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Thanks, SSAT Leadership Legacy Project!

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I recently had the great privilege to participate in the SSAT‘s Leadership Legacy Project, a program designed to grow future leaders for UK schools. What was most encouraging about this event — echoed in the week that I spent with SSAT member teachers and staff at events around England — was the emphasis on developing thoughtful leaders by first developing thoughtful teachers. Too often, we can see school leadership and teaching as disconnected or even oppositional. But for powerful learning environments to be created, every member of a school — from the cleaners to the highest level of leadership — has to be engaged in helping learners. In effect, everyone has to be on the teaching team.

This was the primary message of the amazing Baroness Sue Campbell, chair of the Youth Sport Trust and key figure on the UK’s 2012 Olympic Committee. Sue reminded us that teamwork and mutual support are a far more important foundation for success than focusing on skills and performance. Her generosity and encouragement were a great fit for SSAT’s mission and message.

The best thing about SSAT is its role as connector, bringing people together in a powerful, country-wide network to think, collaborate, imagine, and work. I’m glad to have become  part of that network, and I’m looking forward to staying connected!


Dimensions of ‘Cubic’ Learning: Context

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In my preceding two posts, I’ve described the levels of two facets of a multidimensional learning model comprised of three: content, community, and context.  If you haven’t yet seen those previous posts, you might want to review them before continuing here.

However, even though I’ve split this discussion across three posts, this model does not describe three elements that function independently; all three combine to create a single “cubic” learning experience. They’re parts of the same basic entity, facets of a single prism. Splitting them apart, as some learning models do, ignores the influences each dimension has on the others and elides the important ways they cocreate an environment for learning.

In this final post examining each facet’s structural progression, I’ll explore the levels associated with context. Then, in my next post, I’ll map specific teaching approaches onto these three dimensions, offering examples of how this “cubic” model can be used to assess and rate the efficacy of particular learning constructs. Finally, I’ll conclude this series by connecting our “cubic” model to other existing learning models and taxonomies.

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From an educational standpoint, context is at once both a simple and an incredibly complex concept. It’s simple because we’re very used to seeing our classrooms and their equipment as the “theaters” where learning happens. We even have a standard minimum expectation for such spaces: seating and work surfaces for learners, special demonstration equipment for teachers — including chalkboards or white boards, projection screens, and so forth. We know that if we want to do something special — display 3D models, organize work groups, conduct lab demonstrations or explorations, connect in real-time to far-away experts, or stage a performance — we might either need special equipment or we might need to move into some sort of special facility that makes these activities possible. But why would we want to do any of these special activities? The answer is simple: we know that they’ll amplify some portion of content or will enable some form of collaboration that we think will benefit our learners — or both.

And this is where context becomes complex. We instinctively realize that even relatively minor changes in the learning context — introducing new tools, a new space, or even a new classroom “culture” — can powerfully impact learning within our schools. But if that’s true for the few changes or additions we can make inside of a school facility, how many more contexts from outside the world of school could we leverage for learning? And what could we expect from our learners if we could integrate those contexts and opportunities every day and not just once in a while? Continue reading


Dimensions of ‘Cubic’ Learning: Community

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My previous post described the increasing levels of engagement and interaction in the content dimension of our “cubic” learning model. In this post, we’ll examine another facet — the levels of the community dimension — considering the different kinds of relationships learners can form as they learn.

Community is a dimension many of us think about very narrowly, if at all. We might understand that there are various people associated with the learning process — teacher, learner, co-learners — but we rarely move beyond our classrooms to consider community more broadly. True, from time to time, we might feel compelled to organize “group work” with the notion that students could benefit from working with peers. Others might feel some sort of social or institutional pressure to prepare students for the collaboration they’ll be expected to manifest “out in the real world.” But as teachers, our embracing of community often doesn’t go much beyond these limited rationales and practices.

However, as Lev Vygotsky and generations of later theorists and neuroscientists have shown, collaborators and colleagues can enhance learners’ levels of engagement, their attainment of expertise, and their resilience within a field of study. As Vygotsky argued, in contrast to Piaget, all learning is fundamentally social, and working in collaboration with others can enable learners to make important cognitive and functional leaps beyond what we might expect if they were working on their own. More recently, Henry Jenkins‘ research on “participatory culture,” extended by danah boyd, Mizuko (Mimi) Itō, and others, has shown the ways that digital communities drive engagement, learning, and expertise, fueled by new technologies and new participatory forms of media. That we should treat this critical dimension of learning so superficially is therefore surprising and unfortunate. Community deserves a more thoughtful and thorough consideration.

But where should we look as we explore the community dimension more deeply? After all, students can work with all sorts of people — those within the classroom or school, learners and teachers in other schools, interested parties in local or distant communities, experts and practitioners from around the world, and people who broadly constitute an “audience” of outsiders to whom learners can demonstrate their learning and growth. The diversity of people we might have to consider in evaluating this dimension seems so large and complex as to be completely unmanageable. However, it’s less important to consider who these others are than to explore how intensively and productively they collaborate with learners, how their collaboration impacts the agency of learners, and how that collaboration fuels learners’ discovery, internalization, and growth.

Once again, the last thing I’m trying to do by focusing on the role of these others in learning is to diminish the need for teachers. Teachers’ productive work and relationship with learners is even more necessary in this model. However, just as we saw with the content dimension, this model necessitates that teachers move beyond delivery of data and information (where many of us are most comfortable) to a construction of knowledge and wisdom that is inherently social and frequently connected beyond our classrooms. Having to adopt this uncomfortable new role can be intimidating or disorienting for some teachers, and that discomfort can discourage them from embracing community. But ignoring this vital learning dimension robs their classrooms of enormous opportunities for discovery, engagement, and growth — and often makes the work of those teachers less likely to persist and less relevant for their learners. What we really need are teachers who can not only design productive engagements with content, but also productive communities for learning both within and far beyond their classrooms. In a world where the ability to connect productively across many kinds of boundaries is an increasingly valued skill, teachers have to function as connectors and social designers, helping learners develop the network of collaborators, promoters, critics, and spectators who will undergird and extend their learning and prepare them for the world outside of school. Continue reading


Dimensions of ‘Cubic’ Learning: Content

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In my previous posts about “natural” learning and “formal” learning, I sketched out a multidimensional learning model comprised of three facets: content, community, and context.  In this post and the next several, I’ll move from overall structural considerations (posts on the community and context dimensions) to some of the pragmatics for applying and deploying this multidimensional model. How does this “cubic” learning approach apply systematically to various learning situations? How can we measure particular pedagogical approaches in light of these three constituent dimensions? How does this model integrate with other existing learning models and taxonomies?

For most of us who have worked as teachers — and this is certainly true of those in secondary and higher education — the majority of our training has come in a particular content area: math, language, science, art…. For those of us outside of primary education, it’s far more likely that we’ve been trained to serve as content experts than to serve as creators of learning opportunities. I think this is the reason so many academics are distrustful both of emerging technologies and the emerging collection of more collaborative teaching practices. Their resistance is understandable. In both cases, teachers can feel they’re being forced to embrace elements that they see as undermining or even antithetical to their very existence. As one former colleague put it when we were discussing how mobile technologies and student-led discovery could redefine the learning environment: “you’re trying to put me out of a job.”

It’s true that many emerging learning models challenge some of the learning constructions teachers have traditionally known and used, but the last thing I’m trying to do is get rid of teachers. In fact, if anything, my model requires teachers even more — but also even more from teachers. It necessitates a move up the DIKW pyramid from data and information (where many of us are most comfortable) to knowledge and wisdom. Of course, moving up the pyramid can be intimidating and even disorienting for some. Rather than focusing on the transfer data and information, this move toward wisdom requires teachers whose knowledge of their subject allows them to see (and often to generate) chances for exploration and application and to exercise and demonstrate how wise practitioners evaluate both opportunities and products within a discipline. So teachers are absolutely necessary, but less as “conduits” and more as designers.

But designers of what? How do we design within these three dimensions and what does such a “cubic” learning environment look like? To begin, let’s consider each of the dimensions separately, starting with content. Continue reading

Article in the new Global Insights

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I hope you’ll take a second to read the brief article I’ve written for Global Insights, the periodical of the Educational Collaborative for Independent schools (ECIS). “Building for Friction: How Obstructing the Path can Help Learning” (pages 2–4) argues that constructivism and making can be an antidote for the central challenge of information’s third age: how do we know what’s real and what’s false? Without mentioning any recent political or cultural situations arising from this challenge (*ahem*), I briefly consider how the methodologies and teaching practices of information’s second age — the “age of books” — often fail to serve learners in the “age of data,” keeping them from real engagement with today’s informational challenges and adding to the cacophony of competing sources. Making offers learners an opportunity to test what they’re learning and to iterate and refine those ideas as they grow and discover.

My thanks to ECIS  for the opportunity to explore these ideas, and look for an expanded treatment of them soon right here….

Danmarks Læringsfestival 2017


One of my favorite aspects of the Danish National Learning Festival was not the amazing speakers and presenters — though there were many — nor was it the sheer quantity of innovative teaching tools and materials displayed in engaging booths staffed by energetic, earnest demonstrators — though an entire hall was filled with them. What was best was that everyone I met really wanted to make a difference in the lives of learners and was willing to make whatever choices they needed to make that happen. And what this appeared to mean most often for those in Denmark (like the other Nordics) was relinquishing the centering of the teacher and the teacher’s authority in favor of building around the learners’ identities, needs, and interests.

Those of us in the rest of the world hear much about what’s happening around learning in the Nordics, and in my visits, I’ve found much to admire. Municipalities, schools, and educational organizations are recognizing the need to try new approaches and engage learners in ways that take advantage not only of emerging technologies, but also emerging neurological and social understandings. Play, challenge-based and service learning, civic engagement, and the integration of new social and creation tools offer learners a path for discovery while also making a difference in their lives and communities. Sometimes those differences are grand and laudable; sometimes, they’re small — like creating a learning environment where kids can have fun. But what is most admirable and what I think the rest of the world needs to learn from these teachers and school leaders is that they are designed: intentionally built and intentionally executed to use particular approaches to deliver particular ends. Design is absolutely not something the Danes take lightly, and it showed in every conversation I had during my recent visit: how can we design a learning environment to produce capable, flexible, thoughtful, civically engaged citizens? Sadly, many schools and governments are far more concerned about other things: test scores, funding, compliance, bureaucratic service, preservation of established structures and patterns.

One of the best aspects of the Danmarks Læaringsfestival this year was that every person had to walk past the area pictured above, typically occupied by playing children. It’s amazing to me how many educational conferences are filled with experts and teachers but no learners. If nothing else, this was a great way to remind everyone at the conference what their work should really be about. And it was a great way to observe how many critical skills people at play have to exercise: communication, collaboration, strategy, knowledge, skill, awareness, and teamwork.

Traveling around the world and learning from so many people and approaches is a rare gift, and I’m grateful for my time learning in Denmark. Their focus on making — and making a positive difference — is something I’ll carry with me for a long time.

Thanks, EdTechRVA 2017

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One of the best things about this week’s EdTechRVA conference, organized by GRAETC, was the number of sessions dedicated to practical approaches teachers and technology coaches could use to transform the experiences of learners. Sessions in movie-making, animation, and Scratch — among many others — offered accessible tools and recommendations supported by practical stories of incorporating these tools into classes. As “making” becomes increasingly recognized as a means for deeper learning, giving learners the opportunity to assess the materials and ideas they’re discovering, such practical approaches become increasingly important. It was great to share a day with a group of educators who valued making so much.