Posts Tagged 21st century learning

Clay Shirky–Cognitive Surplus Assignment

The class I had last year was great in so many ways.  Sure there were some behavior issues, but generally, they were an energetic and happy bunch.  One thing that made them unique in my experience is they tended to shy away from class discussions.  Though good workers, individually and in small groups, the large group discussion didn’t produce a lot of apparent engagement.  I traditionally rely heavily on in class discussions; as such, we went a little faster than I’d normally go and a hole opened up in my long range plans.  Not wanting to run poetry as my only unit in language block, and not yet ready to start up their final presentations that would end their yearlong research, I was looking for something to do.

I had an assignment based on Clay Shirky’s article “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus “ that can be found at:  I had tried it before in June or in small doses like if half a split was on an extended trip or such.  The results were always mixed, limited, and somewhat muddled.  Whatever the reason, I decided to give it one more try.  I modified the assignment a little bit and presented it to the class not really knowing what to expect.  Well, they, by-in-large, took off with it.  It was the highlight of the year for many; it has become one of my “flagship” assignments; students were so excited about it, that they showed up this year with their ideas ready (which created minor problems with the brainstorm section…).

It went so well last yea, that I let it run much longer than I intended.  I feel students got a lot out of it.  I am still finding ways to leverage it into better assessment and evaluation but it lead to so many mini-lessons on learning skills, specific content, social skills, problem solving and personal growth that I have come to really value it.  This year, instead of one chunk in April/May, we are working through it part of every Friday.

Last year’s projects:

  • A radio station: We bought a raspberry pi computer and a few other components.  While one person (and I…and my brother-in-law) was working on the technical and software aspect, the others were developing their shows and the advertising/surveys/other that went along with it.  There were a lot of problems to be solved with the tech (thanks Glen!!) but in the end, they (and I) learned a lot.  What I liked most about this group was that the project met their diverse interests.  The artistic student was interested in making their banner, posters, etc.  One was interested in the Tech. 2 were interested in the programing.  I’ve never seen a group work on so completely different aspects of a single goal
  • Bird houses: I remember being a little disappointed with this group’s choice.  They were very strong academically and had a strong social conscious.  I was hoping for something a little more hard hitting.  Well, I approved their plan; in truth, I thought they’d finish early and do another project.  Instead they worked long and hard; I think this group got the most out of it.  Researching, problem solving, team work, logistics, etc.  There were a lot of obstacles and skills to learn.  In the end, they made 13 bird houses (PS: if any of this group is reading this: I still have the bird houses….please put them up this winter so that birds can use them in the spring).
  • The Art Club: One group ran an art club for primary students. They were the best planned group I had.  Every time I had a question, they had thought of it already, and had a good workable answer.  Students in this group got to show strengths (planning, organizing, creating) that I had a hard time seeing in more traditional class work.  The primaries loved their club; they got to make a craft every week for 8 weeks.  I think members of this group were very proud of their work and happy with the opportunity
  • The Movie: though this group had some logistic problems, some focus problems, and the movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination, they had fun, worked on social and learning skills, were quit pleased with their work and success.  The Group was likely a little large and had trouble finding specific tasks for everyone to do at times, but they all came together to make a product and everyone say it through to the end.  I wish I could see their movie again
  • The Youtube Channel: this group wanted to make a Youtube channel that would host Minecraft instructional and walkthrough videos. Technical problems, logistics, and even a little problem with focus made this project seem a little less successful than I hoped, but in truth, they still worked on planning, brainstorming, problem solving, and all the other skills associated with group work and projects.  While their product never really took off, they had a lot of success in learning to compromise, learning the technology, and attempting to create.  There are well positioned to be more successful next time
  • Wilderness Survival club: another group wanted to learn about wild edibles and other wilderness survival skills.  The first researched and learned some skills, found some opportunities to practice and eventually decided to apply their skills by running a club for other students to teach and share what they had learned.  Eventually, we took a small group out into the woods Wednesdays after school to do: shelter building, fire starting and theory, and navigation.  Everyone, even myself, had fun.
  • Orienteering obstacle course: The final group learned orienteering skills and developed a course for their peers in a local green space. It was a very well organized and fun event for the class and a great day outside.  Even undercover police came to check it outJ

This year, the groups are again working on a diverse group of activities: a cooking club; a group making art installations around the school; a movie; another attempt at a Youtube channel;  buying, building, painting and engraving games on picnic tables for the school yard; a mural on the wall of the gym; an outdoor permaculture garden and classroom; and homemade T-shirts to raise money for a local animal shelter.   It’s going to keep the kids (and me) busy….I’ll let you know how it goes.

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My failure with BYOD

I failed!  I started this year with many assets: I had a lot of experience working with digital technology and students, I had read/thought/learned a lot, I had 10 IPods, 3 Macs, 3 desk tops, and access to 3 ABEL laptops for ½ the day, I also had a nice, personable class of 28 students.  With all these assets, I decided to operate a BYOD classroom with free and open technology to be integrated as needed in all subject areas.  In spite of all these assets, it was with reluctance and regret that I found myself banning the use of all digital technology (at the suggestion of my principal) in our class on December 18. I hope that it’s only temporary, but I’m not sure.  Having struggled for 4 months, I had to concede that it wasn’t enhancing their learner; quite the opposite, it was detracting from their learning.  

How will I ever attend an edcamp again; how will I tell Heidi Siwak, Monica Batac, Stephen Hurley, colleagues at CEA and all the other individuals who helped me reach the point where I thought I could run a BYOD classroom?

The problem is I’m not quite certain why it failed.  I couldn’t get the students to buy in.  Very few of them use the technology to aid their learning.  The primary uses were listening to music, playing flash games, and texting for social reasons.  Using it for academic purposes was a distant 4th.  I couldn’t get them to a point where they could resist the temptation of distraction and focus on their learning tasks/goals. 

Sure, there were some who used it well and seamlessly in their learning.  They’d make a quick search to find something to add to a discussion, or look on Google images to see examples of art to help them learn technique; however, this was not the majority experience.  Whenever my back was turned (or sometimes right in front of me) or my focus on helping individuals, there was always more than a few who took advantage of me, their agreement, and the technology to do as they pleased.

Many have written that we shouldn’t take the technology away; that we wouldn’t take a pencil away if they were misused it.  I guess I disagree- if the pencil became a constant distraction, a danger, if it were constantly abused, I hope that we would take it away and look for other more successful options.

I still think that BYOD classrooms can work, once equity can be guaranteed.  I still see many aspects of the learning process that digital technology can enhance.  As I said, I have failed, not the program.

Many have been writing recently about how failure is necessary to learn.  I haven’t figured that part out in this situation yet….any suggestions?



Ask questions in class that can be googled, without Google of course!

Often, again among educational circles on the internet, you hear the phrase / command to “stop asking questions whose answer can be found on Google.”  Firstly, I think implicit to that statement is a devaluing of factual knowledge that I have addressed where I argue that having factual knowledge is the basis of skills and is vastly different from having the ability to find factual knowledge, and in a corollary form ; however, a few things remain to be said:

I have often replied to individuals who advocate the above with: “can you give me an example?”  Mostly, the call is ignored but occasionally, an individual replies with a broad statement about asking students for opinions. To this, I’d respond 2 ways.  1) To have an opinion, you require facts; opinions are a response to a fact.  They need a base or are merely a pseudo-opinion that may mimic the syntax of an opinion, but are valueless.  Thus, you must at least start with facts (that can be googled) that are firmly understood in order to have an opinion.  2) Have you met the Internet?  One is tempted to say that the majority of statements on the internet are opinions or pseudo-opinions.  Why can’t a student copy / mimic an opinion as much as a factual statement?  I wait in earnest for someone to give me a question that can’t be googled but can be answered by my students.  The only think left is to create—are they advocating jumping to the top of the beloved Bloom’s Taxonomy each and every time with everybody?

Many skills are also an application of factual knowledge.  Are people suggesting we shouldn’t ask a student to demonstrate a serve in volleyball because we can look up how to do it on the internet?  Don’t paint a picture to demonstrate balance because you can just find one on the internet.  Don’t write a poem about beauty because Shakespeare’s been digitized. Don’t do any math question because you can find the answer on line.  Being critical or creative is an application of knowledge; many fine examples can be found on the internet, but surely there is value for students to do these independently.  Is it different with a content question in science? 

The organising of facts into a coherent answer is an application and a demonstration of mastery.  Like the above art examples, to have a student create an answer to a math or science question requires them to turn their understanding into the complex symbolic language of writing.  Even if it doesn’t involve opinion, it requires many skills, clarifies their thinking / understanding, and improves their understanding and memory for later application.

Implicit to the statement is also the assumption that it is better to seek information from the internet instead of class questions or discussions.  This is troubling for 2 reasons.  It is partial (at least) absurd, and it fails to appreciate the complexities of learning online.

It is partially absurd because it is such a generalization.  It has in its core, either the idea that information on the internet is always inherently better, or that learning this way is always inherently better.  Should students learn to speak from the internet?  Learn the letters and sounds?  Can they learn to turn the computer on from the internet-sure they can, but perhaps it would be less problematic to be told how to by a teacher, even if it can be googled.  I invite you to take a break now and go to Google.  Type in “how do i goo” and see the list of suggestions from instant search feature; don’t the suggestions hurt just a little?  There are many factual based content areas that are better learned from teachers or other interactions; how to share and why is sharing important are easily googled, but not easily learned from this exposure.

Many contents on the internet are hard for students to decode without context from the teacher first. “Is radiation good for you?” is a good question to ask and to discuss in class because a search on the internet will likely reveal to the student that indeed radiation is good for you (try it and pretend you don’t already know).  “Is global warming real?” is another great question to ask in class even though the answer can be googled.  This is because a student without factual knowledge beforehand will almost certainly come to the conclusion that it is fake (try it!).  “Evolution?”-try it! “Which religion is the best?” – try it!  Critical thinking without prior knowledge relies heavily on internal inconsistencies as you cannot spot the omissions without prior knowledge—that’s what makes the internet a dangerous place.

What’s wrong asking questions that can be googled?  To retell and repeat doesn’t just demonstrate understanding, it improves it.

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21st Century Learning? Get over it! It’s Already 2012!

@Stephen_Hurley proposed that the writers at write exploring 21st century learning and its meaning.  Here are some of my initial thoughts.  They’re a bit jumbled.  Feel free to deconstruct or ask for clarification:

I think the idea/term, 21st century learning is a fairly empty catch phrase used to sell a variety of programs or to rally for change in the education system.  People may do this with the best intentions, and may affect positive change; others might not be so pure.  To do this, they temporarily define the term and apply it to their ideas/programs.  They are free to do this, because the term/concept is an empty shell, free to be inhabited; it is a cart waiting for a horse and a bandwagon waiting for us to jump on, it seems to be an attempt to throw the baby out with the bath water…

I have been perplexed that the phrase is as persistent and wide spread as it seems to be.  Perhaps it is because the idea is free to be adapted, but I have been surprised that a group of educators, focused on innovation and reform as a positive utility, would adopt a single concept so completely and project its reign for a 100 years…what will we have in 2099, 21st century learning as we have it now?

It’s possible that there is something unique in our technological landscape and this pedagogy, but I’m less sure of this then most.  Perhaps “more is different” as Clay Shirky suggests, but perhaps it’s not.  When members of the Oldowan Culture were breaking rocks into tools 2.6 million years ago, they sat in groups.  They helped each other, they collaborated and improved, they gave feedback and shared, they did everything we are asking of our students in their learning and are calling new and innovative under 21st century learning.  Class discussions are asymmetrical, like conversations on SM, and require the same social skills.  When a student is sneaking a peek at answers in their desk and making sure the teacher isn’t going to catch them, they are multitasking.  Is there any skill required in 21st century learning, besides button pushing, that hasn’t existed, as a skill, in the last 5 centuries?

I am further perplexed by our current push to leave the past behind us and innovate.  The present was built on the skills of the past.  We inhabit a world of social media and communication revolution that was constructed from the education system we are so quickly trying to abandon.  I was a product of that learning environment, as were most of us here, yet here we are adapting, using, creating and all without the benefits of a school system designed to include 21st century learning skills – one wonders how we do it?  If people need radically different education to navigate this world, then surely we can’t hope to do so.  Further, with our rapidly changing media landscape, why do the skills 21st “centuriests” are now focused on, have a better chance to prepare students for that unknown future?  Won’t they be outdated as students mature?  It reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s line “if it works, it’s obsolete.”

Valuing innovation and innovators is a cultural choice and not a universal truth.  Some prefer stability, familiarity, tradition, etc.  Can we in multi-cultural Canadaretool our education system with this cultural tenant so entrenched in the idea of 21st century learning?  Each change in the process seems to create new problems as it solves old ones; it seems to be a zero sum gain/game.  Is each innovation in pedagogy an improvement or just a change?

Instead of focusing our discussion about 21 century learning, it seems to me that we should be focusing on effective learning and teaching.  There are fun, engaging, activities to be created and done with the tools we now have available, but 21st learning seems merely to be “an improved means to an unimproved end.”  The goals for our teaching and student learning, the skills we wish to engender, are the same skills that led to success in the past.  Let’s not focus on the century, that seems like focusing on the technology at the expense of focusing on the learning.  Let’s stop talking about learning in the 21st century and just talk about the skills students need in order to be successful and the many approaches, even traditional approaches, to engender them.  Let’s drop dropping catch phrases to blur our conversations and drop making false dichotomies between the past and the present…


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