The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 26, 2004


Book Review: The Shape of Change -- What can students learn from tracking woolly mammoths?

"Ugh. Why do we have to learn this?" "It's boring. I'll never use it."

Unless you're one of those rare individuals who love learning absolutely anything, no matter the likelihood of utility, you've asked that question. And if you haven't asked it lately, it's probably because you're not a kid.

For decades, "education" has consisted mainly of a teacher imparting information deemed to be vital and then students demonstrating that they have, indeed, been listening or reading. In Carlisle, many of our teachers are augmenting the traditional approach with exercises that invite students to learn, even to control their own learning. These lessons are laid out in the book The Shape of Change by Carlisle teachers Rob Quaden and Alan Ticotsky, with former Carlisle resident and school committee member Debra Lyneis.

Authors Rob Quaden (center) and Alan Ticotsky discuss their learning philosophy at the Discovery Museum in Acton. (Photo by Cynthia Sorn)

We teach a lot of things in our schools without letting the learner in on why they matter. Algebra? All those Civil War battles? But the lessons in Shape, which employ systems thinking, approach learning from a different direction. Rather than providing kids with answers, teachers present them with situations and problems, then encourage them to ask questions, make observations, form conclusions, and brainstorm how the learning might apply to other situations. The traditional "lessons" are there — maybe even the algebra in some instances. But the students explore for themselves and develop the skills on their own.

Real-world applications

The authors linked each lesson to real-world applications so students "could begin to recognize similarities in the patterns of change all around them," says co-author Lyneis. "We structured every lesson around the questions: what is changing? (observing the behavior), how is it changing? (capturing the story in a graph over time and noticing the patterns), why is it changing? (looking for causes of those patterns, interdependencies, feedback, etc.). The final question for us was, so what? Why would we care or bother to teach this stuff (a question often overlooked in education)?

"We encouraged kids to think of broader applications and how these lessons apply to everyday real-world situations. Implicit in that is the hope that they might begin to ask, 'What, how, why, what next?' when faced with patterns of change all around them."

Exercises such as the Infection Game, the Rainforest Game, and the very popular Mammoth Game draw students into learning, and often they find, instead of one answer to a question or dilemma, a web of factors in play. In short, kids learn about complexity. Not so much black and white, but a lot of gray.

The exercises are presented with classroom teachers in mind. No special equipment is required. No special knowledge or jargon is entailed. And graphs and exercise sheets are included in the book. So the book is equally accessible and appropriate for other uses, including businesses, which can explore new organizational processes — and maybe even for parties (the exercises are that much fun).

As lessons, the exercises are interdisciplinary; they don't rely on the artificial distinction between grade-level "subjects." "The purpose is not to teach specific topics, but to teach ways to think," says Quaden. "It's not that mammoths are all that important. The point is to help kids learn to think critically in a way that isn't too dry."

The teacher/authors hope their approach will help kids get past phobias about specific subjects and let them see the power of their own learning abilities. "It sounds reasonable to try to teach what you think 'the kids are going to need to know,'" says Ticotsky. "But I'm always leery of saying we know what they'll need to know when they're adults. . . . It's so easy to get sucked into teaching skills rather than big ideas."

Quaden and Ticotsky developed all the lessons in Carlisle, and have tested, retested, and refined them over the years. Ticotsky works full-time as a "systems mentor" for the school, helping teachers to integrate systems-thinking exercises into their curricula. Quaden, who teaches eighth-grade math three days a week, works on systems part of the time. Their systems work has been funded for several years by grants from the Waters Foundation. They produced the book with the Acton-based Creative Learning Exchange, which published the book.

The Mammoth Game

The Mammoth Game, which is now a regular part of the third-grade curriculum, lets students explore theories about extinction while also learning about probability. It contains concepts from social studies, science, and math (incorporating percentages and fractions). The kids get a herd of woolly mammoths to track, and they roll dice to get numbers that represent events such as "a calf is born" or "a mammoth is killed by a giant bear." Working in teams, they keep a chart showing how many mammoths are in the herd from year to year. At the end of each game, they graph the results.

Playing successive games with different values and plotting the results on graphs allows them to observe how changes in the rules affect the results. At the end of each session, teachers debrief students, asking them to explain what they've observed and to think of other situations in which the same trends might be present.

These systems-thinking exercises are not just for third graders. The book is geared to grades three through eight, but the exercises can be easily modified for older and younger learners. In Carlisle, kindergartners play the In and Out Game, which teaches them about change over time and which can be a great way to introduce and reinforce math skills like graphing and predicting.

Quaden and Ticotsky say their goal over the years has been to see kids become more engaged in their own learning. "There are so many pressures on teachers and students to do well on standardized tests," said Quaden. The exercises help teachers find new tools to engage kids. They instill a value for teamwork and reflection, and they offer hands-on learning, long known to be a better way to learn and retain knowledge (Think: Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; if he learns how to fish, he eats for a lifetime.)

Carlisle's kids have played a big part in developing the lessons. "Several lessons were developed because kids weren't traditional learners," says Quaden. The book's Tree Game, for instance, evolved in a class with a lot of kids who had a hard time sitting still. "They weren't afraid to make their own rules. They pushed the envelope. They'd try crazy things." The Tree Game has one group write the rules and another try to guess what the rules are. The kids who added a huge number of trees to their forest found that such a "crazy" rule would backfire; it was the easiest rule to guess.

As you might imagine, when they do these exercises, students often are moving around and talking a lot. This can be challenging for teachers. "They have to be willing to give up control in order let kids take control of their own learning. They have to realize their lesson might be messed up," said Quaden. But the upside can be profound; students can come up with observations and conclusions that surprise teachers and which can lead to great discussions and deeper learning.

The connection circles entailed in some of the more sophisticated games (see sidebar) can be difficult to prepare, says Ticotsky. For the teacher setting up the activity, it's important not to be overly descriptive or directive, but to help kids come up with the factors to be considered. Good teachers ask good questions; "fishing" for specific elements and answers can cut the learning opportunities short, he notes.

Do Methods work?

Is there evidence that Quaden's and Ticotsky's methods "work"? "As experienced teachers, we have some sense of whether something works," says Quaden. "We know that kids are thinking at a high level. Will that have a payoff? Can I prove that? No, I can't. Our kids do well, but that's not proof. They do well for a lot of reasons." The teachers can hardly run a scientific study of control groups, one using systems exercises and one not. That wouldn't be ethical. But both say seeing is believing.

Meanwhile, the ideas in their book are spreading, according to Lyneis. After a small printing, it has been requested by individuals and schools around the country and other countries as well. Soon it will be translated into Dutch.

For a number of years, Quaden and Ticotsky have shared their ideas at conferences, finding here and there people willing to try something new. The book increases "by orders of magnitude" the number of people they can expose to the exercises, says Quaden. They're hoping for an effect like that found in the Infection Game.

The Infection Game? See the book. It's available in the school library as well as the Gleason Public Library. And copies can be ordered from the Creative Learning Exchange, Parents may find the book helpful in seeing what their kids are doing in school and in engaging them around homework and learning activities at home.

"Do You Want Fries with That?"

In the engagingly titled "Do You Want Fries with That?" game, students use "connection circles" to puzzle out the implications of an article about the health effects of eating french fries. First they choose important factors included in the article, such as fat consumption, french fries eaten, french fries sold, concern about health risks, alternatives for cooking fries, number of fast-food restaurants, and fast-food restaurant profits. Then they look for connections between factors, and draw arrows to denote them. Students organized in teams are challenged to discuss exactly what the connections are and how they work.

Students find pathways between the factors called feedback loops. If the increase or decrease in a set of factors causes more of the same, it's known as a reinforcing loop. For instance, if an existing number of fast-food restaurant sells more fries, they make more profits, leading to the opening of more fast-food restaurants, and more sales of fries, and so on.

In a self-balancing feedback loop, though, an increase in one element comes back around the loop to cause a decrease in the same element. For instance, if more fries are sold, more are eaten, more fat is consumed, and concern about health risks increases. But the next time around the loop, this concern causes the number of fries sold to decrease, and so on.

The point of the lesson isn't necessarily that fries are bad and that students shouldn't eat them, but rather that causes and effects are interrelated and can affect behaviors. The value is that the process can get beyond the readily apparent to uncover more subtle and far-reaching causes and effects. In a more complex scenario, such as depletion of a species in an ecosystem through predation (animal or human), it can become apparent that the diminution of that species affects other species, which can give rise to other changes in the system. Observing such effects can help students understand how deleterious events unfold as well as how cycles can be affected in positive ways.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito