Theory and Practice

Learning by Design

We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. – Jim Collins

Coffee Shops are Better Than Classrooms by Andrew Campbell (Looking Up: A “Professional” Blog, November 14, 2014)

This post starts by profiling author J.K. Rowling and her penchant for writing in coffee houses. Rowling finds that these locations allow her to see where her writing takes her, without constraints. Campbell identifies the many benefits of this type of environment (connected, comfortable, choice, space, music) that could be applied to schools. He describes classrooms of the past as “a cross between a hospital operating theatre and a Viking longboat”. Campbell, a 5th grade teacher and writer, helps the reader recognize that the modern classroom has changed drastically, and encourages educators to follow suit by developing learning environments where students can “learn how to think creatively and solve problems innovatively”.

Less Teaching and More Feedback? by Grant Wiggins (ASCD Inservice Blog, August 27, 2012)

Highly respected educator Grant Wiggins had an epiphany while playing Tetris on his iPad while waiting for his plane to arrive at an airport. “You don’t need any teaching. You only need a good feedback system.” Wiggins expands on this provocative statement by acknowledging that a key to student learning is “good design”, where “direct instruction is mimimized”. He concludes this brief post by stating that “formal teaching plays a minor role” in a classroom that prepares with both the student and the essential learning in mind. (Note: The title for this post is a take on Grant Wiggin’s and Jay McTighe’s seminal resource Understanding by Design.)

Gulf Shores Elementary: Empowering Teachers and Students Through Project Learning by John Norton (Alabama Best Practices Center Blog, June 4, 2014)

An elementary principal, Julie Pierce, is profiled in this post about her school’s learning journey as they implement project-based learning (PBL) at the upper elementary grades. This rethinking of the school’s current literacy and content curriculum was initiatied by the teachers themselves. The staff were the “experts who happened to be teachers”, attending PBL trainings and advocating for more authentic learning experiences in their classrooms. Pierce readily admits that she had reservations about this change, especially when test scores reflected an implementation dip. But she showed trust in her teachers, and soon enough observed classrooms that developed “exploratory learning experiences” which “helped children become deep thinkers and problem-solvers”. (Disclosure: John Norton is the editor of my first book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment)

Blogging in a Primary Classroom – With Only One iPad! by Kathy Cassidy (Primary Preoccupation, November 11, 2014)

This 1st grade teacher highlights a new app that allows students to more easily post on their blogs. Her purpose in sharing is to show how simple it is for students to share their learning with a broader and authentic audience. Easy Blog Jr. and Easy Blogger Jr. give learners a more streamlined way of sharing their writing online. Cassidy offers several screenshots of how this app works. The multiple benefits featured about this technology appear to make it a worthy purchase.

Tapping Technology’s Potential to Motivate Readers by Kristin Conradi (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014)

The author starts this article by noting that technology is not the answer to what may ail education, while still acknowledging how the digital world can augment and even redefine student learning. Conradi outlines a number of steps in integrating these new tools into classrooms. She starts by suggesting teachers “figure out precisely what motivates different invididuals”, followed by determining the type of motivation that students need, differentiating between “self-concept and attitude”. Conradi documents the decline in student motivation for reading as they progress through the middle grades. To remedy this, she recognizes how the social aspect of technology can provide for “opportunities for discussion and collaboration” among older readers. In addition, allowing students “the possibility of shared written, multimedia products with a global audience” can provide learners with “purposeful opportunities to engage with literacy”.

Finding the nexus…

Last year, one of our teachers and I facilitated an after school computer club for students. Our question: If we gave students access to technology, would learning naturally occur? The inquiry was not resolved with a simple yes or no answer. Yes, students enjoyed using apps such as Minecraft to create complex worlds, as well as to work with others in developing their creations. Just as frequently, kids would struggle to follow the ground rules for these online interactions. One way the teacher and I resolved these conflicts was by removing the technology and replacing it with Lego Mindstorms, as you see in the above photo.

While our action research might seem haphazard at first glance, we did have a plan in mind. We were looking for various levels of engagement, what work students produced, and the type of collaboration that would occur in digital environments such as Minecraft. That it did not go as well as anticipated, and how well students transitioned away from the technology-reduced learning environments, should be celebrated. This example may be what all the above examples have in common: Educators who put more time into preparing for powerful learning and students’ needs, and how this compares with simply putting in the requisite amount of effort and energy to plan for just-good-enough instruction.

Whether it is recreating a classroom to make it more like a coffee shop, or implementing project-based learning, it is the design that determines learning environments and allows teachers to teach. When these factors are considered prior to instruction, teachers have access to more teachable moments because students are more likely to be engaged in deeper learning. It allows the teacher to provide more feedback to students, instead of being sequestered to the front of the room. Having access to technology, whether as readers or writers, demands similar amounts of preparation for learning outcomes. My biggest takeaway from these articles is that the amount of time teachers put into preparing for instruction is directly related to how students at all levels are engaged in the learning. In conclusion, learning is more dependent on what happens before the lesson actually starts as when it actually begins. Planning for specific outcomes and preparing for what is possible may be the difference between good and great teaching.