This is What Powerful Learning Looks Like: Students Share Their Stories - Digital Promise

This is What Powerful Learning Looks Like: Students Share Their Stories

Karen Cator with students

November 6, 2017 | By

Last week, Digital Promise co-hosted the Fusion conference with EdSurge. As part of the opening session, I wanted to show examples of what it looks like when students learn in powerful ways. But before I could make a movie about this, I needed to make sure I knew what powerful learning looks like.

I set out to find students who leverage their connected resources to improve the quality of life for themselves, others, and their communities. What I found was inspiring. I saw that powerful learners ask great questions, leverage technology, and connect and share with others who can help or benefit from their learning. They identify clear challenges, and display ownership. They are empowered to “DO SOMETHING” – and then they do it, assess and adjust along the way, and share their victories and lessons learned.

I love seeing it in action; it’s a beautiful art and a science. And I found four amazing students – Jeremiah, Nate, Zaina, and Paola – who shared their powerful learning experiences with our Fusion attendees.


Jeremiah: Artist, Designer, Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is more than a business word according to Jeremiah, a 16-year-old high school student from Long Beach, CA. It’s a way of processing the world around you and feeling empowered to do something about it.

Using technology, Jeremiah has taught himself how to grow and feed his passions: music, art, fashion, business development, and community leadership. After school, Jeremiah learns as much as possible about how to create, manage, and share positive messages with his community. From finding ideas and inspiration, to planning, producing, and presenting, he uses his mobile-connected tools to connect, create, teach, and lead.  

For Jeremiah, powerful learning means learning something new, sharing it with the world, adding to a conversation or learning from others who are trying to do the same good in the world. Check out his video:


Nate: The Science Podcaster

In some schools, science is a weekly or monthly lesson. I was at a school last year that showed movies during science class to meet the science lesson requirement. I needed to find a story about making science a bigger part of every student’s life.  

I found six-year-old Nate’s podcast, The Show about Science. Nate started the show with his father to share his love and learning about science with anyone interested. I LOVED it because it was a great solution to the lack of science exposure at school and at home.  

His shows are informative. He explores and breaks down complicated science topics from biology to astrophysics. He interviews scientists about big ideas and gets them, through his questions, to show, tell, and explain in very accessible ways. As a parent, I can listen to his podcasts as I take my children to school and we all learn at the same time!  

For Nate, powerful learning is a journey from identifying a concept he wants to learn more about, to researching it via podcasts and YouTube videos, to inviting experts to explain and simplify, and finally, to share the story with the world. Last year, Nate received a letter from President Obama about his show.


Zaina: The Saturday Robotics Teacher

Women of color are poorly represented in STEM-related fields in the U.S.1 Zaina, a high school junior in Los Angeles, has undertaken the challenge of improving STEM learning opportunities for middle school girls of color. In addition to balancing a tough schedule with her regular studies and extracurricular activities, Zaina volunteers teaching a Saturday robotics and coding class for girls at her local mosque. She also runs a nonprofit that provides STEM-focused learning opportunities and scholarships to young Muslim women in her community.  

Zaina leads the beautiful learning experience and is already an expert teacher. She splits the group into teams to tackle the robots, coding, and the research needed to present salient arguments. Her clear challenge, guiding questions, and activities are all aligned each week.  She checks for understanding, and, at the end of each class, she has her students reflect so she can make any needed adjustments for the following week. She also sends her students home with learning goals and uses a texting tool to communicate with the girls so they know what to do when they get there.

How did she learn this? By watching others do this online. Because of her dedication and her ability to leverage blogs, Facebook groups, and YouTube videos, Zaina and her team have won top prizes in local and statewide competitions. I have a feeling the world will get to know Zaina and @FEMSTEMRobotics a lot more in the future.



Paola: The Engineer

Paola, a high school student from San Fernando, CA, is a part of a Latina engineering team that works on challenges and solving problems for issues that immediately affect them. Paola and the DIY Girls entered a challenge competition to solve a community problem last year through MIT. They tackled an issue that was a part of their daily lives: homelessness. Using a Challenge Based Learning approach, the DIY Girls went on a powerful learning journey to find a solution to homelessness in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. With the help of smart questions, the DIY Girls not only created a solar-powered portable tent as a weather-resistant solution , they also won the national competition along the way.

Paola and her team didn’t have the background or local experts to help them build their solutions. But, because they had access to technology, they found leads, answers, new questions, additional resources, tools, and experts who helped them create their successful tent. Paola and the DIY Girls challenge schools to lean on students to help identify challenges, solve them, and tell the world their own stories of their lessons learned.


My Takeaways

Schools need to be more strategic and intentional about asking a key essential question to students at frequent intervals.  They also need to think through how to collect, curate, cultivate, create, manage, and share stories of what powerful learning looks like so all students benefit. Storytelling instills confidence and empathy.  It reminds us of what is significant, and what matters. Stories help the world see what learning can look like and be inspired. There is so much more to a powerful learning experience than a test score or grade.  

Challenge Based Learning is powerful learning and it develops student agency.  Our challenge is to create these opportunities  for students, and to highlight the teachers and students in our community who are exemplary examples of powerful learning.  

Storytelling and challenge based learning supported by technology gives students agency to learn, solve problems, work in teams, and  improve the quality of life for themselves, others, and their communities. Engage, Investigate, Act, and tell the story along the way.

Marco Antonio Torres spent a decade teaching middle and high school. He is a professional filmmaker and photographer who uses digital storytelling skills to add value to the learning process and to showcase evidence. Today, Marco is Director of Story at Digital Promise and he produced these videos. Follow him on Twitter: @torres21

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