Can we learn without learning institutions?

Ivan Illich would have shouted out an unequivocal YES to that questions. In his 1970 book, "Deschooling Society" Illich proclaims that educational institutions do little to achieve their intended ends and at an extraordinary cost. He pointed to the barriers erected by systems and bureaucratization thus separating citizens from their needs. The very institution designed to meet the need become incapable of doing so because of the focus on process over people,

Illich goes on to suggest solutions, namely getting rid of the institutional provision of education services in favour of personal learning networks based on interest and need. He seems to have sparked some response as there is much evidence today of Illich's thoughts in action:

  • The USA has some experiments with school voucher systems allowing families to apply principles of the market economy to schooling. They can take their education credit as a voucher and selecting what they deem to be the best school for their child. This breaks the government monopoly on education and encourages competition which may find more efficient ways to produce a better product.
  • Charter schools bring diversity to the education market offering school experiences with different focuses that may better meet the child's interests.
  • MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses bring people together to teach and support each other in a shared learning experience on topics of common interest. The institution, if one is involved, may offer little more than a framework for matching people and content.
  • Affinity Spaces - James Paul Gee in his book, "The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning" describe current practice and potential for online spaces in education. Discussion boards, forums, online chats, blogs, social media pages, each of these can serve as a virtual meeting space and repository for content and discussion. Members come and go and are more or less engaged depending on their needs. Gee calls these "Affinity Spaces". People come together over a topic of interest and teach each other. No institution required.
  • Social Constructivism / Connectivism are two learning theories that see knowledge and community as inextricably intertwined. Social Constructivists asserts that individuals make meaning through reflection on shared experience and through the co-creation of products that embody their new understandings. Connectivists see knowledge as distributed throughout a population; the learner navigates the network as both consumer of information and creator of meaning.

Each of these examples seems to reflect Illiich's exhortation to wrest free the act of learning from the terrible clutches of the bloated bureaucracy. Now, whether they are all good and effective in their own right, or whether they too will be adopted and bureaucratized in time is yet to be seen.

Do Edcamps do what they intend to do?

Do Edcamps work?

How do we know Edcamps are effective? Do we even know what the goals are for an Edcamp? As a format for professional development, there is tremendous appeal for participants. Attendees invite others to a space and time to talk about issues that are important to them. How to organize one is clear, the process is clear... there is tremendous autonomy in the weekend format where participants are self-selected and enthusiastic to pursue professional development (PD) on their own time. Where the Edcamp format is used as part of a mandated PD experience, the audience is not self-selected which, one would think, would change the flavour of the event.

What are the goals of an Edcamp?

In order to measure whether an Edcamp is successful, it is useful to know what the intended goals are. The Edcamp Wiki advises Edcamp organizers to determine their own goals. It is clear that Edcamp is a process, a format or framework for engagement that accommodates both individual goals and an event-wide content focus. Nevertheless, it seems to me there must be some common themes or threads one could identify across Edcamps. I started with a quick poll in the ISTE Commons discussion board asking the question, "What is the purpose of an Edcamp?" Responses shared the notion of connecting with others, sharing ideas. ISTE Edcamp Purpose

I also gathered 41 explicit goal statements from Edcamp sites, media coverage, and posts on Edcamps. Three themes stand out as goals of an edcamp: professional development, professional networking, and idea exchange. Individual participants will have their own goals, and the organizers may have identified a theme or focus for the event, but the Edcamp experience seems to orbit around those three elements.

The SimpleK12 Complete Guide to Edcamps (p.21) suggest some survey questions for organizers to use after the event.

  1. What did you think of the physical location?
  2. What did you think of the date of the event?
  3. What did you think of the length of the sessions?
  4. How did you first hear about this EdCamp?
  5. Do you have any suggestions for publicizing the event next year?
  6. What was your favorite part about the day?
  7. What do you think could be improved upon for next year?
  8. Would you be interested in being on the organizing committee for next year’s EdCamp?

Most of these questions are helpful in guiding subsequent event management but focus primarily on logistical issues. Questions six and seven are very open-ended questions eliciting likes and possible improvements in the future. What is missing are questions that probe the extent to which Edcamp helps participants meet their goals, their exposure to new ideas, their networking opportunities, and professional development.

As a voluntary weekend activity, Edcamps don't really require any great degree of accountability; that participants clearly find some value in the experience is probably sufficient to keep organizing and attending these events. However, with more districts and divisions adopting the practice within the school day as a PD event where participants are paid to attend, there is a greater need to demonstrate value for the investment. Some limited research into the contributions of idea spread, professional networking, and professional development offer a framework for exploring Edcamp's potential impact on teacher practice and student learning and are explained below.

Idea Spread

Emerging research in social networking and idea exchange has clearly shown a link between highly effective teams and the frequency and intensity of social interactions (Pentland, 2010, 2014). Frequent contact amongst all members of an organization is one hallmark of an effective team. Pentland’s (2010) studies empirically demonstrated that frequency of contact, regardless of the content, is highly correlated with team efficacy. He also indicates that networks can be engineered for maximum efficacy. He distinguishes between engagement and exploration describing everyday conversations with colleagues as engagement, and accessing ideas and resources from beyond one’s daily experience as exploration.

Professional Networking

Professional networking can be understood as having three primary activities: creation, maintenance, and access (Nardi, Whittaker, & Schwarz, 2000, 2002; Rajagopal, Brinke, Van Bruggen, & Sloep, 2012). Network creation involves connecting with new individuals with whom you intend to receive or exchange information. Network maintenance is keeping contact with others through ongoing information exchange. Maintenance need not always involve task-oriented conversations; keeping up-to-date with the life and goals of those in your network also contributes to team efficacy (Veletsianos, 2012). Network access is the use of resources in one’s network in order to complete a work-related task.

Professional Development

Professional development is most effective when it has the teacher connect content to their own practice, when it focuses on the day-to-day needs of the teacher, and if it is part of a larger organizational movement in a particular direction (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009). If these conditions are met, the teacher is more likely to experience lasting change in their practice. Because participants are in active conversation rather than receiving information through a presentation, they are more engaged. Darling-Hammond et al (2009) indicate that teachers are more likely to try something new if they have seen it modeled, or have had the chance to play with the ideas first-hand. Finally, when professional development is connected to common organizational goals, it is likely to be more effective. Where each individual is pursuing their own professional goals during Edcamp, it was made explicit in the introduction that our shared goals were to spread ideas and network with each other.

Preliminary Edcamp Survey

A simple and brief draft survey was created to measure these three areas and was tested at an Edcamp on February 5th in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Extreme caution must be exercised with this data due to the combination of the survey’s brevity and wide scope. With only one question targeting each of nine items, there is a large margin of error, not least of which may be the validity of the question itself. However, the data gathered does suggest participants found value in the experience. Based on anecdotal comments included on the survey, there was also widespread satisfaction with the Edcamp format. Over 80% of the responses for all categories and questions fell on the “like me” side of the scale with more than 65% indicating “True” and “Very True” responses in all categories.

Questions 1 - 3 focus on ideas exchange, questions 4-6 focus on professional networking, and questions 7-9 address professional development. Each of these areas was broken down into three sub-categories each addressed by a single question.


Exchange of Ideas

1.      I had casual conversations with people from schools other than my own. Targeting EXPLORATION


-  To what extent are participants getting to know others, having casual conversations, learning the "other story".

-  Conversations outside the context of focused sessions.

-  Social conversations where people learn about each other and their situations.

2.      During sessions, I had conversations on topics related to teaching and learning. Targeting INVESTMENT


-  To what extent are participants engaged in conversations about teaching and learning, taking in and processing professional content.

-  Conversations within sessions that are content focused.

-  Professional conversations where people learn about and explore specific ideas related to teaching and learning.

3.      In casual conversations, I shared with other people the ideas I encountered today. Targeting IDEA SPREAD


-  To what extent are participants engaged in talking about newly encountered ideas.

-  Conversations outside the context of focused sessions.

-  Social conversations where people share what they have learned or experienced at the event.

Exchange of ideas section based on the work of Alex Pentland (Pentland, 2010, 2014)


Professional Networking

4.      In the future, I will connect with people I met today to explore ideas in teaching and learning. Targeting BUILDING LEARNING COMMUNITY


-  To what extent are participants establishing new professional connections.

-  Implied exchange of contact information and intention to engage after the event.

5.      I re-connected with people today that I don’t often get to see. Targeting MAINTAINING LEARNING COMMUNITY


-  To what extent are participants nurturing established professional connections.

-  Implied history of contact and satisfaction in the connection.

6.      I sought out specific people today to explore ideas in teaching and learning. Targeting ACTIVATING LEARNING COMMUNITY


-  To what extent are participants engaging with established professional connections.

-  Implied need/desire for contact and professional engagement.

Professional Networking section based on (Nardi et al., 2000, 2002; Pentland, 2014; Rajagopal et al., 2012)


Professional Learning

7.      I learned things today that will improve my professional practice. Targeting IMPROVED PRACTICE


To what extent did the Edcamp experience relate to participant’s professional skills.


8.      I learned things today that will improve student learning. Targeting STUDENT LEARNING


To what extent did the Edcamp experience likely to help learners under the participant’s care.


9.      I learned things today that will contribute to my school’s priorities and goals. Targeting SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT


To what extent did the Edcamp experience relevant to the participant’s larger community.


Professional Learning section based on (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009)

Some initial observations:

  • Some participants rated their experience in networking as very low but explained that they used their time working with a small number of known colleagues to collaborate on learning activities.
  • The results for the PD section (Q7-9) were tightly clustered in the extreme positive end of the scale suggesting the wording of the questions contributed to social desirability bias. This section will have to be revisited.

I'd really appreciate hearing from others who are pursuing similar lines of inquiry into open space type professional engagement. Thoughts on the question wording, or supplemental questions to probe more deeply in these areas are also welcome.


Four design considerations for connectivist learning spaces

Why Connectivism?

Each year the number of students with access to mobile devices increases (Rideout, 2013). A 2011 UK study revealed one in five third grade students have their own mobile device, a ratio that narrowed to four in five for high school (Englander, 2011). Another study reported close to 40% of preschool children under the age of two also have significant exposure to mobile technology (Wagner, 2013).

The internet has undeniably changed just about every aspect of what we do, how we interact, and how we think. Growth in knowledge-based sectors outpaced all other areas at the end of the 20th century (OECD, 1996) providing evidence of technology’s impact on the economy and the way we think about work. Current and future work skills require creative applications of broad knowledge in technology-infused, socially collaborative environments (Davies, Fidler, & Gorbis, 2011). Ubiquitous access to information sources challenges traditional content-delivery models of education. Mobile technology is, therefore, a disruptive force in education (Koszalka & Ntloedibe-Kuswani, 2010). Pedagogical changes and new ways of planning learners’ educational experiences reflect emerging social and economic realities.

Leveraging social connections for constructivist learning and freeing students from the constraints of the traditional classroom, mobile challenges traditional ideas about the ways people: engage with content (Tu, Sujo-Montes, Yen, Chan, & Blocher, 2012), interact with each other (Baek, Bae, & Jang, 2013; Huang et al., 2010), use technology (Baber, 2001; Watkins, Kitner, & Mehta, 2012), interact with physical spaces (Ackerman, 2013; Jones, Williams, & Fleuriot, 2003), and demands people make of a physical space (Leather & Marinho, 2009).

New approaches to teaching and learning that recognize evolutions in communication technology and the corresponding changes in the social and economic landscape, focus less on teachers and more on collaborators, less on direct instruction and more on inquiry, and develop understandings of process and metacognition (Cook, 2012; del Moral, Cernea, & Villalustre, 2013). Such approaches, Wilson (2011) says, engage learners in self-regulation of their own learning by pursuing their own goals in discipline focused, authentic, and collaborative activities. Learners not only develop content knowledge, but also high-demand skills such as communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity (White, 2013).

In Connectivist Learning theory, learners collaborate to make meaning through inquiry using technology to engage with “communities of practice, knots, coalitions, intentional networks, and ad hoc transient communities” (Chatti, Jarke, & Quix, 2010) creating external models of their internal processes and understandings (Beven, 2004). Connectivism harnesses the affordances of mobile technology to bring learners, thinkers, researchers, and innovators together into a learning community where participants co-construct knowledge as a group and increase understanding as individuals. Pursuing topics of their own interest in fluid learning communities that include individuals within and outside the school, the teacher no longer serves as the source of content learning. Rather, the teacher offers organizational support and instruction on processes and metacognition.

Designing for Connectivism


Learners need resources with which to acquire, engage, process, and create knowledge, and spaces, both physical and virtual, to reflect, collaborate, and present understanding. As such, demands of physical spaces are changing. Traditional rows or pods of desktop computers with a front-of-class focal point do not suit the connectivist model of collaboration and social engagement. Rather, learners need reconfigurable spaces with technology that supplements or enhances their own personal mobile technology (e.g. projectors, screen casting, A/V recording tools, interactive projections, whiteboards, printer, scanner, scribing tools). Such spaces offer physical arrangements evocative of the purpose of, and philosophies underpinning the activities that take place therein (Leather & Marinho, 2009), namely reflection, collaboration, experimentation, and presentation (Thornburg, 2001).

Wulsin Jr. (2013) observed that, “well-designed space has the ability to elevate discourse, encourage creativity, and promote collaboration.” Recognizing that physical space influences the strategies employed to effectively use the space for teaching and learning (Neill & Etheridge, 2008), computer labs or “augmented learning spaces”, must:

  1. Offers a variety of physical spaces reflecting a range of psychological and social orientations to engagement through strategic furniture selection and arrangement,
  2. reflect constructivist learning theory and 21st Century learning approaches by offering creation and collaboration tools (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe, & Terry, 2013; Voogt, Erstad, Dede, & Mishra, 2013),
  3. support a resilient network infrastructure that accommodates learners’ own devices by introducing broad access with user and traffic management protocols and accommodates future growth by including high-capacity upgrades to take full advantage of current and anticipated affordances of mobile and emerging technologies,
  4. evoke best practice in 21st Century and Connectivist learning by shaping, through design, the way people engage with ideas and each other.


This post is an excerpt of a larger design project reworking spaces to reflect desired pedagogical change. Thanks to Carlos La Costa, Marcella Ryan, and Anneliese Strout for collaborating with me on this project.


Ackerman, E. (2013). Google gets in your face: Google Glass offers a slightly augmented version of reality. IEEE Spectrum, 50, 26–29.

Baber, C. (2001). Wearable computers: A human factors review. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 13(2), 123–145.

Baek, Y. M., Bae, Y., & Jang, H. (2013). Social and parasocial relationships on social network sites and their differential relationships with users’ psychological well-being. CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 16(7), 512–517.

Beven, F. A. (2004). Can learning theory inform screen design in e-learning settings? Brisbane. Retrieved from

Chatti, M. A., Jarke, M., & Quix, C. (2010). Connectivism: the network metaphor of learning. International Journal of Learning Technology, 5(1), 80–99.

Cook, V. (2012). Learning everywhere, all the time. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 78(3), 48–51. Retrieved from

Davies, A., Fidler, D., & Gorbis, M. (2011). Future work skills. Palo Alto, California. Retrieved from

del Moral, M. E., Cernea, A., & Villalustre, L. (2013). Connectivist learning objects and learning styles. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning & Learning Objects, 9, 105–124. Retrieved from

Englander, E. K. (2011). Research findings: MARC 2011 survey grades 3-12. Retrieved from Findings_ MARC 2011 Survey Grades 3-12.pdf

Huang, J. J. S., Yang, S. J. H., Huang, Y., Hsiao, I. Y. T., Yueh-Min, H., & Hsiao, I. Y. T. (2010). Social Learning Networks: Build Mobile Learning Networks Based on Collaborative Services. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 13(3), 78–92. Retrieved from

Jones, O., Williams, M., & Fleuriot, C. (2003). “A new sense of place?” Mobile “wearable” information and communications technology devices and the geographies of urban childhood. Children’s Geographies, 1(2), 165–180.

Kereluik, K., Mishra, P., Fahnoe, C., & Terry, L. (2013). What knowledge is of most worth: Teacher knowledge for 21st century learning. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 29(4), 127–140.

Koszalka, T. A., & Ntloedibe-Kuswani, G. S. (2010). Literature on the safe and disruptive learning potential of mobile technologies. Distance Education, 31(2), 139–157.

Leather, D. J., & Marinho, R. D. (2009). Designing an academic building for 21st century learning: A dean’s guide. Change, (May/June), 42–50.

Neill, S., & Etheridge, R. (2008). Flexible learning spaces: The integration of pedagogy, physical design, and instructional technology. Marketing Education Review, 18(1), 47–53.

OECD. (1996). The knowledge-based economy. The Knowledge-based economy. Paris. Retrieved from

Rideout, V. (2013). Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America 2013. Common Sense Media. Retrieved from

Thornburg, D. D. (2001). Campfires in cyberspace: Primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st century. Ed at a Distance, 15(6). Retrieved from

Tu, C.-H., Sujo-Montes, L., Yen, C.-J., Chan, J.-Y., & Blocher, M. (2012). The integration of personal learning environments & open network learning environments. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 56(3), 13–19. Retrieved from

Voogt, J., Erstad, O., Dede, C., & Mishra, P. (2013). Challenges to learning and schooling in the digital networked world of the 21st century. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(5), 403–413.

Wagner, M. (2013). 38% of children under 2 Use mobile media, study says. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from

Watkins, J., Kitner, K. R., & Mehta, D. (2012). Mobile and smartphone use in urban and rural India. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 26(5), 685–697. Retrieved from

White, S. (2013). The real reason new college grads can’t get hired. Time, [ONLINE]. Retrieved from

Wilson, B. G. (2011). Constructivism in practical and historical context. In B. Reiser & J. Dempsey (Eds.), Current Trends in Instructional Design and Technology (Third). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Wulsin Jr., L. R. (2013). Classroom design - literature review. Retrieved from


Mindfulness and Meditative Practice in Education

University of Manitoba professor of Education, Thomas Falkenberg is deeply involved in education for sustainable well-being. I recently read his article, "Teaching as Contemplative Professional Practice" in which he explores the benefits of mindfulness and ongoing self-awareness in the teaching profession. Training ourselves to be aware not just of our practice and strategies or our interactions with students, but of our own personal experience as individuals. He suggests that teachers should develop an awareness of their own world view and moral sense, have an understanding of our current patterns of behaviour and engagement, then develop habits of presence and awareness in the moment to align our behaviours with our goals in light of our moral obligations.

The author makes the connection between metacognition and our available "psychic energy" suggesting that we need the latter to perform the former. He also suggests that we can grow our available store of psychic energy through practice. If you're uncomfortable with the notion of "psychic energy" just think of it as energy. We know when we are too tired or too wound up to focus. Finding energy is probably more about conjuring, redirecting, and controlling the energy we have, developing the skills of metacognition and self-regulation, perhaps, increases our store of energy (do we produce more? are we simply using it more efficiently?)

My awesome teaching partner, Cari Satran, wrote her Masters on meditation in the classroom and contributed a chapter to a book Falkenberg edited on sustainable well-being. We guide our students through mindfulness meditations a few times each week and find a marked difference in their demeanor afterward. We use the opportunity to have students become aware of their own physical state, their mental and emotional state and draw their focus into their breathing. Then we do some visualizing, encouraging students to imagine their best work, their best achievements, and anticipate the feelings that accompany such great work. We bring it down to the steps forward that will happen today, in the next period, and have them set goals for themselves. Falkenberg might use the phrase "accessing psychic energy" to describe what we are doing with these meditations. Whatever you want to call it, it is well worth doing.

When I was studying education psychology in Newfoundland, one of my professors shared some relaxation strategies that I also use with students. Focusing on the contrast between tense and relaxed muscles, we learn to recognize the physical manifestations of stress and also how to relax what needs relaxing. Meditation and relaxation serves to connect the mind with the self so the whole child is present for the learning time ahead.

Would love to hear your thoughts on meditation with students, using relaxation techniques to develop control over self, can we afford the time it takes to do this? Or is this an investment in improved function in the future?

Falkenberg, T. (2012). Teaching as contemplative professional practice. Paideusis, 20(2), 25–35.

Satran, C. (2014). Meditation in the classroom: One teacher’s practice of promoting physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. In F. Deer, T. Falkenberg, B. Mcmillan, & L. Sims (Eds.), Sustainable well-being: Concepts, issues, and educational practices (pp. 173–187). Winnipeg, MB: ESWB Press. Retrieved from

and they call it Democracy: Raising followers or leaders or free thinkers?

Mural: Monseñor Oscar Romero

photo credit: used under cc attribute, share alike licensing by Franco Folini 2003

This post is a quick reflection on the Noam Chomsky piece called, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Redux: Using Privilege to Challenge the State", Chomsky as always, sees past what's on the surface straight through the underlying issues presenting a clear argument with compelling evidence. What does this have to do with teaching and learning? Well, the expectation that the education system create fully functioning citizens in our democratic nation. Chomsky exposes some of the more uncomfortable evil actions of the governments we are meant to support. Read through the article and, if you're so inclined, come back and share some of your thoughts. If you want more, consider watching THIS 90 minute video where Chomsky speaks on the article and issues therein.

Serve the people, or serve the state? Chomsky unpacks the distinction between dissidents and "value-oriented intellectuals" both of whom may have the same message of change for the better, though the former is change toward a particular government regime and the latter is away from the regime. The former receives laud and honors from the regime while the latter definitely does not.

Chomsky describes how intellectualism can be used to quash participation in democracy; the citizenry is safe to trust the wisdom of the best minds in the world and just do what they are told. Not only its own citizens, but entire nations whose leaders speak out for their people rather than US policies. The government will lead, the intellectuals will vouch for them, and the public need only follow along.

Eugene Debs, mentioned in the article, was imprisoned for speaking out against military draft, statements which were construed as seditious. He was a labour leader and a write-in candidate for the US Presidency receiving almost one million votes all while he was in prison. He spoke of his leadership saying,

“I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; … I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.” (Wikipedia)

So how do we prepare students to be full participants in a democratic society where the notion of democracy differs between the elected and the electors. Where activism is seen as a fringe activity taken up by greenies and bleeding hearts. Where American electoral policies are in place to limit democratic participation. Perhaps this is best done through the “analysis and contextualization of historical traces.”(Seixas, 1999) . Exploring not just the historical facts and figures written by the victors, but source artifacts from both sides; striving to understand the mindset and worldview at the time.

Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Call it Democracy” is like the musical version of this article though Cockburn points the finger of blame directly at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).


Seixas, P. (1999). Beyond “content” and “pedagogy”: In search of a way to talk about history education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31(3), 317–337.


Seeking help is a critical skill

“Toxic ideas such as  “asking for help will alter others’ perception of me” or “asking for help will make me feel less competent than my colleagues” prevent them from seeking help from informal (e.g., friends) or formal (e.g., colleagues, project manager, etc) sources.  Since competence and independence are among the most cherished values in today’s organizations (DePaulo & Fisher, 1980), many believe that help seeking may undermine these values (Lee, 1997).”


The mantra in my class, particularly with math, is: attempt the question, check your answer against the key. If it’s right… carry on. If not, try to fix it. If you can’t fix it in a few minutes, get some help. Don’t perseverate on that one question because your brain eventually shifts from trying to solve the problem to self-defeating talk about how stupid you are that you don’t get it. The message is that we are learning, this is the process, we give it a go recognizing that it will be challenging, it will be hard, we aren’t born knowing this stuff.

How to we move from a culture of product to a culture of progress where we celebrate the change in understanding, the evolution of a learning artifact? How do we make it so that asking for help is seen as strength of character, as a commitment to personal growth, as the epitome of a learner?

The more we share our messy drafts and raw work while looking for change over time, the more, I think, we will appreciate the work and artistry that goes into it. Think about those people that have practiced, reflected, improved, and rehearsed so diligently that their performances seem effortless. What if we could watch a Cirque du Soleil performer from the first day in gymnastics to their current state. Would we appreciate their flawless performance even more? Would we understand the processes and skills that go into a performance? What about a painter, or writer, or physicist?


DePaulo, B., & Fisher, J.  (1980).  The cost of asking for help.  Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 7, 23-35.

Lee, F.  (1997).  When the going gets tough, do the tough ask for help? Help seeking and power motivation in organizations.  Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 72, 336-363.

"History of Education" what's it good for?

History of Education

History of Education

Herbst, J. (1999). The history of education: State of the art at the turn of the century in Europe and North America. Paedagogica Historica, 35(3).

“… historians of education meant to be academic historians before they would consider their role in educational scholarship and professional training.”

This statement was a revealing insight into historical scholarship. It never really occurred to me that “History of Education” would be practiced by those who identified as historians, and by those who identified as educators. While I’m usually very aware of the voice behind a piece of writing, it wasn’t something I was really focused on in my (very limited) reading of education history. It is clearer to me now that an historian’s work will be grounded in some philosophy or overt goal that is reflected in the product of their labours, particularly in light of the Cuban (2001) article explained below. Who writes the history of education? Historians? Educators? Does it matter? Who writes it is probably less important than what we can do with it.


“We have many studies of educational policy, they write, but very few, if any, of educational reality in the classroom.”

This is a powerful observation. More is written about the structures, processes, and policies of education than what happens in the classroom where education happens. Is there a new opportunity for scholarly study with Web 2.0 technology where educators are actively sharing their experiences? Could a sense of what happens in classrooms be culled from teacher and learner social media and blogs? Of course, that content is filtered and highly selective but offers more of an insight than has ever been available in the past.


“… yanked the history of education out of its traditional home in the teacher training departments of colleges and universities and sought to place it in the history departments of liberal arts colleges and Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences. It was designed to rid the history of education of its reputation as a functional handmaiden of professional education and to reclaim it as a liberal arts discipline.

 Interesting - the perceived function of the field impacted how it was received. Fair enough, I suppose... it just never occurred to me that the "history of education" that we all take in teacher training was a study of history and not a solely a study of education. Maybe it is more appropriate to phrase it like, "I never put history together with education even though I took a course in the history of education.” I enjoyed flipping through the archives of the Historical Studies in Education journal and appreciated more the lessons one can learn from a study of the past. Of particular interest was an article titled: "How to teach English to immigrant children: Canadian pedagogical theory and practice, 1910 - 1960". As a classroom teacher anticipating receiving Syrian refugees in the near future, it was interesting to see how the challenge of second language learners had been addressed in the past. I could also see how this would be useful to policy makers in determining how to support these new Canadians.


Cuban, L. (2001). Can Historians Help School Reformers? Curriculum Inquiry, 31(4), 453–467.

While Cuban's article explores some fascinating historical content in education history, the real lesson is his description of three different approaches (on a continuum) to history that sees the historian's point of view or preferences manifest in their work to different degrees and for different purposes

In one, the “non-policy” historian strives to remain separate and apart seeking only to present information in a comprehensive and understandable way sensitive to the context of the time. It is the reader's task to make meaning from history’s narrative.

In another, the “policy-sensitive” historian applies historical understanding to current situations to inform decision making without attempting to sway the decisions in any way. History is analysed to address a current need and reported to those who will take it under advisement for policy making.
In the third approach, “presentist” historians are fully invested in the historical interpretation and the policy application. Here, history is interpreted through the lens of the present time and serve an immediate policy motive. History is used to serve an agenda and the historian tells the reader what it is and how to think about it.

Is one approach better than the others? Or does the continuum reflect the range of legitimate applications for historical scholarship? The danger, clearly, is when history is intentionally misinterpreted or skewed to serve a present agenda. Cuban criticizes the presentist approach for being simplistic and glossing over information essential for a full understanding of the issue in favour of painting a one-dimensional image that serves a particular agenda.

Self Regulating my own Study of Self-Regulation

Who has time not to self-regulate

I have taken on a lot of obligations this term: three graduate courses for my Master's degree, organizing two Edcamps, teaching full-time, volunteering for our local community club fundraisers, and a research project. Add to that the expectations of contributing to the household, maintaining relationships and there is a lot to juggle.

If you have read my previous posts on multitasking, you know I've invested a fair bit of time and effort in exploring and understanding the issue. What follows is a description of how I am personally using that learning to manage my own time. This post also couches the descriptions in the language of self-regulation, a topic I am currently studying as part of my MEd in Professional Inquiry from Queen's.

Think about your own experiences - what happens when the workload piles up? We respond to the stress in lots of different ways: we procrastinate until we have time to do it right, we retreat and let things go unaddressed, or maybe we go into superhero mode activating our superpowers to take it all on. Unlike movie superhero powers, powers of self-regulation can be learned by anyone.

Superpower: Metacognition... ACTIVATE!!

Knowing facts and processes is knowledge - you can know a lot things about a lot of stuff and you can probably do plenty of things with that stuff. That is Cognition. Metacognition is knowing about HOW you know stuff, WHY you can learn things, and WHAT conditions or processes are most effective for your learning. This comes from thinking about your thinking, reflecting on your progress and determining what factors are contributing to your success or your difficulties.

Time Management

So here is how I approached this situation. First, is the time factor. I know if I am going to accomplish everything I will need to make good use of my time. I've done two courses while teaching full-time before so I'm already familiar with the demands. When the opportunity arose to take on a third course I knew the available time would be insufficient to balance all the demands on my life. I made a successful application for some release time from work - 12 days educational leave, supported from our school division's professional development fund, to pursue my studies. I also scaled back on some other commitments. It is hard for me at the moment to commit to ongoing involvement with committees, however, I can, if the timing works out, volunteer for a specific project with a defined start and end time. This strategy keeps me involved with my community but gives me the freedom to regulate my time. When I am asked to participate in something, I can look at my schedule and assess my ability to participate.

On the wall in my office is a four-month calendar to give me the big picture of assignment deadlines and the flow of the classes. One challenge is blending that and our day-to-day life calendar which our family maintains on our shared iCalendar. I don't need to clutter the family calendar with the minutiae of my assignments and readings but I do put in specific time obligations like synchronous meetings with a project team.

Space Management

One's workspace is important to productivity. I have a small office in the basement away from everything else where I can retreat to attend to my work. There is no television, no radio, no bookshelves... just a desk and office chair and a futon. By minimizing the clutter in the room I minimize the distractions.

Grad School Battle StationMy computer workspace also reflects my need to manage many sources of information and facilitate the transition between tasks. On a single monitor, flipping between applications and documents was frustrating and inefficient so I scrounged a couple of additional monitors for my computer.  I found myself getting distracted shifting from one screen to another when working on a project. This lets me access my course management system, the assignment criteria, the readings, and my writing space at a glance. The research into multitasking suggests benefits to minimizing time transition from one task to another. Here's an excerpt from a paper I wrote on the topic:

Cognitive processing time is another element of multitasking. Insufficient time between tasks interferes with transference of information to memory; too much time between tasks may tempt learners to seek other stimuli (Y. Zhang et al., 2005). The benefits of multitasking decrease as the rapidity of task switching increases. Where task switching is a matter of choice, an individual aware of the need for transitional processing time may better appreciate the need to reduce task-switching to maintain focus (Salvucci, 2010; Trafton et al., 2003) and the faster one can process information, the better able one is to multitask (Dux et al., 2009).

Multitasking effects on learner achievement

Project Management (big scale)

Course timelines and project charts help visualize work flow over longer periods.

Course timelines and project charts help visualize workflow over longer periods.

I have a pad of large newsprint chart paper on which I charted out the academic term, one sheet for each course. At the beginning of the course I review the syllabus, plot out the assignment dates, reading lists, and module deliverables. This time spent at the start gives me a broad sense of the workflow to come over the term. I anticipate which modules will demand greater attention and use that to guide my efforts. The large charts give me a nice workspace for keeping track of

The first week of class focuses primarily on orienting to the content and meeting the other students in the class. Because the workload is low, it is the perfect time to get things organized for the term to come.

Often there are substantial projects with a due date near the end of the course. For these, I establish a digital workspace, usually on GoogleDocs, and copy/paste the project criteria and any related information into the first page. Next, I'll break down the big project into a sequence of smaller projects and attach some timelines to each goal. The GoogleDoc also serves as a thinking space to add ideas while thinking and researching.

On the research end, I've made a habit of downloading all my research files into a single folder. Jumbles of random files with odd names makes it tremendously difficult to refer back to readings and wastes a lot of time. For efficiency, I name each file with the AUTHOR (YEAR) ARTICLE TITLE. This makes it easy to skim through the folder listing to find what I'm looking for.

Mendeley organizes readings and research interfacing with Word for easy citations and bibliographies.

Mendeley organizes readings and research interfacing with Word for easy citations and bibliographies.

The folder I have set up to receive all my shared files is a "watched folder" in the Mendeley citation manager program. When I save a file, Mendeley automatically scans the document for citation information. As I import files, I ensure the entries are formatted properly and I tag them in the application with the related course number, the project title, and any other relevant keywords. Mendeley is a great time saver because I can search my entire database of articles, both titles and content. It keeps track of which articles I have read through, I can annotate and take notes within the application and those notes are also searchable. Further, because it interfaces with Word, I can insert a citation and update the bibliography with a couple of clicks.

Task Management (small scale)

Long term planning and goals on chart paper. Daily tasks on sticky notes.

Long term planning and goals on chart paper. Daily tasks on sticky notes.

I'm going to head down to my office and work on my courses. (which course? what part of the course? what do you need to do? what is coming up? what is outstanding? how long do you have? what do you want to finish in that time? how long would that really take? what do you need to get that done? what will you learn along the way?

I use sticky notes to set specific goals for a work session. This helps focus my attention and sets parameters on where my efforts should be directed. Without them it is easy to get side-tracked down a research branch that, while interesting, is irrelevant to the task at hand. If it is really something I want to pursue, I pop the topic on another sticky note and follow up later, if I'm still interested.

I did considerable research into multitasking and it turns out that the best way to multitask is to not to. For all practical purposes, there are no circumstances where multitasking adds to productivity or efficiency. I had a bad habit of launching my web browser, loading up the course management site, then starting my email, social media, and a couple other sites while it was loading, you know, to get a couple of things done while I was waiting for my real task to load. As I was seeing things of interest I'd load them into a new tab so I could get to them later. Before you know it, 40 minutes had passed, I'd have 27 tabs open and I still wouldn't have accomplished anything I came down to do!

This brief minute video titled, "Single-tasking is the new multitasking" is a fun exploration of the multitasking and distraction problem and offers a simple sounding solution that demands some serious self-awareness and self-control.

While I thought I was being efficient with my time, it turns out that multitasking increased the time needed to complete a task (Bowman et al., 2010). Not only that, but the research overwhelmingly finds that the quality of work diminishes when attention is divided (Burak, 2012; Gaudreau, Miranda, & Gareau, 2014; Jacobsen & Forste, 2011; Ragan, Jennings, Massey, & Doolittle, 2014; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013; W. Zhang, 2015). Sticky notes are my friend. If something comes up - a phone call, meal time, unexpected visitor, etc. and I can't see the current task through to completion, I'll briefly write what I was working on and what my next step is. That note assists with "interruption recovery" and "task-reorientation", the cognitive demands made when we have to switch away from and return to an activity. It helps with the, "ok, where was I... what was I doing?" questions.


Bibliography (small scale)

Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers and Education, 54(4), 927–931. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.09.024

Burak, L. (2012). Multitasking in the university classroom. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(2), 1–13.

Dux, P. E., Tombu, M. N., Harrison, S., Rogers, B. P., Tong, F., & Marois, R. (2009). Training improves multitasking performance by increasing the speed of information processing in human prefrontal cortex. Neuron, 63(1), 127–138. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2009.06.005

Gaudreau, P., Miranda, D., & Gareau, A. (2014). Canadian university students in wireless classrooms: What do they do on their laptops and does it really matter ? Computers & Education, 70, 245–255. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2013.08.019

Jacobsen, W. C., & Forste, R. (2011). The wired generation: Academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 14(5), 275–280. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0135

Ragan, E. D., Jennings, S. R., Massey, J. D., & Doolittle, P. E. (2014). Unregulated use of laptops over time in large lecture classes.Computers and Education, 78, 78–86. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.05.002

Salvucci, D. D. (2010). On reconstruction of task context after interruption. Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI ’10, 89. doi:10.1145/1753326.1753341

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and Education, 62, 24–31. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003

Trafton, J. G., Altmann, E. M., Brock, D. P., & Mintz, F. E. (2003). Preparing to resume an interrupted task: Effects of prospective goal encoding and retrospective rehearsal. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 58(5), 583–603. doi:10.1016/S1071-5819(03)00023-5

Zhang, Y., Goonetilleke, R. S., Plocher, T., & Liang, S. F. M. (2005). Time-related behaviour in multitasking situations. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 62(4), 425–455. doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2005.01.002

Creativity and Innovation: Are they the Same Thing?

Creativity and Innovation

These terms are often used interchangeably when describing new ideas, processes, and products but there is a key difference that is worth considering. Creativity exists only in our minds until we use it to do or create something. Innovation is when we ACT on our creative thoughts. How do we know if someone is creative? Well, we're all creative in a way, but there are those people who frequently contribute interesting or unique ideas to a conversation. How do we know if that same person innovative? There will be products of their creativity to point to for evidence.

Innovative people are creative, but not all creative people are innovative.

In the realm of Innovation

We might better understand innovation in contrast to other terms having to do with creating or shaping systems. Of course, these are overly simplistic statements, but they create an idea space to understand how innovation is different from other forms of change.

  • Rehabilitation returns a damaged system to a previous state.
  • Renovation improves existing systems.
  • Reformation modifies existing systems based on a familiar model.
  • Transformation shifts from one known system to another known system.
  • Innovation is creating completely new systems.

Acting on Creativity

How many of us have awesome ideas but never get around to doing anything with them? Translating ideas into actions is hard, takes energy and commitment. Whether the restraints are logistical, motivational, or legal, there are plenty of creative ideas that never have a chance to live in the world (and plenty that probably shouldn't!).

My own personal challenge is to do more translating, to act more on creative thoughts, to have some product that could be used elsewhere. This blog has been part of that effort - sharing and deconstructing innovative efforts and identifying their utility. "But what have I done..." is the reflective question I ask that leads to the goal oriented statement, "What will I do..."

Always enjoy hearing others' thoughts (creative or otherwise).

Speed Read: "Social Physics" by Alex Pentland

Social Physics by Alex Pentland

Social Physics by Alex Pentland

Pentland's Social Physics

If you work with people, or know people, or are a people, then you should read this book.

Pentland, A. (2014). Social physics: How good ideas spread - The lessons from a new science. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

For a good overview of what social physics is about, read Pentland's article in the Harvard Business Review.

Pentland, A. (2010). The new science of building great teams. Harvard Business Review, 90(4), 60–70. Retrieved from

Chapter 1: From Ideas to Actions

Pentland's work with sensors and big data is revealing quantifiable patterns to human relationships and interactions. He uses enormous data sets gathered from wearable and mobile technology to determine highly predictive correlative, sometimes causal relationships between our social interactions and the efficacy of our work. Further, such data is tremendously useful in guiding the design of organizational structures and processes on the scale of entire cities and nations, that create efficiencies, innovation, and highly effective systems. This chapter also includes a useful list of terms with operational definitions.

Chapter 2 Exploration

Pentland draws the distinction between engagement and exploration. Chapter 2 focuses on exploration which he defines as the seeking out and discovery of different ideas from outside one's normal circle of experience. He suggests that social interactions are a critical component of this kind of discovery. It is through such interactions that ideas move from one circle to another. Individuals with wide social networks are likely to be those who introduce new ideas to an organization. Individuals who have many contacts within their own circles, on the other hand, are likely to encounter information feedback loops in which ideas are repeated. It is possible, Pentland suggests that an individual's social network can be shaped intentionally to facilitate idea flow by offering incentives or creating structures that necessitate wider interactions.

Chapter 3: Idea Flow

Chapter 3 describes the flow of ideas and how it can be analyzed to make predictions of an individual's behaviors. By examining one's social networks and behaviors and ideas within the network, it is possible to predict the behaviors and notions of an individual. Connecting with the previous chapter, it is possible for an individual to select the kinds of information and the type of people with whom he engages. The danger again is entering a feedback loop where no new ideas are encountered. The flow of ideas, Pentland suggests, is a critical piece to behavioral and cultural change. Exposure to new ideas is very influential in this regard. He describes how certain kinds of ideas can be propagated through single or repeated exposures; how well the idea is received depends on the source and the environment in which it was received.

Chapter 4: Engagement

Chapter 4 is about engagement which Pentland describes as interactions and idea exchange within one's own circle. Engagement is critical for developing trust amongst individuals in an organization, and for facilitating cooperation. He seems to suggest that while diversity and conflict is an essential component of exploration and encountering new ideas, engagement works best when there is unity of purpose and vision. He describes social networks within an organization and the links an individual has with other individuals. Those who have many connections serve as hubs for idea exchange. There may be those in an organization with weak or peripheral connections who are less influential and out of the loop when it comes to idea exchange. He describes how bursts of activity surrounding and innovation are more effective than slow-release or gradual introduction of an idea. He says that engagement builds culture. Exploration on the other hand builds innovation.

Chapter 5: Collective Intelligence

In chapter 5 the author offers a way of analyzing interactions that is highly predictive of a group's effectiveness. He says that high-performing groups explore a large number of ideas, have many deep and lasting interactions, and explore a variety of ideas within the group. On page 89 he offers diagrams showing the connections between a group with high efficiency and effectiveness and another with low productivity. The highly effective group is characterized by each individual having connections with each of the others as well as regular sustained interactions. The unproductive group is characterized by irregular and uneven interactions between people with some more connected than others. He describes how groups have a collective intelligence that is best leveraged when the individuals are highly connected. He says that face-to-face engagement is critical to productivity and that even social interactions should be encouraged. Informal interactions he says are "often the largest single factor in company productivity."

Chapter 6: Shaping Organization

In chapter 6, Pentland offers some suggestions on how to shape organizations. He says that the pattern of idea flow is one factor that is malleable and can be directed when brought to mind. When individuals and organizations are aware of their patterns of interactions, as well as patterns of interaction that lead to highly productive groups, they can make behavioral changes for their own benefit and that of the organization. Leadership should foster close connections amongst all individuals within the organization as well as facilitating explorations for ideas from beyond the organization. Amongst those within the organization, there are patterns of behavior that are more or less beneficial to group productivity. When an individual monopolizes a conversation it can stifle the flow of ideas from others. He developed sensing tools to help reveal and correct such patterns during a meeting. The development of social intelligence, the ability to engage with others, is teachable and desirable within an organization. Such charismatic people engage in many conversations with many people throughout the day and give energy that sustains idea flow.

Chapter 7: Organizational Change

Chapter 7 explores some strategies for motivating organizational change. He describes a system that leverages the influence of one's social circle to motivate certain behaviors. He describes how some reward structures serve to stifle creativity and hinder cooperation. Pentland has measured the efficacy of social reward structures that build on relationships and cooperation across a wide network to great effect. Peer pressure, he suggests, is a tremendous motivator and, in trust relationships, highly effective in promoting cooperation.

Chapters 8 through 11 explore applications of social physics for the design of data-driven systems and structures on much larger scales that can inform decision making for cities, nations, and the world. Some interesting thoughts and strategies about how to manage privacy while sharing information that could benefit all of humanity.


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