Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching


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:

Continue reading


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


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


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….


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When Tweeting Is for the Birds…

Twitter mirror[Here’s another important new post by Bea Leiderman. Bea is an instructional technology coach at Goochland County Public Schools in Goochland, Virginia. Bea has been a Twitter user since the very beginning, and she’s spent much time thinking about effective teaching and effective professional development. As always, I’m grateful that she contributed this article.]

About a year ago, I stumbled upon a weekly Twitter chat in progress. A local educator I had recently started to follow was extolling the importance of teacher-led professional development. He was claiming great success at his school but was not providing any examples. I was very curious, so I tagged a couple of tweets with the chat hashtag and very explicitly asked for an example.

I never got one.

I was determined to get to the bottom of this since I knew several teachers at the school. I found it interesting that in all our conversations, we had never run into the topic of teacher-led PD. Continue reading


Scrum Soup: A Metaphor for Classroom Projects

[I’m grateful to be able to include a new post by Bea Leiderman, who is an instructional technology coach at Goochland County Public Schools in Goochland, Virginia. Bea has been working with Scrum at her school and she and her colleagues are having incredible success with it!]

Alt Wiener Erdäpfelsuppe

Photo by Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last year, our team has adapted the Scrum framework to help our students work through class projects. In the classrooms where Scrum is used regularly, students have a deep understanding of what it means to collaborate and be part of a learning community. Teachers can plan complex projects, confident that students will rise to the challenge and present outstanding products to their classmates at the end of a few weeks. To us, Scrum makes perfect sense. And it is not too hard to implement with some guidance and coaching. However, getting started on your own can be tough, especially because most of us have never tried anything like it.

When talking about Scrum, we bandy about lots of unusual words to refer to the roles, artifacts, and ceremonies involved. Even those three make Scrum sound like a strange cult. Instead of suggesting books and articles, It might be useful to walk through an everyday, non-educational project in Scrum to give interested teachers a frame of reference. It might also be a good way to introduce Scrum to students in classrooms.

Let’s make a vegetable soup following an everyday workflow (the procedure we use to accomplish things in Scrum). Everyone knows how to make soup, right? What are the steps?

  1. Gather all your ingredients
  2. Clean, peel, and chop all veggies and maybe some meat
  3. Cook all ingredients in a pot of water with salt and seasonings
  4. Serve and eat

Generally, that’s how soup works. Of course, the stuff I put in my vegetable soup might not be exactly the same that you put in yours. How long the process takes depends on how many different ingredients I have to prepare before adding them to the soup. If I had to plan this down to the smallest detail, I’d have to expand the above steps to include everything. Continue reading


Hello, mobility

original-iphone-alpha

The original iPhone, introduced January 9, 2007.

Ten years ago today, I was unable to watch Steve Jobs’ keynote live, something I still view with a tinge of regret. I was serving as a faculty chaperone for ACU’s skiing class in Red River, New Mexico, and I spent the day out on the slopes with our students. But that night starting around 11pm, in the 20˚ F weather, my laptop perched on the edge of a large metal dumpster behind our lodgings — the only place where I could snag an open wifi signal — I watched the entire 2-hour presentation. To this day, it is still the most amazing, masterful, world-changing introduction of a technology I’ve ever seen.

The fall before, our technology team at Abilene Christian University had been working to imagine what our school might look like in the year 2011 — then, five years in our future. The reason was an interesting one: in 2011, the first generation of college students who had never known a world without the internet would be entering the academy. What, we were wondering, would this new cohort of students do in our schools, what would they expect, and what technologies would empower them?  Continue reading