What I’m learning at Educon

My blog is titled “what I learned today” because I believe that teachers should be “lead learners” and that students should have answers to questions such as “what did you create with people from around the world today?” and “what are you excited about learning?” and “what did you and your teachers learn together today?”

For the next three days, I will be immersed in learning from and with the wonderful 350+ educators who will attend Educon, an innovative conference hosted this weekend by Science Leadership Academy, an innovative project-based 1:1 high school in Philadelphia.

In anticipation of meeting lots of cool people at Educon, these next paragraphs are a statement of what I think about the potential for 21st century learning, and why I am opening a new middle school for empathetic global citizenship in 2013, called Triangle Learning Community.

I believe that we’re at an amazing moment in learning. Think about everything that’s possible for students to learn and create and do.

Now think about how little our schools have changed to fully leverage what’s possible. Yes, we have some technology integration, but as I’ve argued before, simply integrating technology into the existing curriculum is a mistake.

Here’s something cool I just learned from Twitter — there’s a sophomore at UCLA who takes an hour a day to learn something new beyond his regular course load — he’s just completed his 1,000th hour.

The blog post that describes this student’s learning path (click the link above for the blog post) notes that:

So much of school consists of a teacher delivering pre-digested morsels of knowledge to students that students often flounder when seeking out learning on their own. Often, the very structure of school makes learning painful enough that few students want to pursue it on their own. Finally, we overschedule students’ lives so much that even if they did want to find time for an “hour of learning”, they couldn’t find the time.

The bold and red emphasis above the end there is mine — and I’d like to expand upon those ideas.

First, the floundering: when I taught students at a reasonably progressive college-prep school, where all students had tablet PCs, I tried to get students to learn on their own. Result? Big-time floundering on their part and on my part. They wanted me to play by the unspoken rules — tell them what’s on the test, so they can cram that material into their heads. And the structure of the school made it easier for my assessments to conform to that norm. So that was what I did. But it drove me crazy.

Now, the nuggets of information were often connected, and some of it is good stuff for people to know. But to be teaching about ancient Rome when the Arab Spring is erupting around students seemed quite wrong. And to teach about Rome, or Islam, for only a week or so (as is the case in most survey courses) also seemed wrong — we’re just skimming the surface and it’s not what (most) students are passionate about learning.

And the things students might be passionate about have to take a back-seat to getting good grades, and that’s a function of doing what the teacher tells you to do…

So as noted above, even if students did want to find time for an “hour of learning”, they couldn’t find the time.

We need to change what we’re doing.

Here’s my concept — mentor a group of 20 socio-economically and culturally diverse students in 6th and 7th grades to do progressively more complex project work, so that by the end of 7th grade, students are leading 2-3 month long projects about topics in which they are heavily invested.

Then, in 8th grade, let students propose a project they are passionate about that they will work on for six solid months. It could be creating a foundation to support girls in Rwanda to finish their primary and secondary education (click to learn about a young woman from Seattle who did just that as a middle school student).

Or it could be a young man who sets up and hosts a regional conference to help people in his neighborhood learn more about the world-wide decline of honey bees (not an actual student project — yet — but a real problem that a student I know of cares about).

As Chris Lehmann points out in a recent TEDxPhilly talk, titled Education is Broken, “High School Stinks” because students have no choice about what they learn — they have to do what they’re told over and over and over again…

We need a new structure. We need to give students more flexibility but still hold them to high standards. My school has a different approach. Here’s the basic schedule, which we’d modify as speakers and other opportunities came to town (with Duke, UNC, NCCU, NC State and Durham Tech all in the Triangle area of North Carolina, there are lots of learning opportunities).

I. WELCOME AND COMMUNITY MEETING (30 min)
II. 2-HOUR MORNING SESSION
(includes time at the end for reflection on a blog)
III. HEALTHY SNACK AND BREAK (15 min)
IV.  MATH FOR AN HOUR
(using a modified Kahn Academy flipped classroom)
V. PHYSICAL ACTIVITY (from cultures around the world)
VI. THOUGHTFUL LUNCH FOR AN HOUR
(includes time to read if students choose)
VII. AFTERNOON PROJECT TIME FOR 2 HOURS
(includes time to reflect on how the project is going in a blog entry)

At the end of every day, each student will assign his/her own “DELIBERATE PRACTICE” for homework, so each student will have work to do that is tailored to what each student needs.

If this looks interesting to you, please download the executive summary. If it looks REALLY interesting, here’s a 20-page document with more details :)

If you would like to keep updated as TLC develops, please click here and enter your name and email.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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One Response to What I’m learning at Educon

  1. John Burk says:

    Thanks so much for linking to my post. I love the idea of Traingle school and wish I were going to EduCon to be able to talk to you more about. Two of my good friends and colleagues, Bo Adams and Jill Gough, will be there, and they are both doing outstanding things with PBL in middle school. They’re running a session at EduCon about a Synergy, a transdisciplinary, project-based course they created that sounds very “synergistic” with your ideas. I’ve added this blog to my feed and look forward to hearing more about how your school develops.

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