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This is what riding looks like when it works out…

The following posts should confirm that the authentic learning opportunities, inquiry based learning and taking ownership idea that I talked about in the video are ideas that I have been exploring for a long time:

Why Authentic Learning Converts Into Lifelong Learning (2017)
In pursuit of the better way – the learners mindset (2016)
The Gift of Intrinsic Motivation (2013)
Why Student Engagement Plummets in High School (2013)
Difference Between “Doing Projects” and “Project Based Learning” (2013)
You Learn What You Live (2011)
Creating Significance to Foster Learning (2009)


It is very important that you understand the full context of my son’s circumstances to understand the following authentic learning experience that I am about to share. The average home price on the North Shore of Vancouver is around 1.5 million dollars and this is for a very average 1200 square foot house. To put this in context, the 4 bedroom, 3 bath, 3000 square foot house with 10, 12 and 14 foot ceilings, polished concrete floors and an attached 3 car garage on 2 acres of land that we sold for $250,000 when we left Abilene Texas in 2011 would be worth between 4-4.5 million dollars in West Vancouver which is the most prestigious area of the North Shore. As you can imagine rents in this area also extremely high.

When we moved to the North Shore back in 2013 so that my boys could pursue their dreams of becoming professional Down Hill Mountain bike racers we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford to buy a home. While the cost of housing is ridiculous there are other benefits that make living on the North Shore a priority for my boys. In addition to living between 5-15 minutes away from 3 different mountains my boys use for daily training, we are also an hour away from Whistler which has one of the best Down Hill Mountain Bike Parks in the world. Factor in the amazing bike culture that has grown out of the North Shore and Whistler and one could argue that there are few better places in the world where my boys could pursue their dreams.

Unfortunately, Down Hill Mountain Bike racing is a relatively new sport (about 20 years old) and most pro racers do not make much money when compared to other professional athletes. In 2016 Aaron Gwin who is the top racer in the world changed the sport by moving to a new company that was willing to pay him 3 times what his previous company paid him. This massive increase put his annual contract at just under half a million dollars a year. There are only a handful of riders in the world who are making low six-figure salaries so unfortunately, most up and coming pro racers like my boys are lucky to have sponsorships which will help cover the cost of equipment but the cost of travel, racing, training, and living is something that is up to the rider. This explains why my two boys who are 19 and 21 still live at home. Both my boys are extremely independent and even though they live with their parents they have complete freedom and control over all other aspects of their lives. We live in one the most expensive places in North America and they don’t make much money—yet. If we were living anywhere else they would be on their own.

A few months back, neighborhood friends asked if either our boys would be willing to house sit for them and take care of their two full-size dogs when they went to Hawaii for a month. Levi, my older son who was still 20 at the time, jumped at the opportunity to house sit and have his own space for a full month. I managed to control myself and didn’t comment at all on his decision even though I was thinking to myself, I hope Levi realizes just how much work and time walking, exercising and caring for those dogs and that large house is going to take. These people live in a large house at the base of Mount Fromm near the end of a trail that Levi often trains on so I can only image that the proximity to his training was another factor that swayed his decision.

One more bit of context… My boys grew up having choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities (COVA) so I saw this opportunity for Levi to have another wonderful way to learn some valuable life lessons — especially when it comes to taking care of other people’s stuff and their animals. My boys didn’t have pets growing up partially because we traveled a fair amount and our lifestyle didn’t really allow for being tied down by animals. When my boys were much younger we often took care of friends cats, dog, gerbils and birds so while my boys didn’t live with animals for years at a time there were times when they were responsible for animals for months at a time so Levi should have known partially what he was getting into. Back to the house and sitting scenario.

About a week into Levi’s house and dog sitting experience when he stopped by to work on his bike, I simply asked him how it was going and he lamented:

…This is taking way more time than I expected…those dogs just won’t leave me alone… I like them but they take so much work… I walk them in the morning before I train… then I come over here to work on my bike… and then I have to go into work and then after work I have to walk them again…

Once again, I managed to control myself and didn’t comment on anything but I did ask if there was anything I could do to help. Levi simply said,

No Dad…I got this.

I knew before Levi had taken on this responsibility that the small freedom that this great house would offer would come at a significant expense of time which Levi just didn’t have. Our garage is equipped as a bike repair shop so I knew Levi would still come home on a daily basis after his training rides to clean and maintain his bike. As a professional athlete, Levi controls his diet very closely and is a creature of habit so I also knew he would be coming home daily to prepare his meals and eat. I knew he would want to use and have access to the Vitamix, the pantry, the freezer and all the food prep resources he was accustomed to. I also knew that his responsibility as the head mechanic and mountain bike instructor at his sponsor Endless Biking would be increasing that same month because Endless was starting to receive their shipments of new bikes for the upcoming season.

So as the days progressed Levi kept coming over earlier and earlier in the morning to make his special shake and then head to the gym which is only a block away. Levi would pop in and out throughout the day between training, working, exercising the dogs and then we wouldn’t see him until the next morning. Our friends came back and on the first night Levi was back at home I told Levi I was proud of how well he handled the responsibility and commended him for going above and beyond what was expected in exercising the dogs. When he said—I am glad this is over… I am never going to do that again… I couldn’t contain myself any longer and started the following short exchange. I had learned over the years that the best way to start a learning moment conversation was to provide a brief context and then ask a question. So I simply stated… Levi, when I was young I too house sat and took care of other people’s dogs like you have so I knew before you took on this responsibility just how much work this was going to be. I am sorry for not telling you about this before. Can you tell me how I might have talked to you or warned you about what you were really taking on. Without hesitation Levi stated— Dad, I wouldn’t have listened… I had to learn this myself. Levi then gave me a big strong hug. I am glad I cared enough to let Levi learn everything he learned completely on his own. Fortunately, this type of life lesson can and does happen in a more formal learning setting.

Over the years, for the most part, I have created significant learning environments (CSLE) where I have given my boys and my students choice, ownership and voice through authentic opportunities (COVA). The reason I said “for the most part” is that giving over control is one of the hardest things a parent or teacher can do. We don’t want our kids to get hurt, or to struggle, or fail or get annoyed with us so we have the tendency to shield them in advance from the consequences of their actions and yet this is where the most significant learning can happen. Giving my boys and my students control over their own learning has been one of the biggest challenges of my personal and professional life.

The life lessons learned through taking full ownership of a learning opportunity cannot be matched by any form of direct instruction or teacher controlled experience. If we care enough for our learners we need to let go of the control and be willing to see them struggle, or fail or even get annoyed with us if we expect them to learn the life lessons that come about through taking full ownership of authentic learning opportunities. Both my boys have learned the value of authentic learning and while they do occasionally get annoyed with me it doesn’t happen much anymore because they have grown to appreciate the value in the struggles of taking ownership of their own learning.

Unfortunately, since many of my students are accustomed to a more traditional form of education which includes giving the teacher or professor what they want and regurgitating information in a simulated project, paper or exam, it is not uncommon to have some of my students annoyed or even angry with me because they feel that I may not be doing my job by not telling them what to do and think. I am willing to have them be annoyed with me because I care enough about their learning to know that if they take ownership and learn by working on something that is authentic then their learning will be transformative. I don’t just let my boys or my learners flounder without any guidance, I do give them guidance and direction through the learning environment that I create or that I point them to through authentic opportunities. The following quote from a recent graduate of the Digital Learning and Leading program where I use the COVA+CSLE approach sums up her experience and the value of this type of learning:

The DLL program shows you where to look, but does not tell you what to see – Brandi Collins

When we let our learners take control of their learning the experiences they can embrace, the meaningful connections they create, and the knowledge that they gain will be life changing. Isn’t this really our primary responsibility as parents and educators?

References

Collins, B. (2017). Highlights from Lamar University Masters program in Educational Technology [Blog]. Retrieved from http://madelinebrandicollins.weebly.com/digital-learning–leading.html

Ventura, M. (1993). Letters at 3am: Reports on endarkenment. Spring Pubns.

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 every 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 constructables (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 than 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 alongside 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:

I have always been a reader. In grade school I read hundreds of books on every imaginable subject. I grew up in a rural setting and as a young boy I the read through the World Book Encyclopedia and then used the school library and any other repositories of book as resources to solve many practical day to day problems I faced living on a farm in Northern Alberta. These books became a lifeline to a much bigger and brighter world that I was also inspired to explore. I didn’t know it then, but these books also started me down the path of authentic learning which I define as making meaningful connections with new ideas and using that new knowledge to shape and change my attitudes, skills, and behaviors.

So, anything that would help me to learn was extremely valuable. This was many decades before the birth of the Internet so books magazines, films, records, recordings, stories and insights from experienced people and almost anything that contained or was able to share information contributed to my learning. Unfortunately, this cognitivist focused learning I found so natural was not a priority in any of the behaviourist focused schools that I attended as a child and teen in the 1960s and 1970s. I am not alone in viewing learning as an amazing and natural part of the human experience and have always been frustrated with the fact that learning happens so naturally everywhere but in schools (Thomas & Brown, 2011). Fortunately, I didn’t listen to all those teachers and administrators who said I wasn’t “suited” for school. I had always known that there was much more to learning than just being able to repeat meaningless facts and figures on quizzes and tests.

While I wasn’t “suited” for school, I was suited for learning, and as a result, I focused on learning how to learn more effectively (Harapnuik, 2011). Furthermore, my use of technology to create things, to solve problems, and to enhance my learning was something that I also was prevented from using in school. Therefore, most of my experiences in a wide assortment of educational systems and at all levels confirmed that for the most part the 20th century model of information delivery followed by confirmation via some form of summative assessment was really the priority of school.

As an adult in higher education, I also had to deal with the troubling reality that my passion for learning, which I now refer to as the making of meaningful connections, or connecting the dots, was not as important to my teachers as the processes of schooling, which I also refer to as collecting and regurgitating the dots (Harapnuik, 2015a).

While collecting and regurgitating the dots, or the information delivery model of instruction, is well suited to the industrial age, it is not so well suited for the information age. Unfortunately, throughout my entire childhood educational career and up to the present time, I have been forced to deal with teachers, educators, and many colleagues who still operate in the industrial age of information delivery. Because these people are so trapped by the existing systems of schooling and the behaviourist methods that still dominate our assessment strategies, they mistakenly believe that they can simply take technology and strap it onto existing modes of delivery. As we have learned from Papert (1993), this is no more effective than strapping a jet engine onto a horse cart.

This response by traditional educators is unfortunate because technology has profoundly changed the world in which we live. That change has the potential to improve education in the way in which our students use digital resources to acquire and apply knowledge and more importantly, create new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. Despite the availability of these digital tools and resources, most educators continue to struggle to effectively implement them. There are small number of teachers who are early adopters of technology who are making a difference and who are using technology to enhance the learning environment. They are willing to give the learner choice, ownership and voice through authentic learning opportunities. These people are using technology to help create the significant learning environments that promotes growth and enable learners to address what is one of the most important fundamental questions we need to continually ask – what are you learning today? This question leads to the next most important question – What do you want to learn next? And this is the topic for future posts….

References

Harapnuik, D. (2011, September 4). Not suited for school but suited for learning
[Youtube]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/clv2yr_UhDU

Harapnuik, D. (2015, August 15). Connecting the dots vs collecting the dots. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/85XpexQy68g

Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York, NY: Basic books.

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the
imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.

My boys are competitive Down Hill Mountain bike racers and they recently raced in several events at Whistler Crankworx. This meant that they had several practices, qualifiers, and final races that ran very close together and had to incorporate protein and energy bars into their nutritional plans to get them through their hectic schedule over the week of racing. High quality protein and complex carbohydrates packed into a portable bar are not just a convenience for my sons, they are a necessity if they wish to stay fully fuelled and competitive. Slipping a couple of these small energy packed bars into a jersey or shorts pocket means my boys can quickly and easily maintain their nutritional needs for the hectic training and/or racing session.

A quality protein and energy bar has little or no sugar, uses natural ingredients, and has a balance of protein and complex carbohydrate to help an athlete maintain their energy when they are unable to access whole foods. Bars that are nutritionally high quality often don’t taste the greatest because the manufacturers stay true to the purpose of helping to fuel a competitive athlete. Unfortunately, as protein and energy bars get more and more popular quality bars are getting harder and harder to find because too many manufacturers are willing to move away from the fundamental purpose of the bars and focus primarily on the taste of the bars at the expense of the nutritional quality.

When you focus on the taste and not the nutritional needs of an athlete you end up with something that sounds like it would be a good thing, but when you look at the details you find it’s not the case. The list of ingredients on the following popular protein and energy bar reveals that taste and not nutrition is their priority:
Power Bar Ingredients

Evaporated cane juice syrup and corn maltodextrin are the first and third listed ingredients which also indicates their quantities. While neither of these ingredients are listed as sugar they are essentially the same as sugar hiding behind a more natural name. The more diligent athlete who is aware of the sugar synonyms won’t be tricked by the manufacturer and will look for a better bar, but for the average person who isn’t as informed this fake protein and energy bar is really not much better then a typical candy bar. At least in the candy bar the manufacturers don’t try to hide the actual ingredients behind more natural sounding names:
chocolate bar ingrediants

What makes this really serious is that the majority of protein and energy bars are really not much better or different then candy bars when you look at the first three ingredients:

Protein bar – Evaporated cane juice syrup oat bran, corn maltodextrin and soy protein isolate
Candy bar – Sugar, peanuts, and corn syrup

Yes the protein bar does have a few better ingredients, it does have soy isolate protein powder, but for the most part it is just a candy bar with added protein. This is very alarming and in the display pictured below there are a couple of dozen different types of bars and there were only two that were actually healthy enough to be used by a competitive athlete:
Protein Bars on Shelf

How does such a good idea, a portable highly nutritious bar that a competitive athlete can use to stay energized, go from good to bad. Simply shift the primary purpose from a portable highly nutritious bar used by competitive athletes for fuel to a good tasting convenience snack used by anyone. Most competitive athletes are willing to deal with the lack of flavour and even a chalky texture in their bars because they know that it isn’t about the taste it is about the fuel that they need to stay competitive.

This shift in purpose from fuel to taste has as a dramatic effect on an individuals results as a shift from a focus on learning to technology has on the learner.

We can run into a similar problem in education when we shift our focus from the learning to the technology. In his post How to Fake a 21st Century Classroom Terry Heick satirically posits how to:

“fake 21st century thinking and learning environment to make the right kind of impression with the right people, and give the appearance of forward-thinking.”

Useful ideas like Project-Based learning, 1 to 1, and blended learning can all too easily loose their benefit when we shift the focus from learning and just do projects, just focus on the devices, and just focus on the content delivery part of the blended learning. Heick points to ten good learning ideas that can easily go bad for the learner if we shift our focus from the learning to the technology or to what appears to be a trendy 21st Century activity. His post How to Fake a 21st Century Classroom Terry Heick is worth the read but I must caution you that you may be bothered or convicted by a few convenient or fake activities that you may have fallen into. I know I am taking a hard look at several of my activities as a result of reading his post.

As educators, our responsibility is to know better, to know that you can’t fake Project-Based learning by doing make work or fake projects. You have to give the learner the control, ownership and voice over an authentic project that will make some sort of difference in the learner’s personal life or community. You can’t just fake 1 to 1 by making students do digital worksheets on their iPads. You have to give the learner the opportunity to use their devices for creation, collaboration and communication and enable them to learn all the time and everywhere with everyone. You can’t just fake blended learning by focusing on the content. The emphasis on creation, collaboration and communication in your blended learning environment will also enable your learners to go much deeper then they would if you were to focus on the delivery of content.

As educators we should know better but just like the average person who is swayed by the appearance, convenience and taste of the fake protein bars we too often can be swayed by wanting to give the right kind of impression and the appearance of forward-thinking.

We can also be swayed by the fact that we may be faking it until we make it; meaning that we may move toward our learning goals by implementing changes incrementally and may use that worksheet on the iPad as a transition activity until we can focus on more genuine activities. This is understandable and as long as the transition happens this will be fine. But just like the fake protein bars that will work when you don’t have anything else available, temporary or transition use of technology can also work, but also like the fake protein bars long term use would not be heathy for the athlete or the learner.