Ah, Yes – Less Is More – Always

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The featured picture is yet another gem from George Couros through his phenomenal Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC). Five great suggestions for sure; I’ll be discussing my favorite: “3. Less is more.”

In my 29+ years as engineering faculty, I always included group / team projects that were student-centered and student-identified – addressing a driving question from me. Leading up to the introduction of the project, the students and I would Consider working in groups via development of a group contract. We also reviewed the using problem solving effectively to address the project – with emphasis on ‘effectively.’

It never ceased to amaze me as I followed the various groups’ efforts that there were always two typical approaches to their efforts (in spite of my not-so-subtle suggestions to some that they change): (a) the groups whose key focus was developing a great starting direction for their efforts; and (b) the groups whose key focus was developing a great complete design for their project.

The results or outcomes were nearly always the same: The groups looking for the direction began their development efforts quicker, thereby encountering critical requirements faster, addressing them sooner, and arriving at a useful and timely outcome. On presentation day, they had much to say – what the critical items were, how their outcome addressed the driving question, and what could be done to probably make the outcome even better. If there was a prototype to be demonstrated, it worked!!!

The groups working on a complete design were brought to essentially a crawling pace because someone in the group (often correctly by the way) identified an issue that prevented a great design. Occasionally, they identified their flawed approach in time to yield at least a somewhat useful outcome; once in a while, they actually had a design that enabled them to develop a useful and timely outcome. But most groups ended up ‘throwing something together’ at the last possible minute, sadly at times not even on the path to a useful outcome. Their presentation was not well organized, questions posed to them were unanswerable, and any prototype, if expected, was unworkable.

I’m sure you’ve identified the connection to the blog post title by now. Doing less planning and upfront organizing, getting started as quickly as the direction / first steps is identified is better – more!!! This is an important part of problem solving that we educators must facilitate in term of habit development for our students (and ourselves by the way if not habitual already). My thesis: Addressing every situation faced – including learning – as a problem to be solved yields a better outcome quickly. With more effective efforts, there are more opportunities for innovation!!!

An Addition to ‘School vs. Learning’

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Yes, it’s the same featured photo used for my blog post of a few days ago… It’s been an important one to me since first discovering it. Very presumptuous of me I know, but I have a suggestion for an added comparison for the list in the photo.

Today at the Y, I was about to begin my regular exercise-bike ride. My routine is to exercise while listening to podcasts on my iPhone. I subscribe to a number of series and just, sort of randomly, start whichever is the first one in line. Today’s was titled “The Future of Happiness” from Amy Blankson, part of the Unmistakable Creative series. Her fundamental thesis is that “Happiness Leads to Success, rather than Success Leads to Happiness.” [The title of the podcast in fact is the name of a book she has written.] The portion of the podcast most directly linked to innovation and learning begins at about the eleventh or twelveth minute. My thoughts: Ms. Blankson provides great suggestions about the importance of happiness to success. That happiness is in large part shaped by our perception of the world. Circling back, our perception of the world associated with opportunities to help others (through innovation) leads to happiness – while leads to success.

So here’s the suggested comparison: School is connected with stress. Learning evolves from happiness.

Educators and Learning

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I’ve just completed my first reading of the latest post to the blog of R.H. Steele. His blog, “Risk to Learn,” is one of my favorites; this post, as I do for each of them, will be Considered very carefully. He reflects on the many needs / challenges of students today and asks two questions: ‘Where do academics fall in today’s education?’ and ‘Whose responsibility is it to tackle these needs / challenges?’ I agree with his thinking: It’s the responsibility of teachers to facilitate more than academics, to deal with all the needs / challenges of students.

Steele makes the statement: “When I was growing up schools had one job: Educate through the teaching of content.” For sure, back then (you know, ‘when dirt was clear – not dirty yet…’), there was much stronger parental influence reducing some unfortunate demands on teachers. But I’ll take issue with this comment in the following sense: I’m quite certain there were many educators that did more than teach content; many facilitated the learning (not the memorizing) of core knowledge and the development of the skills of lifelong learning.

Learning has progressed from the time of no books to today when books document yesterday’s research at best. My thesis: If the research and the learning tools that exist today were available at the time of Aristotle or any of the scholars of later times, the great educators back then would align with the great educators of today. And the demands for dealing with the needs / challenges of students would be the same… “I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

LEARNING -RANDOM / NON-LINEAR

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My belief: Learning (and any situation faced) will yield a better result more quickly IF approached as a ‘problem to be solved.’ That procedure used will be random and non-linear to achieve the optimum learning.

My personal problem solving procedure has the acronym, OSCAR. THE ‘S’ is for Speed Bumps, the random brainstorming of topics that might have importance to the situation at hand. The point is to not miss topics, should this step not be taken. Imagine looking to learn deeply about any topic, leaving out input because of the rush to learn.

The bigger problem results from the list of steps typical for the procedure. Suppose our ‘problem to be solved’ is learning how to write a blog post. The procedure might be something like: choose a subject, develop a title, write an introduction, discuss major points, and finish with an important takeaway – a list. Do you think anyone could draft a valuable post ‘addressing step one, addressing step two, … ???’ Of course not; as you periodically self-assess efforts, new ideas will arise, parts will be thought out of order if not inappropriate – you will ‘loop’ back to previous steps (NON-LINEARLY). That’s why we call them ‘drafts’ / why we edit our efforts!

We must help our students learn that this is routine in learning. I would add that it’s important to honestly accept that it is a problem to be solved, invoking a sometimes random, always non-linear procedure.

REFLECTION & THE INNOVATOR’S MINDSET

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It’s Week Two of the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC) currently underway. The featured image above illustrates George Couros’ list of the eight characteristics of an innovator teacher’s approach to learning. I have referred to this image quite frequently since first encountering it. While each one is as important as the others, I’ve selected “Time for Reflection” for this blog post.

In the most recent Considerations post, I discussed the four skills that, to me, are the highest purpose for formal education. They are: Effective Learning, problem solving, communicating, and working in groups. Among many of my strongly held beliefs are these: (1) Every situation anyone faces will yield a better outcome more quickly if addressing that situation is treated as a problem to be solved. And (2) the two features of effective problem solving are ’embracing ambiguity’ and ‘regular self-assessment.’  I have used the phrase, embracing ambiguity, since first hearing it in a presentation long ago (source long forgotten unfortunately). It is I believe one of the keys to innovation and that link could be (maybe will be) the subject of another blog post! Because ambiguity raises the level of risk, it increases the importance of self-assessment.

Regular self-assessment is really the first of three associated frequent steps in effective problem solving: self-assessment to gather evidence, reflection to Consider that evidence in terms of addressing the situation at hand, and refinement to the work procedure to better address the situation. My observations as well as anecdotal feedback from many educators suggest that students do not like to reflect, giving it lip service at most, all too often.

What is reflection? Let me provide my word description of it. For any situation being addressed, at any time, is defined in terms of its status – the features of its being. These would be identified through self-assessment. Also, for any situation being addressed, there are ultimate features of the outcome(s) satisfying our goals for our efforts. Finally, there is the latest set of features for the currently used procedure presumed to get from the present status to the final outcome. Three sets of features. The very important role of reflection is to consider all three sets of features in terms of whether the currently used procedure is still working – or does that procedure require refinement. As note, this self-assessment and the associated reflection and possible refinement must happen frequently during the overall addressing of the situation.

But there’s one last reflection that is equally important: the reflection on the two sets of features of the outcome – the set of desired outcome features and the set of actual outcome features. In the ideal world, these two sets would be identical and the reflection would consist of making sure all desired features were included as actual features. IF the regular assessment / reflection / refinement were done well, in the ideal world, this would be straightforward. But there is no ideal world! Time might not be sufficient, a needed resource might not be available, a ‘documented’ capability might not really exist, … The final outcome will hopefully be useful but even that might not be the case. So the reflection this time has two purposes: deciding how useful (or maybe not useful) is the final outcome; and what recommendations are appropriate for consideration if the effort were continued or repeated?

Reflection, as described in this post, has not been identified for any situation. It must be an important characteristic of all innovative efforts for or between / among the important communities associated with education: teachers and students of course; but also administrators, families, general citizens, policy people, and elected officials. For example, it’s important as teachers develop their pedagogy for facilitating student Effective Learning. And it’s important as administrators work with teachers and policy people to develop a plan to identify and address the standards for education. And so many more.

Notice I have assumed any interactions among the communities listed are fully functioning… It may very well be that some problems to be solved are improving the functioning of communities and across communities!

i hope my thinking on innovation are of value to you.

The Purpose of Education

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[Aside: Yes, I’m finally back to my blog… It’s been quite a while since my last post. In the interim, my wife and I – with much help from family and friends, and our builder – have built a beautiful new home in Midlothian, Virginia; packed, given away, or thrown away our things in Connecticut; and moved into our new home in Virginia.]

I have joined IMMOOC 2 having found the original offering of great value. One feature of this course is the encouragement to blog regularly – with blog prompts listed weekly. Hence the blog title. To me, the highest priority purpose of school is facilitating the development of four skills by each student: Effective Learning, problem solving, communicating, and working in groups. That development must include the application of these skills to meaningful situations to indeed  convert the skills to habits. You might ask “What about the core knowledge associated with the appropriate standards?” My answer is that such knowledge will indeed be learned (and thus be useable) in conjunction with skills development and subsequent use on assignments.

Why these four skills? Effective Learning, to me, is deep learning associated with the development of what I call a vision (an overall organization of facts, equations, theories, links, … with appropriate connections) that enables the learner to use this learning to address the previously mentioned meaningful situations / assignments. The most critical use of the Effective Learning skill will be for the lifelong learning necessary for a successful life and career.

Problem solving will be the structure associated with the addressing of all situations encountered. It is a very nonlinear passage through steps that break down what might first seem a daunting task into smaller less complicated sub-tasks. Very important to this skill is that it is not associated only with the more technical fields such as science or engineering; all fields of interest will yield more useful outcomes more quickly through the use of an effective problem solving procedure.

Communicating is, I expect quite obvious. Whether in the course of collecting materials for Consideration during Effective Learning, the outreach to more experienced individuals during problem solving, the interaction with group members, or the presentation of objective(s), procedures, and outcomes to others for review, feedback, and use, effective communicating is never an option. One additional point important to me at least: communication skill development is not fully  dependent upon the type of situation addressed; but it is best developed in conjunction with a specific type of situation.

Finally, working in groups is such an important skill. There are the likely obvious advantages of a diversity of backgrounds and experience and the lessening of any one person’s efforts when working in groups. There is the ability to develop a richer, more useful outcome for any situation. BUT these advantages will occur only if the skill is developed. In my efforts with student groups (every class I ever facilitated), I always had the students develop a team agreement – a contract among the group listing how they were going to proceed as a group. I also reminded them that the sum total of accomplishments wasn’t great for a group over individuals until they had worked together for a while / gotten to know each other better. By, the way, all those people such as artists who often insist in conversations with me that they don’t work in groups are mistaken. They might not work in formal groups but they certainly work in informal (still very important) ones!

So there you have my thoughts upon the four skills and their importance. Developed in school – I’d suggest as early as possible, the students will assess and refine them into key habits that will serve them well in the furthering their formal education as well as in the personal lives and career. Referring to the photo at the top of this post, you will find a quote from George Couros, the author of the book “Innovator’s Mindset” and organizer of the previously mentioned IMMOOC. What better way to help our students focus on their curiosity than to have the four skills / tools in their toolbox…

Too Often It’s the Student Message

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The graphic above accompanied a blog post of George Couros – a blogger I follow faithfully and find incredibly valuable and very much on target with respect to education and education reform. As I quite frequently do, I offered comments on this post. This blog post of mine evolves from those comments.

I take issue with the student’s statement in the above graphic!!! Many students, if they had their way, would see the alternative to drowning as having someone TEACH them how to swim.

Think about that: TEACHING someone how to swim… Taken literally, I hope you’ll agree the likelihood of someone learning how to swim by being taught is small. That teaching might likely involve the learning of the arm, leg, body movements to stay at the water surface and move forward; it very likely would involve watching videos or watching, in person, others swimming; and possibly delivery of additional information. I maintain the probability of the learner going to a pool and being able to swim is pretty small!!!

A few students would decide that they can ‘teach themselves’ how to swim in order to enjoy the water without drowning. The chances of them learning to swim well – to be able to save another kid who’s about to drown for example – is not that great however. And the likelihood becoming an increasingly better swimmer without feedback is not great either.

Ah, but how about this: Suppose a swimming instructor showed the non-swimmers a really basic video on swimming, encouraging those non-swimmers to ask questions or share concerns or express ideas they get from the video. And suppose then the instructor takes the non-swimmers to a safe (shallow) part of the water complex and helps them to be comfortable getting their faces wet. And then the instructor demonstrates the basic swimming effort, after which the non-swimmers attempt to repeat that effort – with the instructor giving individual feedback. These interactions continue with individual learners being introduced to upgraded efforts, practicing each level on their own, getting instructor feedback, until each reaches the level determined for each of them (with feedback from the instructor) to be useful / adequate for their expectations.

In this “swimming” analogy, it makes clear for me at least that this FOURTH option is far better than drowning (better:stay out of the water), being TAUGHT to swim, or ‘learning’ to swim on your own. It includes numerous efforts: scaffolding the levels, actually trying to swim, getting good feedback, practicing, self-motivation via individual goals, aligning with ‘standard’ framework from the instructor, demonstrating progress by doing, ….

AND SO I’M ASKING: Presuming everyone agrees that this approach works for swimming (and social media – noted in the graphic – as well as playing baseball / softball, driving a car, baking cookies, building a house, ….), why isn’t it the OBVIOUS way to facilitate students’ becoming Effective Learners??? Too often politicians, policy people, and – yes – teachers see the mission of education as delivering (‘teaching’) the material to be ‘learned’ to the students. Subsequently, the students never make the effort or essentially try to learn the material on their own. MY BELIEF IS THAT THE TOP GOAL OF EDUCATION MUST BE FACILITATING DEVELOPMENT OF THE SKILLS OF EFFECTIVE LEARNING!!!