User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Posts Tagged ‘school reform

Learning Needs a Context

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This is a follow up to a post I wrote, How Do We Learn? How Should We Learn?  The purpose of these posts is to encourage educators to examine practices they take for granted, implement without deep reflection of their efficacy. This post discusses the instructional practice of asking students to memorize information.

How often have students (ourselves included) been asked to memorize mass amounts of facts – historical dates, vocabulary words, science facts, get tested on them, just to forget almost all those memorized facts a week or two later? Given that is this learning experience is more common than not, why do educators insist on continuing this archaic and ineffective instructional practice?

To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means. Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding. (When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning)

The more closely we inspect this model of teaching and testing, the more problematic it reveals itself to be. First, there’s the question of what students are made to learn, which often is more oriented to factual material than to a deep understanding of ideas. Second, there’s the question of how students are taught, with a focus on passive absorption: listening to lectures, reading summaries in textbooks, and rehearsing material immediately before being required to cough it back up. Third, there’s the question of why a student has learned something: Knowledge is less likely to be retained if it has been acquired so that one will perform well on a test, as opposed to learning in the context of pursuing projects and solving problems that are personally meaningful. (Alfie Kohn)

The visual image I use to describe this is that there are all of these unconnected facts floating around in the learner’s brain. Since they have nothing to connect to, they end up flying away. This is especially true for abstract concepts.

floating facts

Memorizing facts often means a waste of students’ time and energy. In some cases, too many cases, learners lose their passion and excitement for a subject or topic that, if taught in another way, may have not been the case.

The Need for Context

Learning facts and knowledge about a content area topic is an important prerequisite to understanding that topic and then developing expertise. The key to this understanding is providing a context for the facts. The context becomes the glue to increase the stickiness, the longevity of long term memory of those facts. This is especially true for abstract concepts. These concepts need something concrete with which to attach.context

Lave and Wenger (1991) argue that learning should not be viewed as simply the transmission of abstract and decontextualised knowledge from one individual to another, but a social process whereby knowledge is co-constructed; they suggest that such learning is situated in a specific context and embedded within a particular social and physical environment. (Situated Learning)

Increasing Context and Relevancy

Authentic learning can be the driving force for increasing context and relevancy. Jan Herrington describes authentic learning along two axes – the authenticity of the task is on one axis (from authentic to decontextualised), and the setting is on the other (the classroom/university to the real setting). The goal of educators should be to increase authenticity which leads to more contextual learning (and vice versa).

Matrix pic 1(

The following are some suggestions for establishing context (the list is just a start). Ironically, they are practices that are often recommended are best practices in teaching but they aren’t implement as often as they should be:

The bottom line is that regardless of the content area, students deserve educations that have self-perceived authenticity, relevancy, and a context that makes sense.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 21, 2015 at 6:17 pm

The Other 21st Century Skills: Educator Self-Assessment

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I’ve posted about The Other 21st Skills and Attributes.  This post provides links and resources about these skills as well as an educator self-assessment.  This assessment contains questions to assist the educator in evaluating if and how s/he is facilitating these skills and attributes in the learning environment. skills

21st century skills

Related Resources:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 16, 2015 at 8:08 pm

Best Education-Related Videos of 2014

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I love end of year “best of” lists.  My own list is what I found to be the most powerful education related videos of 2014. They all, in some way, address the mind, heart, and spirit of education.  Each touched me in some way to help illuminate the purpose and core of education. Let me know of any others that you found of value during 2014!

Malala Yousuf Nobel Prize Speech

So through my story I want to tell other children all around the world that they should stand up for their rights. They should not wait for someone else and their voices are more powerful. Their voices – it would seem that they are weak, but at the time when no one speak, your voice gets so loud that everyone has to listen to it. Everyone has to hear it. So it’s my message to children all around the world that they should stand up for their rights.

Maya Angelou on George Stroumboulopoulos

Always so very beautiful – RIP, beautiful woman!

I must must tell you the truth as I understand it.  You might be the last person with whom I speak. Life is life and death is death, so I must tell the truth when I speak.

What I really want to do is be a representative of my race; the human race. I have a chance to show how kind we can be, how intelligent and generous we can be. I have a chance to teach and to love and to laugh.

Carol Dweck: The Power of Believing You Can Improve

How are we raising our children? Are we raising them for now instead of yet? Are we raising kids who are obsessed with getting A’s? Are we raising kids who don’t know how to dream big dreams?  Let’s not waste any more lives, because once we know that abilities are capable of such growth, it becomes a basic human right for children, all children, to live in places that create that growth, to live in places filled with yet.  

Sir Ken Robinson: Can Creativity Be Taught

Teaching is a process of enabling. It’s a process of giving people opportunities. It’s a process of encouragement. It’s a process of inspiration, of mentoring.  Gifted teachers help people discover their creative talents, to nurture them, to hone them, and to become more creative as a result.

President Obama on the Whitehouse Maker Faire

But what’s happening is, is that the young people now are able to learn by doing. So math, science all gets incorporated into the task of actually making something, which the students tell me makes the subject matter that much more interesting. We’re helping schools take shop class into the 21st century, because one of the things I’m really interested in is how do we redesign high schools so that young people are able to do stuff as they are learning.

Toxic Culture of Education: Joshua Katz

THOSE students are marginalized by what I call our “Toxic Culture of Education.” It doesn’t matter if a student is a gifted artist, a loving caretaker, a poetic writer, or a talented musician. THOSE students are the fish being measured on how they climb trees.  We need to start paying attention to our students. If a student fails Algebra 1 in the ninth grade, chances are it is not because they do not understand the material. Chances are it’s not because the teacher isn’t teaching. Chances are it’s not because of the school. Chances are it is because the student lacks some type of intangible characteristic (a “Non-Cognitive Behavior”) that enables them to succeed. Things like persistence, initiative, social skills, common sense, a full belly, or a good night’s sleep.

The necessity of the student voice | Catherine Zhang

Our projects seem more like coloring activities than actual content, and we were forced to only consider one interpretation especially on multiple choice tests. We knew there was something fundamentally wrong with the way we were being taught, but as students we were powerless. At a time we are trying to answer these large questions about the future of education, we’re leaving out this huge portion of the population.  Student are this untapped resource.  We’re the only ones at the receiving end of education. Asking these educational experts about what appeals to kids without asking students, themselves, is like asking your 92 year old grandmother how to use Instragram when you have a teenager in the house.

Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age – Mitchel Resnick

Not only do new technologies have us rethink what we learn and how we learn, we can also rethink where we learn, when we learn, and with whom we learn. With technology we can be learning all of the time.  If we think of technology in the right way, we can break out of old outmoded models of learning.  New technologies help us rethink the structures of schools.

Individualization, failure and fun | Cordell Steiner

Failure was an awesome experience and had a purpose. You are able to learn from your failure. You have the opportunity to go back over and over again; and work until you master a skill.

Inspire Her Mind

Isn’t it time we tell her she is PRETTY BRILLIANT, too.

You can help stop the violence against young black men | Verna Myers

And we’ve got to be willing to not shelter our children from the ugliness of racism when black parents don’t have the luxury to do so, especially those who have young black sons. We’ve got to take our lovely darlings, our future, and we’ve got to tell them we have an amazing country with incredible ideals, we have worked incredibly hard, and we have made some progress, but we are not done. We still have in us this old stuff about superiority and it is causing us to embed those further into our institutions and our society and generations, and it is making for despair and disparities and a devastating devaluing of young black men. We still struggle, you have to tell them, with seeing both the color and the character of young black men, but that you, and you expect them, to be part of the forces of change in this society that will stand against injustice and is willing, above all other things, to make a society where young black men can be seen for all of who they are.

If I Knew Then: A Letter to Me on My First Day Teaching

Kid President Throws a Surprise Party for a Retiring Teacher

Erzah French: Sportskid of the Year

You can dream it, you can hope it, you can make it happen; I choose to make it happen.

Malcolm Mitchell Book Club

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 18, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Experiential Learning: Is there really a question about this?

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The things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them. Aristotle

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results. John Dewey

My training as an educator occurred through experiential education rather than the traditional route.  Experiential Education is based on the following principles as articulated by the Association for Experiential Education:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the learner to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner2 is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning.
  • Learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others and learner to the world at large.
  • The educator and learner may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for learners and educators to explore and examine their own values.
  • The educator’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting learners, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
  • The educator recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Educators strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the learner.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes. (

I know no other way of teaching.  Knowing the powerful results of experiential education, it confuses me as to why more (if not all) educators don’t teach this way.  In the graphic below, the images in the left column are learners from my own classrooms, the images on the right symbolize more traditional approaches in educational institutions.  As “A picture says a 1000 words,” the expressions of the learners say engagement, interest, joy, and learning.  Which do you want your students, your children to experience at school?


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 26, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Maker Education Conference Workshop

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The slide presentation and participant photos from a professional development workshop for educators:


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Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 11, 2014 at 5:20 pm

School Should Be More Like Camp

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Some things about me:

  • I love to learn, create, invent, ponder and imagine what can be.  I consider myself insatiable when it comes to learning
  • I hated school from 2nd grade through college.  It was painfully boring for me.
  • I loved summer camp.  I went to day camp for 10 years.
  • I have vivid memories of my camp experiences.  I have vague, blurred memories of school.
  • I feel that I learned so much more at camp than I did at school.
  • I believe that school wasted and basically stole my time.

So needless to say, I promote the idea that school should be more like camp. What follows is a chart comparing school to camp.  Which would you prefer to attend?  Which would you prefer your own children to experience?


What follows are some excerpts of articles that reinforce these ideas.

From Why Can’t School Be More Like Camp

Focus on Relationships, Team Building, and Goal Setting

The first day of school would start with the teacher leading the students in team building activities and giving them ample opportunities to get to know each other. Kids would be paired and grouped in different ways to make sure that everyone learns everyone else’s name. New kids would be warmly welcomed by returning kids.  They would also learn about each other’s talents and interests. This conversation would be ongoing throughout the year to give kids the chance to share with and encourage each other as they learn new things.

Hands-On, Active Learning by Doing

If school were more like camp, hands-on activities would far outnumber multiple-choice tests. The information that really “sticks” is the stuff we do, so why is so much time spent on memorizing things that are forgotten within days?

If school were more like camp, students would spend less time sitting at a desk quietly working by themselves on a work sheet and more time practicing teamwork and collaboration, working on science projects and presentations, acting out a book they are reading, and building their creativity and problem-solving skills.

Students would be encouraged to delve deeply into topics that interest them, regardless of what’s on the list of standards.

A Positive Culture

If school were more like camp, teachers would be trained to create a fun, warm, and inviting place as much as they are trained to teach math skills. They would learn how to find what is special and unique about each of their students and help their students feel valued and included.  Teachers would check in with each student, every day, asking how they’re doing and providing support if they are struggling. Kids would be excited to get to school, and teachers would greet each student with a smile and a high five, hug, handshake, or fist bump.

If school were more like camp, kids would be cheering for and supporting each other as they learn new skills. Kids would celebrate each other’s successes by making daily “WOW” announcements and leaving encouraging notes. For kids who are struggling in some area, supportive peers would provide guidance and encouragement. Kids would openly talk about their areas of strength and weakness and support each other in improving.

Core Subjects Plus “Free Choice” Learning and Pursuit of Passions

At camp, we require that kids participate in certain activities, even if they’re a little scared. We know that they benefit immensely from challenging themselves and building new skills. But we also allow kids to pursue activities that they are passionate about. What if school could be the same way? Kids would be required to learn specific skills, of course, just like they are now. But they would also have more free choice options to pursue things they’re passionate about. Aspiring writers could have their own blog. Future doctors could do extra science research and experiments. If we showed more respect for kids’ interests and desires and let them spend more time on things that they are passionate and excited about, school would be a much happier place for them.

. . . and some more characteristics of camps which should be common school practices – from 5 Ways School Should Be More Like Summer Camp

Intentional, Intense Community

Summer camps make a point of helping the community to bond quickly through playing games, hiking and camping together (a.k.a. meeting and coming through a challenge together), telling stories around a fire, sharing sleeping quarters, and creating rituals around daily tasks like eating.

Facing Fears and Pushing Comfort Zones

At summer camp, kids do things they are afraid of.  They go swimming in creeks with snakes, they sleep in cabins with creepy crawlies, they go on 3-day hikes and sleep in the woods with who knows what kinds of monsters, they scrape their knees, and they don’t have their parents around to rely on.  Now if that isn’t just a recipe for learning coping skills and how to handle the unexpected, I don’t know what is.

Outdoors and Interactive

We already know that sitting in a desk and being lectured at is not the best way to learn.  There are also studies showing that environmental education boosts creativity, social skills, and problems solving skills.  So it’s clear that education should be more hands-on and more out of doors.

Regular Communal Singing

Singing a beautiful or lively group song is different than singing along to the radio.  It can bring a group together and can infuse a relatively mundane task with humor and joy.  But it takes time and commitment to build up a community repertoire of songs.  We have to take the time to teach them and sing them regularly so that is an inclusive activity.  There is little quite so touching as a group of young people harmonizing around a camp fire, or singing a song of gratitude to the cooks, or merrily caroling as they walk to the next activity.

Mixed Age Groups and Mentoring

This is something that summer camps get really right and most schools get really wrong.  At summer camp, kids are constantly mingling across ages.  Teen-age counselors are leading the activities and what could be more hip than that to a 10-year old?  Here is this older, totally cool person, who isn’t nearly so old as their parents, who they can jump on, and look up to and learn games from.  They get to see this older person making jokes, having conversations, dealing with problems, singing songs, having fun and generally being a model of (more) mature, multi-dimensional life.  In schools we separate the teen-agers from the pre-teens and both suffer.  The teens lose out on that sense of responsibility and accountability; they don’t get that sense that their behavior might influence someone else.  And the young ones only have teachers and parents to look up to, who seem so distant and foreign, instead of learning from a variety of ages and outlooks.

. . . and some others based on my own experiences.

Arts Integration

Doing art with a fully stocked art room is a central activity at camp.  All kids are artists at camp with accessible art projects like scratch art, lanyards, leaf rubbings, tie dying.  Children smile with pride at their creations rather than saying things like “I can’t draw” or “I am not an artist.”

Informal drama and theater is also part of the camp experience with talent shows, charades, and paper bag dramatics.   There is innate joy to expressing oneself through drama and theater without the fear of being graded or judged harshly.

Games, Sports, Movement

Sitting around passively isn’t part of the camp experience.  If the camper isn’t playing a sport, s/he might be going for a swim.  Then s/he runs to the art room, and after that – maybe a quick game of tag.  Kids aren’t (or shouldn’t) be told not to run (as in run in the halls).

Learning from Multiple Sources with Ongoing, Informal Assessment

Multiple means and avenues are used to learn to swim, tie a knot, identify a leaf, make a lanyard, and/or sing a song,  A combination of direct instruction, peer modeling, peer feedback, and natural consequences work together to help insure that most campers learn these skills.  Evaluation and assessment are indirect and ongoing – again coming from multiple sources.

. . . and finally, if we are serious about student engagement, motivation, and retention, then student satisfaction with and enjoyment of school should be a primary goal.  From the New York Times article, Why Can’t School Be More Like Summer?

Summer camps are by design happy places, run by people who clearly have been selected for their genial and outgoing personalities as well as their willingness to be ridiculous and silly on short notice. Camps embrace what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the duty to be happy”  Happiness is embedded in the summer camp business plan, and is central to what they do. If children  aren’t happy; they won’t come back.  Schools could learn a lot about student retention and achievement by taking a page from the summer camp happiness playbook.This is especially true right now.  Yet in all the talk about education reform, happiness rarely seems to make the list, even though there’s plenty of evidence out there about what an improved school environment might mean for learning and test scores, not to mention student attitudes and drop-out rates.

The bottom line, which is the focus of many of my blog posts, is that there is a belief that schools need to be the way they are.  They do not.


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 31, 2014 at 9:38 pm

The Importance of Authenticity Inside and Outside the Classroom

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I teach graduate educational technology courses at Boise State University to mostly in-service teachers.  One of them is Integrating Technology Into the Classroom.  It as a course with a project-based learning framework.  Learners are given a series of course projects and asked to develop learning activities for their particular content areas and grade levels.  Examples include developing a video library and associated lesson for their content area; developing a lesson for their content area that uses social media, etc.

This morning I received the following communication from a co-instructor:

Jackie, I thought you would want to know this.  I teach 514.  I ask each student to reflect on a “best learning experience” and this semester I have a student in 514 who wrote the following:

My experience of EDTECH 541 stands out for me as the best experience I have had in learning. I say this for many reasons, and they start with how the structure of the course allowed such creative freedom along with the exploration and experimentation of new tools. With every assignment, I just remember thinking how fun it was, and how great it was that a school class could engage me so much.

Each assignment just seemed to get better. It also seemed like everything just flowed, and the work I was doing had some real impact. I was using the skills I practiced and learned the night before working on the project, the next day in my workplace. I even helped coworkers based on some of the things I learned in the class.

A major moment in this course was some validation of my work that I was not used to. A few of my assignments were used as examples, and some were even tweeted out, and retweeted! The fact that a professional in this field (the professor) and others thought my project had real value and took the time to share it thrilled me. That has been one of the best moments in my education, because for the first time I felt my work extended beyond the gradebook. I also felt like my work gave me some validation and confidence that I just might be able to put some things on a resume that might land me a sought after position someday.

I also remembering throughout the course how great it would be to do that kind of work for a living. It validated my choice and the months I spent trying to find a master’s degree I wanted to pursue. And it was a vast amount of time. I looked for nearly 4 months trying to find something, and just by chance I discovered this program. The EDTECH 541 experience I had was worth it.


Of course, educators love getting feedback like this.  It is affirming, but more importantly are the rewards the learner received.  Note that the tone of this communication was not about me as the educator but her as a learner and student.  This is what excites me the most.  Messages gleamed from this feedback:

  • Learners need to be given authentic tasks which asks them to put their “selves” into the learning projects.
  • As noted in this communication, school should be fun and engaging.
  • Skills being acquired by learners should be relevant and usable in their lives outside of the classroom (regardless of age).
  • The educator should help learners establish authentic audiences where the learners can share their work to authentic audiences outside of the classroom, to audiences of their peers.  (Note: peers aren’t necessarily others of the same age.  They are those who share the same interests and passions, who have similar perspectives of the world.)
  • Social-emotional gains are important.  Learners gaining confidence in themselves and their abilities should be an intentional goal in all learning environments.
  • The bottom line, which I have stressed in the past, is that the educator should set up the conditions for learners to say, “I am a good and confident learner,” rather than “You are a good teacher.”

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 30, 2014 at 9:33 pm


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