Eighth Grade students prepare robots for final assessment.

ThinkingLAB Workshops for parents—a window into instruction

Kathleen Kirkman and Thanh Luong
Kathleen Kirkman and Thanh Luong

On February 13, Thanh Luong and Kathleen Kirkman, our Eighth Grade STEM dynamic duo, hosted a ThinkingLAB Workshop at Colorado Academy, an annual opportunity for parents to take a peek into the classroom and into the thought process of our teachers.

What I like best about these hands-on workshops for parents is that it allows them to experience the complexity of what we are asking Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Graders to do on a daily basis. There are a lot of schools still mired in the 1990s (1890s?) model of education, a model in which content is king and the teacher is the sage on the stage. We know that this is not what is best for young people, yet education has not changed much, despite best efforts at many schools. That is why CA is so intentional about placing problem solving, critical thinking, and the development of collaborative skills at the center of so much of what we do in our classes.

The recent workshop

At the workshop, parents, with the help of Mr. Luong and Ms. Kirkman, developed code to direct their EV3 robot to use its sensors to accomplish various tasks. “What is wonderful about teaching programming to adults or young people,” shared Luong, “is that it opens the door to a powerful new language to discover and explore. It also demands sequential, logical thinking and problem solving.” Kirkman chimed in, “Working in this way to solve problems also allows adults and students to see the clear connection between trial, error, revision, and future success. Programming is iterative in nature. A best first effort leads to a best second effort, and so on, until the challenge is solved. In a nutshell, this mirrors the learning process at its best and most independent. It is also immersive and great fun.”

After our parents had a chance to practice with the robots a bit, Luong and Kirkman took the group into the STEM lab and shared examples of the complex challenges we ask the kids to tackle. As Alice Rydberg, a participant at the workshop shared, “It was nice to sweep the cobwebs in my brain away and think in a new way. We have newfound respect for our children and their teachers.”

The big picture

CA’s ThinkingLAB experience, the name we give to our collective efforts to give kids lots of practice solving complex problems, thinking critically/creatively, and collaborating effectively, is embedded in all that we do, in each subject area, and each grade level. We intentionally teach all students the Design Thinking Process, a problem-solving methodology developed at the Stanford D School, which emphasizes multiple solutions, failing fast, and consistent improvement, and CWRA performance tasks, which enable students to practice evaluating sources and developing well-supported, logically consistent arguments.

The shape that these experiences take in each classroom varies widely, depending on the subject area and age of the student. What is consistent, though, is our belief that students will improve skills that they practice consistently. Over time, this leads to greater problem-solving facility and confidence.

The past and the future

Over the past five years, our hands-on ThinkingLAB Workshops have targeted Design Thinking, Performance Tasks, our Outside-the-Box Seventh Grade course, Eighth Grade Civics, and this year, our Eighth Grade STEM class. Next year we will invite parents figuratively and literally into our math classrooms. It will be a workshop you will not want to miss!