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exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching


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Trichoderma strictipile

Image of Trichoderma strictipile

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Don’t Feed the Bird

Monster Collection

A group of monsters drawing using Keynote

I have written about the dangers of social media in education before, how trying to create “Twitter-worthy” lesson plans can lead teachers down a dangerous path of providing a veneer of learning designed primarily to look good in pictures. Back then, I focused on what happened in the classrooms around me, with students in attendance. Some teachers trying to impress administrators, or to get hired at a different district, often engaged in this kind of behavior at my former school division. It was annoying, and it encouraged the same kind of questionable praxis from teachers who might have otherwise stuck to their better teaching instincts. The worry of a bad evaluation if they were not visible enough loomed large in a district mired in merit pay experimentation.

After leaving my position in the district a year ago, I have made changes in my engagement with social media. I have grown the list of accounts I follow substantially, looking for people from whom I can learn, both in and out of the education field. Since one of my areas of interest has been the role of experimentation and play in learning, especially with technology, I’ve been following people who do creative work with easily accessible tools. Here I am referring to everyday tools that are free or low-cost rather than to accessibility features, although I appreciate accessibility features as well.

One of my favorite tools for creative onscreen play that fits this role perfectly is Keynote. If you have an Apple device, Keynote is part of the package. It was originally marketed as presentation software, and this is how the majority of people use it. But, it can be “hacked” to make super fun animations. Earlier in the summer I presented a session on using Keynote for creative pursuits, sharing examples of animated title sequences, custom clip transitions, green screen special effects, and even scientific illustration. My latest infatuation is making animated GIF monsters.

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Learning Supremacy

Adapted from an image of beheaded statues at the confederate memorial in Portsmouth, VA. Original photo by Kristen Zeis, The Virginian-Pilot.

If you want to build a diverse, just, and equitable society, you cannot do it with the current educational system. 

That may sound harsh, but there’s no use pretending otherwise.

Consider for a moment not what happens on the surface of most schooling — not the math, history, chemistry, or civics…. Consider instead what’s happening beneath these, about the structural armature over which all the diverse disciplinary practices and activities have been stretched. Think about what happens in most classrooms, regardless of the learners’ age, the subject their teachers are addressing, or the country or city in which they’re located… 

Working to do the best for learners, teachers demonstrate a principle, concept, or skill. Then they ask learners to complete an exercise designed to implement and solidify this lesson. Most teachers would love to try a different, more creative or student-centered approach, but they just don’t have time. They’re overwhelmed with too many students and too much bureaucratic paperwork. So they ask all students to complete the same assignment. It’s sheer, handy pragmatics. This way, teachers can compare one learner’s performance with another’s to ‘see who’s getting it and who isn’t.’ It’s objective, scientific, clear

It’s the way most teachers were trained to teach.

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image of fungus on a log


Learning Online

image of fungus on a log

Yesterday I took a picture of a carpenter bee with some gooey stuff stuck to its face. The bee did not look well. It was moving slowly and trying very hard to dislodge the stuff which seemed to be keeping it from feeding properly. I looked online for what might have been wrong with the bee, and then I reached out to the one person I knew about who worked at the intersection of insects and fungi.

It is important to say I don’t really know Dr. Matt Kasson. I know of his work, but we’ve never met. I ran across one of his tweets a while back and started following him out of curiosity regarding his research of a fungus that kills cicadas. I found his description of the dead cicadas as “spore salt shakers” darkly humorous. And while I reserve Twitter as a space to learn about education, technology, and social justice, I figured throwing in a few insect-related accounts would only improve the experience.

So today, I tagged Dr. Kasson in a tweet and hoped he’d get back to me sometime in the next week. Within the hour I was having a conversation with three different highly qualified experts who responded and helped me out. We discussed the ailing carpenter bee, and as a thank you, I shared a picture of one of my latest fungal discoveries made during an exploration of the woods behind my house, a fungus called Trichoderma strictipile (image above). This led us in a new direction as they discussed what my picture showed.

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RE: Designing Learning

With instructionist education throwing up its hands in the face of the pandemic and the ‘education industrial complex’ peddling the same old information-centric instructionalism that drives home-bound teens to sedition and insurgency, it seems appropriate to ask “what should we build instead?”

Yet despite the itch to make something new, even our well intentioned first instincts are likely to point us in the wrong direction. As Paul Rand famously observed, “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.”

This is just as true for education, as Paulo Freire cautioned. Ask most parents about their own experience with school (not with their pals or their favorite teachers, but their overall academic experience) and you’ll often get a tepid saga of boredom, frustration, irrelevance, and dissatisfaction. Yet ask those same parents about their kids breaking away from tradition to try something new, and you’ll witness suspicion, resistance, and a vindication of those ‘old ways’ likely to contain the phrases “I turned out okay” or “it builds character….” Many teachers and school leaders demonstrate this same cognitive dissonance.

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Education is over.

Adapted from a photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

Education is over.

An edifice systematically built on the foundation of F.W. Taylor’s “scientific management,” the misguided application of standardization, and the emphasis on testing and human ‘data’ originally developed during the Second World War has come crashing down under the weight of something so small you can’t even see it: a virus.

Of course, had that edifice been as solid and sturdy as it pretended, it would have taken far more to bring it down. Its solidity was always illusory, and its slipshod construction had been increasingly on display. No one should have been surprised that it all fell to rubble, yet many educators, administrators, parents, and legislators seem to have been blindsided.

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From Instruction to Construction: What Does “Platonic” Teaching Teach?

Part 2

Pink Floyd’s 1979 The Wall presented a harrowing vision of the “educational industrial complex”

In my last article, I described two kinds of educational approach: the “Platonic,” that prizes “pure” abstract or conceptual information, and the “Aristotelian,” that focuses on embodiment and application of knowledge in learning-by-making and real-world contexts. In other words, it’s the difference between instruction and construction as teaching strategies. As I discussed, these approaches represent a dichotomy in today’s educational practice. However, they’re not evenly distributed. Despite copious evidence to support a more “Aristotelian” approach, the “Platonic” approach prevails in schools throughout much of the world. Instruction has eclipsed construction. And this poses a profound challenge for our collective future that most educators haven’t even considered….

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From Instruction to Construction: Plato & Aristotle

part 1

In a previous edition of my career, when I was a professor of literature and literary theory, I used to tell my students that much of literary history could effectively be seen as an argument between Plato and Aristotle….

Plato believed in an absolute “reality” that exists outside of human perspective and experience — a perfect realm of universal “forms” that shape and give meaning to everything. He believed that the physical universe around us is an inferior, decaying shadow of these forms — nothing but a poor copy. Since only a few “elect” people can see beyond the distracting surface of the material universe, most people don’t really understand what’s important. And what’s important is not the concrete, physical world, but only the “abstract” one that hides beyond it in the perfect, ethereal plane. Human creation (whether by art, skill, or application) is merely another distraction associated with the inferiority of this material world: it’s okay for the “lesser” people, but not appropriate for those “elites” who know what’s what.

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A new beginning: hello, again…

It’s been far too long since I posted to the Unfold Learning blog, but my absence has been profoundly productive. For about the last 18 months, I had the privilege of leading an exceptional team of learning designers as we developed a learning approach centered on learning-by-making. The conversations were challenging and rich, and we made some spectacular learning materials. Along the way, we recognized the extreme importance of supporting our work with research and making sure it’s academically sound yet also easily accessible and easy to implement.

One of the challenges of the cubic learning model that’s been the subject of so many posts here is that while it can be a very helpful model for diagnosing learning situations and for understanding the interrelationships between the three central elements of learning — content, context, and community — it’s not necessarily immediately clear how to apply it for creating projects or how to integrate it into larger curricular or teaching plans. This new paradigm is designed to remedy that, providing teachers and learners with a simple “fractal” seed that can scale to any dimension for creating meaningful, engaging project-based and constructionist learning.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the details and background of this paradigm in a series of posts, but here’s a quick taste:

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Considering technology use with SAMR

Note: It seems this post is required reading for a group of students using Google Classroom. I’d love to know what the class is saying about SAMR. Feel free to leave a comment.

Developed by Dr. Ruben Puentadura based on his observations and study of a statewide laptop initiative in the us state of Maine, the SAMR model has become a popular, though frequently misunderstood, benchmark for considering the incorporation of technologies in education. The chief point of misunderstanding comes from a mistaken belief that the levels constituting this taxonomy can be entirely distinguished by differences in the learning content or its delivery or that a particular technology or tool automatically places one at a particular level in the taxonomy. Of course, both of these elements may be part of the story, but as we have seen with the Cubic Learning model, considering only the content dimension (either when considering content delivery or the use of a particular tool) only tells part of the story – and oversimplifying the SAMR model to focus primarily on content delivery obscures this model’s broad applicability as a guide for educators. Continue reading