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Connected Learning: An Academic Quest

Written by Paul Allison
June 03, 2012

I’m trying to distinguish between an assignment, a project, an inquiry, a mission, and a quest.

So here are some basic definitions. Below I sketch out why I’m doing this.

A quest has three qualities that distinguish it from an assignment or project.

1) Students choose whether or not to do a quest at all. Students choose quests to build the skills they need to achieve a self-chosen goal or complete a self-designed project.

2) Once students choose to do a quest (e.g. I want to generate a piece of writing), they are able to choose from several different paths or ways of accomplishing it (e.g. freewriting, guidelines, memory-chain, loops).

3) Students are able to complete a quest in a short period of time (sometimes in 30 minutes or up to a week), but a quest is also be repeatable. Students use quests to develop lifelong habits of heart, mind, and work that they can practice over and over again and get better and better at, developing their skills as they move closer to reaching their goals or completing their tasks.


I want to work with others to reorganize this list of “Missions.” http://youthvoices.net/issue/archives This year, we have just been collecting almost anything onto this list, and it has become unwieldy or at least confusing, leaving most people looking at it wondering why is this (Guidelines, for example) here beside that (Secrets of their Craft: Photography)? 
Then we also have the “Power Users Guide” http://youthvoices.net/grid. Maybe each of the boxes on this grid represents a quest as I’ve begun to define it above. And maybe we can reorganize the missions as options within each of the boxes on the grid?

I want to try to make this project as clear as possible to other teachers here on Digital Is, then perhaps you will want to join this quest with me (ah, maybe connections is an important part of a quest too?)


If you’re still reading, maybe you share some of these inquiries. Here’s more.

What is academic work and what does that have to do with this quest inquiry? Three examples might give dimension to this important principle of learning that has been outlined at www.connectedlearning.tv recently by researchers and colleagues at The Digital Media & Learning Research Hub.
In their model, being “academically oriented” is one of the three Principles of Connected Learning: “Intellectual growth thrives when learning is directed towards academic achievement and excellence,” they posit. Although the model also emphasizes “peer culture and interest-driven activity” it presents these as needing “to be connected to academic subjects, institutions, and credentials.”

Fair enough. After all, I teach English (academic subject) in a public high school (institution) for transfer students in the Bronx, and the students in my classes, no matter how many self-directed, passion-based (interest-driven), collaborative, community-based (peer culture) projects I can allow or inspire them to do, their main goal is to get a high school diploma (credential). 

So what counts for academic work? How many of what kinds of activities does a young person need to do successfully to finish an English credit, for example? What does a student need to do each week to be on track academically? Which skills can be demonstrated with just a few examples, and which habits of heart, mind, and work require a persistent, ongoing pattern of success before we can be satisfied that students have earned credits or diplomas?

I’ll start this inquiry by describing how I’ve been evolving answers to questions like these about academic habits by presenting my expectations to students on a grid of 15 or 20 activities that I want them to do each week (even if this “week” often ends up being 8 or 9 school days). When one week ends, we start again with the same 15 or 20 activities. 

Over the years, I’ve thought hard, listened carefully, and negotiated honestly with the students and teachers I’ve been working with to come up with a group of habits that I think are important for students to practice. These are things they need to do regularly and over extended periods of time. 

For example, a trimester at my school might start on March 8th and end on June 12th. The school might divide a trimester like this into two marking periods, and I might have three grids of 20 assignments each for each marking period (for a total of six grids and 120 sub-assignments). This means that students receive a new grid with the same 20 prompts every week-and-a-half or so. 

I provide these numbers for clarity, but they are just an example. What is important to understand is that students are doing the same things every week for a specific number of weeks. This is how they develop and demonstrate the habits of heart, mind and work they need to be academically successful. 

At another time (I hope soon.), I’ll describe these habits in more detail, and I’ll discuss how students use them to develop self-directed projects and to work with me to co-create “interest-powered,” “peer-supported,” and “academically oriented” projects in my classroom.

A second reference point that is helping me to understand academic habits–and how important it is to expect regular contributions by students over a period of time–is something that Howard Rheingold writes in a syllabus for a social media literacies course on the high school level that he has compiled from his college-level syllabus.

In it he writes about expecting students to do “Ongoing Assignments.” On the second and third page of his syllabus, Rheingold lists ten learning outcomes that “diligent students will… cultivate, learn, hone, understand, distinguish, recognize, and become familiar with.” Again, at another time, I’ll discuss the details of these, and compare them to the twenty items on the grid I use with my students. 

Here, as a second point in this inquiry into defining what we mean by “academic,” I want to point to how it’s not enough for Rheingold to list the learning outcomes. Immediately after them he writes that students need to “select a mix of these as continuous activities.”

“Students have been strongly socialized to do the homework for each class the night before it is due,” Rheingold correctly observes. Then he explains that this is “a method that doesn’t work when discourse, not a discrete product like a term paper, is the goal.” Before explaining in more detail how many of what activities he expects of students, Rheingold complains: “They hang out on Facebook every night. They need to hang out on their blog, in the class forum, on the wiki at least several nights a week.”

In Rheingold’s class, “students are expected to contribute at least one substantial post to the forum each week – and more than one post per week is encouraged. Good forum conversation is a communication art on its own…. Reading the texts precedes and is necessary for forum discussions, since the common theme of the online discussions will be the previous week’s readings and in-class discussions….”

If we are looking for students to exchange ideas (discourse) and not write some disconnected paper for the professor or teacher (discrete product), then we need to clarify our expectations of students and ask them to produce “x-number” of items a week for the next “y-number” of weeks. Then, perhaps we (and they) can graph their understanding of social media, for example.

The third point of reference that has me thinking about what it means to be academic comes from a different kind of place: Jane McGonigal’s newest alternate reality game, SuperBetter www.superbetter.com

I’ll discuss more of my experiences in becoming SuperBetter at meditation (my chosen goal) at a later point. Here I’m interested to point to the nature of some of the “quests.”

On SuperBetter it says that “a quest list helps you master the skill of committed goal pursuit – a scientific term for the most effective way to pursue our hopes and dreams.”

Further it says that in a quest, it is important to “break down big goals. Develop a long list of smaller, concrete activities. These are your sub-goals. A sub-goal is a goal you could successfully tackle over the course of just one day – or even an hour, or a few minutes! (In SuperBetter, each quest is a sub-goal.)”

Players on SuperBetter are encouraged to create their own quests and when they do they are encouraged to say how often a particular sub-goal or quest is to be done each week, and for how many weeks. The “Make your friends a mirror” quest, for example is scheduled for 3 times a week for 1 week (3 instances). Other quests have a schedule of 3 time a week for 3 weeks (9 instances). 

What if we made assignments this way for our students, or co-created their quests with them?

These are the three examples of developing habits of heart, mind and work that I want to explore more: 

  • my own evolution of presenting my curriculum with a weekly grid
  • Rheingold’s suggestions about ongoing assignments
  • McGonigal’s notion of defining quests by how often we do them each week and for how many weeks.

From these, I think we can develop a better understanding of what academic work looks like in the context of Connected Learning.

Finally, I’d like to think about implications for our Missions page on Youth Voices http://youthvoices.net/issue/archives. How might we think about these so that they represent habits of mind, heart and work that we want our students to achieve as they become academically successful.

Obviously, there’s more to develop here. Maybe you’d like to help me think it through?

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