Embracing Paradox to Create Powerful Learning Environments

The development of human beings is packed with paradox. It’s communities that successfully hold competing ideas in tension that lead to breakthroughs. Last year, a conversation at Rice University identified 10 examples of the benefits of embracing paradox including improvement & innovation, personal & equitable, joy & rigor, and pressure & support.
When it comes to technology enabled learning, some worry about dehumanizing environments, a lack of teacher and student agency, and narrowed outcomes. The opposite is possible when EdLeaders embrace paradox by holding on to what is important while remaining open to what is possible.
Blended learning–combining online and face-to-face learning experiences–is a concept early in development and malleable enough to incorporate innovation. Following are three examples of exciting blends that embrace paradox to produce powerful learning sequences.

Project-Based & Personalized Learning

Three new secondary school networks are creating environments and building platforms to support a mash up on personalized skill building via digital playlists with team-based community connected projects:
  1. Summit Public Schools combines playlists and projects on a platform built with help from Facebook engineers (see feature) and they are providing access to public school teams nationwide (see Summit Basecamp).
  2. Brooklyn Lab (feature) run by a couple features the husband running the schools and wife running the tech nonprofit.
  3. New Tech Network  are 200 project-based schools using new personalized learning platform.
On this topic, it’s interesting to note that David Brooks criticized a well known project-based school (from on a documentary he saw) based on the potential for uneven content coverage/knowledge. I wrote a response where I discussed this trend toward personalization + high engagement projects (and mentioned these schools).

Place-Based & Online

TSSThere is a small but growing community of educators and scholars advocating place-based education. They’re a diverse group that value outdoor experiences, passionate about environmental and arts education, rural community advocates and urban community organizers.
This weekend I visited the Teton Science Schools (TSS, featured image) in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The small network is a big leader in encouraging a connection of people and place by asking students to “inquire to understand the world and design solutions for the opportunities they discover.”
TSS engages learners (young and old) in experiences situated in the themes, values, problems and opportunities of place including the cultural, natural, economic, government aspects of community.
Add online and blended learning you have:
  • Preparation to engage (e.g., adaptive reading that prepares to read and write about place);
  • Mobile learning opportunities;
  • Crowdsourced science: engaging students as environmental scientists; and
  • Active citizens: public presentations and advocacy experiences.

A+ UPThe combination of place-based education and digital learning enables the potential for small schools associated with national parks, museums, and other community assets.
One of my favorite examples is Houston A+ UP, a small middle school where students spend time in local museums every week.

Standards-Based & Interest-Based

So how to let kids follow their interests and make sure they learn what they need to? The intersection of for-me and for-degree learning is the most interesting design opportunity of our time–but it requires a paradoxical commitment to student-centered learning and quality preparation for college and careers.
We can see signs of progress in interest-based learning in the personal growth space: modular mobile learning, quantified self, peer and social supports, game-based strategies, and learner analytics.
In a recent post on preparing youth for the gig economy, we featured Udemy, the leading online marketplace, as a good example of just-in-time-learning. Their work with associations and businesses focuses on competency maps but course consumption is individually driven. (Learn how the Udemy CEO thinks about differences by sector discussed here).
The shift in teacher development from sit-and-get courses to just-in-time resources is another important development. We published a paper on micro-credentials with BloomBoard last month and last year wrote a paper with Digital Promise on micro-credentials in leadership development.
New platforms (like the 3 discussed above) make it easier for teachers and students to shape projects that explore interests while developing standards-based skills.
Like any advance, blended learning can be thin and poorly implemented or–where leaders value relationships, broader aims, and place-based assets–can empower rich learning environments. It starts “and/both” leadership.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Qi Li

Thanks Tom for this great article! Creating "place based and students centered" activities indeed engage students better. I used Skype for my students to talk to Chinese sister school students. They were very excited and talked a lot better than only in a traditional classroom setting. We also did role play and debate in the school garden and I found students were more engaged and performed better. I will create more activities and projects according to your theory to help my students learn better.

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