User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Posts Tagged ‘unschooling

A STEM Camp for Young Learners

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I just finished a week long – half day STEM camp for learners, ages 7 through 12, half girls and half boys. The energy in the room throughout the week was pretty incredible. There was close to 100% engagement the entire time which is always my goal in teaching. I love turning kids onto STEM, and there is evidence that exposure at a younger age increases the chances of later interest.

Some Evidence of the Importance of STEM in the Early Years

Research tells us that children’s early experience builds brain architecture and lays the foundation for one’s lifelong thinking skills and approach to learning, both critical roots of STEM success. After all, the STEM disciplines require not only content knowledge but also robust thinking dispositions—such as curiosity and inquiry, questioning and skepticism, assessment and analysis—as well as a strong learning mindset and confidence when encountering new information or challenges. These need to be developed in a child’s early education, beginning in infancy and continuing through third grade to lay the roots for STEM success. (McClure et al., 2017) (The Roots of STEM Success: Changing Early Learning Experiences to Build Lifelong Thinking Skills)

According to a new research project, children who engage in scientific activities at an early age (between birth and age 8) develop positive attitudes toward science, build up their STEM “vocabularies” and do better at problem solving, meeting challenges and acquiring new skills. “STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering and math education in early childhood,” published by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America and supported by a National Science Foundation grant, has asserted that “the seeds of STEM must be planted early,” right alongside the “seeds of literacy.” Together, the report said, “these mutually enhancing, interwoven strands of learning will grow well informed, critical citizens prepared for a digital tomorrow.”  (Research: Let’s Move STEM Learning Earlier)

The Camp

Due to the experiential nature of most of my instruction, I use an experiential cycle of learning:


What follows is how I applied it during the STEM camp.

Framing the Activities

The STEM activities were introduced through (1) the use of Brainpop videos and their accompanying quizzes, and (2) tutorial videos and/or webpages with directions. Brainpop videos, due to their animation and humor, have a high interest value for kids, and their follow-up quizzes help to create more active learning. After the Brainpop video introduction, the campers were given an overview of the specific activities through the tutorials. I then would show them the tutorial step-by-step. For some campers, seeing the tutorial in its entirety was enough for them to do the project. Others needed me to go over the project step-by-step using the tutorials as guides. I prefer using online tutorials rather than doing them myself as demonstrations because the tutorials can be projected for a larger image and better viewing by all of the learners.

These specific resources can be found in the slide deck below:

The Doing

The camp consisted mostly of campers DOING the STEM activities. See below for a photographic journey of their engagement in the activities.


Activity reflections occurred after the completion of the day’s activities using science journals:


Journals such as these not only benefit the learners but the educator, too. They provide such good activity evaluation information. For example, the last day of camp, students selected two photos from the week from all of the week’s photos that represented their favorite activities. These were printed for them and they then glued the images into their journals and wrote about them. They then did a verbal check-in to tell the rest of us which ones they selected and why.


When they were sharing these with the rest of the group, one of the girls mentioned that the DIY crystals was her favorite. I was totally surprised. I thought this activity was a dude as the kids didn’t seem that excited about them. I was thinking about dropping it as a STEM activity in the future but now I will, due to her comment, consider using it again.

Our Week in Images

Chemistry – Elephant Toothpaste


Chemistry – Slime


Chemistry – Orbeez Stress Balls


Solar – Solar Cars


Solar – Solar Ovens


Art and Science – Geometric Structures


Art and Science – DIY Crystals


Kinetic Projects – Cranky Contraptions


Kinetic Projects – Helium Balloon Blimp


Kinetic Projects – Motor Boats



Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

July 14, 2018 at 5:27 pm

Show Learners the Possibilities . . . And Then Get Out of the Way

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We are living in an age of advanced user-driven technologies, information abundance, and networked, participatory learning. It should logically follow, then, that education should take advantage of these amazing developments. As many of us in education know, it has not. This theme has permeated many of my blog posts:

Moving from Education 1.0 Through Education 2.0 Towards Education 3.0

The evolution of the web from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and now to Web 3.0 can be used a metaphor of how education should also be moving, developing, and evolving from Education 1.0 towards that of an Education 3.0. The Internet has become an integral thread of the tapestries of most societies throughout the globe. The web influences people’s way of thinking, doing and being; and people influence the development and content of the web. The Internet of today has become a huge picture window and portal into human perceptions, thinking, and behavior. Logically, then, we would expect that schools would follow suit in matching what is happening via the Internet to assist children and youth to function, learn, work, and play in a healthy, interactive, and pro-social manner in their societies-at-large. This, sadly, is more often than not the case. Many educators are doing Education 1.0; talking about doing Education 2.0; when they should be planning and implementing Education 3.0

Learner Agency, Technology, and Emotional Intelligence

The notion of agency as contributing to cognitive processes involved in learning comes primarily from the Piagetian notion of constructivism where knowledge is seen as “constructed” through a process of taking actions in one’s environment and making adjustments to existing knowledge structures based on the outcome of those actions. The implication is that the most transformative learning experiences will be those that are directed by the learner’s own endeavors and curiosities. (Lindgren & McDaniel, 2012)

All of this is fresh in my mind as I just completed four weeks of summer camp teaching maker education and photo-video apps to 5 to 10 year olds. This teaching experience reinforced for me that educators can be tour guides of learning possibilities; showing learners the possibilities, then getting out of the way.

Facilitating the Process

The following section describes some of the conditions in the learning environment that support the educator as being the tour guide of learning possibilities and then handing over the responsibility for learning to the learners. Educators still take on a very active role in the learning environment, but learning is driven by the actions of the learners not those of the educator.

Expectations for Self-Directed Learning

In a learning environment that stresses self-directed learning, the educator conveys the attitude that learners are capable of being masters of their own learning.

In its broadest meaning, ’self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18)

In line with showing learners the possibilities and getting out of the way, the educator needs to take a back seat role in the learning process. Learners may not, often will not, do things the way the educator might, but the educator respects and supports this process in a self-determined learning environment.

Educator as an Observer

If educators want to know how learners learn, then they need to observe them learning under their on terms, with tools and techniques they use naturally.  Too often adults assume they know how children and young people learn, and too often they do not especially in this new age of learning. The educator in the role of tour guide of learning possibilities first, observes to discover each learner’s unique way of interacting with the world, and second, based on these observations, suggests or offers resources and strategies to further each learner’s self-directed learning process.

Educator as a Resource

The educator as a resource means that the educator becomes a coach or a mentor. Educators are the adult experts in the room. Learners will often go to the educator for assistance especially when stuck on a problem or to get feedback.

The best coaches encourage young people to work hard, keep going when it would be easier to stop, risk making potentially painful errors, try again when they stumble, and learn to love [their learning] (One to Grow On / Every Teacher a Coach).

The educator as a resource implies that the s/he has multiple skill sets: expertise in the process of learning and expertise in how to navigate online environments along with the ability to mentor learners using these skill sets.

Educator as a Demonstrator of Technologies

A subtitle of this section is It Really Is About the Technology . . .  Sort of.  In order for learner agency and self-directed learning to occur, educators need to keep abreast of current and emerging technologies. There is an assumption that young people are digitally savvy and know how to use emerging technology.

The widely-held assumption that all young people are digitally literate and able to navigate the internet meaningfully is inaccurate. This is something we urgently need to address if we are to support young people to cope with – and contribute to – a complex, global and digital society (New report challenges the assumption that all young people are digitally savvy).

“If educators are serious about preparing learners for their real lives – current and future, then it becomes an ethical imperative to bring relevant, current, and emerging technologies into the learning environment (It really is about the technology and . . .).  This translates into showing learners the possibilities of technology and internet use for learning so the learners can then bring this knowledge into their own learning journeys.

Learning is Viewed as Natural, Fun, Playful, and Joyful

It has been said that learning is painful. I take issue with that phrase. When learning occurs in settings and with processes selected by the learner, it is natural, fun, playful, and joyful. Sure, there are struggles as new learning develops, but it becomes a natural, accepted part of the process.

The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, and “aha” moments of insight and creative innovation are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of what Alfie Kohn calls exuberant discovery, where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.  Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen — literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research (The Neuroscience Behind Stress and Learning).

Climate of Free Range and Constructivist Learning

The learning environment in a setting embracing self-directed learning takes on the characteristics of free range learning resulting in learners constructing their own meanings from their learning endeavors.

Free Range Learning is learning by living. It is learning by following our passions, exploring our world, living inquisitive lives and thinking freely. It is a lifestyle based on trust of a child’s natural desire to learn about the world around them. Every person’s learning journey will develop based upon their interests, experiences and choices (What is Free Range Learning?).

Free range learning is often associated with unschooling or homeschooling but it is intimately related to self-directed learning; and its tenets can be brought into in a more formal learning environment. The result is an honoring of contructivist learning “which holds that learners ultimately construct their own knowledge that then resides within them, so that each person’s knowledge is as unique as they are” (Learning Theories and Transfer of Learning).

Open to Emergent Learning and Learning Possibilities

Emergent learning is unpredictable but retrospectively coherent, we cannot determine in advance what will happen, but we can make sense of it after the event. It’s not disordered; the order is just not predictable (Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0).

Ambiguity is accepted. The educator lets go of what types of learning and products should result. By letting go of expectations “what should be”, there is an opening up to all kinds of emergent learning possibilities.

With an openness to emergent learning and learning possibilities, there is an acceptance that learning is messy:

Learning is often a messy business.   “Messy” learning is part trial and error, part waiting and waiting for something to happen, part excitement in discovery, part trying things in a very controlled, very step by step fashion, part trying anything you can think of no matter how preposterous it might seem, part excruciating frustration and part the most fun you’ll ever have. Time can seem to stand still – or seem to go by in a flash. It is not unusual at all for messy learning to be …um …messy! But the best part of messy learning is that besides staining your clothes, or the carpet, or the classroom sink in ways that are very difficult to get out … it is also difficult to get out of your memory! (

. . . and a trusting of the process and embracing the journey:

I have learned that if you give freedom and trust to students, they will find their own way to the learning that matters the most. Playing it safe is not going to yield the opportunities that will make a difference. Off-script is when you don’t quite know where you are going, but you have the courage to commit to the journey knowing that it is the process itself that will hold the worth (Speculative Design for Emergent Learning: Taking Risks).

Use of Open Technology and Resources

In this age of information and technology abundance, free online technologies and resources are just ripe for the picking. An advantage of open educational resources is “expanded access to learning. Students anywhere in the world can access OERs at any time, and they can access the material repeatedly(Pros and Cons of Using OERs for Instruction). These resources leverage the playing field. They are available to all learners regardless of geographic location and SES level (although access to the Internet is required). This translates in the availability of high quality tools and resources outside of the more formal educational setting. Learners can access them in informal learning environments such as at home or local coffee shops and/or via their mobile devices in order to continue and extend their self-directed learning.

How the Learners’ Benefit

I often say that all learning activities should have multiple and layered benefits – addressing cross-curricular, cross-interdisciplinary areas as well as developing life skills. Here are some of the benefits along with example learner self-statements associated with those benefits that I have observed as a tour guide of learning possibilities:

  • Technology Skills: I can use technology to help me learn.
  • Creativity and Inventiveness: I can create new & worthwhile ideas & things.
  • Risk-Taking: I am willing to try new things when I am learning.
  • Academic Mindset: I am a good and powerful learner.
  • Communication: I can communicate clearly both verbally & in writing.
  • Curiosity and a Sense of Wonder: I wonder about the world around me.
  • Connected Learning: I can network with others to help with my learning.
  • Self-Directed Learning: I know how to learn new things on my own.
  • Self-Motivation: I can motivate myself to learn new things.

Educators as Tour Guides of Learning Possibilities

An Education Filled with Wonder

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I started my journey as an educator as an outdoor educator.  One of the first books I was asked to read was Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder.  Some quotes from this book that should (hopefully) resonate deeply with educators include:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.

A current focus of Michael Wesch, the renown professor from Kansas State University, is The End of Wonder in the Age of Whatever:

What is needed more than ever is to inspire our students to wonder, to nurture their appetite for curiosity, exploration, and contemplation, to help them attain an insatiable appetite to ask and pursue big, authentic, and relevant questions, so that they can harness and leverage the bounty of possibility all around us and rediscover the “end” or purpose of wonder, and stave off the historical end of wonder.

Here is clip from a keynote about this topic:

The story in his video reminded me of a day I was substituting for a 2nd grade class.  It had begun to snow as we arrived to school that morning.  By mid-morning, a few inches covered the ground.  It was time for recess but, as expected, a voice came over the intercom to state that recess would be inside within each teacher’s classroom.  I heard the kids moan as they came to school dressed for snow with boots and winter jackets.  I threw caution into the wind.  I asked the kids to bundle up so we could go outside.  The kids became . . . well, kids.  They ran through the fresh snow looking back at the footprints they created.  When one found something of interest, they called the others over to see.  They caught snow flakes with their tongues and made snow angles in the snow.  There were no conflicts nor arguing as was common to this group of kids.  They just ran, played, and laughed together as a unified group reminding me of a flock of geese.  I watched them with a tear in my eye, one that reflected the beauty I was witnessing.  We all experienced a sense of wonder and play that day.

Wonder can’t be planned nor scripted.  Wonder rarely occurs as educators plow through pre-established, scripted curriculum, worksheets, and test preparation.  I want to create the conditions for my students of all ages to have their eyes opened with and to wonder; their mouths open to say “wow”, and their hearts open to say this feels so very good.


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

February 6, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Dream-Driven Education

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Seth Godin in Stop Stealing Dreams states:

Have we created a trillion-dollar, multimillion-student, sixteen-year schooling cycle to take our best and our brightest and snuff out their dreams—sometimes when they’re so nascent that they haven’t even been articulated? Is the product of our massive schooling industry an endless legion of assistants? The century of dream-snuffing has to end. The real shortage we face is dreams, and the wherewithal and the will to make them come true. We’re facing a significant emergency, one that’s not just economic but cultural as well. The time to act is right now, and the person to do it is you.

We can teach them not to care; that’s pretty easy. But given the massive technological and economic changes we’re living through, do we have the opportunity to teach productive and effective caring? Can we teach kids to care enough about their dreams that they’ll care enough to develop the judgment, skill, and attitude to make them come true? (

I propose that educators take a proactive stance to move from a system that may steal kids’ dreams to one that promotes the actualization of learner dreams. I have a dream today and everyday that education can become a conduit through which learners are provided with the time, knowledge, strategies, and tools to make their own dreams come true.   We are living in an era that education can be passion-based and dream-driven.  In this context, the role of the educator becomes that of dream-facilitator.

The dreams we need are self-reliant dreams. We need dreams based not on what is but on what might be. We need students who can learn how to learn, who can discover how to push themselves and are generous enough and honest enough to engage with the outside world to make those dreams happen. (

One of the first tasks of the educator as a dream-facilitator is to discover and help his/her learners discover their dreams, passions, and interests.  Some guiding questions to help learners identify and articulate their dreams include:

  • Given no restrictions, what would you like to do in your spare time?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and be or do anything you want, what would it be?
  • In one year from now, 10 years from now, what would you like to be doing that would make you happy?
  • What would your life be like if it were perfect?

Learners can be provided with a choice with how they answer theses questions: verbal or written responses, video or audio recording, or a drawing.  An extension of this activity might be asking learners to create a vision board (see Vision Boards for Kids and Visions & Values for Kids).  Technology could be used for this process by giving students the opportunity to create a Glog or an Animoto of images that symbolizes their dreams.

Support systems or personal learning networks could then be established based on grouping learners with similar dreams.  The group would act as cheerleaders, support-providers, progress-checkers, and resource providers for one another.   One of the group’s learning activities could focus on expanding their personal learning networks to include folks with similar dreams who they locate via social networks like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and other social networks.

Dreams will only come try if actions are taken to achieve them.  As such, the educator should facilitate a method for learners to reflect on progress towards their dreams.

  • What did you do today, this week to achieve your dreams?
  • What obstacles are you having or foresee having in progress towards your dream?  How can you overcome your obstacles?
  • What resources did you locate that can help you fulfill your dreams?

Blogging or micro-blogging (e.g. Twitter) could be used for this reflective process.

My parting shot to my pre-service teachers as they enter the world of teaching is to always remember why they became teachers in the first place.  I encourage them to ask themselves each day of teaching, “What did I do today to leave a positive legacy for and with my learners?” I propose that all educators should regularly ask themselves this question.  I believe that by facilitating dream-driven education, they will have a positive response to this question.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

February 4, 2013 at 2:05 am

User-Generated Education: Student-Centric Education? Flipped Classroom? Google 20% Day?

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I am in the process of designing and teaching a graduate course on Social Networked Learning.  For the third module, the educators in the course are to go out and seek their own professional development opportunities based on their own grade level and content area interests.

This prompted me to revisit my ideas surrounding user-generated education – the inspiration for and title of this blog.  A few years ago, I facilitated a conversation about user-generated education for EduCon.   It was fueled by the idea that this era of learning in the 21st century should be student-centric and user-generated.  An extensive list of videos, articles, and text resources on this topic can be found at

This Educon conversation originated from my confusion as to why public school education is still be driven by educational essentialism when knowledge is in abundance via the Internet and when educators are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge.  Mimi Ito and others have described, in their research, how young people are getting online to connect and find others with similar interests, how they seem to be learning more in their informal learning environments than in their more formal school environments.

The urgent need to reimagine education grows clearer by the day. Research has shown that too many students are disengaged and alienated from school, and see little or no purpose to their education. Business leaders say there is a widening gap between the skills of the workforce and the needs of businesses seeking competitive advantage. Additionally, technology and the networked era threatens to stretch the already-wide equity gap in education unless there is decisive intervention and a strong public agenda (

The major purpose of school, most would agree, is to learn.  As such and given the rich array of resources available via networked learning, the time is ripe for a student-centric, progressive education.  Some educators have proposed addressing this gap with Google 20% Projects and FedEx Days at school.  But school is not/should not be work (aka employment). The Google Rule should be turned on its head with 80% of the time students pursuing their own interests and passions with educators acting in the role of mentors, facilitators and coaches.  20% of the other time could be spent engaging in a liberal arts education.

Given this 80% time to pursue their passions, learners could have the opportunity to become experts in their areas of interests/fields; finding resources, web links, and videos; remixing and mashing them up to gain a personal and deep meaning; and then sharing their resources, findings, and projects with their classmates.  So many “needs” would be met . . .

  1. Students would learn the process of how to learn, how to find reputable resources, how to report their findings.
  2. Students would find their tribes.
  3. Students in their face-to-face learning environments would learn about the diversity of other student interests, possibly finding new passions and interests in the process.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 8, 2012 at 1:10 am

PBL: Project, Passion, Play Based Learning

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Effective and progressive educators understand and attempt to implement PBL strategies and practices within their learning settings.  What is PBL?  Project-Based Learning? Passion-Based Learning?  Play-Based Learning?  I contend that education, not necessarily schooling, when done “right” is all of these.  How can project-based learning not include elements of passion and play?  Doesn’t play connect one to his or her passions?  Shouldn’t passion-based learning include the development of playful projects?

Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom. (

Here is a curated Scoop.It of Project-Based Learning Resources:

Passion-Based Learning

Today knowledge is everywhere – it’s easily accessible. With a couple clicks of the button, I can find content beyond my ability to absorb it in a lifetime. As a young person today, I can learn anything I want to learn at any time I want to learn it. Therefore, instead of focusing so much of our effort on the content, we really need to focus on helping them learn. We must help students understand how to synthesize and analyze and to create – to think deeply and become passionate learners.

And it’s going to be a different way of thinking when I put the learner first. Instead of me having all these preconceived ideas of what they should doing, saying and producing, I have to be open to what I find in each student. I have to discover – and help each student discover – their talents and interests and create a learning environment where they can use those gifts and passions to learn from a position of strength. Passion-based learning in the 21st century: An interview with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

Some resources and blog posts about Passion-Based Learning:

Play-Based Learning

The beauty of a play-based curriculum is that very young children can routinely observe and learn from others’ emotions and experiences. Through play, children learn to take turns, delay gratification, negotiate conflicts, solve problems, share goals, acquire flexibility, and live with disappointment. By allowing children to imagine walking in another person’s shoes, imaginative play also seeds the development of empathy, a key ingredient for intellectual and social-emotional success. from CNN’s Want to get your kids into college? Let them play

Play and its related benefits are not just for children. Stuart Brown discusses Why Play is Important, No Matter Your Age is his TED talk.


Caine and his Arcade have been given a lot of attention and press lately.  Rightfully so.  It is a great example of PBL – Project, Passion, Play Based Learning.  I discuss it in more depth in 9 Year Old Boy’s Arcade Creation: An Example of Passion-Based Learning.

Integrating projects, passions, and play into education in this era of learning has become a moral imperative, in my perspective.  We often ask students to spend 8 or more hours of their day in the pursuit of education.  Through my experiences as a student, I feel that the education system stole time in my life making me do things for which I had no interest, desire, nor use.  As such, I am in a lifelong quest not to do the same to the children who are participating in our current systems.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

May 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Traditional Education is the Ultimate Filter Bubble

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The Filter Bubble warns that a potential downside to filtered searching [learning] is that it “closes us off to new ideas, subjects, and important information”[7] and “creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists.”[1] It is potentially harmful to both individuals and society.

Criticism towards the traditional education model typically revolves around its focus on maintaining an industrial model of education.  I believe that related to this, and possibly even more damaging, is that the traditional model also creates a filter bubble of learning.  Although the filter bubble is used to describe how the Internet algorithms are limiting searches to personal and confined interests, these ideas can also be used to describe traditional education.  Some of the characteristics of traditional education as a filter bubble include:

  • Students are grouped by age and typically similar cultural demographics as they are from the same neighborhoods.
  • Students are told what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it.
  • The topics to be covered, standards to be achieved, and curriculum to learn are mostly determined by the government.
  • Textbooks and testing instruments are written by a few individuals who decide what is important to learn and know.
  • Corporations decide which textbooks and testing instruments to highlight and disseminate.
  • Conformity is rewarded, diversity of thoughts and opinions is not.
  • Students who do not fit into the filter bubble are failed, asked to leave the system, or quit.

Illustration by Susan Sanford – see

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Learning Communities: The Future (the Now?) of Education

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I am lucky to have found a great passion in my life (in addition to being an educator) and that is pottery making.  Due to local opportunities, I have mostly worked on my pots in community pottery studios.  The key word is community.  We are more than a group of potters working in the same space or room.  We ask and share information about techniques used to create the pots.  We are a learning community.  What strikes me most about this pottery learning community is its diversity in terms of gender and age range – from mid-teens to late 70’s.  The experts are not necessarily the elders of our group.  The expert is the person who understands and could explain a technique about which another member wants to know.  It is situational expertise.

A useful and descriptive definition of learning communities comes from Etienne Wenger in his discussion of communities of practice:

Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Some of the characteristics of  learning communities include:

  • Self-organizing
  • Not limited by age barriers
  • High levels of interaction, sharing of resources, and collaboration
  • Driven by intrinsic motivation


What happens when groups of people gather together to provide mutual support for learning and performance? How would that work? Rather than being controlled by a teacher, learners might “self-organize” into functioning communities with a general goal of supporting each other in their learning. That is to say, the function of guidance and control becomes distributed among group participants. Specific roles of group members are not assigned but rather emerge from the interaction of the whole.

Not Bounded By Age Level

Grouping students by age and advancing them in lock step is an artifact of the agrarian calendar and factory model of schooling that emerged in the late 19th century. That it is still with us is a commentary on just how conservative schooling is.  As every parent and teacher knows, children’s developmental trajectories vary widely, and the notion of grouping children by age is a convention without meaning.

Currently, our society is mostly marked by age segregation –  both imposed (in school) and self-selected (through leisure time pursuits). A major advantage of learning communities driven-by-interest is that members of all ages choose to join.  Young people learn from the life experiences of elders,  Elders learn to view things from the fresh eyes and often idealist thinking of young people.  Online learning communities organized through Facebook, forums, and massively multiplayer online game have dramatically increased these mixed age groupings.

High Levels of Interaction, Sharing of Resources, and Collaboration

The ultimate payoff for involvement in a learning community is developing more expertise in one’s area of interest.  As such, there tends to be an ease of sharing knowledge, information, and resources.  A simple example is when a request for information is broadcasted on Twitter or Facebook with the result often being a poring in of information to address this request.  This is why I believe concepts-areas such as crowdsourcing and the open education movement have become so popular.

Intrinsic Motivation

As stated, the payoff for being involved in a learning community is increased expertise and skills – and the possibility of leveling up.  Intrinsic motivation as discussed in the context of learning communities can be viewed as the following:

  • Anticipated reciprocity. – A member is motivated to contribute to the community in the expectation that he or she will receive useful help and information in return.
  • Increased recognition –  The desire for prestige is one of the key motivations for individuals’ contributions in a learning community.
  • Sense of efficacy – Individuals may contribute because the act results in a sense that they have had some effect on the community. (Adapted from

Learning networks have always existed with groups of people organizing around their interests and passions within community centers and  clubs focusing on books, games, sports, etc.  How the Internet and Web 2.0 have changed learning communities is through the ability to announce face-to-face meetings and through online forums-networks. As such, one of the greatest gifts we could offer to our learners is how to find, join, and interact with their own personal learning communities – online and face-to-face.

As kids have more connectivity and access to resources than ever, one challenge is to develop new practices and tools to support them in how they choose to manage learning opportunities.

The challenge presented to us (as educators) is to empower them to consistently share those interests and activities that happen elsewhere and that paint a fuller portrait of who they are as learners.

Some resources for assisting students in learning about and developing their own learning communities:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 29, 2011 at 2:54 am

Reading: A Natural Human Phenomenon Given the Right Conditions

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The written word is a fairly new development in human evolution given the history of humankind.  Even so, it has become a common and natural way of communication for a lot of people in our current times.  School curriculum often presents reading and writing as a forced, unnatural skill to be acquired through hard work.

As an elementary student, I was required to do the requisite book reports.  I wasn’t interested in the books I was told to read.  I learned how to creatively tweak the book cover summaries to write these reports – receiving A’s and B’s for books never read.

Fast forward to 9th grade.  I don’t know how but somehow I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and was hooked into reading.  Reading became my survival to my painful and boring high school experiences.  I would bring books of my choosing into class, would hide them in the class textbooks and joyful escape into the worlds of these books.  Without any prompting or direction, I located and read many of the books by the following authors during high school (note the following are direct links to websites dedicated to that author):

Fast forward – today.  We have seen this natural drive to read by this current generation of youth through the Harry Potter and Twilight series.  I recently asked a group of about 25 sixth graders if they liked to read and received a resounding, “No!”  I then asked if they had read Harry Potter and most had.

So I get frustrated when I read about all these formalized and structured ways to teach reading (and have a gut-level, nauseous reaction to discussions around Success For All and Reading First).  I understand that many kids do not have the skills and motivation to independently locate books of personal interest, but I do believe that one of the responsibilities of educators (of all content areas) is to provide learners with reading recommendations.

This past year, I started reading YA  novels, finding them intelligent, engaging, and thought provoking.  I believe if kids are introduced to the choice menu of these and similar books, then kids will become naturally interested in reading.  Some recommendations I would offer (if I was teaching middle or high school) include:

This is just my own list.  Imagine if educators and young adults shared all of their favorite books and discussions about these books became the norm in English classes.

Technology and social networking have the potential to increase interest and engagement in learning.  A few years ago I taught gifted education for elementary students.  Philip, a charismatic and sports-driven young man, said he was not interested in reading because he did not like the books the teachers gave him to read.  I introduced the class to Shelfari.

I don’t know what it was about this Web 2.0 tool but Philip totally took off, becoming motivated to read and add books of his choosing to his Shelfari. These can be viewed at

I am waiting for the day that the guiders and managers of education realize that forced education does not become lifelong learning.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm

More Disruption of Education

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Several posts this month added to the discussion of . . . . and hopefully movement towards – the disruption of institutionalized K-12 and Higher Education.

Disrupting K-12 Education

Standards-Based Accountability’s High Stakes by Ronald A. Wolk was posted in Education Week on 3/7/11.  The first part of the article provides some evidence of the failure of  the goal of the late 20th century to actualize, “All children can learn” (in school).  Wolk goes on to ask “How do we explain that nearly 30 years of unprecedented effort and enormous expenditures has not improved student performance, reduced the dropout rate, or closed the achievement gap?”

More standardization is not what our schools need. As the Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen puts it in his book Disrupting Class, applying his ideas about “disruptive innovation” to education: “If the nation is serious about leaving no child behind, it cannot be done by standardized methods. Today’s system was designed at a time when standardization was seen as a virtue. It is an intricately interdependent system. Only an administrator suffering from virulent masochism would attempt to teach each student in the way his or her brain is wired to learn within this monolithic batch system. Schools need a new system.”

Wolk proposes that disruption of K-12 education can occur through personalized education.  Some of his recommendations include:

  • Schools should be designed around the human scale because students and teachers need to know each other
  • Preschool education would be universal.
  • Beginning in middle school, multiple educational pathways would lead to college and other postsecondary programs to prepare young people for work in a complex and changing world. A student could choose a pathway reflecting his or her interests and aspirations. Each student would play a significant role in designing the curriculum, which would be anchored in the real world, not in the abstractions of most classrooms.
  • There would be no “traditional” core curriculum with typical academic courses and rigid schedules in middle and high school.
  • Teachers would become advisers who guide students in educating themselves. They would tutor students and help them manage their time and energy.
  • Technology would largely replace textbooks and worksheets.
  • Student learning would be assessed on the basis of portfolios, exhibitions, special projects and experiments, and recitals and performances—real accomplishments, not abstract test scores.


Disrupting College

A report was published entitled, Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education (February, 2011) by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Louis Caldera, and Louis Soares.

The propositions of this report revolve around the use of online learning to be the disruptive force in higher education.

This emerging disruptive innovation presents an opportunity to rethink many of the age-old assumptions about higher education—its processes, where it happens, and what its goals are.

But the major recommendations they make for policy makers (and to that I add administrators, board members, faculty, and yes, students as the consumers of higher education) are application to both online and face-to-face institutions of  higher education:

  • Eliminate barriers that block disruptive innovations and partner with the innovators to provide better educational opportunities.
  • Remove barriers that judge institutions based on their inputs such as seat time, credit hours, and student-faculty ratios.
  • Do not focus on degree attainment as the sole measure of success.
  • Fund higher education with the aim of increasing quality and decreasing cost.

An Example Grassroots Effort -An Alternative for Getting a Higher Education

Peer 2 Peer University

The Peer 2 Peer University is a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables high-quality low-cost education opportunities. P2PU – learning for everyone, by everyone about almost anything.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 14, 2011 at 8:06 pm

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