Place-Based Learning

neighborhood

About 10 years ago, I read a book called Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and CommunitiesPlace-based learning is an educational philosophy. It is also known as (or is related to) pedagogy of place, place-based education, experiential education, community-based education, education for sustainability and environmental education.

The term Place-based Education was coined in the early 1990s by Laurie Lane-Zucker of The Orion Society and Dr. John Elder of Middlebury College. Orion’s early work in the area of place-based education was funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and I received a grant from the Dodge back then to do a project with a community and elementary school in New Jersey using this philosophy.

Here’s an excerpt of that book that gives you an overview. It was written by David Sobel, who teaches in the education department at Antioch University New England in New Hampshire.

Back when I was teaching in a middle school and working on that grant, I had used another book  by him, Mapmaking with Children.  It’s definitely related and concerned with having kids get a better “sense of place” for their community.

child's map

I’m a map fan and for me this is more than geography education. You can work with kids and start with mapping close to home in their known world. Then it can “zoom out” to nearby neighborhoods, bordering towns and beyond. I saw this as visual literacy and critical thinking.

I know that many educators use it along with community projects involving the environment or service projects. In the project I did for that grant, we had set one of the goals to be having every kid work with at least one parent closely and we did a day of field trips around the town and area with them,

I saw the mapping as way beyond a  social studies class. I had a lot of fun having students make maps of imaginary places and setting from books they were reading.

Place-based education is more aimed at solving community problems. It uses the students’ local community as one of the primary resources for learning – the unique local history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place. The community can be just the school grounds or the town.

You might zoom out later but at the start it is definitely better o zoom in on the community rather than national or global issues. Think global, act local.

Kids always liked that this was very much hands-on learning, project-based learning, and involved getting out of the classroom.

More recently I saw an article on place-based learning that got me thinking about this again. This idea of community as classroom and learning that engages students in solving real problems in the community is still very valid. Even more important to me is the idea of place.

You can easily imagine a nearby woods or river as a classroom for science. What about using it for writing poetry or for a math lesson? Getting away from just using textbooks and worksheets is probably more of a challenge for teachers than for students.

Sobel has kept the philosophy moving forward and he consults and speaks on child development and place-based education for schools. He has authored seven books on children and nature. Perhaps his best known book is Beyond Ecophobia.

That article mentioned above is by Bernard Bull and he suggests six starting points for using place including thinking beyond the “field trip (something that is often not feasible for teachers to consider these days anyway) and building a community network of groups and people in the community who own or work in places that align with the curriculum.

Place-based learning didn’t take a real grip on education when it first was promoted, but I think it has so many possibilities for dropping the many walls, literal and figurative, that hold back innovation in education.

And this is certainly an approach that parents can take with their kids, even if the schools are not willing to take on the challenge.

Original photo by Kenneth Spencer, enhanced by Dianne Lacourciere https://www.flickr.com/photos/60712129@N06/
Original photo by Kenneth Spencer, enhanced by Dianne Lacourciere via flickr.com

Celestial Observations

mercury

On another of my sites, Weekends in Paradelle, I write weekly essays on things that interest me. Looking over the stats for that site recently, I realized that I have written quite a number about celestial observations. In this category you will find observations about each month’s Full Moon, equinoxes, solstices, meteor showers, stars, planets and other things out in the huge universe.

I suppose I always had some interest in those topics. I loved going to planetariums. I bought a few decent telescopes. But I can’t say that I am very knowledgeable or “educated” on these topics. I will watch Brian Greene or Neil deGrasse Tyson and other scientists and I am fascinated and I learn new things. But ask me about them the next day and I seem to have forgotten it all. I have written about the equinoxes twice a year for the past few years, and yet when I start a piece on the next one, I find myself going back to check the facts on what the equinox means and the science behind it.

So, why make these celestial observations? It started when my sons were quite young. I wanted them to know the names of the plants, trees, fish, birds and animals that we see around us. I also wanted them to know what was above us in the heavens. I know that I lay back in the summer grass as a child and looked at stars and sometimes saw a falling one. I think I knew that was a meteor, but I definitely didn’t know it was the Perseids or why it was happening. I wanted my sons to know.

It also probably was motivated by a period of Zen study and trying harder to “live in the moment” and be more aware of things. I don’t think people pay very much attention to the natural world above and below them – certainly not as much attention as they pay to their smartphone or television. That’s saddens me.

Snapchat Before It Disappears

Snapchat-large

Like film reviewers who have to watch films they are not interested in seeing, social media consultants have to get into social networks that don’t interest them, but may interest their clients. Snapchat is one of those for me.

It is a social network for sending photos and videos that “disappear” shortly after viewing. If you are one of the millions who don’t have an account, then you’re not one of its 100 million daily users.  It is very popular with college students.

It’s a network that can’t be ignored by companies because it surpasses Facebook numbers with its 10 billion daily video views.

One of the oddities of Snapchat is that getting followers is not the main goal. Its appeal is that it seems to develop deeper personal connections with users through its image/video storytelling.

Some companies jumped right in but many companies (and individuals) still don’t see the appeal. After all, don’t you want your message to have a long, useful shelf life and NOT disappear?

Actually, brands like Disney have taken advantage of “disappearing” promos and teasers that encourage and a rapid response/engagement. Quick, before it disappears!  and build brand awareness. The digital “limited time offer.”

The first time I opened the app, I did not find it at all intuitive. How do I do this “snap?” Define “story”Lenses? How do I find people to follow and share content with? Where are the suggestions and discovery tools? I checked out a few guides but that will only get you going. Creating a strategy is much further down the road.

I have only worked with two clients who tried it. One stopped using it after a few months. The other is still “experimenting.”

You might also look at some free tools like GhostCodes which helps with the discovery aspect. Though I believe that should be natively baked into an app, others will say that Snapchat is not all about finding new followers and being the “most popular” (a natural tendency of all of us) is not the rel goal.

Snapchat is evolving. It was released in 2011 and three years ago they added “Stories” which are visual montages that are not private but blasted out to friends. They added channels which are curated streams of content from known publishers like CNN and BuzzFeed, and Live Stories which are ones curated by Snapchat, mostly from big events like the Oscars.

As those TV commercials for medications say, ask your social media consultant if Snapchat is right for you.

Learning to Unretire

connect2 sistineI have been working on a conference presentation the past two month that I have titled “The Disconnected.”  That is my name for a segment of the population that is not disconnected in a detached or unengaged sense, but are instead disconnecting from traditional modes and sources of information and learning.

In doing my research, I found the organization Encore.org that has a Higher Education Initiative which is looking at the impact of an aging population on higher education.

I also found a podcast that is called Unretirement.

I realized early on that I am becoming one of “the disconnected” but only recently did I know that I am also entering unretirement.

Chris Farrell, who wrote the book Unretirement and hosts the podcast, defines unretirement as a “grassroots movement rethinking and reimagining the second half of life.”

I believe (but I’m not certain) that I am done with my full-time work in education which has been my career for 40 years. Friends and colleagues tell me that they don’t believe it. “You’re too young to retire. You will go crazy with nothing to do.” I disagree. There is so much that I want to do. Some of that is typical of the age – travel, spend more time with loved ones – some of it includes the things that were often deferred because of work – writing and painting, for example. And some of it is unknown at this point.

Farrell’s book is subtitled “How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life” and in one podcast episode he talked with a woman, Sandra, who felt the need to get out of the house and start doing something to help deal with her unhappiness. She signed up for a quilt making class. It lit up a passion in her. At age 58, she’s gone back to “school” to move into a new career and is getting certified to become a professional quilting instructor. That may not sound like a typical “major” or even a viable unretirement career choice, but…

Quilting in America market is worth $3.76 billion annually” according to a trade survey trying to get at the size of the quilting economy. Sandra is not going to her local college to learn. She is not interested in credits or a degree. Quiltworx is the company from which she is getting her certification. The podcast covered why she decided to get this certification and how her family helped her figure whether the certificate was worth the cost. She has a business plan, and expects her certificate will pay off in 18 months.

The “Baby Boomers” are just one age segment of those I am finding to be part of “The Disconnected.” The largest age group is much younger and includes the traditional potential students for undergraduate and graduate programs. And even younger people are being born into and growing up in a society where the disconnects will be so common that they will probably not be seen as disconnects.

Here is one example of that disconnect. I came of age in the 1960s and viewed television as a wireless (via antenna) service that was free if you owned a set and supported by advertising. If you grew up in the 1980s, you saw television as a service that came to your home via a cable service that you paid for (even paying for the formerly free networks that had advertising support) and could add additional premium services if you wanted them. You learned to supplement and control that content (starting to call it video rather than TV) using a VCR and videotapes and later DVDs and then a DVR. A child of today is likely to be using multiple networks via multiple devices and may be growing up in a household that has already cut the cord to those 1980s services and devices and hard media formats.

So, grandparents and their grandchildren may find some connectiveness in being disconnected in their media consumption and even in how they both are learning and preparing for a working life.

Here are some resources about how older adults are connecting to learning and unretirement using both traditional schools and alternatives.

Improving Education and Training for Older Workers a survey from the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees from Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University

How many students graduate outside the normal age?” an international study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development

The Plus 50 Initiative at community colleges for learners age 50+ and a Lumina Foundation report on Plus 50

A state by state rundown of education opportunities for seniors

Over 50 and Back in College, Preparing for a New Career

The 40-Year-Old Graduates

4 Ways Older Students Can Avoid Student Debt

How to Make the Most of Longer Lives

Craft Artists, Income, and the U.S. Economy

Flipping Professional Development

The flipped classroom has been a hot topic in education for the past five years. More recently, the idea of flipping professional development has been experimented with at schools and in corporate training. The idea is to rethink what we want to spend our time with in face to face (F2F) sessions and how we can change the training that occurs before and after those sessions to be more  self-directed.

Face-to-face training time, especially with technology integration, is used most efficiently when the lower level portions are done online and offline outside those encounters.

It was only this year that the Flipped Learning Network adopted and released a formal definition for flipped learning, and their Four Pillars of F-L-I-P™ and a checklist of eleven indicators that educators must incorporate into their practice. (see the definition, pillars and indicators) They also draw a distinction between flipped learning and a flipped classroom.

“Flipped Learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.”

Prior to this, there was no consensus definition for flipped learning, flipped classrooms, flipped anything. This definition still allows for a great deal of instructor-specific style, design and delivery.

It is certainly a result of our increased use of technology and the growth in education and business of online learning and the hybrid or blended learning model. That model combines personalized and on-demand digital resources with face-to-face teaching, coaching, practice and support. This is especially true for technology integration.

I would say that the growth of the Professional Learning Network or Environment (PLN or PLE – both terms are still being used) is also a factor in the flipped approach. I see more articles about flipped professional development for teachers, especially in K-12.

Some of the points that are stressed in this type of learning are:
Documentation – maintaining consistency and accountability through record keeping
Ongoing – creating time for teachers on a regular schedule
Coached – providing teachers access to an instructional technology coach
Personalized Content – providing relevant digital resources to support learning
Collaborative – personalizing learning by creating small collaborative groups

Yes, I still see examples of the recorded “lecture” that students watch based the slide or screen capture with voice-over. That is something we have been trying to decrease the use of in regular online classes with limited success.

I do see success with having any lecture much shorter than in-class sessions (10-25 minutes) and focusing on a single concept, or a small number of concepts.

In flipped settings, some of the content delivery occurs before the F2F session and some of the followup may occur on/offline too.

Many of the issues of online learning still exist in flipped learning. Besides issues like knowing the true identity of the online student and monitoring progress online, the biggest question people always have about this approach is “What if they don’t do the work they are supposed to do before the F2F sessions?”

That problem goes back a few hundred years in education. We have always called it “homework” and teachers and trainers still need to deal with monitoring and assessing prior learning and making judgments about the competency, readiness and mastery of a learner.

Is Competency the New Mastery?

In 2014, I started seeing more articles about Competency-Based Education (CBE) as the new approach to higher education degrees. In 2013, I think that “mastery” might have been the buzzier word. Mastery got a big push last year from things like Khan Academy and founder Sal Khan’s belief that mastery of a skill or concept before moving on was what was lacking in American education overall.

A simplified explanation of the difference, perhaps from the view of an employer, is measuring what they know (mastery) versus what they can do (competency).

Is competency the new mastery? I did some searching and turned up a piece called “Competency vs. Mastery” by John F. Ebersole (president of Excelsior College) on the Inside Higher Ed site that compares these two approaches to “validating” learning.

He suggests that “competency” could be akin to subject matter “mastery” and might be measured in traditional ways – examinations, projects and other forms of assessment.

Ask that hypothetical woman-on-the-street if they would rather hire someone who had mastered a skill or was competent, I suspect mastery would win out. Of course, that person’s ability to apply what they have mastered into a practice might still be in question.

It may be semantics, but considering someone to be “competent” sounds to many people like “adequate.” That article gives as an example those instructors we have experienced as students who had “complete command of their subjects, but who could not effectively present to their students. The mastery of content did not extend to their being competent as teachers.”

What would you say a subject matter exam measures? Mastery? Might an undergraduate have mastered subject matter or skills but still not be competent in her chosen field?

Looking online at the available books on competency-based education and training, most of them are in healthcare and clinical supervision, which is also the programs discussed in the article. Does the CBE approach work with other disciplines?

Some interest in CBE comes from that often-heard idea that employers don’t view new college graduates as ready to do the job. They expect to have to further train the new hire who has “mastered content, but [is] not demonstrating competencies.”

Ebersole says that “To continue to use ‘competency’ when we mean ‘mastery’ may seem like a small thing. Yet, if we of the academy cannot be more precise in our use of language, we stand to further the distrust which many already have of us.”

Yesterday, I was thinking about differentiating mastery and competency in the light of movements such as competency-based education and degree programs.

The Mozilla Open Badge project and other initiatives have tried to standardize the use of badges for documenting learning. I like the idea but I don’t see that badges have made any serious entry into educational institutions.

Badges have been used to mark what a person knows or what they can do. Proponents say using them is more student-centered and more about real student learning. It’s certainly more real than using seat time and time on task as a measurement. Because a student has completed 9 credits hours proves nothing, and more often we hear that employers also question that getting an “A” grade for those 9 credits also doesn’t prove any mastery or competency. Enter competency-based or evidence-based approaches to learning.

I still think about the merit badges I earned in scouting when this topic comes up. The badges were extrinsic motivators and they worked for me and most of my fellow scouts. You wanted to get them. I liked the ceremonial awarding of them at meetings and the recognition. My mom and my “den mother” were pretty conscientious about signing off that I had completed the requirements to earn them. But much of the work I had to do was on the “honor system” and I’m sure I cut corners on some things and got away with it.

If I earned a badge for “climbing” (as in rock and mountains), would you say I was competent at the sport? Would you say I had mastered it? I don’t think I’d be comfortable saying either one of those things. I had learned about it and I had done some actual activities involved with it. I had not mastered it and I’m not sure a real climber would say I was competent enough to do it on my own or very seriously.

As Bernard Bull and others have pointed out, this same critique can be leveled at letter grades. Do both make school about “earning instead of learning?”

We also associate badges with video games and in the gamification of learning they play an important role. In the pure gaming environment, earning badges, points, power pills or whatever tokens are given sometimes does take precedence over learning. Then again, some games aren’t much interested in learning.

It’s better to think of badges as markers, milestones of progress rather than as a goal.

The Mozilla project and others have tried to give more trust in badges as credentials and educational currency. Education has always valued tests, score and credits as evidence of learning even though we have been arguing about it for hundreds of years and continue to do so.

If the organization awarding the badge is credible, then the real concern is what evidence is being used to determine the completion. As with the goals and objectives we now hold as important in schools, some things are more easily measured.

Want to earn the “Miler” badge? Then run a mile in under 5 minutes and have it verified by the teacher or coach. Want to earn the “Team Player” or “Leadership” badges?  Then… play on a team… be the captain…  Hmmm. Those are tougher things to measure.

Students, teachers and schools have talked for a long time about trying to get away from a reliance on just grades, but grades persist. Portfolio assessment and other movements have made a dent in some instances, but the quantifiable test score still wins the day. That stopwatch on the mile runner is easily validated. Today there is more testing and data being used and more complaints about its use.

Learning Beyond Letter Grades was a course offered last year that examined why so many schools use and rely on letter grades. “Where did they come from? What do they tell us and fail to tell us about the learners? What is the relationship between letter grades, student learning, and assessment?” That’s a lot to ask in a six-week course, but it comes from this desire many of us have to consider authentic and alternative assessments, peer assessment, self-assessment and badges.

Some badges set an expiration date, meaning the badge bearer will need to return for more training or provide updated evidence to keep the badge.  That’s an idea from the world of professional development, licensing and credentials. If you earned a computer programming or phlebotomy badge in 2001, should it still be valid today? Perhaps not.

Perhaps the most difficult hurdle in launching a competency or mastery-based program might be how to assess/validate learning. We have been hitting that one back and forth for centuries.

This post also appeared at Serendipity35