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Month October 2015

Games, Metacognition, Big Data, and Education – An Introduction

Hello, world! My name is Alison, and I am one of two new members joining the rethinkED team this year. I hail from a background of research, cognition, ed tech, and data science – I am currently a Ph.D student at Columbia University, Teachers College in Cognitive Studies in Education, and a M.S. student in Learning Analytics (Educational Data Mining) – and I’m very excited to share my perspectives on how we can re-imagine learning both in and out of the classroom. I hail from a sleepy farm town nestled in the western valley of the Watchung mountains in central New Jersey, where I emigrated to at age five with a twin sister and older brother from Hong Kong. I graduated from Rutgers University with a triple B.A. in Psychology, Philosophy, and Communications (Go Knights!), and worked in tech startups and educational companies before following my heart straight to TC.


I’m especially interested in the intersections of big data, technology, games, and the classroom. The “big idea” questions that drive me include:

–       What are some more effective ways we can use technological interventions to convey ideas (concepts, abstract systems and structures, complex interactions) more powerfully and interactively?

–       What kind of fruitful cognition occurs in play, exploration, and invention that can be co-opted for learning?

–       How can we use the latest advancements in collecting, analyzing, and representing data to empower both teachers and learners?

–       What are the needs in the classroom that teachers feel like are not being met by Ed. Tech, and how do we design tech to meet these needs more thoughtfully?

–       How can we re-frame what kinds of skills and competencies are necessary to succeed in today’s global economy, and how do we teach or facilitate these skills in the classroom?


Of course, this is only a part of a list that continues to grow every day! But, to complete a dissertation means to drill down on the specifics of one very robust idea, investigate it, and add just the tiniest addition of insight to the world previously unknown – I love this explanation of a Ph.D, so wonderfully depicted by a guy named Matt Might: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/


My calling is in investigating the metacognitive (“thinking about thinking”) responses to failure that occur in educational games, and how such cognitive processes are 1) related to formal learning later on, and 2) transferrable to learning contexts outside of the game.  An illustration: imagine yourself as a 10-year-old, playing a particularly difficult level of Mario. You fail the level, which then sets off a flurry of emotional and cognitive responses – oh crap! How did that happen? What did I do wrong? Do I actually know what went wrong? How do I fix it? What do I have to avoid next time? These metacognitive judgments – the appraisal of states of knowing, locating sources of cognitive dissonance, identifying gaps in knowledge, and employing strategies to adjust or reconcile this – are precisely the kinds of cognitive behaviors we want kids to engage deeply in when learning! The big questions are, then, do these kinds of behaviors in an educational game actually improve learning later on, and whether developing these kinds of skills in a game setting will transfer into more traditional learning contexts later on.


It is a privilege to be joining a pool of educators, big idea people, and all-around smarty pants here at Riverdale to address some of these issues that are so pressing in today’s education landscape. We’ve been lucky to have already observed a design challenge with Riverdale’s 9th graders, attended a talk on finding the balance between passions and pragmatism (keep an eye out for that post, coming up!), and collaborated on a design jam on how to re-think high school with some of RCS’s top educators. I look forward to hearing from the rest of the Riverdale community, and discussing (and likely debating!) some of the latest topics in education and technology with my cohort Jenna, Elsa, and Melissa here at rethinkED!


Talk to you all soon!


[rethinking Purpose & Passion]: multipotentiality vs. one true calling… *

rethinking passion…*

Last year, both Elsa and I wrote about rethinking passion [here and here]. I argued that childhood should be about exploration, rather than passion. I also cited the importance of hard work, setbacks, and struggles in developing passion. Similarly, Elsa spoke of shifting from a “passion” mindset to a “craftman’s” mindset, which she describes as “a relentless focus on activating one’s unique potential by continually pushing to develop one’s skills and acquire new ones” A craftsman mindset involves deliberate practice of valuable skills.

what is purpose?…*

This year, rethinkED…* has been thinking about purpose and how to instill purpose in students. Yet what is purpose? Personally, I argue against the notion of pushing students to define one unified purpose for their lives. Instead, I believe we should cultivate multiple purposes and overall purposefulness in our students. Rather than having just one purpose, do with purpose.


Especially in today’s society, it seems rather rare to have just one passion. With this in mind, I was enthralled by a recent TED talk by Emilie Wapnick, a career coach who speaks to those without “one true calling.” Recollecting the overwhelming anxiety of the question “what do you want to be when you grow up,” she explains that it is not that students have no interest but rather than they sometimes have too many. She says that,

“while this question inspires kids to dream about what they could be, it does not inspire them to dream about all that they could be”

This question is part of the overall societal pressure we place upon children to pick one thing, to choose which of the things that they love and make a career out of it. She continues,

“The notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it.”

However, we leave many, many people out of this narrative. People who do many wonderful things across their lives, who have many things they are curious about and many different things that they want to do. People she calls multipotentialites.


She defines multipotentialites as those with many pursuits, the modern-day “Renaissance” men (and women). Rather than thinking of this flitting from interest to interest as a limitation, Emilie cites three super powers that multipotentialites can possess:

  1. Idea synthesis- Combining two or more fields and finding something new and exciting at the intersection. Innovation happens at these intersections.
  2. Rapid learning- Multipotentialites are comfortable at being beginners or “accomplished novices”.
  3. Adaptability- With many skills, you can morph into whatever you need to be in a given situation.

She states that there are many complex, multidimensional world problems that need solving right now, and the ideal team for such problems is a specialist and a multipotentialite paired together. She concludes by stating

“…embrace your many passions. Follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes. Explore your intersections. Embracing our inner wiring leads to a happier, more authentic life. And perhaps more importantly — multipotentialites, the world needs us.”


Overall, Emilie does not advocate for one path through life but rather believes that we should support individuals who aim for breadth (multipotentialites) as much as we support individuals who aim for depth (specialists). This fits with the idea of exploration alongside passion.

However, one criticism that could be put upon Emilie’s argument is that most students would rather be multipotentialites, flitting from interest to interest, rather than dig in and put hard work into one specific thing. In terms of grit and deliberate practice, it is far easier to shift gears when something gets hard or tedious. In terms of success, research suggests that being gritty and putting in the work is very important.

Purposeful, gritty pursuit of multiple passions…*

Instead, I would argue that the ideal falls somewhere in the middle. We should encourage students to pursue multiple passions, but we should also discourage students from straying from an interest when it simply becomes too challenging. Further, in order to use the “idea synthesis” superpower, students must actively reflect on the themes and ways in which their various interests connect. I am passionate about education research and studio art. I can cultivate these two passions simultaneously. More importantly, I seek inspiration from my artwork in my research. I seek respite from the intellectual rigor of school in the flow state I get when painting. I integrate the two when I design research studies and develop compelling presentations. My overall philosophy on life, truth, and knowledge is inextricably tied to the meaning I’ve distilled from these pursuits.

Your life does not need to be played on a single instrument. Yet only through hard work will you play any one instrument well. And only through learning how to combine the sounds of each together in harmony can you create a symphony…* 


#RethinkHighSchool with XQ: The Super School Project

This month, the rethinkED team is getting excited about XQ: The Super School Project, Launched by Laurene Powell Jobs, this design challenge invites teams to reimagine the next American High School. Winners will receive support and $50 million to make their idea into a reality.

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 2.50.26 PM

Source: http://xqsuperschool.org/challenge

According to the XQ institute, XQ is the agile and flexible intelligence that prepares students for a more connected world, a rapidly changing future, and a lifetime of learning. It is a combination of IQ (cognitive capabilities) and EQ (emotional intelligence or how we learn in the world).

Soliciting “What If..”s from the world, the XQ project is a design thinking challenge operating on a massive scale. The challenge is broken into 4 phases: 1) Assemble a team, 2) Discover the landscape of education, 3) Design a super school for the community, and 4) Develop a formidable plan.

RethinkED is going to team up with other innovative and talented individuals for an intense day of dreaming and designing next week. As you’ve seen, we have a lot of ideas surround character education, interdisciplinary pedagogies, and community-focused learning, and we are excited to merge these into a coherent plan of action to #RethinkHighSchool.

P.S. The rethinkED team has recently grown! We have two new members, and we are super excited for you to meet them.


Hip Hop + History = Alexander Hamilton: The Musical…*

Hip hop history…*

Back in 2014, I wrote about Pentecostal Pedagogy and the idea that we can increase learner engagement by relating to students — particularly urban students — through modes of communication that they relate to, such as rap. This was at the forefront of my mind earlier this month when I went to see Hamilton: The Musical – a new broadway musical that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the “making of America”… through hip hop music.


The play was by far one of the best Broadway shows I’ve ever seen. An educational, witty, and fairly accurate portrayal of the beginning of our nation, Hamilton converts what could feel like a very dry topic and put a fresh spin on it, communicating through a fusion of hip hop, jazz, and broadway music that is fun and relatable. The writer Lin-Manual Miranda chose Alexander Hamilton – an immigrant and orphan – as the protagonist of this historical play. He cast himself – a man of color – as Hamilton, and overall the cast is far more diverse than one might expect for a story about a bunch of old white men.  In doing so, he creates a relatable story for many Americans who may have trouble empathizing with the old white men that dominate our history books.

With verses like the one below, he paints the picture of a man born without privilege, who succeeded through hard work and beat the odds to become a founding father of our nation:

The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.

One of the repeating lines of the play — “I’m just like my country – I’m young, scrappy, and hungry. And I’m not throwin’ away my shot” — speaks to the timeless passion of ambitious youth.

The play uses rap battles for cabinet meetings, succinctly explaining Jefferson and Hamilton’s differing opinions on monetary policy or whether or not to send aid to the French Revolution.

The musical also approaches high-level issues, such as the way in which history is spun by those who live to tell the story. It develops multidimensional characters, such as Aaron Burr, displaying the complexity of politics and “right” and “wrong”.

Hamilton serves as a wonderful example of how to make history approachable and engaging for students. This play could be an excellent Preparation for Future Learning activity that would set the stage for a more traditional classroom discussion about the revolutionary war, our founding fathers, and the subjective nature of history.

While you are waiting to get your hands on tickets to this incredible performance, I’d highly recommend checking out the soundtrack, available on NPR FIRST LISTEN and also available for purchase on iTunes.





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