If any of you are teachers I bet you know what I'm talking about - that rare day where the plan really comes together in a way that the outcome just soars beyond your wildest expectations. Well that was today with the 30 teachers I've had the pleasure of working all week at the Samarkand Institute for Teachers Institute as part of my Fulbright DAST Fellowship.
Things had gotten off to a rough start Monday when it became clear that the expectation was that I was going to deliver a nice little package of lessons that teachers could use to check the box that they were doing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. This is a huge Ministry of Education initative here in Uzbekistan and teachers are feeling the pressure that they are supposed to do something different but not even the Principals or staff at the Institute have a clue what they are supposed to do. My entry questionaire ended with the question "What do you hope I can offer you?" and there was a clear theme from the majority of "Can you tell me what the ()$&)# STEM is?"
I tried to joke it off with folks by sharing my "Wonderful Raccoon" video - where a family's laundry problems are solved by a raccoon that comes out of the woods to wash their clothes and life is great. I assured them my "wonderful raccoon"was all they needed - but not sure they even understood the sarcasm much less appreciated the message I was trying to deliver.
So despite the fact that they thought they wanted a set of lessons, my plan for the week was really a journey through what does great proficiency based learning look, feel and sound like - with a focus on helping them understand that the biggest shift is going to be moving away from lectures, textbook reads and multiple choice tests that focus on the memorization and regurgitation of facts. But this is a country where every teacher grew up in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and this model of education is all they have ever known. We played rock, paper, scissors and talked about building a positive classroom atmosphere. We did engineering design challenges with airplanes and towers, practicing how to enjoy learning through failure. We played with models in algebra and explored how there is more to learning than just memorizing an algorithm.
But even up until yesterday the exit cards kept asking for "practical lessons" for biology, geography, Uzbek language etc. It felt as if they were still looking / hoping for that simple book or site that would have all the answers.
Not even sure what it was today. Perhaps it was doing my best Russian version of Bill Rich's lesson on the Expert Blind spot with Heath's tapper and listeners, or really explicitly talking through Emily Rinkema and Stan William's framework of PBL as a GPS and digging into the elements of where are we going and where are we at as an anchor. Or maybe it was (thanks to the magic of Google Translate), using the Last Word protocol to read and discuss in Uzbek and Russian an essay from Lehman and Chase's book Building School 2.0 entitled "When they ask why do I have to know this?" It was during this protocol that I watched things really flip. A new teacher had just joined us and she immediately circled the words "Ask the students what they want to learn" as her touch point. When it was her turn she explained that in her view was an incredibly stupid idea - she had her national curriculum and not only didn't she need any input from kids about the lessons she certainly didn't want it either.
To my complete surprise her 4 tablemates immediately engaged, explaining that choice was not only a key part of student motivation, but that STEM (our new label for PBL so that it is politically palatable) doesn't really work without it. The high came as several pulled in their learning from the week, about the need to focus not on knowing the facts of the national curriculum but on having students learning essential skills and habits through which they could actually do something with the information. They pulled out their models of STEM and showed her where this student input was essential for knowing how to match their needs and interests to elements of that national curriculum. I honestly feel like George Costanza from Seinfeld - perhaps I should just pack up and "leave on a high note" since I'm not sure it can get any better than today.