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A MOOC to Model the Way

Growth mindset. Grit. Curiosity. Optimism. These are the key concepts in the emerging school of positive psychology, and they are being used in classrooms around the world, some of which are seeing remarkable results. A free MOOC, Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms, is being offered by one of the proponents of this positive psychology-driven approach, the Relay Graduate School of Education (GSE). Charlie Chung of BestCerts spoke with Dan Konecky, Director of Online Development at the Relay GSE about the MOOC, just as the next session is about to start on May 7, 2014.

The Relay GSE is a new graduate school with about 1,000 students, with locations in New York, Newark, and New Orleans, and opening soon in Chicago and Houston. It was founded by three charter school organizations: Uncommon Schools, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), and Achievement First. The program is flipped so that about 40% of learning occurs online and 60% in-person. In this case, the online component is not due to logistical constraints; to be a student at Relay, you need to be a full-time classroom teacher, and a core aspect of the program is applying the learning, so that things are tried in actual classrooms, and students report back the results. Given this, a blended approach makes sense, so Relay GSE knows their way around online learning channels. Thus, it seems a natural step to offer a MOOC to allow others outside their walls to benefit from this instruction.

We thought we were building a course for teachers. But I think we built a course for anyone that works with children 

The MOOC is targeted towards teachers and aspiring teachers, but the principles are relevant to parents and anyone who interacts with kids including parents, grandparents, and child caregivers. The principles covered are so relevant to interacting with children, that in retrospect Dan Konecky says “We thought we were building a course for teachers. But I think we built a course for anyone that works with children”

A parent of two himself, Dan describes a couple of the major practical lessons that stood out to him from the MOOC:

  • Ask kids to use “if-then” statements to get them to think about the future. A guest interview in the MOOC is with Dr. Walter Mischel (famous for his marshmallow self-control experiment). Dr. Mischel describes a metaphor of the the brain, where the “hot” system (lower brain), is driven by emotion and is focused only on the present, while the “cold” system allows for planning and rational thought—and part of its job is to cool down the hot system. Thus, a simple tactic to help engage the cold system is to get kids to talk in “if-then” statements to trigger the foresight and planning.
  • Praise effort rather than results to help kids develop grit. Another guest interview is from psychologist Dr. Angela Duckworth, who talks about grit, which is the determination to stick with something challenging (see her 4-million view TED talk). We may think we are reinforcing good behavior when we praise kids achievements (“You played that Beethoven sonata very well!”) but it would be better to praise their effort (“Great job practicing three times a week and working on the tough parts of the Sonata”). This reinforces the fact that applying effort is the key thing that will help them face challenges in life.

These are just a couple of the elements of a positive character-building environment, something that is a key component of some of the successful charter school programs, such as KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First. But don’t think that this emphasis on positivity means being soft and fuzzy with kids—the key to success is to combine a positive environment with high academic standards.

The instructor for the MOOC is Dave Levin, a co-founder of KIPP. Dave loves coaching teachers, and is known as an incredible educator that works with Relay students and other teachers in classes and workshops. Dave is dazzling in front of a room, but this raises the question: Can Dave’s “magic” be bottled in an online class? Despite Relay GSE’s experience with online learning, many were unsure. Dan says that people wondered “How could this be better than a workshop with Dave in a room?”

How could this be better than a workshop with Dave in a room 

Luckily, Dave was gung-ho to develop this MOOC, in order to reach as many teachers as possible. But this meant that the course team would need to organize the material, which might be covered over the 9 months, into five weeks, and Dave would need to record all of the content specifically for the online audience. They accomplished this and ran their first session of the course in February–it was a smashing success. First the numbers: about 27,000 people enrolled in the course (they got a small spike in interest from an Oprah tweet—a marketer’s dream), 11,000 people played the first video, and around 2,000 passed the course requirements for a certificate. Students from over 180 countries took part, and the discussion groups were buzzing, with the most activity around sharing reflections from the self-discovery exercises or sharing examples of developing optimism.

Besides guest interviews mentioned above, which covered some of the theoretical social science underpinnings, there were also five case studies that documented authentic teaching situations via real classroom footage. As Dan says:

We did not want to show [an idealized way of] how to do this. In these case studies, there is footage of a teacher trying to integrate a character objective, then Dave working with the teacher looking at the footage and giving feedback, and then we go back to the school and see the teacher implementing the feedback. 

The case studies worked and contributed to the success of the MOOC. Dave Levin, for one, is convinced–he now talks about using the videos and exercises from the MOOC as pre-work before an in-person session where he works with the teacher on application of the concepts. Thus, the content can live on, and this shows the value of MOOCs in developing content that can be used in a flipped or blended learning model.

There will be a few changes in this next iteration of the course. First, in order to help navigate the discussion board activity, the course will have nine TAs, with each monitoring a specific part of the discussion boards, interacting with students, and bringing appropriate topics to the instructor’s attention. There will be one mid-term quiz and one peer-reviewed final project. The final project will be a self-reflective assignment that students will start working on the first week of class, so that it results in an online learning portfolio over time, rather than being a single assignment done in a few days.

Dan emphasizes that “there is no one right way to take the MOOC”. Thus, some people may follow along from beginning to end by themselves, some might take the MOOC with a group, and others might save the videos to provide professional development to their schools or districts at a later time. One of the course stats that is most intriguing is the number of videos that were downloaded by students: 53,000. Clearly, the content is being used in diverse ways. In this session of the course, Relay will provide a guide to blending the content of the MOOC, consisting of suggested session plans, PowerPoint slides, and facilitator notes—all in one simple ZIP file. People can use this, adapt it, or build upon it, and share their experiences in the discussion forums. Hopefully they will do so, as this content seems like it is too good not to share. You can sign up for the  Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms MOOC which starts this week.