Big Ideas at the Center for Innovation in Education at Thomas College

Schools and teachers are looking for innovative ways to teach the “big ideas” emerging in the core curricula, especially in STEAM fields (science technology, engineering, arts and math). As a result, learning environments that support digital learning and educational technology on various platforms and devices are taking on ever-increasing importance in today’s schools.
Change is already underway, as teachers grapple with how their students should work in virtual-based learning environments to discover knowledge about their world. In the new classroom characterized by mobile devices, the question emerges: How do we keep technology and curriculum design aligned when both are changing and dynamic?

One way to accomplish this convergence of technology and student learning is to teach disciplinary ideas through the use of metaphors. If curriculum is viewed as a network of big ideas, then metaphors are one way of presenting the essence of those ideas. This approach to learning uses metaphor and disciplinary big ideas as the same tools of the trade used by great scientists, mathematicians and artists to make giant leaps forward in understanding about the world. New research on the discovery process in science highlights the key use of metaphors by famous people like Darwin and Einstein. An example of a popular metaphor is the notion that the leaf is a miniature factory that produces food from the raw materials of oxygen, water and sunlight.

Another way is to increase the speed of delivery of content by packing course content into smaller increments of focused time on task through more content-intensive learning modules. At Thomas College, faculty in education and across other disciplines offer summer intensive courses where students can focus on a single topic, ranging from math to psychology to micro-computer applications. According to Provost Thomas Edwards, in these summer intensives “both faculty and students appreciate the opportunity to engage in a deep dive with the subject matter, they’re forced to focus on the essentials.”

Augmenting reality

“Augmented reality” is a third kind of technological innovation that offers great potential for engagement. Consider the engagement opportunities created by the ease of adoption and excitement for platforms like the popular game Pokemon Go. Imagine a scenario that combines the best of idea-centered learning by overlaying a 3D image with the use of an iPhone or mobile device in the context of a classroom. A fascinating app called Anatomy 4D currently achieves this virtual effect by producing a 3D model of the human form in real-world space (with all the systems of the human body) when the camera on the mobile phone hovers over a 2D image provided by the app’s makers. Users of this app can also experience a 3D model of a beating heart.

Employing technology in real world situations allows us to engage students in the realm of the “big ideas” of a discipline. Take for example, the notion that the air we breathe is not empty but full of particulate matter; by augmenting reality with a mobile phone and app, students could see a three-dimensional overlay of their environment that shows dust floating around them.

Teachers can use augmented reality devices to open up the world for students in ways that approximate the heightened awareness of objects and events experienced by the disciplinary scholars in STEAM domains. Augmented reality has the capacity to make learning virtual in the sense that students can gain access to a world-view experienced through the “lens” of disciplinary ideas.

Augmenting reality in the classroom does not always have to be high-tech. Good teachers engage in this process when they encourage students to use their imagination in thinking about how the ideas they are presented can enrich their understanding of particular objects or events. A fifth grade teacher I observed in a classroom wanted students to understand that Americans didn’t fight the “standing-up” traditional way against the British during the American Revolutionary War. He was able to create a vivid sense of what the Battle of Lexington and Concord was like by relating the events in exciting detail as if they were happening before the students’ eyes in real time. This augmentation was achieved by telling what was happening during the battle as if the students had ringside seats at this pivotal event in the war.

Idea parking lots

Creating “idea parking lots” in a classroom, as IBM does in its company design centers, gives students the opportunity to showcase their understanding of content matter, share ideas with peers and enlarge the community conversation around a particular classroom “thought problem.” For current classroom teachers, this idea can be achieved tomorrow in your classroom by designating a wall space or flat surface for this “idea parking lot,” and providing Post-It notes for students to post their ideas, as they engage with them in the context of classroom learning. In a more open educational design-centric classroom environment, like the one described here, students are encouraged to practice innovation and engage thinking from a design perspective that supports the goals of STEAM education. The presence of “idea parking lots” in a classroom provides teachers with an eye-test assessment of learning objectives and outcomes in real time—one of the main goals of proficiency-based learning.

At Thomas College, the new Center for Innovation in Education uses pedagogical content knowledge to lead with big ideas. The focus on creating engaging content is to open up content for students in innovative ways, while also creating a library of “open” educational technology-based resources that support professional development for teachers in STEAM given the state of Maine’s emphasis on proficiency-based learning. One goal of the Center for Innovation in Education is to encourage educators to view computers and mobile devices as more than mere tools: They are creative instruments. Viewed as a creative instrument, adding metaphors and augmentations to technology will become standard practice in a classroom, forming a deeper and more connected relationship to the world of ideas for teachers and learners. This blurring of the boundaries between learners of content, and teachers of content will help pave the way for tomorrow’s “idea economy.”

Education students at Thomas, and teachers who go to the Center for Innovation in Education for professional development, will be engaged in shaping the classrooms of tomorrow by learning about the convergence of pedagogy and educational technology. The big idea in our efforts to bring fresh thinking about content knowledge to schools and classrooms is this: The use of teaching to shape learning has typically been viewed as a causal relationship but now, with the advent of interactive educational technology, the relationship can be viewed as interactive or interconnected.

Ted Prawat is director of the Educational Design Center and assistant professor of education at Thomas College.

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