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Unboxing learning

Last spring I had the privilege and fun of spending a whole class period with middle school students talking about their favorite uses of technology. Of course there were about as many preferences as there were students, so I’ll just zoom in on one student whose interest I felt best illustrated how very individual and diverse digital tech use is. He loves shoes. I can’t remember the brands, but mainly shoes for running, basketball, etc. – sports shoes. He said his parents don’t let him use social network sites but they do let him use YouTube (hmmm, YouTube’s pretty social…). So his favorite use of tech is to go to YouTube to view unboxings. [Here are some examples.]

Since talking with this bright, engaged student, I’ve found there are zillions of videos of unboxings of countless kinds of items, especially fashion-, tech-, and gaming-related ones. It’s a whole genre of online video – sure, part materialism/commercialism, but also part hobby, part art, part interest community, etc. Obviously they’re called “unboxings” because that’s all the video is about: unboxing something new that just arrived at one’s house. It’s about the product not the packaging – and the process. The packaging is important only because of its role in the unveiling process.

Teacher and students ‘unboxing’

So by now you can probably tell that I’m using unboxings on YouTube as a metaphor. Here’s another story to explain why. The other day I was talking with a friend of mine who’s an amazing teacher. She was telling me about a virtual-world-based project in which her students are thoroughly engaged (I’ve observed this in visits to her classroom) – so engaged that they keep doing classwork at home and their parents sometimes have to make them pull away and go to bed.

I said to her, “How can we package this learning experience you’ve set up for these students and get it into mass distribution?!” There are, after all, “teacher”/businesspeople who team up with companies, “package” technology with lesson plans and sell the product as “plug ‘n’ play” for easy widespread adoption. I told her (once again) that I so wish all that I see happening in her classroom could be “bottled” for students everywhere.

But she told me, “You can’t package this.” And of course she’s right. As she was saying that, it dawned on me that she’s doing the exact opposite of packaging education. She’s unboxing it – taking learning out of the box it has been in for generations, making it dynamic in a learning-together-as-we-go process. Technology is aiding that but is not the focus of what’s going on. With it, she’s creating the conditions that allow all kinds of fun, interesting, engaging learning to happen in ways that her students customize for themselves as individuals and as collaborators in the process of setting up a colony in a virtual world and learning how to farm, mine, herd, build, defend and govern in order to survive. Just one example. That can’t be packaged, because what happens in her classroom is different for every individual there, different every day – or moment, really. The story line is created as they figure everything out. The learning is individual, collective, situational, and contextual.

The magic is in the process each individual and each group of collaborative problem-solvers or project participants experiences – including the perspective each brings to it. It’s not in the script, lesson plan, digital or physical surroundings. Even with the same overall objective, one group of 3rd- or 7th- or whatever-graders is going to have a different experience from any other because of the individuals who make up the group.

So we need to unbox learning, not package it! “Unbox” in the sense of…

  • Unleashing learning, clearing (digital, physical, mental, emotional) space for it rather than dictating it, as in “Here’s what we’re going to learn today.”
  • Getting “outside the box” (whether that means beyond “the way we’ve always done it” or lessons that are one-size-fits-all for teachers or students).
  • Collapsing mental walls and connecting classrooms into global learning communities as teachers have done for years with the Internet and projects like the Flat Classroom.

As a parent, I’d question the value of “packaged” education. And I’d be just as wary of schools or districts that make a big deal about technology for technology’s sake as I’d be leery of those that rigidly refuse to allow tech in the classroom. The former obviously misses the point of making learning the goal and the latter is less likely to be preparing young people for the “whitewater kayaking” kind of learn-as-you-go problem-solving of life in a digital age (here’s more about educational and professional “fluid dynamics” from John Seely Brown at the University of Southern California).

Related links: Examples of education unboxings

  • “World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements” about the world-peace game designed by teacher John Hunter and his 4th-graders over 30+ years – here’s his 2011 TED Talk.
  • “WoWing Language Arts” in The Journal about the breadth of learning students are experiencing in World of Warcraft in school – learning folklore through literature (e.g., Beowulf), vocabulary, socialization, time management, leadership and digital literacy” – facilitated by teacher Peggy Sheehy at Suffern Middle School in New York State (she elaborates in a video on p. 26 of the article)
  • The Australia-based Massively Minecraft Guild: “a learning community for kids and their parents [that’s] exploring how to live, work and play in Minecraft,” a digital environment game where people individually or collaboratively use LEGO-like virtual blocks to build just about anything they can imagine. It can be either a creative or a survival game with monsters that come out at night. As of this writing, its makers say that “so far 42,098,3157 people have registered and 7,531,314 people bought the game,” with someone new registering about every second, apparently.
  • Teachers Steven Caldwell and Bruce Lindstrom in Australia speaking in a YouTube video about “Crafting a Solution – Considering Minecraft in School”
  • A collective of educators – “GAME” (for Gamers Advancing Meaningful Education) – talk about their work in a new series of Webinars on YouTube, “It Takes a Guild,” starting here. Part 2 of the series, with teacher Marianne Malmstrom in New Jersey, is here.
  • How BYOT (or BYOD), as in technology in the service of learning, works in a Georgia school district
  • Minecraft in School – a video of students’ work from a class developed by instructional technology coordinator Lucas Gillispie and teacher Craig Lawson in North Carolina, who have been collaborating with teacher Peggy Sheehy in New York on creating spaces in Minecraft and World of Warcraft for students to experience both so-called formal learning and informal learning (including social literacy).
  • “Katy Independent School District Transforms Education with Mobile Learning” – a 4+ min. video that offers a teacher’s, administrator’s, and tech director’s perspectives on how well mobile learning (BYOD) is working in their district in Texas. It’s also partly an ad from Cisco, whose networking technology the district is using, but the advertising tastefully doesn’t get in the way of the educators’ insights (and isn’t until about the last minute of the video).
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