Wednesday, May 22, 2013

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.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

reminder: orientation this week in meatspace

Hope everyone's enjoying the weekend and I'm the only one at a computer thinking about this course right now.  And, I hope you'll all join me to think about it out loud in Room 608 Wednesday at lunch.  If you miss the meeting you will spend the rest of your life wondering how things might have been different if only you'd gone, so please don't forget.  See you Wednesday.

Monday, May 13, 2013

two articles from my high school

I was in LA this weekend and caught up with some friends from the neighborhood.  They told me about an incident at my alma mater.  I found the articles on the Los Angeles Times site; feel free to share the next time someone tells you students shouldn't have access to social media on campus.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

preview of coming attractions

Here are a few artifacts that describe Open Source Learning and the way we've practiced it in RHS classes. 

First, here is "We Are Superman," a video created by Nick Lycan, Cody Kiniry, and Ryan McGinley (RHS/OSL '12):

Second, here is a link to an online conference this year's class did with the Macarthur Foundation's Digital Media & Learning Hub at UC Irvine.

Third, here's me at TEDxUCLA:

Friday, May 10, 2013


Hi everyone, it's time to meet in person!  Please save the date: on May 22 we will meet in Room 608 at lunch.  Be there.  Mucho mahalo.

In the meantime, if you want/need more info from seniors, please contact Ryland Towne-- contact him on his blog or come by the room for email/phone.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

welcome new member jake

In what may be the first example of 2nd generation Open Source Learning, Jake Hoffman (brother of inaugural OSL'er and current Cal Poly student Jon Hoffman) has joined the tribe.  Check out Jake's blog here.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

this year's seniors & next year's seniors

Today was the second in a series of lunchtime chats between this year's seniors and next year's seniors.  Topics included the AP course, college admissions & scholarships, and life in general at the top of the HS food chain.  If you haven't stopped by for one of these yet, please contact Ryland Towne ( for more information.  This is great preparation for the world after high school, where the best way to find out about a professor/course is to ask the students who are in the know.

Have you ever seen a group pay such close attention?  At LUNCH?

You would too if you were watching Laura, Haleigh, Brady, Troy, Justice, Carly, & Ryland explain how to rock the AP exam, create a valuable path of inquiry and build an online network.