Personalized Education: Learning that is Meaningful and Important

The last month has been busy for all of us. What with staffing, budget, timetable and seeing our kids through, we’ve all been hard pressed to keep our heads afloat! Well, a quick review of the past three weeks:

• Our 2nd Annual Student Forum was held;
• A highly energetic Grad Ceremony and Prom;
• A wonderful year-end concert;
• Awards Night, Athletic Awards Night & Barbeque;
• Jennifer Nguyen, Sandra Parras and Noreen Darroca participated in the Youth in Philanthropy Initiative and their winning presentation earned the “Multicultural Helping House” $5000;
• Grade 12 student Muhammed Saad attending the Vancouver Fire Youth Outreach Academy;
• Hosting of the District’s 2nd Annual “Passport to Play”;
• An eventful last day of classes.

Scott McLeod, in his blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, reminds us of a line from Mission Impossible, and we must apply that to what we do here at John Oliver. “Your assignment, should you choose to accept it” is to take education truly into the 21st century. It is not enough to say that we are already living there. Technically it is the 21st century, but our school is not quite there although we have taken great steps in that direction.

So what is 21st century education?

20th vs. 21st century classrooms

It is flexible, creative, challenging, and complex. It addresses a rapidly changing world filled with fantastic new problems as well as exciting new possibilities. It imparts skills learned through a curriculum that is interdisciplinary, integrated, project-based, and utilizes the seven survival skills advocated by Tony Wagner in his book, The Global Achievement Gap:

• Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
• Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
• Agility and Adaptability
• Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
• Effective Oral and Written Communication
• Accessing and Analyzing Information
• Curiosity and Imagination

Our students are already engaged around 21st century learning. Witness, please, the most recent “digital” grad prank informing us all that John Oliver was “For Sale.” The website was created by two of our grade 12 students, Sarah Gillis and Elizabeth Dobrazanski:

John Oliver For Sale

The site, which starts humorously, has within it a serious political message which displays our students’ ability to locate, synthesize and leverage information and in so doing create digital content of their own. All of these skills acquired through a project that is truly a reflection of ‘personalized” education.

On this note, I had the good fortune of attending a John Oliver Technology “Think Tank” with Zhi, Dustin, Lester and Jeff. The purpose of the meeting was to begin putting together a draft of our new “Three Year Technology Plan.” As part of our conversation, we spoke of what learning would look like for our students. I’d like to share with you a narrative provided by Jeff:

Consider this from the perspective of a student.

Student in “traditional” classroom
Wakes up, tired, late, hungry, stumbling to school worried about the science test:
“Oh, man, I’m gonna fail that. I didn’t memorize the vocabulary, can’t remember the habitat of the coyote. I’m skipping.”

Student gets a zero on the test, is disengaged from school, couldn’t care less about the coyote…you get the idea. Student gets around to writing a makeup test – brings in cheat sheet. Not caught – gets a “b”.

Student in JO-2011 classroom
Wakes up, tired, late, hungry, stumbling to school worried about being late and disappointing the teacher. Isn’t today’s topic to be about habitat?

Getting off the bus, bleary-eyed, the student spies a skinny dog in the cemetery. Out comes the iPhone – video on – “Whoa! That’s a coyote!” Student jumps the fence and pursues at a distance – video rolling. Follows the coyote to the den and sees the pups ripping apart a neighbourhood cat.

Arriving late at class the student interrupts the chaotic class demanding everyone’s attention. Hooks up iPhone to projector and shows live footage. Forget YouTube. This is real life. Discussion follows – extensions, excitement.

Should we kill the coyotes in the cemetery?
What do they live in – install a webcam?
Where will the babies go?

Both of these students were late. Only one student was successful.
How do we enable the excitement of learning?
How do we teach the pursuit of knowledge and learning and limit the regurgitation of facts that are easy to lookup on an iPod?
How do we teach kids to contribute to the world body of knowledge?
How do we assess?

Physics Final exam 2011
Students are at various locations (school, lab, bus, Starbucks), question is released: “Discuss the state of the world’s energy resources and usage. Predict the shift for 2050.” You are required to backup your ideas with current research.
Your 2min video response is due no later than 18:00 PST

Jeff touches on a very specific point: schools should reflect the world we live in today. And we live in a social world. We need to teach students how to be effective collaborators in that world, how to interact with people around them, how to be engaged and informed 21st century citizens. We need to show students the powerful ways networking can change the way education is viewed. We need to reframe social networking as academic networking. We need to offer ourselves and students radically new ways to research, create and learn through the evolving world of Internet communication – blogs, podcasts, wikis, tags, file sharing

In the end, Sarah and Elizabeth’s website (and the selling of our school!) helps us all see how technology can empower and engage students in real world problems and activities, leveraging the enormous potentials of the digital media environment that now surrounds us. In the process, I would like all of our students, not just Sarah and Elizabeth, develop much-needed skills in navigating and harnessing this new media environment, becoming engaged in projects that are meaningful and important to them, and that make them feel meaningful and important.

Have a nice week everyone.