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On the importance of ‘real-world learning’

Hot air balloon above clouds

Image BY-NC ms4jah @ Flickr

As with many things I write about on this blog, three things have come together recently to make me think about an issue in more detail. Briefly, these are:

  1. Discovering Courtenay Bird’s blog (via @Stammy) where she posts links to interesting and useful infographics.
  2. Reading @mortenoddvik‘s blog mortempo – and in particular his post Didactical Project: Cultural or Intercultural Competence?
  3. Revisiting Dan Meyer’s excellent work at dy/dan – especially posts like Graphing Stories (from a couple of years ago)

I don’t know when or how it happened (I suspect high-stakes testing had something to do with it) but we’ve managed to completely disconnect teaching and learning from real-world experience. There’s a few pockets of good practice and glimmers of light, obviously, but behind a lot of what happens in classrooms is “you’re doing this because it’s on the test.”

Thankfully, the three examples above point to something different. Here’s how:

1. Infographics

I came across Courtenay Bird’s blog just before I intended to head off to bed one evening this week. Courtenay’s interests lie in sales, marketing, project management and technology. Hence her interest in infographics. Here’s an example:

No more fish in the sea.

It got me thinking about project-based learning and how fantastic creating an infographic would be as a learning experience for students. By their very nature infographics demand a level of expertise by the person who creates them. Look at the research David McCandless at Information is Beautiful carries out before producing one of his masterpieces!

Infographics have to reflect real-world issues and do things with data that interests people. They have to be relevant and meaningful. That’s why I think they’re great for what I would called ‘real-world learning’.

There’s more wonderful infographics below:

2. Cultural references

I’ve only just come across Morten Oddvik’s work. Morten is an innovative Norwegian educator who focuses on learning outcomes rather than activities. A recent blog post of his – Didactical Project: Cultural or Intercultural Competence? – caught my eye because he’s doing something very difficult: using media-focused cultural references to enhance students’ learning about important (and quite high-level) concepts.

Take a look at this:

As you can see, Morten hasn’t simply taken the rap-music-is-a-form-of-poetry route. Instead he’s done something infinitely more valuable; he’s using something students are already interested in to help them learn about a range of concepts. This is another example of project-based learning. Morten’s focused on learning outcomes and using the content as a scaffold towards that. Great stuff! 😀

3. Real-world problem solving

Finally, I’ve revisited the work of Dan Meyer recently. Dan blogs at dy/dan and is well known within the edublogosphere for his high work rate and high-quality resources. As my Dad’s recently gone to the UAE as a consultant Maths teacher, I’ve been showing him some of the stuff Dan’s been up to.

I think one of my favourite posts by Dan is one from 2007 entitled Graphing Stories. In it, Dan chronicles not only a formidable amount of work on his part as if it were nothing, but how his high-quality resources and use of human interest led to huge learning gains by his students:

Elevation v. Time

I’ve seen some really bad, disconnected-from-reality lessons during my teaching career thus far. And it has to be said the worst one I ever saw was a Maths lesson. Dan shows on his blog how even the most abstract of concepts can be taught visually, kinaesthetically, and engagingly. That, to me, is what it’s all about!

You should definitely check out his series What Can I Do With This? where Dan takes images and uses them to teach mathematical concepts. Inspiring! :-p

Conclusion

The above shows that if educators focus on learning outcomes rather than activities to take up lesson time (and the high-stakes examinations at the end of a course) then real progress can be made by students. As a subject specialist it paints me to say it, but I think it’s time to move to a project-based curriculum where skills and competencies are focused on rather than simply ‘knowledge’.

Tracey Rosen has a new blog called Teaching is a Verb which focuses on collective action to improve teaching and learning. I’ll leave you with a post she shares in a post entitled Teaching 101:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

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The Vortex of Uncompetence

I had Monday and Tuesday this week off school. I had a cold, felt lousy, and felt my recently-self-diagnosed SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) kicking in. Just as I didn’t believe that children were born with personalities before we had Ben, I used to think that ‘disorders’ were ways to label avoidable abnormal behaviours. I don’t think that any more. 😮

In schools and businesses we pay very little attention to the fact that it is human beings involved in these institutions and who, as such, fluctuate, change, and are affected by external factors. As I’ve blogged about before, one disorder I suffer from is migraines. There’s no way that those who don’t suffer from these can know what they’re like, of the way fluorescent lighting affects the way I see and think sometimes, and the ‘fuzziness’ associated with it. Likewise, those who don’t suffer from something I’m labelling SAD for convenience can understand what it’s like for a usually energetic and enthusiastic person to completely lack all motivation. 🙁

The stimulus for this post came from reading Dan Meyer’s blog post Wherever You Can Find It, signposted on Twitter by Darren Draper, who stated, “I’m telling you: 5 years ago, I was @ddmeyer. Absolutely no doubt about it” – linking to this comment in particular. The first part of it reads:

And maybe that kind of leadership is enough to staunch some of this new teacher blood, but it isn’t enough to staunch mine.

Because I came here to do a job, just a job. I wasn’t “called” here but I knew that job was essential to the future and polity of our country. That job was too hard. I failed. Then I learned. Then I started blogging. I torched a lot of terrible personality defects on the altar of better teaching. I sacrificed a lot of time to improve. Now I’m good at this job.

How many other professions would tie that kind of growth to zero extrinsic (and particularly financial) reward?

There is no promotion. There is no pay raise. There is no bonus. And lately, most obviously, there is nothing to compensate me for the time I spend elevating student achievement, time which other teachers spend throwing frisbees on the beaches of Santa Cruz with their wives.

As I commented on Dan’s blog, I’ve suffered burnout, depression and the effect it can have on the relationships with those around you whom you love. My advice to Dan and to all young teachers working all hours for the benefit of students is to beware of the Vortex of Uncompetence. It goes a little something like this:

If you can’t see the above clearly (it’s meant to be a little trippy), then here’s the stages:

  1. Identify deficiency – you feel as a teacher that there’s something not right with the system.
  2. Discover community – either in school, socially or online, you realise you’re not the only one to feel this way.
  3. Attempt to remedy situation – you decide to do something about it, working hard to make your lessons and the learning experiences of students, different.
  4. Face barriers – there are problems regarding student behaviour, assessment schemes, line manager comments, or you’ve not got enough time to do what you want to do.
  5. Work at solutions – you work harder and harder, trying to convince others, meanwhile attempting to be radically different.
  6. More barriers – becoming almost zealot-like, you meet a lot of resistance.
  7. BURNOUT – unable to take on the might of the educational system, your physical and/or mental health suffers, along with relationships with people who matter to you.

Some may wonder why I’ve included the ‘discovering community’ part in step two. It’s a case of wanting to be seen to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’. When you’ve committed to something, staked out your claim as a believer, you’ve got to act in a way that’s befitting. Sometimes, this can engender more problems than if you’d slowly tried chipping away at things over time – evolution, not revolution.

Why Vortex of Uncompetence? It’s a tongue-in-cheek term I’ve made up, probably after reading too much Dilbert. Teachers who go down this road are not incompetent – far from it. But then, they’re not competent in the ways expected for traditional teachers. They’re uncompetent: they refuse to be held to the standards set by the majority view in education. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex and, as a husband and father I can’t afford to be pulled into it again. I’m trying to position myself as a catalyst for fast-paced evolution. Almost everyone resists revolution – the status quo is just too comfortable… :-p

Do YOU recognise yourself or anyone else entering the Vortex of Uncompetence?

(the Vortex of Uncompetence is based on an original image by ClintJCL @ Flickr)

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