Category Archives: Alternative Learning Approaches

Start AIMMING for Success

It’s time to start AIMMing for success. AIMM is a simple acronym for Academics Integrated with Making and Mentoring, a straightforward formula for achievement. It requires the blending of academics, a maker curriculum, and mentoring to help build the knowledge and skills to succeed in an uncertain future. Each of these three components reach, of course, across wide swaths of territory. But they present a means of preparing our kids for a future hinted at but not yet fully defined.

Academics

Taken as they are today, the core requirements of most traditional educational approaches make for a very dry and untethered set of skills. That being said, the ability to understand the relationships between numbers, to be able to analyze a piece of text, to see how chemicals interact under certain circumstances and to learn from our past all contribute to the analytical skills we all need to function in an adult world.

Putting together a simple budget, responding to an email request or complaint, preparing a meal or fantastic dessert are perhaps the simplest of tasks that many kids leave high school unable to complete. The simplest.

But by integrating this knowledge building and skills development into more practical learning experiences, we will see longer-term retention as well as ability to apply learning than in the test-driven school environments many of our kids are living in today.

Maker Curriculum and Project-Based Learning

Implementing Project-Based Learning, where students engage in real-life life problem-solving activities over an extended period of time is a great step toward applying those seemingly disparate sets of skills to something of lasting value. Doing this within a maker framework, where students create a tangible prototype, receive feedback and complete a real deliverable takes our kids one step closer to being able to function in the real world.

Mentoring

Many of us remember a teacher, coach, or advisor who took a special interest in us either through a single incident or over an extended period of time. But not everyone does, and until we integrate this type of one-on-one support into our educational models as a regular practice, few people will receive the type of long-term, ongoing support and expertise that can help kids navigate their early years and transition into adulthood.

There are some great mentoring programs out there for kids considered to be at risk, those who may be on their way to dropping out of school and not attending college. While these programs provide a valuable service, for the most part, they serve a school as usual model. The type of mentoring mentioned here is part of a disruptive model to change school as usual for all kids, mentors that can be integrated into the curriculum as we bring more outside expertise into, or take more kids outside the school room through ongoing PBL and maker activities.

How High Can We AIMM?

K-12 is the place to begin integrating academics with more hands-on, real-life, extended learning experiences. Schools like AltSchool, programs such as Breaker,Beam Center, Tools at Schools and DIY.org are amongst those who seek to bring more meaningful learning experiences to kids inside of school and out. Higher Ed is also searching for ways to connect more with what their students need outside of the college experience. I’d say, AIMM high.

 

Ongoing Transitions in the New Educational Ecosystem

One day you’re a sage on the stage; and the next, you’re struggling for more hits on YouTube, more followers on Twitter, or more +1s on Google+. Or maybe, as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education recounts, you spent two years creating an online course, and the administration decides to assign it to someone else to teach. Whether you are a teacher in K-12 or a university professor, the demands on your time and the challenges to your skillset have risen yet again.

That roles are changing, or evolving, is clear. How can we support the necessary, ongoing, transition in roles while maintaining the quality and dignity of the players?

Flip Your Classroom or Flip Out

It should be clear by now that your students need you. How they need you has shifted, but we still need talented PEOPLE to facilitate the learning experience across the educational continuum. As information becomes more ubiquitous, teaching requires more in the way of curating and guiding students through the information rather than being the source of it.

Leading students to independence

In high school and in the years building up to it, we should be supporting kids in developing critical thinking skills by allowing for more experimentation, failure and hands-on mentoring within the classroom setting. Let students come to the class with questions of their own and provide the guidance necessary for them to work through problems alongside their peers.

Building up to deeper and slower thinking

By the time kids get to college, they should be ready for deeply immersive learning experiences. These classes should be led by instructors who not only have subject-matter expertise to share but who are also ready to guide students through the highly analytical discovery processes required at this step in the educational process.

Define Roles for Course Authors, Developers, and Facilitators

As institutions of higher learning provide more online offerings, there needs to be further clarification of roles within the process of creating and delivering the courses.

Course Creation

The process of deconstructing an existing course and developing it for online delivery is complicated, if done in such a way that provides for maximum interactivity and engagement. The upside, of course, is you have content to work with.

The process is also complex if starting from scratch, but there is the added effort of locating and developing new content.

In either case, you have complex process of parsing out instruction into cognitively digestible morsels, a process that requires expertise that is frequently outside of the skillset of most instructors used to delivering content via traditional means of lecture.

Many universities are building out their own instructional design departments to help support this process, while others are engaging the services of outside development teams. In either case, the instructor working as a subject matter expert on the development of a new online course will have to devote many hours to the process. The entire effort is streamlined if the instructor is paired with a trained instructional designer to support the process.

Course Delivery

Should the course author automatically be assigned the role of course facilitator? We know that more institutions, both corporate and higher ed, are looking for more of a human touch in their online offerings these days. These synchronous or asynchronous online courses require then, skilled teachers to engage with students in online discussions and provide feedback on assignments.

The challenge for many institutions is how to make the best use of their resources. An instructor may need to devote up to six months working as part of a team to develop an online course. The case of Jennifer Ebbeler at the University of Texas at Austin, where it is reported she spent nearly two years developing the course should be an anomaly these days. It’s not clear whether she was working alone, as part of a team, or what guidelines were in place to ensure an efficient development process.

So, between the required effort for development and the goal on the part of many to insert facilitation back into online learning puts an extra demand on school administrators to assign the appropriate resource for this task. If it can’t be the course author, it needs to be someone trained effectively for the task, someone familiar with the content, and someone willing to work within the compensation limits placed on such roles.

If scheduling and finances permit course authors to be course facilitators, that may be ideal for those who desire to and have the skills to play that role. If not, a course author can also play a role in managing a team of graduate students, for example. Decisions around who does what need to be made early on in the process so that expectations are clear.

Unbundling of the Teaching Profession?

As education evolves, we are seeing “a la carte” offerings beginning to disrupt all sorts of institutions, with certificate offerings and alternative, professional educational services on the rise. In College Disrupted: The Unbundling of Higher Education, Ryan Craig says that this unbundling is possible in higher education because, unlike K-12, “there is no countervailing force to stop it.” But I wonder if the change in K-12 is coming from within. Teacherpreneurs who may have previously stayed and fought for the profession are leaving K-12 to work for or found their own companies to offer technology-enabled teaching resources. They may not be “teachers” according to the old definition, but they do still “teach.”

Teaching is changing from K-12 through university, and we need to be creative about how to best continue to train, recruit and motivate those who will continue to play a vital role in the classrooms of tomorrow, whether they are face-to-face or virtual, whether they are part of an institutional “package” or not.

Balancing Learning Technology with the Human Touch

I guess that image of President Obama learning how to code as part of last year’s Hour of Code was not enough to convince everyone of the value of technology in education. Despite there being little agreement over the specifics of technology in learning, there is a growing trend that values a high degree of human touch when implementing technology in learning. And that can result in some unexpected challenges to the role of teacher in both face-to-face and online learning environments.

She Says, He Says: Arguments for and Against Technology in the Classroom

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Does Technology Belong in Classroom Instruction?” engaged Lisa Nielsen, Director of Digital Engagement for the New York City of Education; and Jose Antonio Bowen, President of Goucher College in a thumbs-up, thumbs-down war of words over the role that technology can or should play in the classroom.

Nielsen’s portion of the article, titled “YES: New Tools Let Students Learn More, and More Deeply,” highlights how technology not only provides access to more resources but also expands the classroom beyond the walls of the school building. Students, working with guidance from their teachers can learn how to sort through the information available online, appropriately cite their sources, and .share on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, for example. “There’s more deep thought happening here,” says Nielsen “than there is without technology.”

Bowen’s contribution, titled “NO: Classrooms Must Be a Place of Focus and Mental Stillness,” tells us that “Finding relevant and accurate currents in an ocean of often useless or misleading Internet content is a persistent problem” that technology in the classroom doesn’t solve. “In fact, it is a distraction from the real solution: teachers taking the time to help students learn to process and think.”

Both these educators value the role of the teacher in the classroom, but Bowen insists on a tired, teacher-centric model in which “Teachers demonstrate what smart people do.” Nielsen’s is more hands-on model in which teachers do share expertise but in which they are also expanding their skills and toolsets along with their students.

Designing Interactions to Facilitate Learning

Following the initial skepticism of MOOC-style learning, many in the academic and technology community have begun to push for more cohort-based learning and peer engagement in online courses. At a recent Open edX Meetup in New York, representatives from the McKinsey Academy and George Washington University spoke to the importance of building more of the human touch into the online learning experience.

A massive study of online learning “Preparing for the Digital University,” funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, included an investigation of the different types of interactions required for success in online learning: student-student, student-teacher, and student-content.” This section of the report emphasized that human interaction in online courses can help increase the efficacy of the learning experience. The report calls for “sound instructional design” to create these interactions and included amongst the criteria for instructors “a positive attitude towards technology” as well as their “facilitation and of the learning process and monitoring of learner progress.”

The research found that all three forms of interaction produced positive effect sizes on academic performance, with student-student and student-content interactions having higher effect sizes than student-teacher interactions.

According to the report, important course design characteristics that shape the learning experience are flexibility, personalization, forms of assessment, use of small group learning and designed interactions, and soundness of adopted mix of pedagogies, technologies, and media.

Unexpected Rewards of Failing with Technology in the Classroom

Keeping technology out of the classroom is not a reasonable expectation these days; neither is keeping the teacher out of the class, whether it’s a face-to-face situation or online.

Kids are comfortable and capable with many forms of technology, especially their own personal devices. So, we need to meet them where they are live. At the same time, the role of teacher becomes even more valuable in guiding students through activities that may sometimes challenge their own expertise.

Nick Provenzano, 2013 ISTE Teacher of the Year and author of The Nerdy Teacher blog has some advice for teachers incorporating new tech tools into their teaching: “Don’t be afraid to fail publicly. It’s OK! You’re trying new things.” “You can’t be perfect, and you don’t want kids to feel like they can’t make mistakes, either.”

The same sentiment is echoed in an article on “Computing in the Classroom,” in the latest Harvard Magazine. The article addresses some of the challenges and initiatives to incorporating coding instruction into the classroom. “Students are accustomed to feeling this uncertainty; teachers, less so. Implicitly, many regard expertise as their source of legitimacy: a store of knowledge, in the form of facts, to be transmitted to the children. They want all the solutions to all possible problems before they feel comfortable leading a lesson—and because computers are only beginning to return in the classroom in these new ways, few have that expertise.”

Karen Brennan, who used to head up the ScratchEd forum and is now an assistant professor of education at HGSE, noted that when issues arise to break down the day’s lesson, “teachers could model problem-solving for their students even if they didn’t have all the solutions. Indeed, a small degree of uncertainty might be preferable: making room for more spontaneous discovery, and more authentic and rewarding classroom interactions.”

Teaching Transformed

The challenge to expand one’s skillset is similar in higher education, where faculty are being encouraged to participate in the development and delivery of online courses, something that can take faculty out of their comfort zone. Whereas in K-12, schools are building out the role of technology coordinators to support teachers in their adoption of technology, institutions of higher learning are either building out their own instructional design teams or partnering with external resources to help with the design and building of their online courses. These resources help faculty transform their expertise into more engaging online experiences, ensuring a better blend of interactions within each course.

If the trend continues, they will also build in enough facilitation and tracking of student progress so that the experience is more high touch than that of early MOOCs.

In both instances, teachers are learning new methods of teaching while on the job. It’s about as hands-on as you can get.

Gritty Educational Models to Prepare Kids for the Real World

If we could really step back and apply the principles of backward planning, we may not need to be talking about grit at the post-secondary level of education. But there it is in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Looking Beyond Data to Help Students Succeed, and a related one, An Enrollment Experiment, Grounded in ‘Grit,’ discussing  two schools looking beyond standard assessments of performance and measuring noncognitive skills in order to help students who might otherwise struggle survive and excel in the college environment.

The articles relate how schools such as Santa Monica College and Portmouth College are implementing such assessments and follow-on programming to keep students in school and contribute to their success once they graduate. The noncognitive traits that are measured include things such as study habits, time-management, confidence, test-taking skills and perseverance (aka “grit”).

Both schools provide feedback to students and then assign coaches or mentors to work with students to bolster their confidence and keep them on track. The assessment used by Santa Monica is SuccessNavigator, developed by ETS and taken by over 25,000 students on about 150 college campuses. Portmouth’s approach incorporates a program called “Launch Pad,” which is a three-week online course, assessment and face-to-face experiential learning program to get students started. Mentors and additional coursework are also part of the plan to keep students on track.

No question that the programs can add value, and Santa Monica and Portmouth are both community colleges supporting a large number of first generation college students with their own set of challenges, including both academic and non-academic ones. You get the sense from reading the articles that grit is something particularly required by a particular type of student or demographic.

But the reality is that we all need grit in our learning design.

What is Grit?

Angela Duckworth, a former middle school and high school math teacher turned psychology professor is known for her research in intelligence. She focused on a personality trait that she calls “grit,” “sticking with things over time until you master them.” A gritty person, therefore, is one who “approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.” In comparing students on the basis of intelligence tests and grit, Duckworth found that students with higher IQ test scores had less grit and conversely, those with lower IQ test scores had more grit. And if you haven’t already guessed, amongst those study participants, the grittiest ones actually had the highest GPAs.

Duckworth created a test called the “Grit Scale,” a series of 8-12 items on which you rate yourself. For example: “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “Setbacks don’t discourage me.” The Grit Scale has predicted success in West Point and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s also the basis for the most recent work in colleges seeking to support student success.

Who Needs Grit?

If we look back at our first two examples, grit is certainly something that can help students to overcome adverse circumstances, such as those encountered by first generation students in community colleges. My argument is that if we were doing things right in K-12, we wouldn’t need it there. This, of course, brings us back to not only debates over equality in education but also over high-stakes testing and all the emphasis on test prep to the detriment of other subjects and other approaches to learning.

Grit can be a loaded topic, with arguments focusing on the socio-economic factors that constitute challenges or barriers to success, but from a learning design perspective, it’s clear to me that we all need a little more grit in the learning process.

How Can We Apply More Grit to K-12?

Grit can be applied to many learning approaches that put the child in the driver’s seat and allow for extensive, self-directed, problem-based learning. By immersing kids in longer-term projects, and supporting their learning with mentoring and coaching throughout, we can support learning that over time will help develop mature, critical thinkers.  Thomas Hoerr, author of Fostering Grit, said something that reminded me of one of my learning heroes, Paolo Freire: “Fostering Grit is dialog. It’s not something that we do to our students; rather it is something we do with them.”

He also said that teaching for grit “means taking the long view,” which is why I say that while implementing additional support at the community college is a good thing, it would be better to have started earlier and imbued all students with grit through meaningful learning engagements throughout the educational process.

Will Old School Practices Remain as Education Redefines Itself?

As the worlds of higher education and K-12 redefine their missions and reshape their offerings, we continue to see resistance to models of learning that seek to engage students in more practically-oriented, design-driven programs. This week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, three articles detailed shifting focus in college curricula in which either the authors or the commenters questioned models in which curriculum veered away from a traditional liberal arts foundation: “The ‘Maker Movement’ Goes to College,” “The Slow Death of the University,” and “Now Everyone’s an Entrepreneur.”  The articles illustrate how, even as change is seen on campuses running innovation labs and encouraging more hands-on, experimental and experiential learning, concern is still being voiced over a lack of adherence to more classical models of learning.

In K-12, we see great strides being made in the public and private sector by programs such as IntrinsicAltSchool, and the Institute of Play, just to name a few programs. At the same time, we are confronting a huge crisis in confidence in our public educational system spurred in large part by the Common Core and PAARC testing.

What History Reveals

It’s a curious exercise to look back from where we are today to the history of education in the United States, and to try to predict where we might be in the next 20 years or so. Beginning with what some people call “permissive” roots, when parents had control over their children’s education to the compulsory era, when the government stepped in and compelled children to attend school, we can see the role that standardization has played in learning over time.

Given the great state of flux at all levels of the educational continuum, from K-12 on through higher ed and corporate learning, one wonders how much of the system as we now know it will remain. Will any of these concepts be in place 20 years from now?

Segregation by Age

Introduced by Horace Mann in Massachusetts in 1848, “age grading” became the norm across the country. Given what we know about how people learn, does strict age grading still make sense? In the big shift toward blended learning design, and with the part that neuroscience now plays in designing personalized learning programs, does age matter as much?

Standardized Curriculum

Also introduced by Mann was the concept of standardized curriculum was implemented in the 1837 with the goal in mind of offering the same high quality learning material to all children no matter where they went to school. The very fact that we have a Common Core Curriculum to fight over nowadays begs the question as to how successful we have been in researching, developing and implementing standards over the past nearly 200 years. One also wonders where we would be if even half the brain power, money and technology now devoted to supporting the new standards and associated testing had been focused on further understanding of how people learn and how to continue to engage them in the learning instead.

Compulsory Attendance

The shift from parental authority over their children’s learning to more governmental control occurred over time but most strikingly between 1852 and 1918 when the movement towards compulsory attendance began and was enacted into law. People will argue that compulsory attendance was an effort to either save or manage the nation’s diverse citizenry, particularly the children of immigrants who would otherwise be working under conditions that were favorable to no one, whether child or adult. So, with child labor laws, compulsory education laws ensured that children of certain ages would be in attendance at schools for a certain number of hours per day and days per year.

Given today’s dropout rates (The Institute of Play lists this as 3M per year, with Pew Institute figures from 2013 at 2.2M), one has to question the effectiveness of compulsory attendance. More importantly, given alternative means of learning, a single model of compulsory schooling doesn’t seem to hold up.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth  

Free public education is a gift; yet, it’s one that we must continue to question as options for learning evolve and as learners, teachers, and families continue to express dissatisfaction. Universities are already evolving their models to include standalone online programs as well as incorporating online elements into on-campus programs to provide more flexibility for their students. Those are changes that recognize the value of new and adjusted models of learning.

For K-12, there are so many options to extend learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom, particularly for high school students. This includes great programs in design thinking like Tools at School and Breaker; as well as elearning days, where kids learn from home, online with peers and teachers; and new school concepts and curriculum models like those of the AltSchool and Institute of Play.

In examining the current state of public education in light of its historical origins, I’m reminded of some of the commentary provided by those involved in the Independent Project. When a group of students at Monument Mountain High School became dissatisfied with their learning, they started a school within a school where they guided their own learning to great results. Speaking about public education, Peter Dillon, Superintendent of Berkshire Hills Regional School District, noted “It’s the foundation of a strong democracy . . . a chance for people from all different backgrounds to come together and learn together and engage in meaningful ideas and grow from that. When schools and districts get that right, it’s tremendously powerful. When they get it wrong, it’s really enfeebling and horrible.”

We need to look at this great gift of ours and make sure that it’s something to actually be appreciated by those on the receiving end.

Replace High Stakes Testing with Higher Return Design Thinking

Several articles in the past couple of weeks have highlighted the methodology of design thinking for both the business environment and education, particularly higher ed. Fast Company provides a quick reboot for those who may need a refresher in“Design Thinking . . . What is That?” The Chronicle of Higher Ed provides a more in-depth examination of the place of design thinking in higher ed in “Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts?” The Chronicle piece details the popularity of “d. school” classes amongst the general populous at Stanford and discusses the potential to extend the model to college education in general.

What about K-12?

I’ve written before about the value of the design process in K-12, as executed by groups such as Tools at Schools, for example, and the great partnerships that collaborate to bring businesses into the schools to help engage students in more extended design projects. This week I’m prompted by the current focus on design thinking to review some of the benefits for emerging adults (aka high schoolers) should more design thinking be applied to curricula in exchange for traditional grading and testing methodologies.

The Benefits of Design Thinking To K-12 Learning

If we take a look at each stage of design thinking methodology, we can see how this process builds skills that a curriculum based on high stakes testing cannot.

  1. Empathize: Incorporating empathy into the process of learning can have huge benefits. As we listen in order to uncover partner, client, or subject needs, we are practicing an invaluable skill. I’m reminded of my hero, Paulo Freire and how he utilized the tools of dialogue and problem solving to the learning process. Learning how to respect your partner in the dialogue that begins the design process can not only further engage your learners in the current design activity, but will have powerful, long-lasting effects that no amount of preparing for an exam can.
  2. Define: The process of uncovering needs, documenting and then synthesizing these findings requires critical thinking skills of the highest order. Applying these skills to a real-world problem beats practicing test questions any day.
  3. Ideate: This is where creativity really kicks in and learners get to generate means of addressing the problem. With everyone chipping in, and with a sticky note (or white board, or newsprint) array of potential solutions, a great volume of ideas may result. Essential to this step of the process is the belief that “no idea is too stupid,” a concept that any student in a traditional school setting can tell you is not usually practiced. Sorting through and finding the main themes that arise are also a great way to practice problem-solving skills in an authentic manner. Test taking requires a very discrete set of skills that tend to stifle rather than nourish creative problem solving.
  4. Prototype: Creating a physical prototype of either one aspect of or the entire solution and responding to feedback on it provides opportunities for applying a range of skills that test practice does not. Building something out of paper, markers, wood, metal, etc. results in a project deliverable that may in some cases evolve into the actual end-product solution.
  5. Test: Listening to feedback from others, probing further and applying that to a refinement of a solution will serve our kids well as they move on to the workplace. The advice from the d. School is “Don’t defend your prototype; instead watch how your partner (client/user) uses and misuses it. Again, this provides so much more valuable experience than filling in a bubble sheet or staring at a computerized version of the same exam.

As school districts and families struggle with adherence to or rejection of new test-driven curricula, the idea of engaging our kids in more productive and authentic learning experiences becomes more attractive. As each year of high school juniors and seniors waste months in mostly solitary preparation for one of two (or both) standardized tests to sum up the value of their 12 years of schooling, considering alternative ways to practice and build real-life skills becomes increasingly important.

Today’s Practitioners in K-12 and Beyond

As you have probably surmised, design thinking in K-12 will best be realized when schools effectively partner with experienced practitioners as well as corporate sponsors and mentors to help students through the different phases of the process. I’ve written before about Tools at Schools, the brainchild of cofounders Don Buckley, Rinat Aruh and Johan Liden. They have partnered with Puma, for example, to work with students designing “The Sneaker of the Future” and with faculty at the St. Mark’s School in Boston to rethink “STEM to STEAM” amongst other projects. Design thinking is being applied to classroom curriculum as well as professional development and curriculum design.

Juliette LaMontagne, founder of the Breaker projects, is helping to re-engage youth (14-26-year olds) in the learning process by working through regionally-based, real-life design projects , such as the “The Future of the Book,” “Urban Micro Agriculture,” “Technology for Civic Engagement,” and “The Future of Stuff.” Students who have participated in Breaker projects talk about how devoted people are to the projects, how hierarchies vanished as part of the project process, how student-focused the work was, and the great benefit of working with industry mentors.

In many districts and schools across the country, faculty are engaged in projects to re-design or even re-envision school. Imagine if the $1,000 or so spent per PAARC exam question were re-channeled to building design thinking into our standard curriculum model.

Try It. You’ll Like It!

Clearly incorporating design thinking into a curriculum or even considering revamping a school curriculum around this concept requires planning and resources that many schools may not currently have access to. That’s why the partnerships are so important. When we consider what is really at stake, we must continue to push for further change.

If you’re interested in exploring the design process further on your own, or within your school, the d.school has a virtual crash course in design available for anyone to take you, working with a partner or group, through a full design cycle. Or use theFuture of Stuff Challenge resources to engage in your own manufacturing challenge (or one of your own . . . design).

Backing Into School Design from the Workplace of Tomorrow

I originally posted portions of this in a blog titled “This is a School That Johnny Wants to Attend.” A couple of readers thought the fictional “Johnny” suffered from ADD, but he wasn’t meant to be. The content here is significanty updated in order to explore the issue further.

Who is Johnny and Why Is He Suffering?

Johnny is only one of thousands of kids who are either already slipping though the cracks or who are on the verge of doing so. Kids as early as kindergarten complain about being bored in school and suffer from a lack of engagement in the learning process. Daniel Goleman recently noted in an article here that “Anyone who looks at the brain and how it works knows that your emotional state directly affects how you can use your academic skills. If you’re upset, it shrinks your working memory. You can’t pay attention to what the teacher’s saying. You can’t learn.”

So, I invented Johnny as a means of exploring how we might make school more effective for him and others in similar circumstances, taking into account what all kids need in order to prepare more effectively for the workplace of tomorrow.

Johnny is ten years old and has had his share of difficulties in school. He has a hard time sitting still for all of his lessons, and he can’t seem to focus on what the teacher is saying. He sits and stares at his worksheets in class and cries when his parents tell him to do his homework. He’s happier building model airplanes and playing video games. He appears to be disinterested in school, and everyone around him is frustrated and concerned.

I worry about Johnny, so I decided to design an optimal school for him. This school has:

  • More material that is introduced at home for homework. He accesses these lessons on his computer, working through interactive learning modules and videos, responding to online quizzes, all in preparation for a deeper dive in school the following day.
  • Less time in class listening to the teacher talking about a new topic, and more time asking questions of his peers and his teachers about what he reviewed at home.
  • Fewer days spent inside the classroom.
  • Some days at home or at a friend’s house on a designated “e-learning” day completing assignments online doing some individual assignments, and other assignments with a friend or two via Skype.
  • Physical Education programs that incorporate local sports clubs and self-guided activities geared to build confidence and individual accountability for one’s health.
  • Some days at a local business learning how paper is manufactured, cows are raised, food is prepared, architects build models, etc. In each grade, he is introduced to different industries and returns to some from previous years, building a more sophisticated base of knowledge throughout the years.
  • Museum days where he works in small groups on a long-term project lasting several weeks to several months.
  • Days at school, working in groups as his teacher walks around the room providing feedback; or working alone and getting one-on-one time with his teacher.
  • Days at school where different experts come into the classroom and work on coding projects, design projects, building projects, etc.
  • Service days where he volunteers with organizations in the community in activities that match or expand his own skills.

Extending the Community of Teaching

In Johnny’s new school, the responsibility for teaching is extended to a broader community of practicing experts, is enhanced by technology, and is individualized to further support his learning. His classroom teacher plays an ever important role guiding him through these experiences and providing feedback and support to reinforce learning from this wider range of resources. Teaching is as vital a role as ever in this scenario, but responsibility is shared with a wider circle of expert resources providing more input into the experience than has been true in the past.

Reconfiguring the Physical Classroom

An additional consideration for extending learning opportunties is to change the physical environment of the classroom. One great case for this is the work being done by Intrinsic Schools , where learning environments, called “pods” differentiate the type of activity students are engaged in: The Ocean, for small group engagement; The Shade, for students working on group work and projects; and The Coastline, where students engage in independent work. A recent article in EdSurgeprovides more details on this innovative model.

There’s great work being done in higher ed and the corporate space as well that can help us learn about making space more adaptable, more appropriate for specific types of activities, more conducive (or “ambient”) for creative thinking, more “democratic” in terms of how information is displayed and shared, etc. For some more details on this, see an earlier blog, “Design Help for Those Who Can’t Sit Still”.

Some Existing Models

Some aspects of this new school are currently being integrated into curriculum across the country as teachers flip their classrooms and blended learning technology assists in the individualization of the learning experience. As partnerships expand with technology providers and practicing experts in a wider range of industries, curriculum design extends into a curatorial role within the PK-12 just as it has with learning and development teams in the corporate sphere.

Like Intrinsic, AltSchools is an example of an innovative school model that is pushing the envelop in terms, but in a way that goes beyond the redesigned school buildng and associated curricular changes. AltSchool differs in terms of creating communities of students of mixed grade levels, personalizing learning by assigning students indovidualized “playlists” to work through, and immersing students in project-based learning that take students out of the classroom more frequently. You can learn more about AltSchools on their site and here.

Backing into Learning Models from the Workplace of Tomorrow

We back into the learning experience starting from the working world, providing over the PK-12 experience what learners need to know sooner and over a broader range of time. Yes, what people need to know changes all the time, but by extending the learning network to the community that includes the current workforce, the curriculum is more likely to refresh as needed over time. There’s less of chance of culture shock when people move on from PK to college and on to work. It’s 70:20:10 for the younger set.

I think Johnny has a better chance of being happier in this model as the lines between “school” and “life” become further blurred. He was never disinterested in learning, as he was teaching himself all the time. He has more opportunities to participate in and drive his overall learning experience, and more of a chance of making an impact on the world one step at a time.

What a Mountain Climber Can Teach Us about Education

“He climbed with partners now and then but mostly spent time by himself and free-soloed — first on easy routes and then, as his confidence grew, on steadily more difficult terrain. Honnold lived this way for two years, continuing to study climbing history and the rarefied lineage of great free-soloists past, a grand total of three people over 30 years.” “The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold”

Alex Honnold is at 29 years old the world’s best free-soloist, which means that he climbs alone and without ropes. How many of us could learn to do such a thing?

Reading about Honnold this past weekend got me to thinking about self-directed learners, and how incorporating more of the principles of SDL into our K-12 curriculum could result in more engagement for this group of learners.

The Landscape of Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning, or autodidactism, is basically when you teach yourself. What do we know about self-directed learners that can help us incorporate this into a school-based environment?

Studies on self-directed learning indicate that:

  • Individual learners can become empowered to take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor;
  • Self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation;
  • Self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in isolation from others;
  • Self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another;
  • Self-directed study can involve various activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities;
  • Effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking;
  • Some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings, and other innovative programs.

Implications for the Classroom

Perhaps one way to think about incorporating aspects of self-directed learning into the classroom is to back into it from where we are today. Consider the most test-centered and grades obsessed environment and, applying the most student-centered learning approach possible, enable kids to focus on learning that matters to them. But we all know it’s not as simple as that.

When we talk about project-based learning, for example, we are also expanding the walls of the classroom to include activities that are relevant to students and the direction of which are also decided by students. Students choose tools, technology and practices from the real world to support their learning. The teacher functions more as a guide or facilitator than in traditional learning environments, but still plays a big role in the design and evaluation of learning.

Letting Go and Stepping Back: The Independent Project

We need to go beyond stepping back, as we do with Project-Based Learning, to “getting out of the way,” as the teachers at Monument Mountain High School did when they undertook “The Independent Project.” When a group of eight students were given the opportunity to create a school within a school for a semester, they worked independently and together to finish their own projects and to explore areas of academics that many of them never thought of themselves as doing.

As student project founder Sam Levin noted, the students “learned how to learn, how to teach, and how to work.” By providing an opportunity for kids to be in charge of their own education, they re-engaged with learning again.

Self-Directed Learning and 70:20:10

Allen Tough first wrote about self-directed learning in 1971 in the Adult Learning Project, noting that “About 70% of all learning projects are planned by the learner himself, who seeks help and subject matter from a variety of acquaintances, experts and printed resources.” While the focus of the study was on adult learners in the workplace, Tough also made it clear that they had also interviewed 10-year-olds and 16-year-olds as part of the study, and “Their out-of-schooling learning is extensive, and is similar in some ways to adult learning. Schools and colleges are increasingly recognizing and fostering such learning, thus preparing their students to be competent adult learners.”

Interesting how these kids appeared to be preparing themselves to be better learners as adults.

Later on, in the1980s, the researchers Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger, and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership delineated the blend of learning that they felt best “blend” for successful managers included 70% of on-the-job experiences (informal), 20% through interactions with people (social), and 10% from courses and books (formal).

Today, the foremost authority and practitioner of 70:20:10, Charles Jennings, reminds us that the blend is not meant to prescriptive, but is rather a reference model for looking at how people best learn and improve in the workplace.

What we can glean from all of this is that there are a range of modalities through which people learn, but the large percentage of that is on your own through the actual doing of something (preferably of your own choice).

Why Today is Such an Opportune Time to Explore Self-Directed Learning

Many educators will talk about how theories come and go, making their appearance if not in necessarily cyclical patterns, but returning to popularity after so many years out of the limelight. Let’s return to our cliffhanger, Alex Honnold, for some thoughts on this.

If Honnold had been born 20 years earlier, before the proliferation of climbing gyms, he probably wouldn’t have found the sport until adulthood, if at all. Instead, he grew up in the 1990s among the first generation of American climbers to have almost unlimited access to good training facilities, a phenomenon that has produced startling leaps in climbing skill. Wolownick first took Honnold to a rock-climbing gym when he was 5, only to have him scale 40 feet when she turned her back. By 10, he was climbing at a gym many times a week, usually with his father . . .

It’s interesting to note that Honnold’s love for climbing was facilitated by the advent of the indoor climbing gym. He had the tools and technology from his earliest years through which to develop his skills.

What do we have today to help foster the development of self-directed learners inside and outside of the classroom?

  • Technology is definitely one tool that continues to evolve and continues to grow opportunities for the autodidact to access quality learning.
  • Neurodiversity’s acceptance has led to more ways for people with different ways of thinking and learning styles to excel as learners, both in traditional learning environments and outside of it.
  • Alternative learning opportunities outside of traditional schooling provide “homes” for self-directed learners, either physically such as the democratic modelled Sudbury Schools, and NorthStar, for example; or online with Blake Boles’ Zero Tuition College program helping self-directed teens with resources and networks to support their independent learning and career building.

How Do We Know We Are Ready to Try Self-Directed Learning?

We know that students are unhappy. The growing Opt Out movement that supports students and families (and teachers and schools) that want to opt out of standardized testing is a huge indicator of how the current approach is not working. We also know that over a million kids a year are still leaving school.

The original eight students who participated in the Monument Mountain High School “Independent Project,” included honor students and students who were on the verge of dropping out. Levin, the project’s founder, noted “There was a breaking point for me. It seemed like everyone around me was unhappy. I realized that my friends were spending six hours a day, a hundred and eighty days a year just being unhappy. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

It seems like there are many kids out there at the breaking point, and we need a way for them to re-engage and find the joy in learning again. As Sue Engel, a psychology professor and mother of Sam Levin concluded, implementing an alternative school within a school “Doesn’t involve hiring a lot of fancy people and implementing a lot of fancy programs. The potential for this is inside every school.”

I wonder how many schools would be willing to give it a try. After all, it can’t be as dangerous as hanging from El Capitan at 3,000 feet without a rope.