Category Archives: Mentoring

Hacking an Eagle’s Nest to Teach Ourselves

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

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

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

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

Eagle Hacking, the American Eagle Foundation

A Tale of Two July Fourths

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

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

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

Working Through A Constant State of Grief

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

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

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

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

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

One Mile Southeast of All That

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

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

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

Walling People off from Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eagles Could Have Warned Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Who Is the Teacher of Tomorrow?

In my last post, I asked people to “Imagine a School without Teachers” in order to examine some of the current challenges to the profession. Some interesting conversation came out of that post, with people actually speculating a school without teachers, or some variation of that theme. It’s safe to say that with the ever evolving technology, there are great opportunities for technology-assisted learning to support both classroom instruction and personalized learning in any environment (traditional school, home school, etc.). But removing teachers from the equation is not the answer. Evolving the role is a large part of the answer, as is ensuring the curriculum addresses the real needs of today’s students.

Early Voices of Discontent in Higher Ed

Since I left the classroom over a decade ago to participate in the development of some of the first online learning programs in higher ed, I’ve been keenly aware as to how the teaching profession is evolving. I saw the great potential for those whose passion is teaching and learning.

Throughout those years, I also saw how many people felt threatened by the changes that were occurring, first with the introduction of new technology and then with the introduction of new business models, particularly within the realm of higher ed. The first step was simply posting course materials online, starting online discussions, and allowing homework submissions online: in essence, using online platforms as an extension of the classroom learning environment.

As universities started to extend their footprint via the world of online learning, many faculty began to feel they would be replaced by either the technology itself or by those more willing than themselves to engage with it in this newer form of teaching. Sure, there were those that embraced and even spearheaded the changes, but that there was discontent is no great secret.

MOOCs shook things up entirely and to a great extent ensured that online learning would never be ignored again. Higher ed is still learning how to incorporate online options into their overall business model, but it will be a while before we see massive closings of brick and mortar institutions of higher learning.

Embracing Technology within PK-12

Today, as I continue to explore the ongoing changes in PK-12, I see an overwhelming amount of effort being exerted by teachers, schools, districts, and private entities to bring technology into the classroom. According to PBS Learning Media, 74% of teachers say technology enables them to reinforce and expand on content, to motivate students to learn, and to respond to a variety of learning styles (73%). Seven in ten teachers surveyed said educational technology allows them to “do much more than ever before” for their students.” And more than two-thirds expressed a desire for more technology in the classroom.

So, what type of support is there? Let’s look at a couple of examples that differ in their offerings.

Edmodo, the online community for teachers and learners (or “the social network for schools” as it is referred to) has over 47 million users. Teachers share lesson plans and support each other through online forums. Students keep track of their learning and become content creators through blogging features. Parents keep track of learning (including homework, quizzes, grades, projects, etc.) through the platform’s notifications, calendar, and tracking tools.

ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, has a membership of 100,000 users worldwide who collaborate to implement technology into the classroom. ISTE has online resources and Professional Learning Communities, hosts an annual conference on educational technology, has an advocacy network to share information on federal and state policies, and provides a framework (the ISTE Standards) for implementing technology in the classroom.

Teachers’ Perspectives on their Role

Teachers will continue to play a vital role in the educational process even as, and especially as that process evolves. But we have to ask if we are providing enough support to enable the change in the role.

According to a 2013 Scholastic poll, 82% of teachers felt that constantly changing demands on teachers and students was the most significant challenge to their profession. The second most significant challenge was not having enough time to collaborate with colleagues. Additionally, all teachers reported having two or more populations within their one classroom, with 23% having seven different populations (including special education, gifted, and those working below grade level).

So, from an academic perspective, providing the time, resources and classroom conditions becomes ever more vital as we seek to retain the quality of teaching we seek for our children. From a broader perspective, it is important to note that 99% of teachers surveyed agree that “teaching is about more than academics, it is about reinforcing good citizenship, resilience and social skills, and they believe great teaching demands a mastery of many skills.”

The Ongoing Role of Teacher

What will be the role of the teacher as we incorporate more technology into the classroom, and as more and more information becomes accessible outside of a traditional classroom environment?

  1. Many teachers in the PK-12 environment have already started the process of evolving as they:
  • Bring more technology into their lesson plans, having students research topics further and complete in-class assignments using desktop computers, laptops, tablets and, yes, cellphones.
  • Use blended learning strategies to differentiate and personalize instruction.
  • Flip their classrooms to make classroom time more valuable.
  • Communicate with students and parents outside the classroom via online platforms accessed on a variety of devices.
  1. As access to information expands, the concept of the flipped classroom may also expand, and the role of teachers will evolve further into those who support learning rather than deliver it directly, as:
  • Curators who help students navigate and select from the vast array of available learning material.
  • Facilitators who provide feedback and guidance within specific learning programs.
  • Mentors who offer practical guidance on real-world tasks associated with more project-based learning programs throughout their educational journey.

More change? Yes, it’s inevitable. I can see some eye-rolling right now. As the Scholastic report noted:

In conversation, teachers identify various issues within “constantly changing demands,” including changes in leadership, policies, curriculum, administrative systems and more. Many note that a large part of the challenge is the pressure these changes place on existing time and resources. As one teacher said, “Too many changes at one time waters down everything and doesn’t give teachers the time to effectively implement all of the changes.”

We need to manage change effectively, give teachers time, and broaden the support system. In an earlier piece, I wrote about Meet Johnny’s Teachers, a community of experts, inside and outside of the school who all contributed to a child’s learning. This proposed network depends to a certain extent on a more experiential curriculum. I agree with those teachers who said that a large part of teaching “is not about academics,” and I do believe the classroom teacher does not need to do it all on his or her own.

The role of teacher is changing greatly, but I don’t see it disappearing any time soon.

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E-Learning Days Pave the Way to More Flexible Educational Models

With winter starting to dig in its heels, I’m thinking again of the concept of e-learning days, as many schools and school districts have labeled them, days when kids do their work from home rather than attend school. E-learning days were first devised as a means of providing instruction on “snow days,” when students could not make it to school. Now some schools have added e-learning days to their school calendars in order to regularize virtual learning days as part of their regular curriculum.

As more schools implement e-learning days, or “cyber learning days” as some refer to it, the concept is evolving in terms of the range of tools being used to implement it and the degree to which it gets integrated into the culture of the schools and the means of instruction. Is the growth of e-learning days any indication that schools may be headed toward a more flexible model of instruction? Will students be spending more time out of the buildings learning on their own, or in the company of peers, and under the tutelage of community-based “mentors?”

As I’ve written before, most students would benefit from less time in the classroom participating in more practical pursuits of learning, especially as they get older and closer to participating in the workplace. The growing acceptance of e-learning days is a step in the right direction.

For the short term, incorporating e-learning days into the curriculum has a number of benefits both administrative and pedagogical.

Administrative Benefits

  • When e-learning days are used to provide instruction that would be lost due to inclement weather, e.g. snow days, they can minimize or eliminate the need to add extra days at the end of the year.
  • Eliminating extra days at the end of the year saves money as well in terms of getting kids to school, keeping the buildings open, etc.
  • Opportunities for professional development. Some schools are incorporating professional development activities into planned e-learning days, when teachers may work part of the day responding to student questions and part of the day working together (virtually) on professional development.

Pedagogical Benefits

  1. Building students’ (and teachers’) digital literacy.
  2. Increased opportunity for teamwork and problem-solving activities. Working at home, students can practice those skills which they will later on be applying in the workplace while at the same time receiving the support of fellow students and their teachers and perhaps parents as well.
  3. More consistent instruction than may occur on days when schools remain open on inclement days but attendance is irregular. By planning for a number of such days per year, we may avoid these gaps that occur when some students can make it to school but others can’t.
  4. More personalized learning and increased participation. For students for whom the classroom experience is overwhelming, there may be an opportunity to shine in online discussions assigned for e-learning days. Students can also focus more or less on specific areas of an assignment when working from home.

Addressing Concerns

Even as more schools begin to adopt this approach, there remain some consistent concerns around e-learning days:

What about kids with no access to computers?

While most schools who have implemented e-learning days are also able to ensure that students have access to computers at home, they do have a number of contingencies should internet access be a problem:

  • In some schools, the e-learning day material is downloaded onto student computers or iPads in advance.
  • Other schools permit work assigned for e-learning days may be handed in 2 days to two weeks later to account for technical or scheduling issues that arise.
  • Schools also recommend students with no internet access use available community resources such as libraries and local businesses with free Wi-Fi.

What if students have trouble with the material?

Each school or district is adopting its own policy, but in general, teachers can support students on these e-learning days by:

  • Holding “electronic office hours”, that is being available during certain hours of the day via text, skype, or other means.
  • Responding to student email questions.
  • Providing videotaped lectures or notes to accompany their lessons for the day.

At the end of the day, as schools begin to adopt more technology to support learning, building e-learning days into the curriculum becomes increasingly easier. For schools already using content or learning management systems, students can upload their assignments for instructor or peer review that same day. Teachers can easily access the material for grading. Communications via cell phone or personal computer make feedback and team work an extension of social interaction students are already familiar with. Having students watch a teacher’s lecture at home as part of an e-learning day rather than in class is just another example of the flipped classroom we see gaining in acceptance as more teachers use class time to address more specific questions.

E-learning days are not meant to replace classroom instruction but can be part of a fantastic movement toward a more blended, more flexible curriculum model that uses technology to its best advantage.

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Reflections on Learning Part II: Back to the Future

At the close of 2014, Designs2Learn shared memories of early learning: the rituals of school, learning journeys, learning how to fail, and becoming conscious about learning. As we enter 2015, we begin the process of creating the memories from another new year of learning. What will we learn and how we learn it? How can we design meaningful learning experiences and curricula that will persist into the future of our students’ workplace lives?

A few key points come into perspective when thinking about how we will reflect back on 2015 at year end. This is how I would like to remember this year of learning:

  1. We utilize technology to support successful learning rather than technology driving learning altogether. MOOCs are the primary example of this phenomenon; we are now in a period of self-correction. This was a fantastic mistake to make because it alerted those who may have been asleep at the wheel that online learning is something to be incorporated not only into the higher education realm but PK-12 as well. Corporations have known this all along, and recent learning expenditures indicate that 2015 should be a good year for online learning. But we need to go back to some basics in terms of understanding and incorporating learning theory into edtech design in order for these experiences to have the lasting value we seek. The tools we put in the hands of the universities are merely platforms on which to deliver learning. The learning still needs to be effectively designed. The tools that we provide to school kids at an early age should help plant the seeds for more independent learning and critical thinking rather than a mere dependence on technology.
  2. We extend the role of mentorships in all educational domains. From PK-12 to higher ed and in the workplace, there is a definite place for mentorship. There is some wonderful work being done by groups like the Future Project and iMentor in the schools and by Enstitute and UnCollege beyond PK-12. So much of what we learn takes place between people in one-on-one engagements. Let’s bring more of the 70:20:10 model into the schools and establish the groundwork for this type of learning early on.
  3. We involve more community resources into the educational experience.Beyond the classroom teacher, in addition to our cadre of mentors, there’s a wealth of resources in the community to extend the learning experience. From libraries to local businesses, we should be spending more time of the classroom and helping kids make the connection between what they learn there and the outside world.
  4. We incorporate more experiential and maker curriculum into the schools. Providing opportunities for children to observe their environment, to define a problem, to embark on the design process to investigate and solve that problem and to become proficient in the tools required to do so will have a tremendous effect on that person’s confidence and abilities moving forward. Imagine the advantages to a workplace populated with people who have grown up having engaged in this process. The Maker Education Initiative is one of several prolific organizations supporting the maker movement, with a range of resources and programs to help schools and individuals get started; Tools at Schools is another group whose work within the schools is helping to utilize design thinking to engage students in meaningful projects.
  5. We look to homeschooling and unschooling for inspiration. There is so much work that has been done by these communities in terms of examining the learning process and creating models for user-driven learning experiences. The majority of us understand now that one size does not fit all, and technology-enhanced blended learning experiences are becoming more common in the schools, but let’s not forget that there are alternatives for students who are not best served in the school environment. The resources and community-building that the homeschooling and unschooling families have created have a lot to teach us all.

The coming year has a lot of promise for those of us in the educational arena. With so much investment in edtech, and the formation of meaningful partnerships in the educational space, there’s great potential to make some good memories to reflect back on. The role of the teacher is constantly evolving and this year may also reveal significant progress with how we incorporate best practices in teaching and learning into the ever-changing equation.

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How Tragedy Opened the Door to a Teachable Moment

Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov’s decision to reject a student petition to suspend failing grades this semester has sparked further debate over academic flexibility, the lack thereof, and the importance of final exams and grades. The petition garnered over 1,000 signatures calling for suspension of the normal grading system and a no-fail mercy period to allow for student participation in and distraction over the decisions turned down in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Critics from all perspectives have weighed in, from those defending the student request to those questioning the students’ academic integrity. Other schools across the country, and not only institutions of higher learning, have grappled with student protests and the impact on classes and the routine in general. Amid objections to the petition itself and despite criticisms against the students themselves, we have to pause and consider the broader ramifications.

These events created more than a single teachable moment, and what is of primary interest is the nature of the challenge to the status quo and the response to it. How can we most effectively support students in the wake of such tragedies?

  1. Help raise awareness as a response to tragedy. Beyond the tragedy in the recent deaths of Brown and Garner, and those before them, some have spoken in hopeful terms of the response to these events, particularly that of a younger generation of Americans. In high schools and colleges, at dinner tables, and in the omnipresent social media, kids were talking about the verdicts while their parents, teachers and grandparents started drawing connections between events of the present and those of the past. As educators, parents and guardians, we should be prepared to deal with these conversations.
  2. Let the students drive the learning around their own concerns and interests. If ever there were a time to trash (or postpone) a lesson plan and let students drive the learning, it was in the days after the killings first and then the verdicts when kids were asking all sorts of questions, trying to make sense of what to so many seemed senseless, and trying to understand how to participate in the growing response to the events. In some cases where students did take events into their own hands, some groups did leave school buildings to hold vigils and discussions outside the purview of teachers and schools administrators. In other cases, like at Oberlin and other schools, students focused their protests on specific school locations (particularly libraries during finals week) for the purpose of disrupting the routine there.
  3. As administrators, support the teachers and families dealing with the aftermath of these events in the classroom. A lot of learning took place as students engaged in their own forms of protest and worked with other young people to organize these events. I suppose there was a substantial dose of learn-by-doing in all of that. At home, during dinner table conversations, young people attempted to find their voices and to learn from their parents’ experiences in earlier periods of social unrest. But what is the role of the school administration when it comes to such events?

In many cases, it appears that the school administrators left it up to the rank and file to make adjustments as necessary. Columbia and the New School, for example, encouraged faculty members to consider requests from students asking for rescheduling or extensions on papers or exams as a result of recent events. And even at Oberlin, although the administration would not officially alter its grading policy, they did extend the deadlines for requesting incompletes, and President Krislov also asked faculty members to consider “to exercise additional flexibility” in considering student requests for incompletes. Some schools brought in speakers, provided discussion time for students to air their feelings over the decisions and the implications thereof, and also instituted processes for dealing with similar events moving forward. Clear lines of communication with families and distribution of relevant resources for handling the difficult conversations (particularly for families in PK-12) would go a long way in providing a cohesive response.

The events following the Ferguson and New York verdicts revealed a powerful interest by and need for young people in engage in active conversation and protest around social justice and racial issues. While this was disruptive for institutions of learning at essentially all levels, adhering to the status quo is not a viable response and does not promote the type of learning that can result from such unfortunate and tragic events. A certain amount of flexibility is required in order to help us all through such times and to ensure that the needs of our learners are being attended to.

How did the young people and the institutions of learning you know respond to these events? What can we learn from these responses to make improvements moving forward?

Stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more insight on learning design and strategic consulting in today’s evolving educational landscape.

Designing a Place for the PK-12 Student in Our Social Network

A recent article in the Chronicle by Judith Shapiro, The Value of a Shared Education, laid out the principles of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft as part of an intriguing discussion on trends in college curricula. The main question Shapiro poses is “To what extent are undergraduates moving through overlapping though largely differentiated networks, and to what extent do they share experiences, priorities, and goals?” Shapiro walks us through a series of considerations including individual achievement, the current interest in competency-based education, and the impact of information technology on how young people interact with one another.

When we think of changes in higher ed nowadays, most people go directly to the challenges of integrating or competing with technology itself. Shapiro brings us back to the more critical question of how we are guiding people through their intellectual pursuits as they move closer to adulthood and the workplace. Similarly, we should be re-examining how we are guiding our PK-12 audience prior to their entry into college. How do curricular practices these days impact on how the PK-12 student sees herself as part of society?

Our thinking on this goes beyond standard socialization practices within the classroom and playground to the greater scope of ongoing learning activities that have or can be incorporated into today’s curricula. Some best practices for consideration:

Blend the curriculum to balance group and individual learning activities.

Today’s blended learning designs included personalized, peer-to-peer and teacher-led activities. Students learn on their own, and receive automated feedback and personalized teacher support; they learn from their peers in small group activities or as a whole class with teacher-led activities. The range of activities in a well-designed blended learning program represents both individual and group learning.

Build more Maker activities into the curriculum to build esprit de corps.

Project-based activities that require team cooperation in the design and production of a final product can develop both individual competencies as well as team strength. More time spent on these group activities earlier on in the process will pay off later on.

Bring in the experts to provide a range of role models.

Practicing scientists, designers, chefs, etc. can all play a part in knowledge and skills development in PK-12. By increasing the sphere of expertise in the classroom, and by working on projects requiring shared expertise, the PK-12 audience can start building their network early on. These experts may bolster existing curricular units or might be part of the extended projects referenced above.

Learning design in PK-12 is evolving to a point where students can more effectively develop their individual capabilities while playing an important part of both school and extended society. While the argument can be made that “socialization” has always been a goal in the K-12 curriculum, it can also be said that with the intense competition of the past decades, the race for success tends to silo learners from a very early age. We can use our design skills to create the type of curricula that supports the concept of shared success from the start.

Visit us at Designs2Learn for more on learning design and social impact.

Mentoring for a Better Blend of 70:20:10 in Education

Advisement has received increased attention these past few years in large part due to relationships between performance (meaning retention and graduation rates) and federal funding. Interest in the role of advising at the college level prompted us to examine the state of the state in the world of education through a 70:20:10 lens. Whatever the current impetus, the results of increased advising could and indeed should impact positively on those students. Even better would be an increased focus on mentoring to support learners through the educational journey that eventually leads to employment.

Advising or Mentoring?

Over the years, many institutions of higher learning have “shifted the metaphor” from “advising” to “mentoring,” as this informative piece from Penn State explains:

“In our current historical moment, as we struggle with potential decreases in enrollment, increases in tuition, and a shift toward skills-based programs (Levine and Nidiffer, 1996), we must consider how we can help our students successfully complete programs of study in a timely manner and provide them with the tools they need to be successful in life as well.”

So, “mentoring” implies support that may include but clearly goes beyond traditional academic advising. There’s a couple of areas that are particularly important to the discussion of the evolving role of education these days.

Expanding Access to Expertise Along with Access to Information

As technology has provided us with ever-increasing access to information, the guidance required to effectively sort through and vet that information grows as well. Today’s teachers are needed more than ever to provide the support required to help students become discerning information seekers and decision-makers. Subject matter expertise plays an important role, but mentoring can take students beyond “capable” to “thoughtful.”

Informal Learning, Higher Touch

When we consider the best blend of learning to take today’s students to tomorrow’s world of employment, a very good case can be made for increasing the amount of informal learning that can occur within the mentoring relationship. Just as today’s workplace is seeing an expansion of the role of informal learning, so too should the world of K-16 look beyond the classroom. Today’s collaborative partnerships between the public and the private sector make the time just right to support:

  • Students in seeking out these relationships.
  • Schools in providing much needed resources.
  • Businesses, for investing in their own future.

Role of Technology in More Targeted Mentoring

There are plenty of tools that can support mentoring throughout the educational cycle. Companies like iMentor provide both the platform and the resources to support a volunteer network of mentors supporting students as they make their way through the college search process starting in the first year of high school. csMentorbills itself as an “adaptive college retention program” that helps first year students make the adjustment to college life through a series of targeted videos and regular surveys that both instruct and measure students’ responses to the challenges of college life. Chronus Mentor helps organizations facilitate the mentoring process through built-in workflows, guided engagements, etc.

In all these cases, technology can support the process but is not meant to replace the interactions between students or employees in the mentoring relationship. We can extend the relationships through carefully designed interactions, supporting resources and valuable tracking tools. As Sonia Sotomayer said “. . . a role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, ‘Yes, someone like me can do this.”

Visit us at Designs2Learn for more on the role of learning design across the continuum of the educational experience.