Weekly Writing #4, Bob Heath

What theoretical principles support the use of game mechanics in learning? Consider the list you created of ways in which the world has changed, and then reflect on the goals of Partnership for 21st Century Skills. In your writing this week, discuss the ways in which learning must change in the 21st Century and the ways in which it must continue to build upon solid theory and models. Elaborate on ways in which Khan Academy or Peer Instruction are either accomplishing those goals or falling short.

I guess I am disappointed.   If schools themselves are part of our trouble with learning; then how is more of the same going to be an improvement?   Since leadership is a matter close to my heart, I selected that topic as an entry point into the case studies of exemplar schools on the P21 website.   I first clicked through the slides on their Tumblr.   Alas, I really did not see a difference in those images from my own recollections of K-12– more than 30 years ago.   Then I listened to the podcast and was meet by a jargon dump from professional educators.   I listened through to the point where they allowed a student to talk and again I was just disappointed — just more of the same dressed up and promoted on the internet.   I then clicked through to their “about us’ section for parents and community.   There were pretty summaries of curricular high points, assertions without evidence, but most disturbing, there was nothing about community building.   Rather education was still just a commodity produced by experts that we are expected to consume.   Although the home page for P21 has a world map, all of the schools they hold up as exemplars are from the US.   The little rainbow map of the program is crisp and clear and boring.   It is fundamentally self-referential within the US education industry.
I want to run far away from this.   Instead, what if we build a new model based on what young people are really doing?


At 1:41 John Seely Brown describes his neighbor, a 20 something surfer, a world class surfer. He and his friends have refined a technique for speed learning but more for invention of new techniques. I love the point that JSB makes about a 48-hour turnaround time on new tricks — fascinating. I of course love the risk of failure as well.

To my mind, we have several tools or attributes to inventory here:

  • Peer group of like-minded and skilled persons
    • Mental toughness
    • Physical toughness
  • A shared curiosity for a topic embedded in the real world
  • The equipment to engage in the activity
  • Equipment to record the engagement and hence to study and criticize the engagement
  • the internet connects a global community of peer groups hence peer review

Returning to the classroom, we see:


At 11:17 Eric Mazur says: “You don’t learn by listening you learn by doing.’   Moreover, a few seconds later he describes the heart of the flipped classroom the transfer of content occurs before and outside the classroom the sense making occurs inside the classroom and a classroom where peers help each other make sense.   At 8:35 he give the clue to why this works so well — a person with a fresh understanding also clearly understands the confusion and can help their peers to avoid the confusion.   By contrast, for the “expert’ that confusion is long gone and so is their human connection with not knowledge but rather ignorance.

These two examples seem most closely aligned with the Constructivist theories of learning.

Constructivists see learners as active rather than passive. Knowledge is not received from the outside or from someone else; rather, the individual learner interprets and processes what is received through the senses to create knowledge. The learner is the centre of the learning, with the instructor playing an advising and facilitating role. Learners should be allowed to construct knowledge rather than being given knowledge through instruction (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). The construction of knowledge includes both physical and intellectual learning activities (Phillips, 2005). A major emphasis of constructivists is situated learning, which sees learning as contextual (Hung, Looi, & Koh, 2004). Learning activities that allow learners to contextualize the information should be used in online instruction. If the information has to be applied in many contexts, then learning strategies that promote multi-contextual learning should be used to make sure that learners can indeed apply the information broadly. Learning is moving away from one-way instruction to construction and discovery of knowledge (Tapscott, 1998) (Ally 2008).

We quite clearly hear Mazur speak of the change in his role in the classroom he uses the term “coach.’   However, who has that role in the example of the surfer’s peer group?   I would theorize that it is a shared role.   No single person has exclusive claim to those responsibilities in the group.   Both examples show learners constructing knowledge one physical the other intellectual.   Indeed we see Mazur’s disruptive moment being the realization that his teaching was context specific, classroom and textbooks, rather than applicable in real life.   As he flipped his classroom, he could shift his focus to multi-contextual learning.   The JSB example is clearly multi-contextual as the “trick’ is learned around the globe within 48 hours — remember, every beach and break is unique.     This 48-hour turnaround is interesting to postulate as having a link to connectionism through the butterfly flap of chaos theory. I particularly like the link between constructionist theories of learning the principle of decision-making in connectionist theories.   “Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision’ (Siemens 2005).   This skill set of decision-making is I think more accurately taught and learned through surfing then through lecture hall physics — though both refer to matter and energy in motion.

Ally, M. (2008).  Foundations of educational theory for online learning. In  Anderson, T., & Elloumi, F. (Eds.).  The theory and practice of online learning  (2nd ed.)  (pp. 15—44). Athabasca, AB, Canada: Athabasca University.

Siemens, G. (2005).  Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.  International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2(1).

25 thoughts on “Weekly Writing #4, Bob Heath

  1. Lori

    Bob, both of the examples you describe resonated with me as well, and I find your inventory of tools to be quite applicable. I wonder what it is about physics that makes it so conceptually inaccessible. I remember my freshman physics course because my instructor was so enthusiastic and tried hard to give relevant examples. But in practice, I experienced the course as just another math course. Then I went on to complete an engineering degree plus graduate schooling (all physics based)… and it wasn’t until I was asked to teach a conceptual physics course for non-majors with only algebra as a per-requisite did I truly understand the concepts behind physics. Perhaps with so much focus on problem solving and math skills, the concepts (contained in the reading that is many times skipped in lieu of example problems) just don’t come through.

    As teachers we all know the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else… Mazur’s method is really just a specific way to instigate this in a classroom. I think the beach would make a much better setting for a physics “lecture”.

  2. Owen

    Bob – thanks for sharing those great videos and for bringing such great resources into the conversation.

    I found them both inspiring and will, no doubt, share them out again.

    When this conversation comes up and I think of the vast depths of human history, I want to say, “Of course!” Of course this is how we learn best. Imagine the radiation of things like the bow and arrow, or the wheel, or plant and animal domestications. Our predecessors didn’t sit and listen, they participated, tried, failed, improved. Sometimes there are elders or our more experienced seniors, but we aren’t necessarily preconditioned for only that type of learning. In fact, watch any group of kids play with anything new and you will find the same patterns of innovation and replication.

    Very exciting.

    Count me in for beach-physics.

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