Arts and Education: Experiential Learning

I had the opportunity last week to participate in a symposium on Arts & Education last week in Harrisburg, PA. I spoke on a panel about Experiential Learning. My main contribution was to connect the arts and sciences through a hand-on approach.

So my point of view is not focused on technology, but uses technology as a lens to change the culture of a school – to encourage collaboration between teachers and students where the learning is being co-created – to give students opportunities to do meaningful and important work, and what schools can do to encourage those kinds of learning environments.

A prevalent view of education is that young people are empty vessels and schools simply open up their heads and pour in knowledge. Unfortunately this is a vision of education that is not serving us well in the 21st century. For a few students, this clearly works, but for many, this is a futile effort — made worse by an increasing focus on testing a few subjects at the expense of high-interest subjects like art and music.

Project-based and experiential learning has been around for a long time. You might say that the classroom is the new-fangled technology here. You certainly don’t see lion cubs sitting in desks in rows. For thousands of years people learned skills through apprenticeship and showing that they could do simple tasks, and gradually more complex ones until they became the masters.

Projects are not simply longer versions of traditional school-work, nor are they crafts. The presence of glue and scissors does not create a project. Nor is a project simply following a recipe.

It’s interesting that the word “project” is used both for the process and the finished product. And it’s important that it remain true to both. The process – the planning, production, construction, sharing is crucial. A project needs to be personally meaningful to the student – more than just for a grade. Having an audience that extends beyond your classmates and teacher is great for this. A project should not have a right answer (or one answer).

One question from the audience asked how arts could be incorporated into projects. My response was that students will naturally incorporate their own aesthetic into projects they care about. Respecting that is crucial.

Arts teachers know this, but it’s hard to articulate. Our culture places arts on a lower level than “academic” work. Like art, projects require judgment to assess, which means that the teacher has to be trusted to make those judgements.

Our experience with Generation YES  is that when kids are challenged and guided with expertise, they rise to the challenge and exceed expectations. In our schools we ask students to shoulder the burden of changing education with technology. It’s not a surprise to me when these students step up and regard this responsibility with great seriousness. PBL needs to be a school-wide culture shift – don’t forget that students are the key stakeholders. You can’t change culture by just telling teachers to change.

One problem with PBL is it can get very burdensome to the teacher. Share the burden. Allow students to help with the logistics, planning, even assessment. Don’t let yourself be the bottleneck that leads to being overwhelmed and then to failure. Good intentions go out the window when you have 300 projects to grade and you are the only one looking at them.

Students should be asked to be allies, advocates and leaders in our collective effort to make civilization better. They want to help. They need our guidance and wisdom, and we need their enthusiasm, passion and buy in. We make each other better.


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Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 resources for creativity and tinkering

I’m heading off tomorrow to Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 in Manchester, New Hampshire. This is the fourth year of this summer institute, and my fourth being on the faculty.

It’s been an amazing learning experience for me every year, and I’m looking forward to learning more this year from the participants and speakers.

Constructing Modern Knowledge is a unique professional development opportunity for educators – it’s not lots of speakers talking at you, we have one AMAZING speaker each day, leaving lots of time for project work and of course social activities! In past years, educators have built robots, programmed games, created amazing animated stories and songs, worked with stop motion and time lapse photography, and lots of other interesting projects.

This year’s speakers include: Jonathan Kozol – author, activist and education reformer, Derrick Pitts – astronomer from the Franklin Institute. Lella Gandini of the Reggio Emilia school movement, and Mitchel Resnick – head of the MIT Media Lab. And of course Gary Stager who is organizing and leading the event.


Posts about previous CMK events:

Join us for a day of ‘Hard Fun’, Sunday in Philadelphia

What are you doing on Sunday June 26, 2011? Not much, you say? Then why not have some Hard Fun (and some great food!)

Sunday is the day before ISTE starts in Philadelphia, but you don’t have to be attending ISTE to come to the Constructivist Celebration!


For the fifth year in a row, this day-long workshop combines fun, creativity and computing. For a very reasonable $60, you will receive free creativity software worth hundreds of dollars from the world’s best school software companies, breakfast, snacks and lunch, and a full-day workshop led by Gary Stager and other members of the Constructivist Consortium. It’s always a sell-out, but right now there are still a few spaces left to join in the fun, so register today – you won’t regret it!

At the end of the day, I’ll moderate a conversation between Will Richardson (author and king of  the edubloggers) and Gary Stager on “Digging Deeper” which is sure to be fun and thought-provoking.

Hard Fun is one of the 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab, and we’ll be having some this Sunday!

Hope to see you there –


5th Annual Constructivist Celebration @ ISTE 2011

logoThe Constructivist Consortium is hosting its 5th annual Constructivist Celebration in Philadelphia, on Sunday, June 26, 2011 – the day before the ISTE Conference begins.

Join colleagues from around the world in a day-long minds-on celebration of creativity, computers and constructivist learning.

The Constructivist Celebration features project-based activities geared towards K-12 educators, administrators & teacher educators.

This year’s theme is HARD FUN! Educators completing a difficult year deserve some HARD FUN!

The day ends with a conversation with Will Richardson.

After a kickoff keynote by Dr. Gary Stager, participants will select challenges using the open-ended creativity software provided by Constructivist Consortium members, including LCSI, Tech4Learning and Inspiration. In addition to your mind and spirit, your body will be nourished by continental breakfast, hot lunch and afternoon snacks courtesy of Maggiano’s Little Italy! Last year’s participants could not stop raving about the food!

The day ends with time for project sharing and reflection followed by a conversation, “Digging Deeper,” with Will Richardson and Gary Stager. I’ll be there too!

Best of all, the entire day – software, an endles feast and a spa-day for the mind costs only $60.

Register today! Past Constructivist Celebrations have been extremely popular and space is limited.

Click here for more information!

Tinkering and STEM – good for girls, good for all

I’m excited to be an invited panelist at the National Council of Women in IT (NCWIT) Summit on Women and IT: practices and ideas to revolutionize computing next week in New York City. The topic is Tinkering: How Might ‘Making Stuff’ Influence Girls’ Interest in STEM and Computing?… and I’m the “K-12” voice on the panel.

We were each asked to do an introductory 5 minutes to establish our point of view about these issues. I started with a slide deck I use about tinkering and technology literacy and managed to cut it down to about 20 minutes when I thought – why not share this version on Slideshare! So here it is.

School only honors one type of design and problem-solving methodology, the traditional analytical step-by-step model. It ignores other problem-solving styles that are more non-linear, more collaborative, more artistic, etc. These styles are seen as “messy” or “soft” with the implication that they are not reliable. However, who do we lose when we ignore, or worse, denigrate alternative styles of problem-solving. I think one answer may be “girls” but honestly, it’s broader than that. We lose all kinds of people who are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. And these are exactly the people I want solving the problems we face in the 21st century.

Teaching a tinkering model of problem-solving is good for girls because it’s good for everyone.


Big problems require small solutions

While co-hosting the TEDxNYED event last week, I found myself wondering how the amazing solutions I was hearing could spread. How could we get more students connecting globally like Brian Crosby’s kids; how could more at-risk students be freed from the assessment and curriculum that failed them so they could excel like the students Gary Stager worked with in the Maine prison; how could every urban school be part of an urban garden network teaching youth and the community about low cost, healthy food… the list was endless.

It struck me that day – some problems are so big they need small solutions.

I heard several people say after these talks – “Yes, sure, that was great, BUT IS IT SCALABLE?”

I’d always considered that a reasonable question. But now, I think it’s a rhetorical trick that really means. “CAN IT FIT INTO THE CURRENT SYSTEM?”

Scalable should mean replication. Can you do “it” – whatever “it” is, over and over again. And the answer is yes, you can have urban gardens, do away with 19th century curriculum, and have globally connected classrooms IF you let the conditions flourish on the ground level. IF you let the teachers teach and the students learn. IF you let the solution be a small solution, carried out at a human scale. IF it remains a local, adaptable solution that meets the needs of the participants, not the system. The proof of that was given by Dennis Littky of the Big Picture Schools, who has started over 60 schools that value each and every student. That’s scalability.

But it doesn’t mean you impose a solution from above, put layers of bureaucracy and administration on it, and add untold costs in demanding that everyone do the same thing. We are just used to doing things that way in American education and we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s cheaper, more efficient, and the American Way. It’s not. Every problem is not a moonshot or the same as building interstate highways. Learning is certainly not.

Big problems require small solutions. And they demand we trust in the human beings implementing those solutions. My thought for the day.


PS – The videos from TEDxNYED are not up on the site yet – when they are, I’ll link them up to the examples in this post.

Syracuse here we come!

I’m heading to Syracuse, New York next week to keynote the March ITD TALK series at the Central New York Regional Information Center (CNYRIC) on March 17, 2011. We have a really special day planned for all the attendees, because after my talk, there will be presentations by students and teachers from local GenYES and TechYES schools.

So if you are in the area and want to see student technology leadership and literacy in action, be sure to register and come by! I’ll be setting it up in the morning talking about how we must expand our narrow view of technology professional development to include more than one shot, one-size-fits-all, “sit and get” sessions.

GenYES and TechYES in Action
Teachers and students from Jamesville DeWitt High School and Baldwinsville’s Ray Middle School will be on-hand to discuss their experiences with the GenYES and TechYES programs in their respective schools. GenYES is the only student-centered research-based solution for school-wide technology integration. Students work with teachers to design technology-infused lessons and provide tech support. In TechYES, students show technology literacy by creating projects that meet state and local technology proficiency requirements. As part of TechYES, a structured peer-mentoring program assists the teacher or advisor, and provides student leadership opportunities that serve to further strengthen the program and enrich the learning community.

Hope to see you there!


Tips for presenters and keynotes – add your best ideas!

So after sharing my pain about a not-so-great presentation (The bad dress rehearsal) the other day, Allanah King commented:

For the first time in my life I have been asked to keynote a conference and almost balked at the thought of it. The whole ball game changes when you are the person at the front rather than than the tweeter at the back!

I have decided to give it a go and hope that I will be up to the task.

Apart from backing everything up twice and bringing a stand alone electricity generator have you got any tips for me??

So I think the best thing to do is to crowdsource this – what are your best ideas for presenters and keynotes? Please share in the comments!


The bad dress rehearsal

There’s a belief among theater folks that if you have a bad dress rehearsal, it means you will have a good performance opening night. I’m hoping that proves to be true in regards to conference presentations too!

Next week I’m keynoting the Learning@School 2011 conference in Rotorua, New Zealand (Feb 23-25).

I’ve been working on my keynote presentation and thought it would be a good idea to test some of it at PETE&C, the wonderful Pennsylvania state educational technology conference. I added a lot of video of student work, students talking about how their leadership opportunities using technology changed their lives, and more. I always like to SHOW the results of student empowerment rather than just TELL about it.

But as my friend Gary Stager likes to say, multimedia is just Latin for “doesn’t work in front of an audience.” Just a few minutes into my presentation my speakers went dead. Now I’m faced with a dilemma – do you stop what you are doing to do tech support in front of 100 people? Do you just skip the video? Do you try to paraphrase what’s happening in your now silent video? ACK!

I asked if anyone in the audience had any speakers – and one woman came up with hers. Success! Wonderful sound….for about 20 seconds. Then the battery light started blinking, the sound faded away and she apologetically said she had forgotten to charge them up. Back to square one. I fumbled my way through the rest of the presentation, hoping my enthusiasm would make up for the lack of real examples.

By the end of the talk I was pretty discouraged, feeling sad that people didn’t see all the marvelous goodies I had to share and thinking about all the things I should have done differently. It was very heartening that several people came up to me and said that the session had been very inspiring and they were already thinking about some new ways to empower their students with technology. I also saw some very nice tweets about the session. Other people cheered me up with stories about much worse technical calamities that they had endured at conferences or in the classroom. There seems to be relief in shared pain!

But bottom line (and new speakers in hand) I am ready to prove the old theater adage completely right. The bad dress rehearsal surely means that my keynote for New Zealand will be great! Kia ora!


Educon 2.3 – a new kind of education conference

Next weekend in Philadelphia will be the fourth annual Educon conference. I’m happy to say I’ve been to all of them so far, and it’s grown into one of my favorites of the year.

There are several things I love about Educon:

  • It’s small. Capped at 500 people, it’s intimate enough that you get a “sense” of what people are thinking and the shifts occurring in real time.
  • Authenticity gives it voice and shape. Held at the Science Leadership Academy, a public magnet school with a progressive philosophy in the center of Philadelphia, the vibrancy of the school (both from teachers and students) shines through the event.
  • It’s not a trade show. So many educational conferences, even the ones with academic roots, have morphed into what Gary Stager calls “boat shows.” The focus on sales creates a different kind of atmosphere. Educon is about educators thinking out loud together without the carnival barkers.
  • Conversations, not sessions. At most conferences, people always wonder why discussions of new ways to teach and learn are held in old style lecture halls, and the interesting conversations are the ones in the hall. Educon has tried to bring those conversations to the forefront.
  • It’s centered in practice. Being in a school is not just about the building. The teachers and students are full participants in the conference and model collaboration, non-coercive learning and empowerment throughout. You can tell it’s what they do on a regular basis and it raises the bar for everyone.

I’m leading a conversation this year about gaming in education, “If Games are the Answer, What’s the Question?” Games in education are a hot topic these days, with all the usual mix of reality and hype that goes along with that. I definitely have strong opinions (which I’ll share) – but not the whole time. I hope to have a lively discussion where we’ll look at some games and talk about what makes them “good” for learning or not. Ultimately, perhaps we can come to some conclusions about what to look for in games for different subjects and classrooms.

I’d appreciate any input here or on the Educon page for this session about any particular games that people are curious about and want to discuss. I’ll try to have some screen shots prepared since there really won’t be time to download and play a lot of games AND have a discussion.

If you are coming to this session in person or via the live web streaming, please come with a downloaded game to share, or post suggestions here.


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