How I Learn; How It Teaches Me to Teach

This reflection is written at the prompting of my participation in OpenBrookes’ First Steps in Learning and Teaching MOOC.

I feel as though I constantly refine my understanding of how I learn. Fundamental to how I learn are three factors: (1) a sense that what I am learning has relevance to my life, (2) the belief that I have choice in what I am learning and  how I am learning it, and (3) the opportunity to test and interact with what I am learning, to remix it and rework it, in order to develop an understanding of it. I think these are common ways of thinking about good, active, experiential learning experiences, and it is no surprise to me that they work well for me.

If I were to go through the K-12 system these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was diagnosed with a mild form of ADHD. I don’t pay attention to lectures for more than a few minutes. I can rarely sit still without writing notes, focusing on something else, working on something on my iPad, or falling asleep. Indeed, when I go to conferences, I can hardly stand sitting in presentations without simultaneously doing something else on my iPad. Often I convince myself to pay attention simply so that I don’t appear rude. However, I tend to think of traditional classrooms as being spaces where I don’t learn, as being irrelevant to my interests (even when they are in a program I very actively chose), or (more recently) as being very poorly designed and instructed.

Thankfully, I have had enough other resources around me to still do well in school. So, nobody had much reason to pathologize me. However, if I hadn’t had some incredible learning experiences in non-traditional classrooms, I think I would have developed a sense over time that school was not for me. Because of these teachers — teachers who made space for my interests and created in-class activities and assignments that worked from what was relevant to me at the time; teachers who gave me a great deal of choices; and teachers who gave me opportunities to test and work out my ideas — I saw that education (and learning environments) has the potential to actually teach me things. Without this, I’d believe that learning only worked when I taught myself, and in the occasional lucky moments when what I wanted to learn aligned with what I was being taught.

One of my early experiences feeling very empowered as a learner has stuck with me to this day and has helped me understand myself in this way as a learner. As a teenager, I grew up at the same time that software development was becoming more accessible to non-engineers. I learned HTML and CSS and taught myself to build web pages. I slowly learned other programming languages. I taught myself everything through reading, experimentation, testing, failing (sometimes succeeding) and then iterating to try again. I always had a different type of project going. The fact that this learning was encouraged (or at least not actively discouraged) helped me realize that I could be an autodidact.

This, combined with the few teachers that awakened me in significant ways, combined to make me pretty confident about how I learn and what works best for me. When I want to, I can turn even bad learning environments into ones I can take things away from. But most of the time, I simply do what I’ve always done — pay attention in class when it serves me and do something else when it doesn’t — and just do it with less of a sense of guilt.

It “catches an edge” for me when teachers pathologize how I learn. Old school tech policies that frame my iPad use as rude or distracting, assignments that are intensely prescriptive, boring lectures that I “should be paying attention to” and so forth are all subtle ways of telling me that the way I learn isn’t good enough or isn’t right.

I think this insight into my own learning really helps me develop a respect for my students’ learning experiences. So much of college teaching happens under the false pretense of students making choices. I often hear faculty say things like, “it’s on them to pay attention; they are paying for it; they can decide what they want to get out of it.” I like the idea that students have as much choice as possible, but this is a false choice. Classrooms that are organized around what is comfortable for the teacher are rarely attentive to the many ways that students learn and grow. Universal Design for Learning has become an important idea for me as I rethink how I teach. It helps that I am one of the people that would stretch what was necessary for a course to be universally designed.

The concept of Lifewide Learning is also relevant to me. If teachers had paid attention to what I cared about through the years, they would have known that I was really involved in math — it was just in learning programming, not in boring math problems. I was also very involved in writing, but not all that interested in the writing I was asked to do at school — I wrote for the websites that I made, I wrote answers to people in public forums, I wrote emails, and so forth. I even developed some skill at writing to different audiences. I was interested in history and social problems too — I argued online in chatrooms and forums, I read on Wikipedia and other informational sites. All of this was self-motivated learning that teachers could have picked up on and really built upon in meaningful ways. This isn’t to say I learned nothing in school. I was pretty strategic about doing as little as possible to still get a good grade. But I could have really learned a lot that stuck with me if anyone had been able to pay attention to everything that was going on outside of school.

As I’m thinking more about my teaching experience, I imagine different ways I could organize my assignments to draw in and build upon lifewide learning. Different ways of engaging their motivations and passions. Different ways of helping them retell stories they’ve come upon about their own learning — especially when they are pathologizing or shaming. I’d love to hear about the ways people do these kinds of things.

by Moyan Brenn

A vision for a PARCMOOC (pronounced: PARK MOOC)

Okay, yes, the name is ridiculous. But I think there’s something in this idea. I want to mashup Participatory Action Research (PAR) and a Connectivist MOOC (cMOOC). I have a few topics in mind, but the organizing idea is actually most important to me at this point. The fact that it could be called a “PARC MOOC” makes me think of getting out, being outside, being with others in public, and I think that’s good imagery to start with.

I see Participatory Action Research as a methodology that has ethical implications for research practice. Ethically, it shifts social research from being about other people to research as an everyday practice we do with other people to change the political, social, cultural, and economic circumstances of our lives. It’s not empowering, it’s offering tools to be self-determining. There’s tons of writing that supports this shift on the grounds that it is a kind of research that really respects people. I also added the phrase “everyday practice”, because I think in the world we live in (especially in the West) requires research to skillfully and effectively navigate it. I agree with Arjun Appadurai’s assertion that research can no longer be considered a skill that scholars gain over time, but a right to which we all have access (See Appadurai – the Right to Research).Continue Reading A vision for a PARCMOOC (pronounced: PARK MOOC)

#OpenSource Everything

I’ve been spending little fragments of free time over the last several years engaging with Maker and Open Source communities. For a long time, I’ve seen them as part of claiming a more open, democratic (in real, everyday democracy kind of terms) way of life. The ideas I see behind both movements are: (1) we can build it ourselves, (2) we can do it better when we do it with others, (3) what we share will be multiplied, expanded upon, and will come back to us better than we could have imagined it, and (4) we can invite others to learn and participate.

When I was a teenager, open source was a fledgling movement. You could use Linux, but you really had to be a pretty decent hacker to get things working and keep them that way. Mostly though, you had to pay hundreds of dollars for software like operating systems, media editors, word processors, and so forth. Now, all of it is available for free. And you can edit and modify it to suit your needs. And, better yet, that invitation is no longer an empty one — there are many people making it easier than ever to learn to program.

I’m very inspired by the #FutureOfOpen conference that occurred today in London. It was organized by the group: I love the idea of open sourcing a city and its commons. I especially appreciate the list of Open Domains at the bottom of this page

I’m working on a piece right now about the interactions between Makers, MOOCs, and learning. I posted on it preliminarily on the July 2 Group blog. It seems as though Open Source is officially moving beyond a movement that is “gaining steam” and has entered the “main stream.”

Why deal with the “hard stuff” in class?

Or, the danger of sterilizing education (Reblogged from UMinn Techniques in Teaching and Learning)


“So, what did you learn?”

I asked this recently of a former student become a friend as we were sitting together in my office. She was catching me up on her previous semester, specifically an interesting class on the history of science.

“You know, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton… How science changed through all of those things.”

“Sounds interesting. Did you learn about eugenics?” I ask.

This question has been present on my mind as soon as she started talking about the course. Maybe it was growing up Jewish that made me particularly attentive to this question, or maybe it was my education in ethics. Either way, it felt like an important thing to learn about in a course purportedly training our future scientists about their historical roots.

“No, what’s that?”

“The scientific movement that provided the ammunition for Hitler’s attempted extermination of the Jews and the forced sterilization of mentally ill people in the United States and indigenous people in Australia.”


“Yeah. Did you learn about IQ? How it was used to justify racism?”


Social Darwinism?”

“No… We probably should have learned these things, huh?”

Yeah. Probably.Continue Reading Why deal with the “hard stuff” in class?

Learning from Early Childhood Education – Two Pedagogy Nerds Contemplate What Higher Ed Might be Overlooking

Co-Written with Marisol Brito. Originally posted at the University of Minnesota’s Techniques in Teaching and Learning blog.

Learning from Early Childhood Educational Practices

My son has just turned three and, as a self-proclaimed pedagogy nerd it is not surprising that I currently geek-out by reading up on Magda Gerber or the Reggio Emilia approach to childhood education  or checking out similarly-minded counterparts in the blogosphere.

While reading a recent post by preschool blogger extraordinaire TeacherTom – who advocates for alternative, engaging educational practices that emphasize his status as a co-equal with his students – I was struck by parallels between his pedagogy and the kinds of things I teach my University-level ethics students about how human beings ought to be treated.

Although I originally came to these resources as a parent, I have been thinking about how deeply ideas from early childhood education have resonated with me as a teacher in Higher Education. These ideas include:

“The Educative Committee”

I was sitting this evening with a small group of students that are working as TAs for one of the classes I am teaching this Fall semester. On one of our many tangents, we spoke about one of our students and talked about how we had each relayed information about our interactions with this student to each other. The interaction reminded me of a paper I wrote a while back which I called “The Educative Committee.” My idea was that every student, every young person, should have a number of different people looking out for their learning and growth from a number of different perspectives. These people should be in constant communication, updating, supporting, and challenging each other to help each individual student grow.

At the time I wrote the paper, I recall feeling like something of an idealist. Yes, it was a great idea, but honestly, how could this ever happen? The simple logistics of having such a conversation are impossible, not to mention all the work that would be done to have to convince anyone that this was worthwhile. Impossible. Yet, here we were, doing just that. I quickly realized that this is what we do in our program generally. Once you are a student, you are welcomed into our community, and then each of us is looking out for your growth and development as much as possible.

So, why not do this more broadly? Maybe teachers should act less as instructors and more as conveners — bringing together the people necessary to move each person forward in their own learning trajectories. Certainly, there are many adults (and youth) interested in helping in our classrooms. Why not bring them in as learning mentors? Why not start building “educative committees” (though I suppose I like the term learning committees more).

I also find this inspiring because it puts everyone in the position of being an educator. If we are in someone’s life, we are also a part of their “learning committee”, and therefore are responsible for thinking about how they might grow, or what we might teach them.