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Taking Distance Away from the Screen

Mar 27, 2020 jjamison

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In education, we often use a metaphor of content delivery. We use terms like “deliver a lesson.” We ask, “did the students get it?” But the last week and a half has proven that teachers are not merely content delivery machines. In my last post, I mentioned that teachers have often put relationships first and gone out of the way to make sure that their students are doing okay.

At the same time, there is often a pressure in distance learning to make sure that students are meeting their “seat time” requirements. I’ve heard stories from teachers who are asked to teach 45 minute lessons to 30 students at a time via Zoom. Part of this comes from the myth that we can convert physical classes to online classes.

The problem with conversion is that we tend to view things with a deficit mindset. In other words, we ask, “Can I still do this even when we’re not physically there?” Then, we reduce the amount of activities we can do as a result. It’s a bit like file conversions that get smaller or more compressed over time.

A better option is transformation. With transformation, we can ask, “What does it mean to do things differently? What are the new options that were previously unavailable?”

When it comes to distance learning, this often means going beyond the content delivery method and encouraging things like voice, choice, creativity, and even play.


Intentional Design

Last week, a friend of ours created a choice-based daily schedule for her children at home. As a high school teacher, she needed to develop online lessons during the early Spring Break so that her students could continue learning. After she texted her example to my wife, we, as a family, decided to create our own daily schedule. Here’s what it looks like:

Notice that our kids can wake up whenever they want. Our teenage boys are happy to get up at nine or ten while my daughter still gets up around six or seven. Also notice that this schedule isn’t based on school subjects. When they read, they are moving between novels (English), articles from Smithsonian, Time, The Economist (social studies), Popular Science, and Modern Mechanics (STEM). Their maker projects shift from art to STEM and their Genius Hour projects have involved learning new math concepts to learning a new song on the piano.

A quick disclaimer here. My kids are lucky. There is a good amount of privilege to having four bookshelves full of books and a mountain of magazines. We have instruments and craft supplies. But in many cases, they are working within constraints, using low budget materials on maker projects and reading books they checked out from the school library. As educators, we need to find ways that we can provide certain materials to students during a time of social distancing. I’ve already seen schools do supply drives and offer maker materials to students who are picking up free lunch. I’ve seen teachers do read alouds and have students listen to the books from a distance. I’ve watched schools connect with libraries to help get books into the hands of kids at home. Again, schools have proven amazingly adaptive and innovative amid a crisis.

A Vintage Innovation Approach

Notice that our schedule is neither tech-driven nor anti-technology. Learning at home doesn’t have to mean eight hours in front of a screen. At the same time, many of these activities have screen time built into them. In other words, we are taking a vintage innovation approach. It’s an idea I explored in my recent book.

Vintage innovation happens when we use old ideas and tools to transform the present. Think of it as a mash-up. It’s not a rejection of new tools or new ideas. Instead, it’s a reminder that sometimes the best way to move forward is to look backward. Like all innovation, vintage innovation is disruptive. But it’s disruptive by pulling us out of present tense and into something more timeless.

Vintage Innovation is a both/and mindset. It’s the overlap of the “tried and true” and the “never tried.” It’s a mash-up of cutting edge tech and old school tools. It’s the overlap of timeless skills in new contexts. Vintage innovation is what happens when engineers use origami to design new spacecraft and robotics engineers are studying nature for innovative designs.

As a teacher, it’s what happens when you do sketch-note videos mashing up hand-drawn sketches with digital tools or blend Socratic discussions with podcasting. It’s that service-learning project that you do creatively from home in the midst of social distancing. It’s the old idea of shared commonplace books to explore new ideas and research. It’s a design project that includes duct tape and cardboard and sticky notes and markers but also digital modeling. It’s the idea of doing these projects in a very tangible way at home but then documenting this process through a video that you share online with your classmates.

I mention this because I keep hearing folks ask, “How do I get my class online?” But a different, perhaps more relevant question, might be, “How do we help students learn from home? What should learning look like in these times? And how do we continue to create a culture of creativity despite the physical distance between us?”

Empowering Students in Distance Learning

At home, our daily schedule is focused on the idea of empowering our kids to be self-directed learners. Instead of creating tech-driven lessons, we are focused on the following:

  • Inquiry and Curiosity
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Voice and Choice
  • Empathy and Service
  • Collaboration Across Ages

Note that these are the lifelong skills that our children need to develop. We are living in uncertain times and we can’t predict the future. However, we can prepare our students for the future by empowering them in the present. So, I encourage you to craft home-based learning experiences that will allow students to develop curiosity, creativity, and empathy.

Keep Experimenting

Vintage Innovation is a reminder that innovation isn’t about creating something new so much as relevant — and that relevance is often something disruptive. Sometimes relevance doesn’t mean a deep dive into augmented reality or artificial intelligence. Sometimes it’s a deep dive into a novel or a meandering philosophical discussion on what it means to be human. It’s often in the analog that we find a different perspective. T.S. Eliot put it this way, “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

With vintage innovation, teachers ask:

  • How do I innovate when I don’t have the best technology?
  • How can I use vintage tools, ideas, and approaches in new ways?
  • How can I use constraints to spark creativity?
  • How do I blend together the “tried and true” with the “never tried?”

These are the questions we are asking as we move into distant learning. It might mean having students work long distance with a fellow student and craft a podcast. Instead of a noisy classroom, they might actually have the time and the space to craft a podcast together. It might mean doing a Wonder Day project that is both online and off-line. It might mean they do a hands-on maker project and create a 2-minute video explanation of it. Or maybe they craft a very hands-on comic book but also blog about their process. In other words, it’s going to be both/and:

If you are a teacher, you are an innovator. You are the experimenter trying new strategies. This means there will be mistakes. Zoom sessions will freeze up. Assignments won’t post properly on Google Classroom or Canvas. You might look silly the first time you record a video.

But that’s okay. It’s an experiment.

You are the architect designing new learning opportunities. Right now, you are designing something on the fly and you are doing a phenomenal job given the challenges you face. This is why the teachers will always be at the heart of innovation. Apps change. Gadgets break. Technology grows obsolete. But one thing remains: teachers change the world.

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