Saturday, June 21, 2014

What Is Learning? The Debate That Should Not Continue

        It seems that our nation, and possibly the world, are in the throws of a debate of what education should look like and ultimately what learning really is.  Granted, change is always difficult.  And although it seems education or learning should always be about change, growth and adaptation, we can also safely say that it’s also about tradition, compliance, control and power.
     In addition to the standard debates about educational reforms, there are two other forces contributing to the newer level of debate.  First, technology has become so dominant and influential in all aspects of the world economically, socially and politically, that education can no longer ignore technology or attempt to work outside of it.  Two, the impact of the changing global economy are finally becoming a reality.  The nature of jobs and employment is dramatically being altered so fast that all educational entities are being forced to reckon with what it all means.
         In an attempt to boil it down, this is a summary of the major divide in education: Does one learn better through a highly structured, top down approach (teacher delivering content or info, students taking notes and ultimately regurgitating the information back on tests, etc.) or by doing real world work (project-based, bottom up, student-directed, etc.)?
           To me, it seems almost tragic that we’re still really struggling with this or having a debate at all.  How complicated can it be?  Haven’t we always known that learning by doing is far superior?  Education researchers have documented over and over that lecture and teacher directed instruction (listening, notes, etc.) is by far the lowest form of learning.  And simultaneously, that learning by doing/student-directed learning (project-based featuring choices, ownerships, etc.) is ultimately closest to the highest form of learning? 
             So, why do we still debate?  Why is our system so slow to change? First, as a student yourself, how did your learn best?  What learning experiences were the most memorable, meaningful and applicable?  My estimation is that most individuals would reflect on their own learning and identify the highest or most valuable forms as ones related to ultimately doing something vs. passively taking something.
 Does the problem come from academia?  Learning at one time was directed and operated by the great thinkers who bestowed their wisdom and knowledge on the masses right?  Indeed, much of our university traditions still come from this where we put hundreds of people in a lecture hall to be enlightened.

What if we ask all of us to reflect on our educations?  For those of us that went to college, what was the real learning that took place?  Wasn’t it when we entered our major and began doing things directly related to our careers? Wasn’t it about of us doing rather than just listening?
Why are electives always so popular and successful? Choice and more learning by doing are typically the answers or rationale.  Science teachers always got it right.  They had labs and hands-on activities.  We’ve had field trips in schools forever because we realized that learning came to life when it was real, hands-on and participatory.
 Most of are familiar with the term On-The-Job Training or OTJ.  And if you ask most professionals about how they learned to perform their jobs or careers, despite their educational level or experience, they will tell you that it was on-the-job.  And most professions have experiences such as internships or externships as well because they know that the real or higher level of learning will take place by doing it in the real world.
Promoting anything but project-based education or learning by doing just doesn’t make sense.  Both experts and lay people, if being truly honest, know the difference and the truth here.  And if it’s so obvious, how could still be debating or resisting universal change?  I hesitate to say, but fear that it’s about tradition, cost, control, ownership and maybe even laziness.  Probably all of these are inexcusable.  Sadly, we have taught one another some bad examples of learning and education and they remain part of our national and personal psyches for some time.   I do see universal change coming and it’s about time.  Real learning is in front of us everyday.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Commitment and Contribution - Two More C's That Need To Be Included

      There are more discussions than ever going on now in our society and culture about what is learning, what is an education and what should students be doing in school.  To me, there is no doubt that the world is demanding different skills, advanced types of thinking and greater levels of performance. 

        I fully support the emphasis on the 21st Century Skills and the Four C’s (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking).  However, I also think that we need to add two more C’s to the list.  They represent skills that have always been relevant, crucial and gauges of success – but are even more pertinent now more than ever.  They are COMMITMENT and CONTRIBUTION.
      As educators and even students reflect during this annual time of year on graduation, completion, renewal, goals, accomplishments, accolades and more, it seems we need to ask one another what was really gained or learned from any educational experience or situation.
      Is it about grades?  Getting all A’s is definitely very different than barely passing with straight D’s.  Presumably, the latter type of student may not have committed or contributed much.  But straight A’s may not be the way to indicate true success either.  We all know plenty of B and C students who have gone on to not only much success, but also who are also committed to what they do and go on to contribute to major changes in the world.  But what seems relevant to both evaluating the past experience, as well as the indication of future success is these ideas of COMMITMENT and CONTRIBUTION.

       As a student, what did one commit to?  In other words, what thing did one devote one’s self to at a high level?  In high school, it can be so many things – such as an athletic team, a performance or visual arts group, FFA, a service organization, a club, a class, a project, etc.  Did a student invest himself or herself into something?  Isn’t this the same basic gauge we use in terms of evaluation relationships and other endeavors?  Did one give themselves 100% or more to anything?  
     It seems that if someone did that, then they are not only successful, but have truly gained something, learned something and experienced something.  This COMMITMENT to something will be an indicator of the future.  Their future endeavors, regardless of if they are related to career, relationships, hobbies, families, organizations, etc., will require high levels of COMMITMENT.  Forget the grades or accolades for a moment.  But did they commit?
    Naturally, we can see where many students commit to many things.  And that’s wonderful. I’m very concerned about students who did not fully commit to something or anything.  Some of them barely slid by with the straight D’s, but some of them might have had great grades – even straight A’s – and not truly committed to something.  Again, did they give 100% or more to something – a team, a competitive group, a cause, a project, an organization or something?  This seems to be an indication again not only of past and future success, but also of real or true learning, experience and life skills.
      The second half of the puzzle is CONTRIBUTION. When you think of attending a school or schools, or any educational institution, one final assessment should be CONTRIBUTION.     

     What did any student contribute collectively to their own education, to the culture and success of their school and to the improvement of their overall community?  In the end, this is how all of us – as we move from students to working professionals – will be judged right? 
Did one just attend school or contribute to it?  Did one simply play or participate on an athletic team, a performing arts group, a competitive squad, etc. or actually contribute to their overall success?  What did the student contribute to their classes and educational culture each and every day?
      In the end, is this not how all of us are judged in our adult professional communities?  Are we viewed as just an employee who comes to work and does just the minimum or are we someone who makes the overall company or organization better and more successful?  And whether we talk about church, volunteer organizations, neighborhoods, special interest groups, political parties, etc., isn’t this the difference?  Do we just attend and participate at a minimum level or are we game changers?  Does our individual presence and work contribute overall to the growth, improvement and success of whatever we’re a part of in any capacity?
      Those are a lot of questions that represent the same overall theme.  The success of our multiple societies and global communities depend on people who do more than just pass through, attend or meet the minimum requirements.  We need those who contribute individually to making the collective thing better.  It’s not about straight A’s or winning awards.  It’s about what do any of us do on a daily basis to contribute to the success of what we all belong to collectively.  Our individual contributions to the various collective successes will be what define success.  Who will be promoted, have more opportunities and ultimately enjoy more success?  It will be those who contribute – or invest themselves – to whatever teams, groups or organizations they are a part of that will feel the power of success.
      As we celebrate graduations and moving from one level to another, let’s think about these two other C’s – COMMITMENT and CONTRIBUTION.  In the end, they will help define and shape the evaluation of any learning experience, as well as indicate the future success.  Thank you to those of you who are committed to what you do and contribute regularly to making all you do better.  Above grades, awards and more, these are what define real learning and true success.

(images courtesy of shutterstock and uscrossieronline)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Endings & Beginnings Force Reflection, Higher Levels of Learning

                 With the time of graduations and school-year endings upon us, we are often found in a state of reflection.  Whether it’s educators completing another exhausting and challenging year - or students moving on to new levels of education or new chapters in their lives – this time of year will often lead to us to see what we’ve done and we’re going to do.  This is reflection and this is real learning at a high level.

            Famous thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato and Confucius all communicated about the value of reflection in learning.  Early education researcher John Dewey wrote about the value of reflection in learning often and thought of reflection as the beginning of all problem solving, higher level thinking and more.  Bloom’s Taxonomy addresses reflection throughout and education writer and researcher Don Clark breaks down reflection as it applies to students, teachers, etc. (
            In lay terms, how does reflection relate to actual learning?  Ultimately, it requires us to review our learning experiences, as well as evaluate our learning goals.  Learning by nature is an individual experience that is a living, breathing thing.  Reflecting on how we have arrived where we are - and what we can do to arrive where we want to go - can only maximize this learning.
            Teachers and all professionals who are interested in continual improvement do this inherently.  Individuals and organizations are all constantly assessing their past successes and failures and seeing how they can learn from them going forward.  This effort for continual improvement requires continual reflection.

            Once students are practicing reflection, their overall critical thinking increases. They are analyzing and evaluating their own learning experiences and how they improve, set new goals and articulate their strengths/weaknesses.  This is real learning and at a high level.
            How does this apply to school?  Well, this is where a comprehensive exam falls short.  It only assesses specific content, not experiences, skills, thinking or more.  Only by moving to more performance-based assessments and more portfolio-based student project development, can students reflect about what they have learned and what they still want to learning.  The latter requires more personal investment and ownerships vs. the former.
            I am fortunate to work at a project-based school where all of our students are required to present a year-end portfolio of their work and professional persona called the Personal Brand Equity.  This portfolio presentation not only requires them to analyze and assess their learning and best work in their academic and elective courses, but also do the same for them as a growing and ever-improving individual.  It requires them to identify what they are known for professionally and passionately, as well as to where they are going (goal-setting).  See a sample of a 10th grade Personal Brand Equity presentation template: (

            All schoolwork needs to build in the reflective process.  Writing can never really improve unless the writer reflects right?  This can be applied to all school projects and assignments.  Students not only need to understand why they are doing something (relevance), but also what they learned and how can it be applied in the future (reflection).
            Whether a student is graduating high school to higher ed. or from higher ed. to career, reflection will be the powerful tool that allows their individual learning experience and success to exist, as well as expand.  Even as we move students from one grade level to the next, we should begin teaching them the power of reflection.  If we do, we will move one step closer to creating self-realized, self-guided learners in charge of their own learning experiences and destiny.