Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching


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


Making Conferences More Dimensional: Bett 2018

Bett Arena L

While we’ve seen considerable experimentation and exploration scattered across the educational landscape, one of the holdout areas often untouched by the transformations of recent technologies is the standard conference presentation. Think about it: because of their logistics and their average venue — an auditorium with a stage facing row upon row of chairs or a rigid constellation of tables packed together to maximize attendance — most conference sessions focus primarily on a leader delivering information for an audience’s consumption. If that ‘delivery & consumption’ model is something we’re working to transform in classrooms, couldn’t we also work to transform it at conferences?

This is why it was especially exciting to team with the Bett content team this year to explore ways to do just that. You can read more about our rationale for the experiment and some of the outcomes we were hoping to achieve here. Did we succeed in helping people move from being passive consumers to active partners? We’re still collating data and following up with participants… I’ll post the results here once they’re available. But today, I wanted to consider some of the complexities of the challenge… Continue reading


How Hard Is It?

Rigid Post Image

The definition of rigor, according to the dictionary, is “strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.” Over the past decade, this word has crept into eduspeak more and more, often to argue that students are earning high grades for work that is too easy and does not lead to learning. Do we really mean to make classrooms inflexible places? Probably not.

Search for the words “rigor” and “education” together and you will mostly find a wide range of new “definitions” for this word. More than definitions, many of these are circumlocutions: rambling explanations about challenging students without really getting at how to challenge students and how to ascertain the aforementioned rigor. There are no tools or scales for measuring rigor and no advice on how to identify it.

The buzz about rigor is not new. A post at the Hechinger Report from 2010 states that students are leaving high school unprepared for college-level work or the workplace. The post mentions designing a curriculum that prepares students for college, but gives no specifics. The post also mentions an expert who tells us there is a difference between rigorous teaching, rigorous questioning, and rigorous assessment, but the differences are not actually expressed. I have some rigorous questions of my own about “rigor” to help me think through this word that seems to be more of a political construct with suspect motives.

What is the point of rigor in schools? If the goal is to ensure students are working hard, is the hard work a means to an end or an end in itself?

Challenge is necessary for learning. Doing what is already known is easy, but does not lead to further acquisitions of skills or knowledge. Learning happens at the edge of what has already been learned and what can be learned next. It happens at the edge of what is easy and what starts to pose a challenge. Vygotsky used this expansion metaphor to describe learning when he wrote about the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). If rigor ensures students are challenged so they are constantly learning, there must be a way to figure out if students are challenged, and how much so. Too much of a challenge (a leap too far into the ZPD) leads to frustration. Not enough challenge leads to boredom and a lack of learning. However, hard or easy varies with each individual, and teachers and students judge the ease or difficulty of any situation very differently and they do so for different reasons.

The Glossary of Education Reform defines “rigor” as an element of “…lessons that encourage students to question their assumptions and think deeply, rather than […] lessons that merely demand memorization and information recall.” This is not very different from the goal of Deeper Learning, which is defined by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Hewlett Foundation as academic activities that lead to students acquiring the following six competencies.

  1. Mastery of core content
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Problem solving
  4. Collaboration
  5. Communication
  6. Self-directed learning

If learning activities are designed to challenge students while promoting the development of these competencies, rigor does not need to be quantified and assessed as a separate element. So why is it?

We ask students to learn things that are definitely hard, but have little or no connection to what will be required of them after graduation, and we do it in the name of rigor. As the Glossary of Education Reform notes, “While some educators may equate rigor with difficultly, many educators would argue that academically rigorous learning experiences should be sufficiently and appropriately challenging for individual students or groups of students, not simply difficult” (emphasis added). Until there is a consensus on what rigor means and how it can be observed and measured for individual students, we should ask ourselves questions that help us ensure students are challenged for a clear purpose and that learning outcomes are genuinely productive. Continue reading


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‘Cubic’ ELM Assessments 3: A Problem-Based Learning Course…

Scattered cube

This post is the third in a series using “engagement and learning multiplier” (ELM) assessments to examine some common teaching and learning methods. If you’d like to (re)familiarize yourself with how these assessments work, you can refer to this post. If you’d like to compare this current post’s ELM assessment with others I’ve done, you can find the assessment of a laboratory course here, and you can find the rest of the “cubic” assessments in the sidebar (which may be at the bottom of this screen if you’re reading this on a mobile device).

For each of these assessments, I’ll set the learning scenario and then present analysis about why that approach has a given “cubic” shape and why it receives a particular ELM score. These posts are designed to provide useful examples and guidance as you evaluate your own learning approaches and as you make your own teaching and technology choices.

A problem-based learning course

Description

This middle-school social studies course is organized around a single major concept: building a human colony on Mars. Learners work through three separate phases of this concept over the course of the year: 1) the initial planning and colonization — deciding what would be needed to establish a colony and who should be invited as initial settlers; 2) the running of the colony — deciding what system of laws and government should characterize the settled colony; and 3) the expansion of the colony — deciding how to attract new settlers from earth to come and expand the colony’s capabilities. While the teacher has determined this overall structure, the details of what learners plan, what they make to demonstrate their plan (to both peers and parents), and how they present their work are all entirely left up to the learners. The teacher begins the course by introducing learners to Scrum, the collaboration method originally developed to help software developers work more productively together (see this helpful post by Bea Leiderman about Scrum in school). All work in the course is developed by learners using this method, with the teacher serving as the “Product Owner.”

Learners form their own teams of three to five members whom they choose based on a “skills résumé” (accompanied by examples where appropriate) that each learner prepares and presents to the class: descriptions of drawing or artistic ability, experience making movies, writing or math skills, knowledge of particular software or apps, etc. These teams will stay together throughout the year — though learners are also encouraged to “cross-pollinate” by seeking help from other teams if they need something no one on their own team can provide. Cross-pollination works by means of barter: teams have to negotiate, with one team offering services the other team wants in exchange for the services the first one needs. Any team that finishes a project before the other teams is signified a “consulting group”: its members are expected to split up and serve the other groups by helping with whatever they need. If a team experiences any interpersonal difficulties, its members are responsible for working those difficulties out themselves (though the teacher offers guidance and resources if the team members request help). The role of Scrum Master rotates through all of the team’s members during the first unit, with every member serving as Scrum Master at least once. After that, team members are allowed to choose their own roles based on their abilities and their team’s collective sense of how they can serve best.

Every class day begins with a “Stand-Up,” during which learners show the products of their work to one another, deal with delays or impediments, and decide what their work for the day will involve. Following this initial meeting, the teacher might briefly present relevant materials, involve students in a mini-project, or ask one of the teams to present some of their recent discoveries or work. She also provides materials on the class blog with the understanding that learners will use these as a starting point for their own explorations and creations. As learners develop their projects, they conduct research, develop media, and share results, all facilitated by the tablet devices the school provides for each learner. Teams present the results of the first two project phases in December and March during evening assemblies open to the public. Each team posts its assembled materials on the course blog for “public review” one week prior to the assembly, and is expected to use feedback gathered from this review period and from the public forum to revise their work. Each group gives a 10-minute presentation followed by 10 minutes of public Q&A. At the end of each forum, the assembled audience votes on which group presented the most compelling plan, which produced the best presentation, and which demonstrated the best responses to the audience’s questions. Many former class members participate in these public reviews “just for fun,” though the top team from the previous year serves as a formal “review committee” — service they perform both for the honor of the position and for the pizza party they get during final reviews. The “review committee” provides specific observations about what each group has done well and what each group needs to improve. In late May, learners present the results of the final project phase to the entire school, and the assembled school votes on which settlement they’d most like to join — and why. These three public forums (and the materials prepared for them) take the place of course exams.

The top team (and next year’s “review committee”) is chosen by combining the results of the three public forums and an end-of-year, in-class vote determining which overall project was the best researched, best supported, and best presented — a process which the previous year’s “review committee” referees.

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