Category Archives: Continuous learning

The word "priority" in a red speech bubble

Setting Our Priorities in the Apocalypse

It’s hard not to feel post-apocalyptic in the face of so much tumult. Harvey, Irma, and Maria have proven that Bill Nye is not the only guy who believes in climate change. Stevie Wonder has been flying up and down the east coast playing at global and national unity concerts. Betsy DeVos has turned back the clock on progress made against sexual harassment on college campuses during the Obama years. And 45 spent a weekend on Twitter rather than dealing with the crisis in Puerto Rico.

We are a society living in the middle of one long silent scream that started in the late evening on November 8, 2016.

We know that there is potential for it all to fall apart, and yet, we continue to whittle away at the less incendiary of our problems.

We quite civilly argue for technology in the schools, for STEM, or STEAM, for SEL, for experiential learning, for less testing. We advocate for a new approach to higher education, one that better prepares our young people for a workplace we can’t yet describe. We openly air our concerns about AI, but in an academic, intellectual way.

We seem to be maintaining, even preparing, but can we really move forward under such confounding circumstances? Will progress make any difference when even this civility fades?

Having narrowly escaped being MOOC’d out of existence . . .

“Tomorrow” can be such a relative term when it comes to education.

In the early 2000s, the forecast was momentarily bleak when higher education saw its life pass before its eyes with the advent of Coursera and the MOOC. Coursera was swiftly followed by edX, Udacity, and others. In November, 2012, Laura Pappano provided an early, albeit cynical history in “The Year of the MOOC”. Still, while she and others argued the meaning of success in a course with videotaped lectures, electronically-graded quizzes, and relatively low completion rates, millions of people were signing up, and other Ivy’s and the rest soon followed.

If anything, the MOOC was a wake-up call for higher ed, proving that people were indeed hungry to learn, that they did not necessarily need or want to come in to the classroom to do so, and were not always asking for traditional credit, either.

In many ways, higher ed is still figuring out how to maintain the relevance of a four-year, campus-based degree. Of course, it is more than online learning that challenges higher education these days. It’s the manner in which learning needs to mutate and adapt to the world around us. As the workplace continues to evolve, so must the way we prepare our young people to enter it. With such rapid change, the whole construct, the whole model of education is being questioned.

Education, having gone too long without significant change, is trying to work things out. Teachers are incorporating more technology into their daily practice. Classroom space is being reconfigured. But the very premise on which our children’s day is based, is not necessarily changing. There is very little self-directed learning and very little choice. We treat our kids a certain way for 16 years, and turn them over to college expecting them to emerge in four more years as semi-independent members of society prepared to fend for themselves.

It’s not working.

Meanwhile, back at the “45” yard line . . .

This is a very big problem to be working on while trying to keep our president from getting us all blown away by either seemingly natural or more conspicuous political disasters. And yet, we do continue to refine our models, gather our experts, test our theories, all in the interest of creating a new paradigm for the new world in which we keep finding ourselves.

For example, on November 8, 2016, I was at a higher ed conference on marketing. On the evening of the 8th, I fell asleep thinking Hillary Clinton would be our next president. We all woke up to a very different reality. That day, despite this, and except for a few incredibly discreet comments, we carried on with the business at hand, with sessions on Marking and RecruitingOptimizing Video for Marketing,Personalizing Education’s ROI, etc. As professionals, this is what we are meant to do. Carry on. Ten months later, the vitriol from the White House thickens, battles within Congress escalate, protests mount, and those academic conferences . . . continue.

Are we stuck or are we recycling new naterial?

For the past couple of years, I had the pleasure of attending the annual New York Times “Schools for Tomorrow” conferences. What always struck me about these gatherings, despite the star-studded panels we heard from, were how steeped in the past much of it seemed to be.

For example, among the people we got to hear were Anant Agarwal, Michael Crow, Rahm Emanuel, Daphne Koller, and Nancy Zimpher each one talking about the latest technology, partnerships, and management over vast systems of higher learning. Not too shabby.

In addition, each year there were the requisite panels on diversity, college sports, and sexual assault. At least, they seemed requisite.

What’s old is new again, or is It?

So, each year, as I sit at one academic conference or another and listen to the deans, presidents, and provosts of the most distinguished schools of this nation walk through their approach to diversity, for example, I’ve been thinking, aren’t we passed this? What about the educational stuff? When are we going to get to the discussion on sleek new learning design?

I’ll admit to similar feelings during sessions on sexual assault. Grateful for the added clarity and protections granted under the “Dear Colleague Letter,” I wondered why we were covering this in such detail during a conference on the future of education. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that we have been tripping over the complexities of Title IX for some time now, and I believe that the Obama administration had made quite a lot of headway in providing further protections under its letter of guidance.

Now that Betsy is rescinding the 2011 and 2014 guidelines, what should be old is new again.

Now that 45 is fighting with football players protesting for civil rights, what’s old is new again.

And while we should be past all of this, and we should really be focusing on how to improve education, right?

The truth is, we’ve been consistently moving toward this moment for a long time. That long, silent scream that started on November 8, 2016 is just the latest incarnation of it.

It’s a real-life sim, and we need to buck up.

Perhaps one of the best lessons I learned during my early learning design days with Roger Schank and the team at Cognitive Arts, was the concept of “confounding factors”. Working through a needs analysis with a client, you collect examples of what can go wrong in any typical execution of whatever task it is you are simulating. You then take those and through the efforts of some very talented writing and design staff, weave them into the simulation that learners will immerse themselves in before executing the task for real.

It’s not always that easy for people who are familiar with, or even expert at, completing a regular task to deconstruct it and communicate that to someone else. They seemingly do that by rote.

I sometimes wonder if we became too well adjusted to how we have been living and did not notice the flaws all around us. But the truth is that under confounding societal circumstances, we cannot wait to fix anything.

Backward Planning to a Love of Learning

Clearly, learning and development at a corporate level is moving forward. Continuous learning is making huge inroads with CLOs such as John Palmer leading reskilling efforts at AT&T and providing employees with much more input into the future of their own careers. In the UK, companies such as Fuse Universal are re-envisioning learning with a platform that combines access to expert advice, curated content, offline learning content, peer-provided expertise and more. Content curation is another area where huge inroads are being made in terms of how we access and personalize information. Look at Anders Pink for a great example of that.

It’s K-16 that concerns me the most. I see no sense in arguing between STEM and SEL, for example. Kids need skills and the means by which to continually adjust and build on those skills as the workplace continues to evolve. They need to develop and maintain a passion for learning.

To sum up what may appear at first to seem like a bleak September forecast:

  • We have taken an unfortunate step backward in terms of racial discrimination, and we will need to regain and build on any progress made since the 1960s.
  • Rescinding stricter interpretations of Title IX protections is a bad idea. We need to do better with protections against gender bias and sexual assault. So, yes, the conversation will need to continue.
  • Education does not exist in a vacuum. As society falters, we need to carry on with improving teaching and learning to ensure that the next generation does better than we have.
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!

Toddler boy in office at laptop holding his hand up as if saying "stop"

How Kindergarten Can Save Corporate Learning

Continuous learning continues its slow yet steady upward trajectory in the ever-changing L&D universe. New research by Bersin by Deloitte stresses the need “to enable employees to respond effectively to change” by creating a culture of leadership and learning. The benefits to organizations that can pull this off, according to the report?

·      Two times more likely to respond effectively and efficiently to change

·      Two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets

·      Seven times more likely to manage performance problems

·      Ten times more likely to identify and develop leaders

A couple of weeks ago at the Education Summit, John Palmer spoke about the culture of learning at AT&T, and the value of continuous learning as a response to change. At AT&T, employees can opt to take advantage of upskilling development programs or choose to remain (and then leave) with relatively soon-to-sunset programs.

The two questions we should be asking ourselves about preparing for tremendous changes impacting the workforce:

1.      How agile can organizations be in responding to questions they don’t even know they will be asking in five year?

2.      How can we prepare the workers of tomorrow to be respond to change that we cannot define today?

An Infrastructure for Corporate Agility

The infrastructure on which corporate learning stands, and therefore its ability to adapt effectively to change, must include the mindset as well as the toolset to adapt. This means that learning theory needs to get converted to practice much faster than ever before. And in smaller pieces. And when people really need it. Charles Jennings has been telling us this for years. As machines become more capable of taking away many of our jobs, more people seem to be ready to listen.

If technology is threatening to eat us, we need to leverage technology to keep up, and more importantly, to remain relevant. So, now we are ready for a version of 70:20:10 that speaks more than ever to just-in-time learning, and need the tools to provide it. Just as everyone started to understand what an LMS is, we are now demanding platforms that are more flexible and that will provide access to and credit for learning from multiple sources. For a start, look at what the teams at Fuse UniversalEdCast, and Degreed are doing in terms of providing, curating, and aggregating learning.

What about the Culture of Learning?

The change starts in kindergarten with helping to shape a love of learning that goes beyond mimicry and memorization. The type of mind required to answer questions we don’t will be asked and change that we cannot yet define needs less structure and more open-minded problem solving capability.

Should we be teaching kids to code? Sure! Let’s also teach them to work with their hands as well and break down a problem into its component parts.

Here, too, let’s use the technology at hand to provide personalized learning that not only allows students to follow a path of most interest, but that understands how that student thinks and is designed accordingly.

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.

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.

What Kids May Be Teaching Us When They Opt Out of School

When a child opts out of school, it can be a very unsettling experience not only to that child but to the entire family. We are programmed to believe in cycles of life that may just not hold true for everyone, and when those societal values are called into question, it puts one or more belief systems into jeopardy. In this case, we’re forced to examine such things as the role of school, definitions of success, and standard practices for preparing our kids for adulthood and the working world. It makes us uncomfortable.

Kids Who Challenge the Standard Norm

As most parents learn at some point, there’s got to be room for flexibility along the way, and oftentimes we find ourselves behaving in certain ways (giving into food preferences, for example), or accepting certain behaviors that previously may have seemed forbidden territory (allowing more computer time than you are comfortable with, for example). When a child refuses to go to school, though, we tend to insist on their return. Many parents are convinced by school administrators and mental health professionals that a child suffering from “school refusal” (the accepted diagnosis) must return to school as soon as possible. Depending on the age of the child, the degree of anxiety and the adherence to standard norm, parents may choose to medicate said child, or to place child in one form of treatment or another, until the child is ready to return to school.

Or you can choose to learn from it.

There are many reasons that kids don’t want to go to school, whether it’s test anxiety, bullying, a sense of helplessness, or a lack of engagement. As the range of issues one child experiences may include both curricular and social challenges, parental response is not necessarily as straightforward as standard treatment plans may indicate. This is exactly one of those times when parental flexibility must kick in and looking at the whole child should take precedence over a set of symptoms.

What Happens to Learning When Kids Opt Out?

We know that 2-5% of kids are diagnosed with “school refusal” at some point or another. We also know that 1.2 million kids per year are still dropping out of school each year. What can we learn from these phenomena and from the kids undergoing them?

  1. When kids leave school, it does not mean they don’t like to learn. Rather than forcing a child back into the school environment, parents in these situations may be better off supporting alternative learning routes. There are a broad range of options, including more traditional ones as well as those that may be considered radical. Some schools may offer at-home instructional alternatives for short periods of time; or you may decide to homeschool. There are also free or fee-based online alternatives once a child is ready to school again. Unschooling alternatives support a higher degree of self-directed learning, which may be the right choice for the child who has opted out.
  2. Leaving elementary or secondary school does not mean that a child will not make it to college. Peter Gray’s study on families who unschooled their kids revealed that in 83% of families surveyed, their kids went on to college. Other studies show that kids who are educated at home tend to score higher on college placement tests and are more apt to complete college than other students.
  3. Many kids who leave school either already have or develop a passion that directs their learning in a way that a general educational curriculum cannot.And oftentimes, following that passion leads them to study many of the related subject areas in a more meaningful context than can be provided in a traditional school.
  4. Your opting out child may choose to seek credentials or return to a more formal school at a later time. Or your child may take community college courses or consider an early college program that does not require a high school diploma. There are choices out there these days.
  5. There is a groundswell of activity around homeschooling and unschooling now such that parents are no longer flying solo when it comes to support, advice, and community for re-engaging their child in the learning process. These families are ensuring that learning still takes place. Support includes academic resources, classes and tutoring, as well as mentorship to help students achieve their learning goals.

At the very least, we should learn from these kids that wanting to learn and being able to do so in a traditional school environment may not be the same thing. As our schools continue to undergo transformation, and we continue to advocate for meaningful curriculum, we cannot leave behind those who decide to opt out.

Diversity of Learning Styles and Alternatives

Opting out is not an easy choice for most kids and their families. And it’s not for everyone. It takes strength of character and a willingness to engage with children and their learning in ways that bust the current paradigm. At the end of the day, education these days should be about alternatives.

As I wrote last week regarding some of the great work being done by teacherpreneurs these days, there’s a growing body of evidence and related tools and processes for helping kids with different learning styles engage in their learning. Acknowledging neurodiversity and building tools that enable educators to account for it is one big step toward further engagement for kids who might otherwise be dissatisfied with their school experience.

It’s true that not everyone who claims to not like school needs to opt out. But as parents, educators, and entrepreneurs, we need to be open to the possibilities that some kids will leave school and will benefit from doing so. We need to both observe and learn from this movement and to direct some of the resources and innovations being poured into traditional education to support learners outside of “the buildings.”

If We Want to Change Education, We Need to Disrupt It

What do you think our greatest improvements have been in the educational sector in the past couple of years?

  • Has it been the number of students graduating high school?
  • Has it been the technology introduced to support teachers in the classroom?
  • Is it the growth of online learning expanding the footprint of higher education beyond the ivory tower?
  • Could it be the evolving business model under which we operate?

To really address the issue of improvements, I’d propose that we ask ourselves first whether our educational system is adequately preparing today’s student for the workplace of tomorrow. Are we?

Is Anything Really New?

A while back, I attended a Google + Hangout hosted by the American Enterprise Institute called “Can you be for profit and for students? Rethinking private enterprise in public education.” It brought together John Bailey from Digital Learning Now, Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly of the AEI, and Michael B. Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute. My interest, at the time, was in the debate over private dollars in public education. I’d seen resistance to this for so long and was thrilled that progress was being made to frankly get support from the private sector.

At that time, the discussion yielded a few key takeaways:

  1. A lot of the argument against for-profits was in a simplification of the role for-profits could play.

Andrew Kelly raised an interesting point in noting that 70% of Americans were comfortable with private dollars going to food, transportation, and supplies but not whole school management.

If you look at the different roles for-profits can play, this may reveal a misconception over the intent that many for-profits have and the role they can play in improving educational access and quality.

  1. We can learn from how federal policy deals with private sector contributions to other sectors.

A lot was said in this discussion around the role that policy can play in incentivizing the private sector to support positive results in education. As John Bailey point out, in almost every other sector (health care, clean energy, space program), the consideration has not been whether or not to engage with the private sector, but how to bring them in to tackle the challenge. Education, Bailey noted, is very unique in that incentives have not been provided to make such a collaboration work. And therefore, for-profits have largely had to work outside of the system to get things done. Michael Horn added to this argument that with i3 came out “the engine of innovation was cut out of the game.”

  1. There’s enough to be done so that we can all play a part.

As an extension of the first two points, John Bailey highlighted the role of collaboration, stating that “a blended solution” wherein “the suite of tools, services, and resources that the private sector will develop” can be used inside of the institutions. These benefits of innovation funded by the private sector could be used to support the existing institutions rather than breaking into institutional management. Likewise, expertise in instructional design, program design, and business modeling shared from the private sector can lend great support to the improvement of our schools, from K-12 through higher education.

At the time, my own conclusion was that a balanced, collaborative approach would yield the best result, that based on the need to produce revenue, for-profit educational providers would be watching the bottom line and that this could be a good thing when the pursuit of quality is as important. Additionally, I felt that with technology driving innovation, collaborating with those with the greatest access to capital to drive innovation, could be a smart move.

Now I’m not entirely sure.

What is needed to truly innovate in education

That technology is being used to great effect is not the issue here. It is being used to great effect. In these following areas, the use of private dollars to help drive innovation has resulted in improvements in:

  • Blended learning models and programs
  • Gamification
  • Professional development

But remember that millions of dollars are also being spent to support the Common Core and its associated testing, which in turn is really an extension of an existing model of education that remains stale and disengaging for a large number of constituents. Amy Scott reported on Marketplace yesterday that a single multiple-choice question costs $1,000 with costs ranging between $3,000 to $5,000 per question for more open-ended questions.

To truly innovate would be to take a look at this constituency and really understand how they can best thrive both during the school years and into the workplace. So take at least some of that money spent to make our kids better test takers, and instead provide them with more experiences and skills that prepare them for an adult world:

  • Experiential, hands-on learning
  • Expanded mentorship programs
  • Community-based internships

Question the Model

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Ed came out with an article on the Thiel Fellowship, titled “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club.” If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know about Peter Thiel, he is the PayPal co-founder, Facebook board member and investor who decided in 2010 to pay selected teenagers $100,000 each to “stop out” of college and work on their own start-ups. While there are those who question Thiel’s methods, I’m a huge fan because he addresses the heart of the issue, which is the model itself. The article points out that Thiel initially considered building a better university through his foundation, but instead decided “The opposite of putting faith in the system is putting faith in the young people.”

Granted, the model isn’t expandable, but like other emerging like-minded organizations, it is calling into question the accepted standard for success that has been in operation for so long. UnCollege and Enstitute are others that I have mentioned here before, providing alternate pathways to the working world.

So, while we have made progress with dropout rates, there are still 1.2 million kids a year who leave school. The system still appears to be broken. And that is where we have to begin, questioning the model itself.

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