Learning Philosophy

Learning is unavoidable. From the moment we are born, we humans take in information and experiences, synthesizing them into our own body of knowledge. The question is not whether we learn but rather what and how we learn. This is the role of teaching–to shape the what and how of learning. Whether the parent teaching a life skill or the formal instruction of a school system, the act of teaching tells the learner, “This is something that I think is important for you to know.” Generally speaking there is consensus as to what should be taught, especially at the elementary level; most people agree that children should be taught to read, write, and do arithmetic.

How to best facilitate learning is the subject of much more debate. The sheer number of learning theories is a strong indication that there is no one-size-fits-all theory. That does not mean that all theories are equally valid, but that it is quite possible for multiple theories to be valid to some extent. For example, the behaviorist learning theories of Skinner and Thorndike are perhaps the most widely criticized, and rightly so. As an explanation for all learning they fall way short as they reduce the human mind to a simplistic stimulus-and-response machine. However, even the methods prescribed by the behaviorist theories have some application; some types of learning are served well by drills and memorization. In mathematics, once the concepts are understood, practice and repetition are excellent ways to reinforce concepts and help the student become faster at solving problems, preparing them for more complex problems. Once a student has learned that 7 x 6 is seven groups of six items, it is beneficial to learn to look at 7 x 6 and know that it is 42 without needing to conceptualize it every time. Even as the cognitive theories were recognizing the shortcomings of behaviorism, they acknowledged that some learning is more concrete and better suited to those measures. While Siemens’ connectivism argues that technology is rewiring our brains to make this type of learning obsolete, it will always be faster an more convenient to have commonly-used facts committed to memory than to pull out our smartphone to look them up.

Many theories help us to better understand learning by applying different perspectives and divisions. Rogers’ experiential learning divides learning into “cognitive” learning that is important to someone else and “experiential” learning that is important to the learner. Gardner’s multiple intelligences look at the learner’s propensity in seven different areas. The humanist theories look at motivation and other human elements of learning. These theories help the teacher understand learning and learners better, giving them more “tools in the toolbox” to help students learn.

If I had to choose just one theory that I think is most complete and helpful though, I would choose Bruner’s constructivism. Bruner asserts that learning builds on prior knowledge and experiences and that curriculum can be arranged in a spiral pattern where topics are studied recursively in more complexity. This also provides an opportunity to involve a variety of different approaches.

With all that in mind, what does the teacher do? It is often said that the modern teacher’s role is not to teach but to facilitate learning. While I understand and generally agree, the statement connotes passivity. I prefer to think of the role of a teacher in learning as that of a curator. In the context of a museum, the curator’s responsibility is to select artifacts that accurately reflect the subject matter and arranges them so they are most effective for the intended audiences. An effective curator will present artifacts using several different media and methods, selecting those most appropriate to the subject matter and most effective to the audiences. A teacher similarly selects the learning artifacts and methods most appropriate to achieve the desired objectives from the learner.

The move from teacher as a lecturer to a curator makes the role of a teacher as important and challenging as ever, perhaps more so. Teachers must be ever adapting to new technologies, environments, and learners.


Annotated Bibliography

Play for Learning Environments

In The New Culture of Learning, Thomas and Brown make the case that we have entered a new paradigm in learning. I differ with the authors that the “new culture” is really all that new. For example, comparing Encyclopaedia Brittanica to Wikipedia, they opine that “making knowledge stable in a changing world is an unwinnable game”  and that encyclopedias are “a good example of the ongoing effort to preserve knowledge in a fixed form,”  as though encyclopedias are published once and not updated regularly. What has changed, however, is the speed, democratization, and transparency afforded by the medium and metadata .

What is Old is New Again

Similarly, the promise of the late-aughts that blogs would usher in a golden age of collaboration and break the publisher-consumer model  has, at best, migrated over to social media . Some new media empires have been created, some old media empires have adapted, but the blog as it was has all but disappeared. Years of blogging even caused Andrew Sullivan of “The Daily Dish” to “yearn for other, older forms.” 

All this is not to discredit the book’s main points about learning but rather to show that King Solomon was correct, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, English Standard Version). What the World Wide Web has done is less about something new and more about undoing, albeit in a different form, some of the effects of industrialization. So too, what is old is new again in learning methods.

Thomas and Brown reference play as an essential part of the “new” culture, but watching a young child learning the world will demonstrate that nothing is as natural as learning through play. In fact, Stuart Brown notes that the propensity to play well in adulthood sets us apart from animals .

Incorporating Play in Developmental Education

How, then, can I incorporate meaningful play into developmental education? Math, being so concrete, seemed particularly challenging. Sure, plenty of math games have been written, but the vast majority amount to flash cards dressed up with fun graphics. How can the play be more meaningful? Thomas and Brown’s definition of play, “the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules” , provides the framework. To create a meaningful play environment, then, one needs to create the structure in a way that allows freedom for the learner to explore within.

In discussing developmental math with one of the professors here at Sauk, he noted that many math students have learned a foundational principal foundation incorrectly which causes them to struggle in math for years. He suggested that what many students need is “math therapy,” where an instructor could find the source(s) of the error and then work on correcting that root problem.

One possibility might be to have different types of math problems, give the student the answer, and then have work toward that answer. Once the student has a solution, they can then be shown other similar problems and answers to test their solution (of course, demonstrations of the “right” way to solve the problem could be provided as well). By presenting it as a challenge in this way, I think it could help the student understand there could be other ways to get to an answer and open them up to learning a better way than what they may have learned earlier.

This is, of course, just one possible example. This way of thinking about play, though, provides a for how to develop learning environments that provide enough structure and “rules” to challenge the student, but enough flexibility to make the learning environment meaningful for the student.

 


Scratch-ing the Itch to Program

scratch programming blocks photo
Photo by andresmh

I’m late to the party, I realize. I’ve seen the user- and kid-friendly programming blocks before. In fact, I’ve even used a version of them when learning to develop mobile apps. But what spurred me to introduce my kids to the Scratch platform was when I learned about the user community and that all projects are open-source and remixable.

My kids have–like most kids–been developing in Minecraft, so I was looking for a next step for them to extend those skills. Scratch is the perfect fit. They have complete creative freedom. My oldest’s first project is a lab building game, my younger son’s has growing and shrinking dragons and robots, and my daughter’s is a “beautiful ballerina.”

As I begin a class on significant learning environments, it’s helpful to see such a great example of one in action. It’s also a perfect encapsulation of the COVA model. Since they have complete creative control, they eagerly take ownership of learning the platform, use and develop their own voice, and create projects that are authentic to them.

Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education – Introduction

The area of college developmental education has been an area of focus recently at Sauk Valley Community College, with good reason. The reasearch shows that developmental education in its current form is often not effective and that working with students in high school, before placement testing, is more effective.

I propose studying the effectiveness of an online college-readiness program based on principles in the Maker Movement, namely a self-paced, collaborative program focused on authentic learning.

Development of the program would likely take the majority of the 2017-18 school year, with the first high school students starting to use the program in the spring and summer semesters of 2018. Studying initial results could start as early as the fall of 2018.

Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education – Implementation Plan

This is at an implementation plan for the developmental education project I am working on for Sauk Valley Community College. For background, please see the project overview and literature review.


Phase 1: Build Coalition, Get Feedback, Refine. (July-August 2017)

This phase will focus on presenting the plan for initial feedback and discussions. The plan could change dramatically based on the feedback received from key stakeholders. Once the plan is complete, the plan will be presented to as many people in the following groups as possible:

  • fellow administrators at SVCC,
  • members of Developmental Education Committee,
  • Sauk instructors, particularly in math and English departments,
  • high school and college students, and
  • high school teachers and guidance counselors.

In addition to gathering feedback to refine the plan, the hope would be for a coalition to emerge that could move the plan forward.

Phase 2: Develop LTI Q&A Forum and Courses  (August-October 2017)

Assuming the discussions in phase 1 show that the plan is generally on-track, the development phase could begin.

  • Research and/or develop learning management system LTI plugin for a Q&A-style forum with ranking and badges for answering questions.
  • Begin arranging course content, working with instructors to begin adapting existing online developmental courses or developing new one. Also explore alternative courses that could be incorporated to give developmental students exposure to different teaching methods.

Phase 3: Roll Out Courses (October 2017-January 2018)

This phase will focus on working with instructors and instructional technologists to finish developing and arranging courses, making them available to students, and letting students know the courses are available.

Phase 4: Begin Compiling Research (January-December 2018)

  • Compile baseline research, against which the results from new courses can be compared.
  • Monitor student progress through the developmental education courses to see what students’ usage patterns are.
  • Evaluate any available initial results (e.g. number of developmental education course placements)

Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education – Implementation Plan Draft

This is a first look at an implementation plan for the developmental education project I am working on for Sauk Valley Community College. For background, you can also see the project overview and literature review.


This is very broad at this point, but I’ll be building it out over the coming weeks and months.

Phase 1: Build Coalition, Get Feedback, Refine. (July-August 2017)

  • Present plan to administrators at SVCC.
  • Present plan to members of Developmental Education Committee.
  • Meet with instructors, particularly in math and English departments.

Phase 2: Develop LTI Q&A Forum and Courses  (August-October 2017)

  • Research and/or develop plugin.
  • Begin arranging course content.

Phase 3: Roll Out Courses (October 2017-January 2018)

  • Work with instructors and instructional technologists to finish developing and arranging courses.

Phase 4: Begin Compiling Research (January-December 2018)

  • Compile baseline research
  • Monitor student progress
  • Evaluate initial results (e.g. number of developmental education course placements)

Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education at Sauk Valley Community College

See the related literature review for research background on this project.

Community colleges have long fought the perception that they are just an extension of high school, or “high school with ashtrays.” This is certainly understandable, as they devote a lot of time and resources to striving to ensure that the quality of education is college-level. However, in another sense, assisting the transition from high school to college is an important role that community colleges fill — whether for those students who are not independently wealthy, not able or ready to move away, or who are not yet prepared for college-level work.

That third category — developmental education — is an area of the community college that is ripe for disruption. At Sauk Valley Community College, fewer than half of students are successful in developmental education courses the first time, and only half will continue as students past the first year . The current prevailing model places these courses as a barrier to be overcome before taking college-level coursework. A student — who may well have been receiving the message for years that they are “not good enough,” or “not college material” — takes a placement test, where they are told they are not good enough for college-level work. They must then enroll in and pay for classes — often multiple semesters’ worth — for which they will not receive credit. If they cannot pass the first time, the process repeats. Is it surprising, then, that the completion rates are so low?

I believe— and the reasearch shows— it is crucial to reach these students prior to college placement tests. Often this is done by pointing the finger at high schools, who are already facing extraordinary pressure to be everything to everyone. Instead, I would like to study the effectiveness of a self-directed, online college-readiness program based on principles espoused by the Maker Movement.

The biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for the Maker Movement is to transform education. My hope is that the agents of change will be the students themselves. Increasingly, technology has given students more control over their lives, and even the simplest cellphone can change a person’s sense of agency. Students are seeking to direct their own education lives, looking to engage in creative and stimulating experiences. Many understand the difference between the pain of education and the pleasure of real learning. Unfortunately, they are forced to seek opportunities outside of school to express themselves and to demonstrate what they can do. 

Even if physically producing objects isn’t involved, I believe that some core ideas of the Maker Movement can make learning and particularly developmental learning more successful.

The Maker Movement is built around the idea that encourages people to try to do something; to take what then know and add something more. Traditional developmental education, by contrast, starts by reinforcing that the student is not good enough. Makerspaces are designed with collaboration, and particularly collaboration across areas, in mind. For example, to make a lamp, one may need help from someone who does ceramics for the body of the lamp, an electrician for the wiring, and a glazier for a stained glass shade. Everyone works together, and everyone gets to be both the teacher and the student. Developmental education classes separate students into the areas where they are weakest, further demoralizing them. A Maker has the freedom to proceed at the pace they are able to and desire to, whereas developmental education classes feature set times; if the student is not able to “get it” during that time, they must repeat the class.

A maker-style developmental education class, therefore, would

  • be encouraging to the student as they pursue college readiness,
  • be collaborative and enable the student to assist others as well as learn, and
  • be self-paced so students could move as quickly or slowly as they need to.

A core suite of online, self-paced college-readiness courses could be made available to high school students. Courses could have a common question-and-answer forum where students would be encouraged to ask and answer questions. A StackExchange-style reputation score for answering questions would encourage interaction and could be used as a basis for additional incentives such as digital badges or even scholarships and credit discounts. To my knowledge, such a forum is not available in SVCC’s Learning Management System (LMS), so I could find or develop a plugin using Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). Classes and the forum could remain available to students even after college matriculation, connecting high school students with college students who have progressed through the course; they could also serve as refresher classes.

While this approach certainly would not solve all college-readiness problems, I do believe it is a model that could help lower barriers for many students who desire a college education but face challenges.


Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education – Literature Review

Developmental Education

The typical model for college placement, and the model employed at Sauk Valley Community College, is that the prospective student takes a placement test to determine if they can meet the required level and, if they do not, is placed in a developmental course of study to be completed prior to college-level work. However, many concerns have been raised as to the impact of this model on student success.

Scott-Clayton found that placement exams are better at predicting which students will succeed in college than who would fail and that multiple methods of placement would be more effective and could help more students be successful. Once a student has been placed into a developmental course, Park, Woods, Richard, Tandberg, Hu, and Jones found that taking developmental education classes has a significant impact on degree and career completion and many students simply do not ever take the core classes. In fact, less than half of the students complete their developmental education series of courses and nearly one third simply do not take the developmental education course . According to Hu, Park, Woods, Tandberg, Richard, Hankerson, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast (ED), National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (ED), and Florida State University , “the logical extension is that developmental education…was more of a barrier than a support in the aggregate.”   Nunez found this to be true at Sauk Valley Community College as well; fewer than half of students are successful in developmental education courses the first time, and only half will continue as students past the first year. He concludes, “It is pretty clear that if we are going to admit students to developmental courses, then we must do a better job at helping these students be successful the first time.”

There is, however, much promising study in this area as well to give hope. Hodara, Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest (ED), National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (ED), and Education Northwest found that, since academic preparation during high school years predicts college success better than than socioeconomic or demographic factors, it is important to target students for remediation prior to enrolling in college. Even new first year experience courses were found to not help students move through developmental education faster or improve academic achievement . Further, after Florida disallowed requiring placement tests and developmental education classes, Hu et al. found that fewer students took developmental education courses but more passed them and that while more students both took and failed gateway courses, the ratio of all first-time college students who passed gateway courses increased. Finally, Booth, Capraro, Capraro, Chaudhuri, Dyer, and Marchbanks found that developmental education students reported being more successful as a result of being placed in a common cohort for collaboration.

Maker Education

Schank describes goal-oriented learning and learning by doing as methods to motivate learners. According to his model , learning involves having a goal and some obstacle, something to help you overcome the obstacle and accomplish the goal so you know how to do it next time; technology’s role can be to help provide the means to overcome the obstacle. This learning process will be most effective when the goal is an authentic one, one with real-world implications to the learner .

The Maker Movement exemplifies this approach by allowing learners to identify their own authentic goals and access to the means to reach those goals. Martin identified three key elements of the Maker Movement that can be readily applied to education: embrace of digital tools, community involvement and collaboration, and Dougherty’s  maker mindset, “a can-do attitude that can be summarized as ‘what can you do with what you know?’”  In many ways, this is nothing new; Viviano  observes that “This community that Martin speaks of exists right inside the walls of [Career and Technical Centers] and nothing exemplifies the maker movement more than Project-based Learning (PBL).”  However, in reality, high-stakes standardized testing often crowds out PBL efforts, as PBL takes longer in the short-term and teachers feel pressure to ensure that students perform well on annual standardized tests .

Conclusion

The preceding evidence suggest that an online, collaborative college preparatory program modeled around maker principles and made available to high school students could help students succeed in—or even bypass—developmental education courses and be more successful in their academic or career endeavors.


Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education (First Look)

The following is an initial broad overview of a study I would like to develop and work to implement at my institution, Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, IL.


Community colleges have long fought the perception that they are just an extension of high school, or “high school with ashtrays.” This is certainly understandable, as they devote a lot of time and resources to striving to ensure that the quality of education is college-level. However, in another sense, assisting the transition from high school to college is an important role that community colleges fill–whether for those students who are not independently wealthy, not able or ready to move away, or who are not yet prepared for college-level work.

That third category–developmental education–is an area of the community college that is ripe for disruption. An alarmingly high percentage of students need to take developmental education courses, and the success rate for those students to complete their program is even more disturbing. The current prevailing model places these courses as a barrier to be overcome before taking college-level coursework. A student–who may well have been receiving the message for years that they are “not good enough,” or “not college material”–takes a placement test, where they are told they are not good enough for college-level work. They must then enroll in and pay for classes–often multiple semesters’ worth–for which they will not receive credit. If they cannot pass the first time, wash, rinse, repeat. Is it surprising, then, that the completion rates are so low?

I believe it is crucial to reach these students prior to college placement tests. Often this is done by pointing the finger at high schools, who are already facing extraordinary pressure to be everything to everyone. Instead, I would like to study the effectiveness of a college-readiness program based on principles espoused by the Maker Movement.

The biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for the Maker Movement is to transform education. My hope is that the agents of change will be the students themselves. Increasingly, technology has given students more control over their lives, and even the simplest cellphone can change a person’s sense of agency. Students are seeking to direct their own education lives, looking to engage in creative and stimulating experiences. Many understand the difference between the pain of education and the pleasure of real learning. Unfortunately, they are forced to seek opportunities outside of school to express themselves and to demonstrate what they can do. 

Even if physically producing objects isn’t involved, I believe that some core ideas of the Maker Movement can make learning and particularly developmental learning more successful.

The Maker Movement is built around the idea that encourages people to try to do something; to take what then know and add something more. Traditional developmental education, by contrast, starts by reinforcing that the student is not good enough. Makerspaces are designed with collaboration, and particularly collaboration across areas, in mind. For example, to make a lamp, one may need help from someone who does ceramics for the body of the lamp, an electrician for the wiring, and a glazier for a stained glass shade. Everyone works together, and everyone gets to be both the teacher and the student. Developmental education classes separate students into the areas where they are weakest, further demoralizing them. A Maker has the freedom to proceed at the pace they are able to and desire to, whereas developmental education classes feature set times; if the student is not able to “get it” during that time, they must repeat the class.

A Maker-style developmental education class, therefore, would

  • encourage the student to pursue college readiness,
  • be collaborative and allow the student to assist others as well as learn, and
  • be self-paced.

A core suite of online, self-paced college-readiness courses could be made available to high school students. Courses could have a common question-and-answer forum where students would be encouraged to ask and answer questions. A StackExchange-style reputation score for answering questions would encourage interaction and could be used as a basis for additional incentives such as digital badges or even scholarships and credit discounts. To my knowledge, such a forum is not available in SVCC’s Learning Management System (LMS), so I would need to find or develop a plugin using Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). Classes and the forum could remain available to students even after college matriculation, connecting high school students with college students who have progressed through the course; they could also serve as refresher classes.

While this approach certainly would not solve all college-readiness problems, I do believe it is a model that could help lower barriers for a great many students who desire a college education but face challenges.


Learning Should Be:

From the moment we’re born, and even before , we are learning. Why then do so many of our kids learn to hate school? As an educator, I do not believe it has to be this way. I do believe that approaching instruction with a “Theory Y” approach , trusting that students have existing motivations to learn, can make learning environments more effective by making them:
Engaging, Challenging, Personal, Available, and Continuing.

Learning Should be Engaging

I use the term “engaging” hesitantly because I fear it is too often associated with gimmicks or strategies to trick the learner into learning. At best, this approach will yield only short-term results.

baby food photo
Photo by sully213

Many parents have seen the limitations of this approach when feeding a young child. If the child spits out or refuses to eat their peas, what is a parent to do but attempt to hide the pea in the child’s applesauce? If this works, it is easy to think the problem is solved–the child is eating their peas! But what has the child actually learned? For some, just repackaging the pea in with something they like may be enough to get past the initial resistance to change and help them to like–or at least tolerate–peas. However, for others, what the pea-in-applesauce approach teaches is that peas are so gross they need to be hidden. Then, as more vegetables are hidden, the child may learn that in fact all vegetables are gross. Or perhaps the child will learn that applesauce can no longer be trusted.  Do we not often see the same with, for instance, math?

Just like all children are motivated to eat–if only what they view as the “good stuff”–so all students are motivated to learn. They’re motivated to learn Minecraft, to ride a bike, to build a go-kart, to bake a cake. Armed with this knowledge, a teacher can use the pea-in-applesauce method and swap in a Minecraft example into a math story problem. For a few, this might help them make the connection between something they love and something they don’t understand. However, for others, it can just further reinforce the perception that math is hard or something they just cannot understand even if it is adapted to them.

I believe it is more effective to look for–or guide the student look for–connections to build on to what they already know . While it can look similar at first glance, finding authentic connections–for example,

  • pointing out to a student playing Minecraft that they are using a graph,
  • explaining that how center of gravity makes it possible to ride a bike,
  • taking measurements and drawing up plans for a go-kart, or
  • scaling recipe measurements to make twice as much cake–

will build on the student’s existing knowledge to help them gain understanding of the topic. This of course does not replace pedagogy, but it can certainly enhance pedagogy and make it more effective.

Learning Should be Challenging

Just as believing students are motivated to learn leads to making learning engaging, so believing students are capable of learning leads to challenging them. Dweck calls this the growth vs. the fixed mindset . If we know that students are able to learn, we can and should teach so that students are being stretched enough that authentic learning is happening but not so much that it is demoralizing.

Caution must be exercised here, though; challenging the student continually without recognizing and celebrating achievement can also lead toward a fixed mindset. I believe the best outcome is one where the student needs to work hard to succeed, does succeed, and then is empowered and encouraged to continue working hard and succeeding.

Learning Should be Personal

While I would not advocate abolishing all educational goals and standards, our current education practices and systems often seem to be better designed to produce robots than humans . Perhaps the prime example of this, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even  increased segregation based on ethnicity and income .

Rather than celebrating diversity in learning styles and bents, our system still has arbitrarily determined standards and labels anyone who dares deviate:

  • Can’t sit still and focus on school for 6 hours? ADHD
  • Too focused on one or a few things but not others? Autism
  • Ethnic minority? Low income? At risk

While I don’t discount that there are real mental health issues–in fact, I am in treatment for some now–many of these classifications are used as ways to separate out segments for treatment rather than changing how we educate. We know more than ever about different learning styles and approaches, yet the overwhelming majority of students are still educated the same way.

It was for this reason primarily that my wife and I chose to home school our children. This allows for learning to be more personal, more effective, and more interactive. Obviously, home schooling is not practical for every family, but we need to reversing the trend for education decisions to be made at higher and higher levels of government will allow instruction to be more tailored to a state’s/community’s/classroom’s/student’s specific needs rather than completing a federal government spreadsheet.

Learning Should be Available

Also, as control has moved more national, opportunities for the most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased . Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). I believe moving control more local will also help decision makers to more easily identify and address problems with educational access.

Further, I believe that technology is changing and will continue to change the paradigms. Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher as a gatekeeper of information may eventually go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information will grow more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.

Learning Should be Continuing

If learning is engaging, challenging, and personal, and available, I believe it follows that learning will be continuing as well. When we assume that students want to learn and focus on removing roadblocks to learning, the result will be a continual cycle of learning; it will just become a way of life because, well, it’s fun!


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