Category Archives: learning

Making Time & Space for Informal Learning?

I have spent many years of my life teaching and learning in formal environments. I have tried, as much as possible, to include student choice in those environments. My middle school students chose their own reading materials and writing topics and genres. My graduate students pursue a passion project as a way to explore their own area of interest in ed tech. But, this kind of learning still happens in a formal way, with goals and objectives and some type of assessment.

Informal learning seems more open ended: the participants in the #UnisonEDU chat mentioned learning through networks like Twitter or YouTube. In fact, much of what I know about Minecraft was learned from 5th graders on YouTube. They listen to podcasts on their way to work and connect with others in communities like Reddit. They learn in face to face environments as well through EdCamps and conversations with colleagues. While it may not be built into the school day or recognized with continuing education units, informal learning is taking place in schools.

At least among the teachers…informal learning for students was a little harder for people to imagine. Teachers are, as I did with my students, finding ways to incorporate student choice and voice, but the content is largely untouchable. Informal learning suggests exploring resources without any particular goals or objectives: clicking around, pursuing various threads, letting curiosity take the lead. A plan may emerge eventually, but it will be self-imposed. Not that informal learning isn’t taking place in school: as part of student group work or during free time around lunch and recess, any time students have time to create and collaborate with their colleagues or when a structured conversation slides a bit off topic.

What do you think? Can we find a way to give kids informal learning time during the school day? Can we fit formal and informal together?

Teaching To Learn

In The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality, author Paul Halpern paints a mostly loving portrait of two leaders in the development and exploration of quantum physics. My scientist father loaned me the book, and it took several tries to get through it. I finally convinced myself that I could appreciate the story of two incredible thinkers without completely understanding the science.

Both men were passionate teachers and used teaching as a way to learn themselves. When John Wheeler, for example, realized that, in order to solve a particular problem, he would need to better understand general relativity:

The best way to learn a field was to teach it, Wheeler had found. he had acquired the habit of assembling meticulous lecture notes for each course, which could double as an excellent resource whenever he continued to research a subject. Often in his notebooks, he scattered speculation among his course notes. He might ask those questions of his students, consider them himself, or both. Learning begets teaching, which begets more learning, in a marvelous spiral of rising knowledge. (p. 173).

In fact, Halpern writes, because physics is “built from the ground up, based on fundamental principles that might be stated or interpreted in many ways…Even concepts typically addressed in the first weeks of an introductory physics course, such as force and inertia, are nuanced” (p. 22). According to Halpern, working together on Wheeler’s classical mechanics course at Princeton led to conversations about Mach’s principle of distant stars causing inertia and how it might still be relevant when we know the universe is expanding. These conversations spilled over into the classroom as they challenged their students to think hard about the concepts.

Feynman, of course, became known as the great explainer. Here he is at the Esalen Institute in 1983, just five years before he died. The video opens with bongo drums, Feynman’s instrument of choice:


Just Because You Can Look It Up, Should You?

I saw a comment on Twitter recently suggesting that teachers should never tell students things that they could look up. It struck me as one of those zero sum statements that are not helpful as we try to navigate the changing relationship between teachers and students. Teachers have expert knowledge to share that can help students move forward with their own learning more efficiently. Finding the balance of when to share and when to encourage students to explore on their own is, in my humble opinion, part of the art of teaching.

I think the spirit of the statement was probably related to teachers telling students lots of stuff the don’t need to know to move forward efficiently, and the balance must include some consideration of how much knowledge students might need to get started and the best way for them to gather that knowledge. For instance, I observed in a project-based learning high school for several years where ALL direct instruction was banned. A math teacher shared that, as she worked with her 9th graders on a three-dimensional construction project, she realized that many of them did not know how to use a ruler. She felt that she could get everyone up and running pretty quickly with a short full group lesson but was worried about violating the pedagogical rules. Of course, they could look up how to use a ruler and helping them learn how to learn might be a valuable lesson for them, but in the context of the project, she could move things along in ten minutes of instruction.

Rather than imposing rules, we need to trust teachers to make good decisions about the needs of their students. Strict pedagogical rules–whether conservative or liberal–do not help anyone, serving only to create frustration and even fear in professional educators. As connected educators, we recognize the value of community and shared expertise as part of the learning process and often ask questions of our colleagues that, theoretically, we could have looked up ourselves whether we are doing so on Twitter or around the lunch table.

Perhaps we should start thinking of our students as those colleagues. That changes the dynamic, and those quick questions between colleagues can help keep them on track with their larger project.


Snow Day

Today was supposed to be an out-of-the-house day with a trip on the ferry to Williamsburg. But, snow cancelled all that including meeting online as my colleagues on the other side of the river did not have power. We were fortunate in that way but I’m not sure how long it will be before we can get down our long muddy driveway.

I did a bit of work, but then decided that the rest of it could wait.  I took a snow day. I’m working on a miniature green house that will be a gift for my sister, an avid gardener. I have not done doll house work before, but I like putting things together. The miniature work is challenging, and I’ve learned not to fuss too much. No one will be examining it too closely.

The joy of a snow day is the spontaneity. The day to day routine gets disrupted, and life slows in a satisfying way. I am supportive of schools who are implementing digital learning so snow days are seen as learning days and not something that needs to be “made up,” but I hope the snow day learning is as personal as possible. Encourage kids to do something they enjoy doing and then reflect a bit about what they experienced and learned as they engaged in that activity. Stop feeling as though we have to fill their time, give them the gift of just doing something for the joy of it.


Why I Teach Face to Face

My School Technology class met last evening for the first night. I joined 14 practicing educators who have chosen to pursue advanced degrees and principal certifications at a university in Richmond. They come from surrounding divisions including urban, suburban and rural schools. One class member works at a correctional institution.

My course is a bit free wheeling as I want to make sure students have time to explore and experiment with technology while considering its potential uses to support student learning.

Last night, we spent time playing with Merge cubes. I had collected enough of them during the $1 frenzy earlier this year that I was able to give one to each student. All of them quickly followed the simple instructions to download the app and get up and running. But soon, one of them wondered aloud, “How is this educational?” Discussion ensued even as they continued to interact with the cubes. I’m sorry I didn’t grab some video! But one student went home and posted some after class  as his second Twitter post ever!

I teach online and enjoy the convenience but you can’t have the kind of experience we did last night where everyone explores in real time, sharing, helping, laughing.

I am really looking forward to the rest of the semester!