It’s a blessing that XR technologies exist to help kids continue to learn through the COVID-19 pandemic. But if we just treat the tech as a delivery system for classroom homework, we’re doing students a disservice. Education consultant Sam Nulf explains why.

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies to explore, enhance, and individualize learning for everyone. Today, my guest, Sam Nulf, has 15 years experience on instructional design in learning and development for enterprise and education. He’s worked both internationally and in Toronto, Canada, as an educator and administrator. Sam has been a guest speaker on conferences speaking about 21st century learning and strategies for reimagining the curriculum. He co-authored the Inquiry Framework Tool, a guide for implementing inquiry based learning into the classroom, and has consulted with organizations on their curriculum and learning programs. Sam is currently working at the VR and AR Space, marrying his two passions, innovation and learning. Thanks for joining me today, Sam.

Sam: My pleasure. Nice to be here, Julie.

Julie: Great, great. So please tell me a little bit more about your passion, your vision. We talked right before we started recording here today, about when we decided we were going to record; it was pre-COVID and this isolation that’s going on right now for everyone, and how education and learning from home has impacted everyone. And I’d love for you to just take off in a conversation with me, about how we’re going to adjust learning from home, and what you’re seeing from your perspective and your experience.

Sam: [laughs] That’s a really big question. I’ll try and break it down.

Julie: Absolutely, absolutely. How are we going to fix this problem? [laughs]

Sam: Right, right. Let’s just first maybe touch on what I perceived to be the climate out there. I think there’s been some reporting in the news channels about some dissatisfaction and frustration from parents, with how the roll-out of the learning programs through the use of technology has gone. And that frustration, I think it generally revolves around a gap in understanding for parents. Parents need a little more support in how to help their children at home. I think there needs to be– that bridge between the institution of education and parents needs to be supported and built out a bit more. And then that will inform how robust the learning can be with what’s being pushed out. It seems that the tool — if we’re talking about technology as a tool — hasn’t quite been used to its full potential. It’s more sort of like a delivery service for the checklist of items that parents have to do. And the board will call it learning. “You do this, you do this, you do this, and your child is learning.” But there’s an opportunity that’s been missed, to make the learning really rich. And that is one part technology, but it’s another part, the instructional design piece or the pedagogy. Rethinking how to how to teach. And there has been some big conversations about inquiry based learning or problem based learning and 21st century competencies, that sort of are amplified with that type of instruction. So I think there’s still some work to do.

Julie: Yeah, just a story I’ve heard this week about a very frustrated teacher who has put a lot of pressure on the parent, for not engaging their child at home enough with the remote teacher. So, first of all, the frustration of the teacher not having the parents sit there by the student and say, you have to do your work, get onto the computer and you have to talk to this teacher. But then when that computer disconnects, the learning should not stop. And the only person that’s there is the parent, to– I do want to say force, because we don’t want to force kids to learn. We want to encourage them to learn. And this is something that I think where the government and our systems need to support parents on how to encourage your child to learn, how to teach them to learn, to *love* to learn. And this is something I’ve been saying for a long time. Kids, they you don’t get up every day and go, “Oh wow, I get to go to school today!” They get up and say, “Ugh, I have to go to school today.”

Sam: Yeah.

Julie: We need to change that. And I think that’s how we’ll deliver the biggest impact. So there needs to be a movement on how to encourage parents to be the biggest supporters and the biggest mentors in their kids lives, to encourage what they’re interested in so they can follow their passions. And yes, the curriculum needs to be delivered. “Checkbox here, here and here, and they got this passing grade. Great.” The essentials do need to be taught. But this is certainly a time to inspire passion in your kids, and help them with the littlest things that we’ll discover what they like to learn the most.

Sam: For sure. And look, our children, they are naturally curious animals. And we have to leverage that impulse to explore and question. There’s been some great research done from the University of Toronto faculty of education education, Dr. Marlene Scardamalia — difficulty pronouncing your last name — but she’s actually published a lot of work around knowledge building and natural curiosity. And there’s a way to leverage that and get really rich learning. It shouldn’t be a chore. It can be exciting. And we have to sort of fulfill that curiosity quotient. For me personally, when we talk about the innovations around instructional design and best practices for teaching and learning, I prefer to sort of anchor it in real life problem solving to really leverage student interest and explore what they’re curious about. They take the lead on this, and it’s our job as parents and teachers to sculpt the learning trajectory, so that we teach them how to be independent learners. Because eventually they’re going to be out in the world on their own, get curious about something. And if we provide a roadmap of learning, a framework, they’ll be able to do it on their own. And if we’re in the digital age right now, we have to start a conversation about, well, what are the best tools for the job?

Julie: Absolutely. And there are so many of them out there. And we all know that Google is right there to ask any question. You can now just say it out loud, and I’m sure, my Google system here will perk up its ears and say, “Okay, I’m ready.” That’s where teaching has to change, because we can’t provide questions that the kids can just immediately go to Google and get them to answer it, or just copy and paste from the Internet. We need to spur up a different type of thought process that stirs the ability to come up with solutions and curiosity and conversation.

Sam: No, absolutely. And there are really valuable question matrixes, open versus closed question, the different sort of cognitive things that are happening in the brain. You want to take your children and learners into an area where they can apply the knowledge that they’ve got to new contexts and situations, and provide them with the skills so that they can be creative problem solvers and ultimately create something new. So there’s a taxonomy, there’s a hierarchy of critical thinking and questioning that are good anchors out there. And unfortunately, it’s just– it’s an awareness thing. That’s what teachers learned to do. But now I think parents have to be aware of this type of understanding also.

Julie: Absolutely. It’s interesting, because this came up over the last couple of days. My kids have been doing extremely well for what they’re doing, and even working on projects with Michael McDonald in virtual reality in Altspace and Educators In VR hosting and learning about a three dimensional learning, which kind of takes it to that next level. But one of the speakers who is featured on Educators In VR, Tim Jackson, hosted an event the other day and had some of his students on stage with him. And he’s a professor in the town of Kent in the UK, and he stirred up the questions. And these were very interesting, because I brought them into my household. And this is something that maybe everybody should do, as I said. And this was led by something that he talked about, was discussing with the kids. Why are they here? My younger one went, “What do you mean? I’m eating breakfast, right?” And I said, “No, why are you here on this earth? What are you doing here? And what are you going to do to contribute as a human on this earth? What are your interests going to be in?” And when I asked my older daughter, she turned around. “Oh,” she said. “That’s a really good question. I need to figure that out.” And that’s a good place to start. Are we a consumer or a contributor? And stirring these questions — like you said — that stir curiosity, an answer that must be projected from them. And come from them.

Sam: Yeah, agreed. And we shouldn’t be afraid of those big questions. Children will surprise you with their capacity and potential to be reflective, and engaging in those rich conversations is probably the most valuable learning you’ll get.

Julie: And I think that kids are not taken– their voice is not taken into consideration soon enough. And I’m not saying at 18 years old, by the time they’re adults, when most kids at the age of 10 have experience — well, they’ve already experienced 10 years of experience in their life — that they should have a voice going into their teens. That’s obviously a very big question and purpose to have the voice of youth spoken out. But they’re very smart and they are ready to engage, and this digital era that we’re in right now is speeding that process up. And we need to listen to them more. And I listen to my kids every day. I talk to them about what they learned, while I was busy on calls with people like you, and learning about everything to do with XR, but feeding off our kids and what they’re learning and how they’re interacting has been the biggest learning component for myself. And I encourage everybody to do the same.

Sam: Well, you bring up a really interesting point. I think it is important to explore, for both parents and developers in enterprise and tech and everything. A friend of mine at the Ministry of Education put it succinctly: he seemed to think this is the first time — if we put it into a historical context — that our learning institutions are playing catch up with society. I think in the past, they’ve actually been leading ahead and that we will provide you with the skills that you need to enter the world. All of a sudden it’s just been flipped on its head. And now the institution of learning is playing catch up to the speed of change that’s happening. And that’s never happened before. And so we have to really rethink how we approach learning. And then the conversations sort of get into this 21st century approach to learning, and we get into conversations around the global competencies: how do we assess and evaluate learning, the different types of learning, different types of assessment practices? And there’s not this sort of the knowledge piece necessarily that’s valued. This isn’t an either-or conversation, but it’s a shift in perspective or emphasis that we’re now going onto more process based skills and soft skills of learning, that become more important as we use technology as the tool.

Julie: And individualized, right? So this is where the individual learning– everybody should have their own individual learning path, that is created through passion and curiosity. And this is where the education systems do need to shift, that everybody learns at their own pace. It’s not necessarily a group setting in being forced by age. And that’s how it’s always been before. We can go on to different conversations about when kids are born earlier in the year, compared to later in the year, there’s all sorts of different avenues there. But I know personally, my twelve year old is moving at a different pace than several other kids in her class, and she should have the ability to explore more. But she is currently stuck in that grade six box that every other kid that is in grade six is in. Educators need to learn how to open that box up, open up the pass for the kids who are able to learn faster, so they can explore. And if not, they get stuck in tick-tock daze, trying to entertain themselves. And that’s the ultimate threat right now, is that if the systems don’t provide tools where they can explore the curiosity, and the teachers are ready and prepared to feed them and guide them. This is where teachers will turn into mentors of knowledge, because if that student doesn’t feel like that teacher knows enough about what that student is curious enough about, they will disregard them, disrespect their learning leadership.

Sam: Yeah, that’s a whole rabbit hole. [laughs]

Julie: We’ll have another podcast on that one. We’ve got a lot of really good subjects here.

Sam: Yeah, that’s for sure.

Julie: There’s a lot to work on. There’s a lot to fix. There’s a lot to build. And education systems — circling back to that — supporting parents and families right now with tools, apps, methods, and questions to sit around the dining room table and talk about these big questions that we talked about today. One of the things that I shared with my Facebook friends and family was, my kids actually do a spelling test with their Nana every day. And I feed the words. I make sure that my mom has the level that both of them can handle. Number one, the kids are learning spelling. Number two, kids have a bonding time with their parents. And every day they connect with them just on FaceTime. “Okay, Nana, ready for our test?” 15-20 minutes of chat brings a delight to obviously my mother’s day. But the kids are learning constantly every day, and it’s instilling these little bits and pieces in their day, that become a routine and are different from the norm of going to school. Is there anything that you do with your daughter right now, Sam, that enhances her learning?

Sam: Sure. And, you know, I’m in a very privileged position, to be an educator and learner, so I’m pretty attentive to what her learning needs are. I think you brought up something that is often overlooked, and that’s the sort of social-emotional aspect of learning, that spending that time with your child without distraction, that you are present in the moment and that you were working on something together. And there’s a lot of research out there that where you’re literally hardwiring the relationship to your child. And a teacher who I respect very much — and she spent a career in special education with young children with special needs — gave me probably the best advice I’ve ever had in my career as an educator. She said, “You love them first, and the learning will come.” And that is often put aside, because we feel a pressure to get those checkboxes, to meet the demand, to get the report cards out, and prove that they’ve learned something to someone. And that can wait. That will come.

Julie: Yeah.

Sam: That’s what I lead with, anyway. I lead with the curiosity, and the learning will come.

Julie: The best part is, is that you can bond with your child during this time. And I think there’s so much pressure on the parents that they need to make sure that they prioritize that in the relationship with their kid, to establish a path of the success, for them and for you as a parent.

Sam: Well said.

Julie: Thank you so much, Sam, for joining me today. I really appreciate this. And why don’t we finish off with the last tidbit from you. What is your final learning lesson for our listeners today?

Sam: If I was to choose one, I would say ask your kid what interests them, what they like doing, and run with that and explore all the different angles that have to do with that thing. The learning will be more relevant and real. It’ll be more rigorous. They’ll retain more. They’ll remember more. And you’ll find, I think, that they become more resilient. They’ll work harder to overcome the barriers if you lead with the things that they enjoy.

Julie: Thank you so much. Thanks for joining me today, Sam.

Sam: Nice speaking with you.

Julie: Yeah. Thanks. This is Julie Smithson, and this is your XR for Learning podcast. Thanks for listening, everyone. Take care.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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