Category Archives: Contextualized learning

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!

Mother dropping son off at school

How Will Today’s Lessons Learned Impact the Future?

In the above cartoon, Henry Payne transforms our concerns over the impact of changing values and gun violence into a seemingly simple yet cynical cartoon. If you look closely, you can see that the year was 1993. Unfortunately, the cartoon remains relevant in more ways than we’d like it to, which leads to the question: How can we really learn from the current discord and violence to make a better today and ensure a better future?

The very recent events in Charlottesville come just before most public schools open for the 2017-2018 school year. My heart goes out to all of Charlottesville, and in particular to the families and teachers of young students who need to navigate their ways through yet one more tragedy of the 21st Century, one that if not seminal, is sure to have an impact on their world view moving forward.

Those kids who were of school age in 2001 well remember the impact of September 11 on the classroom on the very day of the bombings and in the years following it. Teachers were instrumental in helping our children through the aftermath of the bombings, balancing the immediate needs of their students with the pressure to continue the prescribed curriculum.

Our nation’s teachers may be getting a little too adept at managing their classrooms in the midst of a crisis. Whether you were a New York City teacher on September 11, 2001, a survivor of one of the 220 or more school shootings since December 14, 2012, when a single shooter took the lives of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook, or anyone close to or in any way affected by these events, it’s natural to want to learn from such horrific circumstances, if only in order to in some way, prevent them from happening again.

9/11 and each of these events become something of a line drawn between “then” and “now” for the victims, those close to them, and to the rest of us, with all too close-up of a view of these situations given social and other media’s immediate access to them. The event becomes a marker in time, a loss of innocence for the younger generation and a growing fear or cynicism among others.

What is there to learn anew, what is there to teach, and how will what we do now impact on how we interpret the history of this moment?

Throw out the lesson plan!

Specifically with college and high school students, there is much to be said about practicing flexibility in planning and to seize the moment after such events. Give the class what it needs now rather than adhere to a strict timeline to back you into final exams, SATs, or some such end goal. Whether a Political Science course, American (or World) History, Literature, Sociology, Creative Writing, Journalism, etc., working with the facts of today’s events, including relevant analysis, and understanding what has led to this moment, will be a tremendous (and perhaps painful) catalyst for learning.

If ever there was a time to teach history or government . . .

Again, depending on grade level, Charlottesville will become the theme for meaningful learning experiences on the civil war, civil rights, civil disobedience, and more.

Beyond the very visceral images of Nazi and Ku Klux Klansmen marching on the University of Virginia campus, on the sacred yet public Lawn, Charlottesville and events like it have heightened debates over our approach, as a nation, to the interpretation of history. An article on Atlantic.com discusses how the history of Charlottesville has contributed to the extremism of the neo-Nazi and KKK groups there.

It is a city that embraces its history, not as a frank fact of the past but as a defining feature of its present. Plaques and statues are everywhere on the becolumned UVA campus. Thomas Jefferson—as a person and as an idea—infuses the place. But Charlottesville is not merely a blue city in a red state; it is also a southern town in a southern state. The monuments that make the city’s history manifest are often ones that celebrate figures of the Confederacy. And one of those monuments, in particular, has served as a bronze-sculpted lightning rod.

The tension around the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee from the town’s center indicates the extent to which these fringe groups hold on to a history and monuments to it that so many people have strived for so long to move past. Dan Rather, in a video posted to Facebook on August 13, speaks about this being a day to think about “who we are, where we are in the arc of history, where we seem to be going, where we ought to be going, and where we want to be going.”

Real Problem-Based Learning

Learning to interpret and respond to current events in light of their history becomes less of an academic exercise and more of a means to potential conflict resolution when applied in real time.

An article in the New York Times the other day, titled “What U.Va. Students Saw in Charlottesville” asked U.Va. students for their interpretation of the events on August 12. Among the many thoughtful responses, one student struggled with the University’s decision to allow the rally:

Instead of saying that the university is going to keep me and my peers of color safe — or reassuring students that we belong on our campus and no one can take that from us — Teresa Sullivan, the president of University of Virginia, sent out a statement that reminded us that the college “is a public institution and follows state and federal law regarding the public’s right to access open spaces.” She wrote that the University of Virginia supports First Amendment rights but rejects “the ideology of intolerance and hate.”

Another student spoke about his change of heart over the same question of First Amendment rights:

The way I see it, white supremacists — despite their irrefutably toxic ideology — are entitled to the same constitutional liberties as anyone else. I figured, maybe naïvely, that allowing the alt-right to assemble in public, under the scrutiny of daylight, would galvanize public opinion against their hateful beliefs. It would reveal the rotting foundation on which their ideology rests.

These students are being touched by history-defining moments in very different ways. Working together, facilitated by an instructor, they can apply the lessons of history, the tools of sociology, an enhanced understanding of constitutional law and other “subjects” to assess each other’s world views and hopefully contribute more effectively to ensuring that this moment in history does not repeat itself. Their stories have already had a deep impact on all who have heard them.

Just as with all teaching and learning, there is no one answer.

Each situation is unique and requires its own specific response. Similarly, each student is uniquely curious about or able to cope with such events. While most schools and local authorities provide additional counseling following events like this, there is no doubt a responsibility for classroom teachers at all stages of the educational continuum to direct conversations, respond to questions, assign research if relevant, and provide comfort as needed. It is a very significant role to be playing nowadays.

The tools at our disposal, including content curation platforms, can make such research easier to gather and knowledge sharing more immediate and more sophisticated in terms of media used to present such stories and analysis that will come out of this tragedy. Classrooms can connect beyond their physical environment to add voices to the story that needs to be told.

How soon and how early can we start?

One is tempted to say “yesterday,” but we cannot undo the damage to our youth and to all victims of gun violence, physical violence, or intimidation in any form that has already occurred. But we can look back in order to move forward. That will help ensure a place in history that our kids and grandkids can be proud of. And that is something that we need to start to do today.

While most of the examples in this article refer to older students, it is not too early to start teaching the skills that our children will need as they continue to grow and as their own stories unfold. We can start providing them with the tools for tolerance by extending the classroom, as is being done in some schools (Alt School, for example), to the greater community. That means less time in the classroom and more time learning about how the world around them actually works. It also means using the available technology to interact with kids in other parts of the world and working together building shared experiences and reporting of these experiences. It also means building digital literacy and teaching kids how to use the technology responsibly to get and share information. In A Common Sense Approach to Talking with Students about Charlottesville, post to her most recent Innovative Educator blog, Lisa Nielson introduces teachers to some Common Sense Education tools for the tough conversations K-12 teachers may be having over the next days and weeks.

A little Social Emotional Learning, Anyone?

Teachers have always worn multiple hats, but the best in the field are those who nurture their students in the process of educating them. In today’s increasingly divisive American culture, it is essential to support kids at all stages of the educational continuum by infusing the curriculum with opportunities to not only develop subject matter knowledge and essential competencies with which to enter the working world but to interact with others around them in a civil and respectful manner.

As tempers continue to flare, we have a responsibility to not only listen, really listen, to disparate voices, but to also effectively work together to ensure less conflict moving forward. We have the opportunity and the tools to generate perhaps raw but nevertheless meaningful dialogue around the most challenging of issues facing us.

In that way we can more effectively ensure a better place in the arc of history.

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!

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.

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.

 

Maker Spaces and Digital Fabrication Democratize Learning

As Paulo Blikstein noted “Innovation and collaborative problem-solving are core skills for virtually any career, and yet those are the very elements that have been pushed out of the schools by the mandates of standardized testing.” If you’re a parent who is frustrated by this, perhaps you sign your child up an after-school robotics class, or you register for an online program such as DIY.org, or maybe it’s a kind of hybrid plan and you order your daughter (or son) a Blink Blink creative circuits project kit. If you’re a teacher, maybe you sign yourself up for a professional development event, such as “Project-Based Learning Integration: From Design to Evaluation” held on June 9 at the Beam Center.

It was refreshing to witness the engagement of about 30 educators while learning about the background of project-based learning (PBL) and digital fabrication and working together to brainstorm appropriate projects.

Not only did we learn about how maker spaces need to be designed for optimal impact, but we also personally experienced first-hand some of the challenges of designing effective projects.

What is Beam?

The evening’s session was hosted by Brian Cohen, Co-Director of the Beam Center and facilitated by Nancy Otero, Director of Professional Development. The Beam Center, located in the transitioning industrial waterfront of Red Hook, has a number of different offerings, ranging from collaborative projects with kids, working with schools to develop their own programs, and professional development.

Their programs include after-school workshops for elementary school children and programs for high school students in which they collaborate with engineers and artists. Beam Camp is held in Strafford, New Hampshire and includes both full summer sessions as well as one-month experiences that are focused on a new and unique building project for each session.

Key Concepts of Project-Based Learning

Surrounded by projects spanning conductible yarn to a dome-like tent that projects digital representations of the constellations, we were first provided an overview of PBL. Otero is also Curriculum Coordinator and Developer for theTransformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford University and founder of Active Emergence, a group that helps schools develop MakerSpaces orFabLabs@School. She shared a number of key concepts associated with successful PBL:

  • Space matters: As David Kelley of IDEO has pointed out, “We read our physical environment, like we read a human face.” Otero stressed the importance of making learning spaces gender neutral and accessible, with ample examples of what types of projects are possible.
  • Let kids explore: Here we were encouraged to consider Maria Montessori’s advice to “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
  • CREATE: According to Otero, successful projects share the following characteristics.
    • Child Direct: Let students choose, be curious and lead.
    • Risk Friendly: Encourage successful failures.
    • Emotionally Attuned: Praise process rather than people.
    • Active: Judge activities by tinkerability and playfulness.
    • Time Flexible: Help students find and stay in flow.
    • Exploratory: Ask open questions.

The Need to be Purposeful in Terms of Diversity and Design

Two main findings tell us that we need to be purposeful both in terms of how we encourage participation in PBL and digital fabrication as well as in how we design the actual learning experiences. As Otero shared with our group:

  • Diversity is something we need to continually strive for. According to Leah Bueckey’s keynote at FabLearn 2013:
    • Of the 36 magazine covers depicting maker projects and curricula, 85% of the people shown were male, O% were African American;
    • Of 512 articles surveyed, 85% were written by male authors;
    • Of the projects developed to date, 90% appear to be in the category of electronics, vehicles and robots.
  • Order matters: In designing learning activities, studies have shown that students learn better when given the opportunity to experiment and then are provided with instruction. Think of the flipped classroom methodology. Experiments by Schneider and Blikstein show higher performance on tasks when students are allowed to discover for themselves rather than having to first listen to instructions on how to perform the tasks.

Trying It on for Size

As we found out, designing such projects has its challenges. Walking around the room as smaller groups worked through the process of planning sample projects, Otero encouraged active brainstorming and discouraged the tendency to lead with technology. She challenged groups to focus on individual concepts that students could learn while working through projects that ranged from urban design, working with fractions, and conductivity. What did we want the kids to learn?

What’s ahead for PBL and Digital Fabrication?

According to Otero, “We are seeing more and more independent schools implementing [these projects] as a tool for multidisciplinary activities, teaching robotics and programing. More and more teachers from public and independent schools are interested in using technology even though it’s not clear how to integrate it or evaluate it. Parents and students are asking for these spaces and classes. They will happen, hopefully as a tool to understand technology and find it less alienating, and as a way to democratize invention.”

While a growing range of opportunities exist outside of school for PBL in after-school programs, maker clubs and spaces, in online programs and within the homeschooling and unschooling communities, Blikstein’s comments continue to ring true. Hopefully, with programs such as those at the Beam Center and the growing DIY and Maker movements, one day we will prove Blikstein wrong and see this type of innovation integrated in the schools as well. I think he might be OK with that.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Redux

We’re frequently presented with approaches to teaching and learning as if they are somewhat new. Or there’s a new study defending the efficacy of the approach as if it had never been proved effective before. For example: Social learning. Emotional learning. Democratic learning. All sound, valuable concepts.

But if we look back, we can see some genesis for these methodologies in earlier pedagogical constructs. When I was in grad school, I was introduced to the work of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian-born educator whose work to eliminate illiteracy in Brazil eventually landed him in prison in the 1964 coup d’état. Freire’s work was seminal to the work I was doing at the time and was incorporated into my thesis project. Over the years, I have turned to his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to refresh my thinking and to shed some light on issues that we are confronting in educational practice.

A Newly-Defined Relationship between Teacher, Student, and Society

Most importantly, Freire’s work assumed a newly-defined relationship between teacher, student and society which, I believe, we are still striving to achieve. He defined as the antithesis of his approach the “banking” concept of knowledge, in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” I’m thinking that Paolo Freire would have loved the concept of flipped classrooms!

Steps towards Knowledge Building

As steps toward achieving an open and equal relationship between learners, teachers, and society; and as a means of utilizing literacy as an instrument of freedom, Freire incorporated a number of concepts into his approach that may have impact on how we view and design learning programs today.

  • Dialogue
  • The tool of literacy had as its basic purpose the goal of liberating a class of people with no voice. Dialogue is a process that according to Freire “presupposes equality amongst participants.” This includes mutual respect, care, and commitment. Through dialogue, he wrote, we recognize that thoughts will change and new knowledge will be created.

  • Problem Posing
  • The process of problem posing enables people to become active participants in a dialogue, linking knowledge to action.

  • Praxis
  • Freire believed that action and reflection must both be present for dialogue to be effective. By taking action, you then can critically reflect on reality in order to change it further.

These are a few of the concepts Freire promoted and ones that should play a part in the decisions we make when considering the direction education is taking. You can learn more here.

Democracy, Tolerance, Language, and Standards

Freire eschewed being defined solely as a specialist in literacy. Instead, he preferred that literacy be thought of as one chapter in his critical view of education. He proposed a critical way of thinking, knowing, and working with students. Freire recognized that students needed to learn the “standard” language in order to participate in and change society. At the same time, he urged teachers to recognize the beauty of their students’ natural speech and their right of students to use it.

Today’s test-driven and standards-based curriculum makes it difficult to appreciate the diversity of not only language, but also approaches to thinking, problem solving and creativity. This is one reason I believe neurodiversity is such an important concept to incorporate into education these days. What would Freire think?

Do We Want Things to Stay the Same?

Paolo Freire believed that “We did not come into the world to keep the world as it is. We came to change reality.”

We need to decide if we want things to stay the same in terms of educational practices, or if we want things to change. We should ask ourselves:

  1. When we send our children to school, do we encourage them to find and use their own voices?
  2. Do we provide teachers with the means of engaging in effective dialogue with their students?
  3. Are the activities we offer as part of daily curricula ones that encourage action and reflection?

One of the most obvious tools for change that we have at our disposal today is technology. Technology can help us understand how students problem solve, individualize their learning, and extend access to world class learning programs where none previously existed. This is where we need to put our efforts, not in digitally recreating poor learning methodologies.

The ultimate success of an educational system will be a citizenry of independent problem solvers who feel welcomed by and equipped to participate in a democratic process. That starts with learning. The willingness to learn comes from engagement in the learning process. Social, emotional, and democratic learning can add great value to the educational process. Sometimes we need to look back in order to discuss best steps for moving forward.

Learning How to Do Good

Social entrepreneurism is a goal to which many of us aspire, but how do you even start? The team at Goodnik has made it their business to help promote social entrepreneurism, as their mission statement says “by bringing not-for-profit and private companies together to share resources and ideas about better ways to do business.” They hold workshops, connect new business owners with established partner companies and host these meetups so that people can share their projects, get feedback and network with like-minded self-starters.

Earlier this week, I attended the Goodnik Winter Demo Day, and heard about some amazing projects that leverage technology for social impact. Seen through my lens of educational impact, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned and perhaps spread some of the inspiration.

Visit.org

Visit.org helps travelers add “immersive local experiences” to your existing travel itinerary. That experience is offered by a local not-for-profit organization, lasts usually half a day, and may include some combination and variation on the following: a presentation of the organization’s work, guided tour to related sites, interaction with community members, workshops, etc.

Tour proceeds go directly to the hosting organization.

User scenario: Say you are planning to travel to Greece with your family and would like to include a social impact experience in your vacation. On the site, you simply:

  1. Select where you want to travel.
  2. Select what issues you care about.

You will be presented with one or more options. In the case of Greece, there are opportunities to

  • Aid in the recovery and rehabilitation of sea turtles
  • Visit classical sites of Athens and engage in social street work, distributing humanitarian kit (sleeping bag, clothing, food)
  • Participate in a wheel chair tour of Athens to experience it through the eyes of mobility impairment
  • Tour the food markets of Athens, visit donor establishments and the recipient groups that distribute them

These tours range in price from $17 to $68 and last anywhere from two hours to half a day. Visit the site and see the options for Peru, Cambodia, Senegal, Costa Rica and many others.

Visit.org was designed to educate people about countless social causes through deeply immersive engagements. Like “Ecotourism” and high school service/adventure programs, these experiences enable someone to experience a culture close-up, but for shorter periods of time and for less money. Their vetting process is well-defined and there is not mismatch of services. Partner organizations really do benefit from the involvement of the tourist participants.

The team at Visit.org is as diverse and as dispersed as their partner organizations and so can offer a truly world view on social impact opportunities. Most importantly, I admire this group because they make a direct connection between providing economic development opportunities for their partner organizations and educating the public as to the issues at hand.

Amp Your Good

Remember all those food drives you participated in as a kid? Well, we now know that those cans of stringed beans were probably not the best choice of sustenance we could provide on a long-term basis to a family in need. And unfortunately oftentimes goods are delivered beyond their expiration date. Not only that, but apparently 10-60% of goods donated are never used because of mismatched needs. All that hard work, but all that waste! As I said earlier, most people want to do good, but we don’t always know how. That’s where Amp Your Good comes in.

Amp Your Good is a platform that takes a traditionally offline activity, goods-based giving, and boosts its effectiveness online. They help those who are organizing campaigns to establish their presence online and provide fulfillment services to ensure timely delivery of those goods. All this is provided free of service to those organizing the campaign. CEO Patrick O’Neill calls this “crowd feeding.”

User scenario: If you are interested in organizing a campaign, Amp Your Good sets up the page on its site for you and provides tools for helping you get started, including tips for seeding the campaign, templates for press releases, best practices, etc.

As a donor, the user scenario couldn’t be simpler.

  1. Select the campaign you are interested in.
  2. Select the product you would like to donate.
  3. Click to pay.

Because the campaign incorporates a hunger organization’s wish list, you can only donate (i.e. select and pay for) those specific items. And true to Amp You Good’s mission, campaigns can include non-perishable and perishable goods. Because Amp Your Good manages fulfillment, they can ensure all products are fresh and appropriately dated. No more unusable donations!

From a user perspective, the site is intuitive, designed as O’Neill says, “like a mini wedding registry.” The collateral is well-written and invites . . . engagement.

Not only does Amp Your Good provide tools and resources for hunger organizations and charities to meet their goals; they also are educating the public about better practices for giving at the same time they are donating to these causes.

Open Green Map

Learning about Open Green Map (OGM) makes you want to be reborn as a cartographer. But actually, because of OGM, you can participate in helping to chart relevant ecological, cultural and civic resources without being a map maker yourself.

In 1995, Green Maps Systems was a resource that Green Map groups all over the world accessed for building their own maps. The original intent was to create a database of sustainable maps to help “guide citizens toward making better everyday choices.” By 2009, they had launched OGM and Green Map Icons, an award-winning resource that enables map makers and users to contribute to the ongoing development of the project. Combined with Google Map and open source Drupal technology, the OGM links mapmakers in 65 countries who have engaged in over 900 locally led projects, and published more than 550 local Green Maps.

User Scenarios: There are many ways to engage with OGMs, including but not limited to mapmaker, map user, student, educator, researcher, and participant who would like to add a site to an existing map.

Anyone can use the site to locate restaurants and businesses categorized and tagged as sustainable living, nature, or culture and society. On the local map of your choice, you can deselect any of these categories on the Legend tab to make your browsing easier. You can also search for a specific site (establishment) if you want to.

If you are interested in contributing comments, as a registered user you can click on a specific site and add your comments or post a related image. If there is a site that you want to recommend be added to a map, there is fairly straightforward form for doing so.

Open Green Maps is already making incredible strides in terms of connecting like-minded people who want to contribute positively through this vast project. The organization does work with universities and schools, and provides suggested lessons and materials for kids both in school and out. Probably my favorite line from all the Green Maps material I have ingested recently is “Green Maps and the process of making them gives youth a better understanding of current conditions and community resources and a voice in their own future, helping them communicate with their peers, older people and decision-makers.”

Inspired Yet?

Even though at first glance the presenters at the Goodnik Winter Demo event may not have aligned directly with my work in education, it was pretty clear early on in the evening that not only can I learn so much from these organizations’ efforts but so can a lot of other people, too. Each provides further, authentic opportunities for truly experiential learning.

Thanks again, to Goodnik founder and organizer, Nate Heasley; Michal Alter, co-founder of Visit.org; Patrick O’Neill, CEO of Amp Your Good; and Wendy Brawer, founder of Green Maps. Thanks, too to Brett DiDonato, a rock star of a web architect, and Ron Suarez of IoT4ClimateSolutions, an awesome site for crowdsourcing solutions to climate change, for their presentations as well.

Why Engagement is So Important

Last year, the Hay Group reported that “Organizations on the top quartile on engagement demonstrate revenue growth 2.5 times that of those in the bottom quartile.” They went on to report that companies in the top quartile on both engagement and enablement achieve revenue growth 4.5 times greater.” For a company with annual revenues of $5 billion, this could mean an increase of $1.8 billion if both engagement and enablement are in the top quartile. With high levels of engagement and enablement, employee turnover rates can be 40% lower.

It seems like such an obvious thing. If people feel more invested in the task(s) at hand, and if people have more of a stake in the success of the venture they are involved with, won’t they do better at it?

You may assume I am still talking about corporate success. But with 1.2 million kids still dropping out of school each year, many of whom claim a lack of engagement, we need to understand why kids are not engaged in their learning and help them re-engage. In other words, we need our schools to be successful.

Why are kids disengaged?

The fact is that the focus of so many is on the end state that the experience of education itself has been altered in a most unfortunate way. Common Core and its attendant PARCC testing have created an atmosphere of dissent amongst educators, parents and kids. Teachers have always worked so hard to engage their students. As do curriculum designers. So do all the EdTech companies pouring those millions and more of dollars into the next best educational app. But the engagement now is directed toward developmentally skewed goals and if anything is a distraction to learning rather than a worthy goal. It’s not easy to experience joy in learning when constantly in test prep mode.

Additionally, our kids have grown up in vastly different circumstances to those under which our “modern” concepts of schooling were developed. Spending eight hours a day, most of it at a desk and separated from the tools and means by which they are already learning outside the classroom may not be the best recipe for success.

What are we preparing our kids for?

I’m a big fan of backward planning, and so I consider the overall purpose of a P-12 education in terms of how well we are preparing our kids for their active participation in society and the workplace. At the end of the day, what are our kids going to be able to do once they leave the nest?

As identified by the 2000 SCANS report, schools should be preparing kids for their effective participation in the workplace by teaching a basic set of competencies that cross specific job types:

  1. Identify, organize, plan, and allocate resources (Resources)
  2. Work with others (Interpersonal)
  3. Acquire and evaluate information (Information)
  4. Understand complex interrelationships (Systems)
  5. Work with a variety of technologies (Technology)

How can we re-engage kids in their learning?

Just as with adults, learning needs to be relevant and it needs to be delivered in a way that attends to the individual’s personal learning style. The challenges of achieving these goals should be the real work of today’s edu/teacherpreneurs and learning designers.

  • Contextualize learning in real-life tasks that make sense at all ages of development. If we can enable and support tasks that necessitate acquisition of knowledge, learners will be much more immersed in these experiences than the abstract drill and practice that still pervades the classroom today.
  • Create pathways to learning that map to children’s interests. I can learn about physics through soccer-related exercises or through architectural planning, for example. There are plenty of computer programs that can access my interests and direct my learning accordingly.
  • Incorporate the tools for learning students already take for granted. The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement acknowledges that we need to “get students where they are at.” Smartphones in particular are great ways to engage kids inside and outside of the classroom in ways that they are comfortable and excel at.
  • Attend to each child’s style of learning so that she can pursue her studies appropriately. Neurodiversity is making a huge difference in how we understand thinking processes and deliver learning these days. There’s more work to be done to get this out to everyone.
  • Get kids out of the classroom. Not only do kids need to play and move around, but there are a wealth of resources available in your communities for extending mentorship to local businesses. Learning from actual practitioners can be a huge boost to engagement.
  • Add maker activities to your curriculum and maker space to your classroom if possible. The maker mindset is one that incorporates DIY (Do-It-Yourself) interactions with teamwork and an entrepreneurial spirit that speaks volumes about how things work in the real world. In fact, the maker movement is not limited to kids and has sparked a whole new economy unto itself.

If your child cannot engage in a traditional classroom, consider the alternatives.

This week’s previous blog covered this topic in more detail, but as part of today’s conversation around engagement, it should be noted that there are options for kids who despite whatever the circumstances, cannot engage in learning in a formal school environment. Online schools, alternative schools, transfer schools, homeschooling and unschooling are all ways to enable learning for kids cannot attend a traditional school. Learning does not stop once a kid leaves the building. We don’t think that about kids who attend traditional school; we should not think that about those who seek an alternative.

Curating Learning in the Workplace and as Part of Preparing for It

The 70:20:10 model for workplace learning has shown us that learning comes from many different sources. There is on-the-job (or experiential) learning, social learning, and formal learning. And as Charles Jennings has taught us, while the exact ratio of 70:20:10 is “a relic,” the mixture of these different sources of learning, with a large proportion of it learning by doing, is going to help people be most successful in the workplace. The same is true for our younger learners.

Just as many workplaces are looking to the role of “curator” to help workers engage more in their own success through more targeted learning experiences, so do we need to curate and design opportunities for learning that more effectively map to the mind of the P-12 learner.

“School” is by definition a formal place of learning, but we need to consider a different model to re-engage our younger generation.