Category Archives: learning

Meandering Learning is Anti-American

James Paul Gee in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy goes into great detail explaining how video games have built into them ways to force players to explore their surroundings. He uses Metal Gear Solid games as an example that if you try to directly attack your enemy you will quickly die. The game forces you to be sneaky and to explore side passages where you discover hidden objects that help you in the game.

Gee then compares this style to his preferred learning style stating his cultural biases that were challenged as the following statements:

The final goal is important, defines the learning, and good learners move toward it without being distracted by other things’ and ‘Good learners move quickly and efficiently toward their goal.’ I also hold other models: ‘there is one right way to get to the goal that the good learners discover (and the rest of us usually don’t)’ and ‘Learning is a matter of some people being better or worse than others, and this is important.’ (173)
…For one last example, I held a model like: ‘When faced with a problem to solved, good learners solve it quickly, the first time they try or soon thereafter. If you have to try over and over again, this is a sign that you are not very good at what you are attempting to learn.” (p.174)

A straight path is not always the best. Photo by chasingtheflow

Video games usually punish rather than reward this kind of learning, encouraging players to explore and discover how to solve problems through trial and error. His statements echo the way that most teachers and schools work. Standards based grading helps with some of these by allowing students to re-assess and learn at different paces.  PBL also gives students some freedom to explore the curriculum in non-linear fashion according to their interests. I like to go on “rabbit trails” when students are engaged in fascinating questions that may or may not be directly related to the standards. But as a teacher I still feel myself driven by making sure students meet the standards (efficiently) and rushed by the amount of curriculum we are supposed to learn (quickly). So much of American culture is built around speed and efficiency that schools fall prey to this same thinking.

So how do you build into your class ways for students to “meander” as they think their ways through problem-solving? How do we fight the culture that says “faster is better or smarter” and focus on deeper, non-linear learning?

PS: And this is one of my major problems with the Common Core. Standardization leads to vanilla classes inevitably preparing for “the test” leaving no time for authentic meandering.

"Science is dangerous…"

“Besides, we have our stability to think of. We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability. That’s another reason why we’re so chary of applying new inventions. Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy. Yes, even science… Science is dangerous; we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled…

I was a pretty good physicist in my time. Too good–good enough to realize that all our science is just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody’s allowed to question, and a list of recipes that mustn’t be added to except by special permission from the head cook…I started doing a bit of cooking on my own. Unorthodox cooking, illicit cooking. A bit of real science, in fact. …

‘What happened?’ asked Helmholtz Watson.

‘I was on the point of being sent to an island.’ Mustapha Mond”

 p. 225-226 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

Old quote (1932) but pretty telling of the state of not only science, but all learning in most schools today.


Still thinking about passion as a major part of student learning. I have a lot of rambling thoughts in my brain right now and this is my attempt to organize them a bit so help me out where it does not make sense.
One thing that has me thinking about passion is the path of my life-long learning. I was an excellent student and great at “playing the game” of school. I knew how to listen, read, take notes, and pass tests. I was also convinced at the time that I was “smarter” than most people. This was a major part of my adolescent identity. I now look back and see that I was just better at playing the game than others, and lacked many problem-solving skills.

By Robert Hruzek

After I returned to the US from teaching English in China, I started working for the largest commercial concrete construction company in our area. My skill level was mostly as a laborer in residential concrete. I had a foreman who became my mentor and trained me to be a legitimate concrete finisher. After that I watched others being trained. The difference I saw between myself and some of them was that I did not naturally figure out how to finish concrete. I needed to be taught directly just like in school. I saw other guys who experimented and figured it out on their own. I began to recognize a skill set that they had toward problem-solving that I lacked. It was a standing joke that I asked questions about everything, especially “why.” But eventually I became an expert at knowing what to do after I understood the reasoning behind things.

The other thing I have been thinking about are my “strengths” and “weaknesses.” In school, I was a math/science kid. I hated English (writing) and thought history was a waste of time. In college I had to take one philosophy class and saved it for my senior year because I knew I would hate something so impractical. When I finally took philosophy I loved the class and wished I had minored in it. I decided to become a teacher when I returned from China. I loved learning about the culture and history of China so I majored in history. This year on the National Day of Writing I wrote for “fun” for the first time in my life by my own choice.

So I would have never chosen philosophy as a passion until I experienced an actual class in it. I don’t think I would have ever chosen writing or history in high school either. I needed to mature and have more life experiences for when I was ready to learn these topics.

Maybe the key is I know how to learn and how to access learning. I can now learn anything that I want to because the tools are easily accessible. Maybe the key to schools should be teaching how to learn and exposing kids to as many learning opportunities as possible and let them run with the ones that are most interesting to them at the time and trust the future for them to learn about the “standards” that they might miss while they are pursuing their passions.

Art Prize

Today my family visited the second annual Art Prize, a huge art competition displayed all over Grand Rapids. The art is displayed both inside and outside of buildings all around downtown and anyone who registers can vote for their favorite pieces, American Idol style. There were many incredibly creative pieces and it was a lot of fun to explore and find them. Some of my kids’ favorites were the interactive ones that they could touch such as this sweet harp that “plays” based on sonar detection of sound waves or one of the many pianos randomly placed around the city.

We started the day parked in front of the Waters Building, a historic spot downtown. We arrived before the “official” start of Art Prize and wandered off to look at some of the outdoor exhibits. At the end of our day when we returned to our van there was a sign indicating that there were art entries inside. We went in and looked at the exhibits. Many were in small rooms off from a main hallway. We found this exhibit of hundreds of ceramic pieces that look like shells on a wood floor.

 My son immediately joined some other kids who were playing with the “rocks.”

My daughter made her name with them, but my son started sorting out by color into ones that he liked the best.

I couldn’t help but think about learning. I didn’t have to tell my kids, “Go play with this art.” I did not have to give them any instructions. They automatically started doing learning on their own. It is human nature to perform math-sort and organize- and to be creative and spell.

What if we used kids curiosity more in schools? I have been practicing spelling words with my son for two weeks. He does not like it and I think I hate it even more. What if I gave him a bunch of objects and had him “spell” his words? Would he “learn” them faster and better?

What if social studies showed a students a tool like How Big Really? and let students explore landmarks? Would students learn geography better? Would it lead to questions such as why was the Great Wall of China built?

What if history class started with today and went backwards? What if class started with current events and then would students ask how things got they way they are today?

I love the science class that I have with my son whether it is building a raft , walking in the woods, or picking vegetables from our garden. Science teachers who throw away the scripted labs “get” what learning looks like.

What if we skyped with students from other countries and then we taught students how to write letters? What if we studied the world’s problems and used that knowledge for social action?

What if math “happened” when students needed it to solve one of the many questions these explorations would lead to?

What if Language Arts was sharing all of these amazing experiences with the world through writing, blogging, videos, and podcasts?

We don’t need to teach students to be creative artists. We need to get out of the way and let them be artists!

I really think the “unschooling” movement has some very valid points of letting students play and learn at their own pace and in their own way. Maybe the definition of a teacher should be someone who creates wonderful learning opportunities and environments (read not scripted!) and lets kids decide what to learn in them.
I think one of the major problems with education today is that we do not trust students to learn. We then feel the need to control, force, and coerce them to “learn” what who knows who from who knows where decided are the “standards” for grade X.

We are learning, not technology, experts

I heard a tweet about how many teachers have never heard the names of the “technology experts” in education. I echo this sentiment and believe it is a real and huge problem. I believe it is a problem of labels and how technology leaders are promoted. Before my “conversion” starting in December of last year I had never heard of any of the edu-bloggers and twitter people that I follow, and I am a technology teacher! In order to see the large scale changes in our public schools we need to reach the masses of general education teachers and administrators.

The first “name” I learned was David Warlick through my “23 Things” class. I found other leaders by reading the blogs of Will Richardson, Wesley Fryer, Shelly Blake-Plock (TeachPaperless), Alan Levine, and Vickie Davis. I set up class and student blogs with the patient help of Sue Waters. I went to MACUL conference and heard Alan November, Steve Dembo, and Leslie Fisher speak. I had no idea who they were when I got there. I signed up to help mentor a pre-service teacher in Dean Shareski‘s class even though I had no idea who he was. I keep learning about and meeting through twitter many teachers and education leaders. My blogroll keeps growing as I learn from so many of these great teachers and thinkers.

Now back to the problem of labels. These people present at conferences and workshops all over the country and world. Technology education has an image problem represented in its semantics. I have read arguments about our terminology: Web 2.0, 21st century learning, social media, etc. Some want to ban them; some want to make new terms; others try to define them more clearly; I agree with those that have argued that this pleura of terms that technology leaders can not even agree on just confuses the average teacher who is being introduced to technology integration.

Unfortunately many teachers are not active learners and can easily use the excuses that they are too busy or not good at technology to keep from integrating technology into their teaching. The confusing technology terminology is another easy excuse for them to ignore new strategies of learning and teaching. They can just claim “I don’t teach a computer class.”

The other image problem is how we compartmentalize and divide classes: core vs. electives. Of course, there have been schools that integrate subjects, but most schools and teachers are still segregated by subject. Our school used to have teaming, but that ended years ago because of the budget. The biggest problem is classes like mine: Technology class. We are telling students, parents, and teachers that technology is something separate from math, science, social studies, and language arts. A more holistic approach would encourage computers and technology use in every class. That is the way technology is used in the real world: integrated.

Now for the kicker: I think we need to re-term our ideas from educational technology to best practices in learning. I do not have a fancy name for it. What I mean is that the technology experts that I have mentioned among many others, need to be seen by administrators and teachers as the experts on the best practices in learning instead of as technology experts. They need to present more at general ed. conferences, math, science, social studies, reading, writing, and special education conferences. Maybe they should be on shows like Oprah and the Today Show like Alfie Kohn. By focusing their time and attention on technology educators they are narrowing their audience when every teacher should adapt the best practices that they are demonstrating. Their philosophies of education should be taught to pre-service teachers not as a separate class but in the best practices and philosophy of ed. classes.

This in my opinion is the way to reach the masses (of teachers and administrators). Integration of technology is the key-at the classroom level within subjects and by our”big name” leaders being viewed as “learning” experts instead of technology experts.