learning genome

Building Student Agency with Card Games and Detox Week

Ten years ago, I was a computer teacher and a technology integration specialist. I taught 475 students every week, worked closely with teachers to ingegrate technology meaningully into their classrooms, and worked closely with the curriculum so that I knew how to integrate it meaningfully.

It was in this moment of time that I discovered a catastrophic problem that would change the course of my life: The curriculum didn’t know the students it was designed for. It couldn’t possibly know who they were and what their stories were. As teachers, we knew these stories, and yet we were being held back from fully embracing the identity and genius of the students in our classrooms because we were teaching from a curriculum that didn’t know them. Worse still, testing was dictating what the learning interaction would look like.

I felt a deep sense of urgency to change this…NOW! Because these 475 kids I was teaching every week? They didn’t have the luxury of time for education policymakers to get it right, they (unhelpfully) kept growing up.

I’ve dedicated the last nine years to learning how to honor identity by giving students agency over their learning through personalization. What started as an idea for a piece of technology has turned into a school, which has become a movement of good.

Our goal at Anastasis is to create a high-purpose environment where every student knows who they are, where every student is valued as a member of a team, where feedback is real-time and valuable, where we have the shared goal of becoming the very best version of ourselves.

At Anastasis we begin by connecting. We get to know a student on a deep level, and before the school year even begins, students receive a sense of belonging. Our first weeks of school are all about signaling: you are valuable, you are worth knowing, you are worthy of one-on-one time, you belong here. How do we do this? Through Learner Profile Days and Detox Week.

Learner Profile days are predicated on the belief that every one of our students is standing in a spot in this world that they alone inhabit. Wholely unique in the course of history. They are a collection of their history, experiences, gifts, hopes, their fears and insecurities. We believe that every one of our students holds a place in this world that’s valuable and important. The world needs us to honor these individuals. To see them as individuals and help them grown in their gifts. Our goal can never be to make them close approximations of “perfect student” in a one-size-fits-all system. The complex problems of our world won’t respond to one-size-fits-all solutions. We NEED people with different points of view who can communicate, collaborate, and who can appreciate other points-of-view and gifts as equally valuable, not as competition.

Our first two days of school are designed so that our teachers can have one-on-one time (an hour) with every one of their students. During this hour, they use the Learning Genome Card Sets to help students tell their stories. More than a boiled down version of what categories students trend in as learners, the cards are meant to activate narrative. The cards act as a launching point for students to add details and tell stories about who they are. They help teachers get answers to questions we may not have known to ask. Inevitably we also gain great information about how they like to learn. The real magic is in the stories. In that hour-long one-on-one, students have a safe place to share, they have a captive audience, and teachers get to know them on a deeper level. The kind that usually takes a full year to develop. From this card game, we develop the Learner Profile. This is a document where we record what a student’s learning preferences are. The document is helpful, but it isn’t really the point. The point is connection. The start of relationship and community.

The Learner Profile becomes a place where we help students discover and flourish as individuals who know who they are and why they are here, who know what they are passionate about, who explore the world and make connections with who they are, and to see that each one of them has the capacity to change our world using their gifts. The Learner Profile gives them a starting point to understand what their hearts beat for. What they were uniquely put on this earth to do (and that it’s a never-ending journey!)

Detox Week is a week where we help kids “detox” from the false messages they’ve learned about themselves, community, and learning. We break down the message that they lack in some way, that they may not be “enough.” We work to help kids see that community is more excellent than competition in a learning environment. We want them to understand that real learning is a journey that will include risk, and trials, and setbacks, and failure, and iteration, and success.

During Detox week, kids fail spectacularly. Our goal is ultimately to help them see that Anastasis is a safe place to fail, that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to ask for help, and to iterate on ideas. During Detox Week kids also start to learn that honest, kind, critical feedback will be our norm. We give real feedback because we have high expectations and know that each of them can reach those expectations. Over and over again in this first week of school, we’ve designed the experiences to send the message: You are inherently valuable and worthy. You belong to Anastasis today and in the future. We believe in each of you. It’s okay to keep iterating, in fact, that is learning!
We let kids know that their learning this year won’t be about a grade, it will be about learning. Anastasis will be a safe place to give effort and iterate (by the way, I do the same thing with professional development for teachers: Exhibit A, Exhibit B). During Detox Week we send the message that learning is bigger than school, learning is life. We send the message that there is a gift in the struggle, an art that plays out in the journey toward mastery.

Detox Week is meant to inspire laughter and provoke small moments of crisis where they will be frustrated. As it turns out, this is one of life’s greatest bonding experiences. Detox Week becomes a moment in time where our students share experiences that we can refer to, and learn from, all year long.

Detox Week helps us establish a school culture for the year. It helps students see who they are and that they belong here, in this community. When they get to know themselves as individuals, they can start to appreciate the gifts that others bring. They can begin to see how they are connected and that their contribution matters. They begin to see that they are safe to be themselves, safe to make mistakes. So often I see educators elevate failure as a good thing…champion it even, but without laying the foundation for that kind of vulnerability, the lip service does students no good. Let’s be real; learning is an act of vulnerability because it comes with failure. To not provide genuinely safe conditions is to hinder students in their learning.

So, what does Detox Week look like practically? We start by helping our students see and appreciate their own identity. Through the books we read together, with a look at their learner profile, through metaphor, and quotes. We talk about how rainforests have a symbiotic diversity nature, and that the diversity of a rainforest is actually what makes the whole thing healthier. If you plant just one kind of plant, the rainforest would be weaker. This is the same in our classroom, and indeed life. Where there is diversity, there is life. Having a diversity of gifts and vantage points makes our classroom, school, and world healthier. We can work together. We talk about the idea of collective intelligence. We are smarter, stronger, wiser together.

Next, we put our students in teams and situations where they will be challenged. They will fail spectacularly. Then we let them take a step back, talk with their team, and iterate. They tackle it again, and again, and again. There have been tears. There have been shouts of frustration. There is always some laughter. In the end, bonds form. Kids learn that it is okay to be vulnerable. That they can succeed when they work together and listen to each other when they appreciate each other’s gifts. (You can check out other activities/ideas/inspiration we’ve had around Detox Week on Pinterest.)

The oldest two classes (6-8th grade) go on a three-night camping trip together where all of these lessons get reinforced.

We end Detox Week with Identity Day. We edu-lifted this idea from George Couros years ago! Identity Day is a day where every student prepares an exhibit that shares something about who they are. We invite everyone in: parents, teachers, students, grandparents, friends. We celebrate that each of us is unique and the part we play in our community.

When you ask Anastasis students what three things they love about our school we get the same three answers over and again:
1. You know me.
2. I have the freedom to learn here.
3. This community feels like family.

That life-changing moment has led to a school where kids are known. We start here.

In defense of humanity: what we value

Perhaps the most disheartening outcome of the systematization of education is the way that it dehumanizes classrooms. Emboldened by being ‘the best,’ our education system has become blinded to the individual. The student-with-a-name. We’ve exploited our students for bragging rights of having a top performing school. The best test scores. Better than the others. Sometimes we even manage to convince ourselves that aiming for high-test scores is a noble goal. That it will make our country strong.

That, as a result, our students will be relevant in a global economy.

We’ve justified our actions for so long and sold each other on the idea that higher standards, more accountability (read testing), more ‘rigor’ will bring success, make us happy.

All the while we lose.

Lose ourselves, our identity, our uniqueness, our voice.

May we, as educators, stand up and defend the humanity in our classrooms!

We need the audacity to step outside of a system that forgets the individual. The student-with-a-name. To leave the perceived comfort of false/forced/misguided data that convinces us on paper that we are doing it right.

What is it that we value?

Are we really willing to trade meaning for the perception of being collectively ‘the best’ because the test says so?

What if learning as a human endeavor is too big and beautiful to fit into the tiny, meaningless data battles we insist on?

Don’t get me wrong, I deeply believe that the initiatives that call for increased accountability, higher standards, and additional data collection come from the right place of doing right by kids. Of making education more equitable for all. But the goal is wrong. We can’t focus first on numbers and being competitive on global tests.

Ignoring who a child is misses the core of what education must be about.

These initiatives and education movements are culpable in forgetting and overlooking that we are actually teaching individuals who have names. We’ve lost the plot in education and made it about competition (whether we’ll own up to that, or not).

Who a child is, is the core of what education must be about. Recognizing that the population is made up of individuals, unique in the whole of history, who have something important to offer the world. By truly honoring that humanity of the individual, we can collaborate with the rest of the world in such a way that collectively we can solve the problems of today.

Shifting education so systemically can feel overwhelming, impossible even, but it is up to each of us to decide that it is going to be different. It is up to us to uphold humanity, to recognize the individual, the student-with-a-name.

The good news: you don’t need permission to do this. Honestly, you don’t! The first step to restoring humanity is to decide that you are going to value the individuals that make up your class, your school, above all else. Commit that they won’t become numbers, scores, or data points.

Decision made?

Good.

Where do you start? By getting to know your students-with-names.

At Anastasis Academy, we’ve decided that above all else, we will value the identity of all of our students. Because this is a core value, we’ve built it into our school year. Before our first day of school, we hold two days that we call “Learner Profile Days.” Parents sign their child up for a one hour, one-on-one conference between the student and teacher. During this hour, our teacher’s job is to get to know the student. We ask a host of questions that inevitably come with nuance and supporting stories. Then the kids interact with Learning Genome card sets to identify their learning style preferences, their multiple intelligence strengths, and their brain dominance. The result is a Learner Profile.

Learning Genome Card Set

This profile is our starting point for every decision we make. When you begin the year this way, it is impossible to think of students as data points. When you listen to their stories, you learn their feelings, and experiences, and values, and habits of mind, and gain a picture of who they are.

You can do this, you can make the decision to take time out of your first weeks of school and gain a picture of who your students are. What do you value?

The anatomy of a Learner Profile:

 

Anatomy of a Learner Profile

Student Name- In the whole of history, there has never been another one just like them. With this name comes unique gifts, passions, and a vantage point on the world. With this name comes unique genius all their own. The student name is a bold reminder of the identity.

Interests/Passions- This is where we begin to learn about student passions, their likes and dislikes, their hurts, and the things that make them feel alive. In this one-on-one interview, we hear stories, often these questions will lead students down a thought trail that gives us insight.

Learning Style Preference- Learning Style preferences do not indicate that this is the only modality that the student can learn with; however, when we know the preferences that a student has we can make better decisions about introducing new learning. We discover Learning Style Preferences through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Learning Styles

Multiple Intelligence Strengths- Howard Garner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences details eight distinct intelligences. All learners have the capacity to learn and understand in a variety of ways, each learner differs in their strengths of these intelligences. Discovering a students unique mixture of strengths allows us to better direct students in learning and curiosity. We discover Multiple Intelligence Strengths through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Multiple Intelligence Strengths

Brain Dominance- Learning about a student’s preference in brain dominance allows us to make better decisions about how we design our classroom, how we design learning experiences, and how students will approach learning and assessment. We discover Brain Dominance through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Brain Dominance

 Strengths Finder- This is where we gain insight into our students strengths and the way passion can collide with learning experiences. We use Thrively.

If we do nothing else right, let’s make this our priority

Without fail, every kindergarten student at Anastasis has answered this question the exact same way, “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would you change?”

Answer: “Nothing.”

Nothing.

Without fail!

In fact as we build our Learner Profile, when we reach this question, our youngest tend to tilt their heads to the side in confusion. It’s that same look that a puppy gives you when they are trying to work out what you are saying. They are totally puzzled as to why we would ask them such an absurd question.

What would they change?

Nothing.

Young students believe that who they are is exactly who they should be.

They carry no embarrassment or shame about it. They are proud of who they are. They like who they are.

We’ve found that students who started their schooling at Anastasis (in other words, they’ve never attended any other school) still answer this way regardless of how old they are. Change? Why would I change?

They answer, “Nothing.”

They answer, “I like myself!”

When students enter Anastasis later in their schooling, they answer differently. Somewhere around 8 years old the answer changes. They want to be taller. They want to change their “color.” They want to be better at reading. Better at math. They want to be faster. Different from the way that they currently are. You begin to hear the heartbreak of comparison that they carry.

As schools, if we did nothing else right, helping students see the value in who they are is a win. To believe that who they are is okay, and beautiful, and right.

How do we keep that?

How do we make our schools and classrooms a place where students can be proud of who they are? How do we create a culture that cultivates this sense of rightness from within?

This sense of identity impacts every other part of what we do as educators.

Without this, all of our talk about making school a ‘safe place’ is superficial. We start in the wrong place. We don’t often get to the root of what makes a place safe. When students don’t feel secure in who they are, there really isn’t any place that feels safe. Students are living in the insecurity of comparison, of wishing they were something different, of wishing that their reality was different. They feel judged by others because they judge themselves harshly.

When students are secure with themselves, they can be vulnerable. They can be silly and take risks in front of others. This is a universal truth. When students feels comfortable doing their own thing, they aren’t worried that they look different, or act different, or like different things. They can be secure in who they are and with who others are. They can take risks knowing that if they do fail, it doesn’t define them.

They can do the scary things.

How do we help students maintain the sense of self and identity? At Anastasis, it all starts with knowing the individual, with honoring the humanity. At the beginning of each year, we spend our first two days of school getting to know every individual at Anastasis. Each student signs up for an hour long one-on-one meeting with their teacher. During this meeting, we ask a lot of questions (one of them being “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”), we identify strengths, interests, and passions. Then we play three card ‘games’ with students. These help us to identify learning style preferences, multiple intelligence strengths and brain dominance. We build a learner profile to help us understand who our students are. We follow these two days with ‘detox week,’ identity day, and a “Who we are” inquiry block. Throughout detox week, identity day, and the “Who we are” inquiry block we are helping students appreciate who they are. We celebrate it. As students  value themselves as individuals, we work to build community by helping students see the value that others have in their uniqueness.

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This process of building a Learner Profile was initially tech based as the beginning portion of the Learning Genome Project. After starting Anastasis, I began to realize that this process of building the profile should never be tech based. By making this process a one-on-one between teacher and student, we’ve begun by building relationship. By making it a card game that students interact with, we’re able to build a richer profile. As students interact with the cards and the teacher, they begin to tell stories and we get incredible nuance that would be impossible to capture with technology alone. This interaction of teacher and student is the first building block of community, of getting to know each other, of relationship, and vulnerability. It is from this place that we begin each year.

*If you are interested in building a profile the way that we do at Anastasis, you can now purchase the Learning Genome Project Learner Profile card sets. They’ll help you identify a student’s learning style preferences, multiple intelligence strengths, and brain dominance. It is from this profile that we are able to truly individualize the learning at Anastasis.

If we get nothing else right, let’s make this our priority: valuing the individual. The student-with-a-name. To maintain the rightness within, the beauty that makes us individuals.

 

 

Transforming education through great accidents

In 2009, I left teaching. I didn’t do it because I was fed up with the system, or because I didn’t like my job. Quite the opposite. I really loved being a computer teacher. I loved the freedom of writing my own curriculum every day, and getting to know my students. I had a great time helping other teachers learn how to use technology, and coming up with ideas for how they could integrate it into their classrooms. In 2009, I left teaching for health reasons. I have auto immune disorders (Rheumatoid Arthritis and Raynaud’s Syndrome) and in 2009, my rheumatologist recommended that I take a year off to see if my body would stop attacking itself. Get away from the germs the wreak havoc on the system.

So, that is what I did. I took a year off, fully anticipating that this little experiment would not work and that I would be back in the classroom by 2010.

In 2008 (I know, I’m doing this in the wrong order!), I was teaching my students how to build a website using Wix. This is a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) platform, but also allowed for some basic HTML embedding and tweaking. I was demonstrating for students how they could embed a Google Map onto their websites and asked the question, “if I wanted to put a map of the capital of the United States on my website, what would I need to type in?” Blank. Stares.

To clarify, these were 10 and 11-year-old students who are living IN the United States of America. I tried again, “You guys! The capital of the United States, you know, the country we live in?” At this point a few hands raised. “New York?” “San Francisco?” This was one of those face-palm teacher moments. In the interest of time, I gave them the answer. This scenario happened with 2 more classes. Out of 74 fifth grade students, not one of them knew the capital of their own country!!! At this point I started to panic a little. How could our social studies curriculum fail to mention the capital of the United States? I decided that I was going to take all of the curriculum home over the summer and create supplemental guides using technology to help teach what wasn’t in the curriculum. I didn’t stop at social studies, I took the reading, writing, math, and science curriculum home for kindergarten through fifth grade. The back of my MDX filled, I had a goal: to leverage technology to solve this problem.

As I poured over pages and pages of curriculum, one thing became abundantly clear…this was not a problem with the curriculum. At least not in the way I had assumed. It was all there. The kids had even done worksheets and taken tests on the information! When it came time to retrieve the information for a practical purpose, they couldn’t do it. Analyzing the curriculum, I could see why. The way that these skills were being taught was not going to reach my students. I knew these kids. I had taught them for years. As I looked at what the curriculum offered as “learning” I knew that it wouldn’t work for the majority of the students I saw each week in my computer lab. These are brilliant kids, but the only thing that the curriculum required of them was that they look at something, and then regurgitate what they had seen right back on paper. None of it ever had to take long-term residence in the brain. It went directly from the eyes to the hand. My pursuit of a technology supplement guide took on a new goal: take what was in the curriculum, and use technology to bring the learning to life. I had the added benefit of knowing each of the kids I was writing this for. I had their faces in my mind as I wrote these technology guides. I could picture their excitement over learning with what I was pulling together.

Fast forward again to 2009. I hadn’t finished the tech guides, so I was hired as a consultant to finish them for the remainder of the curriculum. I picked up a few other consulting gigs at other schools in the area. As I went through their curriculum I realized that this wasn’t a localized problem. This was a one-size-fits-all problem. At the end of the day, the real trouble was that curriculum isn’t designed for the individual, but for the masses. And in creating for the masses, it completely forgot its goal of teaching students. Who are individuals.

One day as I was working on these technology supplement guides and flipping through curriculum, a song came on Pandora (internet radio) that I had never heard before. I frantically looked for a sticky note to jot down the name of the artist. I stopped for a minute after I got the artist’s name down (Zee Avi, for those who are interested), and had a true geek out moment over how far technology had come. I marveled at the way that technology was so advanced that it could predict what music I would like, all based on one piece of information. It felt like a terribly intimate thing for technology to be able to do (particularly because at the time, I had no idea how the background technology worked!). In the midst of my geeking out, I had a thought: what if curriculum worked more like Pandora? What if we could input one piece of information about a student, and have technology predict ways they might like to learn? I could not shake this idea, and Tweeted it out. My PLN instantly retweeted that thought. I emailed an app developer in Australia that I had been working with and asked if technology was advanced enough to do something like that with curriculum. His response was somewhere along the lines of, “if you can think it up, anything is possible.” I couldn’t let the idea go, so this app developer pointed me toward Balsamiq and told me to learn what I could about how Pandora worked and then prototype my idea. Since I had all the time in the world on my hands, I did exactly that. Pandora called itself the music genome project, based on the human genome project. Essentially, it identifies attributes of music (over 400 of them) and tags each piece of music with those attributes. A map of music. Clearly learning has attributes, so I set out naming those, planning the way that learning could be broken down into the minutia so that an algorithm could identify the perfect resource for a student. At this point I had convinced myself that technology would be the savior of education. All we need is to better individualize for students! Problem solved! Clearly I’m a genius! 😉

Only, the more that I talked to teachers, the more I talked with administrators, the more I looked for investors, the more that I examined the system, the more I realized…education isn’t quite ready for this genius.

The trouble is, we have a one-size-fits-all system. We have classes of 25+ students. We have teachers who are overworked and underpaid. We have a limited amount of time. We have limited budgets. The idea of mass education, in some ways, locks us into the one-size-fits-all. Standards and testing have become hallmarks of education. I started to recognize that even if I get the Learning Genome Project built, I still have to find a way for teachers to use it for students. With the current setup, that would mean the very top students in a class, those considered ‘gifted,’ and the very bottom of the class, those considered ‘low,’ would get to use it. The vast majority of students, those in the middle of the bell curve, would never get the individualized plan. Yet, they deserved it just as much.

This is where the Learning Genome Project took a small (read: enormous) detour. In order for this technology to be used to create a learning map for every student, a new system was needed. I began to consider what type of learning model this type of technology would be best utilized in. I couldn’t find a fit. Sadly, I couldn’t find anything that recognized that every student was a unique individual. One with unique learning patterns. Unique gifts. A unique worldview. I couldn’t find anything that recognized students with names. Everything was geared toward “students,” as if that one word can capture the genius of the individuals it claims. We needed a new system. One that honored humanity. That honored the students with names. I began to dream about what such a school would look like. I talked with other brilliant educators about what that would be like. The result: a new school. A new school model. A brand new way of approaching learning: I started a k-8 school, Anastasis Academy.

I began this journey believing that technology was going to solve the problems of education, I suppose that is a natural path for someone so saturated in current educational technology. It didn’t take long for me to recognize that the problem wasn’t one that technology, like the Learning Genome Project, could solve but rather, one that technology could support. At the heart of what isn’t working is a system. A system that sees “students,” and not students with names. A system aimed at teaching the masses in a way that ends up minimizing humanity. Minimizing what makes us unique. Minimizing the genius that each of us alone brings to the world. I set out to create technology that would revolutionize learning, and instead detoured to the real game changer: a model that recognizes the individual, that honors it. Beginning from this place, students with names, learning can grow. Technology that supports that learning can grow.

The Learning Genome Project has taken a 5 year back seat, not because it isn’t important. Not because it can’t work. It has taken a back seat because first we need to recognize the humanity. When we really see the kids with names, the technology can support. It can help us reach each of those unique individuals. It can transform.

Anastasis Academy has been the single greatest “accident” of my life. In many ways I stumbled into starting a school. Seeing the way everything grows out of ‘students with names,’ the humanity, I’m able to again look at the Learning Genome Project with new eyes. In and of itself, the Learning Genome  Project (technology) won’t be the savior of education. Coupled with a model that honors humanity, it is unstoppable. I know this to be true. I’ve had the luxury of 5 years in Anastasis Academy. I’ve seen students come alive. I’ve seen them #standagain in who they are as learners, in who they are as the unique individuals they were created to be. If you’d like to see Anastasis Academy first hand, I hope you will join us for our education conference, 5Sigma. If you were a supporter of my Indiegogo campaign, I’d like to waive your conference fee! Just email me for a special code! I’d love for you to be my guest!

Last week, I had the great privilege of virtually meeting Bodo Hoenen. We share an eerily similar vision, come at from very different angles. Bodo is launching his own Indiegogo campaign. It is one that I will support because I so strongly believe that the world needs this. Bodo will be our closing keynote at 5Sigma Edu Conference. I cannot wait! I’m interested in partnering with those who share the vision. In those who know that we have to do better for kids now. Please help us BLOW UP the Internet with a new message about education reform. One about students with names. Individuals who are uniquely gifted and set apart to do something important in the world. If you’ve taught for any amount of time, you know that you are among genius waiting to be unleashed! It is time to empower kids. It is time to stop limiting with labels. It is time to stand again.

Follow Anastasis Students in the upcoming weeks as they work to transform education. As we begin our new inquiry unit, students are exploring the power of one. They are learning that they have an unique voice and worldview. They have the power to transform. I hope you’ll join us!

Operation Customized Learning: The Learning Genome Project

“We have organized schools not by how kids learn, they have been organized by an easy way to teach.” -Daggett

In September I mentioned a “hunch” I was having about education and learning.  Since September I have fleshed out that hunch into a business model, prototype, and wireframe and am currently working with a team of programmers to make it a reality.  Last night I presented this idea at the House of Genius and got some great feedback.  It made me want to know what my PLN geniuses thought about the idea!  I would love your input on this project as I move forward, are there things that aren’t clear in my explanation of what I am doing? Ideas for how to improve it? Recommendations?  Below is a little background as to the “why” I am pursuing this project along with a brief description of my solution.

Education is currently operating from a factory model where students are treated like widgets. We push them through a system and expect that the result will be “educated” citizens who graduate with the exact same skill set to go to college or get a job.  Compounding the problem is boxed curriculum that schools use to meet standards.  That boxed curriculum reaches one type of learner in one way.  It is scripted and artificially paced.  The problem: we aren’t dealing with widgets, we are dealing with children, each with different interests, learning styles, passions, abilities, and developmental levels.
As a result of this educational model we have uninspired, unmotivated students that aren’t truly educated.  We don’t teach them in a way that really equips them to be successful in life.  We teach them how to play the system. That if they read the bolded words in their textbook-they can correctly fill in the worksheet, if they memorize the worksheet they can successfully regurgitate it back on the test. Repeat the process and they can graduate with an impressive GPA. That kind of “education” can go directly from a students eyes to their hand, only occasionally taking up residence in their brains.  This is what school “success” has been defined by, and it is getting worse.

Sometimes students will get lucky and learn from a teacher that can draw out passion and inspire learning; but with increased standardization and testing, teachers don’t have time to differentiate for every student. What’s more, they don’t know what they don’t know and may not be able to find the perfect lesson/website/book/video/manipulative for the student.

As a teacher I am deeply concerned about individualizing learning as much as possible, recognizing that every one of my students had unique gifts, talents, passions and that they bring something to the world that no one else does.  I started thinking about how we have managed to customize everything from ringtones to hamburgers.  We have managed to customize absolutely everything in our worlds except for education.  Pandora is a great example, enter one song or artist that you enjoy and an entire “customized” playlist is created based on that one song.  You end up discovering artists and songs that you didn’t even know existed, and 9 times out of 10 it becomes a new favorite.  If we can do this for music, why can’t we do it for curriculum?  This is where my solution comes in, right now I’m calling it the Learning Genome.  The Learning Genome is a platform that allows a group of approved educators (experts) to tag curriculum based on a set of learning attributes (much in the way that music is tagged for Pandora).  This tagged curriculum works in tandem with a student profile, an individualized learning plan,  learning goals (that can be pulled from state standards or learning benchmarks), and a school profile.  Teachers can enter a lesson or book that a student enjoyed, and based on that input a customized curriculum can be created for every student.  Just like Pandora, the Learning Genome would allow for multiple learning channels. The multiple channels are essential because students have a variety of interests and learning modalities.  Now teachers don’t have to endlessly search for the perfect curriculum for a student, the results are delivered to them.  Differentiation within the classroom becomes much easier.  Teachers can tailor curriculum to meet the individual needs of students in their classroom. Every child benefits from the ability to learn in a way that makes sense to them.
I’m working to make the Learning Genome completely free for educators (and parents/homeschool educators) to use.  The curriculum delivered will be a mixture of free/open-source and paid-for content (lessons, books, websites, videos, manipulatives, etc.).   The larger vision of the Learning Genome is to make it a complete learning management system complete with a virtual mentor program (Twitacad), electronic portfolios, blogs, wikis, planners, and an ability tracking system.  Those additional features will be added after the “hub” of the Learning Genome is in place.

The Learning Genome will be available to every school, everywhere. To fully realize the vision of customized education, I am working with a team in Colorado to start a school that will use the Learning Genome as the foundation for individualized learning.

As I said, this is a brief overview of a REALLY big project but I would appreciate any first thoughts that you have: good, bad, and ugly (but not too ugly 😉 ).

Incomplete thoughts

This video caused one of those hunches I was talking about in my post When Hunches Collide.  I saw this video last Thursday and immediately typed out a blog post but didn’t publish it because it somehow felt incomplete.  I thought I would give myself a day to let my ideas percolate a little more, but each time I came back to it I was left with the same incomplete feeling.  (I may very well need therapy to undo the lie that I learned in school: things that are incomplete are not worth turning in.)  I have watched this video 7 or 8 times now and each time I watch it, I notice  something different.  I think I believe if I keep watching it, this incomplete thought will reveal itself… it doesn’t hurt that each time I watch the video I feel like I am witnessing genius unfold. Those RSA animate guys know how to create!

In the video, Robinson talks about divergent thinking, the ability to come up with multiple solutions or answers to any problem.  He notes that there is a divergent thinking test which measures divergent thinking ability; at a certain level, one can even be considered a divergent thinking genius.  Robinson describes a linear test that was done with kindergarten students that followed them through the age of 15.  In kindergarten 98% of the students tested at the  genius level.  The percentage of students that test at the genius level drops steadily as the students get older.  Aside from getting older, formal education is the one thing these students had in common.  Robinson conjectures that we all have this capacity for genius level divergent thinking.  What happens in education?  We are taught that there is one correct answer and one way to arrive at that answer.  You see this all the time with kids and math.  They come home to complete a homework assignment and have an absolute come apart when they can’t remember the way they were shown how to complete the problem.  A parent steps in to help solve the problem, even arriving at the correct answer (as verified in the back of the book), but the child isn’t satiated.  Cue whiny voice and copious amounts of tears: “That isn’t the way that my teacher showed me how to do it *sniff* and we have to show our work the way we were taught or we don’t get credit.”  Not only are kids taught there is only one answer, they are also taught that there is only one acceptable “right” way to arrive at that answer.  Why has education been reduced to this?  I believe it is because that kind of education fits nicely and neatly into a box;  we can give a scantron bubble test to validate our methods.  Robinson notes that this one-right-answer approach is in the gene pool of education.  We want to  have the best education in the world and we try to answer that call by creating false measures to validate our feelings that we have the best education.  Forgive me for the metaphor, but it is like the dog that returns to its own vomit.  Divergent thinking is killed, creativity is stifled but test scores are high.  We want it all laid out nicely on paper: how many are we graduating, how many are going on to higher education?  But do high test scores really equate to better educated individuals?  Of course not.  High standardized test scores reveal students who can take tests.

Robinson’s mention of genes is what really caught my attention.  I have been thinking a lot about what genes currently make up education as we know it, and what genes make up learning.  In fact I wrote about the beginning of an idea here and asked for your help here.  Pandora (the radio station) works based on a set of “genes” or attributes that make up music.  It is called the Music Genome Project, modeled after the scientific research Human Genome Project.  The Human Genome project sets out to identify the sequence of chemical pairs that makeup DNA and then map them based on their location within the DNA and their function.  I’m not really a scientist (I just play one on my blog), but my understanding is that if we had a mastery of the individual genes, we could begin to isolate them and have a better shot of ending genetic diseases.  My thought is this, if we could map out the genes of education (read: learning) we could isolate the “diseased” genes in the current education gene pool and transform them accordingly.  If we could map out the learning genes, we could tailor learning to meet the needs of every student, Pandora style.  Right now education is ignoring all of the hundreds (thousands?) of genes that make up learning and focusing on two: logical mathematical and reading.  There is nothing wrong with these two genes.  They are important genes.  But we can’t ignore all the other attributes of learning.

And this is where my thought lies incomplete.  Is it possible to take on this kind of project?  Learning is incredibly complex and multifaceted…but then again so is music and DNA.  I don’t think it is an impossible task and yet I’m not sure what to do with it either.  I’m not sure that we can really transform education until we have the ability to truly customize it.  Until we can customize education, it will end up falling into a new set of standards.  They may be an improvement on the standard but they will still be missing something vitally important: the ability to meet the complexity of individuals.  Please understand, I am not recommending that students learn only those subjects they are interested in. I believe students can be interested in every subject if it is approached uniquely to meet their learning needs.  I use history as an example: in school I would rather have teeth pulled than sit through a history class and read through a textbook.  You can imagine my surprise when I got out of school and discovered that I really enjoy history, as it turns out what I don’t enjoy is textbooks. Learning has to be customized, it has to take into account the individual.  I believe mapping the genes of learning could bring us one step closer to realizing a customizable education.  So, I invite you to help me complete this thought.  Comment with your hunches, pass on your ideas and maybe those hunches will begin to collide into big, actionable ideas.

(Great advice from @mikemcsharry that helped me finally push publish “an imperfect idea launched will always beat perfection delayed indefinitely.” Thanks Mike!)