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How might we engage in Instructional Design That Matters?
How Might We Bring Learning Experiences Alive?
I love that middle school learners are quick to jump in and activate as learners when given a context for learning.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had several occasions to watch middle school students working with each other and with teachers, parents, community members, their assistant principal and principal, and Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop fame. Want kids to think mathematically, apply physical science principles, communicate effectively both verbally and non-verbally, work together and hold each other accountable for quality work?
Let them design and build tree houses – in the cafeteria – with power tools – and squares, measuring tapes, hammers, glue and handsaws. Let them prototype, test, research, deconstruct, and rebuild to get the structures right.
Listen to their ideas, their strategies, their solutions and let them try – fail – and then succeed.
Let them explore the woods to find the perfect tree for a log they need to bolster their tree house. They’ll problem-solve how to move a few hundred pounds of tree indoors.
Ask them questions and they’ll figure out how to be safe and also have fun as they climb high on the structure and hang off of it to drill screws into the wood, tightening each joint and snugging up boards in the platform as they build higher and higher.
Need a crew to mobilize to bring a truckload of lumber inside the cafeteria? Turn it over to the kids and they’ll text up a crew in a matter of minutes. They’ll take selfies and cool pics of each other as they build. Then they’ll load their pics to Instagram and share their experiences with family, friends, and the world.
They’ll work through lunch. And, stay after school to keep working. They’ll even come back for a long evening of work to finish their tree house project and drag a few of their parents with them to help.
They’ll take care of each other. Some team up to cook a dinner meal of hotdogs and mac and cheese on their last “build and finish” night. Others remember to remind each other to “be careful” climbing all over the structure. Everyone helps pick up stray nails and put away sharp-edged tools.
They become team.
Maybe, as Alex says, they worry as much or more about being safe as their adult building counterparts. They certainly managed to take risks and stay safe while doing something that many adults worried about them doing.
They designed and built not one but two sturdy and whimsical tree houses for their cafeteria over two weeks. They built inventive tables and a bench or two. They finished the job – on time and on budget.
From the Public Workshop Facebook page:
“Alecia was duly featured in a report on @nbc29 about our project w/Walton Middle School. The part about her wanting to help + train others to build their own #treehouses surprisingly got cut.
It was unprompted + awsm. Alecia rocks. http://www.nbc29.com/category/175568/video-landing-page… “
– Alex Gilliam, Public Workshop #acps #buildinghero
Bashing public education in 2014 continues as a national sport for U.S. media and politicians who compete 24/7 for public market share. But, the good news is that educators and parents are pushing back against mischaracterization of America’s public education with stronger voices than ever. I’ve updated this list annually and my observation is that the world is committed to changing education to offer more of an American model. It’s ironic that we’ve been moving to emulate what has been a mostly standardized, one size fits all approach to learning in other nations. Competing for high international test scores is not necessarily in our best national interests. To paraphrase Yong Zhao, Chinese-educated professor and fierce champion of America’s public schools, the invention and productivity quotient of nations is inversely proportional to high student test scores – a decades old economic trend reported by ASCD.
While our public education system has room to advance, our educators continue to educate far more of our young people for more school years than either India or China. Our best students may not be as exam-driven as South Korea’s best or as international-test successful as the Finns, but overall our young people are far less self-abusive teenagers. Our young women today have far more educational and career opportunities than their peers in Japan, the Middle East or on the African continent. Children who enter the United States from third world countries are better served in our Statue of Liberty schools than in their own countries. We are dedicated to including, not excluding, special needs and immigrant children in our regular school communities and to keeping learning doors open rather than closed.
1. In the People’s Republic of China, the decision was made in 2007 to fund nine years of compulsory public education for the 80% of young people who live in rural poverty and cannot afford the many fees attached to schooling in China. However, significant gaps still exist in meeting the target that all Chinese youth complete nine grades. Of course, if a student does get through and gets accepted into what would be our equivalent of high school, his/her parents are responsible for paying tuition to attend. If rural and poor, a mainland Chinese child is basically out of luck. Yet, chasing the American creativity dream drives the new Chinese national strategic plan – an American dream worth chasing.
2. Talk about a poverty gap. In India, more than 40% of children drop out before eighth grade. An increased commitment of India to educating its young people has resulted in only 1.4 million school children not being enrolled in any school at all today – down from 9.6 million school children in 2010. When you realize that education is the fuel of a nation’s future, you invest in it.
3. In Mexico, only 68 % of children completing first grade will complete nine years of education. Thirty-five of these will go on to graduate from upper secondary school. Compulsory education now extends through 11 years of schooling, a relatively recent extension across the country. So close to us but so far away in education reality.
4. In Afghanistan, only 1 in 2 children attend school and 45% of its 13,000 schools conduct classes in tents, lean tos, or under a tree. Nothing is more valued than education in places where access is a precious commodity.
5. In Morocco, approximately 40% of females between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate and only 15% of first graders will graduate from high school. Some things don’t change when education is reserved for a few.
7. In Japan, gender gaps in society, workforce, and education continue into this century. Women make up only 46% of students enrolled in Japanese universities as compared to 57% of college students in the United States. In fact, Japan and Turkey are the only two nations where female college enrollment is not on the rise. And, Japan represents one of the largest gender gaps in the world, an issue of economic concern at top levels of the government.
8. In South Korea, performance on exit exams is considered a “life and death” matter. Parental pressure and personal pressure lead to high suicide rates, inflated grades, and enrollment of significant numbers of students in private tutorial schools. Even the American military limits operations to provide maximum quiet on exam day. What does South Korea produce? Robots according to one South Korean professor.
9. In Finland, 40% of teenagers in school reported being heavily intoxicated within the last thirty days, almost double the U.S. reported rate. We have seen the use of alcohol drop annually in the United States for decades – a statistic that makes a health difference for our teens. Alcohol use among teens is an issue across Europe. Not all stats worth knowing get reported in standardized test data.
10. In Germany, most “special needs” students attend “special schools” that only serve students who have learning or emotional difficulties. Learning community gets defined differently in different nations.
As superintendents shared their districts’ contemporary learning stories on a field trip to the ConnectEd Summit in DC, our professional speech described the natural, and ancient, learning pathways of humans from field experience to tool use.
“Research and education has shown that field trips are remembered long into adulthood. Why? Because you’re experiencing something rather than simply reading it in a book…. To experience something has a far more profound effect on your ability to remember and influence you than if you simply read it in a book. So why not figure out a way to turn a lesson plan into a living expression of that content. A living expression, so that sparks can be ignited and flames can be fanned within the students. And at that point, it doesn’t matter what grade they get on the exam because they are stimulated to want to learn more… And there it is. You’ve cast a learner into the world. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a teacher.” — Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Today’s high tech research to decode the workings of the human brain tells us that natural pathways to learning (Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist and teacher) embed what we learn in our neural structures. In essence, we humans are born to move, narrate, imitate, listen, design, create, build, engineer, play, sing, dance, and apprentice our way to the learning needed to thrive, not just survive, in our homes, communities, and work.
Why did the ConnectEd Summit superintendents come to these pathways in our stories about our students’ and teachers’ most innovative work? It’s because our stories framed a context for what’s necessary to capture the potential of all children as learners, regardless of the era into which they are born.
Tools change, knowledge advances, and skills develop as generations march forward, but what our young people need as learners today is as old as stone tools the most ancient of teachers once taught children to use. Our children still need us to support them to search, connect, communicate, and make in the caves, campfires, and watering holes of today’s communities – only now both face-to-face and virtually.
At the Summit, superintendents were clear in conversations with each other, the Secretary of Education, and his staff that learning must sustain a spirit of inquiry that fosters creativity, critical and ethical reasoning, communication, and collaboration. We communicated pride in our districts’ efforts to put the factory school model behind us as we design learning spaces for today’s children.
Here’s what I heard emerge as themes from our discussions about the inspiring and inventive teaching and learning occurring across the network of school communities linking our nation:
From Alaska to Florida, a tiny microcosm of America’s schools, 100+ superintendents along with a few teachers, students, and principals who also lead to educate young people (50 million of them in around 16,000 school districts spread across 3.80 million U.S. square miles/9.85 million km2) came to D.C. to hear the President.
Yet, the voices that resonate in my head are those of students – young reporters covering the Summit, a high school student seated with equal status at the table with suited superintendents from around the nation, millennials working the twittersphere. Their voices represented the agency of young people communicating a value for adults who help them figure out how to grow into their voices, find their stride as influencers, and pursue their dreams for not just the future, but also the here and now. Whether at the ConnectEd Summit or simply chatting in the #stuvoice twitter stream about what they care about, our young people affirm what engages and empowers them.
In the end, I think we all left knowing that realizing a bright future for young people really isn’t about superintendents gathering in DC for an event. It’s about unifying our communities to care for, respect, and value each child as a learner and to support those who teach. Our ancestors must have known this too as they engaged in their own version of #futureready learning work. They surely wanted similar things – children who thrive, grow up to become successful adult contributors in their own families and communities, and who are kept as safe and healthy as possible in an increasingly challenging world.
Isn’t that the best of who we are now and who we’ve always been – generations of parents and teachers committed to our children as we pay learning forward?
Change can occur in quick bursts that may advance or even retro-grade civilization, but in the moments of our daily lives we often think of change as a slow drift. The pencil I used as a child, as did my mother, and my mother’s mother and perhaps even hers before her was invented in 1564 and has mostly been constructed in the same way ever since. The pencil once was an essential tool in my elementary pencil box, the college bio lab, my own teacher’s desk, and in my admin office. Then the need for a pencil changed for me – and the rest of the world, too.
The 1:1 pencil device of my schooling was replaced suddenly by my smart phone “pencil”, circa 2007. Now I reach for my phone to record lists, make notes, compose messages, capture images.
My pencil is a relic from a time just past Gutenberg’s era. His printing press fueled 1450’s connectivity, a revolution that emerged when writers’ final drafts turned into books, broadsheets, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines. Writing tools changed. Quill pens, pencils, rubber erasers, fountain pens, ballpoint pens, typewriters, whiteout tape and liquid emerged, all evolving technologies that advanced the capability of writers to record at a faster and faster pace. The printed page opened knowledge to people who otherwise would never have learned to read. It was …
Just a little over 500 years after Gutenberg, the microprocessor was invented, an innovation as disruptive as the printing press. As a result we now live in a time of exponential post-Gutenberg change, a historical turning point equal to the Renaissance. Humans today search, connect, communicate, and make, linking the world through rapid-fire use of contemporary technologies.
Change does not drift along incrementally in our time.
Not in today’s careers, businesses, hospitals, homes.
Our kids no longer pull encyclopedias or non-fiction texts off the shelf to do research. They search the globe for accessible expertise, experts, and others with similar learning interests. The thought that paper books have appendices for citations versus hyperlinks in a digital document doesn’t even make sense to them.
They don’t limit their connectivity to peers in their class, grade level, school, or even their local community. Their tools move with them, allowing them to connect anywhere they can catch a wireless signal. They feel isolated in homes, cafes, cars, and streets when those signals are absent. They understand the language of connectivity – mobile, cellular, fiber, satellite up and downlinks, broadband, bandwidth, gigs, virtual, GPS/GIS, portals – words that didn’t have any context or meaning for me until after my 5th decade had almost passed.
Teens no longer define communication as writing on paper, creating a snail- or e-mail, making a phone call or watching a television show, movie, or listening to a CD. Communication is about instant connectivity with peers, teachers, family everywhere – for them community exists all over the world and print in another language isn’t a barrier thanks to Google’s translator. They aren’t limited by devices that allow them to simply write. They dictate tweets, listen to text messages, “OTT” chat, share images profusely, and download music, books, and other media of interest.
They produce in any format in which they desire to communicate and upload at astonishing rates. They are are part of a human exploration and file sharing network that is changing the world. They are the most connected communicators in the world’s history.
Finally, our kids don’t define learning as limited to what’s on the board, in a lecture, or between the pages of a textbook. As humans have since the beginning of time, they yearn to “make” as a pathway to learning. Kids don’t want to power down their creativity.
They are intrigued with what they can make with older technologies from lathes and sewing machines to contemporary programming languages and music beat production tools. Give a first grader some cardboard and you’ll end up with a robot or a house. Give a middle schooler a 3-D printer and you’ll end up with a prosthetic hand to donate to a handicapped child or a “Dr. Who sonic screwdriver flashlight.” Give a high schooler the time to create and you’ll end up with a choreographed dance or a phone app. Today’s kids are …
Educators long have known from experience and research that learner engagement begins with hands-on, exploratory and experiential learning. Now some educators, parents, business executives, and politicians realize the “more of sameness” built through two decades of mass standardization has resulted in a generation of young people who have had to find their own pathways to active learning outside of school. They may be bored in school but they aren’t bored outside of it. Many of our younger generations spend time in post-Gutenberg “search, connect, communicate, and make” opportunities. While taking tests, listening to lectures, or doing worksheets they think about what they are going to do next. They aren’t waiting until after state tests are completed to go on their own version of field trips, pursue interesting projects, or engage in fierce debates about global issues.
They make learning happen in spite of us. They can because they are connected.
As October’s Connected Educator Month inches toward November, how might we accelerate the exponential change in learning opportunities that Connected Learners need?
How might we push not just beyond our own learning horizons but challenge colleagues who fear relinquishing the power and control inherent in Gutenberg-driven teaching?
How might we do something tomorrow to power up learners in our care? If we do, I believe we will unleash a passion for learning in young people unlike anything we’ve seen in the test prep classrooms of the last two decades.