Learning as a Quest

Some years back when I was trying to learn about creative nonfiction, I came across this description that compared it to a fictional quests, complete with obstacles to overcome and an external character arc that changes to internal as the character progresses. I think in a way we see this in certain styles of blogging, personal essays, and memoirs. It struck me as interesting, and I considered weaving that mindset into my own blog. I still sometimes think about trying it out.

I still have my notes from my reading in my general notes, and I came across them again while working on the personal learning environment blog posts. This was right around when I was experimenting with HabitRPG as a task management system and reading about education programs that were trying to rebuild a part of their curriculum to run more like gaming quests and playing Glitch, where I was fascinated by the skills development system. I had never played an MMORPG game before, and skill trees were a totally new concept to me. My inner curriculum designer latched on to the brilliance of that idea.

For those unfamiliar, it’s not unusual for MMORPGs to offer a skill development system that almost reads more like a branched story. You pick out your starting skills (for many games, this is the base skills of your class), and then you use it through a variety of gameplay and side quests until you’ve met the markers for mastery of that level. Then, you’re offered new skills to learn based on what you’ve already learned. If you haven’t learned a base skill, the advanced skill won’t be available to you. You pick your path through the available skills, creating a set of skills that’s all yours.

If you’re at all experienced with self-directed learning, informal learning, or sites like DIY.org, this sounds a little familiar. You find something you want to learn, and then you find various projects and study resources to work through and learn. And then you build from there until you get to the skill level you want in that skill. In a way, we create our own skill trees outside of school. We pick our projects, our practice activities, our side quests. And we confront obstacles that we either choose to work through or we allow to stop us and shift us off to a different skill tree.

I have been reworking and rearranging my goals and the related training and practice activities I’ve picked to get me where I want to go. I had things scattered all throughout my to-do list. It was getting hard to manage, or even just to keep up. So, I was playing with the list the other night, when it suddenly hit me to create skill trees for each skill set I’m trying to acquire. Each target skill set now has a collection of study resources and activities, training resources and activities, and projects intended to help me focus on a single skill, organized to build on the project before it. It may sound large (it was more than I was expecting when I sat down to sort it out), but I now have clearly defined plans to reach many of my goals. (Being an informal educator with a strong interest in scaffolded learning, I did feel a bit silly that it took gaming and nearly losing my mind to put this together.)

Look at your goals and your projects. What can you do to incorporate a more focused, scaffolded approach to your learning to help you better learn your desired skill sets? How can you make your learning a quest? Figure it out, and then set it up and work through it.

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Developing a Microlecture Series

Several years ago, a number of my students started asking for a miniaturized clone of me (cleverly named the “Pocket Rebecca” by many of them) who could live in their pocket and take their math tests for them. I laughed and assured them they could pass their tests on their own.

But I was becoming frustrated with the fact I was having to teach students skills they wouldn’t learn for another few lessons so they could pass the lesson I was teaching. And then many of the e-learning and instructional design blogs I was following got on this Beyond Bullet Points kick, and it occurred to me I could actually learn how to put together a resource the students could access at home while working on their homework and start exploring a better sequence for math skills. So I taught myself how to create a PowerPoint deck, how to record a script, and how to put all of it together into a mini-lesson (or a microlecture), and started making a plan of attack.

One of the reasons students wanted a mini-me clone was because I tend to teach the basic process and concepts around a skill, and then show them how they relate to and build on skills they already know. I keep it simple and straightforward. So it made sense when I started developing my microlecture series that each one focus on one skill’s process and concepts and do it simply. (I also had it somewhere in the back of my mind that by keeping the format clean and simple, I would be able to incorporate these lessons into other projects I develop in the future.)

One of the reasons the lessons were even necessary to begin with is because math, a tightly scaffolded discipline, isn’t always taught in the most logical order, or skills are taught so far apart in the sequence that connections aren’t always pointed out between new skills and old skills. Wanting to combat that with the order of my series, I spent a few weekends with index cards labeled with each skill and skills needed to be successful at the skill spread all over experimenting with different sequences until I found one that actually worked. (I’ve since learned that other math teachers have recognized many of the same sequencing issues I found.)

Last week, I migrated the videos to their own channel, and took the opportunity to really think about what I wanted the channel to be and how it would best serve visiting learners. The channel itself is now organized as a hyperlinked video textbook. Playlists group related skills together, and every skill that builds from another skill has its related skills linked in its description. But I still haven’t given up on being able to embed lessons in future projects. I want to be able to use my own videos as I need to, and students from around the world periodically contact me for permission to include a video in a school project they’re working on.

My focus all along has been pre-algebra and algebra skills, because that’s what I normally teach. But this year, I’m teaching geometry, and the students are complaining because I’m not looking to add on geometry skills any time soon. But apparently, I give them the same snarky reminders day after day…to the point where I don’t really have to say them any more because they’re quoting them to each other. But they’re asking for an iRebecca app to nag them when I and the other students aren’t around.

Oh, boy.

Serving Sizes of Content

Confession: I am a huge fan of the webseries The Guild. The short episodes fit nicely into the breaks in my day, and the sum of the episodes together makes for an amusing, coherent story across the season. I watch other webseries, too, but The Guild accomplishes  both the bite-sized story chunks and the overall effect of the full story better than most. (You could place the praise squarely on the fact Day has worked in serial television, but veteran Bryan Singer has a webseries running right now that really needs to relocate its spine.) I also enjoy reading (and, when I can find the time, writing) serial stories posted to sites like deviantArt and FictionPress. They often lack the good strong episode structure, but you can see where the writer is trying to master that skill. (It gives me hope that one day, I will master that skill.)

What keeps these webseries and serial stories interesting enough to keep following is that they use a technique called “chunking”. They take one section of the story and, if they do it correctly, give that chunk its own mini-story, complete with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The consumer gets a story within the smaller story that leaves both a sense of completion within that chunk and a question or two to drive them to want to see the next bit of story.

It’s what made serial stories so popular in the late 1800s, and what keeps them popular today.

Interestingly, these aren’t the only chunks we run into. We see it when we play digital games. Some games let you explore a region or storyline until you’ve seen everything they want you to see so the next part will make sense, and then they open the next region or storyline. You continue this way util you give up or finish the game. (And boy, are there some interesting arguments over using this technique in a world that is otherwise open once you have opened new regions!) You keep playing because you want to see that next region. You want the next part of the story.

Even education has its own version of chunking in lesson planning. In most curricula, each lesson is a chunk, focusing on a specific skill or aspect, and the chunks together build a learning unit, which in turn build a curriculum. Even in corporate and informal settings, there is often some sort of spine that relates different trainings, workshops, and seminars together. You follow the courses along the spine to develop your mastery over a related group of skills or over a given topic of study.

By breaking things down into these smaller chunks, writers, game designers, and educators are giving consumers the ability to take in the information, process it, and then move on to another chunk, thereby building a complete picture and a better understanding of what’s been presented.

Setting a Learning Goal

Behavioral objectives are a driving force of curriculum. When a classroom teacher says, “Class, today we are going to learn about polynomials”, the teacher has just stated the objective for the class. In the lesson plan, it probably says something to the effect of: After this lesson, the student will be able to identify a polynomial. You see this in online tutorials, too. Many begin with, “In this tutorial, you will learn how to [insert bullet points].” Again, it gives the student an idea of why they’re giving up their valuable time to this resource.

Personally, I’m not a fan of stating behavioral objectives outright. You see this in the Dead Bunny videos. The title tells you the topic, but if you just jump into the video, you’ll find a problem best solved through the skill that will be covered in the video. I assume my viewers will be smart enough to realize that during the video, they will be given the knowledge they need to be able to solve that problem. I’m the same way in my tutoring when the lesson isn’t overly dependent on the vocabulary. It’s a good way to discover what the student already knows about the topic.

A behavioral objective is just that: a statement about what the learner will be able to do, how their behavior will be changed, by the time the teacher is done with them for that learning session. Teacher candidates spend countless hours (or maybe that was just the program I went through) learning how to craft these statement to make the best learning chunks they can. And then we learn how to string them together into units and into curriculum. They’re really useful, actually.

Autodidacts don’t realize it, but every time they identify a new skill they want to learn, they create their own behavioral objectives. For example, I recently realized I needed to learn how to mix and master audio files to complete a project, so I set out a task in my to-do list: Before I reach that stage in this project, I will find and read/view resources on how to mix and master my own audio files.

I set out what I needed to learn (to mix and master audio files), how I expected to learn it (find and read/view resources, accounting for books, articles, and videos), and a deadline (before I reach the point in my current audio project where I will need to be able to mix and master the file). Ideally, these would all be very specific, but I’m doing a voiceover project completely on my own that I’ve never done completely on my own before, so I don’t actually know yet how long it’s going to take to get to the point where I will need to know how to mix and master. (I’m also making note of the time I spend working on it so I’ll know better for the future how to allocate my time.)

By laying out these specific objectives, teachers, curriculum designers, and autodidacts can target exactly what to learn and how to do it, and can use that to build larger, better focused, learning objectives.

Keeping Dead Bunny Simple

Occasionally, I’m asked why the Dead Bunny videos are so plain. The answer is simple: They aren’t plain; they’re deliberately kept simple.

When I first stated creating these videos, I asked myself what my students often ask (verbally or tacitly) when I show them a skill, and then tried to make the videos touch on those questions. I boiled it down to three: How do I do this? How will I remember this? Why am I learning this? Simple enough questions, and ones we’ve all asked at various points in our life.

How do I do this?
When the student is asking this question, usually they have a problem in front of them that they can’t solve or have forgotten the process for. They’re not looking for a historical explanation (although those are fun to throw in). They’re just trying to solve the immediate problem.

With that in mind, I try to focus each video on the immediate process of solving a specific type of problem. For those problems that have multiple ways of solving, I have been incorporating them into the same video when it’s a brief variation. As processes become more complex, I’ll probably give each solving method its own video to continue keeping things simple.

How will I remember this?
Any savvy student realizes that there’s likely a test question down the road that has this skill’s name written all over it, and want to have an easy way to remember how to solve this kind of problem again. (Actually, what they really want is open book, open note, open teacher, but that’s only because they don’t realize how much harder those tests tend to be.)

But because we as an education system are still obsessed with sit-down tests, I try to build memory aids into each video to help the student be more successful in remembering the skill. So far, it’s been in the form of rules, mnemonics, and brief historical or vocabulary lessons, but I can see incorporating a Constructivist element into future videos and building in connections to help students see how various skills are related, and actually have less to remember than the student might think.

Why am I learning this?
The favorite whine of learners. Mostly because no one has sat down and shown them how math builds on itself, or tied their math to their real life in a way that is both realistic and teachable. When a student sits down in front of me and tells me math is pointless and will never turn up in their real life, I just smile and wait for the inevitable, “Can I listen to my music while I work?” They usually end up regretting asking so close to declaring math pointless, because music is one of the most beautiful fraction lessons out there. The same student will come in a week later declaring utter hatred for me because I ruined their music with my math. But they’re also a little more willing to give math a chance for fear I’ll ruin something else they love.

This one has proven the hardest to incorporate the videos. In fact, it’s usually the point where I get hung up for a day or two as I try to find the right real-world wrapper for the video. Math is all around us, but it’s not just in our numbers and our word problems. Part of math teaches logical reasoning skills, those same skills we use to persuade, to negotiate, to solve non-math problems. It’s important for students to see that because it gives them a reason to care. The reason the student suddenly cares about the math in their music is because they now realize there would be no music without math, and they can be made to see what else they might lose if math wasn’t there doing its job.

This has actually become longer than I intended, but I just wanted to share some of the thinking that goes into developing each video. They’re brief. They’re instructional. They’re plain. And it’s all by design.

Identifying the Gap

Over the holidays, I read this interesting article (that I somehow managed to not save somewhere) that suggested not presenting the behavioral objective to the student.

What? The madness? How will the student be engaged if they don’t know what we’re doing?

Actually, the article presented a far more authentic method for making the student aware of what was going to be taught. The student is given a task that requires the skill to complete. Not realizing this, the student attempts the task, and fails. The instructor then steps on and shows how to complete the task.

At first, I was definitely still thinking, “That’s crazy. Brilliant. But crazy.” Then, I realized it’s not. It’s natural, and it’s what I do with my math students.

I work in a tutoring center that has its own full curriculum, which means I often have students with gaps in their math or students who have learned skills in class since their program was generated. When I go to teach a new skill to a student, I ask them a question linking back to another skill. If they answer that without problem or with just a little prompting, I give them a problem using the skill I’m about to teach. If the student solves the problem without any issues, we move on to the next skill. If they get stuck, more often than not they ask me to show them how to solve it, giving me an even more authentic lead-in to my teaching, and I know the student will be engaged because they want to know how to do it.

This is something I should keep in mind as I start working on Dead Bunny media offerings. It’s a good, natural way to approach presenting new skills.

Clever Way to State the Behavioral Objective

I was reading an article online not too long ago that mentioned not stating behavioral objectives up front, but instead setting the learner to a task requiring the skill being taught in that lesson. The idea is that the learner will fail at the task, providing the teacher a natural lead-in to instruction.

At first, I looked at that and thought it was pretty cool. Then, I thought about how I teach at Sylvan and realized I already do that with my math kids to see if they can challenge the skill of if they need instruction.

When you “announce” the behavioral objective this way, the learned understands they’ll be learning the skill(s) necessary to complete the initial task. It’s more natural, and the learner has already “bought in” because they have an immediate need for the skill.

Interactive Fiction as a Teaching Tool

Perhaps that should read “Interactive fiction as a training tool”.  Either way, it would appear that I’ve uncovered a way to turn a writing form that intrigues me into a tool that my teaching self would approve of.

The method really kind of reminds me of the SkillSoft course on behavioral interviewing from a few years ago, but I can easily see how that would work. In fact, I think my interactive piece I was working on last summer (that’s currently gathering dust while I try to knock out Dead Bunny work) actually fits within this because it had varying levels of rightness.

I think if done well, it might also be helpful in teaching children how to interact with each other.

Very interesting. Very flexible artform.

Learning in Travel-Sized Packages

When I was a museum educator, I spent part of my time working with traveling trunks. If you are unfamiliar with the term, traveling trunks are educational units produced by a museum, usually to partner with on-site workshops and exhibits, to bring learning experiences to a classroom. They can either be brought and administered by a member of the museum’s educational staff, or they can be checked out by teachers to incorporate into their teaching.

The more successful trunks usually cover one topic and include a teaching guide, books, and artifacts. In essence, it’s bringing a part of the museum into your classroom if your class can’t go visit the museum itself.I’ve developed very few of these (one of them in roughly an hour during my oral comps), but I always enjoyed it. It’s fun to think about how to convey concepts on limited resources.

Last week, I was trying to sort out the damage done by Bloglines’ most recent database hiccup (my account still isn’t recovered nearly three weeks later), and discovered one of the blogs no longer feeding to my Bloglines account had this story on the story sack.

I was quite excited! Someone has taken the museum traveling trunk, and made it family-sized! It’s great! I think families, babysitters, and camp counselors should definitely look into this practice and take it to heart. It’s a great way to create learning moments and energize kids about learning!

Do You Simplify or Do You Complicate?

As a teacher, I’ve developed the ability to tell whether or not I need to step up or step down explanations I’m giving according to the student’s level of understanding. It’s just part of the tool kit any good teacher needs to get a concept across to a student.

We are taught as teachers to break our lessons down to their simplest point and go from there. If the student understands what we define as a simple component, then we move up to a more complicated explanation. If they don’t, then we look for ways to simplify, to break the information down ever farther to help the student understand.

Simple information is easier to digest, and so we strive for it.

Thinking over my own experiences as a student, I realize that I had teachers who didn’t always understand that. They saw each teaching moment as a chunk of limited time where they had to share everything they knew or thought would be useful on a given topic, and disregarded the most important part of the teaching moment: the actual learning on the part of the student. Had they stopped and considered the two-way nature of teaching, perhaps their classes would have been more useful.

You never want to simplify so far that you’re insulting the student, but you never want to be so complicated that the student can only succeed by having a lot of prior knowledge on the topic.

Inspired by this post on Lifehacker