This past Saturday morning when I walked into our living room I couldn’t help noticing the large sheet of black ABS plastic that Caleb, my 19-year-old son, had acquired for his latest project.

ABS Sheet

Ever since Caleb was a toddler he has enjoyed creating things that would change and enhance his world. For the most part he was just like very other young kid who loved playing with Lego and other toys but Caleb and his older brother Levi would migrate away from typical play and look for ways to improve their toys and their environment. Both my boys would use Lego and Kinex and other contructables (what I like to call toys that you can build things with) to make things that they could use for other purposes. Their desires quickly moved beyond using Lego and Kinex to using authentic resources to change their environment. For example, when my older son Levi was three he wanted to be able to pull his wagon with his bike and rather then just use a rope he wanted my help to rig up a hitch system which we created and he used and then passed onto his younger brother. Caleb was equally industrious and I have so many fond memories of heading down to the hardware store to gather the items my boys needed for their latest projects.

So when I saw the big piece of plastic I reminisced about Caleb’s passion for making things. I also thought about how my wife and I carefully nurtured and helped him and his brother develop their interests and created the environment in which they could fully develop their creative abilities and learn how to learn. If there was just one thing that I can point to that really made the difference it would have to be the use of authentic projects. While we didn’t deny our boys models, Lego, Knex and other constructables we also encouraged them to explore working on authentic projects. My boys were always working on something that was real and that would make an authentic difference in their world.

The bike hitch, bike ramps, countless other smaller projects, and the major fort project were just the starting point for exposing my boys to authentic learning. When I purchased and renovated a rental property the boys who were just 8 and 10 worked along side me at every stage from cleaning up the junk in the yard to demolishing the basement rooms, to building new rooms and doing all the work that was necessary to bring the house into a state where it could be rented and then sold. Later that spring when the boys were still just 8 and 10 they planned out all the details of our month long summer bike trip which included everything from getting the maps from the AMA, planning the route, to identifying what we could do along the trip to, where we would stay, and what we could do when we got to the interior of British Columbia. They put together a detailed binder that had all the information we would need. That first major biking holiday is still one of the most talked about trips that my boys will reminisce about. As professional DownHill Mountain bike racers and extreme athletes Levi and Caleb travel continuously so this early experience has served them well. The have spent the majority of their short lives working on authentic projects that not only enhance their lives but lives around them.

Authentic projects work because they not only give the learner choice and ownership over the world that they live in but they also give the learner the ability to find and use their voice and show the world what they have created. Caleb’s projects are getting very sophisticated and while the air splitter he created for his high-end sports car is not a project you would ask a novice to undertake Caleb is able to create a professional quality enhancement and add significant value to his car because he has lived a life filled with authentic projects.

Caleb FRS

The cognitive and analytic processes of prediction, modeling, experimentation, diagnosis, and problem-solving that Caleb experiences through his countless authentic projects has also contributed to his desire to take on in bigger and bigger challenges. I enjoy helping Caleb with his projects because his passion for learning and creation are contagious.

ABS Splitter In Progress

In our typical education rhetoric we talk about engagement, individualized instruction, and life-long learning but the reality of standardized testing or, if our learners are lucky, the occasional analysis of case-based studies offers our learners very little motivation for learning in the present, so how can we expect them to be excited about learning in the future. We can change this. But that means we have to give back control of the learning to the learner. We need to allow our learners to choose and work on authentic projects that will inspire their intrinsic passions for learning and help them grow their learner’s mindset. When we do this for our learners the possibilities of what they will be able to do are virtually limitless.

Caleb FRS with Splitter

Additional thoughts on Authentic Learning:

Have you every had a situation where you thought something would only take a few minutes to complete but ended up taking a couple of hours? To make sure this post doesn’t turn out this same way I will get to the point. This morning my co-instructor and I needed to send out the announcement to our new group of students. No problem…I have an announcement script in my trusty Evernote so I told my colleague this will just take a few minutes; I just needed to update the script to reflect the fact we are co-teaching, change the dates and then I can post it. Or so I thought.

Rather than explain in full detail the challenges that arose and how they were addressed I will summarize my experience in the following list:

  • IT folks didn’t give me access to my own course – sent IT a message but got no response so after a series of Google Hangout messages with my co-teacher we explored other options to add me to the course.
  • Noticed I needed to add the latest two chapters and the most recent article my colleague and I have recently written to the list. Only one of the articles has been “officially” released so I added the URL to the publication and then went to the other 3 publication to create “In Press Draft” PDF files for our students.
  • Noticed that each of the files was formatting differently and while the double-spaced text is required for the publisher and their proofing the documents are much more readable with 1.5 spacing so I changed the formatting on all 3 document. OOPS… this also lead to changing some tables, adding page breaks and many other formatting issues that could have been avoided if we were using the full power of Word. Make note….need to talk to colleague out standardizing our writing formats.
  • Uploaded the 3 draft publications to the course storage and updated the reading list, linked to the draft documents and linked to the published article on the Journal site. Also uploaded the files and made the same updates to the Master Course.
  • Finally got to updating that course announcement script and created the new announcement with updated information.On the final proof read I noticed that there were some formatting and spacing issues with the announcement in the BlackBoard (BB) editor and pulled the HTML formatted content from BB editor and put it into my text editor to scan for and remove the extra “” and “” formatting that BB adds to the file when you save it. Did the search and replace and cleaned up the HTML content and pasted it back into the BB editor and FINALLY got an announcement message that I could post/send to our students.
  • While I was pulling together the draft documents I also realized that I needed to move these documents and related research files and folders to the same location in on my drives and then add these draft documents to my website so before I forgot and rather than add this to my ToDo list I re-organized some of my research files and related articles and chapters for publication.

By the time I went through the above process which included many other smaller steps too tedious to mention the few minutes to update the announcement message took just under two hours to complete. The authors of 4DX point to the day to day whirlwind of just getting your work done as one of the major factors that prevent significant change from taking place in most organizations. Most people are very busy just doing their work so adding anything new or looking to innovate is very challenging in the busy work that we live in. While this is true I also believe that we can add to that whirlwind by being reactive rather than being proactive. Let me explain. The steps above detail one reactive measure after another and if I would have been more proactive I could have eliminated or limited most of these steps and saved myself some time and frustration. Consider how I could have been more proactive:

  • When I emailed back and forth with the IT person who was involved in managing my course copy I informed him that even though I was not “officially” listed as the instructor on the course I was going to be co-teaching the course and needed to be added to the course as an instructor once it was copied. He said sure, no problem. In my second email exchange, I asked him to confirm that I was added and IF I needed to jump through the new formal request process. I was willing to fill out the necessary forms and jump through all the hoops but still hoped I didn’t have to. He said it wasn’t needed. Mistake two was when I didn’t check the course site until this morning rather than the night before—I wasn’t added to the course.
    Proactive countermeasure – don’t trust IT, jump through their time-consuming processes and check and double check to see if they have actually done what they say they will do.
  • Rather than wait until documents accumulate and pile up it makes better sense to format your documents for your specific audience right at the point where you are also submitting them for publication. It takes months for articles, chapters and books to be published so there will always be a need to create an “In Press Draft”.
    Proactive countermeasure – while the current document is being worked on for publication use page breaks, spacing, and all other formatting features that are built into the word processor that will enable you easily move the document from one format to another.
    Proactive countermeasure two – while the current document is being worked on creating and format the“In Press Draft” PDF that you can share with your students and the rest of your audience.
    Proactive countermeasure three – move that document to where it needs to reside so that you can easily share it. This includes uploading it to your website, master course, or wherever else it needs to go.
  • Dealing with the BB editing issue will take too much time to address so I will leave that to another post.

I must acknowledge that even though being proactive will help you save some time you still need to actually spend the 2, 5,  or 10 minutes here and there doing what needs to be done. You can save same some time but more importantly, you can save frustration and anxiety. Human’s don’t function very well in a heightened state of anxiety. Frustration and anxiety will cause adrenaline to flow and will turn on our flight or fight response which redirects our blood flow from our brains to our extremities. When things aren’t going well we don’t need blood being redirected from our brains to our limbs so this flight or fight state makes us even more unproductive. Ever noticed how the frustration just seems to build and it can take some time to calm down. This is just our physiology doing what it is supposed to do — get us ready to react and fight or take flight.

By being proactive we can not only save time but we can prevent moving into these states of growing frustration which we all know just kill our productivity. Being proactive will also mean that we can be much more purposeful and add to our work/website/ePortfolio on a consistent basis. The making of meaningful connections which are the essence of learning and growth are much more effective if we approach them incrementally. Creation, reflection, and revision and more reflection and revision require time… lots of time. If we are proactive we can leverage the hours we have and learn and grow more effectively.

More of my thoughts on being proactive:
The Paradox of Being Proactive
Why Create Significant Learning Environments
Sense of Urgency: Create It Now or React to It Later
How to Change Before You Have To
Pick Two – Innovation, Change or Stability
Practice Change by Living It