(Preamble: If you are in a rush, skip to the bottom section ‘Why this was the best learning experience I have had all term’. That is where there an exploration of John Dewey’s classroom philosophy is the specific focus. The rest of the article is a documentation of context.)
On Thursday November 7th, 2013, I attempted to deliver a presentation on Learning Environments based on the content of Chapter 12 of Woolfolk’s Educational Psychology. The chapters title ‘Learning Environments’ was misleading regarding what the expected content would be like. I assumed that a more through focus on the ecological and material culture implications of the classroom would be documented. However, the bulk of the chapter was orientated around classroom management, which simply should have been a chapter unto itself because of the sizable amount of content that filled the chapter. I had initially chosen to research and present the chapter as I believed the content would open up more on theories and concepts that would be relatable to a model of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory of Development and I had already spent a great deal of time developing a virtual model of it in the computer program Minecraft.
Broffenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory of Development
Since so much of Broffenbrenner’s model seemed to relate to geographically linked relations, it made sense that the model would relate to an exploration of environments and learning. The government and cultural influences of the Macro system often seem to be a distant other places, like Hollywood or Ottawa, that few people in the child’s life have visited, but still greatly influence the way society is in the local. Fundamentally though, I sought in my presentation to do two things with the content: try and demonstrate a variety of very technologically involved teaching tools that can create more immersive learning experiences; and to teach that the technology of today and tomorrow should be considered an extension into a virtual environment rather than an object within the classroom. Technology itself is becoming the environment of learning. I believed this was an especially important goal as the text provided, not only a paltry page or so on outdated tips for computer use in the classroom, but incredibly outdated tips, like how to try to minimize the loss of track-balls in mice. You know, because we are all still struggling with loosing those mouse trackballs. Bellow is my account and reflection about how the presentation went, where it failed miserably, and just how incredibly much learning I did.
When I set out to begin creating this project, I had been inspired by a classmate’s desire to build a diorama documenting Broffenbrenner’s Social Cognitive model. I was not particularly interested in Broffenbrenner’s model, but I was totally engaged with the idea of demonstrating learning through a new and different technique. Early in the term, I resolved that I wanted to stray away from the traditional essay and other boring and over-used structures that we have used far too frequently as a means to demonstrate learning in the classroom. I asked if we could take the idea of creating a model one-step further, and build it together inside of Minecraft, a program that I knew virtually nothing about to this point. My classmate was equally enthusiastic about the chance to try something new and different, and equally ignorant towards what exactly the program entailed. We were taking a big risk, but we would have learned vastly more than we would have in traditional methods.
Therefore, initially, we developed an understanding for the software, what it was like to navigate it and how we could utilize it to build something together. I had a stronger intuitive grasp for the program, so I took the lead in actually building the model within the virtual space. However, after a little while, Dr. Key’s departure left a looming cloud of uncertainty over the whole project, so we pout everything on hold. One of the first lessons we gained about Minecraft was that building things inside of it was not going to be any sort of an easy or simple task; by the time the model was finished, I had personally racked up over 25 hours spent on the project between building and learning the software.
A revised plan
As the class resumed with Dr. Eerkes, we were encouraged to resume our project, but the time lines were thrown off. Thus, we needed to resume preparing for a future date. We felt that we needed to relate the content to the material being covered in class, so the Learning Environments chapter was chosen for the above noted reasons. However, after a few weeks, my partner expressed the wish to pull out and work on her own presentation. She felt she was not contributing enough and did not know how to contribute effectively in the Minecraft environment. I felt this was fair and we both agreed to proceed in creating our own presentations. There were no hard feelings between the two of us; I personally felt that I had talked her into using a piece of software that proved to be vastly more difficult to navigate than had been initially envisioned.
I used the new changes as an opportunity to revise the focus of the project. This is when I decided to broaden the focus of the presentation from presenting Broffenbrenner’s model to focus on presenting the model as a mode of learning about virtual environments. From there flowed the integration of Pinterest and a fun opportunity to integrate a model classroom conflict resolution model from Chapter 12. The presentation was going to be fun, engaging, new and informative. I was all set to present and excited to present the fruits of my 30+ hours of labour (I documented my hours on a time sheet).
The presentation was a failure
Okay, the presentation was not a total failure, I just had *a lot of risk* catch up with me. Technology will do that to you! However, I did experience a thorough melt down during the presentation of Minecraft. It started off well enough, but as machines kept crashing, I was left stranded and stuck trying to fix one machine at a time.
What went horribly wrong
I do not think it was immediately obvious during the class when the presentation broke down, but I had actually exhausted three or four back-up plans by the time the presentation had run its course. My presentation was simply doomed to technological breakdown and that was how it was.
The first of the serious errors actually happened the night before. I was initially planning to run Minecraft from my laptop and a laptop I had borrowed from my sister. However, there was a serious incident at work, which distracted me part way through packing up the laptop, and therefore I forgot the charging cable at home that I could not run the laptop without. I had no way to get home and back in time for the presentation so I moved forward with my first backup plan, Plan B: utilize laptops from the school library. However, after installing the game on those machines, they failed to run the game at all! I went and paid a visit with the school’s IT department through our conversation it was resolved that I should be able to install and run the game on the classroom computers. I thus had my Plan C: install Minecraft onto the classroom computers. Classes were booked in the room all day so I had no opportunity to test the software until a few minutes before class. When I installed the software, I was confronted with the same issues as I had been with the library’s laptops, it would not run! I called IT and they addressed the issue (which they initially reported would not exist) and things were okay. (P.S. I really do love the IT department in the school. Tony and Adrian are stand-up guys!)
Things went well in the exercise for a bit, but suddenly cracks started forming in the foundation. I needed to log onto the server controls so that I could adjust the time of day because the simulation was stuck in night mode and Ben’s group could not see anything. Another user-group could not even log-in with the credentials given to them, and I could not figure out why; everything from the credentials were correct! Then, suddenly, projector machines started crashing and Ben and Jeff each had to do a full reboots.
Jeff managed to reboot his machine first, but then he got himself trapped in a well! A WELL! Jeff did eventually manage to get himself out of the well, but not before he almost burned the whole model down to the ground with a bucket of lava, that would have perpetually poured lava across the surface of the simulation. Seriously, I was pretty close to loosing the whole mess of the simulation. It was not Jeff’s fault; he did not know what he was doing. The issue was that I had gone into the server and made adjustments so that no one was supposed to have access to anything in their inventories. However, for some reason, the server instead gave them access to absolutely everything. Besides risking the destruction of the entire model as the ‘chimps with revolvers’ type of a situation unfolded, I has panned on planting Kirstie’s group as a bully who did not play nice. Instead of wandering around and collecting the books that had been laid out for the students to find, Kristie’s group would be given a sword so that they could go around killing other students until they became frustrated. The intended focus was to generate a legitimate source of frustration between students that could be addressed using Johnson’s conflict resolution model. However, due to the failure of the various computers in the room, I gave up on generating legitimate conflict and resolved to move forward with the second part of the simulation, and give up on the machines for the moment.
What went well
I am proud to have engaged a diversity of students through my presentation. During the course of the presentation, I was able to engage some of my peers who have in the past expressed anxiety related to technology in the past. In fact, a fair number of students seemed very engaged wit the use of Pinterest who I had not expected to be. Mila even did the bulk of explained the service, so I feel that I was successful in finding a bridge between using technology that is already appealing to them, and using technology for learning. When I revisited the page, a few students had gone in and signed up for accounts so that they could re-pin content from the lecture and even leave some comments on the pins. I feel that this is success and one more tool I have endowed to my peers. Pinterest really is not the most practical application for a classroom environment, but it is streamlined for a very specific format: pictures. It attracts a unique group of people and I wanted to reflect a range of virtual environments that could have been used when educating someone. In hindsight, I still feel like the handout concept on Pinterest was a good idea, but it really needed a lot more explanation to be of value. One of the most significant learning points I made through this exercise was that I have an intuitive grasp of virtual constructions that many other people simply do not. The assumptions I made about people being able to rapidly adapt to and utilize resources were inadequate.
Johnson’s Conflict Resolution Model
(Woolfolk, Page 446)
I wish that the setup for engaging with Johnson’s Conflict Resolution model fulfilled the potential that I had originally envisioned for it. As it was, I valued the engagement with that Mila and Jesse paid it. I wish I took more time with it, but I was certainly rushed because of the collapse of everything to that point. In addition, I think that the model should have been printed off, and not left to a handout on Pinterest. I learned from this particular part of the presentation that engagement with Pinterest is useful for individual work, but it’s distracting in social environments where focus needs to lie elsewhere at times.
Despite the fact that much of the information in Chapter 12 was a little outdated, some of it was valuable. I am glad that I utilised the advice on page 433 that specified that a teacher should appoint technology managers from students with proficiency for technology. Even though the presentation crashed pretty badly, it would have been worse if Ben and Jeff had not been actively rebooting the computers they were using and seeking to solve the problems they were experiencing.
I think everyone actually had a lot of fun
While I regret that I couldn’t impart as much information and learning as I would have liked, I think I hope I was successfully in at least planting some seeds in the minds of my peers regarding different ways they might be able to engage their future students. While I think some people were frustrated by the breakdown, I think they also valued the opportunity to engage with learning in a very different way. They had a chance to play around with some fun concepts and everyone seemed to be enjoying the humour of the situation, I know I sure thought it was hilarious! If nothing else, I think I have demonstrated for everyone that technology is flashy and cool, and can critically collapse in the blink of an eye.
Why this was the best learning experience I have had all term?
Dewey’s Lab School
In my Western Philosophy of Learning class, we have been covering a variety of relevant Western Philosophers that has included the work of John Dewey and his Lab School. Dewey believed that students should be placed in an environment that seeks to foster an engagement in the learner for the concepts and ideas they have only the first inklings of interest in. These first interests speak to true learning because the explorer is then engaging in things they do not yet know about. Typically, learning environments reinforce the performance of a task over and over again until proficiency is mastered, but the problem with this style is that students come to school and do things they already know how to do. Dewey argued that they can engage with what they already know and are proficient at in their own time; classrooms should be spaces to facilitate new and novel opportunities that are otherwise unavailable. For me, the presentation I made was an incredibly valuable instance of one of Dewey’s novel learning opportunities.
I have a strength and mastery at giving traditional presentations, but I have never had a chance to present information in the way I attempted during my Learning Environments presentation. Many aspects of the presentation failed, but I never would have learned that if I had not had the opportunity to try it in a real classroom. While the classroom may not have received a lot of effective learning during the experience, they provided an incredible resource for my personal learning about how to facilitate a learning experience in such a group. I feel very confidently that I did everything I could within my resources to try and setup an effective and efficient presentation. If I could have predicted the shortcomings and merits of student engagement, not just technologically but behaviourally in my peers, I would have made my presentation to accommodate this. However, I could not as I simply never had the chance to learn this. Now, after I have delivered the presentation I am vastly better equipped for the challenge of using the tools I did in future settings.
Despite the difficulty I found in using the technology and techniques I did, I am every glad that I took a risk with it all. I will certainly attempt similar tasks in the future as I at least now know what I am up against if I do. Next time, I will have better models, sounder equipment, and a better plan for organizing participation. I feel so confident in my learning that I would love even a few minutes sometime in class to revisit the presentation so that I can demonstrate my improved performance and the learning I have completed through the course of this assignment. Just say when and where, and I will be there.