Open-Source Learners fueling up for summer reading

Summer reading: the 7 elements of open-source learning

This is the first in a series of summer reading articles about how we can reimagine learning for next year and beyond. To get the next article delivered automatically to your inbox, click HERE.


We made it through the Pandemic School Year. It’s time for your summer reading pleasure. Cue Alice Cooper.

It’s time to forget about school and enjoy the summer. To paraphrase Alice: “No more learning management systems, no more surveillance software…”

This is the perfect time to learn from our experiences and consider how we’d like to see learning happen next year. Spring semester may be over, but we are still processing 2020-21. Brains working overtime produce good ideas. The experience of thinking of the right thing after the moment passes is so universal that the French gave it a name: l’esprit de l’escalier.

Summer is the perfect time for Open-Source Learning.

Open-Source Learning by definition means taking existing ideas, using what works, and customizing everything else to our specific needs in the moment. Consider the core ingredients of Open-Source Learning, and then use your experience, your network, your social media account, or whatever else you think is the right tool for the job to start a conversation. Your summer reading provides the seeds for your next growth spurt. Investigate a Big Question for yourself (background on Big Questions along with examples in the comments HERE). Collaborate with others to co-design an experience.

There’s a bit more context in the next few paragraphs – but hey, we’re all busy, so if you want to dive right in, here are the 7 elements of Open-Source Learning:

  1. guided learning process
  2. timeless best practices
  3. today’s tools
  4. empower learners
  5. interdisciplinary paths of inquiry
  6. communities of interest and critique
  7. a portfolio of knowledge capital

Pro tip #1: Skip the traditional curriculum. No one ever cared about the quadratic formula and the Hawley-Smoot whatever. The universities that prescribed curriculum and seat-time did not anticipate the demands of today’s world. The clock is running out on the first quarter of the 21st century, and learners’ needs go way beyond the textbook. Think social justice, the environment, economics/personal finance, technology, resilience, conflict management, and analyzing information.

Pro tip #2: Find your energy. Eat better. Sleep better. Exercise. Do some summer reading and get your passionate curiosity mojo back. If you think summer vacation is a time to sit still, or that sitting still ever healed a person who is tired or traumatized, make sure you’re clear on the difference between learning and school. School saps our energy; learning energizes us.

In the early 2000s I defined my teaching practice as Open-Source Learning. The name drew on systems thinking in the natural and social sciences, and the emerging open source software movement. I knew that many teachers were thinking in similar ways, but we didn’t have any natural path to collaboration. I wanted to provide a community and a research literature that would support every teacher who left faculty meetings disgusted, went back to their classrooms, shut the door, and delivered awesomeness to their students.

Closed systems choke learning.

Teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Good teaching has to swim upstream against a current of cultural and structural obstacles. Schools are traditionally closed systems. Campuses are fenced-off island fortresses. Instructional media and communications are monitored and hidden from public view. Classes are isolated. Students and teachers can’t talk to each other in the course of a normal workday.

The physical and organizational design of school works against interaction, collaboration, and engagement.

Closed systems choke learning.

When the pandemic closed campuses and forced school online, we were given a cruel gift. We had a golden opportunity to expand the conversation about learning and policy (death to the bathroom pass!).

Sadly, for many people, that excitement quickly turned to frustration. Schools crumpled the internet into the shape of the same ol’ classes and required students to sit in front of screens full of the same ol’ busy work. Even worse, technology such as Google Meet/Classroom and remote proctoring software intensified the suffering of students who had been marginalized long before the pandemic.

It should come as no surprise that many students called *Glitch!* and walked off the reservation. A lifetime of summer reading can’t cure the effect of being punished year after year with textbooks.

This isn’t over. The pandemic was just the beginning. The next disruption will be here all too soon.  Another pandemic, or an environmental disaster, or intensified food/housing/economic insecurity, or something unforeseen will again force us to meet the needs of learners in unconventional ways. At the rate we’re going now, we will again be woefully unprepared. That’s why, this year, our summer reading is taking on new significance.

Let’s fix the roof before the next storm.

We can do this together. One of learning’s superpowers is that it drives open systems.

Open systems interact with their environments. They integrate new parts and ideas. They respond, evolve, adapt, and improve. Imagine your summer reading as a conversation with a global community of kindred spirits.

Open systems change. They change their members, they change themselves, and they change the environment in which they operate.

Open-Source Learning provides a way to make the most of your own passion, curiosity, and capacity. As a bonus, you get to change the world.

“OK, that all sounds good. So what exactly is Open-Source Learning?”

Open-Source Learning is a guided learning process that combines timeless best practices with today’s tools in ways that empower learners to create interdisciplinary paths of inquiry, communities of interest and critique, and a portfolio of knowledge capital that is directly transferable to the marketplace.

Here is a closer look at each element of the OSL framework:

1. Open-Source Learning: A Guided Learning Process

Anyone can practice Open-Source Learning. If you don’t already have your own Yoda to guide you, don’t worry. Learning is an active process, and one of your first steps will be to recruit your network. You won’t have to go far to find peers and experts who are willing to mentor you, or at least give you some feedback on your work.

In school and other formal learning environments, the savvy OSL teacher serves as a guide. Instead of acting like an expert or a sergeant-at-arms, the OSL teacher is a lead learner – a facilitator who engages with students and co-creates a customizable learning experience that incorporates age and stage appropriate content.

2. Timeless Best Practices

Open-Source Learning communication techniques help us everywhere in life. Being mindful, asking good questions, listening to the answers with full presence, and empathizing before solving problems are just some of the ways OSL enhances our experience of connecting and collaborating.

Experienced educators can use a variety of teaching strategies to design experiences around the personality, interests, and learning style of each individual student learner. the Open-Source Learning teacher lead learner draws on proven traditions, including (but not limited to):

  • Socratic dialogue
  • Active listening, close reading, & reflective writing
  • Social learning
  • Critical pedagogy
  • Heritage language acquisition

Using these frameworks transform tactics into rituals and routines that create a shared sense of community culture.

3. Today’s Tools [summer reading on a variety of devices and media]

Open-Source Learning integrates the use of digital tools and awareness of digital culture to help students understand the virtual world in which they already live.

As an open system, OSL adapts to engage with new circumstances and tools as they develop. Today’s 2.0 and semantic web, video conferencing, and collaborative online tools provide opportunities that did not exist just a few years ago. OSL is ideally positioned to make use of them all.

4. Empower Learners

Research tells us that preschoolers ask 100 questions a day – but by the time students get to middle school, they stop asking questions altogether.

Open-Source Learning restores the passionate curiosity that motivates us to learn. Learning requires action. Risk. The courage to make mistakes, and the resiliency to apply the lessons of those mistakes in a renewed effort.

OSL networks are made of champions. Learners don’t take shit from anybody – they hack, experiment, and analyze information to evaluate credibility, logic, and truth.

5. Interdisciplinary Paths of Inquiry

See that cup of tea? That is not just a cup of tea. That is:

  • Botany
  • Cultures from China to England
  • Ceramics
  • Fluid mechanics
  • The history of colonialism

Our experience of living is richer when we view it through an interdisciplinary lens. Exploring the connections between fields and perspectives enhances our understanding and improves our ability to learn.

Scholars have documented the benefits of the “Medici Effect” – i.e., creating value by enhancing creativity, stimulating critical thinking, and communicating across different fields of expertise.

Open-Source Learning creates a Medici Effect by inviting students to ask questions. Every question is an interdisciplinary question.

Q: “Why doesn’t my girlfriend like me anymore?”

A: [biology, probability, psychology, poetry…]

Rather than artificially dividing life into academic subjects, OSL encourages students to make meaningful connections by exploring personally relevant Big Questions and incorporating multiple subject areas in search of answers.

As students further their explorations, they begin to see the need for specific skills and conceptual understandings that align with the traditional school curriculum and academic requirements for graduation and higher education.

6. Communities of Interest & Critique

To paraphrase the African proverb: It takes a village to educate a child. Also adults.

In the traditional closed system of the classroom, students are told to stay quiet and keep their eyes on their own papers. When they graduate, we wonder why they can’t communicate, solve problems, take initiative, or collaborate more effectively. Teachers are expected to be content experts and sergeants-at-arms, so they try to control students’ behaviors in ways that erode decision-making and cause personal discipline to atrophy.

Open-Source Learning encourages students to identify and connect with people who have the experience and expertise they respect and seek. When students can validate their work with experts, they receive critique and guidance.

Along the way, when students share their learning experiences with peers, parents/guardians, and others, they receive meaningful feedback and support.

CASE: A student patiently bided his time in high school waiting to graduate so he could learn to fly and become a pilot. When he joined an OSL network, he began exploring and connected with a master pilot at a regional airport for guidance. Within three months, the student was flying a plane – with his teacher in the back seat.

7. Portfolio of Knowledge Capital

American culture romanticizes entrepreneurship.

School vision statements and the media love the possibility of a dream.

Business lore promotes the idea that a venture capitalist or angel investor will see the promise of a dream and invest.

But the truth is that VCs don’t invest in dreams. They invest in proven success they believe will scale.

Students need to attract and impress scholarship judges, college admissions officers, employers, and others who can give them opportunities. For educators and administrators who want to boost the value of students leaving their care, authentic data – not seat time, grades, or test scores – is the key.

OSL students do more than write application essays that say, “If only you’d help me, I could do something wonderful.”

OSL students share a link to content of their own creation that shows the world: “I already am.”

To learn more about OSL and start your own OSL project or community, Contact Me.