I am clearly biased, but I believe that we are living in one of the most exciting times in history when it comes to education. Yes, we have problems to address, but we also are also starting to see some amazing innovations that have immense promise to democratize learning, leverage the growing science of learning, and personalize learning in a way that equips and empowers more people than ever before. We also know that things are moving so fast that it is hard to keep up. I know many people in education who feel that way. So, how do you deal with that? Well, I would love for you try one of the excellent online programs at my place of work, but there are also many ways to go the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) route. I suggest ten steps to becoming competence and confident with a new area in education. Whether you want to learn about project-based learning, self-directed learning, learning analytics, blended and online learning, digital badges for learning, game-based learning, 1:1 programs, or any other emerging practice, all you need to do is pick the topic and then commit to going through the following ten steps (not necessarily in order), committing at least 1 hour to each one, but 20 hours divided among all of them (or 40 for a really deep dive learning journey). You can become relatively competent and confident (albeit not an expert) in just 20 hours. Give it a try and let me know how it goes for you.
As you start, create a place where you can keep a log of your learning and experiences. It can be an old-fashioned notebook, a tool like Google Docs or Evernote, or even an online blog so others can follow along.
Before you even have a full understanding of the topic, try to get a couple of hours of direct experience with it. Being an observer is okay. Being a participant observer is better. Being a fully immersed participant is best. If it is game-based learning that you want to explore, find a place online or in-person where you can experience (or at least witness first-hand) learning from a game-based learning experience. If you have time, getting a couple of experiences from which to compare is especially helpful.
Now that you have experienced it, you are ready to define it. Look around at various definitions. Compare them. What do they have in common? What is different about them? Based on a bit of research, create your own working definition or explanation. Try to be thouthful and precise. Choose your words carefully. You don’t want any fluff. Make it meaningful, informative and substantive. Write it down like you were trying to explain it to someone use. Use examples and illustrations to help clarify the definition. As you go through the other steps, come back to this and refine it based on your new learning.
You don’t have to follow these in perfect order, but at some point you want to more deeply study the topic. This is where you look for a few more substantive resources; maybe whitepapers, scholarly journal articles, a book chapter or two, informative videos, or in-depth blog posts. Take the time to learn from them. Be studious about it. Take notes. Ask questions. Strive for a deep understanding. Consider asking a person who is well-informed about the topic to suggest their two or three favorite resources on the subject.
Play With It
Try out your new knowledge. Sketch out a few ideas for how you would use it in a lesson. Try parts of it on a real lesson with students. Create a simple project that you can try out with friends or family. Have fun, but focused fun. Don’t worry about being perfect or polished. Just enjoy experimenting with it in some authentic environment…ideally with real people.
Talk About It
As you are doing these others, find people who are interested, connect with them, and talk about what you are learning. Ask them questions about what they know about it. Be “really curious” in your conversations. Your goal is to be genuinely interested in the thoughts and insights of the other person, to clarify your thinking, to consider different applications, benefits and limitations.
We have plenty of walking advertisements for educational trends and innovations, but we need more thoughtful people who examine the benefits and limitations of each area. Project-based learning is great for in-depth exploration, but it isn’t as amazing for learning something new quickly. It has plenty of other benefits and limitations as well. Force yourself to critically analyze the practice. What are the benefits? What are the limitations? In what contexts or situations does it work especially well, and where does it not seem to work as well? This needs to be more than your gut reactions and biases. Challenge yourself to be relentless in both your praise and critique. Be honest, persistent, and analytical. This will help you cultivate a wisdom that will serve you will with this new practice.
Design It and Try It
At some point, you want to design and teach new lessons informed by this practice. Consider doing at least two of these if you have the time. Do keep in mind, however, that first attempts don’t always work perfectly. Imagine how few basketball players we would have if people quit after missing their first effort to make a basket. I’ve seen teachers do this often with something like project-based learning. They try something once and it doesn’t go well. So, they assume that it must be the new strategy that is to fault. Since when did we blame a piano if we couldn’t play it on the first attempt? Whether it is basketball, learning a new instrument, or learning a new educational method or strategy, they all take practice…which leads us to the next one.
Practice It (ideally with feedback from a mentor)
Try it again and again. It doesn’t need to be something massive. Just get practice with it. It is ideal to find a mentor who can give you feedback on your practice, sort of like a piano teacher or a basketball coach would do. If possible, having them observe and give feedback is great. If not, at least have a meeting before and/or after to talk through the plans and debrief how it went with them. Listen to their advice, adjust, practice again, and get more feedback.
Reflect On It
Remember the first suggestion…log it? That is where you can reflect on your learning. What are you learning? What is helping? What is hurting? What is frustrating and exhilarating? What is inspiring? What is working and what is not? What else might you try? What else might you need to learn or practice to improve the results? Use such questions to reflect on the process. It will help you become more thoughtful and intentional, but it will also help solidify your learning.
That is it. Pick a topic and dedicate at least 20 hours to doing these ten steps. If you want a deeper learning experience, go for a 40 hour learning journey. As you go through it, use your judgement to decide how you want to divide your time. For some learning projects you might devote more time to the defining and studying. For others, the bulk of your time will be in practicing and reflecting. Find out what works best for you and go for it. And while I already gave you ten steps, I’ll finish with an 11th. Somewhere along the way, share it. Spread the word about your lessons learned so that it can help the next person who wants to go on a similar journey. Blog it.