Wednesday, May 28, 2014

what's your big question?

Our minds are naturally inclined toward associative and interdisciplinary thinking.  We connect the dots in all sorts of ways, often when we don't fully comprehend the experience (and sometimes when there aren't even any dots).  

We have questions about the nature of the world: our experience of it, our place in it, our relationship to it, what lies beyond it, and everything else.  When we're young we ask questions all the time.  We are insatiably curious.  It's like somehow we intuitively understand that the more we learn the better we get at everything--including learning.  We don't worry about curricular units or standards.  We have no test anxiety.  We test ourselves all the time.  We love risk and we don't care if we fail.  It's always somebody else who's saying, "Hey, come down from there, you're going to get hurt!"* [*Often, they're right.  In any case they're probably more experienced in estimating the odds of that was fun didn't hurt vs. itchy leg cast for a month outcomes.  But sometimes you just KNOW you can do it and it's frustrating to be told you can't.  Pushing the edge is what learning is all about.** {**As a teacher/responsible adult I must explicitly remind you to do this (i.e., learn/push the edge/create new neural pathways in your brain that actually change your mind) in ways that will not break laws or harm any sentient beings-- most especially you-- or offend, irritate, annoy, upset, or anger your parents.***} <***If you think this is a lot of footnotes, or whatever we're calling the blogger's equivalent, you should read David Foster Wallace (especially Infinite Jest).  In fact, this is the perfect time for you to consider his commencement speech (which doesn't contain footnotes, but does contain the sort of wisdom that more people should hear while there's still time to do something about it.).  At any rate, if you're still following this sentence you'll do fine in this course.>}]  Not only do we love climbing learning limbs when we're young, we know it's what we're best at.  Most of us learn whole languages best between the ages of 5-12.  Our amazing brains manage the torrential inflow by creating schema

We have every incentive to accelerate and amplify our learning as we age.  Our future is increasingly complex and uncertain.  Our culture and economy favor those in the know.  Learning is increasingly your responsibility as individuals.  You're becoming more independent; in about a year you'll be heading off to college, where your professors may not know you exist and definitely won't care how you organize your binder.  As if all that isn't motivation enough for you to get your learning on, it turns out that not learning may actually be bad for you.  We form new neurons and connections in our brains when we learn.  Scientists are investigating whether the lack of new neuron formation is a cause for depression or an interfering factor in recovery.

When it comes to thinking for yourself in the traditional high school setting, though, there are constraints.  Inquiry that doesn't "fit" in the classroom is too often seen as insubordinate.   By definition, individualism and divergent thinking don't regress to the mean or conform to a one-size-fits-all syllabus.  We will have to find ways to gracefully lose arguments and compromise.  In addition, a culture of fear of punishment or embarrassment can lead the smartest and most successful learners to surrender and play the game.  When this happens, motivated learning in the presence of no opportunity dies the same death as a fire in the presence of no oxygen.  The authors of "The Creativity Crisis" say we ask about 100 questions a day as preschoolers-- and we quit asking altogether by middle school. 

In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie describes visiting schools to show students how artists sculpt steel into animals:

“I always began with the same introduction: ‘Hi My name is Gordon MacKenzie and, among other things, I am an artist... How many of you are artists?’
The pattern of responses never failed.
First grade: En mass the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling.  Every child was an artist.
Second grade: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher.  The raised hands were still.
Third grade: At best, 10 kids out of 30 would raise a hand.  Tentatively.  Self-consciously. 
And so on up through the grades.  The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands.  By the time I reached sixth grade, no more than one or two did so and then only ever-so-slightly—guardedly—their eyes dancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a ‘closet artist.’”  

Richard Saul Werman (the man who created the TED conference) said, "In school we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question.”  School and the way it works was designed back when things were very different and oriented around mass production; that's not the way the world works any more.  You can't just prepare for a job that may not be around by the time you graduate.  And in the age of the search engine, there is no real point in learning facts for their own sake, especially since so many of them eventually turn out not to be facts after all.  You have to develop the critical thinking, problem-solving, oppurtunity-seeking, and collaborative skills that will enable you to CREATE a role for yourself in the new economy.  (And don't worry, if you're not an entrepreneur by nature, these abilities will help you do whatever else you want to do more effectively.)

So, our first mission is to reclaim the power of the question.  Everything you ask has an interdisciplinary answer.  Show me a cup of tea and I'll show you botany, ceramics, and the history of colonialism (for starters).  Wondering why your girlfriend doesn't love you any more?  Psychology, poetry, probability... you get the idea.  And no matter what the question or the answers, you're going to have to sort the signal from the noise and determine how best to share the sense you make.

What's your Big Question?  

What have you always wanted to know?  What are you thinking about now that you've been asked?  What answers would make a difference in your life, or in the community, or in the world?  What do you wish you could invent?  What problem do you want to solve?  This is not a trick and there are no limits.  Please comment to this post with your question and post it to your course blog (title: MY BIG QUESTION).  You can always change your question or ask another.  If you need some inspiration, check out this year's Eng 3 Big Questions here.

a meditation on extra credit-- & your first opportunity to get some

What is "extra credit"?  Presumably, it means credit above and beyond expectation and requirement.

But what exactly is expected and required?

Traditionally these parameters are set by an authority figure (e.g., a teacher) who doles out assignments and creates rubrics that set comparative performance benchmarks using metrics such as points, percentages, and letter grades.

In that relationship students are passive consumers: get your work, shut up and do it, accept the judgement of the authority figure, and stuff the paper in a binder/backpack, where it will remain as a private testimony to... what, exactly?

What if you could use your work to demonstrate your mastery and enhance your value in the community?  What if, instead of showing an essay to one person, you could share it with a network that celebrates your successes and helps you improve where you need it?  What if you could use an academic course to explore the Big Questions you've always wondered about (whether they're related to English or not), or pursue your own path of inquiry, or to create Collaborative Working Groups to create projects and even create business ventures?

Today's digital culture presents opportunities we've never had before.  In coming posts I will formally introduce you to Open Source Learning and help you make some decisions about how to take full advantage of the opportunities it presents.  In the meantime, with regard to credit & extra credit, think of it this way: every idea you offer the network has value.  Your contributions establish your identity and enrich others' thinking.  More/better ideas = higher value.  In this course your value will be determined by the quantity and quality of your thinking and your work product, so please begin by introducing yourself in a comment to this post.  The questions below are designed to help get you started.  Please feel free to extend the topics and include your own perspectives and questions.

1. Who are you?
2. Why are you taking this course?
3. What do you hope to get out of the experience?
4. What (if anything) gets you excited or nervous when you think about next year in general or this course in specific?
5. In your life, what do you care enough about to give it your all?* (*this doesn't have to be academic or school-related)
6. How can this course help you achieve your goals and set the stage for a senior year that blows the doors off expectations and requirements?

Be on the watch for more soon, both here and in person.  This year's seniors are putting together some live introductory experiences, and we will have a formal lunchtime orientation in mid-May.  In the meantime, I look forward to seeing your thoughts here.  Mahalo.


If you just went through registration and you're on the blog for the first time, welcome! This is the place where you will get all the information you need for the course. We will also be using it as a one-stop online stop for collaborative opportunities, additional online tools, and asynchronous idea-sharing in general.

Please bookmark the URL and follow the blog so that you will receive updates automatically instead of having to check back all the time.  If you don't know your way around blogs or the Internet, have no fear-- this year's seniors and even some of last year's are planning some get-togethers before June to help, and you also probably have friends/relatives who can help.*  (*Working with each other to do a task and achieve shared goals is the definition of collaborationCollaboration is not cheating.  The AP curriculum will also require you to demonstrate your individual mastery of close reading, literary criticism, and written organization and expression.  Don't even think about cheating when you know it's cheating.)

Your senior project is YOU and it begins now.  In the next couple weeks seniors have offered to provide more of an introduction to the experience. In the meantime, please feel free to post any questions or comments here, email to, or stop by room 608 and introduce yourself.  Sapere aude.  I look forward to meeting you!

Dr. Preston

will this blog see tomorrow?

It's an open question.  Think about today's in-class discussion, ask yourself what you really want out of this semester, and then comment to this post with your decision and at least one reason for it.  (NOTE: As Benjamin Franklin famously observed, "We all hang together or we all hang separately." We won't move forward unless all of us participate.

I've created an approach to learning in which students use 2.0 tools to create their online identities, express themselves, and demonstrate what they can do. 

I call the model Open Source Learning and I define it with a mouthful: "A guided learning process that combines timeless best practices with today's tools in a way that empowers learners to create interdisciplinary paths of inquiry, communities of interest and critique, and a portfolio of knowledge capital that is directly transferable to the marketplace."

Students use Open Source Learning to create a wild variety of personal goals, Big Questions, Collaborative Working Groups, and online portfolios of work that they can use for personal curiosity, self-improvement, or as a competitive advantage in applying for jobs, scholarships, and admission to colleges and universities.  You can see a sample course blog here and some personal member blogs here

Several members of the first Open Source Learning cohort made this video about the experience:

In an era when it seems like all you hear about school is how much it sucks, it's nice to see student achievement make positive waves.  Check out this Open Source Learning interview with students and Howard Rheingold, the man who literally wrote the book on The Virtual Community 20 years ago. 

The defining characteristic of Open Source Learning is that there is no chief; all of us are members of a network that is constantly evolving.  Another key element is transparency.  What we learn and how well we learn it, how we respond to setbacks, and even some of our favorite inspirations and habits of mind are right out there in public for everyone to see.  Readers will rightly perceive what we curate as the best we have to offer.

And all this is Open.  In thermodynamics, an open system exchanges substance, not just light and heat.  To us, the important idea is that the network can change in composition and purpose.  Every time you meet someone new and exchange ideas, you're not only enriching each other, you're changing your minds and contributing opportunities for others to do the same.  In other words, you're learning and teaching* (*one of the most effective ways to learn).

We're not limited to one source for curriculum or instruction.  We have a full slate of online conferences scheduled this year including authors, authorities on the Internet and social media, entrepreneurs, and others.  Last year a mother/daughter team presented a lesson on class distinctions in Dickens & Dr. Seuss online (I'd post & link if I hadn't forgotten to click 'Record').  Ricky Luna invited a champion drummer to talk with students online about music and its connections to literature and life.  If we read something that makes an impression we can reach out to the author('s estate, family, leading authorities etc.).  As we consider the core AP curriculum we can look around at other communities to see what they do differently-- and an easy, free way to get our hands on something better if it's out there.  No matter what we do in class, every single one of us won't always get equally optimal benefit out of what happens in a 50-minute period.  Some of us get it one way, some of us get it another.  In two clicks you can have your choice of 79,248 strategies, tactics, and resources.  As you get the hang of this you'll come up with your own ideas.  Testing them will give you a better sense of how to use the experience to your greatest advantage.

Why use the Internet to customize our conversations instead of Big Data to standardize them?  Because no one knows how learning actually works--what IS that little voice that tells you what you should've said 15 minutes after you should've said it?  How does a subneuronal lightning storm somehow account for our experience of being alive?  We are not sure how to account for the individual experience and demonstration of learning.  We are also not sure what exactly the individual should be learning about at a time when factoids are a search click away and the economy, the environment, and the future are all increasingly complex and uncertain.

Maybe this is why learning still seems magical.  Maybe it shouldn't be.  Maybe if we learned more about how we think we'd be better off.  After all, how we think is a powerful influence on how we act.  If you think of your blog work as a list of traditional school assignments/chores, you will treat it that way and it will show.   Your friends will miss your posts and worry that you've moved to The House Beyond the Internet-- or that you're still at your place but trapped under something heavy.  At any rate you'll be missing the whole point.  This work should help you connect the dots between the interests that drive you, an academic course that derives its title from words hardly anyone uses in casual conversation, and practical tasks like applying for scholarships and college admissions.  The general idea is for you to: do your best at something personally meaningful; learn about how you and others learn while you're in the act; and fine-tune your life accordingly.  In addition to mastering the core curriculum, improving your own mind is the highest form of success in this course of study.

As you well know (Put that phone away or I'll confiscate it!), many people are worried about the use of technology in education.  They are rightly concerned about safety, propriety, and focus: will learners benefit or will they put themselves at risk?  The only way to conclusively prove that the benefits far outweigh the risks is to establish your identities and show yourselves great, both online and in meatspace.  As we move forward you will learn how the Internet works, how you can be an effective online citizen, and how you can use 2.0 and 3.0 tools to achieve your personal and professional goals.  You'll also learn a lot about writing and the habits of mind that make readers and writers successful communicators. 

Because Open Source Learning is a team sport, this is all your call.  You have to decide if you want to pursue this new direction, or if you want to invent another possibility with or without social media, or if you prefer the familiarity of the traditional approach.  There is admittedly something comforting about the smell of an old book, even if it's a thirty-pound textbook that spent the summer in a pile of lost-and-found P.E. clothes.  My perspective may be obvious but I'm just one voice.  Please add yours with a comment below. 

ye olde syllabus