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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

After a two-week winter break, one of my eighth grade advisees returned to school and demonstrated his newfound skill of juggling. He was able to juggle with four balls, go behind his back, and under and through his legs. Quite simply, his demonstration was remarkable and earned the praise of his peers and advisor. We were all curious to learn how he had acquired this skill in such a short span of time, because we recalled that before the break, he was struggling to get even three balls going.

He replied, "I found this great guy on YouTube, and I watched a lot of YouTube over break."

In other words, he was self-taught. He had an interest and a passion, and he put in the time and commitment to master a skill.

This is the beauty of personalized, passion-based learning.

The Educational Playlist Model

As schools consider blended and online learning models to meet the needs and interests of students, the story of my advisee is illustrative.

We don’t necessarily need to develop full-blown MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to engage students and alter learning modalities. In fact, conceiving and executing MOOCs may not be the best use of time and is part of an older model of delivery, akin to record companies producing albums. We are in the age of the playlist, of splice-and-dice, of selecting our own songs. We want to compile our own personalized iTunes or Pandora playlists. We don’t want to listen to the whole album.

Beyoncé understands this. A few months ago, the pop superstar released a surprise "visual album" exclusively on iTunes with no "pre-promotion." In Rolling Stone, she explains:

I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it. I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There's so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. I felt like I didn't want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it's ready and from me to my fans.

Beyoncé wanted a direct line to her fans. She went straight to iTunes because she understands that her fans might not want to buy the whole album. They might just want a few tracks. She turned the record industry upside down in one fell swoop.

Students don't want or need the whole "album." Instead, they need pieces and parts of knowledge to accomplish a goal or to feed a passion. In fact, research shows that the completion rates for MOOCs is quite poor, totaling less than ten percent. This is not surprising.

The question for schools is how best to help students compile their own "playlists," and for teachers, how best to create the learning environment that allows this to happen.

A Design Issue

When the learning experience is constructed for students to find problems, generate questions and devise solutions to authentic challenges, then the need surfaces for students to seek information. And often, the first place they go is YouTube -- not Google -- because students thrive on learning from video instruction when they need to know something. Adults can begin to model this type of learning for students, and a good place to start is around troubleshooting technology issues.

Recently, my director of technology infrastructure challenged me to see if I could answer my own technology troubleshooting questions by first watching a YouTube video instead of asking him for help. I accepted the challenge and have had to bother him much less than before. In fact, I now realize I should have been doing this all along.

It didn't take much for me to make a shift. And what I love about watching videos to solve my “tech” problems is that I can stop the video, replay and make sure that I really understand how to solve the problem. The videos are short, specific to my needs, and bring me immediate success. I totally get why kids love YouTube.

As schools continue to explore online and blended learning, bringing kids into the conversation and the creation of their course content can open up possibilities and streamline the work required to build customized “playlists.”

When I heard Dr. Mark David Milliron speak earlier this year, he shared a wonderful example of crowdsourcing learning resources. He talked about having teachers turn students loose on a topic for a set period of time to learn everything possible, using whatever resources were available to them, and then return to class and share what resources they used. This is a fast-paced way to gather resources, find out where students go to learn something new, and sort through the resources to determine which are most useful and why. From there, the teacher can create customized “playlists” for units of study.

People-Powered Learning

In planning a unit of study, teams of teachers can engage in the same exercise and then compare their findings with what the students discovered.

Collaboration is key. A recent Education Week article highlights the impact of collaborative inquiry for teachers.

In "Reframing Teacher Leadership to Improve Your School," Douglas Reeves noted that when teachers engage in sustained collaborative inquiry:
  • They frequently have a direct and measurable impact on student achievement.
  • They affect the professional practices of their colleagues.
  • They influence teachers as new professional practices are reinforced and repeated by others.

In other words, break teachers out of the silo and put them in teams to plan, think, engage and learn together.

Even Pope Francis acknowledges the power of the network:

The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity, a network not of wires but of people. The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.

These are powerful words from the Pope, and while he may be overstating the impact of the Internet, he recognizes the power of a "network of people" to generate learning.

My advisee continues to juggle, but I know he’ll soon move on to a new passion or interest, and I know the first place he’ll go to learn: YouTube.

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