Wrapping up the Discovery Phase

It’s the end of the month, so it’s now time to wrap up our look at the Discovery Phase of developing a personal learning environment. Depending on how clear your vision is when you start working on your project, you may not need more than an afternoon to work through this phase. If it takes you more than a few days, you might not be ready to tackle the project. Just set it aside (a tickler file system is great for managing projects you’ve set aside.), and move on to the next project. 

(If you start feeling silly for having a few projects stuck in some phase, think about this. When I started looking for a new long-term project in December, I had a pile of just over half a dozen projects I was rotating through, hoping something would catch. On the up side, I do now have more of an idea of where most of those projects could be headed when their turn finally comes up. Don’t sweat it. You should always have projects you can flip between when you lose your way on one.)

As you’re sizing up a potential project, remember what we’ve covered. The Discovery Phase is where you establish the problem, question, or topic you’ll be focusing on as you work on your project. You may find that you’ll need or want to answer smaller questions in pursuit of the larger question, and that’s fine. That’s what gives your work depth and puts your own voice on it.

You’ll also want to identify potentially useful resources: books; journals; websites; blogs; subject matter and industry experts; and fellow learners. And then you’ll need to create a method for keeping all of this information flowing to you. If you already have an information stream, then you’ll just add this into what you already have to strengthen and potentially diversify your stream. We’ll look at keeping your stream under control when we discuss the Recording Phase in March.

Next month, we’ll be focusing on another popular (and poorly addressed) topic: peer teaching.


Working on a Practical Level with the Discovery Phase

In earlier posts, I’ve mentioned that part of building a personal learning environment is building up a knowledge bank – finding others who have either done what you are doing or have done something similar, and then storing them in a manner that you can find again. In essence, you’re building an information stream, specialized to your project and your interests.

But you need to build that information stream in a way you’ll actually use, and that varies from person to person. I can point out some of the tools available. I can tell you how I do it. But ultimately, you will have to explore what’s out there and figure out what works for you. At the very least, you’ll want a way to keep track of blogs, websites, and social media.

Suggested Tools I have Experience With (There are a lot more out there. I’m just fussy.)

  • RSS Readers (Useful for following blogs and news sites)
    • Netvibes – A dashboard app that offers a feed reader.
    • feedly – A clean, simple feed reader.
    • HiveMind – A relative newcomer. I’ve had very little success with it, but your experience may be different.
  • Social Media Management
    • TweetDeck – Allows you to track Twitter (follows, lists, and hashtags)
    • HootSuite – Allows you to track Twitter (follows and hashtags), Facebook (news feed), LinkedIn, and Google+. I’ve had limited success with this dashboard.
  • Bookmarking
    • Instapaper – Best for bookmarking articles and posts you want to read when you have more time. (I have a bad habit of storing articles I need for current or upcoming projects here.)
    • delicious – A simple-to-use social bookmarking tool. Connects to Twitter and Facebook.
    • Springpad – A web clipper that tries too hard to be a Swiss Army knife aimed at the Pinterest crowd. But the organization abilities are slightly more flexible than most notetaking apps.
    • EverNote – A web clipper and notes manager. Fairly rigid organization abilities.
    • Pinboard – I have never used it, but people whose opinion I trust swear by it.

My workflow starts with feedly and my Lists on Twitter and Facebook. Articles worth a closer look get saved to Instapaper. Articles related to projects I’m working on or planning go to Springpad. And then I forget to review anything unless I create a task for it on my to-do list. It’s a fantastic system! *laugh*

Once you’re a bit more familiar with the tools and have selected a couple you’d like to try (and no more than two starting out. Each new tool you add tends to triple your workload. Not even kidding.), you need to fill them so you’re getting information from them. You can add friends, coworkers, people you know who share a common interest or hobby, and then you should look at:

  • Others Learning the Same (or Similar) Material – Developing a personal learning network (which is a conversation for another time) starts with identifying healthy communities of practice. Find them, follow them, contribute to them, and befriend them.
  • Subject Matter and Industry Experts – Learning to copy masters and then develop your own voice from there is a time-honored tradition. Find the masters, the innovators, and the crackpots who work in your industry or with your interests. Follow them. Be respectful in your interactions with them. Learn from their mistakes.
  • Related Organizations – Groups that do what you want to do, that you are a member of, or that are doing really interesting things.
  • The Companies Behind Your Favorite Tools – There is seriously nothing like waking up the morning you have three things due, only to find two of the tools you are using suffered major overhauls or crashes in the middle of the night and you can no longer access your information. (This is also why backups are your friend.)

What’s really nice is that when your project is finished, you still have this carefully built information stream. As you continue to work on projects, you build the next project’s information stream on top of the what you already have. If you take the time to prune out resources as they are no longer needed or relevant, you will find that your information stream becomes a pretty good source of information, inspiration, and contacts tailored to your body of work and your interests.

Benefits of Employing the Discovery Phase in the Classroom

There’s a war going on in classrooms across the country. The collaborative arts of teaching and learning are being reduced to metrics. Teachers and students are becoming faceless numbers, while people who’ve (for the most part) never set foot into a classroom for the purposes of teaching and who don’t remember what it was like to be in a classroom for the purposes of learning are deciding what constitutes a “best practice” for what happens in a classroom. 

Teachers tend to be a pretty resilient, scrappy bunch, though, and so they’re fighting back, trying to find ways to connect with students and to make learning something more than just somebody else’s statistic. As a result, project-based learning and inquiry-based learning are gaining ground, and interest-driven (and student-led) learning is finally a serious part of the conversation.

Project-based and interest-based learning work well with the PLE because both require the learner to start off by establishing a topic, question, or problem to focus on. But the Discovery process offers another benefit for those independent learners – an opportunity to search out and evaluate resources and research, and to build and curate relevant streams to pull both information and inspiration from. And in selecting a topic to focus on and in developing those streams, learners engage a number of transdisciplinary skills, including curiosity, research, and information literacy.

This will likely get me in trouble with certain corners of the education reform movements, but the dreaded Bloom’s Taxonmomy (which I don’t think has lost relevance) fits in with this as well. The learner, at the beginning of the learning process for the chosen topic or skill, engages in activities of remembering and understanding as he conducts his initial research and starts building his streams of information and inspiration. If he has to interview an SME as part of his initial research, he’s engaging at an application level; if he has to pull together a general overview, he’s engaged at the analysis level; and just the act of taking what he knows and what he’s finding and using that as a springboard to keep furthering his research engages him at an evaluating level. Really, the only level of Bloom’s Taxonomy a learner in the Discovery phase of the PLE doesn’t engage in (for obvious reasons) is the creation level, because he isn’t to that level yet.

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because someone says, “I want to learn about this”, they aren’t already engaging with what we have in the past considered deeper levels of learning and analysis. The learner is becoming open to the activities and mindset necessary to understanding and create their own meaning.

But one of the goals of education is to instill a desire to pursue lifelong learning, so next time we’ll look at how to kick off the Discovery phase beyond the classroom environment.

Using the Discovery Phase to Focus Different Types of Projects

As I said in the previous post, one of the key goals in education is to instill a desire for lifelong learning in students. But it’s only in recent years that some schools (not counting Montessori schools where actual Montessori curriculum is implemented) have started helping students tie their own interests in to what they’re studying, giving them a framework to study within.

Unfortunately, it’s still very much on a project-by-project basis. Each new project brings a new checklist and a new rubric, and therefore loses the ability to help students build a routine for interest- or inquiry-driven learning. And let’s be honest, here – It’s challenging to develop a habit without developing a sense of routine, and a sense of routine needs to be in place before a habit can be adjusted to match a new style of interest or inquiry.

That’s why I like to look at the personal learning environment as coming in two flavors: overarching and project-based. Developing a learning environment that effectively becomes a blend of all the projects you’ve undertaken before gives you a set of successful routines to consider before you start on your next project. It’s an overarching framework that you know, that keeps you on track as you develop your body of work, and that grows with you in your studies and your work. That said, each time you start a new project, you can look at how you’ve started previous projects and make any tweaks you’d like to try based on what’s worked and what hasn’t worked in prior projects.

Projects come in two flavors as well: skill mastery and creative project. Personally, I prefer to fold skill building into my projects. That’s one of the things I address in my Discovery phase. Others prefer to work on skills independently, and then bring them to projects later. Whichever path you choose, the Discovery phase is where you establish what it is you’re trying to learn. Questions you should be asking yourself at this point include:

  • What do I want to know?
  • What do I need to know in order to learn what I want to know?

For those starting a new creative project, the questions focus your project. As much fun as personal scope creep is, having a clear vision of where you think you want to end up can tell you when scope creep has taken you off course. Questions you might specifically ask when setting up a new creative project include:

  • Why am I doing this? What do I expect to get out of working on this project? (If your answer is, “I don’t know”, you might be working on the wrong project. Table it and move on to the next one for now.)
  • How does this connect with my body of work?
  • How does this connect with my interests?
  • How does this connect with my goals?

Even if you can only give shallow answers at the moment to whichever set of questions you use, you have still provided some sort of focus to help guide your project, to keep yourself on track, and to hopefully keep yourself motivated to see the project through to its end.

Using the Discovery Phase to Set Up a Trope Exploration

Since it can be helpful to see how others have approached processes, I thought I’d share with you how I approached the Discovery process for a couple of my recent projects. This first one was started as a project for the practice-based research in the arts class I took last fall. I do follow my own advice and keep a file of story ideas, and for the class project pulled out a years-old dialogue idea to play around with. According to the note I’d left with the dialogue, the whole point of responding to the idea was to make fun of the magical girl trope, so I figured that would give me enough room to work through the different research methodologies we would be learning.

The second lecture introduced autoethnography, and asked us to take an autoethnographic look at our project by determining the question or questions we hoped to explore and answer in the course of working on our project. I had already started the Discovery process on the story idea, so I was set. After much brainstorming and interviewing both the idea and myself, I realized that I had been questioning that trope since I was a child. (If you know me or get to know me, you’ll realize fairly quickly that I run from magical girl stories about as quickly as I run from spiders.) So I wrote down my questions, and I organized them into groups of thought.

What I was left with was a solid base to come back to as I continued to write, research, and reflect. When I felt like I was getting off track, I came back to those questions and used them to help guide me back on course. In fact, after a bit, I realized I was really looking at the magical girl trope through the action girl trope lens (Because I grew up wanting to be the action girl, it was like having a conversation with ten-year-old me.), and I felt that responded well to some of the questions I was looking to answer with this short story, allowing me to deepen the story with this other perspective.

This story has been tabled while I work on a voice issue that’s preventing the story from being the best version of itself, but perhaps once it’s ready, I’ll share the questions that directed the story’s development.

The Role of the Discovery Phase

As we discussed in the previous post, the Discovery process is the beginning of the personal learning environment process, regardless of whether you’re creating your overarching learning environment or just taking on a new project. At its core, the Discovery process sets the goal for your project. It might be learning a new skill or creating something. There may be a single driving question, or you may find that you want to address a few smaller questions as you build up to answer the driving question.

When you start the Discovery phase, you’re looking to answer three question:

  1. What has sparked my interest?
  2. How do I find information related to this topic?
  3. How do I learn new information or skills related to this topic?

We’ll ignore the last two questions for now, but the answer to the first question is the glue that holds the entire PLE together. It’s the reason why you’re even bothering with starting a new PLE to begin with.

This is what makes the Discovery process so important to the PLE: It sets up the topic, question, or problem that will serve as the focus for the rest of the PLE activities. So your first quest is to take your answer to that first question and look at it more closely by asking more questions:

  • What is my intent in working on this project?
  • What question am I looking to resolve?
  • What smaller, related questions will come up as I explore, and how do I want to address them or use them?

Let’s look at an example of how this works. Several years ago, a fair number of my math students were struggling. Only part of the problem could be blamed on overpacked classrooms and teachers who were certified in other areas being assigned to teach math classes. The real problem was that the curricula in use at that point made no sense. Students were expected to know skills they wouldn’t be taught for another two years. It was frustrating to them and to me.

But I saw these students for no more than a couple of hours a week. There was only so much I could do. After they got into their head they needed to clone and miniaturize me so my mini-clone could take their tests for them, I decided maybe I needed to create a simple reference that might help them when I couldn’t.

I had a topic: independent math help. I launched a blog, intending to cover the skills my students were struggling with, as well as the skills that led up to those skills. I put each skill on an index card, along with its prerequisite skills, and laid them out in the order of a traditional textbook. And that’s when everything fell apart – There were too many cards that came before at least one of their prerequisite skills. So now I not only had a topic, but I had the question that needed to guide my project: What is the best order to teach the skills in this math class? (You can still see the influence of this driving question in how I built the Dead Bunny Guides YouTube channel last year.)

Once you have some idea where you’re headed, it’s time to identify potentially useful resources. Depending on how you came across your topic, problem, or question, you might already be looking right at good starting resources. But we’ll look more at that another time.

A Month of Discovery

About a year and a half ago, I created a series of posts on developing personal learning environments (PLEs). It was surprisingly popular, finding its way into online class curricula and job interviews I was undergoing at the time. The posts are still some of my most visited posts, so I thought maybe I would revisit them and expand on them. Which turns out to have been a smart decision, because when I sat down to lay out new posts, I discovered that the original series could barely be called an overview. Sorry about that. 

I’ve had more time to think about them, and to look at different ways to implement them in my own work, so I actually have more thorough ideas on each phase. My thought is to spend a month exploring each phase a bit more in depth than I did the first time, and incorporating how I’m using it myself in my own projects. Since this is January, and I’m at the beginning of one project and reconnecting with another project, it makes sense to start at the beginning of the PLE: The Process of Discovery.

Just a review: The Discovery process is the beginning of the PLE development. It’s when you find something you want to take a closer look at and start figuring out how you want to  look at it.

If you’re just starting out with the PLE, then the Discovery process could be daunting because there are two ways you can (and probably should) employ PLEs. The first is setting up the personal learning environment where all of your work will be done, regardless of the project. What makes this challenging is that you’re just starting out. You may not know what skills and topics you’re going to want to explore, and as a result may struggle to work through the Discovery process in a satisfactory manner. Fortunately, no overarching PLE is set in stone, and you can change things to suit the direction your work goes. So, don’t think of this as setting the course of your life forever. Think of it more as starting a game that’s going to have quests or missions along the way that will help you develop your personal story line.

The second way you can employ the PLE is to create the “quests” in your larger PLE, and then the Discovery process identifies the goal for that quest. But that’s a discussion for the rest of the month.