Archive for August 2010
William Kamkwamba is becoming famous through his TED talk.
. . . and from his book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Interview – Part 1
The Importance of Education
Education Provides More Choices
William noted that in Malawi students have to pay for school. He was forced to drop out of school due to family financial problems. He went to the library so that he could continue his studies and in his words did so, so that “I wouldn’t be behind the rest of the students.” This lead him to studying engineering books – realizing during his early teens that he had an interest in and a propensity for inventing . . . in this case, windmills. Now in his early twenties, he believes that education is not about getting a job but it does give one more choices.
How this translates into the classroom is, first and foremost, by creating a culture of the specialness of education. Education in countries such as the US is taken for granted by most. Learning should be fun and engaging, and viewed as a special privilege. Hearing kids say that they hate school breaks my heart . . . and truthfully, I don’t blame them given how the system is structured today. One of my goals as an educator is to create a learning environment where kids shiver with excitement thinking about what they are going to learn that day, stay in the flow most of their learning time, whine when it is time to leave because they want to stay and learn more, and continue learning on their own time. In other words, the process of learning needs to be viewed as important as or more important than the product of learning.
Second, William is living proof of Passion-Based Learning. See my post PBL is Passion-Based Learning: Show Me Your Passion for more about this.
Interview – Part 2
Solving Our Own Problems
When you are in trouble, you don’t wait for others to pull you out of trouble. You start things yourself, and then the other people come and help you. People who are facing the problems need to come up with ideas for solving the problems. Others don’t know exactly the way yourself know it. Waiting for government or some other organization won’t solve your problem. We need to be thinking of our own ways to solve our problems.
In the learning environment, this translates into allowing and facilitating critical thinking and problem solving. Standards-based learning, backwards design, best practices lead to scripted programs and product-based learning not critical and heuristic problem solving. Tinkering (see Tinkering School comic) and learning from failure do not become an option in these learning environments.
It also relates to our school systems in that problems should be addressed locally within those systems. Administrators and educators need to stop the blame game – waiting for the right curriculum, the right amount of money, the right superintendent to solve the problems within their schools.
Educating Others About the Magic
When William’s neighbors in his village believed that the electricity that the windmill created was magic, he educated them in a way they could understand the science behind it. Due to social networking (e.g., blogs, Twitter, and Facebook), I know a lot of educators are doing it right – creating learning environments and projects that are the real magic for their learners. I wonder – almost daily – why aren’t the policy makers being educated about “good” education? They believe, falsely, that the magic of learning can be structured with standards and measured by numbers.
Learning Entails Flexibility
I learned to be flexible in the things I wanted to do. I changed the design to fit in with materials I have.
Learning and Innovation is often stated as a 21st century skill. Flexibility in learning means great learning is not dependent on big bucks initiatives – often used as an excuse for substandard education. William built a functional windmill out of materials from a junk yard. I built a full technology program from eight old computers and internet access (see Creative Web Tools For and By Kids, and Discovery Kids). I really am not comparing myself to William. I want to emphasize that when educators and their learners create a community driven by flexible innovation; rocket ships are built from the wood pile, books are written and illustrated in the sand, and global collaboration occurs on cell phones.
Solving Problems in Our Own Communities
William is beginning his college education at Dartmouth College this fall. He then plans on going back to Malawi when his studies are complete to help build his community. He also began a nonprofit to rebuild his primary school, Wimbe School.
I find the walls and fences – literally and figuratively – between schools and their communities to be baffling. Collaborations between schools and their local nonprofits (e.g., shelters, food pantries, environmental centers) create amazing learning opportunities and set a climate, an expectation, an affiliation for local and global stewardship.
Achieving Our Goals
William ended his interview with the following:
In life we face so many challenges in order to achieve our goals. Don’t let the challenges stop from you from doing what you want to be doing. Everything in life is possible. If you work hard and trust yourself, you will achieve so many things. Don’t give up, no matter how tough it might look like. You will achieve something.
Recently, I discovered RSA Animate series of videos. The importance of these types of resources is not only in their content but also in that the messages are conveyed in written, oral, and visual modalities. If I had only seen this type of content in written context or heard it in an oral presentation, I am certain I would have acknowledged it as interesting or possibly noteworthy, but missed the synergistic power of using the combined media.
This brings me to the most recent RSA Animation, 21st Century Enlightenment, by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).
I became intrigued with this organization and when I looked them up via an Internet search, I found the following mission:
For over 250 years the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has been a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress. Our approach is multi-disciplinary, politically independent and combines cutting edge research and policy development with practical action. We encourage public discourse and critical debate by providing platforms for leading experts to share new ideas on contemporary issues. Our projects generate new models for tackling the social challenges of today.
What a great mission . . . “to encourage public discourse and critical debate by providing platforms for leading experts to share new ideas on contemporary issues . . . to generate new models for tackling the social challenges of today.” I would love to see a similar mission for public education . . . “to encourage discourse and critical debate by a community of educators and learners to share ideas and generate solutions for social challenges of today.”
Another significant point about RSA is that even though they are 250 years old, they recently made a proclamation, of sorts, that their organization should reflect 21st century enlightenment. Again, this could apply to public education systems – a need to re-conceptualize its mission to reflect this period of human growth, development, and evolution.
Taylor believes we need to ask ourselves: “What are these values (that shaped us and our systems)? Do they work for us? Do they meet the challenges we now face?” We need to live differently in the 21st century and to live differently involves thinking differently. To paraphrase Taylor, this form of questioning, of thinking often unsettles who we are in the world, and states that we need “to resist our tendencies to make right or true that which is familiar or make wrong or false that which is only strange.”
21st Century enlightenment, according to Taylor, encompasses the following:
- The principle of autonomy holds that human beings should be free to use their reason to create self-authored, valuable lives. The 21st-century enlightenment should involve a more self-aware, socially embedded model of autonomy.
- Universalism is generally taken to mean that all human beings are born with inalienable rights and are equally deserving of dignity. The emotional foundation for universalism is empathy.
- The basis for social arrangements should be what increases human happiness and welfare.
- Mature ethical discourse is the foundation for multiculturalism, mutual respect and conflict resolution.
How does this translate into everyday practices in the education environment?
- We are living in a world that easily, frequently shares information via the Internet through Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube. In order for our learners to be able to engage in mature ethical discourse, first and foremost, they must have access to this information. Blocking, or if we really want to label it truthfully – censorship, does not help learners become critical consumers of the information they have easy access to outside of the school environment.
- As noted by Taylor, the real time global media has brought suffering of distant people into our living rooms. These are teachable moments in the educational setting – where learners can engage in discourse and intelligent debate, and develop and implement action plans for change, if so desired.
- Educational systems do and should take responsibility for teaching skills – skills for and related to reading, writing, mathematics, science, humanities, and the arts. I think, though, we need to question the content that is taught. Schools are often driven by an Essentialist view – that there is specific content that students NEED to know. Why, for example, do New Mexico history textbooks only contain one chapter about Native Americans when there are centuries of historical events there? Why did I have to read Shakespeare (over and over) in high school when my preferences, at the time, were to read African American female writers? Why does a young person need to struggle learning geometry out of a textbook when s/he would prefer to be learning principles of 3D objects via drawing or building in a virtual world? Who and how chooses this content? Why do administrators and educators take at face value that this content is what young people are to know?
- As the noted by Taylor in his RSA talk, this century has given us some tools for being different in the world than in the past centur. The systems that drive the education of youth need to both mirror and assist them for being in the world. What are these systems doing to . . . prepare them to lead self-authored and valued lives? . . . to engage in mature ethical discourse? . . . to develop empathic capacity?
- So, what I propose for education for 21st Century Enlightenment:
- Assist learners in developing their own individual learning plans.
- Open up the Internet and ask learners to engage in ongoing and critical analysis of its content.
- Ask learners to produced content/projects based on their interests and share it in ways to get feedback – both positive and ways it could be improved.
- Assist learners in developing survival skills – personal safety and protection (online and real life), interpersonal communications (real life and online), networking, and goal setting.
- Provide venues for engaging in mature and intelligent discourse, e.g, Socratic seminars.
- Help learners develop and engage in communities of practice.
- Provide opportunities – both with time and suggestions – for learners to work in and for global collaborations and stewardship.
- Rid the system of tests, data-driven decisions, assessments – assist students and educators in establishing feedback loops for improvement (peer, experts, educator-based) (see post – Youth Participatory Action Research).
- Help learners develop their own unique voices in whatever medium and modalities they choose. Again, this means opening up the internet and giving them a tour of all the media creation opportunities and then . . .
- Assist them in becoming the authors-producers of their media and in finding ways to publish these works for viewing, commentary, and feedback by an audience both within and outside of the immediate learning environment.
- Build in reflective practice for learners to self-evaluate, assess real-life relevancy, and articulate one’s desirable long-term, lifelong legacy.
As a former outdoor educator, I experienced how the physical leaning space contributes to the learning process in the best environment available – the natural one. See DesignShare, http://www.designshare.com/, for more information about importance of learning spaces.
I also believe that a purpose of education and the educator is to provide learners with a framework and skills for directing their own learning (hence the name of this Blog – User-Generated Education). Part of the process becomes giving the opportunity for learners to develop and share their own unique voice – about how and what they want to learn and actually do learn.
Narrative Architecture and the Learning Space
Today, I heard the term Narrative Architecture for the first time.
From Latin, narrativus means telling a story. In mid 16th century architecture from Latin, architectura means the art or practice of designing and constructing building. Started from both of definitions, narrative architecture means an art of designing and constructing building to tell a story.
If novel, fiction, comic, and folktale tell the story by texts and picture. If painting and photograph tell the story by a great picture. If movie tells the story by moving picture and sounds. Architecture tells the stories without texts, but by geometrical form, space, and materials. Narrative could be translated into architectural form by envelope materials, route, event, rooms, and also smell, sound and light effects.
The essential question becomes, How can the educator create the learning spaces – real life and/or virtual – to elicit the positive power of narrative architecture? This would be a space where learners feel as though they can tell their stories as the producers of their own learning.
Narrative Architecture and Making Meaning
Meaning is not exclusively in the morphological properties of space themselves, nor in the cultural processes of its formation and interpretation, but in the dynamic network of spatial, social, intellectual and professional practices that embody and produce different kinds of social knowledge.
Learners (real life or online) working in collaborative learning spaces will interpret and form the learning space to have personal, and ultimately collective, meaning. They do so in all learning spaces. Does the learning space create stories of boredom . . . fear . . . isolation? Or does it create stories of engaged and passionate learning experiences? Because I fully believe that since time spent in any learning space becomes a narrative architecture for the learners, educators should approach that space with intention, knowing that learners will draw from and create meaning in and about that space.
Interestingly, Henry Jenkins used the concept of Narrative Architecture in his ideas regarding interactive gaming.
The game space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as the player tries to reconstruct the plot. Game spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players.
This statement can be translated to – have meaning for learning spaces:
The learning space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as the learner tries to reconstruct what he or she is attempting to learn. Learning spaces should be designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing and sense-making activity of learners.
The how-to of creating this Narrative Architecture – whether in real life or online – becomes having the educators and learners co-create this space together – all being equal participants in the process. The space then becomes part of the learning process – increasing the opportunity and potential for deep and indelible understanding of the learning process and content.
Photo: My 5th-6th students (a few years ago) creating a blueprint of how the classroom should look. The classroom was NOT set up for them prior to the beginning of the school year.
Beginning during my Doctoral studies and continuing throughout my professional career as an educator, I discovered and keep re-discovering how congruent the concepts related to Progressive Education, Participatory Research, and Reflective Practice are with my beliefs about good education, learning, assessment, and research. Conversely, the practices related to Quantitative Testing and Research and Essentialism never worked in my scheme of what good education entails. What I knew, intuitively, to be de-motivating and toxic for me as a high school and undergraduate student, I became able to articulate with words.
I absolutely understand the need and desire for accountability and evidence of efficacy. Concrete evidence, scalablity, and the ability to duplicate best practices actually are the indicators for a profession being viewed as a profession. The problem lies in that the education system’s efforts in demonstrating efficacy occur through quantitative methodologies. There are several problems with this approach:
- Human behavior and learning is complex – assigning numbers to learning is reductionist, implying that learning is a simplistic process that it can be measured in the same manner that blood pressure can be measured.
- Quantifying learning does not provide the in-depth descriptions of best practices for other educators and students. Best practices – the success stories of education cannot be duplicated based on viewing test scores.
- Students become commodities, where their value is measured by the numbers assigned based on test scores.
At the Reform Symposium (an online conference), I had the privilege of listening to Monika Hardy and her students/cohorts (for the archive, see http://reformsymposium.com/blog/2010/07/12/monika-hardy/) . Of special interest to me was the part presented by James Folksmead on Youth Participatory Action Research #YPAR. His Prezi can be viewed at http://prezi.com/kx2njm16ouqy/par/
It became an earth moving AHA for me – the missing piece of my perspective on “good education”. Students should be part of the research process. Note that the emphasis here is on part of the research process not the subjects of the research.
I got motivated to do a search on YPAR. What follows are excerpts from a refereed research conference paper, Students: From Informants to Co-Researchers.
It could be argued that the dominant discourses of schooling, in relation to curriculum, assessment and pedagogy are grounded in psychological, rather than sociological, perspectives. Power differentials between teachers and their students are less often discussed from such a perspective. Students are typically positioned as immature, not yet fully capable children
This power differential between teachers and their students, as manifested in schools and classrooms, is reflected in the educational research processes themselves. Students are at worst the objects and at best the subjects of the research. They are not seen as participants in the processes of enquiry. Indeed, Morrow and Richards (1996) note that within existing ethical guidelines on human research in medicine, children are considered alongside adults with impairments. In other words, they are not seen to have status, but to be vulnerable. They are characterised as relatively incompetent and at risk of exploitation.
Studies centered around the experiences of young people in schools typically position the students as the objects of the research. They are observed, surveyed, measured, interviewed and commented upon in order to inform a research agenda to which they have made little contribution. They are rarely recognized as active agents, who can not only be reliable informants, but also interpreters of their own lives. The positioning of young people in educational research is analogous to that of women within traditional patriarchal research paradigms. They are at worst, silenced; at best patronized.
The authors describe their ideas for Principles for Substantive Participative Engagement in Research by Students:
- The purposes of the research should be in the best interests of the students;
- The purposes of the research should be transparent and consented to by all key stakeholders, including students;
- The research should be respectful of the students’ definitions of the phenomena being examined and incorporate methodologies which allow for varying levels of literacy and oracy;
- Students should be active in providing input and advice regarding the initiation and design of the research;
- Students either directly, or by representation, should be partners in the research’s enactment and interpretation;
- Students should have a voice in determining the implications of the research for appropriate educational policies and practices;
- Students should be enabled, by provision of appropriate resources (such as time, space, technologies and materials) to be fully participative in the research.
The benefits as I see . . .
- Students assess what they learned, how they learned it . . . and reflect on their learning as part of their participation. They learn the skills for reflective practice. They learn to be critical consumers and producers of their own learning.
- The boundaries between assessment and research become blurred . . . as it should be. Assessment becomes naturalistic and descriptive rather than reductionistic and contrived.
- Best practices are described, developed, and disseminated through the collaborative efforts of educators and students, the populations who have the vested interest in these practices. This increases the validity of these practices in the eyes of these stakeholders and the chance/opportunity for implementing these best practices. The quality of education improves.