Facilitating a learning environment unlike the one I grew up in

This week’s essential question:  How different is your current classroom from the one in which you learned when you were a student?  

I haven’t been a classroom teacher in a very long time, in fact I only taught for one school year after college, so I don’t easily identify with being a “teacher” in the traditional sense.  I didn’t necessarily NOT want to be a teacher but circumstances and opportunities led me on a different path and now I often change my professional “label” according to what my role is in my work.  I’ve spent most of my career working in out-of-school time programming and youth development so my professional identity has been more of a mentor, coordinator, or facilitator.  For me, the essential question this week asks how teaching and learning have changed throughout my lifetime, particularly when we examine the role of technology in shaping the learning environment, both past and present.  At the same time, I grew up in a community where technology and other tools and resources were limited, so I learned early on not to depend on them if I wanted to learn or figure something out.  For me, the absence of a variety of technology tools made learning a very clearly defined process (usually dictated by the teacher) but it also helped me to become a problem solver and a resourceful learner.

As I reflect on the school classrooms where I grew up learning “in”, they were typically one-room classrooms with rows of desks and chairs, blackboards, the teacher’s desk, and bookshelves for student supplies.  During our class twitter session this week, I thought about what technologies were being used to facilitate learning back then – I remember watching videos and slideshows, listening to cassette tape recordings, using graphing calculators for geometry and trigonometry classes and taking paper tests that were typewritten then printed on mimeograph and later Xerox copiers.  I also remembered computer classes that taught keyboarding and parts and functions of a computer and learning to create documents, draw and edit images, and write stories.

Fast forward to the most recent program that I facilitated – a computer lab with a MacBook Pro laptop for each participant, high speed internet access, color printers, copiers, scanners, overhead projectors, digital cameras, not to mention the mobile devices owned by the students.  While all these technologies might not necessarily be the latest, most cutting edge tools for learning, they still afford a learning experience far different from the one that I had while growing up.  This newer type of “classroom” where I “facilitate” learning is far more flexible, interactive, collaborative, and often feels on most days like organized chaos (if I’m being truly honest).

In the first part of their book, “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, the authors share examples of a new culture of learning that has been brought on by the information age and the technology that makes it all possible.  I can relate to their description of the two important aspects of this new culture of learning – the incredible amount of information available today through technology and the “bounded and structured environment” (Ch 1, para 6) where learning can take place and be supported.  Back in my traditional classrooms many years ago, we had a simple process – the teacher would tell us the content, we would take notes, complete worksheets or activities to reinforce the lesson, students would answer follow up questions, complete and return assignments, and take written tests to demonstrate mastery and competency of the information.  The fun classes for me included field trips to break up that routine but they were also the ones that deviated from that simple process – assessment through participation and performance in physical education classes, experiments and science projects, or computer-produced documents, art, or presentations.  Basically, the classes that afforded me choices and opportunities for doing or making, were the most meaningful learning experiences that I remember.

Years later, the difficulties I faced in college had more to do with moving away from home, culture shock, and learning to be on my own, rather than learning in a more technology-rich environment.  Perhaps the most important lesson that I have carried with me from those earlier classrooms of my childhood is the appreciation for making, doing, exploring, experimenting, and learning despite the limited tools, resources, and access that were available at the time.  For me, this information age has leveled the playing field when it comes to learning; while access to technology and information can always be improved, it has increasingly become readily available to a growing number of individuals, learners, or users.

How has this been reflected in my work and in the learning environments that I cultivate for learners today?  For one thing, I’m always learning to expect and embrace change – being flexible and open to new ideas, opportunities, methods, and solutions, particularly those that challenge my assumptions has been a sometimes painful but always worthwhile exercise for me.  Having ownership, agency, and the ability to choose and decide for myself was an aspect of learning that I appreciated as a child and I have continued to work towards making that an integral part of my approach to facilitating learning experiences.  This concept of a new culture of learning has not necessarily felt like a new approach to learning for me on a personal level but on a professional level it has consistently pushed me to explore new and emerging technologies and to challenge myself to incorporate new tools and methods into my work.  It’s certainly not easy and incredibly humbling when you have to get out of your own way so that you can improve your skills and increase knowledge AT THE SAME TIME that you are supporting other learners to do the same.  In my experience, children and youth today are more interested in learning that is relevant, timely, and meaningful, than me and my classmates were at their age.  And it makes sense, they live in a world today where each year brings about changes in their lifestyles and communities at a more rapid pace than when I was a child.  Therefore, their learning experiences should reflect that and teachers and other educators play a vital role in guiding and facilitating relevant, timely, and meaningful learning experiences.

Like myself, my students will continue to see their learning environments drastically change over their lifetime.  As adults, they “will be engaged in learning that has the following capabilities:  Leverages research results from learning science and brain science, Includes adaptive and immersive technologies, Offers quality instructor content.” (Knowles, 2015).  The technologies being introduced and developed today are going to make all these qualities commonplace in the future, but it will require my students to develop and shift their mindset about learning to embrace growth and change – something I must do if that is to take place.

My generation of technology “users” continues to marvel at how quickly children are learning to use technology (swiping on tablets, coding, gaming, etc.); it’s just not something we can easily relate to because of our own experiences.  And it’s not just the tech tools that are being used but the actual experiences that are impacted or afforded through technology.  A prime example is the 2016 presidential race; technology has taken political campaigns and advocacy around issues into a virtual arena through mobile devices (Desjardins, 2015) and has allowed (and attracted) more people to participate in discussions, follow twitter debates, view events, listen to speeches, and examine each candidate at their own convenience.  By embracing this new territory, candidates are effectively bringing in a demographic of citizens that might not typically engage in the political process or have the time to do their own research about each candidate.

I used to think that working in a non-profit community organization was inherently unsettling because programs live and die based on evaluations and outcomes related to funding priorities and sources.  Now I understand that in consistently striving to be relevant, effective, and current, the constant change can also ensure that participants, individuals, or learners have a learning experience that reflects what they need and want, when they need and want it.  For me, that’s not such a bad thing.

References:

Desjardins, L.  (September 18, 2015 ).  Smartphone user? The 2016 candidates are watching you.  PBS NewsHour, Washington.  Retrieved from:  http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/smartphone-user-2016-candidates-watching/

Knowles, A.  (September 18, 2015).  Adult Learning In 15 Years.  www.elearningindustry.com.  Retrieved from:  http://elearningindustry.com/adult-learning-in-15-years

Thomas, D. & Brown, J.S.  (2011).  A new culture of learning:  Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change [Kindle book].  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

4 thoughts on “Facilitating a learning environment unlike the one I grew up in

  1. I like your statement, “For me, this information age has leveled the playing field when it comes to learning;” I agree with you that everyone has the same opportunities to learn. What they put in they can get out. The ball is in everyones court. Now, to see who will play ball.

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  2. I really like your quote: “It’s certainly not easy and incredibly humbling when you have to get out of your own way so that you can improve your skills and increase knowledge AT THE SAME TIME that you are supporting other learners to do the same.” It sums up my tech life. I recently became a tech support person in my building and let me tell you, I am always getting out of the way of myself while at the same time supporting others. One thing I have learned over the years- it is much easier to teach students tech then teachers. Kids aren’t afraid to figure things out on their own.

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  3. I loved your quote, “Basically, the classes that afforded me choices and opportunities for doing or making, were the most meaningful learning experiences that I remember.” With knowing that for yourself you are able to apply it to your students as well. We know how we learned best, so we open up the possibilities for those students who learn like us, keeping differentiation in mind to modify for those who don’t. But I can see how the majority of the class would do amazingly with this as the guideline for instruction.

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