Entry #5: Formal Context

A number of years ago I consulted as a subcontractor for a company that provided both professional development about and software for curriculum mapping.  The software was a suite of 3 programs designed to streamline instructional documentation — curriculum maps, unit plans, and gradebook.  All consultants had to be certified in the mapping software and the professional development modules.  Many were certified for the unit planning software and modules.  Even fewer were certified for the gradebook components primarily because of its complexity.  By the summer of 2014 the number of certified consultants was down to two and the company needed to train more consultants to learn the software in order to keep it a viable part of the suite.  

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-07-15-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-06-31-pmThe course was conducted by another very senior consultant who had many years experience with the application.  We all knew each other very well, having co-presented PD multiple times over the years.  That made  for a high degree of collegiality and support in the group.  The class met for 2.5 hours once a week at the same time each week throughout the summer.  The instructor had a very no-nonsense demeanor which characterized both her style as well as how she organized the course material.  Goals were clear and immediately applicable for our work.  The structure was mostly a repetitive “I do, we do, you do” model followed by clarifying procedural questions.  She consistently focused on interface elements she knew were particularly complex or non-intuitive and allowed us to ask more questions around these elements.  Each lesson finished with a homework assignment that gave us opportunities to practice what we had learned during the session.  She monitored our work in the program as well as requiring we email additional assignments when completed.  We received feedback only if we asked for it which made it feel as if we were simply emailing documents into the ether.

The instructor mainly lectured and demonstrated the software in a scripted manner.  So the level of equity was dependent upon whether or not our learning style worked with her teaching style as well as our individual ability to self-advocate, ask questions, and solicit feedback on our own work.  It was quite possible to make it through every online session, clicking away at the software without ever directly interacting with either the instructor or other learners.  This always struck me as ironic since the company prided itself on learner-centered PD.

Our classroom was online, though it did not consist of a unified platform like D2L.  GoToMeeting was how we conferenced in with the only video component being the presenter’s shared screen.  As a result, there was a bit of bouncing between G2M and the software when it was time for us to practice.  The lack of video for all attendees to see and interact with each other had a considerable, and I’d say, negative impact.  Not only did this setup make it easy to check out of the class, it also reinforced the individual, non-collaborative nature of the work.  It was mostly a one-way conversation with information flowing from instructor to students and questions going from students to instructor.  Fostering more collaboration between learners — especially with software training — would have made for more diverse perspectives, not to mention learning a complicated program more efficient.

I never want to be the presentation.  When I’m teaching any learners — adolescents or adults — I try to get away with saying the minimum possible while still setting up an effective learning environment.  The more the learners do, the more successfully they will learn.  So I do my best to be the “guide on the side”.  I also believe I’m not the smartest person in the room and that we are smarter collectively anyway.  That greatly influences my planning in as much as my lessons almost always have paired or grouped discussion components.  Regardless of whether I’m working with kids or grownups, all learners benefit from formative assessment and metacognitive thought.  They too are centerpieces of my instruction.  None of these elements were present in my colleague’s instruction. What I would take from her book would be to make more and better use of collaborative work by telepresence.  Plus, our course work in the past few weeks around informal learning contexts has me eager to try to subvert formal contexts by creating informal dynamics within them.

Entry #4: More Informal Digital Learning

Probably the most informal of my digital learning is my love of podcasts and Audible.  These themselves are extensions of my NPR addiction.  Yes, I’m that cliche one hears during every pledge drive.  I’ve lost track of how many stories I’ve heard during a Driveway Moment that I put to use in class in one way or another.  Part of what I love about podcasts is the wild and wooly nature of the podcasting landscape.  I’ve listened to Valerie Jarrett get tipsy while discussing policy with BuzzFeed contributors Heben & Tracy on Another Round.  I’ve been spellbound by David Gushee and Frances Kissling’s riveting conversation about the tragically narrow nature of the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate as part of Krista Tippett’s “Civil Conversations Project” on On Being.  I’ve learned all kinds of details from The American History Guys on Backstory that we’re never taught in school about how the US became the US.  I have drawn inspiration for many a professional learning theme from Terry O’Reilly’s Under the Influence — a show about the history of advertising.  Looking over my Cast feed, my tastes range all over the map. My Audible library, on the other hand, is much more focused to almost exclusively science fiction and non-fiction of mainly history, science, and social science topics.  Right now I’m listening to The Big Picture:On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself  by Sean Carroll in which I’m now finding many connections to this class as we start to plumb the neurological aspects of learning.

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A handful of my favorite podcasts

 

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A sample of my Audible library

 

What’s interesting is that I listen to all this material for my own interests and pleasure.  I don’t set out to mine a particular show or audiobook for professional learning material.  But as I’m listening I “naturally” or nearly subconsciously connect relevant information to my education practice — be it teaching adolescents or adults.  This is just more confirmation of how powerful the “informal” contexts are for learning.  I rarely plan to sit down with a podcast or audiobook — that is until I get hooked on a good one and then I try to find as much free time as possible to listen!  It’s almost always a spontaneous decision.  And I certainly never have a notebook and pen poised to capture useful information.  I listen in the most informal of informal contexts — when I’m driving, getting dressed, cooking, doing laundry.  These are usually some of my most relaxed moments.  Once again, I’m visualizing my synapses firing like Barbara Oakley’s diffuse mode pinball machine.   

I try to keep found material within a digital context, documenting relevant material I hear via Twitter or make a note in Google Keep.  Out of the “Big 3” social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), Twitter is the one I use the most for sharing and finding professional resources.

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It’s fun to point teachers to it in a PD session.  “Ok, everyone take out your phones and open Twitter.  If you don’t have the app, find a buddy who does.”  (I love the looks.  Sadly, we hardly ever hear someone in a faculty meeting say, “Take out your phones.”!)  It’s exciting to showcase Twitter as a useful tool for professionals and not just a time-wasting app.

With all the examples of the fruitfulness of “informal” learning that we’ve uncovered in the past few weeks, I’m realizing I have do more to create such spaces within the professional learning seminars I conduct.  Flowing from podcasts to Twitter can be quite the timesaver.  Especially when planning and presenting professional learning.  There’s no need to make a bunch of slides when I can have everyone take out their phone and make their own meaning and share in discussion.  What is less productive is the way I discover material.  What I find and when I find it is very much up to chance since this is all casual listening.  I never know what I’ll hear and if it will connect to work.  Looking back over this journal entry, it’s clear I draw from many different disciplines in order to inform and enrich my own teaching and learning.  I guess I’ve been a learning scientist for a while now!

 

Entry #3: Informal Digital Learning

photos-pendingUpdate:  Latest ah-ha resulting from a few moments of diffuse mode brain activity.  This journal entry essentially describes what I was trying to characterize as informal learning.  However, I realize now that what I do is try to turn informal online learning into formal learning — at least when it comes to learning a large and complicated program like Photoshop.  Yet we’ve just spent the last week discussing the power of informal learning.  So now I’m wondering how I might reframe my Photoshop sessions such that I emphasize the most effective aspects of informal learning and trusting that the dynamics of informal contexts will be just as powerful as formal contexts — if not more so.  Now I’m not so sure you need to read the rest of my typically TLDR journal post.  But skip to the end to see my friend, Hope!  wink_emoji

Looking ahead at the metacognitive journal assignments, it seems the next few entries will continue to explore my thinking about becoming a better photographer.  I’ve never thought about where I do the bulk of my informal learning.  Though it seems my photography is where I focus.  At first, this realization draws a red flag.  Why am I not spending the same amount of time in informal learning for my profession?  Isn’t it crucial as an educator to keep learning?  Setting aside questions of work/life balance and the fact that my personal interests are just as worthy of time spent learning as my professional interests, I do allocate quite a bit of time for informal professional learning as well.  Though if pressed, I would probably say I spend more time in formal learning contexts than informal contexts for my professional self.  But that’s the stuff of another entry.

When it comes to online learning, I am an extremely critical learner due to the fact that I used to deliver regular webinars for several years. Consequently, I have a very low tolerance for poorly designed and/or poorly executed web-based learning.  And there are a lot of bad webinars out there that ought to be much better regardless of whether they are paid or free.  Luckily, I’ve found some very good online resources in the world of photography.

Upon reflection, I notice I go searching for learning materials when there is a discrete photographic skill I’m looking to develop at a particular moment.  Recently, for instance, I have wanted to explore macro photography.  After purchasing and playing with a fantastic macro lens, I then went right to my primary online photography subscription, Digital Photography School (DPS).  So I’d say learning individual skills seem to drive my online learning as a photographer.  As an adult learner, this makes sense.  The learning is done very much in the moment I want or need it.  It’s immediately applicable in my work which makes it relevant.  I’m making 100% of the choices about what, where, when and how I learn the material.  What I appreciate about DPS as well is that it is a rich community of learners (even though I don’t think they’d describe themselves in that way).  The comment sections of the articles turn into forums for photo sharing, discussion, questioning and critique.  So feedback is interactive, quick and useful.

Another online source I’ve used is Phlearn.  This site is a phenomenal resource for learning all things Photoshop.  While I don’t spend much time using PS, it is something that comes in handy when I’ve taken a picture that cannot be sufficiently developed or corrected in Lightroom.  But the learning curve on PS, for full-on fluency is around 100 hours and I am being very complimentary even calling myself a novice.  Phlearn is not free and is not inexpensive.  However, both the video tutorials the the instruction are very high quality.

Neither DPS nor Phlearn offer live webinars, which makes sense given the subject matter.  (Though could be a cool thing to try online!)  So all learning is independent and self-paced.  To ensure I kept up with this learning, I spent real money for Photoshop courses 101, 201, & 301. That’s twelve modules. I figured throwing my Visa at it would put some real skin in the game.  Yet I still find it challenging to prioritize and protect the same kind of time and effort these tutorials require.  Clearly, I’m more likely to apply consistent effort to deep, complex learning like this when it’s a “live” event, where there are regular and required interactions with assignments, the curriculum, the instructor, other learners.  I’d say that’s the main difference when it comes to complex, conceptual learning compared to learning discrete skills.  The latter I can easily do with a click-and-read online.  The former requires much more constructive pressure to persist.

Comparing the online learning design described above to non-digital experiences, the greatest differences are in environment, process, pace, interactions and affect.  The environment is can be just about anywhere I have an internet connection.  I’ve watched all of the Phlearn tutorials at home where I can more easily manipulate practice materials.  However, I’ve watched some of their free Youtube content while on the train or at the in-laws’.  The same is true of DPS articles.  They make for great reading on the train — especially with my phone or DSLR in hand.  With this subject matter I can take the tutorials where the photographic subjects are and practice on the spot.  Processes are determined by what I want to learn and practice at the moment.  This is different from non-digital learning where goals and assignments are usually determined and set by the instructor.  Interactions are limited to those with the computer as none of these are live events.  Though the comment sections of DPS will bring some interaction with others in the community, though not in real-time.  In terms of participant affect, I find I get very excited on either platform when I’ve actually learned something conceptually, not just mimicked an outcome.  When I “get it” and can apply the skill or technique with my camera or software in a particular context.  Posting on DPS comments almost always comes with some anxiety.  Trolls can be obnoxious.  But when people are generous in their feedback and kind in their tone, I feel very affirmed and motivated to keep working, to keep growing, to keep participating.

There’s more photography and metacognition on Youtube.  Enjoy!

Entry #2: Informal Learning Context

I’m one of those people who just doesn’t feel legit about something unless I’ve taken a class or read a book about it.  This is especially so when it comes to my photography, even though  photography is one of those things that you really do get better at the more you practice.  Your eye develops.  You get the hang of balancing ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to control light and depth of field.  Knowing when to use a manual shooting mode or more automated settings.  Plus, the feedback is instant now with digital cameras and social media.

For the last year or so, I’ve been wanting to develop my abilities for street photography.  One small obstacle:  I feel very uncomfortable taking pictures of strangers.   So to get a better understanding and more comfortable with the style, I signed up for a street photography seminar a couple weeks ago, held at a local photography store/gallery.

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Notes from street photography seminar

I attended with a friend who is also a teacher and looking to improve her still photography skills as a way to develop as a film student.  Adding a social element with a trusted friend was a good motivator.  The night of the seminar we scheduled a day to go shooting together so we’d be sure to apply our new learning as soon as possible.  The seminar itself was quite informal — about 10 people from all walks, gathered in a camera supply store drinking soft drinks and coffee, eating cookies, listening to a lecture from a fairly well-known street photographer.  And there we were, the only ones with notebooks out and ready to write down everything we heard.  We laughed at that and embraced our learning styles!

The presenter’s material was incredibly well-organized.  Nearly all ideas were illustrated with example photographs.  Even more bizarre, it was as if her presentation was based on all my own questions and anxieties.  Apparently, my questions and concerns are not unique to me.

After 3 hours, I left with better understandings about the kinds of work that constitute street photography.  I had strategies for very specific techniques including photographing complete strangers, more artistic ways of capturing architecture, and using shadow for dramatic effect.  I left with knowledge about digital media rights, laws regarding creation and display of fine art, and, given the subject matter, some thinking about ethics.  (The ethics material was not at all something I expected.  Yet, given the subject, it made a lot of sense and completely held my attention given its relevance.)

Informal learning of this kind differs from formal learning in a few ways.  One is its highly specific nature both in terms of goals and relevance.  My goals were very specific and the seminar addressed only those goals.  In addition, the material was something I would immediately apply in my art and it dealt with concepts I was ready to take on.  Also, these kinds of learning events are short.  It matters that the learning time was limited and the  syllabus very specific.  This differs from traditional learning settings where classes can run for months and cover a wide variety of subjects within some broader content area.  This alone has me rethinking how I plan instruction and share or develop growth goals with learners.

Would anyone else have found the seminar of earth-shattering value?  Probably not.  But all the elements of the program addressed every one of very specific questions I had.  Having answers gave me the confidence I lacked mere hours before.  After so much formal learning I’ve encountered in my life, these kinds of events stand out as some of the most powerful learning experiences I’ve had.

Here’s some evidence of my learning.

 

 

 

 

Entry #1: Thinking on Hoadley & Salmon & Kelly Ch. 1.

January 13, 2017

The inaugural entry!

And since it is the inaugural entry, I thought I’d play around with Padlet as an adjunct space for additional metacognitive nuggets.  Check it out for a “context” video as well as a quick visual on how different the technology — and thus, no doubt, the thinking —  of grad school is since last I was here.  I’m not sure if these items exactly count as metacognition.  But they’re at least a little fun to ponder!

Through both readings I found my thinking and learning being stimulated and reinforced by emotional responses, contextual relationships, and connections to previous experiences.  

I became a bit nostalgic reading again about Vygotsky & Dewey & Thorndike.  I was a bit of a geek when it came to the philosophy of education in my very first undergrad ed course.  It’s been so long since I’ve read them and yet they still hold up.  While I can very easily dive into details when the time calls for it, global thinking is my default mode.  I can see the big picture and then zoom into the details when the time comes.  Knowing this, I ought to remember to hold these scholars much closer than I usually do when I get bogged down in the weeds of daily practice.  Their thinking fascinates and humbles me.  So brilliant.  Their big ideas and big picture perspectives provide me useful paths through those weeds.

From this higher perspective, I saw pretty quickly what I believe are a few connections this course will make.  An attempt at a quick summary:

As Hoadley summarized Vygotsky, et al., technology is an artifact of culture.  We live at a time that is defined by the development and ubiquity of computer technology.  Computers, mobile, social media are having a huge impact on our culture.  As such, these tools of the culture are changing the way we think, learn and interact.

The concept of the adaptive expert, on the other hand, is a useful one on the road towards making a shift in how we teach using these technologies, especially contrasted with that of the relative expert.  I see so many teachers and administrators either actively resist or benignly — if it is possible any more to describe it as such — neglect the incorporation of digital and mobile technologies.  I have seen students penalized for merely possessing a cell phone.  So in order to engage students who, outside of school, are so immersed in these technologies of (their) digital culture, schools need to develop more adaptive thinking in their teachers for its use.  Educators need to break out of the mere efficiencies of routine expertise in order to create learning spaces that allow 21st century students to think, process information, and interact with others in the ways the technology with which they have grown up have influenced their thinking.  I believe that shift is the one to spark curiosity and a joy in learning again that is lacking in so many of our students.

Concept mapping, then, is a tool to push teachers into a more adaptive stance.  When in the hands of reflective teachers and strong coaches, they can reveal levels of understanding, confusion, misunderstanding, evolving thinking.  In as much as they map how teachers are thinking about a concept, they are also instruments for metacognition.  I am most intrigued by the notion of  using concept maps as a way of engaging in unit/lesson planning.  Finally, all these characteristics make concept maps useful formative assessments. Mapping allows teachers to probe and explore their thinking, wrestle with their anxieties on the path to the adaptive expertise they need to incorporate digital technologies as the now necessary tools of teaching and learning.

Considering the contexts in which I work and my examination of the course materials so far, these are a few of the more global connections I am making through these first readings.  I think I’ll hold of of analysis and assessment for another entry.