User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Reflecting on the Making Process

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My background is in experiential education. One of the strategies used in experiential education is debriefing or reflecting on the experience. In other words, learning from direct experience is not left to chance. The educator becomes proactive in debriefing or processing the experiences to increase the chances that learning occurs. This is in line with John Dewey’s ideas:

We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.’

A recent research study published via Harvard Business Review concluded that:

  • Learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection-that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience.
  • Reflecting on what has been learned makes experience more productive.
  • Reflection builds one’s confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy), which in turn translates into higher rates of learning. (

In line with reflecting on experiences, I developed a list of questions and a board game (I love using board games in my classrooms of all ages from elementary to graduate level!) to help with reflecting on the maker process following the completion of maker projects. The purpose of these tools is to increase the possible learning and insights that learners extract from their maker projects.

a making reflection

A Maker Reflection: The Game

maker game best

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 5, 2015 at 10:02 pm

Creating the Classroom Conditions for the Best Day Ever

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Lately, I have become a little obsessed with idea of the best day ever. It is undeniable obvious when you see someone have or experience for yourself a peak experience: succeeding with a difficult, seemingly impossible task; getting a unexpected, amazing gift; finishing or winning a competitive event (depending on your goal); being given accolades for a personal accomplishment.  I personally perceive it as a coming together or congruence of the mind, heart, body, and spirit where all of them are present in the moment and fulfilled. It translates into experiencing a flow state.

So this has led to me thinking how educators can create the conditions for learners to have and exclaim, “This is the best day ever!” Whoever said or made up the rules that school should be serious, boring, or painful? The institutions and places where learning takes place should be joyful and exciting places.

Strategies to help facilitate learners having the best day ever:

  • Build on learner interests and passions
  • Involve learners in the what and how of instruction
  • Use whole body and hands-on learning
  • Allow learners to work with others if they choose
  • Embed seemingly unreachable challenges
  • Encourage and acknowledge a broad range of emotions
  • Celebrate both effort and success
  • Respect the process – creating the best day ever takes time
  • Respect the process – let go of the need to create the best day ever

We cannot predict nor force learners to have the best day ever but we can set up the conditions to increase its possibility.


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 24, 2015 at 1:22 am

Learning at school? What’s wrong with this picture?

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What does learning look like in school environments? What is wrong with the following pictures?

Mohamed, a self-assured kid with thick-framed glasses and a serious expression, had just started at MacArthur High School a few weeks ago. The Irving, Tex., ninth-grader has a talent for tinkering — he constructs his own radios and once built a Bluetooth speaker as a gift for his friend — and he wanted to show his new teachers what he could do. So on Sunday night, he quickly put together a homemade digital clock (“just something small,” as he casually put it to the Dallas Morning News: a circuit board and power supply connected to a digital display) and proudly offered it to his engineering teacher the next day. “They took me to a room filled with five officers in which they interrogated me and searched through my stuff and took my tablet and my invention,” the teen said. “They were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?’ I told them no, I was trying to make a clock. “I really don’t think it’s fair because I brought something to school that wasn’t a threat to anyone,” Mohamed said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I just showed my teachers something, and I end up being arrested later that day.” (‘They thought it was a bomb’: 9th-grader arrested after bringing a home-built clock to school.)

. . . and in 2013, Kiera Wilmot, a Black, Female student, was arrested for her science experiment:

16-year-old Kiera Wilmot became curious after a friend told her about a reaction that would happen if she mixed hydrochloric acid and aluminum. In a small water bottle, she mixed toilet bowl cleaner with aluminum foil–a bang, a blown bottle top, and a small puff of smoke came out of the reaction. Hundreds of videos of similar experiments appear on YouTube. Shortly after the incident, the school’s assistant principal questioned Wilmot’s science teacher who said he didn’t know anything about the experiment. Then the assistant principal called the police. Despite her intellectual thirst for scientific knowledge, Kiera didn’t receive a pat on the back for her curiosity nor did she receive a warning not to try this again on the school campus unless under the supervision of her science teacher. No people were physically harmed and no property was damaged during the incident. But Kiera was expelled from Bartow High School and slapped with two felony charges – possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. (Kiera Wilmot, 16, Arrested at School after Failed Science Experiment)

. . . and Paris Gray, a Black, model student, was about to graduate:

Paris Gray, upstanding vice president of her about-to-graduate high-school class in Jonesboro, Georgia, when administrators figured out what her yearbook quote meant. It read: When the going gets tough, just remember to Barium, Carbon, Potassium, Thorium, Astatine, Arsenic, Sulfur, Uranium, Phosphorus translated to when the going gets tough, just remember to [Ba][C][K] [Th][At] [As][S] [U][P]. “Basically, it was me just saying start all over again,” she said. Administrators barred Gray from participating in a senior walk on Friday, Willis reported. She was also supposed to speak at the upcoming graduation ceremony, but Gray said an assistant principal told her that was off. “It just completely destroyed me,” Gray said, “and my mom’s been telling me don’t let it ruin my happiness, but it’s, like, really taking a big toll.” (The Chemistry Joke That Got a Student Suspended)

. . . and although less dramatic, harmful, and painful, there was this from the brilliant Jack Andraka, when at 15 he discovered a test for pancreatic cancer:

And, so, I’m really fascinated by carbon nanotubes. I was reading this really interesting paper in biology class, and all of the sudden, we were learning about these new things called antibodies.  So then I though, in my biology class, I was just sitting there behind my desk looking at this little paper, I thought, “What if I put this antibody in a network of carbon nanotubes?” just wildly, on a whim. And then it hit me. Amazing. I was very very happy. My biology teacher wasn’t as happy when she found me reading a paper instead of writing an essay on biology class. (Detecting Pancreatic Cancer… at 15)

I have said and will continue to say that the biggest ethical travesty of our times is “teaching” the spirit and passion out of a learner.



Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 16, 2015 at 11:11 pm

Posted in Education

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Is “Have a Growth Mindset” the New “Just Say No”

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I’ve been interested in the ideas surrounding the growth mindset prior to it being coined as such by Carol Dweck. As part of my studying Education Psychology as part of my Doctoral studies, I delved into studying attribution theory. Attribution theory provides a foundation to the ideas connected to a growth mindset. As such, I have been thrilled about the press it’s getting and I have facilitated several workshops for educators on the growth mindset – see The Education with a Growth Mindset: A Professional Development Workshop.

With all of that said, I am also concerned about the fad of the growth mindset. Bulletin boards, classroom exercises, and catch phrases about the growth mindset are being promoted in lots of school settings.

It is understandable that some may be skeptical of this years buzz phrase. Despite being debunked as pseudo-science, the scars of brain gym and learning styles are still felt in classrooms around the country. Unfortunately, pseudoscience still wastes the time of many, in the form of right brain v left brain myth. So where does Growth Mindset sit within all this? Is it the latest fad or is it something we should all be embracing? (Growth Mindset: The Latest Fad)

Carol Dweck’s expresses some concerns about integrating the growth mindset into educational settings:

A lot of teachers are saying ‘yes I have a growth mindset’, without doing the work and without making a journey to deeply understand it and to know how to apply it. Even some teachers who genuinely have a growth mindset aren’t understanding how to apply it properly. They are just telling kids to try hard: which I call nagging, not growth mindset. Or they are just saying ‘hey kids, have a growth mindset’.(Carol Dweck says mindset is not ‘a tool to make children feel good’)

The faddish or pop culture version of the growth mindset is emerging as: “Have a Growth Mindset.” This smacks of the “Just So No” campaign of the Reagan era.  Catch phrases about a growth mindset will have as much effect on actually developing a growth mindset as just saying no did on curbing drug use.

I mirror Dweck’s concern about educators and learners needing to do the work required to develop a growth mindset. It is a deeply reflective process requiring that this process occur often and over time.

I developed the following graphic as a reflective tool for my college students to assess the amount of effort and work they put into individual assignments:

Growth Mindset_ Personal Accountability and ReflectionThis personal assessment is designed to be used following numerous assignments so learners can continually assess the amount of effort given.

Similar tools can be used with elementary and high school learners as well as by educators themselves so they can (1) assess amount of effort put forth for learning tasks, (2) make personal judgements if this was okay (learner agency), and (3) learn where and how they are engaging in fixed or failure mindset attitudes and behaviors. These tools can include reflective blogs, questions for discussion (like the ones included in my graphic), and personal assessments. Again, this is not a one time occurrence but a process that needs to occur over time.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 4, 2015 at 11:17 pm

Examining Your Beliefs About Digital Youth

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This weekend I attended a conference presentation entitled, Cultural Imposition: When Digital Immigrant Therapists See Digital Native Clients (yep, I know there is some push back against the terms of digital natives and digital immigrants). It’s focus was understanding digital youth as a unique culture. It got me thinking, though, about the assumptions that adults who work with and teach youth make about their digital use and behaviors.

Guiding Questions for Examining Teaching Practices Within a Context of Digital and Social Media Use:

  • How does the social-cultural phenomena of digital access and use affect your work as an educator?
  • What are your assumptions about the use of digital technology and social media?
  • What issues about social media have emerged in your work with students?
  • What are your thoughts about digital communication?

Educators way too often make unquestioned assumptions about digital youth and their use of social media:

  • Texting is generally bad – it stifles both written and spoken language.
  • Genuine communication and attachment cannot occur through social media.
  • Wikipedia and Youtube are generally not sources of valid information.
  • Sharing personal information publically is undesirable.
  • Online multiplayer games keep young people from doing productive things with their lives; they are escapes from the reality-the real world.

These beliefs or assumptions are absolutes and often signify biases of those who not of the digital youth cultures. To these assumptions, one must ask, “Who says?” or “According to whom?” They can and should be examined within a framework and context of a digital youth culture. This would help educators and others who work with them having a greater understanding of their media use patterns and the meaning of these patterns from the perspective of the youth themselves.

What is culture?

The ACA Code of Ethics defines culture as “membership in a socially constructed way of living, which incorporates collective values, beliefs, norms, boundaries and lifestyles.” Although specific definitions of culture vary depending on the source, cultural components consistently include language, cuisine, music, dress, government, gestures, grooming and technology.

I believe and discussed that educators should be ethnographers of their learners. The effective educator learns about the cultures of their learners and uses their knowledge to design instruction, suggest resources, propose learning strategies based on those cultures.

In doing this type of examination, the following might be considered:

  • Educators may discover that they view actions of digital youth and their tech use as devious-undesirable without understanding the motivations.
  • By not allowing tools/strategies that digital youth use on a daily basis, educators may inadvertently be alienating them.
  • When we make school policies about technology in the learning environment, why aren’t the thoughts and ideas of the digital youth in those classrooms considered?

It is important for adults who work with digital youth to see that culture through the eyes of the youth and whenever possible and feasible to bring aspects of the digital youth culture into the learning environment. If the adults in young people’s lives gain a greater understanding of the use and meaning of digital media, they can offer (offering as in suggesting not insisting) youth ways to navigate the digital world for learning, for positive identity development, and for developing a positive online presence. Digital youth can benefit from the adults who can help them develop tools and strategies for facilitating positive coping and navigation in the digital environment. But this can only occur if those adults have a deep and realistic view of the behaviors of digital youth.


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 30, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Team Building Activities That Support Maker Education, STEM, and STEAM

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Working as a productive and sensitive member of a team is looked upon by STEM-based companies as being a requirement to being an effective and contributing employee:

As technology takes over more of the fact-based, rules-based, left-brain skills—knowledge-worker skills—employees who excel at human relationships are emerging as the new “it” men and women. More and more major employers are recognizing that they need workers who are good at team building, collaboration, and cultural sensitivity, according to global forecasting firm Oxford Economics. Other research shows that the most effective teams are not those whose members boast the highest IQs, but rather those whose members are most sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others. (

In academia, the majority of research in STEM fields is conducted through collaborations and working groups, where a diversity of ideas need to be proposed and analyzed to determine the best strategy(ies) for solving a problem. In the technology sector, product development is done as a team, with specific roles for each individual but its success is predicated on each member of the team providing a different skill set / perspective. Thus, students who are interested in both academia and industry will benefit from learning how to successfully work in a diverse team. (

What follows are some team building activities that use collaboration to explore and solve STEM-related challenges. Note that most of them require minimal supplies – costs.


Great Egg Drop

To begin, assemble groups of 4 or 5 and give each group various materials for building (e.g. 5-20 straws, a roll of masking tape, one fresh egg, newspaper, etc.)  Instruct the participants and give them a set amount of time (e.g. 30 minutes) to complete building a structure, with the egg inside in which the structures are dropped from at least 10 feet in elevation and then inspected to see if the eggs survived. The winners are the groups that were successful in protecting the egg. ( and

Marshmallow Tower

Give teams of 4 to 6 learners 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. Given a time frame of about 20 minutes, the groups must build the tallest free-standing structure out of The marshmallow needs to be on top. (

Marble Run

The challenge is to create a marble track using the given materials and have the marble land in an 8” square and remain there.  Give groups of 4 to 6 students: 1 piece of cardstock, 3 straws, 1 piece of string, 3 sheets of paper, 5 mailing labels, 4 paper clips, 3 rubber bands, and 2 pencils to complete this this task. (

Drop the Golf Ball

Give each group of 4 to 6 learners 12 straws, 18 inches of masking tape and a golf ball. The goal is to build a container that will catch a golf ball dropped from about ten feet. Each group selects a “ball dropper” who stands on a chair and hold the golf ball at eye level. Each team places its container on the floor under where they think the ball will land. Each group gets three attempts and the group that gets a ball to go into their container and stay wins. (

Straw Bridge

The challenge is for groups (3-5 members each) to design and construct a model of a single-span bridge using plastic drinking straws and masking tape as the building materials. The bridge is to span a distance of 40 cm, with no supporting pillars to the ground in between the ends of the span, and be approximately 10 cm wide. It needs to be strong enough to support a suitable load. This might be a book, a can of food, or other object of suitable weight placed on the middle of the completed structure. See Straw Bridge Challenge Worksheet:

Toy Hacking Team Challenge

This is based on Toy Take Apart. In the Toy Hacking Team Challenge, each group of 3 to 4 members is given three or four battery-operated toys. Their task is to take all their toys apart and then using at least a few parts of each toy create a new toy or invention.

Construct a Chair

This activity asks groups of 3 to 5 members to design and build a full-sized chair from corrugated cardboard (and a mat knife) that could support the weight of a person up to 150 lbs. for up to 5 minutes. The person seated will be in a “comfortable” position with his/her back leaning against the back of the chair.  (

DIY Instrumentals

Learners make instruments from recycled or natural materials. See recycled materials for ideas. Separate learners in small groups of 4 to 6 members in each group. Inform them that they will be performing a musical piece using all of their DIY instruments for the rest of the group. After a practice time, bring groups back together for the performances.

Sneak a Peek

Build a small sculpture or design with some of the building material and hide it from the group. Divide the group into small teams of two to eight members each. Give each team enough building material so that they could duplicate what you have already created. Place the original sculpture in a place that is hidden but at an equal distance from all the groups. Ask one member form each team to come at the same time to look at the sculpture for five seconds in order to try to memorize it as much as possible before returning to his/her team.
After they run back to their teams, they have twenty-five seconds to instruct their teams how to build the structure so that it looks like the one that has been hidden. After the twenty-five seconds, ask each team to send up another member of their group who gets a chance to “sneak a peek” before returning to their team. Continue in this pattern until one of the teams successfully duplicates the original sculpture. (

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 14, 2015 at 10:39 pm

Today’s Education Should Be About Giving Learners Voice and Choice

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Some of the recurring themes of my conference presentations and blog posts include:

The underlying theme of all of my ideas, of all of my blog posts is about setting up the conditions where learners’ choice and voice flourish.  I have come to believe that the only real education is one that fully embraces learner choice and voice. All instructional practices in this era of learning should revolve around learner choice and voice:

Education works when people have opportunities to find and develop unaccessed or unknown voices and skills. Audre Lorde poignantly describes this “transformation of silence into language and action [as] an act of self-revelation.” Opportunities for flexibility and choice assist learners in finding passion, voice, and revelation through their work. (

Internet accessibility, technologies that permit the user-generated media, and social media allow for unlimited potential for learner choice and voice.

Learner Choice can be facilitated through:

Learner Voice can be facilitated by:

  • Giving learners an opportunity to use their unique voices to show what they know-what they learned (see UDL’s multiple means of action and expression).
  • Giving learners options to use their voice in a way that works best for them. Some may want to write, some may want to use art, photos, videos, and others may want to talk.
  • Helping learners find authentic audiences with whom they can share their voice.
  • Giving learners a say in how their school and classroom operate – being part of a democratic process.

As John Dewey notes (as is often the case, he says it best):

The essence of the demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude, and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts.

– John Dewey
Democracy and Education


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 9, 2015 at 3:19 pm


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