Sliced bread shows how creativity can be situated
May 30th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

from blog.beliefnet.com

A recent .news story (which, honestly, I heard from a secondary source and haven’t yet found the primary, yet . .. ) talks about the budget crisis in New York State.  Recently a Corrections Officer came up with a potential way to save a large amount of money.

Replace prisoners’ hot dog and hamburger rolls with sliced bread. (I don’t know if it’s white bread or whole wheat!:)  In any event, this apparent switch will save the state of New York over $3,000,000 per year!  Unbelievable.

I am looking forward to heading to the supermarket to verify the cost-savings and how many hot dogs and hamburgers we are talking about . . .

from plimoth.org

However, this gets me to thinking about teaching, learning, and creativity.  We certainly have a problem finding/problem solving situation here.  But I think what I see that is important is that it is situated.  If the person wasn’t working in the prison environment, this would have probably been a non-existent thought.  It was necessary and critical that this individual had practical, real experience with the environment so he developed an expertise to recognize that there was a potential money-saving option.

I think there is a lot here that I am not yet seeing, but wanted to be sure to document this idea for further thought and analysis.

The Phil Mikan Show
Apr 12th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Two students and I received a request to appear on Phil Mikan’s Corner Radio Show.  Phil’s show broadcasts from Middletown, CT and is heard on WLIS and WMRD

Phil asked us to join him to talk about our successes at the Connecticut Science Fair.  Both of my students were finalists and won some significant awards.

One of the most interesting comments about the experience came after we left when one student said, “Boy, I never knew all fo the things I would get to see because I did a science fair project.” 

How true.  Authentic experiences breed other authentic experiences.  I wrote about those unique experiences last year as well.  There is something magical about doing real work (in this case, science research that has an authentic audience), because “real” people want to hear about it.

Listen to the show here:

A Waterfall as an Authentic Learning Environment
Mar 19th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Exposure is key to a child’s development.  When children have the opportunity to experience the natural world authentically, we allow greater capacity for the growth of their minds:  we expand their ability to problem find, problem solve, by being creative, critical thinkers.  Stemming from the monsoon-like nor’easter rain we experienced this past weekend, my daughters and I made a short detour home to go check out the Pootatuck River.  We experienced the shear strength of the flowing water over two of the constructed waterfalls that used to provide hydroelectric power to a some factories.  We documented our experience with photo, writing, drawing, and sound.  Our products?  Below:

The girls at the waterfall

The girls at the waterfall


The second waterfall

The second waterfall

Anna's (7) drawing of the waterfall

Anna's (7) drawing of the waterfall

Anna writes about the waterfall

Anna writes about the waterfall

Maggie's (5) drawing of the waterfall.  What monsters are living below the surface?

Maggie's (5) drawing of the waterfall. What monsters are living below the surface?

Maggie writes about the waterfall

Maggie writes about the waterfall

We also did a short audio recording of the amazing sound of the waterfall.  My voice recorder didn’t intially capture the deep, grand sound of the water, so I used audacity to modify the file.  Click on the icon to hear it:
Authentic Open Inquiry demonstrates teaching philosophy
Feb 26th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

scienceThis past Wednesday, I hosted my annual science symposium at my school.  The students who conduct year-long applied research projects participate by presenting a 10 to 15-minute oral with PowerPoint related to their topic. I try to make the experience as authentic as possible.  Students send a written invitation to their parents, and I always ask them to select a teacher in the building and send them an invitation as well.  One teacher attended, and provided me with the following email.  My response to her follows.  I think this written discussion we had indicates the nature of the power of authentic learning and its ability to affect student achievement:

Hi there,

I really was so impressed with you and your students last night.  What a successful event!  It’s astounding to see what our kids are working on, Frank.  And my goodness, you have taught them well in terms of presenting themselves, creating sound powerpoints, and articulating their projects.  I kept thinking about the millions of questions you must be asked on a daily basis.  I was incredibly impressed! 

What I especially enjoyed was the practicality of the applications.  That is something that isn’t lacking necessarily, but isn’t so evident in English.  So that was incredible for me.  Certainly, I had difficulty understanding much of what they were doing, but truly remarkable nonetheless. 

You are an asset to this building (any building) and I just wanted to congratulate you.



Thanks for your kind words.

 About 12 years ago I realized that to really, really improve student achievement there had to be a sense of authenticity to the work that students do. It couldn’t be “LIKE REAL LIFE,” it had to be “REAL LIFE.” It couldn’t be learning for the sake of learning only, but rather inquiry learning in context, with applicable value. There had to be a real audience (in my case, practicing scientists and engineers) that would evaluate their work – not just me as the teacher. This made my role very different – the teacher as the facilitator instead of the didactic knowledge disseminator. Ultimately the students are going to be evaluated (judged) outside of the building, so it is in our collective best interest to work collaboratively, with me assuming the role of the mentor.

 I started doing research with students, primarily because I found that a problem/project-based learning strategy was a method that worked very well for me as a learner. I also realized that in education we often scenarioize-to-death our perceived authentic assessments and projects, which I think takes away value. We also primarily use visual/auditory teaching and learning strategies with students, which often doesn’t meet the learning styles of all students. Some students are more global and tactile with their successful learning strategies.

 I also believe in concept-based learning – “big ideas” as the focus of learning objectives – and teaching students to making connections between their knowledge. Project-based learning is inherently concept-based. If we improve the 21st-century skills of students (problem finding and solving, creativity, oral and written communication) using the content or project as the vehicle for skill development, then I think we really develop the learning potential and achievement in students.

Situated learning requires a non-traditional timeframe
Feb 19th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.


The tyranny of the bell:  the industrial model we use in secondary education to promote student learning and achievement.  The bell schedule consists of 45-minute periods where students engage in learning a discipline, then compartmentalize and move on to the next discipline.  It is an honored tradition in the educational institution, yet some are looking to move to alternative methods for promoting student learning.

The most noticable format is the block schedule.  Instead of a traditional 7 or 8-period day, the teaching and learning occurs in approximately 4 1.5-hour blocks.  The block model is often credited for promoting greater depth (although not necessarily bredth) of understanding.  In a well-planned block, students can often deeply engage in their learning and become more authentic producers of information.  I have often heard a description that I would consider a failed use of the purpose of the block:  “I gave a test for the first half and then lectured the second half.”  This is really no different than 2 45-minute blocks.  If X=45 minutes of learning and Y=45 minutes of learning, then using X+Y as a block, surely wasn’t what was intended.  Nonetheless, I am getting off track of what I wanted to write about .  .  .

I teach an applied science research class, where students develop and carry out their own projects over the course of a year.  What I am finding, is that both a 45-minute or a 1.5-hour timeframe are not enough.  I want, (I need) 3+hour blocks.  Yesterday, during February vacation, I had my lab open for students to work.  Some arrived at 9:30, some thereafter, some stayed for 4 hours, some for 8, some for 10.  One worked at Yale in the morning on an SEM, and then came to the school midafternoon and stayed until 7:30.  It was all about FLEXIBILITY.

Flexibility to learn as appropriate for the individual student.  Some were conducting experiments, some were using the computer lab to work on a poster, some were mounting posters, some were conferencing with me, some were organizing binders of research reports, some were conducting statistical analyses like ANOVAs, some were on their cell phones making arrangements for data collection at a different lab.  Each was doing what they needed to do to be successful.  Each was motivated – much of it was internal, but the external pressures of completing an assignment and presenting it for an audience of practicing scientists and engineers that weekend.

I was the principal investigator running my lab.  My students, the project managers, were engaged in behaviors of the scientific and engineering researchers.  We were THE community of practice.  We weren’t trying to be like scientists (“like real life”).  We were DOING it. 

Interestingly, we couldn’t do what we were doing – such deep learning, such authentic learning, if we were under the tyranny of the bell.  Vacation from school afforded us the opportunity to learn (in the case of this class) better than we could under normal “educational” circumstances.  I don’t know how we can operationalize this kind of learning strategy in a systemic way, and honestly don’t know if I want to all of the time . . .



What I do walk away knowing, is that education MUST take place in a variety of places and formats.  What I do know is that when the teacher assumes the role of the facilitator rather than the disseminator of knowledge, students certainly construct their knowledge better.  Better learning . . . isn’t that what we’re all seek?

Problem finding as a special case of problem solving theory
Dec 12th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from: MS Clip Art

from: MS Clip Art

I have had the good fortune to both participate in and read my good friend Dr. Krista Ritchie’s Ph.D. dissertation.  In the document she argues that problem finding is a special case of problem solving (information processing) theory.  It was an intriguing argument to me, so I decided to go right to the source, which was Newell, A., & Simon, H.A. (1972). Human Problem Solving. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ. The book is much denser than anticipated, especially at 920 pages.  But, my attention was caught on page 6:

As it will become clear, a theory of the psychology of problem solving requires not only good task analyses but also an inventory of possible problem solving mechanisms from which one can surmise what actual mechanisms are being used by humans. 

This struck me as interesting, because I have long argued that good problem finding requires expertise – knowing which bags of tricks you can utilize to better understand what makes a creative and exciting problem to study.  This is also extremely situated (e.g., Brown,  Collins, Duguid) in nature because there is an authentic framework that justifies making problem finding and solving appropriate and relevant.

Let’s go fly a kite!
Nov 22nd, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from www.babygadget.net

from www.babygadget.net

I am a strong advocate for authentic inquiry where we allow students to pursue interesting problems and determine innovative, creative solutions.  In order for a student to build a strong repertoire of problem finding and solving skills, they must develop the necessary prerequisite skills and have a positive disposition to learning.  I often think back to the expertise literature from the creativity domain.  (Below, from LaBanca, 2008):

Experts of a domain structure their knowledge differently from novices (Chase & Simon, 1973; Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982; Feldhusen , 2005; Larken, McDermott, Simon, & Simon, 1980; Sternberg, 2001). Expert knowledge is centered on conceptual understanding, with the use of specific domain-based strategies (Driscoll, 2005). Expert problem finding and solving, therefore, is a utilization of pattern recognition based on previous experience and matching those patterns to corresponding aspects of a problem. Novices generally do not possess the same understanding, and, in turn, utilize more general, non-domain specific, problem finding and solving strategies (Driscoll, 2005).

In an instructional setting, some teaching practices lead to the conveying of decontexualized information, whereby students are unable to transfer what they have learned to relevant situations (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989). Students, as novices, have difficulty solving complex, authentic problems because they “tend to memorize rules and algorithms” (Driscoll, 2005, p. 161). Experts would tend to use situational cues to solve problems. Because they have greater domain-specific content knowledge, experts approach finding and solving problems by recognizing and applying previously experienced patterns.

Simply put:

  • Experience matters.
  • Experience promotes higher levels of creativity.
  • Experience makes better problem finders and solvers.
from newenglandsite.com

from newenglandsite.com

As a parent, I feel that part of my responsibility is to provide opportunities for my children to have diverse experiences which expose them to authentic problem solving experiences.  Today was one of those days.  As I was cleaning out the back of my car, I came across several kites.  I enjoy flying kites, but have never done this with my children.  Spontaneously, I packed them up, took a drive to Seaside Park in Bridgeport (probably the nicest beach on the Connecticut coast), and we set up shop.

Although my younger daughter Maggie (5) was not as impressed, my older daughter Anna (7) really got into it.  She was trying to figure out how to get the kite to stay in the air without crashing back to the sand on the beach.  Once the thing was about 100 feet in the air, I asked her how she got it so high.  She was able to give me a detailed explanation of how it works and some of the tricks that were necessary to work the kite.  This was without really any advice from me.  She tackled the problem and devised a solution using a trial and error strategy.

I think sometimes in science education, some get stuck in the mess of using only a hypothesis-based problem solving strategy.  That’s a shame because there are so many other ways to solve problems.  For example (from Wikipedia:)

  1. Divide and conquer
  2. Hill-climbing strategy, (also called gradient descent/ascent, difference reduction, greedy algorithm)
  3. Means-ends analysis
  4. Trial-and-error
  5. Brainstorming
  6. Morphological analysis
  7. Method of focal objects
  8. Lateral thinking
  9. George Pólya‘s techniques in How to Solve It
  10. Research
  11. Assumption reversal
  12. Analogy
  13. Reduction (complexity)
  14. Hypothesis testing
  15. Constraint examination
  16. Incubation
  17. Build (or write) one or more abstract models of the problem
  18. Try to prove that the problem cannot be solved.
  19. Get help from friends or online problem solving community
  20. Delegation: delegating the problem to others.
  21. Root Cause Analysis
  22. Working Backwards
  23. Forward-Looking Strategy
  24. Simplification
  25. Generalization
  26. Specialization
  27. Random Search
  28. Split-Half Method
  29. The GROW model
  30. TRIZ
  31. Eight Disciplines Problem Solving
  32. Southbeach Notation
  33. The WWXXD Method:

Let’s really strategize to provide students with DIVERSE opportunities for problem solving in our classroom.  If I can do it unplanned with my children on a sunny, chilly, fall day at a beautiful beach, we can certainly find ways to to it in our classrooms.

“Like” Real Life
Apr 8th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I often shudder when I hear a teacher exclaim, “We’re going to do <insert activity here>. Its ‘LIKE REAL LIFE’!”  I think some may look at a statement like that and think, but isn’t that what we are supposed to do?  My response is why does everything have to be a simulation.  Something that the teacher preconceives:  a well-known question, with a well-known outcome.  Once again stifling the creativity of our youth. 

I say it should just be real life.  If students are conducting research on topics that they select, based on meaningful research, knowing that there is an authentic audience (and I mean a REAL authentic audience, not some ‘LIKE’ real authentic audience), then we bring more meaning to the work they do.  If they are finding and solving real problems where they really have to interact with members of a community of practice, they learn that their knowledge acquisition must be in conjunction with value-added product generation.  What could be better than cognitive growth both in scientific concepts and authentic interaction.

I reflect on this, because earlier today I was discussing the science research of my students with a visiting educational leader .  He looked at the posters the students had created and was just floored by the quality of their work.  These posters (dimensions 40″x60″) are printed using an HP T1100 wide format printer that my department has (especially for this purpose).  Students design single PowerPoint slides which are formatted with the appropriate dimensions.  They prepare, print, spray mount to foam core, and present these posters at science fairs and symposia.  They are evaluated by practicing engineers and scientists in industry and academia.

Now, at the same time, I am preparing my research for the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in San Diego next week.  I am doing exactly what my students did:  I created a large-scale poster using PowerPoint based on the extended research I conducted over a long period of time.  I spent many intricate hours designing and laying out the introduction, methodology, data, and conclusions.  My students offered me several comments along the way, just as I had offered them while they were preparing for the Connecticut Science Fair.  We were collectively involved in the preparation for presentation of research to an authentic audience. 

I am literally practicing what I preach.  My work becomes a comparison for them and I think we all benefit because it truly is REAL.

Sportcoat jackets reflect situated framework of scientific research
Mar 13th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

This past week, my students and I attended the Science Horizons Science Fair, the Connecticut Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, and the Connecticut Science Fair.  Although we experienced enormous success for the wonderful projects they created, executed, and presented, what stands out to me most, is how these young men and women learned about themselves. 

I was speaking with one of my student’s fathers upon return from the JSHS, and I commented on how we had an opportunity to meet one of the professors that had provided feedback for the project.  Initially, the student didn’t want to approach the professor (shy, embarrassed, whatever), but I insisted he make an approach.  After speaking with him, the student, returning with a big smile, said that it was a good choice to speak with the professor.  He had a chance to thank the professor for his help.  More important, the professor conveyed how enjoyable and important he thought the student’s project was.  That kind of authentic value from a member of the community of practice easily helps justify the reason we encourage students to do applied research.  The student KNEW his work meant something, and moreover, he had effectively communicated with an adult.  The father and I spoke about how many additional skills students acquire that might on the outside not be so evident.

Fast forward several days.

Students are at the Connecticut Science Fair; boys dressed in suits and/or sport coats and pants.  They are having an awful time attaching their pinned name tags to the front of their jacket pockets.  After the judging we gather, several parents nearby.  We discuss this and that.  One says “I have such a cheap jacket, all of the pockets are fake.”  Other boys grumble with similar complaints.  Taking a deep breath, I explain to them (probably with a little laced sarcasm), that the pockets on sport coats come stitched up.  I explained that they needed to gently cut the stitches, and the pocket would open up.  The boys are in awe – the parents are belly laughing.  The father from the previous day comments, “You’re right, they learn all sorts of things in this class!”

Situated Understanding
Mar 3rd, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

As I continue to work with students striving to achieve independent research excellence, I often marvel at the level of specialized expertise that students develop and display.  Their ability to communicate sophisticated scientific content effectively and thoroughly is the true magic in conducting a research experience (for me).  So it gets me to thinking about this expertise and how situated it truly becomes.  Students won’t have this deep level of understanding without such an authentic experience.  Experiences that allow students to appreciate the tentative and creative perspectives of the nature of science with truth value allow for incredible growth.

These students are truly entering a community of practice and, as such, have an understanding and ability to communicate that goes beyond what gets taught in the traditional science classroom.  When they develop their curriculum there is more ownership, but more importantly, there is better understanding for what NEEDS TO BE known.  Students become better filterers and can better attack their information needs. 

The ironic part of this discussion is what really inspires it.  I run a Dilbert Comic feed on my Google Reader.  It’s a great distraction sometime during the day and usually brings a smile to my face.  A recent comic caught my attention:


I thought to myself, “Gee, you really have to know a bit of Star Wars history to be able to understand this one.” My experiences allow me to appreciate the humor of this cartoon. Here’s the scene upon which this comic was based:


I saw the original Star Wars in the theater with my dadin 1977 in the theaters.  Over the years, we’ve enjoyed many Sci Fi movies together.  These experiences, combined with my interests allow me to have a more sophisticated understanding of what that comic was trying to say.  I am thinking that it is very similar for students attempting to develop concept domain understandings.  The situated nature of learning allows for expertise to blossom when the student is task committed and open to creativity.  (Joe Renzulli, might also want me to identify above average ability to complete his 3-ring conceptionof giftedness.)  I think I buy into situated learning more and more every day.  The theory just seems to emerge so frequently from my practice.

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