Category Archives: Blog

Ummm…That’s not a School.

I think THIS is a problem.

The linked article covers the story of a “school without teachers.”  According to the story, the school exists as a place for grouped computer-based instruction.  Students must compete for spots and, if they get in, will predominantly spend their days learning to code.

I will admit: I have only just read the article.  I haven’t seen this school’s supporting documentation; I haven’t done any research on the organization.  So take this for what it is: my first-blush, unvarnished opinion on the story.

Being a teacher, you’d think that my major problem with the school is its dearth of instructors.  But that’s not my problem…not by a long shot.  I have, in fact, argued in the past (privately, mostly) that there are plenty of instances where the mechanics of school hinder the activities related to real learning.  I have almost NO problem with this aspect of the school.  The problem I have is with something far bigger than the idea of a school without teachers.

My problem is that this project is called a “school” at all.  It’s not.  And if it were, it wouldn’t even be that innovative of a school (but it doesn’t matter…it’s not a school).  This project/organization/whatever is a talent farm.  It is designed to use the guise of school within the context of difficult financial times to justify a particular company’s talent pool development.  Using the argument that “schools just aren’t getting things done” (which, I agree, they aren’t), all semblance of anything related to the development of whole students is scrapped in favor of feeding the “new economy’s” need for code monkeys.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s no reason this commercial magnate shouldn’t try to grow his talent pool.  If I had his means, I might too (because BRILLIANT, that’s why!).  But I sure as hell wouldn’t pretend like I was doing the rest of you a favor by doing it.

The terrible thing about this case is that it will hurt discourse on actually transforming education.  People will look at this and (because there is a picture of kids sitting in front of computers kinda looking like they are doing something) say, “wow!  what an amazing model!  So transformative.”  Bullshit.  This is the same model of school that has been used since the earliest times of public education: train young people to fill the needs of industry.  Period.  That’s it.  The only difference is that this organization is privately funded by a particular company’s research and development budget instead of the public purse.  So, instead of looking at ways to make public education better and more responsive to the needs of all stakeholders including the students themselves, this kind of thing will be paraded as one of the stellar examples of wonderfulness from the land of the business magnates.  Hooray.

There is something about education that needs to be changed, but this model (if I am reading it right) changes nothing but the scenery.

It’s not you…it’s me (a momentary reflection on instructional design for distance learning)

I am currently designing instruction for which I will not be present.  That’s really hard for me.  

It’s so weird.  It’s like brushing my teeth with my left hand: doing a task I am very familiar with in a very unfamiliar way.  For years, of course, I have been right there…talking, gesturing, shouting, dancing, singing and so forth.  I am my most important teaching tool.  And now, as I design, I must plan for me not to do any of that.  And that, friends, is the weird part.

There are so many questions.  Who will set the stage?  What if they turn left instead of right?  What if this information isn’t clear enough…will they know what to do?  Every step I take must be at least partially adjusted for the fact that I won’t be there to add my voice or ideas for context.  I’m sure my students would rejoice, but I am finding it a bit hard to let go.  Is this what Helicopter Parents go through?

I am vaguely aware of a silver lining.  While I provide a lot of context, I also provide a lot of something else: distraction.  While I am my most important teaching tool, I am also the most likely to pull my students off-task.  My contextualizing can offer confusion  just as often as it can offer clarity.  I am easily pulled off-task myself by the thousand natural shocks of being in a classroom.  The silver lining is this: at least online, without me, people have access only to the content.  If the material is designed well, then they will also get a little feedback about their learning before they go (whenever that is!)  This is good.

The problem is ego.  It’s hard to take oneself out of the equation.  I am a useful part of the equation, right?  Right, guys?  Right.  Except when I’m not.  When I’m not, it would be great to have some way of going to the material and, without all the noise of the classroom, getting down to brass tacks.  There is nothing wrong, really, with either mode of learning.

I just let myself get in the way sometimes.  It’s not you…it’s me ;).

First week of the GamesMOOC

This video is the introduction to the GamesMOOC for fall of 2013. Traditionally, the MOOC has been a great place to connect with and collaborate with like-minded professionals around the topic of game-based learning! This fall, the MOOC is focused (as focused as a MOOC can be, anyway) on the topics of Maker, Hacker and Gamer culture. The video above is designer Kae Novak’s talk about what that all means!

Take a Chance

This post was originally issued by me on 7 February 2013 at the TAAPCS Leadership Learning Blog.

“When one is uncomfortable, one will learn,”  – Buddha

I don’t usually like to open a piece of writing with someone else’s words because, honestly, I am pretty fond of my own.  Given that it’s Buddha I am referencing, though, I think it’s fair to give him the floor.  While the above quote is almost certainly apocryphally attributed to the enlightened one, the sentiment is one that we will all recognize and will have struggled with in our practices.

Anything I (or, likely, you) have ever learned came to me as the result of discomfort.  Something was wrong with the status quo at the time and I had to learn new skills or information to move past it.  Theory lovers will recognize this as cognitive dissonance and about finding the zone of proximal development.  That’s good and I appreciate the place of learning theory in this discussion.  When faced with the realities of being an instructional leader in school, though, you are likely to agree that neither Vygotsky or Buddha are the first things that pop to mind.  For the purpose of this discussion, something far more practical than lofty quotes is required.

Being an instructional leader can (and, in my opinion, should) be taken literally if it is to be realized.  The word “leader” denotes going first, taking point, being in front.  This is inherently risky and takes courage.  It requires the willingness to declare that the status quo is not enough to get to the vision and to try out new things, even if it doesn’t work.  It requires guts, perseverance, and heart.  It does not, however, require you to have a specific title, position, rank, or age.  Anyone in a school can be an instructional leader if they are willing to take the risks that follow the choice to become one.

So, with that fluffy stuff behind us, how best to go about realizing this position?  It’s easy: surround yourself with instructors, and good ones at that.  Another aphorism that I won’t even attempt to reference tells us that, if you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.  Treat instructional leadership in the same way: take classes, in anything, and look at instruction that inspires you.  Surround yourself with people that make you want to be better than you are and watch what they do when they make you feel that way.  The more you see, the more you will be able to implement in your practice.

Don’t have time to take a class?  Read a book full of ideas that get you fired up.  Teach yourself yoga from Youtube videos.  Do what you must to unbalance yourself; when you adjust, you will have learned something new.  You will also be in a better position to empathize with (and, therefore, lead) those in your charge who, because they are at different places along their paths, may more regularly be experiencing cognitive dissonance that you are.

To be a lifelong learner, one must be in the headspace of a student all their lives.  To be an instructional leader follows from this inherently unbalanced position.  How?  The leader is always going ahead, taking the risk, trying new things and showing others the way.  At it’s very core (again, literally), this is precisely the essence of education: leading out of the darkness.

ETMOOC and Ed Tech Today

Because I hate my free time (or something), I am taking two courses this semester. One is a required course in distance education technologies from the University of Athabasca and the other is a thing called a MOOC (massively open online course) generally themed to focus on the investigation of educational technology.

It is useful for a learner to declare their own learning goals prior to the outset of a course. Even though these might (and, reasonably, should) change somewhat during the course, it’s good to know where you’re starting (if for no other reason than to find out how far you have to go). For me, in terms of both courses, my major goal is to establish a means according to which I as a learner and a learning designer can avail myself of the wide array of existing edTech tools without trying to “keep up with the Jonses.”

As I write this, a brand-spaking new hotrod of a computer is being shipped to me. This will be the first new computing purchase I have made in years. It was a major expense and one that I made with the expressed purpose of being prepared to fully explore the gamut of technologies that exist to make learning easy. This major technological purchase is one that most learners in most parts of the world would not be able to make. Nor will they likley be able to afford expensive software and application suites that I will be using to explore these topics. And so, my purpose is to come full circle…to use this amazing array of tools to find a few principles that will diminish the overhead for learners and designers so that people can just connect and discover together.

Good luck to all and enjoy yourselves!

Gamification and Education

Most of my upcoming posts are going to be on the topic of game principles for instructional design. This post reflects on my experience with simple games in our school and how this topic is going to be wildfire in the best K-12 systems very soon.

This video is the recording of a live stream keynote offered by Dr. James Paul Gee at this year’s Game for Change conference. In this talk, he offers the audience a survey of the power of what he calls “Big G Games” for developing collaborative, creative, critical, and even co-operative learning of all sorts.
I am particularly interested in what Dr. Gee says @ 20:00 in this video which is that “if you teach for facts, you don’t get problem solving but if you teach people for problem solving,” fact learning follows and people can fundamentally re-purpose the facts they learn.

We experimented with this quite unscientifically with this principle this year in our school. Though our students vary quite dramatically from the typical student population, we found the following things to be true about game mechanics and learning:

    1. Typically disengaged learners opted to participate;
    2. The problems we posed offered context and rationale for knowing certain things;
    3. Students seem to be able to make sophisticated cost-benefit analyses .

We are expecting to make a more concerted effort to operate these games inside the context of action research in the coming school year, but thus far, what we have found is encouraging (and certainly seems to align with some of the matters in the talk below).

Motivation 2.0 – Comments on Daniel Pink’s “Drive.”

“Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance but if you want engagement, self direction works better.” Daniel Pink discusses the science of motivation in the 21st Century.

I am most of the way through Dan Pink’s most recent book called Drive.  He summarizes some of the social scientific conclusions regarding human motivations in the video presented but none is more surprising or exciting than the conclusion (routinely arrived at from numerous directions) that extrinsic motivators are having an increasingly negative effect on creativity.

He discusses these findings in the context of commerce.  I hear what he’s saying and move that this information should be heeded also by forward-thinking educators since the very things that cause the 20th Century idea of “management” to now work against the best interests of business are the same things that work against the best interests of school.  Asking students to fall into single file and to color inside the lines are fine if we aim to graduate docile and risk-averse worker-bees; these are not as useful for producing the creative problem solvers that our economy increasingly requires.

Mr. Pink points out that many necessary but process-based tasks have been either automated or farmed out to huge foreign work pools elsewhere in the world (the economic impact of these practices is beyond the scope of this entry).  As such is the case, it stands to reason that, increasingly, the job market that exists for the graduates of our schools will primarily select for the best and the brightest creative thinkers and DOERS (barring any catastrophic collapse of our economy…again beyond the scope of this entry).  Sadly, even though this is the case, very few of the assessment systems we have actually assess practical, creative, and solution-oriented characteristics of students.  Our assessment systems do not reward creativity as well as they reward regurgitation and, very often, those who do the latter well are selected for advancement.

It’s not as unfair as it sounds.  Increasingly, the very best natural problem solvers locate niches that serve themselves and society well (and often result in them becoming obscenely wealthy – Steven Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc…).  It would be a great thing for education, though, to do a better job of providing learners with the opportunities for Pink’s “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” sooner and on a more regular basis.  Rather than going through years of hardship and isolation, those learners whose motivations lie outside of the regular stream of inquiry and study could find flow and, ultimately, continue to regard learning as a sea of possibility for much longer in their lives.

The freedom to discover is the best motivator there can be…for students; for business; for anyone, really (True Fact)!  So why don’t we match up what we know with what we do?

School really SHOULD be all “fun and games!”

How many times have you heard someone working in a school say that the purpose of the organization “isn’t all fun and games?”  How many times have you heard an educator or administrator say something like, “it’s school, it’s not SUPPOSED to be fun!”?

I’ve said it.  You’ve said it.  We have all said it at some point or another.  It’s exciting to know, however, that it wasn’t always so.  Prior to the onset of industrialization in Europe, most cultural transmission took place via stories and games among small groups of people.  People learned what they needed to know in order to live in the environment they were born into (hunting, gathering, agriculture).  Periodically, as there emerged a more skill-based economy, some people were afforded the opportunity to apprentice with a “master” artisan in a particular discipline and would learn a certain set of skills by performing hands-on tasks that would ultimately result in the acolyte becoming a master in his own right.  As parts of the world began to industrialize, workers who could punctually perform repetitive tasks became necessary and schools were established to feed the need of a basically educated workforce.

While this is a gross glossing-over of the history of human psycho-social development, the point is that “School” as we know it is only about 250 years old whereas our predisposition to learn by playing is at least 10, 000 years developed.  As a species, we have spent about 40 times longer learning through play than through any other means.

So why aren’t schools more playful?

Immediately following this statement, I caution myself to mention two things:

  1. Some schools certainly are playful and, on the whole, I applaud the progressive efforts of the ranks of early-childhood and elementary teachers in creating wonderful and engaging programs.
  2. Much playful impetus in secondary schooling is crushed under the perceived weight of assessment standards that can seem to corral instructional creativity.  I don’t think they necessarily have to, but you’ll find I’m optimistic like that.

On the whole, though, as a person comes out of middle school and into secondary education, it seems like all the fun of school somehow gets sucked into the black hole of this grim spectre of “growing up.”  This has, in my experience, always been equated with being kind of stuffy and without room for play.  Happily, science is starting to shine some happy light on all these fun and games!

In the video I share below, Stuart Brown makes just one compelling case for the importance of play in human development.  As an educator of high-risk youth, I am delighted to hear some of the things that this researcher has discovered about play deprivation and it’s ensuing impacts on humans.  It greatly supports years of “hunches” I have had that, basically, we are all children with steadily-increasing vocabularies.  The thinkers I have come to respect in my exploration on the topic all seem to rally behind one thing: “the child’s mind is the enlightened mind.”

It is important to create opportunities for students to tackle prescribed curriculum in such a way that their own playfulness is engaged as an integral part of the learning.  With this in the forefront of my mind, I can’t wait to get started with this new school year of “fun and games.”  I am willing to bet that the more of this we all have, the more satisfied we all will be!

Here is the video:

Also, here are some great links:

The State of Flow

Clayton Christensen – Author of “Disrupting Class.”

Tim Brown – TED talk about Creativity and Play