Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Keep Moving Forward...

... the rLab, 2013.
Sometimes in order to think about moving forward... you have to look back.

After a six-month sabbatical, I've decided it's time to move on to new challenges.

We did some groundbreaking work here in this lab from 2005 to 2013, work that, as it turns out, was a pioneering effort in blended learning, personalized learning plans, and project-based education in Vermont and abroad. 

Here's a view below under the rLab (aka Tech Research) hood. 

Work in the Lab over these nine years was individualized toward the needs of each student on how they approach learning at this time in their lives, and how that vision can evolve into the future. We used the technology itself as a lens to explore the world, their place in it, and the goals of learning how to learn, or as I often said to students on the Lab, to "find out what makes you tick." What were students good at? What were their pitfalls in learning, their Achilles heel? How can those strengths be built upon? How can those struggles be analyzed and conquered?

'Blended learning,' or my thoughts on 'Spiral Curriculum' (J. Bruner) stemmed out of these key areas:

Improvement: Demonstrate (and articulate in rubrics) that you are seeking strategies and resources to move your thinking and skill forward in the following areas below. Students identified their current skill levels as part of this and debated/collaborated (and sometimes argued) how to articulate these goals to move forward in building their own rubrics toward improvement. Without a doubt, this encouraged self-awareness and improvement.


  • Ideation/Design Thinking
  • Project Management: Learning to move ideas, curiosities, and problems forward
  • Collaboration/Consultation/Communication skills (seeking help/ideas/mentorship)
  • Leadership
  • Writing skill
  • Research
  • Graphic and Digital Design
  • Personal voice
  • For projects: Interdisciplinary thinking/learning: math, science, humanities, history, etc.
There are two other assessment areas, perhaps overarching, we discussed, too:

  • Self-confidence
  • Learning how to learn

We explored three large class topics to introduce 'project-based education': How technology has impacted the news, healthcare, and education. There's some soul searching involved in those topics, and potential for great philosophical and ethical debates - all relevant to the world now and into their future. Students were actively encouraged and prompted to debate these topics with their families and in class with each other. Guest speakers were introduced through video chat as well. Along the way, we built up folks research and collaboration skills, proficiencies in the tools we used, and presentation and public speaking skills. It also helped people look at the potential of technology, and the pitfalls.

We had a series of smaller activities that reinforced certain aspects of this 'blended learning' approach. One example was our 'impromptu speeches' that helped develop research, prototyping, collaboration, and public speaking skills (and promoted self-confidence!). These speeches also exposed students to new tings, new people, and helped them make connections to the richness of the world... so they told me. Students picked a random topic out of a box, had three to five minutes to research, and conjure a short and engaging speech. Students proposed topics and voted on what would be added to the suggestion box, and it was always entertaining: Bigfoot, Circus Peanuts (in all their oddity), The Force, were a few, but it gives you the gist of how we mixed in some fun things to research. We mixed in musicians too across genres to spread out awareness: John Coltrane, Led Zeppelin, Muddy Watters, Nas, Jay Z, Yo Yo Ma, Mozart, and others. Some were added that promoted thought to where we were headed and what we were doing: Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner, and Blended Learning as examples. We also tossed some names in there of incredible artists, writers and scholars like Ursula Le Guin, Langston Hughes, Hemingway, Lin Yutang, Maya Angelou, Tolkien, and Pablo Picasso. Places: Sacre Coeur, Neuschwanstein Castle, and others. We mixed it up... presenting to the full class and within groups to change the experience. Whatever was spoken on was removed from the box so topics were note repeated in a semester and new topics were added. We did these speeches, usually, about three times per semester. We discussed and recapped the research process, the prep/design cycle, framing up a speech, and introducing 'character' - how to present to engage, and ideas to engage an audience.

Then we got to the salt of the course where students were asked to choose their own projects to explore. That's where things got interesting.

Topic choice is a healthy practice and I've always thought it's one too rarely explored, especially in high schools, especially back in 2005. Students are often conditioned in traditional models in education to be great at being told what to do and how to do it. The rLab courses were placed philosophically and very intentionally far on the other side of that more traditional educational spectrum.

Students pursued over 1000 individualized/self-designed projects here in nine years, covering an incredibly diverse array of topics. Focusing efforts on topic choice led to 55% female enrollment in 'tech classes' here in the Lab. Learning along with them was challenging and exhilarating at the same time. I learned exponentially faster than at any time in my life previously.

Each student project had to last a minimum of three weeks. It was a sufficient time frame to figure out if you liked what you were working on. It allowed some immersion, some tests to overcome some initial obstacles and to make some connections. Students often did one or two projects per semester, mostly one. Many projects extended over multiple semesters and even years. One student took the course five times in their high school career.

I always thought, as these digital tools we use constantly increase our ability to communicate, then we must work on increasing collaboration and communication skills. Students were also asked to connect via social media in the field of study and with community consultants as part of their projects, professionals outside the school, who could help drive all this learning forward. Over 3000 professionals outside the school became mentors. We built a database of those people over time which made it easier for new students to make connections.

This was key: A transformation idea sparked by MIT OpenCourseWare... I chose to have students archive all their project growth, struggles, and contacts within them for their peers to build from and upon. If students chose a topic of study that had been done before they could use the work of their peers to move further. Seeing and hearing about the struggles other peers had in learning can pretty powerful. The good, bad, and ugly of every project could be used by peers to build upon. One project that took, say, 15 weeks the first time was used by a new student... who covered that same ground in 10. The next time 8. Almost every project went further each time as people built off their peers work.  Students, so they told me, found immense value in this practice. Game changer, no doubt.

To understand their own learning, students made inquiries into cognitive psychology (the 'isms', behaviorism - get some directions, cognitivism - understand thinking on complex problems, constructivism - doing and design thinking, and 'connectivism' - working with others, teaming and exploring collaboration and mentorships) and then how you use these tools and insights at hand and resources available to carve a path into the future.

We explored and debated Gardner- Multiple Intelligences; Bruner- Spiral Curriculum; Reggio Emilia Children early childhood education - art focus, hands-on, and inquiry-based; Science Leadership Academy - Assessment and PBL; High Tech High - PBL; Bolman and Deal - Project Management; (and) MIT OpenCourseWare - Archiving and shared knowledge philosophies were all huge influences explored in this the rLab discourse.

For many students, it was the first time they could pursue something they were interested in. It was the first time many had not been told specifically 'what to do.' For some, learning how to learn and why they felt the way they do about education was the most important mission and ultimately the most rewarding. There's a phrase that floats out there I've always liked... "good learning is messy." I agree. Inquiry-based learning is most often the focus outside of school, and it takes practice.

Assessing so many individual projects and students individualized growth curves within them within them was a challenge... but I learned the chops to keep it moving and to provide individualized feedback. I experimented with spreadsheets, grade books, wikis, Google Docs, and eventually a CRM system. Each student was challenged individually to make strides in their self-motivation, develop interdisciplinary learning ties, how they learned, their struggles, approached their work and to keep building something meaningful, document it, archive it, and develop it into a professional blog/website of some sort. Managing over 100 independent projects and learning plans within them each semester took... some trial and error. As I developed systems I asked students to challenge them / revise them with me each semester. We all learned from one another. Like the top of the blog says here... "a self-organizing system."

Another key element: We wrapped up all presentations before exams. To prep for the final exam itself, students were asked to evaluate the course, the opportunities we explored, and refine and/or create proposals for new assignments. The feedback was thoughtful and led to incredible changes. I'd keep evidence of how assignments were refined each year to show students that their ideas made a difference.

Of course, this evolving system created challenges to regular constructs of academia: Traditional course restrictions and complaints that I was 'teaching/mentoring out of my 'subject area' surfaced from some academic departments. On many occasions, I was asked to enter/enroll students, sometimes as late as 3/4 of the way through the semester. As bookkeeping and assessment goes and ramping up project-based skills... that was an immense challenge, and one I was too accommodating with in hindsight. In all, these were timely and a necessary debate in education, one that continues to evolve globally I hope.

We also created opportunities to look at how we were doing 'school' as a 'school.' The work in the Lab went beyond projects though and toward the well being and learning opportunities within the school itself. Student lobbied for their rights, technology access, food service changes, and school schedule changes.

Here's a link to some of these proposals which led to some great educational growth here at this school and many others. The Lab work also played an important part in the philosophical growth at the school to be much more student-centric with technology.

Perhaps our largest class project, one that resulted from a discussion where students wanted to propose changes to the master schedule, was the 'Student for a Day' (11-minute video documentary short). Teachers became 'students for a day' and explored the schedule from the student persective. This class project was viewed over 100,000 times and featured in many other blogs and journals like Dangerously Irrelevant, and MindShift. I've lost track of how many schools and individuals inquired about this project and how many we've passed the notes toward. It's well over 200 at this point, and that's encouraging. I've always felt that debate and exploration is essential to avoid stagnation and the train ride of 'business as usual,' especially in education. This project drove thoughtful changes to the schools master schedule (a couple years later), and also promoted these discussions in other places across the country.

The BG Light
Other courses in the rLab? e-Design was a popular graphic design course that had students build design skills and learn how to learn through the use of Photoshop, Gimp, and digital photography, research, and address digital archiving now and in the future. I readily promoted students to other students who had 'figured something out.' This practice promoted peers to learn from each other, build confidence and skill to do so, and get to know their peers better. Building design skills, and addressing the challenge of building their own websites to highlight their personal voice, developing art skills, and interests was key.

Another course, 'Social Media: Senior Seminar,' was a course designed by two students in an rLab project and promoted to the administration for approval. The course helped students explore the challenges emerging in the news, social media, and learning to communicate more effectively. Guest speakers were brought in on a wide variety of topics to help students build interviewing skills and to make professional connections. 

The Hardware and Networking course featured a Student Help Desk, building skills to manage home networks, security, devices, mobile phones, operating systems, and did equipment refurbs for students and families in need also was highly successful. 

We hosted 49 visitors in the Lab from other schools. It was great to hear that many visitors have built upon our assignments, proposals, and spirit of inquiry to make shifts at their own schools. Making the work enduring and having an impact on other schools in this fashion is something I'm proud students here were a part of. This work here informed what became the Winooski iLab, Mt Abraham Horizons Program, and informed Vermont legislation called Act 77 - Flexible Pathways, and many others.

In all, it was a great ride, and one in so many ways I'm going to miss.

After some soul-searching, I decided it was officially time I moved on to new challenges. I decided to take a position at Burlington High School and District in Vermont in Technology Integration and to participate in the Partnership for Change Initiative, Statewide development work, and to dive into more consulting and Adjunct teaching opportunities. I'm setting my sights on new innovation positions in education, and community development.

Hey, I have to do something with all that sabbatical research, right? ; )

We'll see where it all leads.

My sincere thanks to the incredible students I've worked with here, to Burr and Burton, Wendy and Barry Rowland, so many peers, the project consultants - the experts called on by the students in their project work, visitors to the Lab, and the incredibly supportive communities here. I'm truly privileged to carry so many lasting friendships into the future.

It likely wraps up over 20 years as a head coach in High School Baseball as well, the last six years here at Burr and Burton. It's time to watch and participate in my own children's athletics for the coming years. Assembling the help of many, we helped rebuild the youth programs in the town, repaired the relationship between the school and the town toward upkeep of the shared facility, built new training infrastructure, grinded out the most wins in school history over a six-year period - so I'm told, and evolved into making the State finals three times in the last six years. Build, baby, build ; ) I had a lot of fun doing it.

(coaching update added here in 2014)

rLab (II) 8/2005 - 8/2013

I like this picture of the rLab above... a little rough around the edges, minimalist, modern, student-designed diverse workspaces... truly a self-organizing system that constantly evolved based on student feedback and design (as it's always said on the top of the blog here since we started). 

We made the whole process transparent day-to-day here on this blog over eight years and readily gave the assignments, rubrics, and scaffolding away to many. I'll continue to do so as people request materials. It's been amazing to see how many people and schools have visited this lab over these eight years and then adopted personalized learning plans, and set up programs based on these ideas. I've lost track of how many schools have told us our class proposals have helped them in their journeys as well. We took the motto at the top of the lab seriously... 'A self-organizing system.' Students were empowered to learn how to learn, to make connections to their passions, and inspire change. Students publishing real work to a live audience… we win. 

It's tough to close up shop sometimes... but it's also exciting. If I always preached "keep moving forward," to students, I guess I had to heed the same advice.

So keep learning, achieve new levels of collaboration, and please do keep in touch. I'm easy to find on the web ; ) 


If you want to talk about building opportunities like these or others, let me know! I love exploring and helping others build and explore these innovative personalized learning lab constructs and how they can ehlp schools evolve. Pursuing more consulting opportunities to help build these ideas and promote growth in other places in these areas is one of my goals.


I always did love the iconic sign-off from the late CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite. I always felt it was a fitting way to end the day and time here that now moves into history...  "And that's the way it is," the close of my role in the rLab at BBA, Friday, August, 23rd, 2013...

On to new and exciting challenges and to develop this work further in more places!

Thanks for tuning in,

Adam 

(hereafter at creativeStir.blogspot.com)

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