Workshop #2: The Problem of Practice (PoP) and Brainstorming

PUBLISHED: July 3, 2016 - 11:20 a.m. EST

THE BIG IDEA: During the second Workshop, Sci-Ed Fellows distill their problem areas of focus into specifically defined problems of practice, brainstorm solutions to these problems, and then narrow their focus. The previous workshop pushed Fellows to cast a wide net; noticings and wondering about every aspect of classroom experience were encouraged. In contrast, during this workshop, Fellows aim to narrow their problem area of focus to a single point: the problem of practice (PoP).Screenshot 2016-07-04 at 2.02.01 PM

Fellows explore the following questions in this Workshop:

  • What is a problem of practice in a democratic classroom?
  • What is an appropriate grain size for a problem of practice?
  • How do we choose a problem of practice for our Window Into the Classroom presentation?
  • What are some effective techniques that we can use to brainstorm solution ideas to a problem of problem of practice?

What follows are the key learning activities and work processes that constitute workshop #2:   

1. Icebreaker and Opening Circle: Fellows take on the Paperclip Challenge as an icebreaker. The purpose of this icebreaker is for Fellows to work together to quickly generate ideas and to experience how much more generative the group can be than the individuals within the group. Because the Sci-Ed Fellow cohort is still in the early stages of development, the Paperclip Challenge is also a safe and engaging way for Fellows to learn about the collaborative styles and creative ideas of the members of the group. Additionally, this icebreaker sets the stage for Fellows’ ideation about potential problems of practice. Upon completion of the Paperclip Challenge, the group debriefs the experience in the opening circle. How did it feel to share ideas in the group? What roles did you take during this activity? How might we use this in our classroom?  Finally, the group revisits the agreements made at the Kickoff. Which agreements are working so far? Which agreements need tweaking? Now that Fellows have experienced the ways in which the group works during the previous Workshop, there is likely to be more discussion about the meaning of agreements, how they should be kept, and the consequences for breaking them.

2. Homework Debrief. In coaching groups, Fellows review takeaways from their interviews and/or site observations and synthesize ideas. How did the information gathered in the time between workshops help to refine the problem area of focus?  Each Fellow then has about 10 minutes to present their ideas and discuss probing questions. The goal of this debrief is to help each presenting Fellow more fully understand the problem area of focus that they identified during the first Workshop and explored during the break between Workshops. Fellows should not move to generating solution ideas at this point. Rather, Fellows should be working to collaboratively understand if the perceived cause of a problem is really the cause of the problem.

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3. What Makes a Good Problem of Practice? Master Fellows give a short presentation about the qualities of a well-defined Problem of Practice (PoP). The PoP is the central question that Fellows answer in the story they will tell through their WICs at the Sci-Ed Showcase. Central to the Master Fellow presentation is the “How might we…?” (HMW) tool, which is a way of defining the PoP as a question to be answered with an innovative classroom solution. Fellows explore HMWs in their coaching groups in order to understand the importance of grain size. How might we help ELL students?, for example, is too large of a grain. In contrast, How might we help ELLs with scientific writing by providing graphic organizers that utilize evidence-explanation matching? is too narrow. Fellows practice with multiple HMW examples and then attempt to develop a HMW question for the problem area of focus that they refined during the homework debrief. Fellows will use these HMW questions in the afternoon brainstorming session. Once Fellows have developed a HMW question, they complete feedback for the AM portion of the workshop.

4. Brainstorming and Solutions Walk. Fellows engage with a brainstorming protocol that supports divergent thinking about the problems of practice developed in the morning. In coaching groups, Fellows collaboratively develop a wide range of potential solutions ideas. As part of this process, Fellows also receive implicit feedback about the granularity of their questions. A PoP that is too narrow or too broad will limit the range of generated solutions. 
During this protocol, each Fellow presents a PoP to the coaching group and the group has an “idea jam.” The goal is to generate as many solution ideas as possible related to the PoP. The presenter then choose three ideas that seem most promising. The coaching group discusses how each solution idea aligns with the
Democratic STEM Teaching Framework (DSTF) as well as the predictable constraints that might limit the success of the proposed solutions (such as time, money, or space). Importantly, the only constraints placed on solution ideas are the PoP and the DSTF. Fellows share authority and leverage their unique funds of knowledge to develop solution ideas that improve the critical agency of the group. The Sci-Ed Fellowship recognizes that often the most effective and innovative solutions come from classroom educators working directly with students. 

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Next, the presenting Fellow selects one solution idea to implement in the classroom and creates a display that includes the PoP, the solution idea, and how both align to the DSTF. When all Fellows have completed the brainstorming protocol, they provide feedback to each other using a series of guiding questions:

Have you tried a similar solution? Do you have suggestions for how to implement this solution?

Can you predict any pitfalls that your colleague might not see?

Is the size/scope/granularity of the PoP right?

What resources can you suggest that might help your colleague develop this solution idea?

5. Computer Programming and Technology Workshops. During each learning cycle, the Sci-Ed Fellowship provides opportunities for professional growth that are not directly related to the DSTF and the WIC creation process. In some years, these afternoon sessions have taken the form of Fellow-created affinity groups. For the 2015-16 Sci-Ed cohort, Fellows explored computer programming and technology as important emerging trends in STEM education. Because many of this year’s Fellows did not have a background in these areas, these afternoon workshops contributed foundational experiences that added to Fellows’ pedagogical toolkit. For this first afternoon, Fellows explored either computational thinking or CSS and HTML. Fellows who chose to explore computational thinking learned about algorithms and a general model of applying computational thinking in the classroom. Fellows who chose to explore CSS and HTML worked in jigsaw groups to learn a particular skill before collaborating together to design a website.

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While Sci-Ed continues to process the role of computer programming and technology within the Fellowship, there are positive signs of alignment with the DSTF. The afternoon workshops were inherently collaborative and “open-source”. They also adhered to engineering-design thinking methodology. In short, there was a natural parallel with the democratic learning structures of reality pedagogy that Sci-Ed values.

6. Closing Circle: Throughout this and each workshop, Fellows experience a number of stimulating activities. They also learn more about each other and the work processes of Sci-Ed. The closing circle is for Fellows to reflect and integrate these experiences, with primary emphasis on the DSTF moves made during the Workshop.The Sci-Ed Fellowship works via both explicit instruction and implicit modeling. When Fellows become students of the processes used in the Sci-Ed “class” and begin to study Sci-Ed processes as they unfold, they are better able to adopt similar processes in their own classrooms. Some facilitator questions that help Fellows investigate the Sci-Ed process include:

What DSTF moves did the Master Fellows make?

Which DSTF moves did you like/not like?

What was the impact of DSTF moves on you individually? On the group as a whole? On a subgroup of “students”?

How would you modify these DSTF moves in your classroom? Why?

Following the second workshop, Fellows continue to explore their solution ideas and PoPs. Most are able to implement a solution idea in their classrooms. As Fellows work through this process they often encounter unforeseen obstacles such as a lack of materials, difficulty gathering evidence of the effectiveness of their solution, or confusion about how to align work with the DSTF. Master Fellows support Fellows grappling with these obstacles. The way in which this support happens serves as a model for Fellows attempting to foster the democratic learning environments in their own classrooms.

Keywords: Storming, Problem of Practice, Brainstorming, Collaboration, Learning Cycle, WIC, Parallel Process, Computer Science, Democratic STEM Teaching Framework


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