Higher Education

Purposeful Technology to Create Authentic Learning

Discover how technology enhances authentic learning, providing students with skills and purposeful work for lifelong success

Authentic learning leads to deeper learning. When used with intentionality, technology can help enhance authenticity and give tangible purpose to student work. This session is about how certain technologies can be used to enhance authenticity in the classroom, assist students in meaningful work, and teach them skills they will need for the rest of their lives.



Trevor Muir is a passionate educator, speaker, and author who believes in the transformative power of education. He has gained international recognition for his innovative teaching methods and inspiring content, which empower teachers and students to unleash their full potential.

Trevor began his career as a teacher in Michigan, where he taught middle and high school using project-based learning. While continuing to teach pre-service teachers at Grand Valley State University, Trevor also delivers keynote speeches and conducts workshops at schools and conferences all around the world.

Trevor’s dedication to education is reflected in his books, videos, blog and podcast which showcase his work in the classroom and the effectiveness of purposeful learning. He is also the founder of The Epic Classroom, his social media where he connects with millions of educators who share his passion for teaching and learning.

Trevor believes in the potential of every student and teacher, and his work is driven by his desire to create positive change in the educational landscape to unlock more of that potential.


Jenny Gordon:

Hello, Trevor.

Trevor Muir:

Hi, Jenny. Thanks for having me.

Jenny Gordon:

Welcome. Thank you for being here. Trevor, you are currently a professor at Grand Valley State University in the Teacher Prep Program. You’re also an author, podcaster and a very sought-after keynote speaker. So we’re very excited to have you join us today.

Trevor Muir:


Jenny Gordon:

Yeah. In addition, you conduct workshops at schools and conferences and things like that all around the world. And you’re the founder of The EPIC Classroom, which connects millions of educators who share their passion for teaching and learning. And that’s what this whole conference has been about, so it couldn’t be more fitting. We’ve invited you to discuss how to use technology for authentic learning, and I can’t wait to hear your session. Thanks again for joining us and over to you.

Trevor Muir:

All right, well thank you so much. It’s so fun just watching the chat down here, just seeing where everybody’s from. Hello Caitlin in Minnesota. Go Vikings. Go Vikings. I see people from Florida and Oklahoma and Pennsylvania and Nevada and all over the place. Wherever you’re at, I hope you’re having a lovely day. I’m excited to spend a little bit of time with you, as Jenny said, talking about how can we use technology to make learning more authentic.

But before we do that, first off actually, somebody said Murray State University in the house. Welcome to my house, actually my office here at home. So let’s dive into it. I’m going to go ahead and share my screen here. Hopefully you can all see this. I want to start off by talking about the three types of fun, and you’ll see why I’m doing this in just a moment as I sit here in my office at a weird angle. You’ll know why in a moment.

So I think there are three types of fun. And type 1 fun is what we traditionally know as fun. It’s fun at the time and it’s fun to recall later on. Type 1 fun is like a roller coaster. You have a lot of fun when you’re doing it. Get ready when you watch this. When I was making this, you get all dizzy watching it. Type 1 fun is the rollercoaster. It’s really fun in the moment and later on it’s like fun to recall like, “Oh yeah, I love that roller coaster. It was a lot of fun.” Usually type 1 fun doesn’t make a whole lot of stories. It’s not like you’re like, “Oh, I have got to sit down and tell my grandkids about this roller coaster I went on one day.” Right? That’s not really how type 1 works, but it’s fun at the time. It’s fun to recall later on.

And then there’s type 2 fun. Type 2 fun is not fun at the time, but it’s fun to recall later on. And this is where the good stories come from. Type 2 fun is when I was teaching a class full of high school freshmen and I had this one kid in my class named Joey. And Joey liked to torture me in every way that he could think of. I mean, this kid used to hide rotten food or he’d hide just food around my classroom and he would wait for it to rot. And we’d all be sitting there one day and you’d smell something rotting and you’d go look behind a plant or look behind something on my desk and you would find this rotten sandwich and Joey would just laugh in the corner.

One time Joey hid a bottle of chocolate milk. This sounds made up, but I’m guessing most of you have taught before and you’re like, “Yeah, this must just be like another Wednesday.” So yeah, so this kid once hit a bottle of chocolate milk on a bookshelf, and I remember finding it and thinking, “No, I am not going to clean up Joey’s chocolate milk.” And I told him to do it, but he didn’t do it right away. And I remember it just sat there for weeks and weeks, this half empty bottle of chocolate milk.

And then finally I was like, “You know what? Time to swallow my pride a bit and throw away Joey’s milk for him.” And so I went and got it and then I thought, “You know what? This is a great opportunity to practice my jump shot.” And so I leaned back and I shot that chocolate milk into the corner like one does towards the waste-basket, but it didn’t hit the waste-basket. It hit the concrete wall behind it and it exploded all over my classroom. And the kids sitting by the waste-basket were covered in this browned cottage cheese, just it was dripping and smelling and kids started dry heaving and it was awful. And the whole room ran out into the hallway and we had to bring a custodian in to clean it up. I had to tip him because I felt so bad and my principal was mad at me.

And that was not a very fun day in my classroom. But it’s kind of fun to talk about it now, right? That’s type 2 fun. That’s the kind that’s like, “Yeah, you know what? Not good at the time, but it makes a good story later on.”

But then there’s type 3 fun. Type 3 fun is not fun at the time and it’s not fun later on. This is also known commonly as not fun. We all know what type 3 is like. Type 3 fun is this past Monday for me. It was my son’s 10th birthday. He was turning into a double-digit. And so my boy Jack, every year I do this. My wife and I, we tape a bunch of balloons to his door like this, and then when he opens it inwards, all the balloons collapse in on him.

And so we tape these balloons up and then when he opened the door on Monday morning at 7:00 AM they all collapsed on them and we’re all celebrating and it’s all a good time. And then I always have this tradition of going straight downstairs and making him the biggest breakfast that he could ever imagine. And so we’re turning to go downstairs and I step on this top step of my stairs and I slipped a little bit and I forgot how to slip gracefully and I fell under my back and my foot got caught underneath myself. I landed at the bottom of the stairs after hearing a branch snap and I ended up in the ER on Monday where they determined that I snapped my fibula bone. And for the next month followed by three to six months in a boot, I will be wearing this cast. And if you want to see it live, I’ll be wearing this cast.

And so this feels a little bit like type 3 fun, right? I mean, just for one, let me plug this bad boy back in. For one, this is not what I had in mind for my son’s birthday. His 10th birthday was supposed to be this huge celebration and instead it was his daddy, who he felt was indestructible, was in the hospital with a broken leg. And now I’m just keeping my leg elevated and it’s making life difficult and challenging and it’s not a lot of fun.

I’m having fun doing this right now, just so you know. And I’m not just saying that. This is kind of a funny little experience as I sit here getting to chat with all of you while my foot is elevated because I have a broken leg. But the truth is, yeah, this hasn’t been fun. This is difficult. It reminds me of back when Covid started. Do y’all remember that little situation four years ago when the whole world was shut down in all of the different ways we have to teach? We’re just thrown out the window. We had to figure out a new way to connect with students and we had to do it in the midst of all of these challenges and obstacles and difficulties. And I look back at that time and I’m like, “Man, that was not a lot of fun.” And yet here we are four years later, and I can articulate in so many ways that I’m a better educator now than I was four years ago.

If you would’ve asked me to Zoom with a bunch of people all over the country or because Jenny’s here all over the world on a Zoom call with a broken leg, I don’t think I would’ve been able to pull that off four years ago. But this ain’t my first rodeo anymore. This isn’t the first time we’ve been forced to adapt and figure things out and use technology in order to solve problems. We’ve had to do it a lot in the last four years. As much as we don’t like type 3 fun, there’s no denying that it makes you stronger.

And I’ve been thinking this week, I’m such an optimist, I want to slap the silver lining on this and be like, “Well, because you broke your bone, you can do this now.” It’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I’m there quite yet.” I don’t know if I’m finding the bright side, but what I do know is that there will be some type of silver lining in the end. It will strengthen me, just like that’s the nature of challenges and obstacles.

And I think that might be a proper segue into what we’re talking about today, is the strengthening that comes through challenges and obstacles and how it relates to students and the way they engage and learn and grow in our classrooms. And I’ll make sure that we talk about technology as well. But I’d like to start off… Hold on. I want to see the chat because I bet people are… Yeah, more people tuning in from California and North Carolina. So wherever you are, welcome. Just talking about how I broke my leg, but we’ll move on from that. But I did get to see the eclipse, just so you all know. And there’s my eclipse glasses sitting on my poor broken leg.

So I want to tell you all a little story. One time I had high school freshmen, I was teaching an English history class. It was cross-curricular. When my students walked in that day, I had this big image up on the wall and I told my students, “I want to tell you about someone named Diet Eman. Diet Eman was a 14-year-old girl living in the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded during the Holocaust. During World War II, Diet Eman was not directly threatened by the Nazis. She was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl Christian, but her Jewish friends were, and so what Diet would do would smuggle her Jewish friends out of the city where she lived into the countryside to hide them from the German forces, to hide them from the Nazis. And she did this for several years during the Holocaust until one day she was captured and thrown in a concentration camp where she expected to be executed.”

And then I told my students how one day Diet heard tanks outside and she thought, “This is it. This must be the day that they line us up and kill us.” But when then she looked out there, she saw they weren’t there to kill her. It was actually the Allied forces coming to liberate her from the concentration camp. Diet Eman survived being a part of the Dutch resistance during the Holocaust.

So I told my students this story and I said, “Pretty good story, right?” And they’re like, “Yep, good story.” And I said, “Okay, what if I told you not only did Diet Eman survive this as a high schooler, she’s actually still alive today?” And that was a little bit more striking to my students because they didn’t necessarily grow up with grandparents or maybe parents who fought in the war like some of us did. They were too young for that. And so they didn’t hear some of these war stories and realize that this huge conflict only happened 70, 80 years ago. And so that was kind of shocking.

Then I said, “Well, what if I took it a step further, guys, and I told you not only did she survive the Holocaust, Diet Eman is still alive today three miles from our school living in a retirement home?” And that was a little bit more shocking. I said, “Yeah, Diet Eman lives three miles from our school right now. And there are other heroes, World War II heroes who help save the world, who also live on her floor at this retirement home. And the vast majority of them have never told their story to anyone to have it recorded. Every single one of them is going to be gone in the next 10 years. They’re going to die because that’s what happens. And their stories are going to go with them. What should we do about that?” And so I presented this problem to my students.

Now, I had a grandfather who fought in World War II. He was in the Philippines. He experienced it. I remember hearing his story. When he passed away, this was a big problem to me. This was like an authentic problem. Why didn’t anybody ever record Grandpa’s story? And so this was already relevant to me, but to my students, this was like a new problem. It was authentic, it meant something and they didn’t know it existed until this moment. And so I said, “Well, what should we do about this?”

And we did some brainstorming together. And what we decided to do was start learning a little bit about World War II so that we could go and talk to people like Diet Eman herself and listen to her story and then somehow preserve it for future generations when Diet Eman is gone.” And what if we talk to other World War II heroes who could also tell their stories and we can use the technology at our disposal and we can use the time we have in school and the materials and the guidance and the knowledge and the skills we develop here, we can use all of that to solve this problem. Are you with me?”

And so that’s what we did. We learned a little bit about World War II. We read books like Night by Elie Wiesel. We read books like Soldier Boys and the graphic novel Mouse. We did some learning about it. And then we went and we recorded the stories of these heroes. We didn’t have fancy cameras, but some of my students had iPhones that we could tape to boxes. Some of my students had parents that had DSLR cameras so we could go and actually listen to their stories and record them. And so we went and recorded their stories. And then after listening to the stories of these heroes, we went back to our school. And for the next month, while we learned about World War II and the causes of it and how it was resolved and these heroes and we were doing all this school work, this academic work we were going to have to do anyway, we were simultaneously taking our Chromebooks and creating these six-minute documentaries about the veterans that we interviewed. So we started recording it that way. We started documenting their stories.

We have the blessing of these technologies, now we have these computers. Let’s do something meaningful with it. And so my students would learn, and then we’d dedicate about 10 minutes every day to start crafting these documentaries together. And then it’s an English class and I was like, “I’m going to teach creative writing anyway. I teach poetry writing. Why don’t we do it for a good reason now?” And so while I was doing my poetry unit, we based the content of their poems on the veterans that they interviewed. And we took their poetry and we published them out so that we could give them as gifts to these veterans and their families again to solve this problem and preserve their stories.

We had our cell phones with us. And so why don’t we record the long-form story of these veterans? And what if we made 60-minute podcasts? We can really get into their stories and provide narration to it and multimedia and put in music and recordings. Why don’t we do something with it? And so we recorded podcasts to tell the veteran stories. I talked to the art teacher in the school and they said, “Hey, is there any way you could dedicate a week of art class to creating artwork for the veterans?” And so that’s what they did. They made this big giant quilt honoring the veterans in our community. In science class, they used 3D printers to create tributes and models and statues and memorials for the veterans. They were doing this type of work.

And then at the climax of this story that we were a part of, at the peak of all of this work we were doing, we held a big event and a theater in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is where I live. We had this big event where we invited the veterans and their families to come and see all of this work that the students made to preserve these veterans stories forever. And so they showed their DVD covers and posters that they made using tools like Canva. They showed their published writing. They showed the big quilt that they made to honor the veterans. And then the peak of the night, over 400 people showed up, including these veterans who were the guests of honor. And they packed into this little theater where we were able to show these film students created to honor these heroes forever and ever and ever. And it was so good. It was so good.

As I look at this picture right now, I’m struck by the fact that most of the people in those first two rows are no longer with us. This is my wife’s grandpa. His name is George Debar, but we always call them Dumps because you got to love a good grandpa name. So this is Dumps. And for five years we did this project, and every year we asked Dumps if he could tell his stories to my students. He would say, “Oh no, nobody wants to hear my stories.” And we’d be like, “Dumps, yes, they do.” And so finally in the fifth year, in his 93rd year on this planet, Dumps allowed my students to come and record him. And he told his story to them. And he told the whole thing and about going to war and meeting his wife and spending 70 years with her. And the whole time my father-in-Law and my wife are in the back of the room just bawling their eyes out because they’re like, “Oh, grandpa’s doing it. My dad is finally telling this story.” And it was really, really beautiful.

And then that night, Dumps had a stroke and he never spoke again. Literally, his last words on this planet was telling his story to a bunch of high school kids. And when Dumps passed away that following May, we had a really beautiful film to show at his memorial, this film that was created by a bunch of kids who are in History, English class, still learning history and still learning English skills. But now because of the technology we have at our fingertips and the willingness of their educators to create space for them to solve authentic problems, they were able to record Dumps’ story forever, and it is still with us. And that’s the point of it, right? Students weren’t just learning this content because I said so. They weren’t just using these tools, this technology, because oh, that’s what you do in school. You learn new technologies and you figure out how to use it. No, they were using this technology, they were learning this knowledge, they were doing this work because it solved a problem that mattered to them.

As I just walked you through that project, I want you to think about some of the tech that we use during it. We use DSLR cameras. We used video editing software. Specifically I think the first year we used WeVideo and then we used iMovie when we got some MacBooks. We used video editing software. We had podcast microphones, audio editing software, graphic design programs. We used the 3D printer. We had project management tools. We used a tool like Grammarly to check their work to make sure it was all excellent before we published it out there. So this is all the tech we used. None of this tech is out of the ordinary. It’s used in schools all the time for stuff. But what I found when there was a good reason for using it, students were really diving into it.

Here’s the reality. All of this tech that I have listed here, most of it students will not use the rest of their professional lives. Some of it they will. And maybe they use it sparingly in hobbies, but most students won’t necessarily need to use DSLR cameras. We get good enough out of our phones. Most of them will not be video editors or have to record podcasts or edit audio or use graphic design programs. They can outsource that type of work. Or maybe if in their marketing they will. Or a 3D printer or any of this, they won’t necessarily use this tech the rest of their professional careers, but they will use the skills that they gained from this tech.

So let me say that again. Most students will not use this specific tech the rest of their professional lives, but they will use the skills that they gained from using this technology. So for instance, the DSLR cameras, they had to learn how to use them. Technical proficiency, being able to take a new technology and learn how to use it and adapt to it and follow instructions and tinker with it and get it the way you want it, that is something they’re going to need way beyond history class where they use a DSLR camera. But it turns out that technology is a great place to practice technical proficiency.

Or video editing. They had to organize complex information. Audio editing software. They had to accept feedback and critique as they molded this big long sixty-minute program that they were creating. They had to figure out how to give and receive critical feedback. The podcast microphones. Again, they’re not necessarily going to have to record their own podcasts. Maybe some of them will. I know I like to have a podcast, but most people don’t. But the skill of active listening and being able to ask questions and get responses and expect open-ended responses and try to draw stories out of people and being able to do that, that’s something that they did learn how to do that’s going to be of much value throughout their whole lives. And they were able to obtain that skill by using this technology.

Same with graphic design, visual design, empathy, figuring out how is it going to appeal to an audience, 3D printers, exercising creativity, project management tools. They’re going to use the collaboration skill their whole lives. Using tools like Grammarly is going to teach them the importance of excellence in their work. All of these skills that they got from the technology are going to be useful far beyond the actual learning experience. And I think that’s sometimes something we get away from in school. So many technologies out there, but we forget what is the main purpose of it. What is the litmus test that every technology should have to pass before it’s being adopted by a school? And to me, the litmus test is this, does it make students and teachers’ lives easier? And does it teach a transferable skill that goes beyond the learning experience? When you look at the ones that we use in this project, all of these skills are going to be used far beyond just this project and far beyond just this technology.

A question I often ask when I do workshops with educators, I often kick it off this way. I say, “Let’s make a big list of all the traits or skills that you think the ideal graduate should have. So whether you teach pre-K or seniors in high school, we are all part of this journey with students helping mold them into the ideal graduate who we want them to be successful the rest of their lives.” And so I always ask this question, and I bet if I asked it to you right now, if we had more time, you would give me some pretty similar responses. You would say that students should be kind and empathetic and hardworking and they should know how to work with other people and they should know how to communicate and they should know how to retain information, that they should be adaptable.

So you can make a big old list because really what this question is asking, what do we want people to be like? What do we want the people around us running our society, running our government, running our stores and shops and doctor’s offices and police departments and schools, what do we want people to be like? And so we make this big list. And then the follow-up question, is school designed to adapt? Or is school adapted and designed to help students develop these skills, to develop these traits? And so often it’s met with the answer, “No, school doesn’t seem to be geared enough towards helping students develop these skills they need the rest of their lives.”

In fact, there is a survey that was done by the National Association of Colleges and employees asking, “What are the top skills that you are seeking in employees right now?” So they interviewed, it was 3,000 employers were surveyed for this. And out of 3,000, the most common response, number one, is the ability to work in a team structure. The ability to collaborate and work with other people is valued above all of the other skills. Number two is the ability to communicate. So the ability to articulate what’s going on here with others is number two, the most valued. Number three, the ability to plan and organize and prioritize your work. Number four, the ability to make decisions and solve problems to critically think to actually do real authentic work in the world. And then number five on this list is the ability to obtain information and process it.

When I look at the modern education system, I see a lot of number five embedded into the education system. I see a lot of number five in our standardized tests and the way that we assess students and the way we assess teachers. And I don’t necessarily think that’s the worst thing in the world, right? It is number five on the list. Employers still want smart people. Employers still want people who can obtain information and learn complex ideas. So yeah, number five’s still valuable. It is number five on the list, but it is number five on the list. There are four that rank above it. Four skills, characteristics, super traits that we need people to have. And quite often, employers are not finding them.

If you go in Google the term soft skills, because collaboration, communication, planning and organizing, problem solving, critically thinking, we often call those soft skills, but if you go and look up soft skills, you will see article after article and tons of data that shows that the top reasons young people are fired from their jobs right now is because they don’t have them. Not knowing how to collaborate, not knowing how to communicate and do these other things is why people are failing in their jobs. Either getting fired or not getting hired in the first place is because they don’t have soft skills. And soft is often how they’re treated, right? In school, yeah, they’re usually secondary. Developing collaboration skills and communication skills and critical thinking, it’s usually secondary to number five on the list, which is knowledge retention and obtaining more and more of it.

And yet I got to ask you this question, if the top reason people are being fired from their jobs is because they don’t have soft skills, is there anything soft about being fired? Is there anything soft about unemployment? Is there anything soft about struggling in a workplace that requires these skills but not having them? I would say no. I would say these aren’t soft skills. These are essential skills. These are skills that are absolutely necessary. But the truth about these skills are, and we’re going to weave all this together here, the truth about these skills are is that they’re difficult to learn how to develop. They’re difficult to develop in the first place. Collaborating with other people, speaking in front of groups, communicating complex ideas with other people, having hard conversations, giving critical feedback and accepting critical feedback, these are difficult things to do. And so I think we have to, as educators, constantly be asking, “How can I help my students develop these essential skills?” And I think technology can really help us do that.

I think technology opens up all of these possibilities to develop these skills. And of course we could develop them without some of the technologies we have now. But I look back at that World War II project that I told you about, and I look at that, I’m like, “Man, yeah, we could have done a version of that when I was in school in the 1990s. Back in my day… We could have done a version of that project, but we weren’t recording them.” I mean, not everybody had it. We didn’t have enough VHS video cameras with us. We certainly couldn’t have edited them back when I was in school. There’s no such thing as podcasts. We didn’t have some of the screen printing, 3D printing wasn’t invented. We didn’t have these technologies at our disposal for us to really take that project and solve that problem in the way we did. But because of the technology we have now, students were able to do that type of work and as a result, develop these essential skills.

But I think it’s really important to call something out. I’d like for you to just analyze this screen for a moment and see if you can extrapolate what my point is here. I got to keep that broken leg hydrated. Educational technology can also be like Pogs and bottle flipping and Tamagotchi pets and beanie babies and the mullet haircut. Does anybody know what that means? I wish we could be together right now. I’d love to see what you have to say. I’ll tell you what it means. It means that there is just a lot of fads that come and go in the education space.

Quite often when I’m with teachers and I make this point, I ask, “All right, who here has been teaching for more than 20 years, 30 years, 40 years?” I had a teacher in one of my workshops the other day who had been teaching for 55 years, and we spent a lot of time talking about the different fads that have come and gone throughout education and the things that have stayed, but the many, many things that just come and go, and they drift away in the breeze because they’re no longer necessary or they didn’t solve enough of a problem in the first place. And I bet if you’ve been teaching for a new amount of time, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You know about these trends that don’t have weight. Just like Pogs and Tamagotchi pets and mullet haircuts.

Or how about bottle flipping? Everybody remember the bottle flipping craze of 2015? Oh, it used to just drive me absolutely crazy. I’ll never forget when kids were just learning how to do it, and it was driving me nuts and I went to a veteran teacher and I said, “This bottle flipping is driving me nuts. I don’t know what to do about it.” And she’s like, “Well, just wait because in about a month, it’ll go away and there’ll be a new fad.” I’m like, “I don’t know. I don’t think it’ll ever go away.” And then a month later of course we had spinners. Do you remember spinners? Yes. It’s like, “Yeah, we get it. These things come and go and it happens with technology.”

And so I think part of our litmus test for whether we should adopt technology or not is, like I said, does it help the teacher and student make life and learning easier? Does it have a transferable skill? But then also, does it serve a unique purpose in the classroom? Does it actually solve a problem that we are trying to solve? Because here is the crux of what I’ve been getting at today, and hopefully you’ve been able to pull it from the World War II story example that I gave so far, is purpose is a powerful motivator. Quite often with technology, it is given without a whole lot of purpose, and teachers either have to find a way to make it work or ride it out until a new technology comes along. But if we can actually help students solve purposeful problems with it, they will adopt new technologies which can assist them in the work that they’re doing in the classroom and assist in their learning, but then also the work that maybe is just as important.

Let me put it this way. I saw this quote, I don’t know who said it, I can’t find it on the internet, but it really resonates with me, “A strong ‘why’ allows us to withstand any ‘how’.” If we have a good enough reason for why we’re doing something, we’re going to figure out how to do it. Quite often with technologies, it’s complicated, it’s different. It’s out of the box, it’s out of the ordinary. And so often what you see with students is like, “Oh, if I can’t figure it out, I’m not going to do it.” And that’s also true with a lot of teachers. If I can’t figure out how to do this, I’m not going to do it. What often happens with that is we miss out on what that technology offers because they didn’t want to figure out how to do it. But there’s a good reason why we need to learn this technology, why we need to do the hard work. We will use that technology to solve problems, and in the process, develop skills that will serve us long after the classroom.

There’s lots of research that shows that when students engage in purposeful learning experiences, meaning, “Hey, we’re not just learning this because I said so,” or “We’re not just learning this because there’s a grade attached to it. We’re learning this to solve a problem. We’re using this technology, we’re learning this content to solve a problem that matters, to save the stories of veterans or to do something else that’s actually meaningful.” When students are engaged in purposeful learning, there’s a measurable benefit in their social development. Meaning students collaborate better, their behavioral development, meaning students work harder, are more focused, do better work, are easier to manage when they’re doing work that actually matters to them. Which by the way, makes sense, right? Students are better behaved when they’re doing work that matters.

I mean, have you ever been to a staff meeting that could have been an email? Yeah, I bet you could. I bet you have. And let me ask you, at one of those staff meetings that could have just been a bunch of bullet points and you could have slept in later, did you find yourself maybe not as focused as you would’ve been if it was an important meeting? Right? Did you maybe pull out your phone a little less or maybe you pulled out your phone because you knew like, “Ah, who cares? This could have been an email”? It’s like, yeah, we all get that. And yet, I bet you’ve also been to a staff meeting where you’re solving a real problem. Maybe there’s a student issue or a new curriculum or something that you need to come together as a group for to actually solve. I bet you are more attentive and better behaved. It’s like, yeah, because purpose does that to us.

It’s in the brain science. We want to know that we are doing meaningful work, that our time is being used well. And so there’s behavioral development with purposeful learning. There’s emotional development. Students are emotionally secure, less depression, less anxiety when they’re doing work in school that actually matters. But then this research also shows there’s cognitive development. Students are actually learning more academically, cognitively developing when their work that they’re doing matters to them, when it actually serves a purpose.

And so I want to give you an example. In the last 10 minutes that we have, I want to tell you about a unit that we did, a learning unit, or a project you could call it, where there was a deep purpose embedded in it and then the way that we use technology and skill development in order to solve that problem. And as I’m telling you this, I’m not expecting you to take notes and figure out, “Okay, how do I do this exact project with my students or the same learning unit with them?” I want you to instead keep this question in mind the whole time. How does this idea of purpose relate to what I teach? And how can I maybe tie… Not me, you. How can you use this concept of purpose to drive student engagement, drive student learning, and then use technology as a way of assisting the growth and collaborative and communicating and these different soft skills that we need to put more emphasis on?

So one time I saw this film called God Grew Tired of Us. It’s about these refugees from the country of Sudan and Africa, and they came to America and had lots and lots of difficulty assimilating to our life here. So I saw this, and this was at the same time that I was designing a learning unit that was all about new technologies and developments in the industrial revolution. I kind of made a tie between the two. I thought, “Wow, I’m about to teach about this concept, and here’s something that’s actually happening in our real world that’s purposeful and authentic and meaningful. I wonder if we could teach these two things at the same time. I wonder if my students could do something about this problem.”

And so I got in touch with a social work agency and I confirmed that this is a real problem in the city that we live. And I said, “Is there anything my students could do to assist with this problem?” And she said, “Well, I can tell you that a lot of these things that are simple to us are really difficult if you’re coming from a developing nation. A lot of processes like how to use public transportation and how to even cook simple foods and get around town and communicate with people, those easy things for us are really difficult for somebody brand new to our society.” So she said, “If students could do anything with that, that would be really helpful.” I said, “Okay, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to create tools that if you’d like, you can use in your program.”

And then we had a guest speaker come into my class named Beth Lisa. Beth Lisa came and spoke to my students about her experience coming from Rwanda to Grand Rapids, Michigan. She talked about when she was a little girl, her entire family was murdered in the genocide there and she was able to escape to a hotel in Rwanda and then left that hotel and went and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for over 20 years with no electricity, no running water, living completely on rice and corn. And then one day she was put on a plane without the slightest clue where it was landing, ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan in January. I don’t know if you’ve been to Michigan in January, but it was a rude awakening for someone from Rwanda.

Beth Lisa told my class that she’d never heard of snow before, never heard of it. She thought that there was a volcano nearby, and this was ash falling from the sky. So she’d never heard of it, didn’t know how to dress for it. She was told by a social worker to get on something called a bus to go to something called a library to use something called a computer to get something called a job. I mean, it was all brand new. Didn’t know how to turn on a stove and flip a light switch. And so she shared this with my students and they were a little shocked by it. This was a new problem to them. It was authentic.

And so after she left that day, I gave them our project. I said, “We need to create tools that can help her adapt to this, and here’s some of the things we have to work with to create these tools.” And so for the next month while we were learning about all the content of the class, again, we were simultaneously creating these tools to serve these people in our society. And so I know that, man, my students have to learn how to collaborate. It’s number one on that list. And so we need to figure out ways to collaborate in the 21st century.

And so, one of the things we did is we used Google Docs and we have a group contract. It was a shared document that students were able to share with each other and fill it in with different colored fonts and they have a discussion about what strengths and areas do they have for growth, what goals do they have for the project. I lead them in a discussion about what agreements can we all have while we’re collaborating together. And so they come up with shared agreements like, “I will not be on my phone during collaborative work time. I’ll get my tasks done on time.” All these things that might come simple to us, but we have them write them all out and then having some type of accountability system. And then they all electronically sign their contracts and submit them into our learning management system. And now we have this accountability tool as they’re working together. Using Google Docs is a great place to do that.

Another very simple tool is the project management log. It’s just four columns where students are able to have this doc and they share the link with each other and they list the tasks that need to get done, who’s responsible for those tasks, when those tasks are due. At the end of their work time together, they can fill in the status of the task. It’s completed or it’s ongoing. Again, this is a way of teaching them to manage their time and organize it and collaborate together.

There’s a really great tool. I have not sponsored by them, but I find it really helpful. It’s called Trello. Trello is very similar to this log, but it’s essentially just four columns and students can label their columns to do a doing, a done column. They could put all the tasks they need to have done, sign each other’s names to it, due dates. They can get alerts. They can share their Trello board with you, their teacher, so you can keep them in a spreadsheet and be able to access them. But the point is that my students probably will not be given a PML in their workplace someday, or maybe they won’t be using Trello. Maybe they’ll be using Slack, maybe they’ll be using another tool, whatever, but the fact is they’re going to have to learn how to organize and prioritize their time.

And yes, I could have them just do it on paper, but that’s not where the world exists for a lot of our students. We have to find ways to use this digital space. And the truth is, a tool like Trello or even just Google Docs makes my life easier as an educator and it’s being used as a purposeful way here. I tell my students, “This refugee agency, they’re coming back to our school and if we’re not ready, we’re not going to be able to serve these refugees. And so we’re going to use these tools to keep us managed and on time.”

We are able to use Zoom in meaningful ways. As students are away there, now it’s, “Hey, we’re not using Zoom just because I said so. We’re using Zoom so that we can solve this problem and get this work done.” I’m going to skip a few slides here. I see we’re running low on time, but same with communication. My point is we’re developing communication skills. My students created this whole How to Use the Public Library Video for refugees, which was just awesome. And they had to learn in an authentic way to communicate. And because we have video cameras and because we have the technology to edit them, they’re able to do it in a meaningful way and they rise to the occasion because the occasion demands it, right? We’re not just communicating because there’s a rubric. We’re communicating to serve refugees in our community. It’s purposeful.

And like I said, that’s a strong why. And when we have a strong why, it allows us to figure out all the hows. Just like they made these on Canva how to use household appliances. They made cookbooks on Canva. They created these tools. We use what we had at our disposal. Critical thinking. They were able to beforehand video each other and give each other feedback. I think there’s so much value in being able to do that, learning to give and receive critical feedback. But because we have video, it’s like now I can go back and review my presentation so I’m actually ready for it before the big day. Before I have to go in front of these panel of refugees and social workers, I can practice and I can get feedback.

That’s why I love GoReact. That’s the same type of technology, helping teachers refine their work, get feedback for video so that they can go and be better in the real day when they’re out there doing it. And so that’s what we’re doing with students. And it’s stuff that I bet you’ve already done before. And so hopefully this is just reaffirming the power that purpose has to raise us up in our tasks. And this is what it did for students. The biggest soft skill of them all is develop confidence because you’re not just developing all of these materials for me in the grade book. You’re doing it for an actual group of people in our community who you’re serving. And that’s what it’s all about.

I just want to finish it up with this. In the world of AI and constantly new evolving technologies, there’s still this reality that will never change. Humans are driven by solving meaningful problems. I thought I had a slide for it. Oh, there it is. We are driven by solving meaningful problems, and that’s not going anywhere. And so whatever you do, however you teach, ask these questions. What skills do you want students to develop? What technologies can help them develop those skills and what authentic tasks can drive that development? That’s the good stuff we get to do.

I’m just so grateful to be with you. I’m going to go get my leg up higher because the blood is starting to rush into that cast. But I’m just so glad I still got to do this. I’m glad this talk wasn’t on Monday because it’s a joy to get to be with all of you. And that’s it.

Jenny Gordon:

Trevor, wow, what a way to end our conference. I mean, talk about purposeful. That was just the most brilliant session. Very inspiring, very motivating I think as a parent and somebody that’s worked in education for a long time. Absolutely purposeful. How many times a day do you get asked, “What’s the point of doing this? Am I ever going to have to use it?” And being able to encourage that through the use of innovative technologies, but through that use of being, I think, focused on what is the purpose and the big why is such a good way for us to end our conference so that we go away really thinking about what the purpose of our roles as educators and the future and what we’re going to afford or the young people or learners all around the world. As things change and things become questioned and more challenging for us, always thinking about the purposes. Super key. So thank you. I think that’s a wonderful message to end on. And some great feedback as well in the chat.

I want to say thank you to you again, Trevor. And thank you to everybody who has joined us at ReAction over the last couple of days. It’s been a wonderful time.