Amplifying Student Passion: An interview with two connected kids

This post is the the final project for An Introduction to 21st Century Teaching and Learning for my MEd at UPEI in Leadership and Learning.


There is a constant concern as an educator and a parent as to whether or not we are managing the internet generation’s use of technology effectively. We are worried about screen time, ruining a generation of kids with smartphones, while at the same time educators grapple with the reality that the world has transformed into a knowledge economy (Gilbert, 2007), while the classroom is still geared to create citizen’s for an industrial world.

This project is an attempt to show that children are learning and pursuing their passions all the time, and the technology itself can amplify those passions and inadvertently


Photo Credit: morten f Flickr via Compfight cc

create opportunities in which young people are practicing 21st Century skills.

As educators we need to be able to harness these opportunities and focus them into the work we do with students.

The Original Idea

The inspiration for this project was Seymour Papert’s idea that students will appropriate technology for their own use. I wrote the a line of inquiry that stated: Children and youth appropriate technology to fit their interests and passions; educators must develop their students’ awareness of metacognition to build life long learners.  I also stated the following goals:

  • Attempt to show what student centered knowledge creation could look like.
  • To explore Papert’s idea of appropriating Technology more deeply.

Finally I stated that I wanted to demonstrate that when kids “appropriate” (Papert, 2009) technology for their own purposes they inadvertently are practicing 21st Century Skills.

In order to demonstrate this I have conducted interviews with my ten and half year old twins, Thomas and Lucy, about their use of technology.

A quick note: I have had a long standing interest in educational technology and how it can be used to shift our educational paradigm. One aspect of this interest is that I have never shied away from my kids to using technology. Furthermore, my wife pursues her passion for food and culture through a large network that she has built on the internet. Needless to say Thomas and Lucy have grown up in an environment where connectivity and use of a device in daily life in common place. 

My Theory

In James Cameron’s 1984 film “The Terminator” we see the underlying evil taking the form of an artificial intelligence called Skynet. Skynet has taken over and destroyed humanity, and is further cementing its dominance by going back in time to eliminate human elements that could threaten its control in it’s present. Great movie, but I fear that it played a role in setting up society’s mistrust of technology’s impact on humanity, and saying that we always must be asking:

What will technology do to us?

Seymour Papert calls this need to put technology in the forefront “technocentrisim”(2009).  Papert states it is a ” fallacy…referring all questions to the technology” (2009). In education we are often still in that technocentric place “where we think technology will determine how we think” (Papert, 2009), and as a result subvert life as we know it.

I think as educators we can do better.

In my interviews with Thomas and Lucy I attempt to show that when children use their technology outside of a structured school environment, they “appropriate” (Papert, 2009) the technology to amplify what they love doing. As Papert points out, technology has different effects for different children (2009). The passion determines the choice of application, not the other way around. As teachers, we need to recognise the informal learning that our students do and transfer it into the classroom. Knowing that student passion exists, and the lessons learned informally have value in a child’s overall learning experience is key to create a much more authentic classroom environment. Thos e passions need to be acknowledged and built on.

Here’s what Thomas and Lucy experience:

In my interviews with Thomas and Lucy I found that they were clearly using their devices and digital applications to build on what they already loved. I also found that they were engaging in “hard fun” (Papert, 2009). You can see, as Lucy spends 20 minutes producing a 12-15 second, and Thomas works over a year long timespan to build a multi dimensional city in Minecraft, that they are doing the “work that will harness…[their] passion…to master difficult material and acquire habits of self-discipline”(Papert, 2002).  Through this informal work Thomas and Lucy are developing the ability to collaborate, problem solve, research, plan, organise and network. All of these skills are at the core of the 21st Century learning conversation. The key is for teachers and parents to recognise that this learning is happening and validate it as authentic and important. As educators we need to teach students to recognise their learning, by thinking about their thinking, reflecting, and processing all that they do so that they can recognise their ongoing learning process. This idea is mirrored in Papert’s words, “What you ought to be learning at school is that you don’t need to be taught in order to learn.” (2009).

The final piece in my puzzle is thinking that by blending George Siemen’s connectivism (2004) with Papert’s “appropriation”(2009), a learning environment can be created that will amplify student’s outside learning while guiding them to the idea of of knowledge building (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2002, p 1370). A classroom model leveraging these theories to engage learners to build a connected knowledge base that is bigger than each individual’s capacity, and is linked and bonded through layers of connections in the digital landscape would be in my mind a strong model for 21st Century learning.

Reference List

Previous thinking that may or may not have influenced this writing:

Let’s See What Happens – A train Wreck Story

If I had a Magic Wand


Harnessing the Power of the “Share Button”

Students were thrilled to have someone see and comment on their work! Photo Credit: andrewrennie via Compfight cc

Students were thrilled to have someone see and comment on their work!
Photo Credit: andrewrennie via Compfight cc

I believe the power and significance of the student as a Global Communicator and Collaborator is summed up in the following quote;

“Everyday I have to decide if I will write for my teachers or publish to the world” Eighth grader talking about whether she will do her homework, or continue her work as a writer on – from pg 71, Alan November “Who Owns the Learning”

This week I discovered such a student in my own class, though he is not at all at the scale that above eighth grader has achieved.  My fifth grader created a 20 page Google presentation about the properties of Minecraft blocks. I discovered his work purely by accident when I noticed a friend of his looking at the presentation during our time in the computer lab.  I asked the friend about the work and discovered that this student had created the presentation on his own initiative out of the love of the game.  I asked his friend how useful such information was since I am not really familiar with Minecraft.  His friend replied that a new user of Minecraft would find the information invaluable.  I asked who it had been shared with.  The reply was just this friend.

The Minecraft block presentation is definitely an example of a student creating their own tutorial, and it also connects into the Daniel Pink’s motivators of quality work, autonomy, mastery and purpose. (This student, much like the eighth grader quoted above, didn’t always hand in the most high quality work for me).  When I praised him about his initiative, and the quality of his work I could see he was thrilled.

As I was having making this discovery, my fifth graders and I were in the computer lab working on our Photo Stories (the project I initiated for this course).  Coincidentally I had a group at that moment who were finished.  We uploaded their presentation to YouTube, and then embedded it in their blog.  A few minutes later I heard an excited exclamation, “We had six views!”.  They found it incredible that someone had looked at their work.  At that moment I realized the potential of global communication/collaboration, and most importantly feedback through the internet, and the possible pool of motivation available if students tapped into it .  So I sat down at a work station and tweeted their work and asked for comments.

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A few minutes later a friend of mine in Canada, Jean-Paul, commented and re-tweeted.  Right away their was an email that said they had a comment. They were over the moon!

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I have done a lot of experimenting using technology in my class, but I’ve never actively tried to create an audience for my students work.  I find the idea of trying to get my students noticed overwhelming.  However, I have now seen first hand how motivated students become when they receive one comment and a fist full of views.  The potential is unfathomable.

So, going back to the student who created the Minecraft Block presentation, the next step for him is to get his presentation out into the cyber world and reap the potential benefits.  I have already casually suggested a few things, and plan to follow up with him.  His initiative to create the resource could potentially be rewarded exponentially.

For me the challenge now is too design global collaboration into my regular instruction, and to actively promote, and teach my students to promote, their work online.

So please click on one of the links below and leave a comment.  Make a fifth graders day!

Rethink Plastic

Say Hello to the 4th “R”, RETHINK

Our Fourth “R”: RETHINNK

Save our Earth, Buddy! Rethink!

Assignment 5: Digital Story Telling

Immediately I am drawn to how Sylvia Tolisano describes digital story telling because it is immediately apparent to me that this is another example of a great approach to teaching that has been redefined with technology.  As Tolisano points out, stories are inherent in all cultures, and contain knowledge and wisdom that needs to be taught and passed on.

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight cc

In my classroom when I teach Social Studies, I frame the content as a story, and we often discuss whose stories we are learning about, and who gets to tell them.  It is a powerful exercise for students to learn how to shape a narrative, and to understand that once they have created and shared an event or idea through story, that it will become part of a bigger story.  This is acutely more possible when we can teach learners to share their stories with digital storytelling tools.  Most importantly are Tolisano’s three “Cs” of connect, communicate, and collaborate. Through interactions such as these three Cs learning can be designed using digital storytelling that can create authentic learning experiences that reflect Daniel Pink’s idea of mastery, autonomy and purpose that Alan November talks about in Who Owns the Learning?  Learners can create a real world experience that demonstrates their learning and their interactions with others that made the learning happen.  They can then continue to build on their knowledge through the ongoing connections that are made through sharing and collaboration.  The learner will not have to be an elder to have their story passed on and learned from, but rather they will get to experience that “passing on’ of a narrative in the digital domain.

Who Owns the Learning? Chapter 2: The Student as Tutorial Designer -How Do We Show the Value?

Students, in my experience always want to help each other, so it is no surprise that instead of  making it a problem that classes always want to casually discuss concepts and ideas presented to them, that instead it should be made into an opportunity for improving student learning.  Currently, in my classroom students are always allowed to discuss and help each other on any task or assignment as long as it is not a “test”, and frankly if it was up to me, and me alone, I would create collaborative”tests”.  However, there was a time when it made me uncomfortable when students wanted to help each other.  I was concerned that if they didn’t figure it out themselves then maybe they hadn’t learned it.  I realized that this anxiety wasn’t really about what I really believed,  but more about what I thought other teachers and administrators might think.  When I realized this, I thought more about the real value of students helping each other, and was prepared with the “why” of my actions. So when I think about Alan November’s ideas about students designing learning for other students, I like the idea, and have already thought of some things I can try.  However, in the current school culture I work in I can foresee that their may well be parents questioning why the teacher is getting the students to do what they see as the “teacher’s” job.  Even though I am fully prepared with the “why”, it may be a little far from what traditional teaching is supposed to look like in the eyes of some stakeholders.

Having gotten that out, I think what Eric Marcos has done is remarkable,  and it connects right into Daniel Pink’s ideas of purpose, mastery and autonomy.  What I wonder about is the fact that these students are not graded for their contribution.  I understand that the fact that they are not extrinsically motivated is why they do the great work they do, and no grade is really going to have any real meaning or measure of what they have created.  Furthermore, I buy into this kind of learning. I see value in it, but I can’t always quantify it. This is the difficulty. Their has to be some way of validating this contribution; this value that students are creating.  How do we show the true learning experience of the student tutorial designer?

If the digital Learning Farm became the standard in a school, how would teachers assess if the very act of assessment would nullify student purpose?  How do we measure this success and sell it to the data hounds who show achievement through common core standards and the collection of test score data?  In our current educational culture

Photo Credit: Lori Greig via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lori Greig via Compfight cc

teachers are only held accountable for achievement that can be captured as data, while learning is ignored or not even considered.  So I wonder will the student as a tutorial designer always have to be a sideshow?  Or can the world truly embrace the paradigm shift?

A Reflection on Alan November’s “Who Owns the Learning?”

Alan November welcomes the reader the to the Digital Learning Farm by quoting Daniel Pink‘s book Drive.  Pink points out that predictors of high quality work are when individuals experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  November then wonders how well our traditional education model allows for these three elements.  Essentially in my mind it doesn’t.  November points out that the idea of purpose is one of the most important predictors of quality work, and yet the traditional education model offers no real purpose for its learners.  For me it is crystal clear why Pink’s three indicators are useful in providing meaningful learning,  and what November is saying about them in terms of his goals that drive the Digital Learning Farm model.  To make myself clear it is necessary to share how my teacher brain was shaped early on in my life.


Photo Credit: Mike Roach Jr. via Compfight cc

Before I became a classroom teacher, and actually quite awhile before I got around to even going to University, I worked as, for lack of a better term, an outdoor educator.  What this means is that I was employed by an organization called the Camp Chief Hector YMCA, which is located just west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  In the fall, winter, and spring seasons we ran experiential education programs for schools in the region, and in summer I ran month long adventure leadership programs for 15-16 year olds.  There is an amazing amount of learning that goes on in a centre like this, and I believe it has everything to do with the fact all the programs, regardless of whether it was a curriculum based program such as the IEE‘s Sunship Earth, or a month long Outward Bound style backcountry adventure, they were designed around motivating participants intrinsically.

In experiential learning environments, learners are given direct instruction on certain skills they will need to be able to participate as the program becomes more complex.  They are given time to practice and become comfortable with their new knowledge and skills (mastery).   Learners who return again  each year are given even more opportunity to develop these skills as they progress through various programs. It is also quite clear (most of the time) that the skills they are learning are going to serve a very clear purpose very soon.  Meaning when the van drops them off 90 km from nowhere, those who were not able to internalize the purpose of mastering the necessary skills and knowledge will soon suffer the discomforts of the backcountry, or the wrath of their peers.

Photo Credit: zkruz via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: zkruz via Compfight cc

As the programs move forward learners are put into situations where they must take the initiative to use the new skills and knowledge to solve a real world problem.  They may need to lead their peers for a day through the mountains using their map and compass skills, or run a belay station to get their group down a glacier’s headwall.  The sense of accomplishment from being successful, or from experiencing several failures that eventually lead to an accomplishment, ultimately gives that learner a true sense of autonomy;  the sense they can master the world they live in.

To me this is learning.

So as I begin to read Alan November, I see his Digital Learning Farm as the “outdoor adventure for the classroom”.  It’s a paradigm shift for the education establishment.  It’s a shift for both students and teachers.  November talks about shifting control of the learning.  I know from experience trying to give a task to students that involves some initiative and problem solving can be painful for all involved.  This is particularly true of students who expect you to just hand everything out so that they can fill it in and give it back.  The Digital Learning Farm model will take careful scaffolding to bring learners to a place where they can begin to have the skills to take on their own learning journey.  Unfortunately a lot of our current paradigm has disabled students.  They just want to be taught.  This is not their  fault.  It’s what they are used to.  The ideas of the Digital Learning Farm could change that.

For me I don’t need to be convinced of the possibilities of the Digital Learning Farm.  I’ve seen the ideas in a different context work effectively time and again.  I also know that this kind of learning model cannot be taken on by one individual teacher.  It has to be an initiative from educational leaders in schools to shift their learning environments to a place where teachers do not hold all the keys to the learning.  A place where it is ok to lead your learners into the woods, and leave them to figure out how to get back.   A place where students can see the purpose in their tasks, master relevant skills, and feel the sense of autonomy that comes with working through a problem that leads to useful and real outcomes.

Technology Integration for Digital Learning: Assignment 1


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Coming into this course I have a lot of background knowledge on using technology in my classroom.  About five years ago went to a PD conference in Canada where I had the chance to stumble into short session on digital learning with a guy named Will Richardson.  The session was short, but this Will Richardson guy was inspiring, and he really made me realize I needed to be using technology as a teacher.  I dove in.  From that point on I  tried everything I could in the classroom.  I got kids to blog, to comment on blogs, tried out wequests, got students to bring in their own devices to make videos, and among other things, tried to start a collaborative writing project with a colleague in Canada (which in the end didn’t work out due to admin barriers on the Canadian end), but I know I haven’t even brushed the surface of possibility.  I essentially burned myself out because I never really felt like I new what I was doing.  Each new thing I tried was an experiment , and I often wasn’t sure of the end result.  I think I needed a break because this year I’ve stuck mostly with using Google docs for writing, because I know it is effective and fits smoothly.

What hope to get from this course is first of all inspiration to more actively teach more digital literacy with more knowledge and purpose.  I like the SAMR model because it is very useful for to define what I’ve done, and what I’d like to do.  I can see I have done a lot of substitution ,and I have done some redefinition. I think that I need to challenge myself to think about what I’ve already done, use some of that knowledge, and move forward into something new.  However, I’m not sure what that looks like at the moment.

I guess I’ll have to wait and see.