Wednesday, January 27, 2016

3 Transformational Learning Activities

Often we hear about how technology is going to transform education. The world isn't the same as it used to be. Information is no longer expensive or difficult to obtain, so it makes sense that we should be helping learners develop ways to use and create knowledge rather than memorize it. Now that the entirety of human knowledge fits into one's pocket, it's time to prepare students for a world in which they will be expected to innovate, create, and solve complex problems.

Yet, this transformation has been slow to develop. For those who have used social media tools to curate a professional network of teacher innovators, innovative and transformational learning experiences seem to be commonplace. In reality, they are not. Despite spending over three billion dollars per year on digital content and providing countless devices for students, the majority of learning experiences that students get in schools are not much different than those they had before. According to the EdWeek article linked above, 

"...a mountain of evidence indicates that teachers have been painfully slow to transform the ways they teach, despite that massive influx of new technology into their classrooms. The student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction envisioned by ed-tech proponents remains the exception to the rule."
I would imagine that for many teachers, it's difficult to imagine ways to bring transformational experiences to students when you haven't experienced them yourself - especially if you don't know what you don't know. Few districts are using professional development opportunities to model this type of experience for teachers.

Teachers need a place to start.  They need a few easy options to see the value of using the tools we have today to turn control over to students, and some simple ways to get their feet wet. Below are 5 of my favorite ways to help teachers begin transforming their classrooms so that students can be prepared for the world in which we will be sending them.

Take a Virtual Field Trip

We all wish that we had a Magic School Bus like Ms. Frizzle that would take our students anywhere in the world (universe) that we wanted to give them experiences that match our content. Now we do. The combination of Skype (the program) and Skype in the Classroom (the website) make it possible to take your students anywhere you want to go.

Using Skype is easy enough that my 93 year old grandmother has figured it out and uses it regularly to chat with her great-grandchildren. It shouldn't be a problem for teachers to learn how to use.

The Skype in the Classroom website, which is part of the larger Microsoft Educator Community, has hundreds of free virtual field trips available. Taking part is simple - use the filters to search for the experience you want for your students, use the scheduling tool to pick a time, confirm with the presenter via email, and then connect on Skype at the time you chose.

My students have had so many amazing virtual field trips this year that it's hard to highlight one here as an example. They've traveled to outer space with astronomer Dean Hines from the Space Telescope Science Institute, met a live penguin and learned about plastic pollution in our oceans from SANCCOB in South Africa, took a tour of a village in rural Western Kenya to learn about the engineering problems of replacing the village bridge, and interacted with live elephants at the Ringling Brothers Center for Elephant Conservation.  Most recently my students learned about how scientists classify animals based on their unique adaptations from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Give Students Opportunities to Share Learning

We know that feedback is vital to learning. The more meaningful feedback we can give students, the more opportunities they will have to grow and learn.  Yet, at a time when connecting to others is easier than ever before in human history, the teacher remains the sole source of learner feedback in too many classrooms.

Students need a space to share their learning with others and to get feedback from multiple sources. Several free tools make this easy to do. For middle school and high school students, Blogger (which I'm using to write this blog post) is easy to use.  Others I know have lot of success using Office 365 Blogs from Microsoft and tell me that it is very straightforward to use. This is a great option for schools who are already using Office 365. As an elementary teacher, I have used KidBlog in the past with a lot of success, but it is no longer a free site.  Many former Kidblog users I know are making the transition to SeeSaw which now offers a free blogging feature.

Blogging allows students to be creative in how they share their learning.  Many creation apps and websites have embedding features that allow students to share their work on their blog. Videos can easily be included, so students can share documentation of science projects, classroom activities, or evidence of learning. The more creative the culture of a classroom is, the more options are available to kids.

Global Projects to Connect with Others

As it has become more commonplace for teachers to build professional networks on social media sites, it has also become more common for teachers to develop projects that allow classrooms to connect with each other in ways that fit required curricula.  These projects tend to be easy to join, fun for students, and simple for teachers to adapt to their content.

To find a project for your class, there are a few places that you should look.  First, check out the "Live Lessons" page on the Microsoft Educator Community Website. Here, teachers from around the world have posted project ideas in which they want you to connect your students to theirs.  It's easy to use the filters to find the subject and grade level that matches your need.  Also, have a look at the EdTech Chat 'n Chew Podcast Facebook page.  The podcast that I co-host with other Skype Master Teacher global learning experts creates easy, curriculum based projects each month or so that make it easy for you to connect your students to others.

Another great way to find these types of opportunities for students is to look on Twitter. Hashtags such as #GlobalEd, #GlobalClassroom, #Skype2Learn, and #iearn are great places to look for connections.  There are also many other teachers and organizations that excel in creating this type of opportunity for students. Check out Projects by JenHello Little World SkypersGlobal Classroom Project, and iEARN.

Here are examples of great projects that are happening right now and are accepting registration:

  1. Virtual Valentines Project - designed to teach students geographical awareness and cultural understanding by connecting classrooms around the world for Valentines' Day. 
  2. Global School Play Day - Join 100,000+ students around the world in remembering the joy of unstructured play and how important it is for children's development.
  3. Same Day in March Project - Language Arts, Math, and Science are embedded in this activity in which classrooms from around the global will be reading a book, learning about weather, and sharing weather data in a group spreadsheet, and connecting to learn about different locations on the planet.
Transformational learning happens as a result of transformational teachers creating environments in which the learner is in charge of the learning. Technology is providing us with tools that make this easier than ever before. If you have had success with any of the above ideas in your classroom, or would like to give us some other ideas of easy ways to create amazing experiences for learners, please let us know in the comment section below. 


  1. The "Ringling Brothers Center for Elephant Conservation"?? That's for real? Is it next to the Exxon-BP Center for Clean Water?

    1. That literally made me laugh out loud. :) Yes. It's real, and the learning experience is spectacular.

      Last year some of my students wrote pro and con opinion pieces for holding animals in captivity in zoos, circuses, and aquariums based on research they had done. Had this opportunity been available then (they just started offering virtual field trips this year), it would have made for a great opportunity for some probing questions.


  2. We did the Elephant Conservation Skype 3 weeks ago and it was AMAZING! Did not know until halfway through that it was associated with RBC.

    We are linked up with Skype in the Classroom and MIE through our tech coordinator, Kyle (@Kcalderw), and are presently hosting ABC TV's Born To Explore for a #MysterySkype because of our push to genuinely embrace tech for learning, not just tech as "yet something else to do" in our classroom.
    I will comment this, however: embracing technology to create authentic learning has to start at the top. If you have admins whose sole purpose is to ensure that each class is on *this* lesson on *this* day each year, then there is no opportunity to do what we are doing without the risk of being 'insubordinate'.
    To that end I am ever more grateful to have the admins we do. I have the professional flexibility to teach the WHOLE child, not just the academic child. As such, we have SKYPED with a water engineer in Uganda, two schools in other regions of the US with regional/cultural differences from our coastal NJ town, and have two more coming up - with an Alaskan history expert in North Pole, Alaska and a high school teacher in Nigeria.

    Worldwide traveling, cultural exchanges, and the opportunity to create positive change in ours and others' lives have never been so easy or convenient. It is educational malpractice not to open our children's eyes to the world beyond their home, school, and neighbor anymore.

    ~Karl Ubelhoer (@MrU_ishere)

    1. Spot on, Karl. I couldn't agree more. Thanks for the fantastic comment! -M

  3. Thank you very much for your kind words.

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