Improvised Learning

Gar Reynolds of Presentation Zen is a big fan of Bill Murray (me too!) and in a recent post calls attention to a discussion with Howard Stern 1 on how he connects with an audience and his experience with improvisational performance.

However, it was Reynolds concluding section that really caught my attention, first as it relates to students.

Public speaking and improv should be part of our education. It should not just be for a few students in the speech class or the even fewer students in the drama department. All of us can learn from the experiences with improvisation, and with performances such as plays and music, etc.

Outside of drama and speech classes, how many teachers actually encourage, much less tolerate, students who “improvise” in class. Improvisation implies more than one way of communicating ideas, more than one way of viewing the world, which often doesn’t fit with our standardized approach to education.

This idea of “state” is very important. Over time, with experience, you learn to put yourself into a different state when communicating before an audience. This is something that even experienced teachers do, perhaps without even thinking about it. Step by step, with experience, almost anyone can become much, much better.

Great teachers are also great improvisational performers, able to quickly adapt their approach and message to fit the needs of their students. However, this not a skill valued by all administrators, and in this age of scripted test prep, often as actively discouraged as student improvisation.


  1. of whom I’m not a fan

Gotta Fill Up Those Young Brains

Jay Mathews believes we are not teaching young children enough facts.

Before continuing I should note that I’ve spent most of my instructional time working with middle and high school students and adults, which means I have very few qualifications to pontificate on elementary education. However, there are a couple of thoughts in Mathews piece that need to be challenged.

First, he quotes the parent of a first grader and president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank.1

“Notice what’s missing,” Petrilli said. “Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents? People who study education for a living understand what’s going on — this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such ‘conceptual understanding’ over ‘rote facts and figures.’ ” He had found the kindergarten fare similarly mushy.

I can’t help thinking that if elementary teachers were able to do more with that “conceptual understanding” early, instead of all the drilling on “rote facts and figures”, kids might be better prepared for advanced study later in their educational lives. Not to mention less inclined to dislike school by the time they reach the middle years.

Of course, since the standardized tests that Mathews and the Fordham people adore so much depend heavily on kids being able to spit back the facts and figures, I understand the longing for stuffing the curriculum with more of them as early as possible.

Then there is this statement from Mathews himself: “But filling young brains with useful facts has to start early if they are to read.”

Again, I can’t speak to the process of how young children learn to read, but the concept of “filling young brains with useful facts” is straight out of the classic, simplistic concept of education as a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.

It’s an incredibly clueless idea, one still widely embraced by “reformers”. And one of the major impediments to ever bringing true reform to American schools.


  1. The National Zoo also has a “think tank”… for orangutans. I wonder which one gets more useful results. :-)

Still Waiting For The Revolution

While performing one of those periodic and necessary cleaning out of drawers and boxes, a process where you rediscover long forgotten crap, I came across a 1992 book called School’s Out. I vaguely remember reading it and my current reading list is long enough that it’s certainly not worth a repeat.

But the description from the back cover was interesting.

Our schools are dying – suffocated by overcrowding, restrained by outmoded teaching techniques, and strangled by bureaucratic red tape. Students are dropping out in alarming numbers – and too many recent graduates lack even the most basic skills necessary to compete in today’s society.

It goes on to state that the author will provide “radical, imperative and affordable solutions” to these and other problems, “calling for no less than a complete overhaul of the American educational system while laying the groundwork for a remarkable revolution in learning that is long past due.”

Pretty sure the author didn’t make his case to more than a few of us since more than twenty years later, that “ remarkable revolution” is even farther past due.

Think Like a Child

From NPR’s Morning Edition, a new study: “Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have found that 4- and 5-year-olds are smarter than college students when it comes to figuring out how toys and gadgets work.”

Creative cycle

However, “smarter” is probably the wrong term in this case, as the sentence prior to this one explains: “It turns out that young children may be more open-minded than adults when it comes to solving problems” and later in the piece that “children are better at solving problems when the solution is an unexpected one”.

But you really don’t need research to understand that young children are far more willing to experiment and play with new situations, like electronic devices, than older kids and especially adults.

So what could possibly happen in the years between Kindergarten and college to alter that approach to problem solving? I wonder…

Anyway, all of this reminds me of the work of Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, who a decade or more ago was writing about how we need to spread the learning process followed naturally by 5 year olds into the rest of K12.

Instead of forcing the artificial processes of “formal” learning from upper grades down into early education.

Because We’ve Always Done It

From the latest edition of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, titled Think Like a Child, this exchange between the host Stephen Dubner and Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. They’re discussing the differences between the way young children and adults learn about the world.

DUBNER: Implicit in that is while we have this strong set of priors, right, prior beliefs that we act on. And also implicit in what you’re saying is we have a lot of heuristics, we have a lot of shortcuts that we’ve learned work well enough, and so we do them always, right?

GOPNIK: Exactly. Let me give you an example in the universities for example. It’s a good example, my world.  We give lectures. And the origins of that are the days when there weren’t printed books, so you had one manuscript and the professor was reading from the manuscript because the students didn’t have books. It is literally a medieval instructional technique. But we’ve been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s kind of what you do when you’re a faculty member. And the fact that we have no evidence at all—in fact, we have some evidence to the contrary—that this is a good way to get anybody to learn anything, doesn’t keep us from doing it. Mostly we’re doing it because we’ve always done it.

I’ve stashed that phrase “medieval instructional technique” away in my notes for later use.

Gopnik continues.

I think what they say is, ‘Well, we’ve kind of always done it, and it seems to work OK, and we’re good at doing it.’ And I think, here’s the most relevant thing: It would take so much work to try and think through all the alternatives, and try them out and see which ones work and which ones don’t. That would just be such an effort that, even if maybe in the long run it would be a bit of an advantage, in terms of my short-run utilities, and in particular, just for me, it’s not going to make a difference.

Think about it. That whole paragraph could describe the American education system, even after the reform efforts of most politicians and billionaires are applied.

The Disappearance of Location-Based Learning

Speaking of coding (as I was in the previous entry), Wired recently posted an interesting opinion piece speculating about how Software is Reorganizing the World.

The whole article is worth a read for the author’s observation of how people today are “migrating” their lives into cloud communities, not unlike their ancestors who moved physically between continents.

However, what caught my attention is his central thesis, one that could very well apply to our education system.

Technology is thus enabling arbitrary numbers of people from around the world to assemble in remote locations, without interrupting their ability to work or communicate with existing networks. In this sense, the future of technology is not really location-based apps; it is about making location completely unimportant. [emphasis mine]

Take that idea and substitute learning for apps: “the future of school is not really location-based learning; it is about making location completely unimportant”.

“Location-based learning” is pretty much the definition of school. What happens to our traditional concept of “school” when technology advances to the point that location becomes completely unimportant to learning?

Something to think about.

Learning the Academic Game

For as long as I’ve been associated with high schools, which would be both attending and teaching at that level for many years, the primary focus has always been on academics, with the ultimate goal of our kids piling up enough of the right kind of credits to get them into a “good” college. Preferably one that when mentioned, everyone in the room solemnly nods with an understanding of what a great academic institution it is.

Very few of us, however, ever question if that path was the best one for every student, at least not with the force and eloquence of this post at the Powerful Learning Practice blog.

Academics. Most of our current school system revolves around it, and yet, I think it falls miserably short of what our kids need. To be honest, I think our academic system of education is highly overrated, at best. At worst, it destroys a number of our kids.

Hear me out. I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. But too often, the focus of our kids’ school day is Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Instead of learning together, many of our students spend hours filling in worksheets or copying down lecture notes that they could google in 30 seconds.

Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. And from my experience, most of this content is simply memorized, spewed out for an exam and then quickly forgotten. But beyond this, there’s often only one right answer, which frequently cultivates in our students a fear of failure.

No sugar coating there. And that’s just the opening paragraphs. Take a few minutes to read the whole thing for more of Shelley’s thoughts on why our education system is very wrong to focus on creating “academic” kids who are good at playing the school game.

John Cleese on Learning

One more item related to John Cleese’s talk on creativity from a few posts back, this time his opening remarks on his personal learning goals.

Each day I want to learn something new. Because I’m very, very old and will be dead soon, so I want to be as well informed as I can possibly be when I die.

I may adopt the same ambitions.

The Shelf Life of Learning

This past summer, our IT department sent a notice to schools that they would be archiving the electronic grade books for the previous school year in order to prepare the system for the fall opening.

But they also said that by law, grade books could only be retained by the district for five years after students graduate and that files for the “for school year 2007 – 2008 and prior years will be destroyed” at the same time.

In other words, records representing twelve years worth of a student’s work, about half of the time they’ve been alive, only has a shelf life of five years.

I wonder, what is the shelf life of the learning reflected in those files?

It should be far longer than five years but I’m betting much of it was forgotten not long after the grades were posted.

Digital Learning Without the Digital

As mentioned in a previous rant, we’re trying to define “digital learning” here in the overly-large school district. Assuming the term has any meaning at all. The jury is still out on that part.

Anyway, at one of our community meetings this week, a parent told me an interesting story about digital learning, or the lack thereof.

His son is taking the beginning computer science class at one of our secondary schools (middle and high in one building), a course in which students traditionally learn the basics of programming hands-on, by actually writing, testing and debugging applications.

At the beginning of the year, they were told that all of their projects had to be completed by the first of May, which is about seven weeks prior to the end of our school year.

Why so early?

For the month of May into early June in this school, and pretty much every other one in the system, every student computer is conscripted for online standardized testing.

Thus, for roughly six weeks out of a 36 week school year learning for these students will come to a halt.

But then the same would be true for just about anything you might include in that definition of “digital learning”.

Learning From Everyone

Mimi Ito’s specialty is “researching how young people are learning differently because of the abundance of knowledge and social connections in today’s networked world”.

She has heard the calls, from the president and others, for colleges to put more of their courses online and says that’s far from all we should be doing.

While I would be the last one to argue against getting more good educational material online and accessible, I do question whether our focus should be exclusively on classroom instruction.

Young people are desperate for learning that is relevant and part of the fabric of their social lives, where they are making choices about how, when, and what to learn, without it all being mapped for them in advance. Learning on the Internet is about posting a burning question on a forum like Quora or Stack Exchange, searching for a how to video on YouTube or Vimeo, or browsing a site like Instructables, Skillshare, and Mentormob for a new project to pick up. It’s not just professors who have something to share, but everyone who has knowledge and skills.

So, what are the implications for what we do in K12, especially high school? Should our focus continue to be exclusively on classroom instruction? Or the online clones of a traditional classroom found in most “virtual” schools?

Really Bad Vision

This is probably one of the most depressing ideas I've seen in a while. The Gates Foundation wants to spend up to $6 million to develop “literacy courseware”.

More specifically, it plans to use that small piece of Bill's pocket change “to entice publishers, developers, and entrepreneurs to propose the most innovative digital solutions for engaging, personalized software that helps students with reading and writing”.

Notice what's missing from that enticement list? No mention of educators.

The request for proposal says this is part of the Foundation's “vision” for education, something they call “personalized learning”.

My vision of their vision looks more like this:

Depressing.

Coding for Lifelong Learning

At a recent TEDx event, Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, presents the case that learning to code is an essential skill all children need to learn.

In the first part of his talk, Resnick argues against the tired old belief (excuse?), held by so many teachers, that kids are far more tech savvy than they will ever be.

All of us have heard young people referred to as “digital natives”. But actually, I’m sorta skeptical of this term. I’m not so sure we should be thinking of young people as digital natives.

There’s no doubt that young people are very comfortable and familiar with browsing and chatting and texting and gaming. But that doesn’t make you fluent.

Young people today have lots of experience and lots of familiarity with interacting with new technologies but a lot less so with creating with new technologies, and expressing themselves with new technologies. It’s almost as if they can read but not write with new technologies.

He goes on to discuss how we expect kids to become fluent at reading and writing the written word and we should also be helping students learn how to effectively create with new technologies, not to improve their consuming skills.

However, just as we don’t teach reading and writing so kids will be come professional writers – very few will follow that path – we should also have other, higher goals in mind when teaching the process of coding.

Again the same thing with coding. Most people won’t grow up to be professional computer scientists or programmers. But those skills of thinking creatively, reasoning systematically, working collaboratively, skills you develop when you code in Scratch [the programming interface for young people developed by his group] are things people can use no matter what they’re doing in their work lives.

 Watch the whole thing for more of his ideas and a look at some new Scratch features coming soon.