Monday, October 29, 2012

Ownership in learning spaces

In The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon wrote, "Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are but with how they might be – in short, with design."

Recently some colleagues and I interviewed teachers who live hundreds of miles apart and asked them about how they design their educational spaces. Whether it was the high school art teacher, the middle school technology teacher, or the college philosophy professor who teaches both face-to-face and online courses, all of them spoke of the importance of developing individual problem solvers, but also about fostering valued members of their larger learning communities.

All of three of these educators spoke of student ownership of their learning, even of the environment itself, a shared enterprise where the teachers is also a member of the learning community.

This reminded me of an article by Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia), "Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age." Obviously Sanger sees the positives of cooperative learning, but in the article Sanger reflects on how the Internet is changing education and among other things warns against the celebration of the virtues of collaborative learning as superior to "outmoded" individual learning. He writes, “my notion of a good scholar is someone who is capable of thinking independently.... Reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculation should make up the vast bulk of a liberal education. Social learning could not replace these individual, 'Cartesian' activities without jettisoning liberal education itself.”

Cracks of Life by Montana Sage
He wraps up the piece with an impassioned plea: “The educational proposals and predictions of the 'Internet boosters' point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our ‘digital tribe,’ ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue.” 

Sanger’s arguments remind me of what Howard Gardner calls the “disciplined” mind: "As the world we inhabit continues to change, educators must frequently reevaluate the goals of education, and the types of "minds" we wish to cultivate." Like Larry Sanger and the teachers we interviewed, Gardner's minds are a balance of the individual who has learned deeply and has cultivated a commitment to their larger communities.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Solution #1 for managing student PLEs

Fans by Claire Cook.
A couple of weeks ago I started thinking more about how to manage the personalized learning environments (PLEs) going on in my classes. No doubt K-12 education will increasingly integrate more individualized approaches, but what does this mean for those of us who are customizing learning in traditional schools right now? Consider this excerpt from the NMC Horizon Report, 2012 K-12 edition:
While the concept of PLEs is still fairly fluid, it does seem to be clear that a PLE is not simply a technology but an approach or process that is individualized by design, and thus different from person to person. Widespread adoption of PLEs may require shifts in policy, as well as attitudes, toward technology for teaching, and learning.
"adoption may require shifts in policy, as well as attitudes toward technology for teaching and learning"... As I see it, these are "shifts" of seismic proportions; adopting them isn't just a pedagogical or curricular issue, it also calls for looking at the situation as a design problem. In The Reflective Practitioner, design guru Donald Schön shows how architecture students learn through reflective conversations; he highlights the value of having an expert unpack their thinking for the novice. But what becomes even more apparent to me is how including the novice in the discussion benefits the expert as well because this "back-talk" is integral to the solution. After all, without the novice, the expert has no occasion for conversation. Designer Nigel Cross gave me another insight when he emphasized the importance of personal experience in Designerly Ways of Knowing

Taken together, Schön and Cross provide a strategy that helped me begin to manage the personal learning environments – by engaging my students in reflective conversations about their personal experiences in my classroom. A number of things came out of these conversations; I'll mention one as an example.

Problem: Where's everybody's stuff?

A chronic problem is when some students want to remix other students' media or collaborate on a project, but can't find each other's stuff. If I had my students put all their work in a learning management system like Blackboard or Angel, this really wouldn't be an issue. But since I want my students to work in authentic spaces, their products are scattered all over the Internet – Flickr Photostreams, Youth Voices discussions, YouTube channels, shared Google Docs, personal websites, etc.

Solution: 1) Create a Google Form where students input the URLs to their various online spaces. 2) Share the resulting spreadsheet with the group. Here's how the output looks to users:

Monday, October 01, 2012

The things they carry

Lucky Penny by me
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned an assignment that I was going to do which was loosely based on Tim O'Brien's short story, "The Things They Carried." One idea that I take away from O'Brien's story and from this assignment is that our artifacts are inextricably linked to our identity.

If you're a teacher, you should try this assignment with your students because the things our students carry say a lot about them. The assignment gave me a new perspective on my students and showed them in a positive light. I now know them in ways that I might not have if not for this activity. And the funny thing is that these things that say so much about them were right before my eyes all the time.

A couple of themes emerged from the portraits. The first is that these potential learning tools either aren't used very often in their classes or are banned outright in schools. My students use their digital tools as calculators, translators, dictionaries, ways to exchange notes, to create school publications, search for information, and draft essays, just to name a few. The other thing I learned is that their artifacts represent significant relationships – ways to connect with family members near and far, to loved ones who have passed away, and to their peers.