About the project
I am a writer, educator and chronic student, so it is no surprise that I am setting out to write a book about learning.
But, I am trying something new; at least, something I have never seen before, nor done before.
My book is about information sharing, and the exciting potential for learning made possible by the ease of content creation and sharing afforded us through use of the internet.
I am a proponent of free information and free sharing of information, and I am excited and encouraged by the rapid evolution of our minds in recent decades as the world has been transformed. The internet as a tool for communication has led to, and I argue can lead to, incredible growth for our species.
In the spirit of free information, and encouraging metacognition and learning, I have decided to document the creation of this “book” here. On this site, you can watch as I compile my research and my thoughts; I encourage students, parents, and colleagues to watch the process happen, live. And who knows? We all may learn something from it.
Since this is a digital media, why not incorporate things like videos and images and sound that are absent in traditional books? Why not ask for feedback and incorporate that as well?
Welcome to my journey. My first stab at writing a nonfiction book publicly. Keep in mind that I update the content on this site every day. I will add to, edit, and revise each chapter I am working on, live. So, you may see errors, you may see places where I leave myself symbols to signal that I will come back to that section, etc.
For those interested in learning the process, welcome. For those looking for new insights into teaching and learning in a digital age, you have found the right place. Here we go…
Chapter 1 Recognizing Resilience
Ideas evolve over time (despite all odds).
January 28, 2016
One time, I was talking to my 8th grade English students about ballads. The objective for the lesson that day? “Students will understand the origins and characteristics of ballads.” Eighth graders (or, all of us) love simplicity. They like a clear-cut definition of a ballad; they want the origins of this poetic form to be straight-forward and easy to remember. They think, give me a date, and a format, and I am good to go. Make sure the examples you use are rigid and fit the simplified model I “learned.” Many of them want to check this objective off of their lists, and, inevitably in some cases, forget it.
But, rarely is anything, so simple.
Ballads have existed for centuries, and it would be impossible for me to convey their purpose(s), or myriad definitions, to students in 45 minutes. But one notion did arise from our conversation about ballads that struck me… and that is: communication evolves. Indeed, it seems the only logical lesson to learn from trying to define “the ballad.” It has evolved (in Western civilizations, for that is my primary knowledge-base), it is evolving, and it will evolve. (A simple reason for why ideas are so, complex). Ballads, for example, are narrative poems (they tell a story) with origins in the oral tradition. They survived for generations through the spoken word. Rhyme and rhythm helped to carry them through generations. It can be difficult for modern students to fathom a time where very little is written down when all you know is life in the information-rich society of today. I tell them, “it’s kinda like Snapchat- there and then gone again in an instant.”
We were able to pinpoint two pivotal points in time that changed everything pertaining to communication in class that day.
The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s and the public launch of the interwebs in 1992.
(Talk about over-simplification).
These are two points in time which had a significant impact on our evolution. We do not evolve in the same way as many other species; we evolve in ways that are challenging to quantify. Our minds evolve, and their capacity is downright, mysterious. To further complicate matters, our minds evolve in tandem with the minds of others (dead and alive). Henrich (2012) refers to this phenomenon as the “cultural brain hypothesis” wherein “the real driver in the expansion of human brains was this growing cumulative body of cultural information, so that what our brains increasingly got good at was the ability to acquire information, store, process and retransmit this non genetic body of information.” The result? Emergent, original ideas founded upon insights of others.
Scientists have long pondered where ideas come from. I ask my students every year whether they think it is possible to have an original thought (one that no one had ever had before). Then, I ask them to move to different areas of the room which represent different answers. Their responses are consistently fascinating. Some respond to the question by trying to conjure up an original thought right there, typically through jamming a bunch of random, unrelated words and phrases together. Some of their peers counter that they actually can not experience an original thought, because there are seven billion people on the planet right now, taking into consideration every human who has walked the planet in the past several thousand years, it seems logical to conclude that everything they can imagine, certainly, must have been thought of by someone else, some time, right? Others point to real-world evidence of original ideas. “Look at the iPad and technology and stuff” they say. How could that have been invented, or created, like all technologies we use now, if no one had originally thought of it and then acted on those thoughts? The students move around the room like crazy, as they try to think about all the different ways to approach the question.
I recently read about “memetics,” or the study of ideas. This theory is fascinating as it tries to pinpoint what makes certain cultural phenomena, happen (Latchem, 2014). My students know memes as funny pictures with snarky or ironic statements; they share them online. They laugh at them. I laugh at them too.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first coined the term “meme” in 1976 (Roach, 2006). For Dawkins, memes were ideas or social trends that caught on. Certainly they are always present, in their own, varied ways, in all cultures of people. The implications of his theory of how and why memes spread within cultures, and I would argue, most recently how they transcend geographical and cultural barriers and spread through, people, are significant for those interested in the pursuit of thought (learning). He compares memes to genes; “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool … so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 6). Dawkins’s (1976) understanding of ideas are that they spread from brain to brain, and transform over time. In order to learn something new, your brain must experience stimuli. Social experience has more of an impact on our understanding of, well everything, than maybe we want to realize.
Siegel (2009) posits that the brain is a social organ. Social connections, and emotions that come from those connections, inform how we learn. According to scientist Matthew Lieberman, despite our western idea of independence and “personal destiny,” scientific studies across mammal species, from rats to humans, suggest that we are “profoundly shaped” by our social environments; additionally, we are negatively impacted when our social connections are severed. Turns out, Lieberman claims, social pain is physical pain. “With respect to understanding human nature, I think this finding is pretty significant. The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary recognized as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury… being connected needs no ulterior motive” (Cook, 2013).
Certainly, the levity of communication to learning is evident. People learn when they connect to other people, and when they connect with other people’s ideas.
Here, I hope to make a case for embracing the new ways we communicate, and particularly the relatively new ease with which we can express and receive the ideas of those who came before us, and those with whom we co-exist. Additionally, I embrace instructional models that encourage social learning and inquiry. We have come a long way in the past 600 years, and even farther in the past 20 in the realm of expedient and efficient communication. Let’s use this unprecedented access to information.
So, how far have we come, and in how long?
I don’t really have the capacity to go all the way back. Although, I must mention here, an interesting thought posed by one of my students during a discussion in class a few days ago. We were discussing literary allusions, or specific and direct references to other, famous works of literature, or art, or media. We watched this awesome slam poem about the threat technology may pose to our humanity. In it, there is a biblical allusion (many of the allusions you find in Western literature are to The Bible because its stories are so ubiquitous in our culture). I told the students to try and find it. One raised his hand and said, he had never read The Bible. He asked, “how can I find it?” I told him to try. Here is my personal favorite part of the poem (the wordplay here is just, mindblowing). See if you can find The Biblical allusion (yes, even if you have never read The Bible).
“there is an error in this evolution.
doubled over, we used to sit in treetops
till we swung down to stand upright
then someone slipped a disc
now we’re doubled over at desktops
from the garden of Eden
to the branches of Macintosh,
apple picking has always come at a great cost.
iPod iMac iPhone iChat
I can do all of these things without making eye contact
We used to sprint to pick and store blackberries
now we run to the sprint store to pick Blackberries”
Here, the allusion is to the garden of Eden. Most of my students, about 85 percent, caught it. Did you?
So we talked about how some ideas are threaded throughout literature and throughout time. We talked about how some ideas survive well after those who thought them perish. We talked about those enduring anecdotes and symbols whose meanings tend to stand the test of time. But then one kid, thought about it all differently. He thought about how the meaning of the same allusions may change through time. Then he said,
“OOOoooh ooohh. Ms. Minto. You have to put this idea in your book. You have to talk about what a conversation between the first human and the last human might look like.”
My jaw dropped. I did not expect that, from this student, in that moment. I immediately started thinking out loud. Who is the first human? At what point in time are we looking at? Who will be the last human? How far out is that from now?
Tyler said none of that mattered much. Because either way, the conversation would be sure to prove his hypothesis, and mine. That communication has changed over time. That the first human might try to express his ideas with some grunting or body motions. And that the last would have speech, and math, and art, and literature. We have such complex ways of expressing ourselves, that we even use symbolic and figurative language. We layer meaning into our words. We also, use emojis. Such a cool kid.
For the purpose of this intellectual endeavor, I will take us as far back as the 1400s in Europe.
The printing press brought unparalleled freedom and power to regular people (Kreis, 2014). It sparked a revolution of literacy, which triggered the Renaissance, Religious Reformation, and the rise of modern science (Einstein, 1979). “The great age of information was produced by the Renaissance. And today we are totally bombarded with information. The primary effect of this boom in printing in the 15th century was that printed books began to fall into the hands of people who were not intellectuals. The effect was profound and perhaps without parallel” (Kreis, 2014). Certainly, there were issues with the oral tradition; people had limited access to the ideas upon which they could form new understandings and create new ideas. Once we were able to write things down, and copy them, and share them, ideas started to, well, take off.
–Printing Press history and impacts–
There are two important things to note here. The first is, we have something to say. We are compelled to tell stories, and to learn from them. Indeed, we tell the same stories over and over again. Today, in class, my students were to learn the “characteristics of epic poetry and how it influences today’s media.” It became clear, almost immediately, upon reading about epic poetry, and particularly the cycle of the epic hero, that students were already familiar with this storytelling technique. Storytellers of today frequently invoke the structure and themes that were used by storytellers centuries ago. George Lucas did extensive research into Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth in order to create Star Wars. Students could identify all sorts of “epic heroes” in movies they have seen and books they have read from Sarah in The Labyrinth (1986) to Harry Potter.
Really, this objective will hit upon the same themes as the lessons about ballads. We tell the same stories over and over and over, and some may say that there is little difference between a ballad that survives orally through fourteen generations in Italy before it is written down, and the retelling of classic Epic myths in new forms like Star Wars.
The second thing to note is the resilience of the human mind, spirit and “word.” Despite it all, even the fact that we are seemingly compelled to tell the same story over and over, our ideas and our words survive and outlive us. They evolve long after we utter them. For centuries, in the face of restrictive societal controls from totalitarian regimes to churches, ideas and words transcend. Even when we have no way of writing them down, or capturing them in a tangible way, they overcome and live on.
Our persistence and tenacity is evident in our unfailing desire to communicate, regardless of the message. It is critical to our evolution as a species.
The internet- well, the internet is like the printing press on steroids. It has streamlined communication, and can therefore be a crazy-useful tool for learning.
How the internet removed “the odds.”
The story of the internet starts slow. Its evolution was as slow as our own before the printing press came along. It started out in the hands of few, and in that state, very little came of it.
Barber, King & Buchanan (2015)posit that we have moved into a time period in human history where “the world continually redefines itself.” Additionally, “the development of new knowledge outpaces our ability to keep up with content, thus many authors have re-defined the essential skills required of the 21C learner. Several authors concur that these skills include the development of creativity, self-motivation, innovation, problem-solving and collaboration skills.” These sorts of skills come about through authentic problem solving and inquiry-based learning. In order to foster these skills in our students, teachers must move beyond believing in our “old” role. We are no longer experts who deliver content to kids. We are facilitators; we are learners, who know how to learn, and who can help students to figure out how to do it too. We are content creators, and so are our students (Roach, 2006). The new digital world of information, and the freedom with which it is created and shared (despite many efforts to tamp it down, or downright stop it in its tracks) allows us, as educators, to have “myriad of opportunities to invite students to develop these skills, if the instructor has the courage and tenacity to relinquish some authority, and level the playing field. Expertise no longer resides in one individual in a professional learning community, and so the roles of teacher and learner meld” (Barber, King & Buchanan, 2015).
Chapter 2 Communication Controls
Chapter 3 Subversive Slang
In 2012, after two solid years of teaching, I landed a long-term sub gig at Newtown High School in Connecticut. Looking back, I had no idea how much this job would completely change my outlook on students, teaching and this world in which we live.
When I was hired, it was October, and students were just finishing up the first quarter. The teacher for whom I was taking over, told me the kids were reading A Raisin in the Sun and that they needed to finish it. I had never read it before, so I had to get right to work. Fortunately, well at least for me at the time, we were hit with Hurricane Sandy the day before I was to begin teaching, which earned us nearly a week off from school while tree-limbs were removed from nearly every road surface in Newtown.
I spent that time delving into Lorainne Hansberry and reading the play. Several themes emerged to me, and I jotted down notes for instruction.
I feel it is important to note here that, in my life, it has taken a good deal of time for me to value my own insights into literature (or anything else for that matter). As an adolescent, although I loved to read and think and write, I never connected that past-time to school! Seems crazy, right? But I think it is telling. Because, a lot of students I’ve met and taught feel this way. And I think, a lot of teachers I have met and worked with also feel this way. I thought that school was where you learned how to answer questions and then parrot back those answers to teachers on tests or during class discussions. I thought, I could not have, or I was incapable of having, accurate insights into school content. I thought, if I read a book for school, the only themes of the book were the ones in CliffsNotes books (sadly, there were no interwebs back then). I ALWAYS read the CliffsNotes for books we were assigned in English class. Not because I hadn’t read the books. But because I absolutely did not think I was capable of finding themes or motifs or symbols on my own. I thought, you had to hear that from the experts. I read CliffsNotes so that I could confirm what I had figured out all on my own, typically. I never realized at the time that I was already busy thinking, constantly when I was that age. About what I was reading in class, outside of class, hearing from peers and teachers, what I saw on TV, etc. I was learning constantly, and always filtering new content through my own unique lens. And, that is valuable. I know that now.
It should be no surprise that, after reading the play, I consulted resources about A Raisin in the Sun. I searched the web for lesson plans, activities, ideas, etc. like most teachers do, especially when new to the game, and new to a school. I found a lot of stuff. I also did not find some key things I was looking for.
While reading through the play (and while teaching it to students) a theme emerged for me that I could not easily find reference to in other academic articles. This elusive theme?
Generations differ greatly in their ideology and behavior from the generations to come before them. There is a shift in thinking that happens from each generation to the next.
Ground-breaking insights, right?
The play is about an impoverished African American family awaiting the arrival of a life insurance check for 10,000 dollars following the death of the patriarch. Each member of the family, Mama, her son Walter, and her daughter Beneatha, has different ideas about how they should spend the money.
Walter is pretty vehement (to say the least). He dreams of being a wealthy business owner; he wants to put the money toward starting his own liquor store. Beneatha wants to be a doctor, so that will require some schooling. Mama, wants a bigger home.
At the heart of their bickering and conflict, is a fundamental difference in ideology; one that arises from the age difference in each of the characters. Why does age matter? Well, why wouldn’t it? The story takes place during a tumultuous time in American civil rights history, the late 1950s (and was almost, prophetic of what was to come). Because this was an era of rapid social change, each character came of age in vastly different time periods, with different social norms. Mama does not want her money to be used for liquor- she is morally opposed to this notion. Walter thinks Beneatha is just a girl and therefore should “go be a nurse like other women — or just get married and be quiet.” Beneatha, does not believe in god. Each character represents a shift in ideology that was happening in this country in the 50s and 60s.
When reading the play, every characteristic of each character screamed to me that times were changing. These characters were caught up right in the middle of a pivotal moment in history, just like we are. And I would argue that times are changing faster than they ever did before, particularly since the widespread use of the internet. I brought up these notions in class one day. I told the kids what I was thinking about the play. I modeled for them what thought and literary criticism and inquiry look like. I asked them what they thought. Not what they could ask Google, but what they thought.
What emerged was a pretty epic drawing on the whiteboard of generations; of older generations trying desperately to recapture the times in which they came of age, typically through some sort of top-down management of youths. And of younger generations, rebelling, and rising up, and changing the tides. And finally, those younger generations growing up, having kids, and repeating the cycle.
This same theme emerged at the beginning of this year, when students were asked to analyze this piece of street art:
It opened my eyes to age-relations, a fascinating and important topic to consider when teaching young people day in and day out.
Those kids, in that classroom, that day, in Newtown, though, added to my thought process. They enriched it. They extended my thinking, while I was attempting to do the same for them.
They wanted to talk about LANGUAGE and how language changes with each generation.
It is impossible to ponder our thought processes without at least acknowledging language. Boy is it powerful. One of my 8th grade students this year gave a speech to the class about why the pen is still mightier than the sword (one of my favorite points that he made was that, most of the time, the pen is what sparks the wielding of swords in the first place, talk about power!).
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, humans have made “attempts to understand the mind and its operation” since “the Ancient Greeks, when philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle tried to explain the nature of human knowledge” (Thagard, 2014). The language here is telling: attempts have been made to understand our own thinking. McCarthy (1989) posits that while humans can readily adapt complex skills like natural language (speaking and understanding), we do not yet understand how the human mind does this; language acquisition in the brain is somewhat of a paradox, and certainly is an enigma. All humans have the capacity to process and internalize the basic systems of language, as it is innate; that said, language develops spontaneously in each person, depending on their environment (Patharkar, 2011, p. 221). According to Patharkar (2011), “All human beings develop language regardless of conscious training or obvious rewards and punishments… The elders around a child do not provide properly tuned data to the child, but his mental organ can form hypothesis, can use induction and differentiation to develop a system capable of creativity that is capable of creating sentences and expressing meaning which it has not heard from anyone” (p. 221). This is kind of amazing. We do not have to “program” our children with all possible words before they are able to use these words on their own. They develop an understanding of words and then put them together in their own unique ways, as soon as their little bodies are able to.
In addition to working with students day in and day out, I have a two-year-old son at home. At about 20 months, his use of language just, exploded. He says the funniest phrases, and I often hear myself saying, “where did you get that idea from?” It is easy to assume that, because he is so small and young, that everything he says must be parroting something he has heard. Quite the contrary. Although he is only two, he is able to generate his own ideas and use language to express those ideas even though I do not really make attempts to explicitly instruct him to do so. Although about 70 percent of what he says communicates a need or want to me, he also expresses ideas and humor; you can see the pride on his face when he knows he is being understood. It is something else to witness, and it happens so, naturally, that it is very challenging to quantify.
Notable linguist Noam Chomsky (2003) admits we know very little about our own language acquisition process; he argues that “we must simply retain an open mind on this subject. We know a little about a number of cognitive systems, language being the most interesting case at the moment… the important thing is to determine the deeper principles and the detailed structure of various cognitive systems, their modes of interaction, and the general conditions which each system satisfies” (p. 83). Chomsky has devoted his mind to studying language, and still has no idea how we acquire it. I took a Linguistics course in grad school (the first time around) that swiftly kicked my tush. I could not comprehend it. I had to read the text book for that course three times. Yes, I read the whole book three times. And by the end of that lengthy and tenuous exercise, I understood enough to pass the class with a B, and sadly, most of what I remember is a jumbled-up, mixed-up, mess. It is like knocking on a door inside of your own mind, and not being able to open it. Although we are not sure how we acquire it, it is clear that once kids can understand words and can express themselves, words take on new identities.
By the time I finish typing this sentence, the slang I refer to here, will probably be outdated. It is evolving more rapidly than ever since the millennials have seemingly hijacked language; they transform it everyday. And it spreads. It spreads through hallways, then through snapchat, then through instagram, then through youtube, and it infiltrates our lives, until I, a grown woman, end up hearing myself call my husband “bae.”
Slang comes from youths. It always has.
The term “slang” refers to
Chapter 4 Liberating Learning
When asked, what do I think about the future of education, my brain goes into two opposing directions, as it tends to do. Oftentimes, I see the world as competing dichotomies, so I think both, “Ugh, its not great,” and “boy, it could be really, something, amazing.” I think as a teacher in public education, I see a lot that we all wish would change. The top-down management of schools from the federal level- from directors who are so far removed from our unique classrooms full of unique individuals, is stifling and, oftentimes, disruptive to the learning process. Of course complaints vary by district, and school, but teaching, we can all agree, is not always sunshine and roses, for lots of different reasons.
Enter, the internet. Never before has humanity had the means to communicate as quickly and efficiently. All of our knowledge can be uploaded and then downloaded, so to speak. And we are compelled to express ourselves and to learn from one another. I mean, a google search for “Ralph Waldo Emerson” turns up 12.7 million results in .28 seconds. People create that content, and people consume it. It is a pretty cool time to see, and the implications for education, are really exciting.
It will come as no surprise that I think I hold a more positive view of the internet and its implications for education (yes, even higher education) than some of the authors writing about it now. Dew (2012) uses the term “disruptive” again and again to describe the internet and its effect on higher ed in America. Where I see more freedom improving learning for all humans on earth, Dew sees gloom, and namely, negative implications for universities’ bottom lines. “Open-source course materials offered by some of the most prestigious institutions in the country are creating significant reconsideration regarding how faculty can facilitate student learning and how institutions may verify student learning. Major institutions are providing course syllabi and lecture materials online for free to any 8 World Future Review Winter 2012 viewers. Of all of the 15 trends, this may be the most disruptive of the status quo in the long term” (Dew, 2012, p. 8-9). Disruptive to institutions, yes. Disruptive to the goal of these institutions: learning? No. Perhaps we have all forgotten the purpose of education. I mean, the first five things discussed in this article are economic; this is rather telling of the priorities of higher ed institutions currently. Further, this gem really surprised me: “War and Peace. The phased ending of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will adversely impact the number of active-duty military personnel pursuing all levels of academic degrees” (Dew, 2012, p. 9). Yikes, I guess, since war is so good for the education industry, we better find some more countries in turmoil to invade…
Tapscott (2011), is rather excited about the new way “digital natives” are learning. They tend to problem-solve, and collaborate, using online tools, naturally. “They’re loving learning, and they’re learning in a way that’s appropriate for their brains and the kind of workforce they’re going to enter as they become adults” (Tapscott, 2011). I definitely see this in my classroom regularly, and it excites me too. Tapscott mentions the “industrial revolution” style of education we have today is outdated- and there are those who can accept and are excited by change, and those who are not ready to let go of what they know.
Distance education is not new; but online education is, relatively. The collective human experience- all of our past and current observations, theories, ponderings, and videos of animals doing cute things- congregates on and is available on the internet. It makes sense that learning happens online. Making sense of it all is challenging, however and there are research-based best practices for learning and teaching online. According to Fulgham & Shaughnessy (2010), “when special efforts are made, [online] education actually can enhance learning experiences, expand horizons, and facilitate group collaboration… Students can have more direct experiences with the information (e.g., close-up viewing of an experiment is possible). Time for reflection is possible before responding to the prompts presented, and the ability to work with peers or experts enhances the potential for learning” (p. 55).
In recent years, more attention has been paid to the benefits of online education versus traditional, face-to-face teaching and learning. Additionally, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OERs) are gaining steam. These offer high-quality educational resources to anyone for free. Many schools including Yale and MIT are posting their courses online for anyone, for free. Despite existing criticism, online education is growing, as is the discussion about how to increase student learning in an online learning environment (Gaytan, 2007). Certainly, online education is not going anywhere; indeed, it just may be the future of education.
Central to online learning theory is connectivism and constructivism. Constructivism is a student-centered approach to instruction that emphasizes building on a student’s prior knowledge (Boettcher and Conrad, 2010, p. 13). The forefathers of constructivism were “Dewey (1916), Piaget (1973), Vygotsky (1978) and Bruner (1996)” and “each proposed that learners could learn actively and construct new knowledge based on their prior knowledge” (Huang, 2002, p. 28). The methods of constructivism focus on developing a student’s ability to solve their own real-life problems to create free discovery; this discovery is what constitutes knowledge and learning. Building upon this notion was Vygotsky who posited that social context impacts learning; he placed high value on social interaction between the learner and a teacher and other students during the learning process (Huang, 2002). These ideas are the basis for most online learning theories as online instruction moves toward incorporating collaboration and inquiry-based learning and doing.
Chapter 5 Teaching Thinking
One of my 8th graders wrote me a letter at the end of the school year in 2015 to thank me for teaching her. “Throughout eighth grade, I have learned how to think from Ms. Minto. I have learned how to be a thinker. I’ve learned to elaborate in my brain before putting it in writing…Although this wasn’t one of our official lessons, you have taught me that change is okay and that is really important to me.”
Sometimes, we teach things we do not even plan. And all of the time, we learn things that are, hard to quantify from our students, our colleagues, our lives. That student was right; things are always changing. And it is clear that education is one of those “things.” There are regulatory changes that (attempt to) reflect theoretical, social, and ideological changes; in an effort to pursue excellence, we keep trying to figure out how to best teach students.
It has always struck me as odd that new teachers are taught to individualize education for their students, but we are asked to do so in a standardized environment. This notion calls to mind the laughable, oxymoron-laden speech of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Bottom when he tells Quince “You were best to call them generally, man by man.”
Contemporary research emphasizes student-centered instruction; somehow, we are expected to differentiate for multiple intelligences while using one curriculum, one set of standards (common core in 44 out of 50 states) in order to have all students pass standardized tests. “Its essentially about conformity, increasingly… and it’s about standardization” (Robinson, 2010). We lump students into groups by age, teach them by subject (as though the universe isn’t just one big, fully functioning, interconnected, thing), and expect them to behave (or follow orders) in a completely unnatural environment where a bell rings in the hopes of signaling some Pavlovian change in interest from poetry to algebra (Richman, 1995). Then we wonder why schools fail at fostering a child’s inner creativity. According to Robinson (2010), we all have a capacity for divergent thinking- or the ability to come up with (out of thin air, or our own minds) multitudes of answers for one problem. 98% of children at the kindergarten level are considered to be geniuses at divergent thinking. As they age, their capacity decreases (Robinson, 2010). This seems counter-intuitive. Certainly, as we age, we learn and grow more wise from our experiences in life. The notion that only young children are creative, naturally, is a myth, and is propagated by teachers across the country (Castro-Fajardo, et. al, 2014). Are teachers wrong, or has something else gone awry? According to Robinson (2010), the problem is that as children grow, they get “educated.” This robs them of the divergent thinking that is innate in them. They are told that there is one answer to life’s great questions. And make sure you fill in that bubble on the test, or you’re wrong.
Richman (1995) identifies the progressive era as a time where “deference to experts” swept the nation, and namely education. Suddenly, educating your own children was “something that is beyond the scope of someone who doesn’t have special training” (Richman, 1995). What followed was a bunch of experts deciding that there was one way to educate children, and this educational model became compulsory. “We know a lot of things about education already… somebody knows something about how to nurture the natural curiosity of children, but there are still things to learn; you can never say we know everything there is to know about a subject… the way you get that is by many people trying many things, at the same time, without having to get somebody’s permission. But if the school district is the one in charge of the curriculum and if they can make sure most kids go there because you gotta pay your taxes even if you use private schools, the district is claiming a monopoly on wisdom; it is claiming to know how good schools should be run because they get to say what gets into the system and what doesn’t get into the system.” Starko (2013) concurs, with every choice made, all other choices are eliminated. This is the problem with standardized education. It simply cannot achieve what it intends. The problem is systemic.
So what do we do? Well, I do not see a tearing-down of the entire U.S. educational system on the horizon, so teachers must act in the best interest of their students, sometimes despite the top-down control from building administrators, teacher unions, school boards, superintendents, state mandates, federal mandates, etc. who all claim to know the one best way to educate students (despite the real-life results of plummeting performance in schools). Starko (2013) offers realistic ways to implement classroom instruction, now, that can help to foster divergent thinking on the part of our students. “Teachers can create a classroom in which creativity flourishes by doing three key things: (1) developing a creativity- friendly classroom environment, (2) teaching the skills and attitudes of creativity, and (3) teaching the creative methods of the disciplines.” Additionally, Starko (2013) advocates using the Common Core Standards as a floor instead of a ceiling. They do not need to be the be-all, end-all of what happens in our classrooms.
Of course, I should make it clear that I think most of the people involved in the top-down management of education have good intentions. But it is an impossible task they take on. Fortunately, schools are also filled with well-meaning individuals who, hopefully, have a greater impact on student’s lives than regulations and mandates. These well-meaning individuals, I suppose, will have to do their best to teach the children to think despite the way that the educational system works against this end.
What does teaching “divergent thinking” look like in your classroom? How can you teach thinking?
There are a lot of ways to attempt to answer this question. I will introduce and explore some learning theories in this chapter, and will provide real-world ELA strategies teachers can use in the classroom to encourage thinking and problem-solving.
ENGAGING STUDENTS THROUGH CONNECTING THE PARTS
So often, students feel removed from the content they learn in class. They fail to see its importance or application to the real world, or to their own lives. At parent-teacher conferences this week, a parent, who looked at the end of her rope, asked me, “how do I get my kid more interested in learning? He doesn’t see the point.” Perkins (2009) would argue that this disconnect is not the fault of the students. The way we teach, and I would argue, the way our entire educational system operates, are contributing factors. Students are expected to engage in a lesson about algebraic equations for 45 mintues. Assuming a student is actually, really interested in the topic, they are expected to switch gears when a bell rings and signals them to the next content class. Oh, were you really into that algebra? Why don’t you put it away, and start analyzing this poem! Often, content area teachers do very little to tie all of these subjects together. Similarly, skills and concepts are taught independently of each other within the same content area. It is no wonder students are not motivated and are not paying attention, and therefore, are not learning.
In 1924, Max Wertheimer addressed the Kant Society in Berlin. He discussed Gestalt theory. Gestalt is a German word that has no precise translation to English, but is said to mean “pattern, form, shape” etc. Wertheimer discussed a good deal in this address, and anyone interested in learning theory should read it (a few times here). Wertheimer’s interpretation of Gestalt theory is captivating, and strikes at the heart of human learning… our desperate attempt to understand what perpetually eludes us. (Early in the essay, he references “Angst,” and I would argue there is a reason for that….). He is utterly, convincing. And that may be why this theory had a hand in transforming education. The impact of this theory on my classroom today, is palpable.
Gestalt theory is complex, requires a good deal of study, and is used in several fields, but it becomes clear very quickly that many popular learning theorists draw upon the work of Getsaltists. It is a stark contrast to behaviorism and other classical learning theories that dominated early American education because it treats everything as a whole, not a sum of smaller parts, and treats the learner as an “active processor of information” and not just a recipient of information, or responder to certain stimuli (Learning Theories, 2013).
Atherton (2013) applies the theory to education; “the importance of the theory for real-world learning is the attention which it draws to wholes (and incidentally to problem-solving as a part of learning). Whereas behaviourism concentrates on breaking down a task into parts and how each is learned individually and incrementally, Gestalt acknowledges the “knack” element. It thus underpins all the cognitivist theories.”
In his book, “Making Learning Whole,” Perkins (2009) uses a baseball metaphor to represent solid instructional pedagogy based on the notion that learning is an experience in which students should be actively involved. For decades, teachers and students have been missing the point of lessons, classes, and education. Perkins (2009) delves into his baseball metaphor to show how teachers can help their students by doing what he calls “teaching the whole game.”
Perkins (2009) distinguishes the “earmarks” of teaching the whole game: it involves some form of inquiry, problem solving, strategy, skill or craft; it should not be about spoon-feeding content- rather, students should be learning a new skill; it involves thinking and questioning what you think you know; it requires problem finding and solving. When students play the whole game, they should be creative and curious; they should discover; they should also, however, justify and verify their thinking through finding evidence. Most importantly, playing the whole game incorporates all aspects and disciplines of learning. Learning should not be compartmentalized by subject or objective. Learning is about making connections- playing the whole game involves these connections.
Imagine trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle without seeing a picture of what the puzzle should look like when it is finished. This is a metaphor for the way we teach now. Students are expected to understand each piece of information, without the broader context; we fail to show students how each bit of information fits together to form a bigger idea or concept. Of course, when you have a jigsaw puzzle with 1000 pieces, it will be a challenge to put it together even if you know what the picture should look like. This is why Perkins (2009) suggests introducing the idea in a more manageable way. For example, I can show the picture of the puzzle, but only cut it into 5 pieces. Once the kids can put those pieces together, we can cut it up some more. By this, I mean that we can delve deeper into the details of the big ideas, but a “threshold experience” at the onset of new learning can get students “past the inital disorientation” of unfamiliar territory (p. 9).
Perkins (2009) uses a diverse breadth of research to back up something I have seemed to always understand intuitively about education. For nearly a decade, my understanding of the world and of learning, has been influenced by E.O. Wilson, a scientist and author who has what I would call an obsession with ants. He studies the behavior of ants and draws conclusions about man. At any rate, he wrote a book called Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In the introduction of the book, Wilson (1998) describes the “aha” moment he had when he first saw the “whole game,” so to speak. And his book created a similar moment for me. In the book, he argues that the world operates as a whole, and therefore, all of our studies should be interconnected. “The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship” (Wilson, 1998). It is clear that he sees that education is taking the wrong path by compartmentalizing subjects, and skills. It is no wonder students are unmotivated and inattentive.
In our current educational model, it can be tricky to teach the whole game. We break units of study into lessons with objectives and corresponding performance tasks. The teaching of these objectives, however, can be meaningless to students, if they are unaware of how the objectives fit together. What is the big picture? What is the big idea? What is the purpose of learning this? Perkins (2009) identifies the tendency teachers have to teach “the elements first,” when approaching complexity with students. This involves breaking a complex topic into smaller parts, and teaching the parts to students first. They put the parts together later. This strategy seems to make sense, at first, but Perkins (2009) argues that teaching the elements first makes little sense without the context of the whole game.
ELA instructors can fall victim to this approach when teaching an essay to the middle grades. There are a lot of parts to an essay, and there are many types of essays. Teachers may teach three different types of essays in a year, and tell students a definition for each type, show students examples of each type, tell students how to write each type. The teacher may even model how to write each type. Then, students practice writing each type. It can be common practice to teach students how to write a thesis statement, and topic sentences, and then to add in quotes from a source text, as evidence, and outline and organize claims. Teachers may get through an entire year of this, without ever discussing with students the purpose of communication. Why do we write? What do you want to tell others? the world? What do you believe in, and why do you feel compelled to communicate? These questions, provide a context and purpose for learning writing skills. A step-by-step tutorial on how to write the perfect five paragraph expository essay, misses the point of the whole game.
Perkins (2009) presents multiple strategies for teaching the whole game, and his suggestions work for any discipline. Of course, essay writing is a useful skill, and there are a lot of ways to get students on board. An inquiry-based project is a great strategy for teaching the whole game. Here, students are presented with a writing purpose, and they choose the content they will write about. The end product can still be a well-organized, five-paragraph essay like in the non-example, but the difference is all in the framing of the task. Instead of teaching students types of essays, give students a purpose for their writing. For example, instead of teaching the features of an argument essay, you can ask student to think about a cause they care about, and ask them to write a letter to a member of congress, or the school board, or their class president attempting to incite some action on their part. Here, students would still have to make an arguable claim, do research, find evidence to back up their claims, and employ writing techniques and skills that intend to influence/convince readers. The added effect of teaching the whole game, however, is a more motivated student, pursuing a genuine interest. The product will be more authentic, the learning more thorough, and the experience more memorable.
In addition to providing opportunities for students to flex their creative thinking skills by crafting inquiry based, or student-centered projects, teachers can remember to demystify the purpose of any given learning tasks. Lessons should have some broader purpose, or goal, and that goal should be communicated clearly to students at the beginning of a new learning process.
In our district, 8th graders read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and while this is a relatively engaging play, it is for many of the students, the first foray into the world of Shakespeare. His language is, daunting. It can be very difficult to get 21st century 13 year olds interested in his language use enough to get them to learn much about it, or understand why it is so, intriguing, and really, brilliant.
After a few years of approaching Shakespeare a few different ways, I was still having difficulty getting students to buy in.
This year I took a different approach. I thought about ways to teach the whole game of Shakespeare, and I figured out different ways to do that. And the results have been, well, really impressive.
First of all, with anything, students need context. Each one lacks the prior knowledge of another, and certainly they are not working with the same knowledge reserves we adults are. They just havent been here that long, and they also weren’t here the same time we are. Believe me. My students today do not know who Tom Cruise is. There is a divide. So, students need someone to help them connect what they are supposed to learn to what they already know.
ENGAGING STUDENTS THROUGH INDIVIDUALIZED, INTEREST-DRIVEN, ACTIVITIES
Ugh. I know my 8th graders will shudder when they see that word, as the heading for this section of the chapter. Constructivism. It sounds like such a lame, and boring word (if you’re 14). But its the reason they enjoy my class. Much of teaching today, involves engaging students, and getting them to invest in their own education. Because you can’t force a kid to learn. But you can help them to see why it is beneficial to do so. But it is important now. And I will argue here that it will become an increasingly salient word as the future of education unfolds.
Connections can be drawn between Gestalt theory and constructivism, a growing movement in K-12 education, and certainly online learning. Gestalt theory acts as sort of a foundation for constructivist theory. Constructivism is a student-centered approach to instruction that emphasizes building on a student’s unique prior knowledge (Boettcher and Conrad, 2010, p. 13). Because, when these guys are talking about “prior knowledge,” we must realize, and embrace the fact that not one of these kids is working with the same prior knowledge. They are each different. It seems silly to have to be explicit about that, but It’s easy to read academic research and gloss over this truth. Sometimes we think, “hey, these kids all had the same curriculum growing up in school together (sort of like a frappucino always tastes the same, no matter where you are in the world) surely, they are all working with the same prior knowledge!” They should be able to pass the same tests and become… I’m not sure. But the thing that we all know, is that we are all different people. And we aren’t working with the same background knowledge. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s what’s cool about us. I currently teach twins. Believe me, they’re similar, but not the same (a concept I’m still trying to get through to my 2 year old). I once taught conjoined twins. Can’t have a more identical experience in this life. Such wonderfully, unique girls. Reader response theory —-
The forefathers of constructivism were “Dewey (1916), Piaget (1973), Vygotsky (1978) and Bruner (1996)” and “each proposed that learners could learn actively and construct new knowledge based on their prior knowledge” (Huang, 2002, p. 28). The methods of constructivism focus on developing a student’s ability to solve their own real life problems to create free discovery; this discovery is what constitutes knowledge and learning. Building upon this notion was Vygotsky who posited that social context impacts learning; he placed high value on social interaction between the learner and a teacher and other students during the learning process (Huang, 2002). As a student in my second Master’s of Education program, I have read a lot of learning theories, and many of the currently dominant ones have roots in Gestalt.
In my five years of teaching, I have seen what I call a “gap” between those who believe in student-centered learning and teacher-led instruction at all of the schools in which I have worked. Those teachers who are recent graduates or who are still students are believers in student-centered instruction and inquiry-based learning. My current school district is constantly pushing this, and this is evident in our teacher-evaluations, PLCs, professional development, etc. I think this is the present and the future of education. Humans are naturally curious; we do not need to be told to learn. We are compelled by our nature to learn. Before the days of the internet, we had to get creative about how to educate the masses. Now, we can learn anything we want, instantly. Now it is second-nature to wonder something, and then find out about it instantly. We naturally engage in inquiry-based learning, so it just makes sense to go with nature, and act as facilitators of this type of learning. I have seen these new techniques work in my practice, and I am not alone. According to Barseghian (2011), the trends that will impact the future of education are projects designed to engage students through interest that use the internet as the principle tool. “The idea of learner-centered education might not be new — research from the 1990s shows that students’ interests is directly correlated to their achievement. But a growing movement is being propelled by the explosive growth in individualized learning technology that could feed it and we’re starting to see the outlines of how it could seep into the world of formal education.”
TED TALK ABOUT HOW THE KIDS WILL LEARN> COMPUTER IN THE HOLE ANECDOTE
Motivation as Engagement
make the game worth playing
Appealing to student’s interests is not the only way to appeal to students, and encourage them to tap into their natural learning power and passion. Sometimes, students need some motivation (dont we all?).
Motivation and attention are key factors in learning. In a world full of sensations to experience, the brain must ignore much of the input around it. If we processed every one of our experiences, we might go mad. A focus of attention is the core of learning (Bell &Skeckly, 2006). If students are not paying attention, they will not learn. Teachers can use different instructional strategies to motivate students to pay attention to new content. Of course, connecting ideas and teaching the “whole game” certainly motivates students intrinsically. When they find connections between what they are learning, they are more engaged and their attention is present. Just yesterday, in my 8th grade English class, we were debating whether violent video games are dangerous for young teenagers, or if they provide an amusing outlet for aggression and frustration in order to gear up for writing an argument essay. Students were bringing up information they learned this year in science and social studies to defend their positions. I was able to incorporate things I am learning about cognition. Overall, our understanding of the topic was rich and deep. It was rewarding for students to see how all of their learning is “coming together.” As a result, their learning is becoming “understanding.” It is clear that teaching the “whole game” helps to motivate students and capture their attention.
The idea that everything is interconnected, and related, engages me. It helps me to draw connections between new information and what I already understand about the world and my place in it. It is typically the folks who understand this fundamental principle who inspire me. I hope that I can also inspire my students, because sometimes, all it takes is a little inspiration for the magic to happen.
There is a clear tie between emotions and learning; further, there is evidence that learning is impacted by social interactions. Cognitive scientists explore both of these notions; both have implications for teachers and offer insight into how to appropriately approach students and motivate them to learn. According to Demetriou & Wilson (2008), our feelings contribute to how we think about experiences; similarly, our thoughts influence our feelings about experiences. There are myriad ways a student’s emotions can impact his learning. My students are in 8th grade and are approaching or experiencing puberty. Their brains have just finished overproduction of grey matter, and are beginning the neural pruning process (Giedd, 2002). During this stage in adolescence, the brain sheds unnecessary neural connections to make more room for strengthening neurological connections that are “keepers.” This is a wildly emotional time for students. Adolescents live in a confusing world; when exposed to stimuli, teenagers have a much stronger emotional response in the brain than do adults. Further, they have greater difficulty identifying their emotions (Yurgelen-Todd, 2002). This explains a lot; my students are concerned with drama above all else. Additionally, at this age, students are experimenting with independence from their parents, and in some cases, their friends and long-held beliefs and ideas. In an environment where students feel their freedoms are being restricted, they may experience “reactance” which can hinder learning (Perkins, 2009).Understanding what is happening emotionally, socially, and physiologically with our students, helps teachers to understand how to motivate them to learn. Students are motivated to learn by their own interests. Teachers can design inquiry-based projects to increase this intrinsic motivation. But, in the absence of this intrinsic motivation, teachers can employ techniques to motivate their students. Perkins (2009), posits that teachers must make their content worth learning. There are a lot of ways to do this; for example, teachers can choose content that generates learning, and can incorporate choices and options (but not too many choices) for students to make when learning (Perkins, 2009). Worthy, Brez, Markman & Maddox (2011) emphasize positive extrinsic motivation over preventative motivational factors. This means that children are more likely to learn when working toward a positive goal than when trying to avoid negative consequences.
One must not neglect the social aspect of learning. Siegel (2012), draws a connection between neural functioning in the brain and social relationships by comparing how our neurons connect and function together in the brain to how people connect and function together in families, groups and societies across different cultures throughout human history. He posits that the brain is the “social organ of the body” and that we have survived as a species because of our ability to look at other humans and figure out what is going on in their minds; he claims that “learning is a profoundly social experience” (Siegel, 2012). This metaphor illuminates the impact the relationships we form with our students can have on their learning. Certainly, this was a common theme in studying online education; how does one overcome our need for social interaction when learning online?
ENGAGING STUDENTS THROUGH SOCIAL LEARNING
The classroom is a dynamic system. In dynamic systems, a number of components interact, and their interaction has a direct impact on their future. As a result of their interactions, the components change over the short and long term. Further, new rules for interacting can “emerge” from the previous interactions of the components (Geert & Dijk, 2009). In the classroom, the people are components that interact and have a direct impact on one another, particularly, and hopefully, when looking at learning. There are, on average, anywhere between 15-30 variables (students, teachers, aides, etc.), all with their own, unknowable, potential trajectories of thought. Although every learner in the classroom is guided by curriculum, there is a wealth of potential as to what will be learned. Geert & Hijk (2014) define “potentiality” as “the range of possibilities of something, given the way this thing works, or a possible actuality in the future” (p. 2). Each student has a unique set of potential paths to take as they learn, depending on their prior knowledge and skill set. The teacher has a unique set of knowledge and skills as well. The interaction, and sharing of ideas, between these variables can lead to the “emergence” of new learning. This plays nicely into the Perkins (2009) concept of learning from the team, and Siegel’s (2009) theory of the brain as a social organ. Simply put, we learn from each other, and classrooms should encourage collaboration that leads to new learning. A silent classroom is not one where this sort of learning is happeneing.
The internet has transformed our world and all of us. It is interesting to me that we are just now seeing a surge in teachers who actually implement pedagogy based on what Wertheimer was talking about in 1924.
Louis Rosetta Wired
Elon Musk- education
— MORE TO COME — 🙂
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Barber, W. W., King, S. s., & Buchanan, S. S. (2015). Problem Based Learning and Authentic Assessment in Digital Pedagogy: Embracing the Role of Collaborative Communities. Electronic Journal Of E-Learning, 13(2), 59-67.
Barseghian, T. (2011, Feb 4) Three trends that will shape the future of curriculum.
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Chapters to come:
Social media and digital data as primary sources
Positive motivation and engagement in the classroom
Student-centered, inquiry-based, project-based learning
Technology’s role in teaching and learning
It is a project I invite you to tune into, from time to time. Perhaps you can even weigh in. After all, we are social learners. I am hoping you learn from me, and I am hoping to learn from you.