Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching


Making Learning: Creativity or Platforms?

Adapted from a photo of North Cascades National Park by Matt Whitacre on Unsplash

Kids are fed up with sitting in front of screens watching teachers lecture all day. Is that a surprise?

And an even more important question: is watching a teacher lecture from a desk in a classroom really all that much better? Was it better when you were the student sitting in that desk? How many of those lectures made a meaningful difference in your life? How many of those facts do you actively remember or use regularly? How did those lectures develop your potentialities or kindle agency in you?

Now spin it back around. How many of the lectures students are fidgeting in front of today — either on-screen or in-person — will make their lives fundamentally better, more resilient, more genuinely enfranchised, or more fulfilled? Is that ratio any better than it was for you?

Most of us remember relationships, projects, team and club activities … parts of school that engaged, connected, and empowered us. So if delivered information is not primarily what we carry with us afterwards, why do we keep building schools like this?

It’s an Abilene paradox. Most students don’t really want to sit through that series of lectures, and deep down, most teachers want to do more than just deliver them. The limitations of COVID-19 have put this in even starker relief. We all hunger for something better.

But if we tear down the way school does school, what do we build instead?

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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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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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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


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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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‘Cubic’ ELM Assessments 2: A Laboratory Course…

Scattered cube

This post is the second 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 previous post. If you’d like to compare this current post’s ELM assessment with others I’ve done, you can find the assessment of lecture 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 laboratory course

Description

This secondary-level chemistry course is designed to introduce learners not only to the main concepts of general chemistry, but also to much of the basic equipment and lab protocols used in this field. Part of the standard science curriculum, all learners are expected to pass through this general education course prior to graduation. Because of its broad and introductory nature, the teacher has tried to make course concepts accessible and follows a carefully organized curriculum in which more complex concepts and skills build on the simpler ones that precede them. Each two-week unit begins with an introduction featuring a presentation by the teacher. He uses a variety of media to illustrate concepts, including videos and images made by learners in previous years, which he attributes to their authors. This begins the first phase, focusing on conceptualization. The teacher’s introduction is followed up with homework assignments and in-class scenarios designed to give learners practice in understanding and internalizing the unit’s central concepts. The teacher chooses five learners for each unit (eventually rotating through the whole class twice) who present their homework as a basis for class discussions. Their fellow learners are asked to critique and correct the work presented with the requirement that they double-check the science and also describe “something great and something that needs improvement” for each peer presenter. All learners are encouraged to find resources on the web or in the library that they find helpful, posting links to them in the course’s learning portal so others can access them for help understanding course concepts. At the next phase, focusing on experimentation, the teacher presents learners with a hypothesis that will anchor their laboratory explorations. He follows this with a brief introduction to lab and safety protocols, introducing learners to the equipment and procedures they’ll use to conduct the unit’s central experiment. Each learner is also assigned two partners for the experiment, with partners changing for every unit. The teacher has designed these rotating partnerships to help learners make more connections with their classmates as well as to distribute the “advantages” offered by high performing learners. The three-person lab teams record experimental data not only by writing results, but also by making photographs and videos. These will be used to illustrate lab reports, which are jointly authored and submitted digitally. Each partner is assigned specific parts of the lab report and is expected to identify the sections she has authored, but each must also “sign off” on the other partners’ work. During laboratory experiments, the teacher circulates to answer questions, correct improper uses of the equipment or errors in the experimental protocols, and to ensure that all teams are on task and distributing work evenly among learners. The teacher grades lab reports for scientific and experimental accuracy as well as for writing and media quality. For evaluation of the non-empirical aspects of the lab report, the teacher also follows the “something great / something that needs improvement” model, offering all comments via audio files which are delivered to each team via the learning portal. Learners receive both an individual and a team score. The teacher asks those who produce exemplary reports for permission to use them to illustrate concepts for learners in future classes.
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