“What Really Matters is Inside the Learner’s Head”

I came across a wonderfully thought-provoking quote. It was in a video created by Derek Muller entitled This Will Revolutionize Education. Early on, Derek critiques frequent claims that each new educational technology, whether it be the SmartBoard or laptop, will “revolutionize education.” He argued that such predictions rarely come true. What consistently does make the difference? According to Muller, it comes back to a couple basics: quality teachers and what takes place in the brains of each learner.

“Well, if you think that the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to their students, then you’re right, they [teachers] are obsolete. I mean, you probably imagine a classroom where this teacher is spewing out facts at a pace which is appropriate for one student, too fast for half, and too slow for the rest. Luckily, the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information. It is to guide the social process of learning. The job of a teacher is to inspire, to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn. Yes, they also explain and demonstrate and show things, but fundamentally that is beside the point. The most important thing a teacher does is make sure every student feel like they are important, to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning…The foundation of education is still based on the social interaction of teachers and students. For as transformational as new technology seems to be…what really matters is inside the learner’s head. And making a learner think seems best achieved in a social environment with other learners and a caring teacher ” – Derek Muller video on This Will Revolutionize Education

I’ll admit that my eyes start to roll when I hear and read the “teachers are what really matter” statements, not because I think teachers are unimportant. It is because the statements don’t seem to be backed up with any substantive philosophy or explanation. “Put a teacher in a room and magic happens.” I’ve been in enough classes to know that is not true. I suspect that you have as well.

So what is different about Muller’s statement? I see three things.

First, he places his comments about teachers within a philosophy of education that believes in the value and importance of social interaction. It is amid complex social exchanges that we see rich opportunities for learning everything from science to social studies, a new language to exploring the meaning in a new text. I don’t happen to think that this is the only way for high-impact learning to take place, but I’ve seen enough true learning communities and I’ve read enough scholarly research about the subject to know that social interaction is indeed a powerful force in education.

Second, he starts by explaining what he does not mean when he talks about the importance of teachers. He doesn’t mean lecturers. He does not mean people who think that content distribution is their greatest gift to students. He doesn’t mean people who teach an entire class as if all students think and learning in the same ways and same pace. He doesn’t mean people who ignore the unique needs, challenges and opportunities of each learner.

Third, he doesn’t just talk about teachers, and this is what makes the quote so rich and thought-provoking. Instead, he also devotes time to learners, what happens in their brains. As I’ve stated many times and in many places, the only essential ingredients of a learning learning experience are a learning and an experience. Learning happens in the brain. Students learn when they think…when they think deeply and persistently. When learners brains are working hard, neurons are firing and wiring together, creating memories, resulting new the acquisition of new knowledge and skill. For Muller, this best happens through social interaction between a student and caring teacher. However, even if one doesn’t accept that claim, the learner-centered statement stands on its own.

What if learning organizations only focused on this one critical factor, making it an unavoidable school-shaping concept? Learning happens when students are thinking deeply and persistently about something. Much of the work about instructional design, classroom management, and motivation is connected to this single concept. Get students thinking deeply and persistently about the subject and they will learn. This challenges the concept of lectures, but it doesn’t demand that we get rid of them. Instead, we ask if the lecture is getting each student to think deeply and persistently. This guiding question can inform how we go about blended and online learning, high-tech and low-tech learning, independent learning and collaborative learning. Is it getting students to think…to really think?

I don’t want to oversimply things. There are many other aspects of a high-impact learning experiences. At the same time, this statement gets to the heart of the matter. Learning happens in the brain, but it doesn’t happen unless that brain is active and focused on the desired knowledge or skill. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, but from thinking and doing hard things, and the teacher that matters is the one who focuses upon doing what it takes to gets students thinking.

10 Ways to Integrate the Offline World into Your Online Course

Do fully online courses exist? Or, are good online courses ever fully online? I know the first seems like a strange question, because we all know that such things exist, at least as we usually think of online courses. And the second question seems like a challenge to the concept of online courses, but it is not. Instead, this is my way of suggesting strategies for highly personal and potentially high-impact online courses by leveraging an aspect of online course design that is sometimes forgotten, namely the offline world. With that in mind, following are tips for integrating the offline world in your online courses.

1. Start with the Learner

This may seem insignificant at first, but I find it critical to remember that the single most important part of your online course is never online, the student. After all, one of the fundamental rules of good instructional design and teaching is “know your learner.” The student who will take your online course lives in a physical world, surrounding by physical people and things. Consider that world when you design your course. Provide suggestions to the students on how to create or find spaces that are conducive to studying, reflecting, and learning in the course. Ask students to look at their life schedule and share upfront when they are blocking off time to work on the course amid their other responsibilities and life challenges (That also lets you know good times to contact them). As an ice-breaker, have students share a few pictures from the world around them…and them in that world. It provides context, personalizes the experience, and it is a fresh ice-breaker and way to get to know each other a bit better. Early in the course, have students reflect on the physical world around them. How can that world help them in this course and what distractions will they need to manage? And on a more fundamental level, start the course by making sure students have the necessary physical hardware expected in the class (computer, headphones and mic (if necessary), tool for creating images and video, etc.).

2. Build for Offline Breaks and the Use of Physical Movement

Don’t design massively long video lectures or content without planning for breaks. Break the videos into segments and verbally suggest that students take breaks. In your instructions for activities and exercises, be explicit and intentional about tips for when to take a break and why. You can include tips like, “It might be good to take a quick break, go on walk, or do something else for a bit before you move on to this next part.” Check out some of the research about the value of movement and learning, note-taking, memory and breaks, and engaging all the senses. Think about how you can leverage these in your online course. For example, think about an interactive recorded lecture online where you give the student activities within the lecture (things to say out loud, movements that serve as anchors for remembering items, a scavenger hunt…like go find an item in your room or house that you could use as an analogy or illustration to explain this idea to someone else…). These activities can increase engagement, increase understanding and sometimes add a level of fun and playfulness. Try this Teacher Toolbox for Physical Activity Breaks for a few ideas.

3. Interviews

Consider how you can give students assignments to conduct simple and informal or deep and formal interviews to enhance their learning in the class. They can interview people in their family and community. This can be a great way to have students build a personal learning network in the physical world, learn from experts, better understand how what they are learning applies in real-world contexts, and it adds a rich type of face-to-face interaction to the online course design.

4. Observations

Create assignments that require students to observe the natural world, people, or groups of people. Then have them report back what they learned and experienced. This can be an individual writing assignment, an ongoing learning journal, a follow-up real-time chat with you as the instructor, or a contribution to an asynchronous online discussion. These can add a rich and practical element to courses in many subject areas. Don’t be too quick to suggest that it doesn’t work for your content area. Almost everything we teach has implications in the physical world. Find those implications and use them to help the students make meaningful connections.

5. Service Learning

Service learning integrates meaningful community service into a curriculum, and adds substantive reflection and debriefing. How can students use what they are learning in the course to serve someone in a small or simple way? It doesn’t need to be a commitment that takes hours or days. It might even be micro-acts. How could you add 5-minute service learning activities that relate to what you are teaching? This adds engagement, leverages the human connection, and models how this content can help you love the neighbors (literal and figurative) in this world.

6. Show and Tell from the Offline World

I mentioned this onet in #2, but have students make analogies and connections between what they are learning and what they see in the physical world around them. This drives their thinking to higher levels (analysis, evaluation, even creation), and it makes for fun and interesting sharing in the online discussions. The students are forced to think deeply about what they are learning, and their examples can help others in the class better understand concepts.

7. Experiments

This is done in some online science classes by actually including a lab-in-a-box or kitchen science experiments. However, it can work in almost any content area. What are social, personal, or physical experiments they could try to better understand a concept or to learn something new? I’ve successfully used what I call life experiments for some time. I have students test out a concept or idea by creating some sort of relevant social experiment, reporting their findings, and reflecting on what they can learn from the findings. This works very well for social science classes, but with a little creativity, you can come up with wonderfully engaging life experiments for almost any class. Some of these can even be designed as games they try to play with someone or a group.

8. Images and Video Footage

Each learner in an online class may come from a different physical location, so why not leverage that diversity in the class? Have students capture relevant pictures and video footage from their unique world, connecting that with specific lessons and concepts that are being learned. Over time, the students collectively generate a rich repository of visual and multimedia content for the class.

9. Peer Feedback

Build into assignments the requirement to run their work or ideas past one or more people in the physical world. They don’t need to find someone to carefully edit their work, maybe just give five minutes of time to talk through a few of the ideas and share their impression.

10. Connect Offline

Sometimes you have online students who are local, or students in the class who live close to one another. A quick meeting at a coffee shop, library or the school can be a rich enhancement. Or, in the absence of this, you can use any number of synchronous tools with video to add a visual and real-time element to a course. Phone chats work as well. These are not entirely offline, but they do add some of the affordances of communication in physical spaces. Also, encourage students who live near one another to try one or two study sessions. In my experience, this adds a wonderfully personal element to their online learning experience.

What do you think? Are you ready to integrate the offline world into your online class? Consider trying a few of these and see how they work. It will help to conduct your own short survey or questionnaire to get feedback on how students experience these physical enhancements. Or, having students keep a learning journal will give you keen insights into how the offline design features are impacting the student experience.

20 Signs that you are a Student-Centered Teacher (or do you prefer facilitator?)

  1. You devote significant time helping students learn how to learn.
  2. You pride yourself on being the one to bring the conversation back to, “What is best for the learners?”
  3. You realize that the only non-negotiable in a learning environment is the learner, not the teacher.
  4. You may like educational technologies, but you demand evidence that they are actually helping improve individual student learning.
  5. You like to point out that you teach students, not content.
  6. You know strengths and challenges of each learner in your class.
  7. You think about those strengths and challenges when you are planning lessons, often as much or more than the content.
  8. You choose strategies that are sometimes difficult or uncomfortable for you because you know that they are helping learners.
  9. You are also constantly looking for new strategies and teaching and learning “possibilities” that will help individual learners.
  10. You measure success of a lesson or unit by the success of individual learners (What did they learn?).
  11. You live to eradicate bell curves. If you saw a bell curve in your class, you would wonder what you did wrong.
  12. Your students both ask and answer more questions than you.
  13. Student questions are often not even directed at you.
  14. You value and respond to student comments about what and how they learn.
  15. You act like a learning detective, persistently scanning the classroom for signs of learning and struggles.
  16. You talk to individual learners and small groups of learners more than you talk to the entire class.
  17. You measure your success by the work of the students more than your own work.
  18. You might even consider student portfolios to be a better measure of your success than your own resume.
  19. You love it when your students don’t need or depend upon you in order to learn.
  20. You assess much more than you grade…and you know the difference.