What are you trying to do? State your objectives using absolutely no jargon. What is the problem? Why is it hard?
- How is it done today, and what are the limits of current methods?
- What's new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
- Who cares?
- If you're successful, what difference will it make? What impact will success have? How will it be measured?
- What are the risks and the payoffs?
- How much will it cost? (Time, money, resources, environmental costs, alternatives)
- How long will it take?
- What are the midterm and final "exams" to check for success? How will progress be measured?
The pay offs for getting personalised inquiry projects happening are significant as they can develop essential dispositions for the future while offering engagement enhancing opportunities through autonomy and investigations aligned closely with purposes that matter to the students. Ensuring the right level of scaffolding as students design their projects and gradually removing teacher direction towards the use of these ensures students develop mastery of the problem finding and solving process.
By Nigel Coutts