A key component of PeerSpring’s mission is to promote learning by using technology to involve students in collaboratively identifying real-world problems and then finding and implementing actual workable solutions.
Information technology has undergone dramatic shifts as reference libraries, overhead projectors, and even textbooks have been replaced by dynamic information resources including YouTube, Wikipedia, Kindle, Google Search, and even Facebook.
Public education in America has largely failed to apply appropriate learning tools and processes to the challenge of molding students into productive citizens. The failure is indicated by the fact that nearly 50 million American young people lack the necessary skills to take their place as useful members of the modern workforce.
Millennials score below their international peers in literacy, math, and problem solving. In fact, a recent study showed American young people’s scores in these areas to be in last place among developed countries.
PeerSpring has the tools for increasing student competencies in core subjects by giving them control over the learning processes, so that these basic skills are developed in an organic fashion while engaging the learner in activities that will exert a positive impact upon his/her world.
THE PEERSPRING STORY
For the past couple decades, I’ve been on a mission as educator, entrepreneur, and parent, of connecting kids to important information and worthwhile causes. Beginning with my own two children and reaching out to other kids wherever I could find them, I’ve been promoting the idea of young people finding ways to make the world a better place and, thereby, to make their own lives more meaningful and satisfying.
In 2007, I collaborated with my 9-year-old son to create a nonprofit for the purpose of raising funds to free young children from a Human Trafficking program in Africa. We eventually raised more than $350,000 for those African children and for other causes, both foreign and in East County, that were chosen by our young members. We went on to launch Kids Helping Kids Leadership Academy with the intent of transforming culture and providing children with leadership skills that would carry them into the 21st century.
Last year, Lee Fox and I founded PeerSpring as a technology based learning system for promoting those collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and effective communication skills that will be increasingly more essential to students living successful and empowered lives.
Lee, who has wide and deep experience with youth activism, shares my passion for working directly with young people in creating social change initiatives. Our goal was to channel a student’s natural passions for learning by leading him/her in creating some humanitarian, social, or environmental-based outreach project.
We created PeerSpring as a civic-tech educational platform to help students understand, master, and apply core skills to passion based learning through effecting positive social change.
PeerSpring resources are available for both teachers and students. We provide teachers with affordable and easily mastered tools for teaching such things as digital literacy and rational information processing. Our target audience includes young people, 13 to 24. Our focus is on making them responsible for creating their own learning experiences, which will help them master life skills and assume the role of becoming positive change-agents.
Learning takes place as students collaborate with each other and partner with people in the community in dealing with issues that are important to them.
Common Core has gotten a bad reputation, but I have been impressed with the depth of their analysis of the issues facing education in America and the quality of some of the initiatives they have taken in response. The PeerSpring processes promote Common Core standards of competencies that contemporary learners must master, including such things as demonstrating independence, acquiring appropriate information, flexibility in communication, rational critique, competent use of technology and digital media, plus appreciation of cultural diversity.
PeerSpring applies technology-based learning methodologies to bear on developing these Common Core standards of academic achievement as actual learning takes place within the larger frameworks of economic and social justice.
Common Core initiatives came with budgets that assist our PeerSpring vision by purchasing appropriate technology, such as personal laptops, as well as creating infrastructure to support high-speed Internet connections. Funds have also been made available for hiring personnel to serve as curriculum coaches, who promote the PeerSpring-like vision of collaborative and reflective learning.
PeerSpring is an aid to teachers, who often feel overwhelmed by demands and standards imposed by district, state, and federal agencies. We assist them in effectively using 21st century technology and digital information resources in their classrooms. We provide these teachers with ways of connecting their own content and lesson plans with our PeerSpring resources as we engage students in their life-changing educational projects.
PeerSpring also assists school administrators in professional development. Cutting edge technologies and digital tools by themselves are never able to elevate student achievement scores.
We provide customized professional development tools and workshops designed to aid administrators in facing the challenge of equipping students with the attitudes and strategies that are appropriate in developing both core competencies as well as the 21st century skills that students will require for college and career.
PeerSpring also promotes parental involvement in the learning process through such simple methods as asking children to review what they have learned each day, reading and discussing course materials, actually reading and discussing the students’ homework, and regarding teachers as fellow teammates in a program of integrated learning.
HOW PEERSPRING WORKS
The PeerSpring student-centered design focuses more on teaching students how to learn than on actually teaching content. Students develop real-world skills including time management, research, and project management as well as developing important qualities such as optimism, empathy, good habits, and interpersonal effectiveness.
PeerSpring places students at the center of the learning process, enabling them to use our integrated technologies to come to a thorough understanding of a complex social problem and then searching for possible solutions. PeerSpring connects learning processes to newsworthy content including local, national, and even global issues plus current projects and events of particular interest to students. Learning then takes place using whatever real-world issue or event that students care about as they come together in a collaborative search for effective solutions. By choosing initiatives that are personally relevant and meaningful, students develop critical skills and those core values associated with good citizenship.
In summary, PeerSpring implements learning through a system that involves three steps: Students begin by igniting the learning process through identifying “hot-button” social, economic, or environmental news stories that provide the content that they will then use to enhance their standards based curriculum. We bring together students who share interests in the chosen content area in order to promote meaningful peer-to-peer collaboration.
PeerSpring enables them to create their projects on our proprietary software platform, under a private link, with tools that permit them to track their progress.
Students then engage in an extended inquiry process involving researching the issue and finding answers to questions about such things as how widespread the particular problem is, how it started, what its causes and effects might be, and who else in the community might be concerned about the issue and possibly interested in partnering on a social action response. PeerSpring promotes this enhanced social context so students can access the knowledge, experience, and vision of community members. Involving elements from the community to partner with students becomes invigorating both for the students and the community members who become involved in the learning process. As a byproduct, the community personnel that join in the project often become important career development resources later in the students’ lives.
The students, working as a team, then identify possible solutions, select the most effective one, design steps to implement the solution, assign tasks and responsibilities for the implementation, set goals and timelines, and establish processes for review, accountability, and reflection.
As the students’ social action project gains traction and they begin, perhaps, to receive funds from the community and/or attention from local news media, we move the plan from a private link to a published link on the PeerSpring platform, so that it becomes available for whatever promotion or PR purposes the students come up with.
At this point, their social action project is on its way. The students have acquired useful knowledge and skills. Their project can now be extended for as long as the participants’ continued engagement and imagination permit.
A recent PeerSpring pilot project involved Heritage High students in an English 3 classroom under the direction of Karin Rowland, the teacher. Students were instructed to choose a dream they had for their community. They worked together in groups to research the issue and then came up with a solution they pitched to their class. Their “dreams” included Teen Suicide Prevention, Child Trafficking, Texting While Driving, and Animal Cruelty.
Students involved the larger community by reaching out to other organizations involved in their particular area of study. The challenge of involving outside resources is made easier at Heritage because the school is already utilizing educational input from such organizations as the Patriots Jet Team Foundation, Delta Schools Federal Credit Union, One Day at a Time, Ironhouse Sanitary District, Jersey Island, and other area school districts.
I was impressed and even astonished by the willingness of teachers and administrators at Heritage and the Liberty Union High School District to spend time, energy, and resources in supporting my efforts to test the PeerSpring methods. The assistant superintendent of curriculum, the district technology directory, the district librarian, and others provided substantial support for the pilot.
The innovative thinking unleashed by the PeerSpring experience gave the Heritage students a new perspective on their lives and awakened them to the possibilities of continuing to be genuine agents of change in the future. Some students were so empowered by the experience that they continued to meet twice a week outside of class in order to keep moving their dream towards reality. One group proposed a social action teen suicide prevention plan and engaged in the task of building a mobile app.
Through thoughtful, cooperative, responsible actions that take place both inside and outside the classroom, the PeerSpring model promotes character qualities and high-order competencies that are neglected in learning methods that do not call for this level of student engagement. PeerSpring focuses upon the challenge of equipping students to become literate individuals, aware of how positive changes can take place in society, rather than simply preparing them to pass standards-based tests. The fact is, passing such tests becomes easy for students who genuinely possess the capacities that PeerSpring is designed to produce.
PeerSpring has the right tools and processes for equipping students to effect positive social change while acquiring the attitudes, skills, and wisdom that will make them effective citizens and productive members of society. Our vision is transformational. It is revolutionary because PeerSpring is able to make systemic and permanent changes in the way we think about ourselves and about our place in the world.