Engagement

Back from our new adventure, we are all still settling in. I recently started my new job at SMART Technologies. I’ve been noodling on something for almost two months now since my interview there. It’s a disturbing insight on schools, an intriguing insight on unschooling, and a telling insight about our digital native children.

Some of you might recognize SMART as the company that makes digital whiteboards. They have a long history in the education market and a recent one in business. In my interview, I was talking with some folks working on the education side. They told me something that I could not get out of my head. Teachers love the SMART Boards because it helps them with the thing they focus on and worry about most: engagement. The striking thing was less the part about the SMART Board and more the point that their biggest challenge is engagement.

At some level, it isn’t terribly surprising, especially if you have seen classrooms where teachers, often alone, have to manage a class of an ever growing number of kids with a wide range of learning styles and aptitudes. This isn’t about teachers. It’s about where we are with more traditional education – a field that’s very slow to change. Add in digital natives who are very comfortable with tons of streaming content on various screens and instant information gratification and you have a perfect storm in which engagement ends up being the desirable outcome and at some level a bar for success.

But engagement seems like such a low bar. What about interest? What about learning? What about mastery? To me, engagement is the lowest level of outcomes to achieve in education. This is what got me noodling.

I like to try to make sense of things by diagramming them. I often use a simple 2×2 matrix to do that because it forces me to really distill the key aspects. Here was my start at noodling over this problem. I don’t claim correctness here. It helped me and hopefully will provoke some thinking.

engagement 2x2 part 1[Basic Learning 2×2]

Generally in such diagrams, the lower left is not a good place to be. The upper right is. In this case, the model I was thinking about was how kids learn. I simplified it into learning by thinking and learning by doing. Most kids, and adults, use a combination of course. Some kids, like Aidan, may start out just trying things (doing). It’s especially the case with technology. I’ll call that play (more doing, less thinking). Other kids may start with more thinking and less doing. I’ll call that interest. When you put them together, you get learning in the upper right. It’s a bit like the Chinese saying:

I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.

So, if you take the goal as getting to learning, what helps kids with more doing or more thinking?

engagement 2x2 part 2

[How You Get There]

I boiled down into structure and tools. Give a kid a tool, whether a hammer or a computer or something else, and they’ll inevitably start playing with it. It’s a great start. Some kids thrive in this space and keep playing until they get better at it. Other kids need a little more help, which is where structure comes in. Also, just playing with something to eventually land on how to use it well isn’t terribly efficient.

Now take the converse. Some kids like to start by reading about or “studying” something. (Those kids may grow up to be people like me who reads the manual first! 🙂 ). It certainly helps, but it can remain academic unless and until they actually try doing something; i.e. using a tool.

Take math for example. You can spend lots of time doing multiplication. Eventually you may notice some patterns that lead to higher level math. But some structure certainly helps. Or, you could read a lot about how to do multiplication, but it’s hard to “get it” until you actually try to do it. All of this is really scaffolding. It’s a term coined by Jerome Bruner and used in education to describe the support given during the learning process, tailored to the needs of the student, to help them achieve their learning goals.

Scaffolding works well, but it’s hard to do when you are struggling to achieve simple engagement. It must also be a huge challenge with digital natives and the sensory explosion they’ve been exposed to since birth – unlike, for example, children at the time our first models of classroom education were developed. Now, outnumber the teacher with many students in a large class and you can see the perfect storm.

In contrast, engagement tends to be less of an issue in unschooling for a few likely reasons. First, there’s usually an adult around who can help when needed and knows the student well. When students have a hand in choosing what they want to learn and how to learn, it’s certainly makes the process easier. The challenge is that most of us doing unschooling aren’t fully versed in all the best ways to help our kids with tools or structure, when they need it.

As I looked at all of this, I kept noodling about engagement. If engagement was the biggest challenge in many classrooms and something desirable to achieve, then it should be in the upper right corner. What, then would be in the other quadrants?

engagement 2x2 part 3

[The Road to Engagement]

I started with boredom as the “lowest” state, sitting in the unenviable lower left quadrant. Unstructured thinking to me represents daydreaming. It’s not bad in itself, and indeed can be the source of great inspiration, but it doesn’t help the learning process or the teacher. On the flip side, and I know it may be a provocative term, but unstructured doing can be disruption (certainly more to a teacher than a student).

Now, put anything with a screen, including a SMART Board, near a digital native, and you can see how engagement might occur. Many classrooms still prevent students from bringing in smart phones, tablets or computers or severely limit their use. Here’s where I’ll share some very “off path” thoughts.

To a digital native, devices with screens – and truly, it doesn’t matter the form factor – are their core tools. They are almost extensions of their body. We may not want to admit it, but it’s true. Is it really so different than pencils and paper were to those of us who are not digital natives?

One can argue that they can be a source of distraction or a means for teachers to lose control of a class. I’d argue two points. First, paper and pencils can also be a distraction to a (non-digital native) student who is bored. For example, you could tell which high school and college classes I was bored in (even meetings I’ve been in at work!) – by looking at my notebooks. I drew detailed sketches, wrote song lyrics, generally found lots of creative ways to be distracted.

More importantly, while they can no doubt be sources of distraction – and I think all of us as parents have struggled with this – they can also be sources of incredible power and motivation for learning when used well. There are a number of schools that are allowing some devices in now and harnessing them as part of the learning process. I recently saw one example of a grammar school in Kent where the students each had a Surface Pro and the class had a SMART Board. There was one teacher and 20 students. Sure, it was chaotic at times with some daydreaming and disruption going on to be sure. But if I imagine that class of digital natives without the devices, I’d expect things to be far worse. And indeed, she wasn’t just achieving engagement. She was getting some interest, some play, and a good deal of learning as well.

Of course, as Ben Franklin remarked, “Everything in moderation.” Being plugged in all the time can certainly be unhealthy as well. We’ve had our share of discussions/arguments with our own two digital natives growing up with screens and trying to be responsible about screen time. I think digital natives fundamentally embrace technology differently. It is intertwined in their beings and they find ever new ways of using it. While I might be different, I do understand their habits and needs – well at least a bit in this respect at least. I might consider them a little “off path” compared to me and many of us non-digital natives, but then you know where I stand on being “off path.” Pura vida

 

PS: For the record, having taken my “noodling” below the threshold of engagement with my diagramming, I also had to noodle on what “lived” above learning.

engagement 2x2 part 4

[The Final Level]

I see a “doing” path going from learning to experimentation. You might think of it as a deeper level of play, but a highly structured one and generally very goal directed. Some of the best constructivist learning principles follow this route. On the other side, I see going down a thinking path from learning leading to research. I know that word can have a lot of meanings but here I see it as a structured knowledge pursuit. When you combine the two, you can get to mastery. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers notes that it takes about 10,000 hours in a skill/field to achieve mastery. Very likely, it requires both thinking and doing to some degree.

I wonder if, armed with the proper tools, digital natives, at least in some areas, can achieve mastery more quickly. I’m an optimist. I would like to hope so. The amount of information is growing at staggering rates. According to IBM in 2012, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Our digital natives growing up in a world with increasing challenge, complexity and information will need all the help they can get.

Transitions

Change has certainly been something constant while on our new adventure in Costa Rica. Now that we are back, we are experiencing lots of change in the transitions each of us is going through as we “readjust” to routine and life here in Seattle. After what we’ve experienced though, change itself is easier for all of us and very exciting. That was a key benefit we hoped that Aidan and Nev got from our experience. I’m not sure though if they realize how differently they – actually all of us – approach things now.

I started my transition back in August really. That’s when I started reaching out to folks and looking for a new job. I had a pretty firm set of things I was and was not looking for in my ideal new job. Perhaps that’s why has taken several months to find my place.

Leaving for a year, and especially having the opportunity to spend so much time with my family, made me think hard about what type of job I wanted to have that would take me away from them for so many hours a day. Deb and I had the luxury of spending all of our time together. We love working on things together. That’s why it’s a big deal for me to transition back to seeing co-workers for more hours per day in many cases than Deb.

I didn’t feel compelled to return to any sort of “ladder climb” in a company. I could have managed a large team again, but I wanted something different. Ideally I wanted to find a place where I could be more “hands on.” I wanted to do something that had benefit beyond corporate success. So I took a position as an “individual contributor” in a company and industry that will get me right back to my roots in helping to evolve education.

A year or more ago I probably would have worried a bit about taking a “step down” from a bigger position and title. Not now. I feel solidly centered on how I want to spend the precious time I have. For me it’s about the “why”, not the “what” or “how much.” And I expect this ride to be even more thrilling than the previous things I’ve had the privilege of doing.

Deb is choosing not to return to the corporate world for now. True to her nature, she has a wild idea about want she wants to do next. That transition is far more in her nature and will include being out in nature a lot more. Deb is not ready to talk about it yet here in more detail. It will take some explaining to do, hopefully in a future post.

Nev has decided to go to back to public (high) school – but not just any high school. Nev enjoyed home schooling and was doing well. As we mentioned awhile back, a large public middle school was a nightmare for Nev with all of the posturing, bullying, cliques, and stress. We were a little surprised about the interest in going back to a public school, but this one could not be more fitting for Nev.

Nova is indeed a Seattle public school but it is very alternative. When we first drove up for a visit, we saw a bunch of students in the parking lot and a lot of diverse hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. This was clearly a place where people felt comfortable being who they were and Nev said that it felt like “home.”

But Nova is not alternative because of the students. Rather, I think it simply attracts more alternative students. Nova is run more like a college where you choose your classes and everyone’s schedule may be different. They have some incredibly interesting and non-mainstream classes like Experimental Animation, Feminism and Fashion, and Naked Truth on Stereotypes. Students and faculty work together to make the school a very open and accepting forum for ideas and place for people. And the teachers are as refreshing as the students.

Transitioning from a year in Costa Rica being homeschooled to even an alternative high school will be a big transition, but Nev is ready and excited.

Aidan, as usual, is open to everything and excited about trying new things. He and Deb are attending a home school cooperative program Mondays and Fridays where different parents teach different classes and where Aidan can meet some new friends. That leaves lots of time for doing some activities Aidan and Deb work out. It’s a bit different approach to unschooling, but it will be a fun, new adventure for Aidan.

The most interesting thing to me about our transition back isn’t what we each are doing; it’s how our general perspectives have changed, especially Aidan and Nev’s. We are living much more simply. We don’t need much “stuff.” The young adults are taking on much more responsibility. And change is something we take in stride pretty easily.

I expect that all of this didn’t simply come from living in Costa Rica. Some of it would have happened naturally, I’m sure. I think our experience though may have hastened and facilitated much of it.

We each have our own work, school, and life transitions back to the world we knew. On the surface, they seem fairly normal compared to our previous year. But they are all very definitely, and very intentionally, “off-path”. I hope our off-path perspectives don’t dim as we return to reality. I don’t expect they ever will, though, and that’s a good thing. Pura vida.

Stuff Part 2

We have returned from our new adventure and have been settling in to our new (rental) place here in Seattle after our wonderful year away with our young adults. A year ago in October I wrote about “stuff” – specifically how we sold most of our stuff and how, while it was initially hard, it was also very freeing. As I reflect on our holidays this year, I realize how different all of our perspectives (still) are on “stuff.”

To begin, and for a little context, when we went to Costa Rica, we radically reduced the amount of stuff we brought to just a few suitcases each, and much of it was technology. When we spent 5 weeks backpacking in Europe, we reduced even further to one carry-on size suitcase each with everything we would need to wear for any occasion. We all got used to wearing the same things most of the time. Not a lot has actually changed now that we are back in Seattle and that actually surprised us.

When we first arrived I went and got several of the very few boxes of clothes, shoes, etc. that we had in storage. We picked out what we needed – mostly cold weather gear as you might imagine! – and I ended up returning much of it. Even though we sold most of our clothes and other stuff, we still found that we kept more than we really needed. And we are all happy not having a large closet of clothes. It’s just one of several lasting changes we’ve gone through as a result of our travels.

We decided not to return to our house in Seattle. We had some good friends as renters in our house and they were interested in staying. In a sort of “karmic pay it forward”, we rented the house of some friends who decided to travel around the world with their kids for a year. We are now out in a small rural town called Fall City and we love the simplicity (and the commute could be a lot worse). Simpler seems to be working for us.

Christmas itself was also a very different affair for us. Like many folks we know, our past Christmas holidays have been filled with Christmas trees, lights, ornaments, and lots of presents as well as good food, family time and fun experiences. This year we kept the latter three.

It’s not that we have become anti-Christmas per se – it’s just that things matter differently to us. For example, we didn’t have ornaments and so as a family we decided that we also didn’t need a tree. It seemed odd to us to just cut down a tree and buy it to sit empty in our house.

We all saw lot of holiday shopping at the several mile long “strip mall” near us in Issaquah. We saw all of the stressed, often frantic, and sometimes rude shoppers. It just didn’t feel right to us.

We decided that we weren’t going to get a bunch of “stuff” as presents. We bought less and made more. And what we did get focused more on experiences – as has our entire last year – than on the “stuff” itself.

I had mentioned that Nev and Aidan had become interested in this “physical” fantasy gamed called Warhammer while we were in Firenze (Florence). The pieces all tend to be really expensive so instead of buying a large battle board, I built them one out of wood and insulation foam and then painted them. (Don’t worry Gretchen & Rodrigo. These have felt on the bottom.)

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These boards are 2’x2’ and so of course I had to build a piece of “furniture” to keep them safe 🙂  Meanwhile, Deb spent many hours painting the small Warhammer figures for them.

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This all gave Nev and Aidan the ability to play a live game with each other – and have many fun experiences. We also bought two new family games so we could spend more time together playing games. We still had the 3 we brought to Costa Rica and it was time to add just a little diversity!

Nev created some art for each of us. The pictures Nev gave Deb and I are priceless. He captured both of us so well.

deb andy xmas drawing 2

deb andy xmas drawing 1

When we shared presents, they were fewer and much more meaningful. And we focused much of our time hanging out and playing games together. It’s likely to be one of our more memorable Christmas’s.

When I was at Teague, I did some research on travelers and one of the most poignant quotes I heard was “Travel changes you.” It is certainly true in our case. It often takes Deb and I stepping back a moment sometimes to see how much we’ve changed. Not needing a lot of “stuff” is just one of many. I’ll probably write about a few of the other ways that I see that we’ve changed in other posts.

Frankly, I wasn’t really sure whether I’d keep writing this blog. After all, we are no longer abroad in Costa Rica, nor traveling, and it’s likely that Nev and Aidan will be attending some form of school in the coming months (though very alternative forms). But what I realize is that despite the fact that we are indeed back and that I’ll be starting a job soon, we are still very much “intentionally off path” thanks to our wonderful experiences together this past year. And being “off path”, in the middle of so many here in Seattle who are “on the path”, feels pretty invigorating. We’re not sure what this year will bring, but we are sure it will continue to be different for all of us. Pura vida.