Monday, November 17, 2014

The linked array of educational revolutions

Recently I've been doing a lot of thinking about and research on blended, personalized, and competency-based learning, but I've also been thinking a lot about how much we focus on teaching strategies, which has led me to think more about our much we emphasize motivating students to learn. And I've been thinking about the various "revolutions" that are supposedly occurring in education.

"Learning by doing." "Learning by doing." "Learning by doing." This is a phrase that insists on running through my head, when it's not being elbowed out by Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass," Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," or "Let It Go" from Frozen. It can be an interesting mix of stuff in my head.

Try this on for size. Worksheets could be learning by doing. . . when used judiciously and when designed well. Worksheets could provide options for choice. . .when used judiciously and when designed well. Judicious use and strong design are two important caveats, but I have seen some good worksheets that students actually enjoyed doing.

In A Revolution in Higher Education, Sarma Sanjay of MIT asserts there is a "learning by doing" revolution occurring in higher education. That technology will "sweeten the experience" of being an on-campus student because student learning experiences will be coupled with online learning, study abroad options, and field work.

When I do educational technology workshops, inevitably one of the primary barriers for any sort of technology integration is the teacher's fear of failure (or looking stupid or incapable in front of his or her students) and another is the teacher's unwillingness to relinquish control. These two are concerns with or without technology. Somehow educators have come to believe they cannot make a mistake in the classroom and that they must always be in control of whatever is happening in the classroom and how it is happening.

I started thinking about my collegiate teaching experience and what I think I know of some of my colleagues' teaching styles. Many of us lectured, occasionally tiptoed in Socratic questioning, and then gave tests or assigned papers. I remember being exhausted from working so hard to elicit responses from students and had a gobsmacking light bulb moment when a student asked me, his own frustration evident in his voice, what I wanted to hear. Because, for far too long, educators have spent most of students' lives expecting them to provide an answer within a limited parameter of possibilities.

It occurs to me the so-called revolution, whether in K-12 or in higher education, doesn't have to be disruption on the scale of a tsunami. Every classroom teacher could make small changes in his or her classroom to encourage the kind of critical thinking and problem solving skills we seem to value so much. Even using worksheets.

We have to find reasonably engaging ways to help students learn to learn when the learning cannot be made fun. . .because sometimes learning something is just hard and maybe a little boring, and we have to be encouraging through that learning process. We have to find reasonably engaging ways to provide opportunities for students to learn by doing and at different levels, perhaps using Webb's Depth of Knowledge as a resource.

Mike Press wrote in Why learning through making matters, "Learning through making fuses science and art, technology and culture. It defines our humanity and our values, it provides future visions and possibilities. It captures imagination." Because of his work in design and art, some might think his points are limited to "the arts," but I think they'd be wrong.

I think "learning by doing" and "learning through making" are nearly synonymous, and I think the probable intrinsic pleasure and reward students experience through the experience and the results of learning by doing and/or learning by making can catapult their desire to learn and increase their willingness to put up with the more tedious bits of learning.

K-12 educators talk about their work being all about the kids, and for most teachers their work really is all about the kids. In higher education, the professoriate is hamstrung by the "publish or perish" dictum and, all too frequently, their lack of real-world experience with the real world of their disciplines.

The more I think about this, the more I come to grips with the complexity of teaching, of wanting to make sure our students have as much knowledge and exposure to resources, content, and information as they possibly can so they will be "prepared" once they begin to take on the world beyond the classroom. Too often we forget that it's quite possible that the most important thing we can do for our kids and their futures is provide them with a solid foundation (and for some of us that foundation might be a tad excessive because I really do know how hard it is to say one thing is less important than another), and to help them learn how to learn, how to discover, how to wrestle with something and figure it out.

I realize that when I got so frustrated that I didn't have enough time to teach my students everything I wanted them to learn that it was often because I wanted to share that experience with them. I wanted to see and hear what they had to say when they discovered something about something that brought me joy or moved me or challenged me or stopped me in my tracks and forced me to reconsider something. I wanted them to challenge me with their thinking and their perspectives. I wanted them to show me something new but I also wanted to share what it was that I loved and hated, and why.

We cannot teach students everything we want them to learn or everything we think they need to learn before they are no longer in our classrooms. Indeed, perhaps the best we can do is build that foundation of our non-negotiables as we build a rapport and a relationship with our students so what they want most is to continue to learn because of something ineffable, something profoundly moving, something they learned through doing or making that offered a stepping stone to something more--those visions and possibilities.

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