CEQ•ALL – Student Framework for Learning in a Digital World
By Tom March –
Advances in the Web continue to undermine assembly line education, but a new model, CEQ•ALL (“Seek all”), can lead schools into the digital era of individualized learning.
From its earliest days, the Web altered two aspects of schooling: teachers were no longer the most cost-effective disseminators of information and the ease of plagiarism meant that student research assignments could no longer be assumed to reflect learning. This has been the case for approximately a decade.
As the Web morphs into what many herald as a second generation, or Web 2.0, the opportunities it affords for learning mature as well. Although many debate the exact definition, or even existence, of Web 2.0, enough consensus exists to side-step controversy and get to work. What work? As the early impact of the Web undermined a teacher-delivered, product-as-learning orientation, Web 2.0 goes even farther toward dismantling learning based on an industrial age model. Significantly, the digital era offers a new option for schools: the open source community.
Briefly, “open source” comes from the fact that the “source code” – the lines of programming that make up a piece of software – are shared with the public, rather than kept a proprietary secret. Examples of successful open source projects are the Linux operating system and Apache server software, as well as metaphorically “open source” projects like Wikipedia and Digg, a social content website where member input “promotes” and “buries” news items in an expression of “the wisdom of the crowd.” Thus, among the many elements that comprise Web 2.0, a dominant aspect is opening Web pages up to user input.
In considering the impact of Web 2.0 on education, not only can the Web more efficiently deliver content, but now it also enables social interaction and more sophisticated representations of “truth.” The assembly line model has enabled universal education for many, but the limitations of this model should be apparent in two main ways: first, learning isn’t really like assembling an inanimate object and second, new models are more suited to the “knowledge work” advocated by the current business world. Let’s review the points of contrast between mass production and open source approaches, then consider which aligns better with the tasks of education.
|Driven by a profit motive
|Driven by a desire to create
|Collaborative, limited hierarchy
|Suspicious of workers
|Built on foundation of trust
|Worker’s tasks are tightly defined
|Collaborators contribute as they wish
|Limited chance for advancement
|Answers found in manuals
|Answers found in creativity
|Learning as “training course”
|Learning as needed, often “just-in-time”
|Workers motivated by pay
Which is Better for Education?
Immediately one sees a better fit between education and an “open source” metaphor than the “assembly line.” Although the contrasts are many, the most significant demands stating at the outset: an open source community is built on the premise that people want to create and contribute and that they can be trusted. With this foundation of trust, good things emerge. Shouldn’t education expect the best from people, as a matter of efficiency, if not out of principle?
Before progressing to my argument, it’s important to establish how students and schools currently use the Web, let alone Web 2.0. Pew Internet and the American Life Project found that Web use spikes from “60% to 82% as students settle into the seventh grade.” The numbers climb “steadily before topping out at 94% for eleventh and twelfth graders” (Lenhart, Madden & Hitlin, 2005). Clearly students are online. In another study, “The Digital Disconnect,” Pew researchers found that, “For the most part, students’ educational use of the Internet occurs outside of the school day, outside of the school building, outside the direction of their teachers” (Levin, Arafeh, Lenhart, & Rainie, 2002). Furthermore, when students were assigned tasks that involved Web use, the same researchers reported, “Students repeatedly told us that the quality of their Internet-based assignments was poor and uninspiring. They want to be assigned more-and more engaging-Internet activities that are relevant to their lives.”
I contend that education’s sorry performance regarding integrating the incredible potential of the Web arises not from under-use of the technology but over-use of the industrial model. Too much energy in schools is put into taming the swirl of the digital Web into a retro-fit with the creaking cogs of the assembly-line. In other words, the Web is more often used to research right answers than to help students make sense of a complex world.
What if education set aside “school” – the logistics of crowd control – and focused on individual’s learning? What if we began, like an open source community, with the premise that interested individuals like to contribute and make things better? And we and out students were those individuals? Couldn’t we use digital technology’s power to engage students in individualized learning and honor user-autonomy and help leaners achieve intrinsically motivated goals? What if we also did this in an environment of rich, contextualized experiences? The technology makes such an approach possible. Recent research also suggests that such an approach is more effective than forcing a one-size-fits-all method. After years of teaching, designing curriculum, integrating technology, facilitating workshops, conducting research, and raising children, everything I have learned though success and failure attempts to bring to reality the above “what-if” scenarios and informs the following model.
CHOICE › EFFORT › QUALITY · ATTITUDE › LABOR OF LOVE
I believe that all humans enjoy learning. The exact experiences that produce this joy may differ widely, but the nature of the feeling is universal. Consider this metaphor. Of the billion or so playlists on people’s iPods, how many do you suppose are exactly the same? “Maybe two,” came the group consensus from an auditorium full of middle schoolers. Yet, even with this diversity, whether loaded with Mozart or Motown, the thrill listeners get hearing their favorites is the same.
Education would do well to remember this iPod metaphor: rich, interactive multimedia resources and communications can feed learners’ personal and uniquely joyous experience of learning. Furthermore, given Web 2.0 tools we can encompass these stimuli in a personal learning environment that integrates blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, social bookmarks and podcasts. As a naïve and optimistic champion of individualized learning, I sometimes think that this is enough. When the experienced and practical classroom teacher in me cringes at the simplistic and superficial pages posted on MySpace, LiveJournal or Facebook, I know, however, that some students could use help to fulfil this potential. The challenge is to keep the individualized thrill while also providing the power a model contributes in terms of diagnostics tuned to resultant strategies and expected outcomes. The CEQALL model (pronounced “seek-all”) helps students find meaning in their lives and the world by engaging in deep, personally-relevant learning. By eventually internalizing the model’s research-based approaches, students can build a life of self-initiated learning and contributions. Let’s see how the model works.
Of all the places to start, why begin at “Choice?” In our digital world, children are at the center of a stimulus-rich environment where many experiences are a click away. I have argued in the past that broadband personal devices transform the World Wide Web into the “New WWW: Whatever, Whenever, Wherever” (March, 2005), with anywhere, anytime access to “im-media gratification” like movies, music, games, chat, etc. For some, this WiFi aura will hover overhead like a golden halo, empowering collaborations and creativity that contribute to individual fulfilment. For others, however, this opportunity will act like the cartoon bad angel, tempting us at every turn to “amuse ourselves to death.” We can help students learn to make self-fulfilling choices by allowing them to take ownership of their education, to enjoy the opportunity of controling the direction of each personal learning experience. Research supports the critical role Choice plays in both motivation and achievement. In studies related to Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, three components act as predictors of intrinsic motivation: perceptions of autonomy, competence and a feeling of connectedness. When “intrinsic goal framing” was used together with an “autonomy-supportive” context, “deep processing and objectively measured achievement” was the result (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon & Deci, 2004).
Providing choice does not mean that students “choose” not to learn to read or “choose” to sit in the back of the room mucking up. It does imply several key things, however. First, given our roles as pedagogical experts, we can prepare core experiences that expose students to the knowledge, skills and attitudes that experts have been agreed are approximately age appropriate. Thus, the educator’s role shifts away from delivering the same content to all students to providing an array of activities from which students choose a path that best suits their learning needs. Examples of these pathways might be WebQuest series related to African-American history , modern China , and school violence .
The first step to achieve this is to translate the core frameworks and standards into student-friendly language. Isn’t this a desirable step regardless of anything else? In terms of cognition, doesn’t it make sense that students will retain more of what they learn if they see how it fits with the larger schema of what they already know? Isn’t this self-managed cognition a better approach than thinking that students learn simply because “teaching” “happens to them?”
Additional research in the field of critical thinking argues that self-regulation is also a key factor in developing a disposition toward engaging in advanced cognition. In other words, it’s not enough for students to acquire critical thinking skills, they must also develop the habits of mind to apply them, to develop the sensitivity and inclination to put the skills to work (Tishman, Jay, & Perkins, 1992).
Once students have been able to Choose their learning goals, the next task is to apply Effort. Although educational research has not tended to focus exclusively on the role of “effort” in learning, it plays a critical part in student achievement and attitude. Relative to intrinsic motivation, “competency” is clearly a function of how much effort is applied to a problem or study. Similarly, many of the dispositions evidenced by effective critical thinkers require substantial exertion: “to seek understanding,” “to be planful and strategic,” and “to be intellectually careful” (Perkins, Farady, & Bushey, 1991).
Interestingly, the requirement for students to invest Effort may be the most radical aspect of the CEQALL model in comparison to the traditional approach where students are expected to be passive. Martin Seligman’s research into Authentic Happiness (2002) validates that when people invest meaning into a task, it leads to positive feelings. Similarly, competence or self-efficacy is likely to increase through the very same efforts, illustrating the reciprocal effects of intrinsic motivation: learner-control contributes to competence, continued experiences of competence lead to more challenging choices, all of which can increase the connectedness a students feels to the learning community.
Thus, the first imperative once students begin to work on a task is not to complete it or to get a good grade on it, but to invest effort. Especially older students may find it confronting to learn that simply going through the motions isn’t enough. The point is not to “play the game” of school, but to actually learn. If a student can’t apply him or herself, the assembly line doesn’t crank heedlessly along. One of several things might happen. First, perhaps the student’s Choice turns out not to be as interesting as was first thought. It’s fine to return and reconsider then choose another pathway. Another likely scenario is that the student continues to make new Choices; nothing ever matches up to expectations. Within the CEQALL model students are ultimately responsible and failure is a very real, though temporary, possibility. Rather than remain classified as a “failure” whose “effort needs to improve,” a student’s persistent lack of effort is an opportunity to address what might be fundamental impediments to learning. In this way, maladaptations like low self-esteem, fear of failure or learning disabilities are addressed early thereby avoiding engrained self-defeating patterns.
In order to make “Effort” a natural part of the school life, we must develop a culture that emphasizes effort and care, not completion. It is not enough for students to merely “turn in” their homework, but the work should sing with students’ best efforts. This will likely require a flexible approach to due dates. When schools are modelled on the assembly line, students who have not completed the day’s assignment throw a wrench into the machinery. Every teacher knows the frustration of trying to move to the next incremental skill in a unit when only part of the class has completed the preliminary work. However, when a scope of mastery in a subject is available and much of learning is individually mediated through online or “just in time” learning, completing tasks becomes more a practice of project management and workflow. And just such self-regulation is again at the heart of motivation and critical thinking to name but two core features of learning.
Whereas Choice, requires educators to provide a range of learning pathways, in order to encourage Effort, teachers must make their own efforts in developing authentic audiences, collaborative partnerships, service learning relationships and performance opportunities. Like sports coaches, practice and effort become meaningful and appreciated on Game Day. Imagine a team that practiced all year and never played a game? Imagine how some of our students feel?
Once students have been able to find themselves in the learning goals and exert substantial Effort, the next absolute is Quality. The reason Quality must stand out on its own is that students need to know that it’s not enough to put Effort into the task, but that their ultimate goal is to create something special. Learning and its fruits are owned by the students, and stretching to achieve Quality feels good. Encouraging such positive feelings is the focus of Csikszentmihaly’s work on “Flow theory” where various factors converge to encourage the optimal feeling of “flow,” that euphoria of losing oneself in the moment.
This is a clear shift away from traditional schooling to personal learning. With students responsible for choosing their learning goals and outcomes, the teacher’s role is now – honestly – that of coach and mentor. Quoting from Csikszentmihalyi (1991), when teachers
“empower students to take control of their learning” their job changes,
they provide clear feedback to the students’ efforts without threatening their egos and without making them self-conscious. They help students concentrate and get immersed in the symbolic world of the subject matter. As a result, good teachers still turn out children who enjoy learning, and who will continue to face the world with curiosity and interest.
The key aspect for educators is the relationship between a person’s ability and the confronting challenge. As much as possible, we can encourage flow experiences in our students by helping them find a meaningful task that just exceeds their current ability level. By summoning their skills and then stretching that bit further, students’ Effort can lead to such a peak experience. Thus the pursuit of Quality yields the twofold benefit of achieving the learning outcomes that are valued academically as well as the personal wellbeing every parent and teacher hopes to nurture.
Even after students have a Choice in their work and complete the activity in a Quality manner, the Effort has been misspent unless a positive Attitude is part of the outcome. The peak experience of Flow – or in other words, the “Joy of Learning” – is a direct product of esteemed self expression. If all has gone well, students will have achieved a quality outcome and feel good about it. If their attitude lacks enthusiasm, they may decide to revisit any or all of the previous stages. Perhaps their Choice needs adjustment up or down. Maybe more or different Effort is required. Similarly, they might seek additional feedback, coaching or inspiration to create something of unmistakable quality.
Thus the Attitude stage is one of reflection: If I don’t feel good about who I am and what I’ve done, maybe I wasn’t honest in my Choices, expended Effort or pursuit of Quality. If learners have thought it easier to “go through the motions” of Choice, Effort, and Quality, without honestly serving their own interests, their attitudes will show the truth.
Educators are likely to spend more time at this stage mentoring learners, not necessarily focusing on the content or outcome of the learning. This modeling and discussion of what it means to be a sincere learner makes overt the culture engendered by CEQALL, a culture that insists that we are all capable individual and part of a collective effort to grow and learn.
Labor of Love
Ultimately, happy and productive people are self-initiated. They get curious and engage themselves in the world and are a benefit to it when they make their contributions. Over the course of a student’s middle and secondary education, he or she will find things that they are called to do. This already occurs in today’s traditional schools where exemplary students become local legends in musical performance, advanced maths, the visual arts. Some students find their niche and pursue their interests – either through or in spite of schooling. Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow is probably a touchstone that our most successfully self-expressive students experience regularly. Through the CEQALL model we can make that joy of learning more widely available to all students. That is, if we allow them to explore their personal learning goals in an environment that supports and stretches their endeavors. When students find something that truly captures their interest, the natural progression from Choice to the application of Effort in pursuit of a Quality outcome merges into an ongoing Labor of Love. The CEQALL model’s underlying goal is that every student leaves high school having achieved a high level of competence in some self-chosen endeavor.
I often rebel when I hear adult educators trumpet the technology skills of the younger generations. Sure “digital natives” speak the language of technology fluently, but wouldn’t the world be better off with more multi-lingual people? And as wonderful as being a “millennial” might be, do we really want to condemn youth to isolation from the richness of other eras and civilizations that might speak to their sense of humanity? In other words, few would confuse “facility” with “sophistication,” “clicking” with “critiquing” or World of Warcraft with “wisdom.” Thus, education can better position itself if it focuses on a pedagogically more honest approach enabled by technology: enabling individual growth and learning. To cling to mass production in an age of digital personalization is not only a poor business choice, but a disservice to our children.
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