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Pockets of Innovation - The Quest for Inspired Learning

In the first article of this series, I introduced the idea of innovation as inspired learning. By using this construct as a foundation for discussion, the focus lies on the actions of the students instead of the tenets or structures of the environment. Within an inspired learning environment, students wrestle with complex problems, develop a deep understanding of a domain of knowledge, apply their learning outside of the classroom, and forge connections beyond individual lessons or tools. Equally important, students learn to navigate the challenges of working in learning communities, develop iterative thinking skills, and engage in empathy. These ideals present both an amazing opportunity as well as an enormous problem for educators working within a formal system that predominantly values convergent thinking, standardized assessment, and measures of efficiency.

Recently, I have been challenged not to explain why this change needs to occur but how  - to provide a vision of what inspired learning looks like in practice. Some educators fundamentally restructure what could be possible in education. For example, Don Wettrick - the Innovation Specialist at Noblesville High School and author of Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level - teaches a distinct course in innovation.  Within this context, he pushes students to identify a problem that they would like to solve and then seek out creative solutions. As an output of their efforts, students might launch a new business or product, design some form of media, or even provide support for a peer. The nature of Don's course implies that students tackle complex problems, seek out creative solutions, develop a deep understanding of a specific topic, and apply their learning to a broader community; and yet, his focus on building outside relationships makes the course truly unique.

This represents a bold exemplar of inspired learning. Don challenges the existing structures of school through the creation of an independent course. Unfortunately, because of his boldness, those who attempt to adopt similar practices often end up adapting them instead. Maybe it becomes a weekly genius hour or a capstone project - valuable opportunities - but an an anomaly rather than the norm. In Different Schools for a Different World, Scott McLeod and Dean Shareski assert that to achieve the Four Big Shifts of deeper learning, student agency, authentic context, and technology infusion requires sustained, consistent change to methodically alter the structures of school. With that in mind, I would argue that inspired learning may actually occur in more subtle and nuanced ways.

The Subtlety of Inspired Learning

Admittedly, the first time that I watched this video of Mark Engstrom lecturing to his geography students, I missed the power of what occurred.

However, notice what he accomplishes by employing the Digital Learning Farm method. First, he acknowledges the strengths and values that each student brings to the class and empowers them to use those talents to contribute to the collective knowledge of the group. Next, he takes advantage of digital technologies and convergent media to differentiate and personalize as well as to create opportunities for higher-order thinking and reflection. Finally, even within the context of a lecture, he asks his students to make inferences, engage in inquiry, and connect their learning to past experiences. This video represents a single moment within the scope of a broader, blended-learning curriculum. As Mindy Ahrens and Billy Corcoran taught their students, there is danger associated with a single story.

In their elementary classes, Mindy and Billy recognized that students no longer felt "safe, to be themselves, and to take risks." As members of a Design Thinking school that valued empathy and user-centered design, they created a project that would allow their students to celebrate their identities, acknowledge their biases, and embrace their love for telling stories. Though the three teachers determined the initial components of the project, the students quickly assumed ownership of the process.

In the video below, notice the connections to writing and literacy instruction, how the students make associations between abstract and concrete skills, the intrinsic motivation to learn, and the balance of traditional instruction with student-centered agency.

Just as important, Mindy and Billy modeled their own learning and reflection through the process of documenting their students learning. This created a unique experience for the students and offered insights into the culture of learning that occurs on a regular basis in their classes. Much like in the previous example, the technology - in this case video - not only helped to give students voice but also provide them with an opportunity to build media creation skills. Where these elementary students used video to express their knowledge and understanding, students in Kennan Scott's CODEd Academy use code.

As the computer science teacher at West Oakland Middle School, Kennan noticed a level of student engagement, motivation, and drive in his classes that did not always manifest in other subject areas. From this need sprang the idea to create an integrated computer science program that focused on developing both computational thinkers and computational leaders. Working within the structures of his school, Kennan is piloting a series of interdisciplinary, standards-based units that encourage students to engage in deep cycles of inquiry within the domains of math or English and then leverage their knowledge of coding and technology to demonstrate their understanding.

Using the Agency By Design framework as a guide, Kennan and his colleagues are designing a program that leverages technology and computational thinking to create conditions that foster student agency and empowerment. What began as a single pilot in his computer science class has scaled to a beta test with 6th-grade math and English. Next year, he plans to further expand the program to other grades while maintaining the focus on inquiry, reflection, and student creation as a means to make knowledge visible.

In their book, Learning to Improve: How America's Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better, Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LeMahieu advocate for the idea of design for variability. They insist, as most educators also do, that each school and classroom possesses a distinct culture; therefore, an idea, strategy, project, or plan that works in one context may not directly translate to another. While I agree with that statement, I do believe that the tenets of inspired learning presented in these examples can be applied across grade levels, schools, and curriculum areas. In each instance, the students assumed ownership of their learning process, asked questions, challenged their own thinking, and demonstrated their understanding. As I wrote in the first article, professor Jean Paul Gee explains that learning occurs when image, action, and experience converge as dialog to describe the lived world. Consider these examples as the beginning of a conversation for what may be possible in individual classrooms. The next post will start a conversation about creating a culture of inspired learning across schools and districts.

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