Can we quantify learning?

“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.”
― Daniel H. PinkDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Last year I had 2 pivotal experiences: the first related to my own learning and the second to the learning of students I was working with.

In January 2013 I began, with 1000’s of other learners from around the world, #etmooc. I won’t call it a course because it wasn’t. It was a strange and fabulous journey. For a start, there were no specific goals to the event. Other people also thought it unusual as evidenced by this Tweet:

We were invited to create and declare publicly our own. Unusual (for me) but OK. I would give it a try and trust this seemingly ambiguous learning process. At the start, the wide open empty black space ahead gave me anxiety. Literally. I felt as a fish on the dock; floundering to survive in an unnatural environment. I floundered on and through.

There was no grand end or culminating moment of achievement. No certificate, no exam. In fact, it was…quiet.

Until.

Something happened, something shifted below and within. A massive boulder, that was lodged between me as a pseudo-learner (primed to follow instructions, take notes, please others, meet expectations) and the authentic learner from my childhood, moved. The trapped forgotten learner slowly but determinedly seeped out, as smoke might, through this narrow but open space. At first, she was faint, transparent and vacuous, not definable or consistent, a friendly ghost who haunted occasionally. Slowly, she grew bones, skin, a heart and became a fully embodied person…again. Re-connected to the flow of learning from long ago; joyful, no questions asked, intoxicatingly open…

The black faded to brilliant colours. The quiet tuned to a loud exuberant symphony. My fear devoured by a ferocious insatiable appetite.

Everything toppled upside down.

Simultaneously to this personal renaissance, I was working with a group of students in a non-traditional way. We meet when and how we could. It was sporadic. We spent a lot of time in conversation about learning. Again unusual, but…Ok. During times apart we Google doc-ed, texted and Facebook messaged in groups. And of course some students were more involved than others. But what emerged was a very peculiar thing; I saw students begin to take up topics and projects on their own and of their own choosing. I began to see them differentiate themselves for themselves. For example one group took it upon themselves to write a poem and turn it into a video…over the summer.  Another took it upon herself to raise funds and sign up for a 2 week leadership camp.  I saw students who wanted to continue to learn, continue to connect and continue to make meaning for themselves but together. Strange, strange, very strange. Over the summer students contacted me to ask if we could continue to work on our plans and projects yet “the course” had ended in June. This fall students asked if we could meet on Sundays to continue to co-construct our understanding around our work on digital leadership, citizenship and learning.

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Meanwhile.

We rip learning, with its long rooted tendrils, still growing, tentative and twined, and clinically drop it on our stark metal scales to measure and quantify it without a glance upwards into the soul of who it belongs to.  We then haphazardly slap a number on it, as a bar of soap gets stickered with a price tag at the dollar store.  The heaving disembodied mound is returned to the owner: “Here, here, here is your learning, back.”

65%

Do we really wonder why, then, the person who gave birth of themselves, of their humanness…do not want it back?

Do not rush to put this ripped, torn and damaged piece of them, back into to their own schema?

When we have the audacity (and I did) to tell students that this process will in fact help them in the future, but meanwhile, they see their souls leaking outwards, a visible puddle, on the floor. And they hear the crushing sound of their own curiosity being ground in gears of the system. Are we not telling them, don’t trust yourself, your inner voice, don’t listen to who you know you are and who you want to be. Instead rely on…us.
The boulder. Rolls into place. The passage closed and blocked. Slowly, we forget. Slowly the subterranean learner is asphyxiated and becomes comatose.

****

While it may be possible to quantify a course, a laundry list of items to “learn”, a finite set of skills, that end, are finite, are helpful externally to the person (like crutches may help you with a broken leg) to maneuver the system….

I wonder with increasing uncertainty and frequency: can quantify learning?

Instead learning:

  • Is created within space and the opportunity to choose.
  • Is something vital, integrated and contextualized within being human.
  • Is not just something reserved for “geeks” but as normal, essential and integral to life as breathing.
  • Is not containable to books, institutions, courses or academics.
  • Has a language that is owned and created by the learner.
  • Is vastly complicated and marbled throughout our humanness, connected and influenced by our emotions, our experiences, our dreams, beyond and outside of anything that can be quantified.

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“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”

                                                John Holt

 

 

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How do I change? Where do I start?

Change2

Change by Gilad Benari

I have been transitioning to a new rhythm and perspective (I moved from being a classroom teacher to working on our district’s Instructional Leadership team). While I am in no way 100% adjusted, I am beginning to get the lay of the land, so to speak. One aspect of my job that has provided significant insights is the opportunity to have and to listen to conversations of both teachers and administrators across the K to 12 spectrum.

One theme I have heard in a variety of words and ways is the sentiment:

How do I change?

and

Where do we start our change process?

One teacher came right out and said “How do I get myself to change!!” It hit me: “Ah, it’s about the change process rather than the specifics or details of the change.”

This prompted me to reflect on what has afforded change in my process:

  • Have an honest talk to self: When I first decided I needed to change my practice I had a very frank, heart to heart conversation with myself. I had to admit: “Yup girl, you are in a rut!” It took several tries for this conversation to manifest. Admitting to myself that I need to change was my first and biggest step. I did not want to admit that I HAD to change.
  • Get into deep end as quickly as possible but don’t expect traction right away: I know…lots of people say, go slowly, do one thing at a time. For me going all in was what pushed me to wake up and see things anew. I don’t think the aha’s would have been the same if I had inched along. Think skydiving; you have to jump, if you want to do it!
  • Build a community of reminders: For me this community of reminders is Twitter. Every day I get an infusion of positive, upbeat, and concrete reminders of who I want to be and where I want to go. Twitter affords me the conditions I need to remember: “Right, that’s what I want to do, that’s who I want to be!” As a bat uses echolocation to move towards the goal, Twitter provides feedback to feedforward on a continual basis.
  • Establish a reflection routine: Whether to your friend on Friday after school, to your work partner first thing in the AM via Twitter or thought regular blogging, reflection has been my number one way towards actualized change. Blogging allowed me to track and understand myself and my course of change.
  • Accept you will have to ask for help: I am not a tech wizard…but I realized I wanted to learn how to use tech more than I wanted to appear as an expert. I had to ask for help, BUT I did not become dependent. Most of my tech learning has been facilitated via You Tube (and the great screencasts of other change agents).
  • Let outdated routines go: I am a big visualizer and I imagined my old habits as a ball and chain I had to cut off. Some of the habits I had to let go of were marking every piece of student work, micromanaging student’s time and over planning.
  • Put in the time: If I said change did not take time, I would be lying. Time and elbow grease may provide significant returns, however, time spent is not THE determining factor (I had spent tons of time before AND not experienced significant change).
  • Let go of ego: I will admit it…though hard even now. One of my biggest hurdles was my own ego; I was the expert teacher! I had worked hard and figured it out! Yup, had to let that go.
  • Compromise: My way or the highway, I was the expert and as a perfectionist, I did not know how to compromise. Another hate to admit it to the world, but in compromise I have realized that every project, idea, and goal is always #bettertogether.

What has afforded you change in your life, your teaching practice or in your school?

I and many others would love to hear!

Navigating Uncertainty.

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Image shared on Flickr by Matt Curry

Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lies.
Margaret Wheatley

Blame it on the rain (now sun). Blame it on #blc13. Blame it on David Weinberger’s book Too Big to Know.

But it is official: I feel uncertain about the future of education.

 Is Uncertainty the New Certainty?

I am uncertain about mark generation and our use of letter grades and percentages.
I am uncertain about top down prescribed siloed curricula.
I am uncertain of our report cards as representative of student learning.
I am uncertain of exactly what skills will best equip our students for their futures.
I am uncertain of our systems ability to adapt and evolve in a timely manner.
I am uncertain of our systems ability to provide a relevant and meaningful education to our students.

Yet. As a system, we continue to devote our limited energy towards maintaining a status quo of certainty
To evolve as a system do we have to embrace our collective uncertainties before we can experience meaningful systemic change?
For change to ripple throughout the system, do we need to let go of our facade of certainty to create a new status quo that embraces uncertainty?

relevance (2)

Image Shared on Flickr by Dean Shareski

Meanwhile

Our system’s exoskeleton sits propped up like a circus tent; the exterior imposingly large but inside vacuous and lacking life, sucked clean by how and where students are really learning. Our obsessive data collection (aka certainty) our primary propping mechanism. This mandated propping keeps us inside anchored and frozen in place. If we let go the tent will collapse, we inside trapped. In our pursuit to justify to ourselves and society that learning is in fact going on, we have inadvertently crushed, like insects, the potential for connected learning to occur.
Just, look at these grad rates–up! Look at these failures rates–less than one percent!
We are certain…so certain.
So certain in fact that we keep all our feedback loops dialed in on this status quo of certainty. Any new behaviors patterns squelched as they disrupt the system’s ability to maintain homeostasis; life of the system superseding innovation of the system.

Meanwhile

Here we stand. Education. Standing stubbornly on our hierarchical particle based shores; siloed groupings guarding their piles of sand even as the grains wash out to sea. Adamant and petulant in the certainty of ourselves.
Stand here! We will not venture into these unknown waters! We are right! Foot stomp. Arms crossed. We are!

Meanwhile.

Uncertainty grows and like the fog rolls in. We on the shore, trapped in “analysis paralysis”, growing ever more hesitant and fearful to launch into the uncharted dark waters.
BUT we can’t launch…now. We need more…more…data, more certainty. Produce it and THEN we will launch.

Meanwhile.

Classrooms remain centered around asking, teaching, memorizing Googlable factoids. The primary focus to provide “bits” of just in case certainty to students, who remain decidedly uncertain about the relevance. The message unspoken but loud:

You will get something interesting later on (when and if you deserve it) but first jump through these hoops. This is training for what REALLY matters (life, job, university)!  Later you will see why and how it matters; we are doing you a favour!  We are here to indoctrinate you into certainty. We are certain that all the facts in this book matter and all are relevant. Don’t venture beyond this book and you will be successful! Yes, we are certain this will be on the test. Yes, we are certain that if you miss class it will lower your mark. Yes the answer is B, look it up in the text-book! We are certain that if you fail here, you will also fail in life. 

Meanwhile

Students are holding massive garage sales, piling and reallocating the treasured chachkas of our siloed disciplines, only to have them sold off again for far less than we want to think possible (What do you mean you copied this!; What do you mean you want to use Google on the test?; What do you mean you didn’t do the 125 mark worksheet for homework?) Like trinkets we lug home from Mexico to proudly show to family and they awkwardly wonder to themselves: “Why the heck did you buy that?”  Our students are wondering the same: “Why the heck am I learning this, it’s worthless!?” In Mexico the trinkets WERE treasures, in context the knowledge was and is relevant.

Do our students have the context? Or any context for that matter?

engagement

Source: The Gallup Blog 

If disengagement is not measure enough, Eric Mazur (Dean of Applied Physics at Harvard) points to MIT research on nervous system activity during lectures as being the same as watching TV. In fact there is more activity during sleep! As Dewey pointed out in 1938:

There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.

Despite growing uncertainty about some things, I have gained certainty about others:

I am certain the students want to learn and have many topics they are deeply interested in.
I am certain that students are creative and need to create to understand who they are.
I am certain students want to have a voice about their learning.
I am certain students want to have a positive impact in their communities and their world
I am certain that many students with high grades have low or very little deeper understanding or love of the topic.
I am certain students with lower grades often times have a deeper understanding but are crushed by the triviality of factoid acquisition.
I am certain students want to be challenged.
I am certain students want to be mentored by people who care about them deeply as human beings
I am certain students want to be seen as individuals.
I am certain students want to feel connected; to their learning, to each other, to the world.
I am certain students want time, space and trust to make decisions about their learning for themselves.
I am certain students are capable with support and love of taking responsibility for their learning.

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As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally — our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.
Margaret Wheatley

Do you know your fortune?

I’m not a fortune-teller, I won’t be bringing news
Of what tomorrow brings, I’ll leave that up to you
I’m not a fortune-teller, don’t have a crystal ball
I can’t predict the future, can’t see nothing at all

                                                 Maroon 5

When I started teaching I became distinctly aware of 2 streams:

1. The stream I move in with my students, that we create together.

2. The larger surrounding stream that includes politics (government, staff, district), professional development etc. Basically anything that does not involve my direct interactions with my students.

I decided early on that I wanted to spend the majority of my time in stream 1. From my perspective, the less I dipped into stream 2 the more true to my heart, interactions in stream 1 could remain. I still feel this way 22 years later, though of course, there is trickle over from one stream to the other.

Over the last few weeks I have been trying to pinpoint for myself where I find value in my work. Sometimes in moments of self-pity, I wallow in feeling undervalued as a classroom teacher. I think I am prone to this wallowing of late as the purpose and meaning of academics (content) and school in general, is going through an identity crisis. Our education system has yet to clearly and consistently articulate what we value and what is valuable. Ghosts of education past still continue to haunt our halls and minds; these further add to the confusion. In this era of transition it takes time for new values to be adopted and understood. Over in stream 1 with my students, I feel new and strong currents ripping through.  It seems readily apparent to students, that static outdated knowledge is no longer valuable and as such they give it little respect.

I get that. I am ready for that.

With knowledge and content devalued and no new collective value set in town, there is a scramble to find and create meaning. Daily. Over in stream 1 it feels urgent; help these kids navigate this stream, quick they are going down! What is mind blowingly confusing to me, is since stream 2 heavily bleeds into stream 1 (good thing I defined that stream idea right off the get go!) the outdated artifacts on how to navigate the stream from the good old days still remain, everywhere. The big, looming framework that defines survival in stream 2 (and by default defines survival in stream 1) still stands, rickety and worn, but still looming over us in stream 1.

So for example when working with inquiry labs or open ended projects with my grade 12 students, there is no external infrastructure that supports the idea that these type of activities are valuable. The structures in stream 2 still speak loudly, high marks are what matter most, find out how to get the highest mark and game the system. The disconnect comes in that students do not intuitively find value in the marks game, they just feel trapped by it, and many feel an immense pressure to engage in the game.

They want something (success) but they don’t really value it (as it is defined). They aren’t sure if they want something else because the societal value is not obvious to them.

A clash, clanging loudly in discordance, between the evidence that times have changed, that students have changed, how they want and need to learn has changed with the Pavlovian triggers strewn across the landscape of both school and society that still point to another time and another value set.

In stream 1 this clash requires crazy glue and a massive clamp, in an effort to keep these 2 wildly divergent parts together. Simultaneously it demands a moving away, an abandoning of sorts, trying to move stream 1 far enough away from stream 2 to find some pure unpolluted waters.

 

Do you feel caught in the middle? How do you bridge this transitional time?

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Somewhere late last night it hit me. I was looking for value in the wrong places. I was looking for my value out in stream 2. Where my value lies is with my students, my time with them. I feel valuable when with them. Regardless of what is valued over in stream 2, I find value here in stream 1.

My value lies in my students, they are my fortune. I will follow their lead down our stream.

Climbing the steep hill of unlearning, #iste12 take away from #isteunlearn.

So far I have 6 different post-ISTE blogs started and still can’t seem to get anywhere! ISTE12 was my first; I was both under and overwhelmed. I took notes, I took notes of notes, favorited tweets, tweeted my hands off, networked round the clock, but I have not been able to make meaning of it (the underwhelmed part) …yet.

Slowly, slowly, like eating a good Roger’s chocolate with the head of a pin (something my grandmother, Gang, did as a child in a time of scarcity and this still speaks to me in  a time of abundance) as I can only digest so much, I need to do it in my own way and I want to savour the process.

Will Richardson’s (@willrich45) presentation: “The Steep Unlearning Curve”, highlighted his top 3 things to unlearn in this age of abundance: Delivery, Assessment and Competition. The session at the time, was deceptively and tantalizingly simple; a couple of ideas, that…morphed into BIG ones that hit me hard, bowled me over and left me feeling bereft.

On one hand I recognized that I had done some unlearning over the last year (in the areas of assessment Dear Points We Need to Break Up & in delivery Excuse me, I think I am having a Revolution ) but on the other, I was overwhelmed and intimidated as I confronted competition. I can intellectually identify this force as one I need unlearn but I am very uncertain on how I will translate this unlearn into tangible actions.
I asked my tweep Fernanda (who I met for the first time face to face at ISTE!):

Yes. Stop doing things that involve competition. Easy.

Except. Do you know how many traditions and procedures in school are built to completely service and foster competition?

Awards day, Principal’s list, scholarships are just a few that come to mind in a blink.

Moreover, I know for myself how deeply rooted the underpinnings of competition are in my teacher psyche. Until a year ago I would have balked at this unlearn idea, rejected it 100%; heart transplant gone bad. I believed that to “do well” students ultimately had to do it “alone” and that to encourage them to collaborate, cooperate and intertwine their learning journeys were sprinkles on a cupcake; looked nice but not required. From my other unlearnings, I know that the first critical step in this process is to drill down deep and identify the underlying beliefs that my practice is built on.

I still don’t have a lot to show…yet. Just some self-knowledge, and a blurred vision for a self-regulating, self-sustaining community of learners who are connected, interactive and inter-dependent. My only concrete plan of action at this time, is to introduce open-internet assessments into class (where students can access and use their phones, computers etc during assessments).

I take comfort from accepting that I cannot get up this steep hill alone and it is not a race to the top. My journey up this hill has been and continues to be intensely personal. I need to do my unlearning in a way that is 100% authentic and true for me (and this is in turn what I want for students and my own children) but..I need a ton of help, ideas, input, conversation, inspiration, tweets, tweeple, and time getting there.

I need new skills, I need solid clues, I need loud encouragement, and I need ALL of you to make myself vulnerable to and say I can’t do it alone.

The hill is steep… and it hurts, but I know the view up there is mind-blowing-ly exhilarating.

Come on, let’s go…together.