Category Archives: Alternative Learning Approaches

Chalkboard with alarm with the words back to school

How Significant Will September Be in the Future?

If April is the cruelest month, September may be one of the more complex ones. With the latter part of the month signals the beginning of “meteorological” Fall, the beginning of September represents a paradigm that many people still accept as true but which no longer makes much sense: the beginning of the school year. September is a firm dividing line between summer fun and the months of hard work ahead. Summer, for many kids, means much less structured time, more time outside, more time pursuing personal interests, whether that means reading whatever you like, perfecting a favorite sport, or spending a few weeks in rock and roll camp. Sounds like an ideal setup for self-directed learning!

Think about the way our kids access information these days. Consider the availability and promise of personalized learning. There are so ways kids can learn when they have to or want to. “September” may be losing some of its previously assigned cultural significance.

Questions Raised by the Beginning of the New School Year

As the Fall engines rev up, here are some simple questions to ask yourself about the very paradigm of “September,”

  1. Has your child been looking forward to the start of the school year?
  2. Did your child learn anything new this summer? If so, how? In what setting?
  3. How does your child spend his or her time outside of school?
  4. How does your child enjoy spending his or her time?
  5. Does your child talk to you about school? What is a typical conversation like?
  6. How much homework does your child have every day? To what end?
  7. Do you help your child with homework? Is it easy to get your child to do homework? Can you do the work?
  8. How much art or music is included in your school curriculum? If it isn’t a lot, or none at all, do you supplement?
  9. Does your child play a team sport in school or participate in sports outside of school?
  10. If your child did not start school each September, what would he or she be doing?

It’s important to ask these questions of ourselves as parents, and vital to reflect honestly on the answers, and not take for granted that the current way that your child is being educated is the only way.

Alternatives to the September Paradigm

The September Paradigm is really just another way of referring to School as Usual. These are very tough times during which our kids are returning to school, and we certainly can’t underestimate the multi-faceted workload that teachers face now and every year. Teachers are working harder than ever to make school a meaningful experience. Even though there has been much progress in terms of integrating technology into the schools and with that some personalized learning tools and methodologies, the construct of school remains antithetical to “real life.”

I’m all for kids (and their accompanying adults) getting a break, but I’d like to see less of a line drawn between learning and whatever else we do every day. This is what is happening in the corporate world, with more support for continuous learning and hopefully what will start happening at the college level. In other words, learning will be designed so that graduates can more easily find their place in an increasingly complex world. Do we need to start in Kindergarten, you ask?

Well, yeah. K-12 needs to let more of the real world in as well. We have traditionally referred to or identified specific schools within districts as “buildings,” reflecting the institutional nature of our educational system. Even taking the safety of our children into account, these “buildings” can be extremely closed off, again forming that barrier between child and family, school and the outside world, learning and summer vacation, etc.

It’s great to hear that projects such as the Beam Center in New York City, for example, are coming into the classroom, or bring teachers and students to their location in Red Hook, Brooklyn for maker workshops. Longer terms projects instill a greater sense of community and connectivity while introducing great skills across curricula.

Tools at Schools is another real world, project-based group that partners with corporations to bring design thinking into the schools. Six-month projects result in products designed to solve real problems, including the sneaker of the future with Puma, and furniture for the classroom produced by Bernhardt Design, whose manufacturing facility the students visited as part of the project.

Less Could Mean More

Less time in the actual . . . buildings could mean that kids are synthesizing what they are learning into activities that take place in the “outside world” every day. In addition to experiential, project-based learning partnerships such as the examples given above (and many others), including online learning either in the classroom or out, and for older (high school) students, more apprenticeships earlier on and independent, community-based learning activities could alleviate so much of the “school fatigue” we see in our children.

We could even play around with the calendar! There really is no season for learning. So there, September!

How to Learn for Doing: Take a Gap Year!

Increasingly, people are realizing that the true value of education lies not in the degree, but rather the student’s ability to use available resources to further improve themselves.

Ben Kim, Why I Wish I Took a Gap Year Before Starting College

Malia Obama is only one of the more high-profile pre-college students to take a year before continuing her education. Both the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge postponed college when they were still William and Catherine. While the practice is becoming more refined and more common in the U.S. and around the world, vestigial images remain of counter-cultural hitchhiking across the country, backpacking across Europe, or volunteer experiences in developing nations across the globe.

What is fascinating about the revamped gap year experiences of today, besides their more formalized approach and entrepreneurial nature of many of the providers of such experiences, is how Gap Year v.3 reflects changing perspectives on learning.

Where’s the gap?

I’m a big fan of Uncollege, and its founder, Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education. Uncollege offers an organized gap year program during which participants travel and volunteer, work on portfolios, and complete an internship in a selected field. It’s a well thought-out approach that balances mentoring with self-directed learning, and while some participants go on to college, not all do. The goal of the program is more about preparation for life than it is about college.

There are a growing number of what we might call gap year service providers, including Where There Be Dragons, the three-month program Ms. Obama attended, Uncollege, the more familiar Outward Bound program, and many others, including programs established by universities such as Tufts, Yale, Princeton, and UNC Chapel hill, which may be fully funded or offer stipends to accepted students.

And there’s where it gets confusing. If a university is offering gap year experience, where’s the gap?

Is this what continuous learning looks like?

Ben Kim’s short post quoted above encourages people to explore life a bit before college, and in so doing, better prepare for the college experience. Step back, in a sense, in order to step forward. What is interesting is the degree to which learning, or perhaps formalized learning is or is not decoupled from “life” during the gap year experience nowadays.

Much has been written by Sir Ken Robinson, John Paul Gatto, Alfie Kohn, Peter Gray and many others about how the very structure of formal education has been a deterrent to children developing their own love of learning. If we turn the gap year into an unofficial grade 14, will kids be free to “decompress” from the first 13 years of schooling before taking on the challenge of college?

Or, can we look forward to major changes in education so that it isn’t so much something to be taken a break from? If school-as-we-know-it can truly benefit from improved understanding of how people learn, how technology can be employed for increasing personalization of learning, and how the profession of teaching can be liberated from now traditional norms, perhaps the gap year can be more of what it was originally intended: a way to see the world and to see yourself from a different perspective and yes, learn from it.

Another type of gap

The discussion on what a gap year can or should be goes beyond consideration of what K-16 education should look like. It also calls to question how we prepare and transition people for and into the workplace. The increasing momentum in corporate training around continuous learning, reskilling, and the powerful case for content curation, performance support, and micro-learning in place of more formalized learning events would be much better served if kids could think of learning as more than a series of isolated events and more of an ongoing, lifelong process.

And that’s how we get to learning for doing without too much of a gap in understanding!

Hacking an Eagle’s Nest to Teach Ourselves

The most effective education doesn’t usually take place in the classroom. Whether you’re a public or private school advocate, charter school supporter, homeschooler, or unschooler, we all recognize that the greatest learning often occurs at the time of extreme need, when facing a real-life problem that needs to be solved. These high-stake lessons may also take place when we are in the service of helping others.

What follows is a tribute to learning that triumphed in the worst of circumstances.

Hacking is the method used to stimulate Eagle nesting and Eagle population recovery in a particular area by releasing fledgling Eagles into the wild from an artificial nesting tower.

The principle behind Eagle Hacking is that Eagles tend to return to the area from which they were raised and fledged (within approximately 75 miles) after they choose a lifelong mate.

Eagle Hacking, the American Eagle Foundation

A Tale of Two July Fourths

On July 4, 1999, President Bill Clinton held a ceremony at the White House commending the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) for their work in helping to restore the environment on and around the Anacostia River and reintroducing the bald eagle to that area. Eight years later, DDT had been banned, and the bald eagle was taken off the Endangered Species list. The team at the ECC had successfully introduced many young eaglets to a hacked nest along the river, and the first pair of breeding eagles had made their home in the area right near the Metropolitan Police Station. In 2013, another pair (the ones I have been following) made their home in the National Arboretum and have successfully hatched two sets of eaglets.

In contrast to that turn-of-the-century celebration of our nation and the very symbol that represents it, this Fourth of July was marred by the shooting of a juvenile bald eagle who later had to be euthanized.

The fate of these baby eagles is something my fellow D.C. Eagle Cam followers and I watch very closely and oftentimes, very anxiously. We always learn something.

Working Through A Constant State of Grief

What many eagle watchers and others may not be aware of is the story of the team responsible for their return. They may not know how the filmmaker Bob Nixon started working with a group of disadvantaged youths in part to fulfill a promise to Dian Fossey, and that through the process of caring for the river and its inhabitants, he saw them evolve into avid conservationists.

More poignantly still, people may not know that in the first 11 years of the program, nine Core members had succumbed to the violence of the streets of Ward 8, leaving their teammates in a nearly constant state of grief even as they sought to save not only the eagles but themselves. As Nixon said in a 2003 article published in The Washington Post, “When I volunteered to oversee the fledging national service program in 1992, I did not realize I was also signing up to be a pallbearer.” The ECC would eventually lose 26 members over the period of 25 years, which Nixon attributes to both the violence in and around Ward 8 and illness associated with the poverty so prevalent there.

Nixon and his team at the ECC captured the early years in the film “Endangered Species,” released in 2004. More than a decade later, its lessons still ring true.

As we return to this full work week after what may be this nation’s oddest July 4 ever, the success of that original ECC team and those who followed is more than evident in their restoration efforts and in the positive impact they have made in their neighborhood.

But we have not as a nation escaped the issues they faced, and we are in danger of unlearning the lessons they so bravely learned.

One Mile Southeast of All That

The story of the Earth Conservation Corps is simultaneously cautionary and inspiring. As Twan Woods, the narrator of the film tells us, “We didn’t do it for the fish or birds; we did it because the river was dying and all our friends were being murdered.” Much of this violence was concentrated in D.C.’s Ward 8, one of eight wards and 179 neighborhoods in the commonwealth, and one of its poorest. It sits just about a mile southeast of Ward 2, Twan tell us, where the White House is located.

The Anacostia River takes on the burden of several decades of neglect as well as becoming the life source of not only the returning eagle but the Corps members, their families, and by extension, their community. Woods’s commentary throughout the film guides us through the journey these young people took in banding together to restore the river and themselves. “Back then,” he says at one point, “people thought only the birds and fish needed a clean river. Man, were they wrong.”

In the 15 years since the film was made, the ECC did indeed make an impact on the river, the birds, and those living along the Anacostia.

Walling People off from Nature

The film reminds us of earlier times when the Anacostia was clean and people swam, fished, and were baptized in the river. As the Anacostia fell victim to increasing industrialization, all of that ended, and over time, the community also suffered. And the eagles left.

Julius Lowery talks about growing up on the river, and speaks of the peace and serenity that the river seemed to bring in those days, emphasizing the connection between the access to nature and one’s growing up in a peaceful environment. “The young people today,” he concludes, “would make fewer problems for themselves if the river and the parkland were available to them like it was to me.”

Reiterating this is Brenda Richardson, a community leader and environmentalist with strong ties to the ECC. Richardson cites the state of then boarded up but subsequently razed Valley Greene housing projects as an illustration of people being “walled off from nature.”

”Nature gives communities a sense of connectedness that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” she advises.

The cruelest evidence of the disconnect is the death toll it took on an astounding number of early Corps members. The first was killed in August, 1992, not too long after the start of the project. Monique Johnson was an inspiration to her teammates, and it was her sense of dedication that motivated them to continue their efforts despite the pain of her loss. The first eagle to be named in honor of a fallen Corps member was named after Monique.

As the film progresses, you can’t help but be struck by the pain of each loss and to start seeing the ongoing efforts of the ECC as some epic battle between nature, the evils that man has wrought upon it, and those who seek to save it.

Can there be a winner in such a battle? Can hacking nature have any impact at all?

The Eagles Could Have Warned Us

Woods compares the eagles of today to the canaries of the past, endowing them with the ability to warn us of the danger up ahead. Today we face a great many challenges to victories of the recent past, including threats to the environment and our great national monuments, threats to diversity of all kinds, threats to healthcare and the potential loss of millions of lives as a result, and threats to our young people through senseless gun violence.

The work of the ECC expanded over time. They have built parks and walkways, and hosted educational events. Team members have graduated from the program to go on to college through the Americorps scholarship program, earned their GEDs, found jobs, or stayed on, as Woods did, with the ECC.

The spirit of those that were lost lives on not only in the fledging eaglets released over the years but also in the revitalized river and parkland. The ECC has been involved in a number of initiatives, ranging from Anacostia Explorers, which extends the original ECC mission to encompass clean-up, protection, and educational programs; to Guns to Roses, which turns firearms to works of art, and in the process trains participants for work in the construction industry.

On April 25, 2017, the ECC celebrated its 25th anniversary with an eaglet naming ceremony, the name having been chosen in an online contest in which 10,000 people participated. The newest addition to the Police Academy nest was named Spirit; she fledged on June 3, and returned to the nest on June 5, an event that brought together thousands of avid eagle watchers from across the country, online communities of people who may never meet each other but who share a passion for these wonderful creatures.

On May 20, 2017, NPR aired “In Washington, D.C., A Program in Which Birds and People Lift Each Other Up”. The report provides an update on the program and highlights the work of Rodney Stotts, an early ECC participant who went on to become one of only 30 African-American falconers in the U.S. Stotts attributes his time with the ECC with saving his life. “I’d have been dead,” he says in the NPR report. “If I didn’t get into animals, I’d have died in the street.”

Stotts continues the work of educating young people about raptors through Rodney’s Raptors and ongoing work with the ECC.

In the days leading to this July 4, much was made of the rescue of a bald eagle in Washington, D.C., thought to be Justice, the parent eagle of the above-mentioned Spirit. While it was heartwarming to see the nation rally around this now-recovering bird, there is still so much work to be done to ensure their safety and survival, and ours as well.

Is it true that the eagle can help us save ourselves?

This Fourth of July was very different for a nation struggling to right itself in the midst of a great deal of political, social, and economic turbulence. Much of our nation was reflective and poised to continue the fight for the return of . . . justice.

As Woods says, I still think we can learn from eagles. More than that, I think we can learn from the brave members of the ECC, and their ongoing efforts to save the wildlife around them, and in the process, save their communities and themselves.

An apple connected to an ethernet cable

Technology Will Not Eat Teachers

In this age of digital everything, the concept of Teacher Appreciation Week may seem quaint and perhaps even outmoded. As we explore new and enhanced ways of supporting learning through evolving technology, and as we continue to ask ourselves what people even need to know, it makes sense to examine the ongoing role that teachers will play in our lives. Consider the following framework for evolving the role.

Backward Planning

How do you plan for a future that you can’t define? Postulating a workplace reconfigured by increasingly smart technology, we now know that we won’t have the same jobs to plan for as we did previously. Automation has already and will continue to eliminate certain more manual types of labor, and as machines get smarter, more of those jobs considered “safe” today.

The Role of Design Thinking

Since we can’t accurately forecast exactly what type of work people will be doing in the future, one of the best ways to prepare people for it is to teach them to more effectively approach a set of problems not yet defined. As Jon Kolko, writing in the September 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review, has said “. . . a design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life.”

While critical thinking plays a role here, the ability to focus on and design a solution around the requirements of those being impacted by whatever problem is essential. So, too, is the acceptance and agility to respond to failure. Again, Kolko: “Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanizing.”

The Importance of Hacking

Buckminster Fuller explained the accelerating rate at which human knowledge increases in the early 1960s. While the doubling of knowledge decreased from every 1500 years in 1750 to every 150 years by the early 1900s, it is now estimated to double every 13 months. IBM predicts that the Internet of Things will drive human knowledge to double every 12 hours.

All this to say, there is information to be had for those who want it. The most self-directed of learners will seek what they need in order to learn what interests them. Look at UnCollege and Degreed for just a couple of examples of the direction this can go in.

However, the availability of knowledge doesn’t mean that it can always be used effectively. We still need to teach our kids how to more effectively and responsibly access, vet, and use this information.

Curation, Curation, Personalization

Also because of the immense volume of information available, and because we know for sure that not everyone learns in the same way, we need technology to synthesize available resources and effectively assign those materials to particular individuals based on their need. This has become increasingly vital not only in a school-based environment, to improve mastery and increase engagement, but in business as well, to increase both efficiency and quality of performance.

The work that Maya Gat and her team at Branching Minds is one way personalization is having great impact in K-12. And I’m keeping a close eye on how Fuse Universal and Anders Pink have teamed up to provide extremely targeted learning and resources in the corporate learning space.

How We Can Continue to Appreciate Our Teachers

The role of teacher has already evolved a great deal across the continuum of learning, and observing, supporting, and being part of this evolution makes it clear that Teacher Appreciation Week is very much a vital concept.

Corporate Learning

The corporate learning team has played many roles, from stand-up trainer, to instructional designer, and curator. From delivering face-to-face training, to taking on the latest online development tools, to assessing external resources, corporate learning has seen it all. While still in a great state of flux, the agility displayed by such teams demands our admiration.

Higher Education

In the early 2000s, when we first started introducing online learning into higher education, we experienced a lot of pushback on the part of would-be subject matter experts particularly. But much of that was alleviated when instructional designers teamed with university faculty to design and develop those initial courses. I can clearly remember the mutual respect that arose from such interactions. As designers, we got to appreciate not only the subject matter expertise but also the keen awareness of student challenges in understanding, interpreting and utilizing course content. Faculty, in many cases, got a close up view of how course designers were able to break down course material and common student challenges and then parse that content into meaningful online interactions.

The lesson learned there was that the technology did not replace the faculty but instead depended on the teacher to play a different role.

Things must continue to change in higher education, but there is still a role for teachers, albeit no longer for someone only willing to play the sage on stage.

K-12

Teachers typically like to learn, of course, and so the many thousands of classroom teachers who have grasped new technologies, sweated or glided through hours of professional development, and effectively incorporated them into the classroom most certainly deserve our appreciation.

So, too, do those who have evolved their role from classroom teacher to teacherpreneur and channeled their teaching greatness into developing, or supporting the development of new teaching technologies.

Still further, consider those who may never have stepped foot into a classroom but who have driven the development of some of these new teaching tools because of their own passion for learning. They, too, deserve our appreciation.

So, no, technology will not eat teachers, but it will help them do their jobs more effectively and in the process of doing so, demand of them an agility to respond to the changing need of their audiences across the continuum of learning.

Envelop with Special Offer stamped on it

Is College-As-We-Know-It a Bargain? Even “for Free”?

As Andrew Cuomo takes a deserved victory lap for making New York the first tuition-free state for students of certain income, I’m taking pause.

This is a major accomplishment. Affordability has long been a major barrier to a college degree, and New York’s adoption of a tuition free model will alleviate the tuition burden for many students.

That being said, there are gaps in the model, specifically:

  • The additional costs associated with attending school on a full-time basis
  • The full-time requirement itself (Students must take a minimum of 30 credits per year to qualify for the “scholarship” reward.)
  • The residency stipulation requiring reward recipients to live and work in New York State for the same number of years they received the scholarship (If graduates move, the scholarship will convert to a loan.)

Aside from these challenges to the model itself, there is an even larger question around the value of a college degree.

Just Like High School?

In touting the new legislation, Cuomo has said “Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.” Unfortunately, high school as-we-know-it is not an option, but an obligation that has been posing as a benefit for way too long.

It is still true that job opportunities and salaries are greater for high school and college graduates than for those who do not complete either. But in our rush to race to the top, we have left behind many students whose innate love for learning has been squashed by excessive testing, overly prescriptive curricula, and a lack of experiential learning opportunities.

As we have struggled to address the stranglehold of Common Core standardization in K-12, we are also continuing (and in some cases just starting) to struggle to address models of delivery and design within college curricula to not only ensure a higher level of engagement and retention, but to also ensure that we are graduating students with marketable credentials for today’s workplace.

Redefining the Market

While New York’s tuition-free free model does address one major barrier to a college degree, it does not necessarily ensure the value of that degree in today’s or tomorrow’s workplace.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5.7 million job openings as of the last day of February of this year, compared with 5.4 million reported at the same time last year. This year, we will see approximately 1,882,000 students graduating with a bachelor’s degree. If previous years are any indication, many of those graduates will either not find a job, will find a job unrelated to the degree or major they studied in school, possibly resulting in “underemployment,” being hired for a job that a less skilled candidate could have filled.

What we need are more educational models that can respond to the changing employment market and reduce the gap.

Few models stand out more than the collaboration between Georgia Tech, Udacity, and AT&T to offer a $7,000 Master’s Degree in Computer Science. In addition to $2M in funding and providing technology support, AT&T also included internships and corporate projects for credit as part of their support for this project.

Accessibility, Affordability, and Relevancy

John Palmer, Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at AT&T, noted at yesterday’s Education Summit that accessibility, affordability, and relevancy are three vital components for education. Palmer advocates for more partnership between business and education in order to keep learning relevant. He also encourages workers to engage in continuous learning to keep up with the constant state of change in order to remain relevant.

While I respect the intent to address affordability, I take pause as I reflect on Governor Cuomo’s tuition-free college plan. Until we address the issue of relevance at every stage of learning, a free education may not be such a bargain after all.

Hop Scotch Board with Colored Chaulk Dollar Signs

For free. For everyone. Forever. For $23,000 a year?

The news that one of my heroes of learning, Sal Khan, opened a brick-and-mortar school in Silicon Valley in 2015 made me push pause. Well, figuratively. What business does the leading advocate of free, on-demand, online learning have opening a full-year, full-day school? Moreover, how does the $23,000 -$26,000 a year price tag synch with what we understand are the hallmarks of the Khan Academy approach: For Free. For Everyone. Forever?

Paradigm shift aside, it makes sense that one of the more creative minds in the business of education today would want to explore alternative models of what we think of as traditional school. But at what cost?

Harnessing innovation in education without strangling it

According to its web site, “The Khan Lab School was founded to develop new, personalized practices that center around the student. With this in mind we hope to develop and test new types of learning experiences and practices that can be shared with the world.”

For those of us dedicated to the task of disrupting conventional educational practices, finding the means by which to test new types of learning is perhaps more of a challenge than designing the experiences themselves. It becomes less a question of equity than one or potential impact. Publically funded lab schools simply cannot push the boundaries of education as we know it as effectively as a Khan Lab School or an Alt School can. Even if we can agree with the general direction that alternative education is taking, more student-directed learning, more technology and data-driven support of personalized learning, can we agree on how to get there?

  • How broad a set of parameters are required to maintain a truly agile learning environment?
  • How do standards fit into an effective model for driving innovation?
  • Given that great potential for innovation, how can we best transfer these evolving best practices to the broader audience of K-12 education?

Are today’s alternatives really experimental?

Having straddled the worlds of Alt Ed and traditional schooling for much of my professional and personal life for many years now, I find myself skeptical about the vision for change portrayed by some of the key players in the world of education today. How far can they push the limits of education as we know it?

I’m watching the Alt School closely to see how their playlist approach to daily learning impacts student engagement and learning. Second to my fondness for their approach to personalized learning is their belief in extending of the classroom to the greater community, leveraging the expertise of local experts and the local environment to provide truly hands-on, real-world experience. Yet, I wonder how agile the overall model is and how much room there is to adapt the model moving forward.

With the Khan Lab School, the spirit of experimentation seems strong and the willingness to adapt almost extreme. As Khan noted in a recent NPR interview, “It’s an engineering mentality,” Khan says. “You start with a solid baseline, but then you’re always willing to observe, measure, and iterate, and through those improvements you come up with something amazing. It worked for the car industry, computers, software. Can we do that with the school?”

While this mentality is more likely to be accepted in Silicon Valley than many other places, it may be a large part of what we need to do in order to evolve into effective alternatives over time. Khan Lab reminds me in some ways of the practice of de-schooling that many families engage in when transitioning from a traditional model of education to a homeschooling or unschooling model. Letting go of paradigms, and accepting rapid change and shifting priorities is not something many providers of education can deal with, or better yet offer as part of their working model.

The Khan Lab School bills itself as an open source model of education, openly sharing their work through the Center for Learning Innovation, created for that specific purpose. But the question remains as to how well these innovations can transfer to K-12 at large.

So, yes, let’s keep an eye on Khan Lab School and see what we can learn about truly experimental models of education. And better yet, let’s work on understanding how to most effectively transfer their learning to the broader landscape of K-12 so that everyone benefits.

Let me know your thoughts on this latest venture and its potential to impact on K-12 beyond Silicon Valley.

Blackboard with colored chalk

Why Send Your Child to School?

20 years ago, when my first child was about 18 months old, we joined our first “Mommy and Me” class and thus began a couple of decades of enrichment programs and education.  We did not follow a straight path. All did not go as we had planned in terms of the standard trajectory that typically begins with pre-school and ends with graduate school. There were periods of diversion, years when we fought with and left the system, and alternate paths we took to goals that my daughter felt were necessary for her to achieve.

We initially embarked on that typical educational path because that’s what most of us did back then, and that’s still what most people do today. That being said, there’s a lot to questions about today’s educational models. There are also a growing number of alternatives.

The Short List

What are the reasons we send kids to schools and how valid is school-based learning in today’s world? The most common answers are:

  1. To learn the basics
  2. To get socialized
  3. To prepare for college
  4. To prepare for the working world

If we take a look at the short list, we can start a dialog on whether our kids’ needs can be met in a school-based environment.

It’s Not That Basic Anymore

Whether you are a STEM or STEAM advocate, you probably agree that there are at minimum a core set of skills children need to learn in order to function in the adult world. And while we don’t know what all those specific skills will be by the time this year’s kindergarten class graduates high school, there are essential practical and critical thinking abilities that support ongoing learning and different career pursuits that make sense for everyone to be exposed to and master over time.

The question we should be asking is: Does the current environment enable someone to use these skills once he or she leaves school? What methods are designed to encourage applications of these skills while being taught them and thereafter?

Socially Awkward

While we are all aware that socialization occurs in many different environments  (the not-so-secret agents of socialization: family, school, peers, mass media, religion), so many people fall back on the paradigm of school as one of the main means by which kids can be socialized. And while in theory, schools should be helping children learn to work together, to both support each other and respectfully challenge each other’s thinking,  there are many kids who feel marginalized or even victimized within the social circumstances of their particular schools. And while families are still largely responsible for how their children become socialized, today’s media, so readily available by technological means, is becoming a much larger part and a driver of how people socialize.

Does the school-based environment today effectively help young people learn to negotiate relationships, support peer efforts and work as teams?

You May Pass Go on Your Way to College

Advocates of school-as-usual may still believe that you need to have attended a public or private K-12 institution of learning in order to attend college, but that is not really the case. Homeschoolers and unschoolers who choose to go to college have been doing so for years, either starting with community college at young ages and transferring to a four-year institution if so desired, by taking and typically excelling at standardized tests required for direct admission to many four-year schools, or by portfolio and other alternative requirements at other schools.

School-as-usual has been seen by the majority as the means towards college, but many families have sent their kids to college using alternative routes.

We Can Work It Out (or Can We?)

The last few years of high-stakes testing in schools that feel obliged to teach to the test, have lost much in the way of connecting what one learns in school to what one needs to do in the workplace. With so much emphasis on how to take a test, and how to do well on the test, students have lost precious time to engage in extended projects through which they can begin to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills that reflect how things play out in the workplace.

Will your child be able to draw on her K-12 school years to succeed in college and in the workplace?

It Doesn’t Add Up (Yet)

Today’s schools should be designed to prepare students for the adult world and the workplace of tomorrow. If we remove the simple paradigm of school-as-usual, meaning this is the way it has been and should continue to be, we can see many areas and opportunities for improvement in overall design. Technology, design thinking, and project-based learning are three of the ways our kids’ needs can be met. School design is another; it’s shocking to see how many classrooms of today resemble those of the early 20th century.

Look at AltSchool and Intrinsic for examples of how school design in both the physical and the curricular sense can impact heavily on the status quo. Beam Center or Breaker projects provide examples of programs that incorporate the principles of project-based learning and design thinking into their work on alternative learning design. Let’s take a break from school-as-usual and see how things add up then.

 

Lego children surrounding a Lego heart

Now that Mindcraft Is So Popular with the Schools, Will Kids Still Love Learning from It?

This is the game that, among other distinguished awards, has won:

  • Most Popular Game Beta: Over 10 million players between December 20, 2009 and November 18, 2011.
  • First Country Modeled at Full Scale in a Video Game: All 16,602 square miles of Denmark
  • Most Concurrent Players in one [game-created] world: 2,622
  • Most-Played Xbox Live Game: 1.75 billion hours (or 199,722 years as of May 2014)

According to the ticker on the game’s website, over 20,691,246 people have bought the game so far . . . wait, no, 20,691,252 . . . oh wait . . . ; well, you get the point.

Common Sense Media gives the game 4 out of five stars, rating it highly for learning math, science and hobbies; promoting thinking and reasoning, creativity and collaboration; and using design thinking and problem solving as part of its design approach.  Scholastic says the game helps kids learn:

  • Science
  • Math
  • English
  • History
  • Art and Architecture
  • Economics
  • Language
  • Social Skills
  • Geography
  • Technology

So, when school-as-usual shows increasing interest in how to apply Minecraft in the classroom, you think this is probably a good thing, right? I’m torn.

What happens when creativity is institutionalized?

As Education Weekly points out, “While the game’s power to engage children has made it a compelling draw inside schools, there have been hurdles to its growth.” The main hurdle reported, and this is echoed on Common Sense Media and elsewhere, is the open-ended nature of the game and how to incorporate it into instruction.

Therein lies the rub.

Minecraft can be played in two different ways, Survival Mode and Creative Mode. In the first, your main goal is to survive by building shelters and protective armor with the resources you gather and construct. In the second, you build virtual communities and worlds by building blocks, and as indicated above, that can get pretty sophisticated and can require a large range of skills and knowledge in addition to creativity. The game can be played in single player mode or with multiple players, allowing you to enter and explore worlds created by others.

While some people despair of the lack of instructions on setting out on the initial journey, resources have been developed over time to help people get started, ranging from the Official Minecraft Wiki, a compilation of open-source resources to MinecraftEdu, TeacherGaming LLC, the customized classroom version of the game.There are hundreds of Minecraft communities offering help and advice as well as over a million YouTube tutorials for all levels of play from other players.

Playing at home, a child will turn to family members, friends or online resources to get the help they need. It’s a learn-by-doing experience that is driven by the players’ need to know as the game progresses.

This can change when the game is introduced in a classroom environment and becomes a tool for driving standards.

How open can play be in the classroom setting?

Minecraft evolved from the basic survival mode to the creative and users began building more and more sophisticated shelters to protect themselves. Online communities started forming for exchanging ideas around the game and for helping each other.

All of the literature stresses the open-ended nature of the game, with the site’s teaser video telling us “With no rules to follow, this adventure is up to you.” And it is just this notion of openness that makes me question the potential to leverage this game in today’s grades-obsessed and standards-driven classrooms.

Take for example, the following comments from a video testimonial provided on the MinecraftEdu site.

“At home, computers, TV, it’s purely entertainment. In my classroom, it’s the very first time these kids have ever come up against boundaries on a computer. I definitely do teach the kids how to play before we really do any sort of meaningful educational content with it. If I just bring the kids into the room and say sit down and play, it’s not going to have the desired results.”

There are no desired results built into Minecraft. But there are many learning outcomes.

When informal learning is transitioned to a formal learning environment

Are the results of a structured learning experience better than when learners struggle to master it and muster the resources to help increase their level of play?

While there is definitely much to be gained by adding Minecraft to a school-based curriculum, there may be much lost in terms of the true value of the game played outside of a traditional school setting.

Home/Unschooling families have had similar debates over the years as Minecraft communities grow and users introduce more structured learning materials. Many kids who learn at home have access to Minecraft, with different structure around the experience. Groups such as Minecraft Homeschool, rebranded this summer as GameEd Academy’s Minecraft School, started out providing support and instructional materials for circles of friends playing together. Now their business has expanded to offer formal instruction for a fee. Another variation, called HomeSchool with Minecraft, promises secure servers, projects, instructor time, graded quizzes upon parental request, video links, etc., with “all information laid out textbook style.”

One of the most interesting discussions I’ve read between parents regarding formal versus informal Minecraft learning is on Amy Milstein’s UnschoolingNYC blog “Why we don’t do Minecraft homeschool” where she shares her rationale for Minecraft free play while her readers debate the pros and cons of more structured play.

At the end of the day, there is a tension that comes from trying to harness the power of an open-ended experience that has resulted in story after story of kids learning how to read, jumping into coding to set up their own Minecraft servers and mods, teaching parents to play, and expanding their own knowledge set in order to complete their own projects.

With Microsoft’s 2014 purchase of Minecraft for $2.5 billion, there will be diversification of the game and it will be interesting to see how the school’s use of the game impacts on its native ability to help kids learn.

Can We Teach Someone to Be More Self-Directed?

If you are familiar with the story of Timothy Doner, the kid who taught himself 20 languages, you are probably not only impressed by his linguistic prowess but also by his belief that language opens you to a new world view.

Doner tells us that his language learning journey began after years of instruction at school, instruction that started with French class in third grade and continued with Latin in seventh grade. He was unable to converse in French, and in learning Latin, he was really learning some systems for analyzing language but not really a means for communicating through it.

So how did he transition from old school to a new way of learning language that enabled him to learn 20 languages over a period of a few years? On his own?

The Power of Self-Directed Learning

Listening to how Doner talks about his language learning journey, I was struck by how his story is a testament to the power of self-directed learning, even if his own narrative is focused on the relationship between language and culture.

Wanting to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Doner started to teach himself Hebrew by listening to the lyrics of popular Israeli rap music. He eventually started visiting Israeli cafes in New York neighborhoods, perfecting his accent, vocabulary and listening skills along the way. From there he went on to Arabic, practicing at first with street vendors, and moved on to Persian, Russian, Mandarin, Swahili, and others.

Like most self-directed learners, Doner was compelled to teach himself something and found the means to do so outside of school-as-usual.

The Traits of a Self-Directed Learner

Self-directed learners are by nature independently minded and driven in their pursuit of knowledge. In addition to this, studies on self-directed learning tell us that:

  • Self-directed learners take more responsibility for decisions associated with their pursuit of learning.
  • Not all self-directed learning takes place in isolation.
  • Self-directed learners can transfer learning from one situation to another.
  • Activities associated with self-directed learning include: self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, etc.

 

Doner’s initial forays into language learning did not yield very positive results. Learning a language in absence of a cultural context and need makes it difficult for most of us. Once he found his motivation (a need for first-hand knowledge), he began to develop a means to teach himself (Israeli rap music). Having laid that foundation, he started to expand not only his repertoire but his toolset as well.

An Evolving Toolset for Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learners are resourceful. In today’s digital world, there’s no shortage of good sources for learning almost anything, especially language learning, including traditional text-based materials, online lessons, discussion groups, etc. Doner doesn’t mention much of that and instead began with rap music as his textbook and neighborhood cafes as his classroom.

As he started to build his repertoire, he expanded his classroom to include outdoor vendors, bookstore owners and practically anyone who would talk with him in whatever language he had undertaken. When that became limiting, he posted videos of himself on YouTube and grew his classroom even further.

Talk about the power of social media! Doner notes that he had teachers and conversation partners for any language he wanted to study.

 What We Can Learn about Failure from Self-Directed Learners

When I think of Doner out there, I see him as an intrepid explorer of new worlds, new ways of thinking and refusing to fear failure. He created his own community of learners, as he has pointed out, by “visiting the outer boroughs and embarrassing himself.” As he worked to improve his language skills, he oftentimes struggled in those conversations with native speakers. “Maybe you have to use a lot of English. Maybe you aren’t that articulate or interesting when you talk.” He illustrates how through one awkward exchange, he learned a word that he will never forget. He appears to be a fearless learner.

Does Self-Directed Learning Have a Place in Institutional Learning?

We’re divided in our perspective of education. Depending on where you live, how much money you have, and how much impact you want to have on your child’s learning, there may or may not be very obvious options for how they do so. Doner’s story is admittedly extreme, but it should serve to excite us about the possibilities that exist when kids can find and fuel a passion for learning.

How does that translate into the public or private education systems today?

There’s a few things we can do to provide opportunities for engagement where currently there is not enough room for generating interest on a student-by-student basis. And it needs to happen on a curricular level so that teachers are left with the room and capacity to spark individual flames of interest.

If we look back at the list of traits of self-directed learners, we know we need to make room for:

  1. Project-based learning activities that provide the time and leeway for kids to take on more responsibility and to discover, albeit in a more structured format than outside of school, areas of interest that may grow over time.
  2. With project-based learning and other more extended engagementscomes an opportunity to fail, change course, and maintain a sense of confidence that can engage kids more significantly than when asked to complete short-term exercises that demand right or wrong answers without much opportunity for exploration. An interesting take on this was presented in an article this month on math education in KQED’s Mind/Shift column.
  3. Design thinking and maker curriculum opportunities can provide the tools and processes for young learners to start exploring on their own. Provided with the experience of working together on shared and guided projects, kids might build on such opportunities to engage in projects of their own.
  4. Modeling mentorships within the school system can help kids gain the confidence to work with the support of an adult or peer mentor on projects of their own interest.

At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about teaching people to be more self-directed, it’s really about providing opportunities where kids can become independent thinkers and problem solvers and feel confident about exploring their own passions. In the workplace, we are seeing how expanding the opportunities for informal learning is positively impacting workplace performance. We’re also seeing how corporate training is evolving into more of a curatorial role in order to make learning available to meet the needs of different learners in different situations. A one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t work anywhere along the continuum of the learning experience.

The bottom line is that we need to start early on to help kids find the spark that will develop into a lifetime passion for learning and doing.

For more on Timothy Doner, see this article on Ideas.Ted.Com as well as his very entertaining TEDxTeen Talk from 2014.

What Did You Do This Summer?

When people ask “How’s your summer going?” it reflects a paradigm built around a traditional school year calendar but which applies to a subset of the population who can really take advantage of that model. Of course, I remember the beach-filled days of my childhood with great fondness. My parents provided wonderful summers of abandonment that sharply contrasted with the “regular” part of the year when I was in school. So now, when people ask me the question, I simply say, “It’s just like any other time of the year,” which may be true for many working adults. But recently, upon being asked the question, by a smiling mom accompanying two sun-drenched, towel-clad kids into our building’s elevator, it got me to thinking about the dichotomy that is our children’s lives.

Real Life and the Classroom

For ten months a year, and five days a week, most kids spend 7 hours or more inside of the school building, and for many of our youngest learners, in a single classroom led by a single teacher. This is the reality of their days. Sitting in neatly aligned rows for most of the day, they move according to plan through a series of carefully planned, monitored and evaluated activities.

Contrast that to the annual summer vacation and the shift in routine, the change in pace and often location, as well as the expansion of freedoms. Which of these feels “real” to the average kid?

Bringing More Reality to the Routine

The well-sought-after and usually hard-to-get summer internship opportunity presents itself as perhaps the antithesis to those halcyon days that typically define the summer vacation. Placing your high school or college students into the rigors of a fast-paced and often chaotic workplace environment will definitely boost employability upon graduation. But will it seem like you are taking something away, denying them the pleasures of abandonment?

Internships immerse young people in situations that are unlike anything they can experience in most school environments. This summer, LinkedIn is publishing student stories of internships, and there are some fantastic revelations of what they are encountering. This one, by Brian Higgins, is particularly illustrative of the challenges and rewards. Brian compares his engineering internship at Pixlee to playing baseball at the college level for the first time, discussing the need to up his play in both arenas as well as the realities of encountering failure as part of the process of engaging in both these environments. That Brian has grown from both experiences is clear as is the fact that he could not have experienced or learned any of that inside of a classroom.

There’s the dichotomy. And that’s what those questions about summer and summer vacations make me think about.

So, what if we were to incorporate more of the internship experience insider of the classroom? What if we were to engage students on all levels to the challenges of real-life tasks throughout the school year? At the very least, there are a few actions we can take to ensure that once students leave school, they won’t experience the type of culture shock so many kids often do. We can do more to prepare them than we do now in programs entrenched in the high-stakes testing mode. These alternatives include:

  • Project-Based Learning introduced into curricula at all levels
  • Internships incorporated into senior year curricula at the least (as much of the school year is wasted once students apply for college)
  • Mentorship programs using outside experts to introduce students to the diverse opportunities that await them outside the classroom
  • Peer mentorship programs that help students to apply critical thinking and decision making skills to supporting their own community of learners

What Did You Do This Summer?

I’m not looking to deny your kids their days in the sun. We all need a break from the rigors of any regular routine, whether that’s school, work, childcare or elder care, for example. So why not bring more reality into the routine that is still school-as-usual and at least better prepare our kids for the ever-changing workplace of their future? Then our kids can have their cake, and their ice-cream, too.