Connect to Get REAL: Relevant, Engaging, Applied Learning

The following is a guest post by Ferdi Serim, author of Digital Learning: Strengthening and Assessing 21st Century Skills, Grades 5-8 and several other books on educational technology.

The August 2012 launch of Connected Educator Month by the US Department of Education’s Connected Educators Initiative is a watershed moment more than two decades in the making. For many educators and districts, a new world of opportunity opens when they view with fresh eyes how online communities of practice can help masses of educators learn, reduce isolation and benefit from “just in time” access to knowledge and opportunities for collaboration.

However, it also forces the issue of whether these efforts will be directed at “fixing the schools we have” or “building the schools we need.” As one who’s witnessed the results of incremental changes flowing from “integrating” technology within traditional approaches, I’ve become convinced that the desired benefits will come from fixing our focus on designing for the future, bringing forward only practices which support those goals while retiring those that no longer work.

This means knowing who and what you’re connecting with, and why. Thinking systemically about what it will take to Get REAL (relevant, engaging, applied learning) means we need to move beyond existing silos and provide both roles and goals for an expanded universe of collaborators, as shown below:




Twenty years ago, my elementary classroom in West Windsor NJ was one of the first to connect to the Internet, before it even had pictures. Our students conversed with peers from Chernobyl, gaining recognition in the Scientific American; they collaborated with NASA physicists and peers worldwide in a simulated “Solar Sailer” voyage to Mars. They participated in Kidlink “big days” celebrations with 45,000 students worldwide, each of whom had answered the Four Questions:

  1. Who Am I?
  2. What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?
  3. How Do I Want The World To Be When I Grow Up?
  4. What Can I Do Now To Make It That Way?

The bittersweet news about that is that while these students (many of whom are now parents) got to experience global, purposeful community in their daily lives, most of their teachers (who are now teaching their children) did not, and still have not.

For the past nine years, my focus has been to connect learners with real-world practices, whether these learners are called “students” or “teachers.” This is because fundamentally the same processes work for both sets of people. What changes is the degree of personal responsibility we take for the learning of others, in addition to our personal learning needs and those of the groups we work with.

In A New Culture of Learning authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown articulate a vision that embraces how learning currently happens almost everywhere except schools. The Digital Learning book is designed to provide a pathway for educators to adapt these processes and apply them in their own classrooms. However, unless we deliberately attend to the need for new behaviors of collegiality, discovery and collaboration, these efforts succumb to the enormous gravitational pull of habitual practice and recreate the silos we long to escape.

One year ago, I began a journey to operationalize these concepts, moving them from vision to practice. Along the way, I’ve learned key lessons I’ll share with you now, but at the outset it is critical to note that I only was able to learn them by walking the talk: I began by assembling and drawing from the collective wisdom of learning pioneers who form my Personal Learning Network, and expanding that network as more people became aware of our work and goals.

In my case, I needed to rely upon folks more advanced than me in numerous areas: for STEM, I rely upon Dr. David Thornburg and Dave Master; for personalized learning I count on Warren Dale, Sara Armstrong, Kathleen McClaskey, Barbara Bray and Lisa Linn; for leading systemic change, I learn from Jean Haverstick; for ELL and Math, Rocio Benedicto guides my thoughts. The list continues to grow, as we help one another grow.

We’re building an evidence-based, expert-informed community of practice (I dare you to turn that into an acronym!) in which every hour you invest toward your “ten thousand hours of mastery” is amplified by the interactions with similarly focused colleagues. This kind of digital learning has multiple on-ramps, tailored to diverse needs and situations.

1. Connect Purpose with Process
We bring with us our purpose: what we’re working to achieve and what we’re working on to get there. People organize into a system of cascading mentorship (in which you are simultaneously a protégé of someone more advanced and the mentor for someone who’s trying to learn something you recently mastered). As Margaret Riel has sagely observed “you can’t learn anything from anyone you don’t have a relationship with.” Accordingly, each person comes ready to express:

  • What I need to learn and why
  • How I’ll be using it, and what I aim to gain
  • What I already know and am eager to share

Educators experience the same process that “students” will experience in completing their projects:








2. Connect Passion with Practice
Making learning relevant and engaging requires that learning be personalized. In turn, this process is strengthened and deepened when aided by coaching and mentorship. The learners we work with develop personalized “Flight Plans” where they identify areas they wish to develop, by providing their coaches with evidence for comment, review or validation of their mastery along the way. Only after educators have experienced “being in charge of their own learning” can we ever hope to have these educators do the same for their students. Otherwise, the gravitational pull of prior experience becomes a black hole that not even “speed of light” innovation can escape. This leads people to make statements like these:

  • Here’s the instructional context where I’ll apply what I learn.
  • These are the roles I’ve played and that I am good at, and am willing to play here.
  • This is the role I want to prepare to play next.

3. Connect Learning with Real Life
We must focus on the end goal: people who can apply what they’ve learned in ways that matter in real life. For too long, we’ve focused on proxies (decontextualized performances represented by test scores) that have questionable value in predicting actual abilities. Instead, we apply what Dave Master has learned from thirty years of creating communities online: connect with the pros. What this boils down to is interviewing people who apply the principles of academic domains in their daily work (aka “real life”) and developing challenges for students.

This in no way diminishes the role of teachers, it actually empowers it. For every comment provided by a “pro” about what represents required levels of performance, dozens of student requests for teacher support in acting on this feedback are generated, resulting in hundreds of hours of student iterations to reach “real world criteria” levels. What makes the difference is what Dave calls the “who sez”, and the difference is profound: when a student satisfies a teacher, the result is a grade; when the student satisfies a pro, the result is a job.

Conclusion: Let’s Celebrate and Launch a New Era
Connected Educator Month provides a great opportunity to focus attention on applying the wonderful lessons we’ve learned over the past two decades, and make sure that we shift our focus onto building the schools we need by aligning the talents, time and resources of an expanded community to reach our collective goals.

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One Response to Connect to Get REAL: Relevant, Engaging, Applied Learning

  1. Art Wolinsky says:

    As one who has known and worked with Ferdi, since the days of the text only web, I can attest to the fact that he has walked the talk. During those days, I was lucky enough to follow in his foot steps. The process that he developed allowed me to grow. I eventually move from walking behind to walking by his side, and was lucky enough to meet many of the folks on which he has relied. However, I never met one he left off the list, but I know influenced him and helped gave him the “chops” to be able to internalize all of the input coming from all directions and create the masterpiece that is his work today. I’m talking about Dizzy Gillespie, who once referred to Ferdi as a pretty good drummer. To that, I’ll add, a master educator!

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