Independent Students?

As I was reading about the education project in Let Kids Rule the School. I was reminded of the overarching questions we used at the River School.  This is the same place I learned and first taught the Systems Model.

I went on to use each of the overarching questions we developed at the River School* in my next two teaching gigs.  The student’s final project was “Answer the question.”  At the beginning of the school year each group would look at me as if I were crazy.  I mean how could I expect 7th graders to answer the question “What is my relationship to the earth?”  And how could I expect inner city high school freshmen in Los Angeles tackle a question like “What does it mean to be human?”

It is on my list to write up the details of how I built a foundation of skills with these students so that they could tackle these questions.  And tackle them exceptionally well.

Two projects from my later two groups of students stand out.  The first was a 7th grade boy who was very bright but had other things on his mind that often put school at the bottom of the list.  I made them design their own final projects, setting their own deadlines, guiding them through the research process.  He had planned to create a video.  The day after his first batch of filming his mother was at school.  She told me how the night before he had told her that he needed to film.  Frustrated at his usual talent for procrastinating until the last minute she had begun to lecture him about putting things off.  He then proceeded to pull out his plan and explained to her that he had been planning and if he was going to get his project done on time, he needed to film that night.  His mother expressed her amazement and joy at seeing her son planning.  And his project turned out great!

The second project was one that even I wondered if she would pull it off. She decided to focus on her own learning obstacles.  She had incredible support from the Special Education Teacher, the Principal and the Assistant Principal.  When she wanted to learn more about how her brain worked, the Principal brought in a colleague from her PhD program for the student to interview.  The Technology Teacher helped her put together portions of videos.  The end result was nothing that any of us would have expected from her back in September.  It far exceeded anything she ever did at school.

I do honestly believe that more often than not, our current educational system is a hindrance to our students.  And I also believe there are many great teachers out there fighting to do the things they know make education good.

*The three overarching questions, still used at River School, based on the principles taught by Ed Clark in Designing and Implementing an Integrated Curriculum are as follows:

  • 6th grade: What does it mean to be human?
  • 7th grade: What is our relationship with the Earth?
  • 8th grade: How does a United States citizen act responsibly in the global community?

I will be writing up the details to how I took these principles and incorporated them into a single science classroom with the culminating final project of “Answer the question.”


Teaching vs. Instructional Design

I came to a realization today that Instructional Designers do not seem to see themselves as teachers.  I say this because whenever I see ID it is more about the structure of content.   And much of the reading does not mention an instructor at all.  Now I do understand that the majority of those claiming the title of Instructional Designer are in corporate settings, but why is teaching demoted, relegated to the K-16 setting?  (The article that prompted these thoughts.)

I am reminded of my search for a job, after making the decision to leave teaching high school (long story, right decision, but I miss it terribly most days).  Because all my experience had been in schools I was not seen as “fit” to work in an office.  I honestly could not believe what I was hearing.  I had to defend my experience in organization (managing 200+ students – as people, in grading, in work assignments, planning lessons, working with the office staff); in interacting with a variety of people in a professional manner (parent teacher conferences with so many different types of parents, negotiating with publishers and vendors, fundraising, open houses, school psychologists, special ed teachers, district support people); and office machines.  (Ok, that last one – I don’t know a successful teacher out there that does not learn quickly how to fix just about any duplexer, copier or fax machine.  And when I finally did get an office job – I seemed to be the only one not afraid of the copier!)

So back to Instructional Design…I’m not understanding why the teacher is eliminated from the equation.  I understand that there are situations that demand a self-paced, individualized learning environment.  However, successful life-long learners seek out experts, colleagues and mentors.  This is the feedback loop in the Systems model.

I love the “Granny-cloud” in the research done by Sugata Mitra.  His research shows that children will naturally learn (Hole-in-the-Wall Education).   The “granny-cloud” is added in and the children get to practice their English accent, show off their work, be encouraged, pointed in better directions, made to answer questions about their work.  In other words they get feedback.

Feedback can be “programmed” in to any type of learning instrument.   My school currently uses Moodle and between creating questions and setting up the quiz there are 4-5 different types of feedback that can be made available to the students within Moodle.  But the real feedback comes from a person analyzing and adjusting the upcoming coursework based on the performance of the students.  A teacher’s compliment in a forum encouraging students in the right direction.  Feedback must be real if the system is going to effectively maintain itself and grow.

I suppose the root is I just don’t understand how an Instructional Designer does not see himself as a teacher.

Update: For more thoughts and explorations on Teaching vs. Instructional Design see the Teaching vs. Instructional Design Category.

A look at Ecosystems in the world…

With my previous post on Personal Learning Ecologies I make note of mentions of ecosystems and ecologies not in the regular biological science setting.

Here is one from the computer world WikiLeaks. Or, how I learned to give up monopolies and love transparency from Hacking Work.


Why We Need Learning Theories

In any discussion of theory I always ask myself, “Why do we need this?”  My answer this time is different than it has in the past.  I do believe we need learning theories for the following reasons:

  1. We need to understand what our own personal “theory” is, in order to understand our own limitations.
  2. Good theories provide stones for the novice to build their own foundation.
  3. We need to understand others.

Understanding Our Own Personal Theory

Every person is influenced by his or her beliefs.  (Even as I answer this question, I am aware of my own belief system that colors my answers.) As a teacher, knowing where we come from, what our basic foundation of belief is, helps us to understand how we act and react.  Looking at two different belief statements you can imagine what each of these classrooms would feel like.

“I choose to believe that my students want to do their best in school and in life. They want to perform in a postive way. If they don´t even try, it is because they don’t think they can. This is hard to prove so I choose to believe. And this is important for me to experience a sense of coherence.” ~Linn Gustavsson

“”….Our attempts to reshape others may produce change, but the change is distortion rather than transformation…”  ~David Keirsey

I do believe that once we understand our own actions and reactions (that last one is so much more difficult), we can then seek to adapt or change.  From a systems perspective, in order for a system to endure for any length of time, it must be able to change and adapt.  This would be that Feedback and the Growth function in action. (See Ecology and Systems – Exploring Personal Learning Ecology)

Building Stones

Good Theories are Stones for the Novice

Every good teacher seems to know how to teach.  There is a natural flow to the experience.  So how do you “teach” something so intangible?  I think of the various theorists ideas as stones. (See all your options from one building supply business!)

I believe that each of us must build our own foundations.  There are plans and diagrams; outlines and instructions; but ultimately we must choose each “stone” and place it into our own plan for our own foundation.  There may even come a time when the aspiring expert seeks out various stones from all over, cutting, grinding and polishing each piece to fit into the foundation. (Being a rockhound, this analogy is working itself out nicely.)

We Need to Understand Others

Just as a teacher needs to understand his/her foundation of beliefs, so too does a good teacher seek to understand the foundation of beliefs of each student.  Knowing the influences on a student’s actions and reactions will help the teacher understand how to change and adapt their own actions to maximize learning.

Some of the Stones in My Foundation of Beliefs

My educational background was throughly infused with constructivist ideas.  In many ways I would consider myself a constructivist (this whole foundation – building analogy aside).  The Constructivist vs. Connectivist conversations (my own included) have troubled me.  Then I ran across this quote from Seymour Papert in – Part 1: Teaching vs. Learning, from the 1980’s

Constructionism means “Giving children good things to do so that they can learn by doing much better than they could before.”

If constructionism, at its heart is giving students “things to do so…they can learn by doing”, what if the “thing to do” is connecting?  I honestly always imagined my version of constructing as connecting – how else would you construct if not by connecting “things” together to create something new?  There is also in this vs. discussion the idea that one constructing in solitude cannot “create knowledge” and that the network of connections is what “creates” the new knowledge.  I never did see the student in a constructivist arena as solitary.  I do believe that there does need to be time for reflection and solitude.  But I also believe in the strength of the community, those connections that allow meaning and understanding to grow and develop.

Some of the “stones” in my foundation are…

Foundation Stones

stone wall image from

and two new ones in the growth and understanding stage (they still need some cutting, grinding and polishing before they can be placed solidly in my foundation).

  • autotelic
  • salutogenesis


If you liked this post you may like others listed in the Theory Category.

Week 4 of PLENK2010

One of the readings this week is some advice from Dave Cormier in Cluster and Focus -> Surviving Week 4 of a MOOC.

The advice of cluster and focus is wise and timely.  I have been feeling a overwhelmed at all the information.  So many paths to take, so many exciting conversations, which way do I go? which way should I go.  So I am taking a moment to re-evaluate my own goals in joining PLENK2010.

My original goals…

  • I wanted to connect with other like-minded professionals and learn from others.
  • I have wanted to learn more about PLE/PLN and Open Learning and this was a perfect opportunity to learn and experience these two ideas.

During the first week’s discussion of PLE/PLN several thoughts and ideas came crashing together with the phrase Personal Learning Ecology. I have been focusing, at least my thoughts in this directions since week one.  I feel like I side-stepped week two, am trying to play catch up for week 3 and am thankful for Dave’s post about looking for a focus.  I still need to create my “mindmap”, but I have yet to find the right tool to create what I have pictured in my mind.  I also feel like my PLE (I use this term in the sense of Personal Learning Ecology) is a work in progress, perhaps even still in that primordial goo, trying to figure out how to connect all the atoms into a coherent whole.

So to add to my first two goals, I now want to explore, extend, expand upon this idea of Personal Learning Ecology.  I like the living, breathing, changing nature of it.  I like the idea of a system – its speaks order, purpose and potential to me.  I like the personal nature, it is mine.  It does not need to look or act like yours.  Learning is central.  I honestly do not know how not to learn.  I have moments when information comes to my mind and I can’t recall how I know that little known obscure tidbit, but I do.  There are days I come home and just want to shut out all the “inputs” – no light, no sound and yet my mind continues to work, searching for connections from the day until some other “input” demands my attention or grabs my curiosity.

I am going to add this – “Do more about Personal Learning Ecology” to my list, hopefully there are others who will want to “cluster”.

In another presentation that I attended via elluminate on Monday from The Future of Education Foundation Elevating the Education Reform Dialog, I was brought again to that age old question “What is learning?” So many things rest on how one defines this action.  So I add to my list – “Create my definition of learning”.  This is the central word in my PLE, so I think I should be able to define it for me.

So my goals are now

  1. Connect with other like-minded professionals and learn from others.
  2. Learn more about PLE/PLN and Open Learning
  3. Do more about Personal Learning Ecology
  4. Create my definition of learning

PLE vs. LMS…

In thinking, reading and more thinking about the PLE and LMS, the central concept, for me, is control.  And while some at this point will raise their fists and shout something about freeing the people, I sit back and ask why.  Why does it have to be about control and in what ways could control be good.

LMS = Control, Why…

LMS or Learning Management Systems are a search for order.  I do believe that most human beings do desire order, whether they achieve it or not.  There are certain expectations from students, faculty, staff and the public when an individual enters any educational institution.  (Now that is a word that has some heaviness, but I won’t go there at this point.)  And while many of these expectations may be based on outdated ideas or conventions, the expectations still remain.

Some of those expectations that drive an LMS adoption are

  • Students will receive the education “advertised” by the school
  • Faculty will be supported
  • Staff will have the tools they need to do their jobs
  • The community will benefit from the school, education – through events and alumni

Cutting edge education – theories, practices, ideas, tools, etc. are exciting, but they are so new, there may not be solid research and support.  For many the resistance comes in an attitude of “Don’t experiment on me or my kids.”  Which is understandable and yet completely impossible due to the nature of humans to be so different.   As a someone who supports faculty with technology, an LMS helps my department provide better support.  I can’t imagine having to have all my student workers up to date on every possible technology all the time in order to maintain our high level of support for whatever help request come in.  I also see every level of faculty, we even have a handful who still refuse to use email.  There needs to be scaffolding for faculty and students to bring them to the understanding and technological literacies needed to be successful.  I see the LMS as a scaffolding technique – more so for the faculty.

As a tangential note: I worry that those wise and ethical faculty who do not embrace technology will be seen as “outdated” and will be rejected by the upcoming students.  I also worry that the incoming students, with their seamless technology integration will not have the moral, ethical standards or even questions because some of the older generation are not “connected”.

PLE = Personal

I think the key in the PLE is the “Personal”.  I like the shift of having students move to a PLE.  I like the idea of students managing, directing and in a very real sense controlling their education.  This however requires a shift, that I don’t know if everyone is ready to take just yet.  Questions of assessment and expectations come into the discussion.  How do we “ensure” that the learning happened?  Isn’t that the really question underlying ALL education?  I do believe that in the end it truly is the learner, the student who decides what is learned.

The Support Standpoint

I believe the best part of my job is when an instructor comes in and says, “I would like to do “x”. Do you know of something that will accomplish that for me?”  I realize that I like this because the “learner” has already come to a variety of conclusions about how his/her class needs to go.  They come ready and willing for information.  I get to ask clarifying questions to make sure I understand their need(s).  We have a discussion.  I like to meet the needs of these faculty and then give them a “teaser” about another possibility or the next possible step.  It is exciting and fulfilling.

When the support requested resembles more of “The on button is on the bottom left…”  I get frustrated and depressed.  I understand the need for support at this level, but it is not a very fulfilling nor enriching conversation.

So, while I believe that PLE is the better way in terms of true learning.  I think the LMS has it’s place to help transition some instructors and simply pick up the rest.

Ecology and Systems – Exploring Personal Learning Ecology

This idea of a Personal Learning Ecology is pulling me to think a bit more deeply.  I still need to put together my concept map for PLENK2010 but I feel I need to really look at how some of my concepts connect to what I feel my PLE/PLN is and what it should be.  I will admit that I have been reluctant join in “mass discussion” via twitter, blog commenting, etc.  I feel so many pulls on my time and I can see if I am not vigilant, my PLE/PLN could suck me in to always being at my computer.  But the idea of ecology – a system feels comfortable to me, there is change and adaptation, but there is also balance and cooperation.  I will get to publishing my concept map, but before I get there, I need to better explore how this all fits together.  So I will begin with some background information on systems and ecology.  In a workshop on Designing and Implementing an Integrated Curriculum, I was taught a systems model by Edward T. Clark, Jr. From my tattered and worn paper handout…

Understanding Systems


There are seven functions that are characteristic of all living systems.

  1. The Resource Base Function Every system must have a resource base which provides the necessary raw materials for that system.
  2. The Unity Function Every system must have an integrative force which unifies the system.
  3. The Duality Function A basic duality principle in the universe is present in all systems as in “explicit duality expressing an implicit unity”
  4. The Maintenance Function Every system must maintain itself in order to insure the continuity of the system.
  5. The Growth Function Every system must grow or die! The function of growth, representing the cutting edge of the system, provides the creativity and direction for the system
  6. The Feedback Function All complex systems must have information feedback to enable them to utilize the information for the purpose of effective system maintenance and growth.
  7. The Energy Function Energy Flow, external to the system, powers all complex systems.

From an ecological perspective, these functions may be characterized as follows

  1. Resource Base – Carrying capacity/ Sustainability: Defines the limits within which the system will survive.
  2. Unity – Interdependence: Defines the mode of relationship that exists between the parts of a system best illustrated in the niche-community relationship.
  3. Duality – Cooperation/Competition/Partnership: Defines the mode of survival for living systems.
  4. Maintenance – Diversity: defines a basic mode of system maintenance which insures system stability
  5. Growth – Evolution/Adaptation/Succession: Mode of system change, creativity and transformation suggesting developmental directionality
  6. Feedback – Cycle: Defines the feedback loops that are fundamental to all systems.
  7. Energy – Energy Flow: Describes the entropic nature of all systems.

In explaining these concepts he shared the following diagram (created digitally using GoogleDocs Draw).

Systems Model

Systems Model diagram from Edward T. Clark, Jr.

As a science teacher I used the model to introduce the rock cycle (resource base), the water cycle (unifier), the air cycle (1/2 of duality), and the food cycle (the other 1/2 of duality); keeping in line with the ecological context.  While this model was presented in the context of ecology it can adapt well to other types of systems.  One of the keys I have found with applying this model in other contexts is to define what/who is the “Unifier”.  For example, a high school with the principal as the unifier will have a different feel than another where the students are the unifier.  Or using government, a unifier of a president would be different than if the unifier were the judicial branch.

My next step is to look at these concepts and see how they apply to my PLE/PLN.

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