May 16

Autotdidact \ˌȯ-tō-ˈdī-ˌdaktˈ\ : a self-taught person

I am currently a PBL (Project-based learning) coach, helping schools transform themselves from traditional forms of teaching and learning into a model that emphasizes deep, investigative, collaborative, student-centered learning. I came to this career through a circuitous path.

My first career was in information technology, where I spent nearly two decades. I began with computer programming, systems analysis, customer support, and the like. Over a period of time, I gravitated to project management, where I enjoyed a number of extremely challenging, thrilling, hair-pulling, personal growth years.

In the final multi-million dollar projects I facilitated, there were team members from a diverse set of companies, nationalities, and cultures. In those experiences, I engaged in my own real-world learning of becoming a global citizen, a reality our students will face as they enter the work force.

Those years also contributed greatly to my understanding of PBL as a methodology. The underlying concepts of projects and project management are constant, regardless of the industry.

Then, I became a stay-at-home mom. By choice. Definitely the most difficult job I have ever had. But, that’s a different post. When my now-20-year-old son was still a toddler, I began exploring the idea of home schooling. My bosom buddy was already of that mind set, and after research of my own on the advantages, I took the plunge.

During the fifteen years that have elapsed since we formally began schooling at home, I have revised and honed my education philosophy in many iterations, using my two sons as guinea pigs. One fabulous advantage of being a home educator is that if you (or your child) dislike materials, you get rid of them (hopefully by selling them to someone else), even if you are only two weeks into the school year, and then move on.

Over the years, it became apparent to me that the methodology that worked best for me and my kids was student-interest based. This conclusion was further cemented as I took college courses related to education methodologies, and researched the positives that PBL brings to the table, such as that its use “increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning.”

In our home school, we incorporated lots of investigation, whether wading into a pond to see what lives there, going to museums, creating explosions with cohorts of other home school families, watching documentaries, or building marble runs and trying to get the marbles to go where they were supposed to.

My critter lover brought things home from the pond and built habitats for them. He also had any number of domesticated pets, including frogs, snakes, fish, rats… YouTube became his go-to place to learn nearly everything, not only about his pets, but how to tie a necktie and screen print a shirt.

My thinker child devoured books, both fiction and non-fiction, and contemplated the world from angles I have never considered. We carried on magnificent discussions on everything from Calvin & Hobbes to Socrates (although these may be one and the same).

A recent experience younger son (currently 16) went through brought the value of this methodology all home to me. He is taking German at a local four-year liberal arts college, where he breezed through the first two terms, putting some effort into the class, but not a ton. The third term is being taught by a different professor, who on the first day of class announced that the students should expect to spend ten hours outside class each week on their homework. Oh, and by the way, he only gives a 100% or 0% on assignments, so students need to be extremely diligent in their work (another post sometime about the effectiveness of that approach!).

My son came home practically hyperventilating, and began campaigning to drop the class because it was certain to be too hard and too stressful. I assured him he had three weeks to decide whether he really needed to drop the course, and also stated that he shouldn’t run away from the challenge just because it seemed difficult.

Within a week, the waters had calmed, and the German studies were marching along quite well. The professor didn’t seem quite an all-or-nothing kind of guy. The homework wasn’t taking quite as much time as predicted. Further progress in mastering the German language was being made.

Then, my son came home and said the professor had declared him an autodidact. This was the most brilliant praise I could receive as a home (or any other) educator. Isn’t that our ultimate goal? To develop our students into autodidacts? Our job is not to stuff information into them so they can regurgitate it. Our job is to teach them the concepts and skills that inspire them to remain learners throughout their lifetime. As part of that, we need to help them develop a growth mindset, to realize hard work and persistence are effective in building competence and success.

Now to carry this success forward, to the schools I am currently working with, and to others that embrace PBL. Too many opportunities, too little time.

May 22

Tutoring, Mentoring, and PBL

This week, I participated in the Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference in Chicago. It was the 41st occurrence of the semi-annual conference, but the first time I attended. Organized by Daniel Bassill, it brings together people from many different organizations, and offers the opportunity to learn from each other, and to create new network connections with other people that participate in the tutor/mentor world.

Daniel and I “met” each other during a Deeper Learning MOOC, at which time he invited me to present a #PBL workshop at the conference. I must admit I initially had some questions as to whether/what attendees at this conference would like to learn about PBL, or at least from me, since I have limited experience in the tutor/mentor world.

After perusing the Tutor/Mentor Institute website, and after reflecting for awhile, I concluded that PBL applies to disadvantaged youth perhaps even more than others. These young people are struggling to feel empowered, to be recognized as capable, and to have control of their lives. The PBL model can be applied to a wide diversity of activities, not only those considered “academic,” so can be used in pretty much any environment that provides support and encouragement as learners seek to attain authentic, real-world goals.

So, I took the plunge and agreed to present a workshop on PBL. Dan and I interacted a few times about the conference, how many copies I should make of materials, etc. I also checked the registration list, to try and get a feel for the audience. Nonetheless, given I had no previous exposure to this audience, I felt unease as I marched in. What did this audience hope to learn? How could I engage them to the fullest? How could I add value?

At the beginning of my workshop, I asked each person to introduce themselves, and to state their purpose in attending this particular workshop. I was thrilled with the eagerness the audience expressed to better understand how to apply PBL to their work with young people; in after-school programs, in classrooms, in young-adult life skills training programs. Many already recognized that PBL provides authenticity and real-world value.

I especially appreciated the last segment of the workshop, when participants brought their questions and problems to the group, and the thoughtful responses they received. There was strong evidence of 21st-Century skills – communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity – in the way the group interacted. This group of committed adults will undoubtedly teach those skills to those they mentor.

To add to my elation, the keynote speaker during the luncheon was Eric Davis, the founder and director of GCE High School, in Chicago. This is a PBL school; a large percentage of the students come from disadvantaged circumstances. Eric stated that the school has ties into 200+ organizations that the students work with to acquire hands-on, real-world experience. Among the statistics on their website are: “College Acceptance Rate: 100%, First Choice College Selection: 100%, Graduation Rate: 100%.” This school is high on my list of places to visit!

So, thank you Dan, for inviting me into your world! I look forward to further collaborative efforts, and to ongoing #deeperlearning.

 

May 8

Inspiration – Middle School Transforming to PBL

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting a large public middle school that is in the process of transforming itself from a traditional to a #PBL (project-based learning) model. Aaron Maurer invited me to come visit the school, and to attend the Exhibition Night the 8th graders were hosting. I especially appreciated Aaron’s transparency, as he invited me to visit classrooms, to talk to students and teachers, and to give him an honest appraisal of their implementation.

This middle school began the PBL transformation last academic year, beginning with the sixth grade classrooms. Comparing the ambiance of these rooms to the 7th and 8th grade classrooms, I was struck by the evidence of maturation that has occurred in that short time. The sixth grade teachers demonstrated unbridled enthusiasm, combined with confidence in the methodology. Their classrooms were chaotic, with students discussing, working, moving around the room.

I visited a sixth grade science classroom that was filled with garden plants (invention for growing the plants in process there!), samples of rocks (their current theme), and students working individually and in small groups on digitally-based products related to their study. The teacher acknowledged that although they have textbooks, they seldom resort to them, as the students often conduct research using the Internet, and explore concepts with #realworld, hands-on investigations.

In this classroom, I listened to two student hosts enthuse over the work they have done over the year. They were able to recall the major concepts they had explored, and expressed great enthusiasm about the way they are learning. These two young people were on opposite ends of the spectrum of learners – one historically very high-achieving, one low-achieving. Both of them demonstrated #deeperlearning, strong evidence that the PBL model can be used with all students, not just those in a certain strata.

In general, the 7th and 8th grade teachers exhibited a sense of uncertainty and trepidation regarding this leap into non-traditional teaching and learning. I understand this. It is difficult to move from being the “imparter of knowledge” to “facilitator.” To hand the learning reins from the teacher’s hands to the learners’. To say “I don’t know, so let’s find out” when a student asks about content the teacher/facilitator is not familiar with. To no longer be the “expert,” or at least not the only expert. To move from breadth of learning to depth of learning, and to trust the students will exit the process with a solid academic foundation. The recently-published standardized test scores for this school show an increase, despite (I assert because of) the use of the PBL model, which should reassure the school administration of the viability of this approach.

The 8th-grade Exhibition Night highlighted some projects that were #authentic, composed of real-world learning, and topics the students could relate to. Others were more traditional assignments, dressed in a “project” wrapping. This is a common occurrence as schools and teachers make their first steps into the murky waters of PBL. Aaron recognizes that this transformation will take time and patience. He forewarned me that some projects on exhibit may not be true projects, but that it was a step in the right direction the teachers were willing to take.

In addition to the projects-that-are-not-projects syndrome, I observed a few other areas that could use general improvement:

  1. The audience at Exhibition Night was the traditional parents/grandparents/siblings mix. The students (and teachers) would find it much more rewarding if there were also experts from the community in the audience. Not only would the students receive affirmation that their work has value, they are likely to take the work more seriously, knowing it will be observed by those whom understand their topic in great depth.
  2. In that same vein, teachers should facilitate student efforts in finding experts from the community to act as consultants when the students are designing and developing their products. When students ask for help from these experts, they will most likely receive an enthusiastic response.
  3. To-date, most projects are implemented in one subject-area. How thrilling it will be when more teachers collaborate in devising interdisciplinary projects, which by definition better reflect the real world.
  4. In some cases, student voice-and-choice was lacking, for example all students being required to develop the same product instead of being offered several options.

Aaron also invited me to participate in two post-project reviews/project tunings. Their school uses the Critical Friends Tuning Protocol, a structured method to assess what has been done well, and what improvements should be considered. The critical friends group consists of Aaron, other teachers, and (hurrah!) students. Each member has equal voice in the process.

One of the two projects under review was art, the other science. The personalities of the two teachers were very different. They are both committed to doing their job well, and have a strong desire for their students to learn well. Both were there to solicit help with a particular problem they had encountered during the implementation of a given project.

Their demeanor was quite different, however. One of them embraced the review process with gusto, eager to hear what her colleagues had to offer that would allow her to instigate deeper learning with future students. The other teacher seemed to be anxious. She had been through the process before, so was familiar with the protocol. The sense I had was she was concerned she would receive harsh judgment and/or would receive recommendations she would be uncomfortable implementing.

This example illustrates another reality of plunging into PBL on a school-wide basis. Each teacher brings their personality and past experiences to bear in the implementation process. I applaud Aaron for recognizing this reality, and for providing supportive PBL coaching to the teachers in his school.

Vive la methode PBL!

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April 25

MOOCs

I am in the midst of my third MOOC. At the time I registered for #DLMOOC, I had already registered for History of the Slave South, offered through Coursera. My current foray is into Design Thinking, offered by Iversity.

The three courses are highly divergent in their content, presentation, and instructor-student interaction. As I reflect on my reaction to the various courses, I am trying to determine how and why I feel differently about them.

History of the Slave South is a modified version of a University of Pennsylvania course, presented by Professor Stephanie McCurry. It was the most traditional of the three courses. There was a syllabus, with precise deadlines (for those who wanted to receive a certificate of completion). There were lectures to watch (with short quizzes integrated), readings (mostly primary source materials), and weekly online discussions on a specific topic.

There were also five writing assignments over the ten weeks, which required careful analysis and synthesis of course content. In addition to writing, each student was required to peer review other students’ work, and evaluate their own work. The review process was structured; there were particular aspects of the writing that were evaluated (e.g. “what is the writer’s thesis?”).

Some students complained loudly about the peer review process, declaring that it was too much work. I thought it was a great aspect of the course, as I learned something from each of my peer’s commentaries on my work. I also learned from my peers’ analysis of the same materials I had read, given their insights were typically somewhat different than mine.

I thoroughly enjoyed History of the Slave South, as Professor McCurry is a knowledgeable and articulate lecturer, and the topics we covered were fascinating. The online discussions were lively, although I followed few of the thousands of posts. I also found it interesting to gain the perspectives of students living outside of the United States, of which there we many. This course fed my intellectual self.

DLMOOC was presented in a dramatically different fashion. Each week, there were a number of “readings,” although some of those were actually video presentations. There were online discussions through G+. Online panel discussions were scheduled once or twice a week, which could be “attended,” or watched later, in the archived course materials. Optional assignments were also defined, some of which I did, others I did not.

Early on, a variety of sub-groups formed, based on specific interests. The discussions that developed in these groups were free-form, with abundant sharing of information and ideas. Due to participating in some of these groups, I have expanded my #PLN, since several participants have expertise that will help me grow professionally.

The facilitators’ attitude, which they announced periodically throughout the course, was that participants were free to come and go as they wished, with no obligations, and no guilt. My personality being what it is, I couldn’t be so laissez-faire in my participation, but I certainly had weeks when I was “behind,” and times when I only gave cursory attention to the materials.

One of the (optional) assignments each week was to tweet about a particular topic. I thought this was clever; a simple, effective way to raise awareness in the Twitter world that DLMOOC was happening, and to give a glimpse into some of the topics we were exploring.

I derived a great deal of knowledge and enjoyment from DLMOOC. The formal presentations, and the less formal discussions, added to my existing knowledge related to PBL, and many other topics in education. The free-flowing format encouraged participants to share, including articles, experience, links to resources, etc. The fact the course materials and discussions are archived indefinitely adds to the appeal – I can return at any time to deepen my understanding. This course fed my professional self.

I’m in the throes of Design Thinking, and am struggling to enjoy this MOOC. The format of the course is short lectures, many of which are followed by short quizzes. For each lecture, there is also a discussion question. Most of the lessons also include additional (optional) reading material.

As I reflect, I think there are two major reasons for my discontent. The first is that the concepts that have been presented so far are ones I already know something about, so minimal #deeperlearning is happening. I am bored.

The second reason is that the discussions seem relatively shallow, and often esoteric. Maybe that is what causes me the most discomfort – although I greatly enjoy intellectual discussions, endless navel-gazing does not excite me. So, this course and I may not be a good fit. Nonetheless, I will finish it, because giving up is bad form, both for my sense of self, and in my role of modeling #lifelonglearning to the  students I interact with. This course is not feeding my artistic self.

As I reflect on what I liked and did not like, I wonder how today’s young students would react to these courses. I find I need to constantly put myself into their shoes, to remind myself how different their reality is from mine. Their world has always had the Internet. Living without some sort of hand-held technology device (smartphone, iPod, tablet…) is inconceivable to them. These are two glaring differences between their childhood and mine, but there are many others. This reality provides a good argument as to why we should include students in the planning process. We need to invite them to discuss with us what and how they think they should learn!

April 15

Deeper Learning #6

As I wrap up my reflections on #DLMOOC, I ask myself “what’s next?” In the immediate term, I have registered for the Design Thinking MOOC starting this week. After all, we lifelong learners need to always be learning, right?

I am also planning to visit Aaron Maurer’s  school for one of their PBL exhibitions. I hope to have a few minutes to pick his brain while I am there, to glean ways to improve my practice. He appears to be an educator that spends a lot of time experimenting with new tools and toys, so I want to learn how he approaches that (and finds the time!).

I have also volunteered to present a workshop on PBL at the Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference that Daniel Bassill organizes. I admire the work he does, tirelessly finding ways to help “youth and volunteers connect in well-organized, mentor-rich programs.”

I am fomenting ideas for additional PBL courses we could offer at Meliora, and am designing an Environmental Science course right now. For some time, I have been thinking about how to structure a course that examines mythology, progressing from classical through to urban mythology. What threads/themes do they have in common? What social/cultural aspects influence them? Do they always have a Hero? And, speaking of Meliora, we really need to revamp the website.

I am also mulling over ways we could offer online courses. How could we make that environment effective? What would it take to generate the passion and creativity exhibited by the student panels we watched/listened to during #DLMOOC?

In the middle of creating and editing this post, I figured out the easy way to insert links. So, I headed back and updated my older posts, to insert links everywhere a reader may want to reference to. A simple example of how learning is an iterative process. My first posts were adequate; I have been able to add some sophistication with #deeperlearning. At some future date, I am sure I will acquire further knowledge on how to use this tool to better or more fully express myself.

Oh, yes, I also need to schedule time to get my certification as a Google Educator.

 

April 5

Deeper Learning #2

Back in December (2013), I began to receive tantalizing e-mails from the #deeperlearning people, inviting me to enroll in DLMOOC, “a massive open online course to learn about deeper learning.” Wowza! In my journey of self-discovery, I have become cognizant of the fact that lifelong learning is a value I hold very dear. Whereas many of my friends, family, and colleagues were very happy to shelve their last learning materials as they left college, I love nothing more than exploring new topics that I know nothing/little about.

So, I jumped in, registered, and promptly received acknowledgement, “Welcome to Deeper Learning 101, a survey course brought to you by High Tech High, Peer 2 Peer University, MIT Media Lab with support by Hewlett Foundation and Raikes Foundation.” A consortium of heavy hitters in the education reform arena!

More deeper learning opportunities soon presented themselves. The course was run on the Google Plus (G+) platform, complete with “communities” and “hangouts,” two tools I had not yet worked with. Fortunately, G+, as is typical with Google products, is user-friendly and intuitive.

Within a short time, the number of registered participants in #DLMOOC exploded, my first opportunity to feel overwhelmed! The final enrollment counted 1,854 people. How was I going to keep track of that many people? How was I going to keep track of all the POSTS?

The facilitators quickly began to assemble the gang into sub-groups, based on special interests. I joined the PBL (Project-based Learning), Lifelong Learning, and Independent Schools sub-groups, as they were of most interest to me.

In time, the DLMOOC forums became habituated by only a small number of the participants. Of those, I identified a few personal favorites, whose posts I read attentively. I added my voice to conversations where I felt I had value to add. The once-overwhelming MOOC structure had become a community (or more aptly, communities) where a wealth of learning was taking place.

 

April 4

Deeper Learning #1

Over the past ten weeks or so, I have been immersed in the #deeperlearning MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) sponsored by deeper-learning.org.  One thing I promised myself as we wrapped up was that I would start blogging. I was inspired, in part by Greg McVerry, who posits that blogging should be part of our PRACTICE as educators, as opposed to it being an “add-on” to a (never completed) to-do list. His complete post, “Forget Searching for Time. Where are the ideas?” can be found here:

http://jgregorymcverry.com/forget-searching-for-time-where-are-the-ideas/

As I began my blogging quest, I immediately plunged into deeper learning! The first question I had to answer was which blogging platform to use. I have a strong technology background, which is both a help and a hindrance. Although WAY out of date on the details, I grasp the concepts, and am comfortable assessing various tools. I also prowl the various review websites for help. The downside is I tend to spend too long analyzing, instead of making a decision and moving on.

In the end, I settled on Edublogs. I know I may not stay here forever, but it is a decent starting point. But then, I had the agony of deciding which theme to use! To me, this visual aspect portrays the personality of the website. Although I love “girly” themes, complete with purple, flowers, and scrapbook emulations, I felt those did not provide the aura I wish to achieve. So, here I am, using “Blak Magik!” It evokes a mood of curiosity, mystery, and depth, all characteristics I want to further develop in my professional and personal lives.

Next time, my first reactions to #DLMOOC.