What’s next?

This time of the school year, parents and educators alike have their eye on the calendar, counting down the last days of school. For teachers, a much-needed break awaits, and school days are often consumed with wrapping up end-of-year projects, preparing final grades and/or narrative reports, and packing things away for next school year. During this busy time, it’s tempting to feel a sense of finality, as if the work of the school year is all but done.

However, this time of year I find myself thinking of one of my all time favorite phrases:

                    What’s next?

The genius of this phrase is its utility across a variety of disciplines, with children and adults alike. As a teacher, I annoy kids daily when they come up to me with something they think is finished and I prompt them with “What’s next?” They might be showing me a piece of writing, an animation programmed in Scratch or a maker project constructed out of cardboard and foam, but my intention for using this particular prompt is identical for each.

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Ideally, “What’s next?” prompts learners to take ownership over the project at hand, and to adopt the mindset that most projects are, in fact, works-in-progress, always able to be revised, extended, and improved. Echoing the best ideas from the design thinking movement, this mindset embraces the idea that projects can always be taken to another iteration. Additional layers of complexity and sophistication can be introduced, and some documentation of the creative process can be cultivated in anticipation of sharing the project with a wider audience. Even during these waning weeks of the school year, we are compelled to ask our students, “What’s next?” even only to hope that they at some point begin to ask this question themselves.

Of course, “What’s next?” is also a useful prompt for teachers and school administrators at this time of year. Reflecting on the ups and downs of the year behind us, what was learned that should be applied to the next year ahead? What points of interest and excitement must be capitalized upon and carried forward? What projects or endeavors almost worked in the way we intended, and with a bit more fine-tuning could really have the impact we desire?

Asking “What’s next?” is, however, not enough. What actually lies next after that depends on the willingness of all parties to put in the work needed to grow and improve based on the conversations that spring forth.

What’s next for you?

 

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“Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It”

All of sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

In advance of a visit to The Willows next week from Nicholas Negroponte, one of the world’s most innovative, revolutionary thinkers (and grandfather to one of our Kindergarteners), I was inspired to revisit an incredibly prescient short piece he wrote for Wired magazine 22 years ago, from which the above quote was taken. The whole piece, “Learning By Doing: Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It,” is short and worth taking the time to read in full.

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Negroponte is well known as one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab and for giving the very first TED talk, where he predicted much of the modern technology we use today (see links below). Reading this Wired article again, I found it fascinating to reflect on which of his predictions for education and society at large actually came true.

One quote that really caught my eye in the  article:

In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now with multimedia, we are faced with a number of closet drill-and-practice believers, who think they can colonize the pizazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the thick heads of children.

What was true in the 1960s and the 1990s is still true today. Now more than ever, what sells in Ed-tech are just shinier devices and platforms for delivering facts and practicing rote skills. Arguably, there are times and places for facts and skills, but Negroponte reminds us here that educators need to imagine all the ways to use computers to help people learn something besides Googling facts.

Learning By Doing

Negroponte’s insistence that schools promote more learning by doing resonates most today. Essentially, this is the ethos of the maker movement, and one that informs many of the projects I choose for the maker classes that I teach at The Willows.

For example, our third graders are learning about the Native American tribes of California, specifically the villages of the Chumash tribe. Naturally, the classroom teachers and I thought it would be a good idea for the students to make their own interactive version of a Chumash village, complete with littleBits circuits and other tech-related components.

However, before even beginning to create the Chumash village, I asked students to first just build a village. To kill two birds with one stone, I actually asked them to draw and program a village using the software Microworlds EX, so they could practice coding skills while sharing what they know about villages.

The direction I gave was simple: think about what you would find in a village and try to represent that on your screen. As they worked, spontaneous discussions arose about the difference between villages versus cities; students would identify certain components (shelter, food sources and storage, water), inspiring others to add on to their villages in an organic manner. By observing and taking notes as I circulated, I was certainly learning from their doing, and as they designed I noticed they were learning a few things too.

First, given a finite space on which to build, they had to carefully consider where to place different elements of their village, and how much space each could occupy. For example, most students showed that a village has more than one building some for inhabitants to live in and others for various communal purposes; each had to be scaled and placed properly, and much revision was needed as they tinkered with their designs. Second, many students learned that in their first iterations they had omitted certain vital features; for example, only certain students included some means of transportation to move people in and out of their hypothetical village.

Of course, I could have simply read a book or showed a video about villages to them beforehand if I wanted to ensure that they all had close to identical villages with all of the same elements. But my goal was for these third graders to construct their own understanding about how villages work, rather than mimic what I told them should go into a village. Or, echoing Negroponte’s words, I asked them to build their own village instead of dissecting someone else’s.

By asking them to learn by doing, I was actively engaging them, and also allowing them to teach me what they knew or didn’t know, to inform the rest of our project.

For more on Nicholas Negroponte, here are a few links, old and new:

 

 

 

 

The Company We Keep

Personalized learning is all the rage these days. Scan the latest headlines of major publications covering education, and you’ll inevitably come across lots of talk about classrooms where instruction is “individualized,” “student-centered,” and “customized.” So-called reformers from the ed-tech community especially favor this language, touting the latest software they’ve created to expertly deliver a curriculum to a passive learner in front of a computer or tablet.

In theory, no one should be against personalization. But if you believe, as many educators have for quite some time now, that learning almost always occurs in a social context, then some of this talk of creating an individualized curriculum for each child might give you pause. If one of our central aims in schools is to build vibrant communities devoted to learning, then we need to think about how individuals usually learn within communities.

In his landmark book, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith maintains that for millennia humans have learned from “the company we keep.” We are driven instinctively to seek out what he terms clubs – communities of influentialbook learning forgetting people – and as we identify with the members of the club, we begin to establish our own sense of identity:

…as we identify with other members of all the clubs to which we belong, so we learn to be like those other members. We become like the company we keep, exhibiting this identity in the way we talk, dress, and ornament ourselves, and in many other ways. The identification creates the possibility of learning. All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.

While there are undoubtedly times when individuals learn something on their own – for example, reading a book on a topic, perhaps to understand some new concept or to complete a task or a project – Smith insists that even in this case, one is joining the “literacy club,” joining the company of authors, participating in an exchange of ideas towards the ultimate fulfillment of one’s intended goal.

Learning within your club

So, along this line of thinking, we are constantly learning about our world, and there are a variety of clubs that we identify with that deeply influence this learning. Some clubs we are born into (i.e. the American club, the rural or urban neighborhood club,) and some that we are more naturally compelled to join (what Smith terms the “spoken language club” that all infants and toddlers join at some point.) The clubs that we choose to identify with not only influence learning, but actually create conditions for the kind of deep learning that we carry with us throughout our lives.

Looking at the clubs that our students at The Willows gravitate towards, I notice that there are, of course, certain common examples: some children identify with clubs centered around sports or games, others identify with art, music, or dance. By middle school, when the pressure to join one specific club or another seemingly intensifies, children begin signing up for clubs like Rock Band or the Robotics team.

One new, informal club that has emerged this year is our Maker Club. Since establishing our makerspaces within the school two years ago (spearheaded by our Director of Technology Amy Dugré) and beginning weekly maker classes during the school day last year, we have wrestled with how to give interested students more devoted time to work on self-directed projects. This year, we found four blocks of IMG_7519time, two lunch periods and two afterschool sessions, where students are invited to work alongside fellow makers and maker teachers, often learning new skills and developing deeper expertise with familiar tools and programs.

However, in addition to being interested in becoming a better programmer or learning how to print with (and often repair!) 3D printers, we have also noticed other worthwhile interactions amongst our Maker Club members. Kids are genuinely excited to have this time and space available, and are quite disappointed when we have to cancel Maker Club. One student’s excitement about their particular project has the real power to inspire others in the same room to try something new, leading to a scene we recently came upon, where four fifth grade boys were crowded around a Youtube video on how to use a sewing machine after seeing the pillow a sixth grade boy had recently finished assembling. IMG_7514

These observations align with some of the latest research on maker-centered learning, specifically research from a recent initiative associated with Harvard’s Project Zero. In a white paper reporting initial findings (that are being prepared for a forthcoming anthology called Makeology), the researchers found that “the most salient beliefs of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world.” Young empowered makers, they argue, see themselves as people capable of finding and solving worthwhile problems, as individuals within a supportive community “who can muster the wherewithal to change things through making.”

Implications

 Thinking broadly about identity and association, several questions persist:

  • Are we aware of what draws us to our clubs, to the company we keep?
  • Do we belong to different kinds of clubs, representing diverse or divergent points of view?
  • Are we aware of clubs (or better yet cultures) that are different than our own?
  • Is it possible to learn much about a club you are not a member of?

            Further, given that all of us are compelled to join communities and learn alongside their members, what does this mean for us as educators? Exactly, how do these issues play out daily in classrooms?

For example, think of the students who have already decided by second or third grade that they are either deficient in reading or math (or both, or school in general); these students seek out classmates who feel the same and reinforce this desire to be a part of the “non-reader” or “math hater” club. What steps can teachers and school leaders take to deal with all-too-common phenomena like this?