Try a Learning Slam

Modeling an undersea volcano

Modeling an undersea volcano

There are grand slams and slam dunks. You can slam someone’s idea, slam dance or participate in a poetry slam. How about a learning slam? I tried it. I like it. Kids like it.

My version of a Learning Slam is loosely based on the so-called “FedEx Day” at the Australian software firm Atlassian, and described by Daniel Pink in his book Drive. You can read about that if you want, but in a Learning Slam, small groups of learners have one class period (about an hour and a half) to produce a product to demonstrate their understanding of a topic and present it to the class.

Although I thought of the idea myself, I am not the first person to use the term “Learning Slam.” I was hoping to see what other people had come up with so I could adapt, modify and build upon rather than invent something, but the only reference to a Learning Slam I found was from Zoe Parish, Instructional Technology Resource Teacher in Goochland, VA. And, I couldn’t tell if that Learning Slam was much like what I had in mind. I think it is likely that this is being done by others, but under a different name.

Learning Slam in Science

I had (gulp) given out a few worksheets recently. I did not want to keep doing that. We were finishing up on plate tectonics and getting ready to go into the history of life on Earth. We needed something more interesting, more engaging, that included elements of project-based learning, student choice, collaboration, creativity and problem solving. There was already a major project-based assessment lined up for the unit (Plate Tectonics and Geologic Time, 7th grade) so it needed to be a more finite learning activity that could be completed in a short time. Enter the Learning Slam.

The students were in groups of three or four. For the morning class each group was assigned a topic (undersea volcanoes, earthquake resistant buildings, the San Andreas Fault, deep sea trenches,  shield volcanoes, etc.). A four step outline of how to proceed was given:

1) Research the topic.

2) Discuss, learn and teach each other about the topic.

3) Create a list of resources used to learn about the topic.

4) Create a final product and use it to teach the rest of the class about it.

More than one person can work on a time line at once.

More than one person can work on a timeline at once

No other instructions were given up front. Go!

It was an impressive thing to observe. The kids were totally engaged and worked hard to complete their project in the given time. Allowing for presentations, there was about an hour of work time available. The degree of cooperation was high and the outcomes were diverse. Some projects were done using technological tools, others involved colored paper, markers and cardboard. Final products ranged from models, Keynote presentations, and movies made with iMovie and Explain Everything, to posters and cartoon drawings.

Based on the first period experience I modified the afternoon procedure slightly. The only change was I that instead of assigning topics I asked the groups to come up with their own topics for approval, and I made a few suggestions here and there as needed.

Learning Slam in Math

Could a Learning Slam work in math class? Although I have not tried one yet I am quite sure it can. I have a few ideas (well, one for now anyway).

We will soon be studying data analysis using box and whisker plots. I am going to set out triple beam balances and different sets of shapes that appear to be identical. The shapes I have in mind are: two different sizes of wooden cubes, large and small plastic geometric shapes, maybe some unsharpened wooden pencils (maybe even some newly sharpened one—hey, what about sets of pencils, some of which were all sharpened by a single person, and some sets that were sharpened by a bunch of different people?) or piles of pens. I’m thinking 10-12 in a set. Teams will  analyze the masses of a set of the shapes and compare their results with the results of the other groups. Are the mass distributions of the sets similar? How similar? Why might some sets be more self-similar than others? Can you explain that? Does it even matter? Would your conclusions be the same if you were working with a sample size of 20? What about 30? Is a box plot the best way to compare the masses of these sets of objects? What other ways of analyzing and thinking about the data might work, or be more or less useful?

I can think of other ways to go about this. For example, maybe an activity like this should be done at the end of the data analysis unit and teams would have to think about and choose an appropriate method of analysis without me choosing one for them. I’m looking forward to it.

Iterating the Learning Slam

Motor-driven earthquake simulator

Motor-driven earthquake simulator

Feedback from the kids is almost universally positive (almost). A number of kids enthusiastically requested that we do more Learning Slams.  The only real concern expressed has been about the short time allowed, which some students—especially the detail oriented ones—find a bit stressful. But you know what? That is an authentic reality. You do not have unlimited time to complete tasks in your life or at work. Not everything has to be perfect. You have to make tradeoffs and focus on the important parts of a thing.

The biggest challenge for me moving forward will be to find meaningful learning activities that can realistically be accomplished in the allotted time that effectively support the learning goals. The one I tried in a later class period requiring a representation of the geologic history of the earth turned out to be a bit too big to handle in a little over an hour. I’ll work on that one.

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