My class has two more weeks to finish our project. It's a complex build between groups of 3 and 4 that requires lots of planning and revision and detailed work. Each of the students in the groups also have commitments to other projects that they are involved in and often the building portion of the project gets forgotten. It's common for me to find a student meandering and ask them how much they have left to do on their building project and they'll almost have forgotten all about that aspect of it.
I've been reading a book called The 4 Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss that I stumbled upon while looking through a Tiny Library near my apartment. It's an ok book but in it, Ferriss describes a business coach and investor who interviews potential partners by asking them variations of the following question: "If you had to meet your goals by the end of the week, what would you need to do?". This question seems to help guide a discussion about what is important in a project or identifies steps needed.
While I was thinking about executive functioning this week I wondered how I could model the process of planning out steps in a project, working backward from the finish. I decided to use a variation of the above question with my groups today. I had them sit with their teams with their project in front of them. I asked "If you had to finish your project by tomorrow, what would you need to do?". This generated a lot of conversation between the groups and they focused right in on the work in front of them. I walked around while they discussed and heard them laying out tasks that needed to be done and assigning jobs to each other.
The rest of the period following this prompt was focused and successful, with many groups making significant headway in their tasks. Overall it seems that framing the urgent question of how could you finish this with little to no time makes the question more about problem solving and achieving something. If, instead, I had asked groups to list everything they still had to do to I wonder if they would feel like they were just making a list of work they had put off and felt overwhelmed. In retrospect, I should have had the groups share out steps that they needed to take to complete by tomorrow and listed them on the board. This would allow other students in the class to also model executive functioning and give me an opportunity to help them prioritize or focus tasks.
I will use this again in my teaching career as a way to help jumpstart a planning session or get the ball rolling on a stagnant project. I will use the sharing out method to cap if off however, because I think that seeing role models in peers is an important part of the job of the classroom. Ultimately the students probably learn more from each other than they do from me and I want to allow the space for that to happen.
Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.