This past week, I participated in #PBLChat on Twitter for the first time. I'm still pretty new at this whole "chatting on Twitter" thing (I hadn't even known about TweetChat until halfway through), but the experience was awesome. I "met" a lot of great teachers in the network and had a chance to build my PLN, which I think will be invaluable as we continue our conversations in the coming months.
With the theme of NTAC 2012 being "Dive Into Deeper Learning," the question posed to the chat was, naturally, "What is 'deeper learning?'" As I read response after response, two over-arching themes grabbed my attention: passion and conversation.
It really all begins with passion. Many in the chat agreed that deeper learning requires an initial deep desire to learn. I remember when I was in high school, I used to write out the proof of the quadratic formula in my notebook whenever I was bored, because I preferred math more than any other subject. I liked doing it, so in turn I gave it more attention. It's what we like and what we want to do that we seem to become best at. Passion is probably why I can quote every line of "Anchorman," but I couldn't tell you the laws of thermodynamics without looking them up. I was never that interested in science, but dude, I can go on for days about whether Brick actually loves lamp or is just looking at the lamp and saying he loves it.
Where passion fuels deeper learning, conversation helps us make sense of our passion. In the chat, this aspect of deeper learning was commonly articulated as "talking about process" or "being able to explain or teach the concept to someone else." These are fine examples; I think, more generally, the conversation aspect of deeper learning means to engage in an exchange of interpretations or viewpoints in order to refine one's own knowledge. In a way, conversation is confrontational. It forces the learner to articulate what they believe they know about a problem or a topic, and can even lead them to realize or admit what they do not yet know. This is vital to deeper learning; the very act of identifying what we do not know gives us direction for our pursuits.
To a PBL teacher, this probably sounds suspiciously like I'm talking about "need-to-knows." In the context of deeper learning, it might be more appropriate to call them "want-to-knows," since deeper learning is driven by passion. Maybe I'm overgeneralizing, but I think there's an important difference between the two. The idea of "need-to-knows" is definitely important as an organizational and learning tool in PBL, to be sure. "Needing" to know something can sometimes, I think, imply that the learner has to know the thing for the sake of completing the project. "Wanting" to know something, on the other hand, comes from sheer curiosity and is motivated by genuine interest rather than academic requirements.
For example, one (not-really-that-great) project I ran in one of my geometry classes had students design a new type of mini-Oreo package based on different types of 3-D shapes they were learning about (spheres, prisms, cylinders, pyramids, cones). So, in order to complete the project, students "needed" to find out what these shapes were and how to calculate their volume -- not a very exciting or motivating prospect for anyone who isn't already a math geek. One student, however, "wanted to know" about other, more complex 3-D shapes. There was a desire within him to research and find out what other shapes existed. So, I told him to have at it. A few days later, he came back to me with a package prototype in the shape of a conical frustum. I was amazed! I had never even heard of this shape before; had the student not presented me with his "want-to-know," I might still have no idea what a frustum is.
This is only a small example of a student pursuing a "want-to-know," but I think part of our responsibility as educators is to give our students room for such pursuits of any magnitude. We must continue to provide our students with opportunities to find their passions and make sense of them. One of the greatest things we can do for our students is to equip them to chase down their "want-to-knows."