Getting Students to the Table

One of my primary goals for the future of education has always been to include more students, as well as other not as represented stakeholder groups, in the school decision making process. And I’ve found that a lot of educators share this sentament, and furthermore, there are a lot of educators who actively try to engage students in these conversations. And yet, we still don’t notice all that much student voice in education, and if it is present, it’s often the same few voices. Why is that?

Well this isn’t the full answer to this question, but something I’ve observed is that most students don’t respond to mass open invitations. Doesn’t matter if you blast it in a school email or try to “be with the times” and use social media platforms students frequent on, if it’s a general invitation, most students don’t respond. This isn’t something I can explicitly point at research to support (maybe it exists but I’ve not looked for it or seen it accidentally), but it’s something I’ve noticed from experience when trying to create opportunities for student voice.

I’ve experienced this when trying to get writers for Trailblazers, when hosting events, and when just trying to get people together for a causal but focused discussion. Every time I try a mass marketing method to try and get students involved with education initiatives, I end up with little to no responses. And yet, as a student myself, when I’m just going through life I will frequently hear other students say, “Oh ya, I have a lot to say about XYZ.”

So how do we capture those thoughts? How do we get students to show up to the table? Because it’s not a question of if they have opinions to share, it’s a question of how we hear them.

I didn’t realize that this was a unique insight until working on this project with OpenIDEO where I was involved in a conversation around trying to brainstorm social media marketing geared towards getting students to contribute to the design challenge. The brainstorming was discussing things like word choice, length, what slogans are cool now, what platforms to use, what if we could get students to respond on the platform then challenge their friends to do it and like all of those other challenges happening in quarantine, etc.

But I realized the conversation was likely pointless… I told them how I don’t consider myself to be gifted with social media or marketing but in my experience most students don’t respond to those kinds of campaigns for education stuff. And the other student on the team (who I had no relation to before joining this project), confirmed my opinions with a bit more socially minded perspective suggesting that kids use social media mostly for fun and entertainment and those challenges that get passed along are because they’re easy and goofy; an education challenge would require actual thought work and time, so student’s probably won’t engage with it.

I actually don’t know what kind of marketing they ended up going with because I didn’t really look out for it. Though considering I find myself more frequently viewing education social media than the normal student and I didn’t see it, I’m guessing not many other students did either if there was a specific marketing campaign geared towards students.

Yet, for some silly reason, even after this conversation, I still choose the same strategy for trying to get people to join my discussion/brainstorm session held earlier today about learning during COVID-19…

I posted on every social media platform I have including some group chats with students who have previously demonstrated interest in education transformation focused events, and even got some likes and retweets, yet, as I expected only 1 person actually showed up to the Zoom call today. And that was my best friend who I explicitly asked before setting up anything, “Hey does this time work for you, because then at least worst case scenario, no one else shows up and I can at least pivot the discussion to an interview with you.” My little sister did also show up about half way through, and the three of us did have a good conversation from a variety of perspectives about the challenges and opportunities with online learning. So I don’t think the event was a total bust, though it was pretty much exactly as I had cautioned the rest of the IDEO team.

So what to do about this?

Well, what I have noticed is that students are very likely to respond if they’re specifically reached out to. For example with Trailblazers, which I consider a long term individual comittment since the writing/editing process takes place over a number of weeks mostly independently, this means we try to contact teachers we know from different schools and get them to identify specific students we can ask to write. While in school, it looks like seeing students in person and 1:1 asking them to join a meeting then following up with the calendar invite. Even when trying to get teacher participation to join a student-teacher card game tournament, we were much more successful when we individually delievered each teacher a typed and stamped invite in person. And for short term projects, such as this design challenge it means I try texting individually all the other students I have info for.

Now I knew this information before sending out my mass media open invitation, so you may wonder, why did I still choose the mass media route anyway? Well, it’s a lot easier to send mass invitations, esspcially in regards to time which is something I have not had much of this past week with midterms being upon me. So trust me, I know it doesn’t seem like the most efficient method to individually send out requests/invites for students to share their thoughts/opinions/stories, but in my experience it has always proven to have a greater response rate.

It was the exact same message I shared on social media, yet when texted individually I got 12 responses with-in 30 minutes even when sent at 10:30pm/later at night and had at least 3 others specifically say they’d get back to me tomorrow. Versus my media posts had been out for a week and I had 0 people respond to my questions in the comments and 0 people show up due to those posts. (My best friend and sister only showed up to the Zoom because I specifically asked/bugged them about it and they confirmed as much.) That’s an over 1200% better response rate with the same message… And for some responses I was given paragraph long answers per question. That means students had a lot to say and were willing to take the time to say it, they just had to be prompted to thinking their opinions in particular mattered.

There’s a lot that can be claimed about what this says about my generation that we don’t respond to mass messages but will give lengthy responses to personalized messages. (Really not even personalized, just individually sent because I sent pretty much identical messages to everyone, just sometimes slightly changing the initial greeting sentence if I was texting a parent to get their child’s response vs a peer.) And again, perhaps I’m making this sound too generalized, but I feel like I’ve had this happen on a lot of occasions at this point (I can think of at least 5 examples off the top of my head). However, I don’t share this information to make claims about my generation, I’m just sharing an observation/theory that has proven to be true on numerous occasions:

If you want a greater variety of student voices involved in the conversation, try asking indidviduals directly rather than just, “Hey anyone who’s interested I would love your response to…”

The Little Bugs

Throughout k-12 we learn about 5-paragraph essays. I understand why this format is used: it’s a simple way to be introduced to academic writing and when frequently writing timed essays throughout high school, there isn’t really enough time to adequately develop ideas past 5-paragraphs.

However, then you get to college and all of a sudden essays go from 600 words to 1500 words to 3500 words, and the 5-paragraph essay format just really doesn’t make sense to use at that point. But when are we expected to learn how to transition away from the 5-paragraph format? As a student it feels like this transition is just kind of thrown on you without much official guidance. It’s not even that you’re told not to use a 5-paragraph format, it’s just that it’s obvious that it doesn’t feel right when using that many words in an essay. So then everything you’ve learned about essay structure becomes warped. With a 5-paragraph essays we’re taught to introduce three main ideas in our introduction and those three ideas become the focus of each paragraph. Well, just because you’re writing more doesn’t it mean it makes sense to all of a sudden have 6 or 7 main points – then it becomes unclear what you’re saying. So how do you transition to writing multiple paragraphs about one key idea? It’s not really discussed, we’re just expected to start doing it based on gut feeling I guess…

Not to mention there is a whole other kind of academic writing that honestly hardly gets touched on at all in high school: reports. We talk about research reports and maybe look at one or two, we maybe even try to write one, but I remember even with the one time I was assigned to write a report in high school for AP Chem, the teacher’s instruction was, “look up examples online and base it on that.” So my peers and I kind of just winged it and I don’t remember getting much feedback on the matter. Yet we when we then were in college chemistry our first semester of freshman year, we’re all of a sudden assigned a research report every week after lab.

To be honest this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of things that need to change with our education system, but sometimes it’s the little things that just really bother me. The little things show just how disconnected our k-12 and high ed programs are from each other. There are things like long essay and report writing that seem to never really get taught, and yet there are things like general US history that seem to be required every two years starting in 2nd grade and all the way into college… (I legitemently have a “US Consistitution requirement” in my online degree portal, and I took this course online and it was one of the easiest classes I’ve ever taken because I learned nothing new.) The little things on their own may seem insignificant, but they can be really bothersome for students especially when those little things start to add up.

Thinking on “Leadership”

For an optional seminar I’m attending later this week I have been asked to pre-flect in 250 words about leadership means to me, where I learned about it, and whether I see myself as a leader. So here it goes…

 

I believe leadership is a kind of speaking and listening that causes movement towards a shared goal and larger purpose. It requires a sense of empowerment, unity, and respect amongst a community. When you see people working collaboratively, actively listening to one another (leaning forward, nodding heads, snaps in agreement), and discussing a vision for the future, then you know there is leadership present despite there being an identified “leader” or not. 

There isn’t any one particular place or time that I can attribute to being where/when I “learned leadership.” My opinions have been formed through observation, experience, and thoughtful discussions throughout my life. I was, however, deeply impacted by one particular leadership conversation I had during my senior year of high school when I attended the first annual SparkHouse gathering with the organization Education Reimagined. At this gathering, we, young learners from around the country, spent a few hours distinguishing what leadership meant to us and how we would identify it in a room. I found this activity extremely engaging and intriguing and every year I’ve attended SparkHouse, it’s my favorite conversation. In fact, my first sentence represents the latest outcome of this conversation. 

I do see myself as a leader in some contexts, though I also believe that everyone is a leader if given the right contexts. Everyone has the ability to help move people towards a shared goal through their speaking and listening, and I believe at some point or another everyone has demonstrated this quality.

Too Much Choice

Today I realized a trend in my learning habits: I don’t do well with projects that give me too much choice.

You know, the projects that are super open-ended and students can pick “any topic” or, in my case with business classes, “any organization” to do their assignment on. I’m the kind of person that likes to weigh out all of my options before I make a decision. So when an assignment has hundreds of possible options to focus on, I just end up getting stressed and overwhelmed and usually end up procrastinating the decision until I inevitably have to make a last-minute decision I’m not happy with.

Clearly, this is a trend because when I think back to all of the assignments where I’ve had ample choice, every single one of them has caused me this stress and overwhelming feeling – the “Big History” project freshman year of high school, the civil rights project junior year of high school, my organizational behavior project last year, and right now my marketing assignment.

Now I’ll admit, I know not every student stresses these choices to the same extent I do. Some people are perfectly happy with just going along with the first thing they think of, but I also know I’m not alone in my frustration with these situations. And when I connected these dots, I also realized that my feelings actually correspond with what psychology tells us about choice: people tend to panic when given too many options. This is why any time you’re tasked with making a survey you’re told to not make too many questions or give too many answer choices. There’s a reason multiple-choice tests typically have 3-4 potential answers… The science says too many options and people won’t choose at all.

This makes me wonder, how might we find the balance between giving students choices in their learning without giving an overwhelming amount of choices to choose from?

Student choice is great, but it’s only great in moderation. We don’t want to paralyze students in effort to give them more choices in their learning.

For example with my marketing assignment that I’m currently working on, I would have loved if our professor said, “You are consulting for company X. You can choose any challenge/threat, target market, user need, etc. to focus on in your marketing strategy suggestions, but this is the company you are consulting for.” There is still plenty of room for choice and creativity in an assignment like this, but the slightly more focused prompt, just by giving the name of a company, would make this assignment feel so much less grand. Plus let’s face it, in the “real world” you get hired by a specific company, you don’t go around making up ideas for just any company you want – unless you have a very unique business model in your organization… I love this kind of project of identifying user needs and brainstorming ways to meet them, it’s essential design thinking just being called “marketing”, but I don’t get the purpose of working without first starting with a specific user. And we would still have to do plenty of research and problem identification work in order to respond to this assignment, but we wouldn’t have to waste time figuring out what company (user) we’re working for.

I urge teachers to consider the issue of giving too much choice when creating assignments because it’s such an unnecessary cause of school stress.

More to Learn

My mom asked me to lead the virtual team bonding session for our gymnast tomorrow, so I decided to put together a gymnastics trivia game. I got really carried away brainstorming the categories and questions and figuring out the scoring system and even backup questions for extra rounds if we have more time. I was so caught up in planning the activity I didn’t even notice that I “missed” one of my classes.

Luckily this was a class that’s pre-recorded, so even though I try to watch the videos during normal class time to help keep to a schedule, I can technically choose to watch the lectures whenever. I guess that’s one of the nice perks of online learning – you don’t have to stop in the middle of a great brainstorm to go get to another class.

I was honestly surprised that creating this trivia game had me so captivated. I realized that even for a topic like gymnastics, which I consider myself to know a lot about, there is still so much I don’t know and it was really interesting to learn some new facts on the topic. I love how there is always more to learn. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there is more to be learned until you go to teach it to someone else.

“Kicking & Screaming”

I’ve been hearing a lot of conversations lately around how powerful it’s been to see students speaking out for changes to education because the traditional model doesn’t work online. Many also express their hope to see this sudden uprise of student voice and agency in education continue once we are allowed back in school buildings. Furthermore, people are hoping if learners come back “kicking and screaming, and demanding change” then things might actually start to look different long term.

However, my fear is that students that may be proving more feedback than usual right now aren’t going to realize that the newfound power of their voice isn’t just due to distance learning. Student voice has always been powerful, but I fear when we get back into classrooms, students will think, “Okay, now things are back to ‘normal’, therefore, my opinions on how school should be run no longer matter.”

It’s invaluable to have student voice to better re-design the learning process and make sure we’re meeting user needs. And it’s inspiring it is to see students having agency during a time when there isn’t really accountability- there aren’t many viable punishments right now, so you can’t scare students into coming to class and participating, they have to actually want to learn. So everyone is wondering, “How might we continue to see student voice and learner agency when we return to our schools?”

Well, I propose that step 1 is that we have to make sure students even realize what student voice and agency mean and help them be able to identify that they have it.

I think we are currently seeing a rise in student voice and agency out of obligation. I know from personal experience that I’ve had several moments in the past few weeks were I’ve participated in school-related feedback sessions just because I feel like it’s one of the few things I can do so I should be doing it. Things are so new and different that, even if they can’t articulate it, learners realize they have to have agency if they want to keep from getting bored or mentally unstable. Furthermore, they acknowledge that with these changes it makes sense that school leaders want to hear student stories and opinions because everyone is flying blind so the more help the better. It’s easy to accept these concepts as being necessary and normal right now. But student voice and agency were already invaluable before we moved to distance learning, most students just didn’t realize it.

Student voice I think is a bit more straight forward in terms of meaning, but I don’t think most students realize just how powerful it is in the eyes of educators to get true feedback directly from the users, ie. students. I also believe this is in part because most students don’t think their thoughts will really be taken seriously – I’ve pretty much been directly told this before. Anyone who knew me in high school would say I was part of the “smart people group” – the same group some people may refer to as “teacher’s pets” – and yet even some of my closest friends would sometimes make comments about not thinking administration really cared about student opinions. Not to mention students who weren’t typically thought of as being part of the “smart people group” would make snide remarks about feeling like they weren’t one of the “chosen ones” so why should they even bother to share their opinions.

Right now everything about school is different, and so it’s easier to grapple with the idea that teachers and administrators might care a little more about all student opinions right now. If we want to continue to see student voice upon returning to our usual learning environments, there has to be more transparency with students so they know if they speak up they’re actually being heard.

When it comes to learner agency, I bet 9/10 learners couldn’t articulate what it means to have “agency.” I mean even as I’m writing this post my computer keeps underlining the word agency thinking I’m using it incorrectly because it thinks I’m talking about a corporate agency. Additionally, I’ve been to at least a dozen education conferences at this point that talk about learner agency, and even I sometimes wonder about how to best describe it which is what makes me really doubt students without a particular passion for transforming education can actually tell you what agency is.  Learners can have agency without understanding it, but if we really expect students to come back to school and “demand” that they have agency, they have to know what it is.

We can’t just keep hoping that learners will all of a sudden start “kicking and screaming” for education change and that’s what will make the difference. Some learners, I believe myself to be one of these learners, will have an amazing experience with learner-centered education, realize that the experience was partly due to feeling like they had a voice and agency in their learning, and then start advocating for change. But I know I’m not the normal student, and most learners don’t have this reaction even after a crazy out of the box experiences.

My first of a series of “ah-ha experiences” happened at the 2013 Council on Innovation. I was one of twenty students asked to spend an entire day not going to classes and instead partake in this day-long design thinking event alongside twenty community experts and visionaries. Of those twenty students that participated, I was the only one that after the experience decided I needed to start “demanding change,” and I wouldn’t even call it demanding per-say, I just started conversations. Later in time others began to agree that things could be better if they changed, but I wouldn’t say they were “kicking and screaming” about the necessity of these changes. Now obviously this one-day event is not as big of a change in the learning environment as the weeks we have already and are still yet to experience online during this pandemic, but I don’t expect the results to be much different in terms of how many students are going to come out of this wanting immediate permanent change. Honestly, from what I keep hearing from my friends and the kids I coach, I’m expecting most students will just want to feel like things are “normal” again and want to stop dealing with so much change.

So yes it’s great and inspiring to see how learners are reacting during these challenging times, and I would love to see more learners speaking up for long-term education change, but if we want to see this happen I think it’s going to take a lot more than just hope. We can’t just expect to have this big unique learning experience (if that’s how you want to describe the current circumstances) and then have dozens of learners suddenly come back as reborn advocates of learner-centered education. We need action not just hope. We need to be open and honest to learners about how much influence they currently have over education, and then guide them in the process of reflecting on how this might factor into what they expect/want out of school upon returning to our buildings. Most importantly though, we have to make sure learners realize that they even have voice and agency and that it matters far beyond the scope of distance learning.

 

The Lead-Up

We have one week left of our four weeks of lockdown, which also means one week left until my classes start again but now online. Since lockdown has begun time has moved in a weird way. Every day seems particularly long but every week seems to go by weirdly quickly since I have trouble keeping track of what day it is, so it seems like the break before re-starting school has kind of snuck up on me in a quick way.

It honestly seems crazy to think about going back to classes at this point. I was only in school for three weeks before everything shut down, and by the time I go back, it will have been four weeks off school, making for a longer break than school time thus far. This much time off from school and stuck inside has made for a very odd sense of reality and it’s hard to imagine school now restarting but isolation not ending. It’s been fine so far staying amused and relatively decent mentally during isolation, but I’m concerned adding school into this mix is going to make things much more difficult.

I think it’s going to be very challenging to find motivation to do school assignments for 9 more weeks while still in some variation of social-distancing. I’m basically going to be doing an entire semester of online classes which is something I’ve always intentionally tried to avoid so this is slightly terrifying to think it’s just about actually here. Plus this time of year is when all of my friends in the US are just finishing up the end of their classes, but I’m basically just starting the semester still. It’s going to be extremely hard to stay focused while all of my friends are done with classes, and I wasn’t really around people here long enough to make any close friends still in New Zealand who will also be in classes at this time of year. 

I’ve also really not taken advantage of this time off in terms of trying to get ahead on school work. I did some work, but mainly just for the assignments I know are due relatively soon after we get back since they were originally due for the week everything shut down. Most of our professors encouraged taking time to relax and assured us we’d have enough time to complete our assignments even if we waited until classes re-started to begin working on them, but at the same time they clearly were encouraging the people who did choose to get started early so very mixed signals were being sent… I wanted to be okay with not working on much school work during the break, but now that it’s almost time to start again the “over-achiever” in me is getting anxious about the fact that maybe I should’ve done more to take advantage of this “extra time.”

I’m worried now it’s going to be a decent bit of a reality shock going back to classes in terms of going from doing so little that I get bored and tired of watching TV even to now having to do daily work but still being at home. At least on a typical break, you’re still getting out of the house and doing stuff so when you go back to school it’s not literally going from 0-100 in average daily energy level. Plus the change of environment with actually going to school usually helps with the mind-shift, but that’s a luxury we don’t have right now.

I don’t have any sort of formal plan at this point for how I’m going to try and adjust to going “back to school” but still from home after four weeks of nothing. I wish this post could be about my fears and how I plan to overcome them, but that’s just not the case at this point. The best I’ve got is the hope that hearing from my professors again with our video lectures will help get me in a working mood, but I’m not exactly convinced this will be the case.

At first, when the announcement was made about everything moving online, it made me think that this would make the semester easier since all of the online courses I’ve ever taken have been the easiest classes I’ve been in, but now with every class being online, I’m actually thinking it’s going to be harder than a traditional semester. It’s pretty much all the same amount of work, but without the usual fun aspects of school – no random conversations with new classmates you’re meeting, no clubs, no group projects, no late hour study sessions, (for the lectures that are entirely pre-recorded) no wacky tangents based on a slighly off-topic question, and I’m sure there are more things that will be missed out on that I’m not thinking of at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong, I like most of my classes (I wouldn’t be in Econ if I didn’t have to be…), it’s just the thought of the assignments that are daunting considering I have an average of two big research papers in each of my 5 classes and I’m really just not a fan of research papers even though I know that’s a big part of college. I think this is because I prefer thinking through ideas in collaborative environments opposed to independent research. And now with classes being taught digitally, I know there are going to be even fewer ways to make new connections with peers in my classes and group projects were pretty much all canceled so even more is now riding on the research papers – my not preferred method of communication – which is just very stressful to think about.

But I’ve got one more week to figure out how to get motivated I suppose, because like it or not and believe it or not it’s almost time to start the semester again.

 

 

(Just to clarify, I probably wouldn’t write about anything I really thought I couldn’t manage, but part of that management process for me is being able to list out concerns honestly, thus the more pessimistic tone to this particular post.)

Team Bonding in the Classroom

Today was team bonding day for our gym Zoom call. I’m glad I was even able to make it, especially since I forgot to turn on the outlet that charges my phone last night so my alarm didn’t go off this morning…

I found it funny how you can be on a team with the same people for years, and yet somehow still not know basic information about them. Things like where people were born, when they started the sport, how many siblings they have, favorite x,y,z, etc.

Today’s team bonding session was all about discussing the answers to questions like this and it was really fun. I liked getting to learn more about the kids I coach from a whole-child perspective. You never know when it could come in handy to know someone’s favorite animal is a narwal and they were born in Texas having started gymnastics as soon as they could walk. The more you know about a person, the more you can empathize with them and the better you can work with them.

During the normal season, we hardly do any team bonding and it’s something we’ve always regretted, so I truly appreciate this time for allowing us to start implementing this new norm of taking time to value who we are as individuals and a team beyond just gymnastics.

It’s also made me wonder, what if classrooms considered themselves a team? I mean when you think about it, a class is a group of people working together for a year to hone their skills in order to overcome various challenges related to their discipline. That’s pretty similar to how I’d define any sports team…

And yet, in a classroom we often don’t act like a team. There isn’t typically an emphasis on group norms, bonding, and support for each other’s learning and progress. Even in gymnastics where we compete against our teammates, we still talk about the importance of working together in practice, cheering each other on during competition, and doing non-judged group activities to help encourage unification and love for the sport.

I guess it’s assumed in a class that kids already know each other because they’ve been in school together for years, but even when you’ve known people vaguely for years, each new arrangement of people creates different team dynamics.

What if classes spent more time during the year intentionally bonding as a class and thinking about how they will support each others’ growth throughout the year? The more you know about our classmates, the more we can empathize with them and the better we can work with them – and this goes for teachers too. Some teachers are great about getting to know there students, but what if this was even more intentional at a cultural level for the entire school vs just the occasional teacher that everyone knows really takes an interest in learning about all the students? For example, what if the first week of class was all about “class bonding” and setting the norms for the year and thinking about how everyone can best support each other – teacher included?

I wonder how learning might improve if we took more time to know our “teammates” as whole people outside of just the subject material.

The “Extra Work” Barrier

Good learning takes a good amount of work.

I have started to receive some updates about how my assignments and deadlines have been adjusted to account for online learning, so today I spent a good bit of time re-organizing my calendar and assignment list I created at the beginning of the semester. I also made sure to review documents with further details on my assignments.

One of my projects, for my human development class, is writing an essay based on an interview with someone about key learning and development moments across their lifespan. When I first heard about this assignment I was rather impressed. It felt very “21st century learning” to me to have us demonstrate our understanding of the material by first learning interviewing skills and then associating between the real-life stories and the human development theories we learn in class in order to write a structured research paper.

I still think this is a very well designed assignment, but today I was viewing more from my student perspective than my curious-about-education perspective. From a student’s perspective, this project involves a lot of steps.

  1. Complete an online ethics module to prove understanding of ethical guidelines involved with research practices.
  2. Find someone to agree to an hour and half long interview about their life.
  3. Conduct the interview.
  4. Write the transcript for the video.
  5. Then write the actual paper including:
    1. Introduction to the topic and purpose of the report
    2. Outline methods and procedures
    3. Describe measures to ensure ethical practices
    4. Summarize the participant’s life
    5. Find 3-4 key themes in development
    6. Analyze each theme by discussing it’s relevance to human development theories
    7. Draw conclusions based on the analyzes
    8. Include at least 5 references to scholarly sources

It’s not that the project doesn’t seem doable, and it’s not that it sounds unreasonable, it just sounds like a lot to do which is a bit daunting (especially when reading the way more detailed version of the list I made that includes very specific instructions for each section).

My hesitations towards this project reminded me of something important about learner-centered education: it can be hard to get students on board at first.

I say “at first”, because I like to believe that students can appreciate the fact that assignments like this one are more relevant and meaningful than just taking a multiple-choice test and can come around to liking them despite the extra work at times. It’s a matter of getting over that barrier and convincing students to care more about real learning than just getting through an assignment/a class. 

I understand that this project is helping with my interview skills which will be helpful in future career development; this project allows me to connect to real people making the learning relevant; this project will force me to brainstorm and use associative thinking which is necessary for larger decision making. Therefore, I understand that the bit of extra work is worth a more meaningful learning experience – meaningful because it is meant to both prove my understanding of the material in a relevant, personalized, and contextual way and build my 21st-century skills. Not all students make this connection on their own though.

It’s not an impossible barrier to overcome, but it’s an important one to be mindful of. Students have to understand why they’re doing the work in order to actually care about doing it.

Now Is The Time

Today I got to partake in a video meeting with some educators from across the US and it was really great just to hear everyone’s stories about how their schools are dealing with the current changes.

One of the most inspiring parts about the conversation was how optimistic people were in light of everything happening.

This is the greatest disruption to our education system since the great depression. Disruption means there will be long term changes to life as we know it.

There is no question that when we get through this crisis things will be different. Change is inevitable. So the question is, what do we want that change to look like? 

Is this pandemic going to scare us backwards in an effort to make things “easier” or are we going to be inspired to charge forwards into opportunity-filled new beginnings?

Moving to distance learning has lots of challenges. To face these challenges it’s a lot easier for teachers and students both to simply watch some pre-recorded lectures and then take some online multiple-choice tests or write a 5 paragraph essay than it is to try and create opportunities for group discussions and collaborative projects compatible to a virtual environment. And honestly, with all the other stressors in life right now, making one part of life “easy” is really tempting.

But when students are sitting at home on their couch, why are they going to choose to watch a 2-hour lecture on the Pythagorean theorem as opposed to watching Mean Girls on Netflix? What’s going to motivate learners to take multiple-choice quizzes about the French Revolution instead of BuzzFeed quizzes that tell you which Disney character you are? How are we going to convince learners to write essays on Hamlet instead of Instagram posts about missing their friends?

If school isn’t engaging than learners will find something else to do that is.

Traditional schooling is not engaging.

It’s never fun to be “talked at” for hours on end, but it’s especially not fun when you’re sitting at your desk at home all alone in your room and staring at a computer screen. It’s mentally exhausting. And we already know multiple-choices tests are not indicative of actual learning.

Now more than ever, it is essential for education to be learner-centered.

We should teach lessons that are competency-based because while we can’t proctor tests as effectively online we can have virtual presentations that assess actual understanding and mastery of knowledge.

We have to find ways to engage young learners through personalized, relevant, and contextualized lessons or they just won’t log in to class.

We must encourage learner agency as a tool for staying mentally healthy and motivated to learn, explore, and create even while stuck inside.

We have to understand that learning is open-walled because we don’t know how long we will be out of our traditional classroom so we need to convince entire families that the absence of a room doesn’t mean the absence of learning.

And most importantly, while physically we might be social distancing, we need to ensure that mentally we are remaining socially embedded because a learner without a community is lost and we have enough loss in the world right now.

 

The world is changing. Education has to change too. While it might be “easier”, in the sense of having less thought work to do, we can’t rely on traditional methods to teach learners while they are at home with myriad other factors vying for their attention. Kids have to want to “go” to school because, in a way like never before, it’s really easy for them to choose not to. There aren’t many consequences to convince them otherwise so we have to use other methods to keep kids learning.

So how might we convince learners to want to “go” to school?

I propose that one answer is that schools need to be learner-centered. And maybe, just maybe, the greater impacts of learner-centered education will be so evident that we’ll be encouraged to continue teaching in a learner-centered paradigm even when we get to go back to our school buildings. So if you’re not already doing it, now is the time for learner-centered education. Now is the time to make sure we are being competency-based, teaching personalized, relevant, and contextualized lessons, encouraging learner agency, embracing open-walled learning environments, and remaining socially embedded even while distant.

There is no question that when we get through this crisis things will be different. Change is inevitable. So the question is, what do we want that change to look like?