Tag Archives: Instructional Design

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.

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

The Power of Posing Problems

This TED video is the jumping-off point for this entry:

This video prompted the following comment on the TED website:

  • John Burrell 2 hours ago: The teaching profession are falling over themselves to embrace the ‘new paradigms’ advocated by this teacher, repeated by amongst Ken Livingston and written about by Steven Johnson + the endless retweets on Edchat. Each and everyone of these individuals places a greater value on ‘creative thinking’ than on content to the extent that they wish to see content abandoned. Yet the process of producing a new synthesis requires that the student be able to connect their new ideas to the old, this is to give the new idea value to others. Content is still king! It allow the connections to be made, it is the basis of synthesis and the bed rock of creativity. Unconnected thinking with no reference point has no value and would perhaps be better characterised as madness. Content still matters. Gardner covered all this in ‘Five Minds for the Future’ (sic)

The reason I share this video and particular comment (there are many other comments as well) is because it nicely (and, some may argue, too simply) illustrates the shift taking place in North American schools right now.  The shift is one where the traditional emphasis on content is moving to an emphasis on conceptualization and problem solving.  Content is cheap (Wikipedia); a problem solver is worth millions.

I take issue with this video’s comment.  The issue I take with the comment is not because I feel that content is unimportant but because it values content incorrectly.  Content in our current economy performs the function that bricks and mortar play in the construction of a home; they are fundamental tools required for the proper completion of the task at hand.  Like content, however, they themselves are not the task at hand.

I was once asked which World War was “…the one with the Nazis” by a high school graduate.  Being a person who sees this kind of thing as important, I was surprised that someone would have to ask.  It was, however, an honest question and I answered it as such.  This example says a lot about exactly what can go wrong in instruction.  This person knew that there was more than one World War and he was aware that there was a group of people named Nazis involved in one of them.  These bits of important content were floating about in his mind like remnants of flotsam following a U-Boat attack.

Why?  He had no reason to put them in the correct place.  The problems of his life did not require him to know which war the Nazis were in so he didn’t know it.  I knew it because it was my job to know it.  If I would have asked him to properly seat a restaurant during the dinner rush hour, though, he would have been like Ike on D-Day plus 1.   Being able to do this would be arguably more profitable in his immediate life than would be knowledge about a relatively distant international conflict.

For those who may at this point fear that I am merely suggesting that all education be vocational, I propose caution.  This is where I will return to what I believe to be the message of Ms. Laufenberg’s talk: traditional content is more effectively communicated and better understood by teachers posing problems to their students in a way that forces them to create something larger than the sum of its parts.  Teachers must ask their students what they can do with content in the same way that most of their future employers or clients will ask them to do.  I would wager that if you think back to one of your favorite times in school, it would involve the agency and excitement with being entrusted to pull something off.  I would further wager that you would remember exactly which order you’d do things in and what you’d do differently if you had to do it again.  Building a volcano, making an infographic, organizing a volleyball tournament, and writing an opinion paper all require a person to summon a variety of skills and knowledge into one time and place in a way rote memorization of which war had the Nazis never can.  How would I get this person to remember which war had the Nazis?

I’d ask him how he would have prevented their rise to power and see what he comes up with.  That’s a problem worth solving.

Case Study: Coallition of the Willing

Coalition Of The Willing from coalitionfilm on Vimeo.

This video is an interesting example of a few different things that I think we’d like to see in our classrooms.  While it’s true that this was produced by a network of some of the best people working in motion graphics, it is still the result of an ethically motivated, thoughtfully engaged, and entrepreneurial group.  It is a product that we can point to as being both a learning experience and an active statement.

We have the technology available for our students to create such videos and networks.  I would say that the vast majority of them are already very capable with the collaborative tools and networks necessary to participate*.  Our job, to paraphrase Mr. Holland’s Opus, is to give them something to collaborate about.

* I should note that I am not just concerned about making videos.  I am interested to see teachers creating opportunities for students to develop skills, knowledge, and values via problems posed by the real world (see Inquiry Method).

G-Portfolios – My Two Cents

I regularly love posts from Will Richardson’s blog Weblogg-ed, but one that George Couros tweeted today is particularly prescient.  Will’s post, called “The G-Portfolio,” is exploratory inasmuch as he is seeking feedback about the subject of online portfolio management for students.  He intends to write an article with the help of the responses he receives via his blog.  The conversation has caught my eye because my school is looking seriously at having all students leave our school with an electronic/Google-able portfolio.  Here are my two cents with regards to the questions posed in the blog:

  • What types of literacies should be displayed in this Web portfolio?

This is hard.  The trick will be to not have a student’s portfolio be a container for everything he or she creates in school; it’s more important to have the students choose their best work based on criteria that are relevant to their career goals*.  Without going on forever, the literacies demonstrated by the portfolio ought to be the ones that are the most relevant to areas of interest or aptitude as selected by the youth and critical advisors (teachers, counselors, parents).  The bottom line is that the portfolio must demonstrate the best examples of a student’s work (and students need to be taught the ability to constructively critique their own work).

  • What role will this play in “reputation management” or the personal brand of the student?

The portfolio doesn’t play a role in this; the portfolio is reputation management.  When a person takes ownership over his or her web presence, that person is making a commitment to cultivate the message sent by all content online that is associated with their names.  It’s a big step but it’s worth noting that a digital footprint will exist for everyone anyway, so you might as well be in control of what yours looks like.

  • What are the challenges and complexities of the process?

The biggest challenge for me is logistical.  There are a million things to do in your senior year.  Unless a student has time set aside to dedicate to cultivating his or her portfolio, it very easily gets shifted to the back burner (don’t roll your eyes…when was the last time you updated YOUR portfolio or CV? :)).  Time needs to be built into peoples’ days or weeks for students to critically consider their content.

  • To what extent should educators have their own “g-portfolios”?

My answer to this is connected to my previous answer.  As lovingly as I speak it, the truth is that educational pros are among the worst out there for saying, “do as I say and not as I do.”  It is difficult to sell the importance of personal brand management when we don’t pursue it actively ourselves.  I would say that regularly examining one’s own portfolio (electronic or otherwise) is as necessary to professional development as flossing is to dental hygiene (when was the last time you did THAT?).

  • What are the best tools, sites, etc. to create and organize these portfolios?

As with all things, the tool is best chosen after you know what you want to do.  But, for my ease of use and flexibility, I would look to WordPress as the glue for this.  It’s just dead easy and free.  It can be connected to a million things and easily display images and video.

* I am writing this with a prejudice towards secondary education.  This is not to say that portfolios aren’t a good idea for younger students.  In fact, a lifelong and “evergreened” portfolio would actually be the best of all results in our web-focused world.