Concentrated Endeavor

I often get asked about the learning environments that support entrepreneurial learning/21st century skills development. There are many practices that weave together to create proper conditions, informed by guiding principles and paradigms such as:

  1. Education must be real.
  2. Primary focus should be creating advanced learners (see my Teaching Without Knowing post for more on this)
  3. We must scaffold our students towards identifying problems and architecting solutions.
  4. We need to approach education by building on strengths, instead of correcting deficiencies.

One of the most important practices is how we structure our learning experiences in time. I’ve already spoken in my post on The Entrepreneurial Learner about how endeavor relates to learning, how students should not be given an education—they should endeavor to build one (with expert support). But what is concentrated endeavor? I’ll start by illustrating it’s opposite, distributed endeavor.

Distributed endeavor is when you engage with a learning theme or project in a distributed fashion relative to time. The normal class structure in a normal school illustrates this perfectly (at least the distributed part. Whether the students in it are endeavoring to build their own education is another matter). In the normal fashion, there are four or five or six focus areas (classes) that students engage with on a daily basis (usually totally unrelated), and they engage with each a bit at a time, slowly building understanding of multiple entrance points into the world of knowledge. An example that actually does include the kind of endeavor I am talking about, which is student-driven and inquiry-based, would be something similar to 20Time projects. 20Time projects are inquiry-driven projects where students own the learning, and the work on the projects happens in one class per week (thus 20% time) and is carried forward in a distributed fashion. My friend and colleague, Kevin Brookhouser, wrote a wonderful guidebook for running 20Time projects, and his website is a great resource.

While inquiry-driven, student directed learning is great, it’s difficult to get much momentum with only one hour per week. For students that dive fully into their 20Time projects, for instance, and put in many hours per week outside of school, they are doing it all as “extra” work, and often finding it difficult to put as much in energy as they would like because of the time demands of much less effective learning experiences in normal classes.

If we drop, at least for periods of time or for say half of each day or week, the inherited dictates of how school is normally perceived in terms of structure—one hour periods, knowledge domains artificially separated from each other—we begin to see what concentrated endeavor looks like. Well, it looks like how most people who work in the real world work: their schedule is driven by the projects they are working on, not by arbitrary contact points within a project.

An example of fully concentrated endeavor is a program I co-founded in California called iLead+Design.

In iLead+Design, groups of five student and one coach work with community partners to design solutions for real problems the partners bring to the program. The program lasts two weeks, and each day is built around the problem at hand. That’s not to say we don’t do other things, but all activities are desinged to support the overall goal we are working towards.

There are other ways to do concentrated endeavor. There is expeditionary learning in programs such as Raleigh International. There are outsource learning programs such as NuVu Studio School in Massachusetts (a wonderful program. I’m not sure “outsource” has the best connotation here, but that’s one way to describe how their program relates to the schools that send students there). Many graduate schools have practicum components that approximate concentrated endeavor. But the problem is, for most students, they never contact a problem in the real world in a concentrated manner until they leave university. Without that concentrated contact, it is very difficult to develop the skills, habits, and attitudes that are needed to be able to function in that manner, and let’s face it, that’s the time environment that we ultimately need people to be able to function in and to guide their own actions in. If their only experience operating in concentrated endeavor is after they leave college, I’m afraid building the necessary skills, habits, and attitudes is going to be exceptionally difficult.

I believe a substantial portion of our learning experiences should be build around concentrated endeavor. Yes, it has significant implications in how we structure our schools, who leads the learning, how they are trained. But it’s necessary, and we need to find more opportunities for it within our programs, not always as an extra.

Published by Aaron Eden

What's your Give? I think that is a critical question in everything we do. What value are we creating? The core of my work is educating for a sustainable future. Value-oriented learning. Community-integrated learning. Social entrepreneurship. Emergent, inquiry-driven, entrepreneurial learning. I've spent the last 20 years designing and facilitating face-to-face and online learning experiences and co-creative processes that help individuals and organizations develop the skills and attributes to transform themselves and the world. I have extensive experience in instructional and learning experience design, innovation, and technology spaces.

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