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Podcast: The Epic Classroom with Trevor Muir

/ Jason Sholl

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad, and I am super-pumped to have my friend Trevor Muir on the show today. Trevor is a teacher, author, and international speaker. He is the author of the books The Epic Classroom and The Collaborative Classroom. Trevor is a professor at Grand Valley State University, a former faculty member for the Buck Institute for Education, and is one of the Andrew Gomez Dream Foundation educators. He has been featured in the Huffington Post, the Atlantic, EdWeek, and WeAreTeachers. Trevor gave a TEDx talk titled School Should Take Place in the Real World at TEDx San Antonio. Trevor's Facebook page, The Epic Classroom, has inspiring videos that have been viewed over 26 million times, which is pretty amazing.

At the heart of Trevor's work is the conviction that every student has the potential for greatness, and every teacher can be equipped to unlock that potential. Trevor, wow. Impressive resume. Really excited to have you on the show.

Trevor Muir: Yeah. I'm so excited to finally get to talk with you today.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. So I want to hear more, and I know the listeners want to hear more about this video that got 24 million views. Can you tell us what inspired that video and what that video was about?

Trevor Muir: Yeah. You know what's funny, is it was two years ago, I was teaching my high school English class. I remember like it was sixth hour and I said, I was like, "Man, I'm tired." A kid goes, "Oh, Mr. Muir, teachers always say they're tired." I was like, "Well, we are. There's a reason they always say that."

I went home and I pulled out my old camera and I just set it up and I just told that story. I was like, "Yep, teachers are tired. I mean, grading 150 papers in a day is tiring. Having students who come to school hungry is tiring. Dealing with all the changes in education and all that gets thrown at you and living on a teacher's salary and chaperoning dances, et cetera, is all tiring." Then I put at the end of that video, "But it's also all worth it." I put that short little video up, took me 20 minutes to make. Obviously, it resonated with a lot of educators and a lot of people who've been impacted by educators and just went a little viral, I guess you could say.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. Yeah, it definitely resonated with me as well. Then I started clicking on all your other videos, and I learned about your new book, The Epic Classroom. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired that book and what it's about?

Trevor Muir: Yeah, the Epic Classroom's really have all about how do we make the learning experience for students like a story that's unfolding for them, so that when they look back at their time in your class, they're not just remembering a bunch of information or facts or even just knowledge and skills. They're remembering their time with you as a memorable story that had real conflict that they had to solve. The only way to solve these problems, this conflict, was to learn skills and content, the stuff that we want them to learn anyway. It's really about giving authenticity to the work kids do, whether it's a service project or just giving them real problems that matter to them, that just draws them in and makes them want to be in school, which is really I'm talking about project-based learning in a lot of ways, is how do we give authenticity to all of the work that students do?

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I'm really glad that you mentioned project-based learning. You and I were both former faculty members for Buck Institute, which is now called PBLWorks. For our listeners who want to know more about project-based learning, can you talk about how you implemented PBL in your classroom? What did that look like specifically in your classroom?

Trevor Muir: Yeah, I can tell you about a time when my grandfather passed away. He served in World War II. When he died, nobody ever wrote his stories down, nobody ever recorded him telling his stories. It's purely an oral tradition from here on out. We can only just talk about what we heard from him. That really impacted me.

As a young teacher, I was like, "Well, what if my students went and found World War II veterans in our community and we interviewed them and we recorded their interviews and we used their cell phones to record the interviews? What if we went and edited them into mini-documentaries to make sure that their stories don't go with them? And what if while we did this, we also learned about World War II and we wrote about it and we created art around it and we did all of this work surrounding this problem? How do we preserve stories of heroes in our community?"

We're still doing the academic work of school. My kids are still learning about D-Day. They're still having to write narrative essays. They're still doing all the work they would do in school anyway; except now, it's all centered around this authentic task of recording these stories and then presenting them to the community.

As a plug that you didn't ask me to tell you, we used WeVideo to actually edit those documentaries. That is an unpaid endorsement. We used the online software because my students had Chromebooks, and we edited them together, and then we showed them to the community.

What I found as a teacher is that when we do authentic work like that, my students are so much more apt to engage in the learning process. They're so much more engaged in wanting to actually be in school and put in the effort, because there's actually something that matters to them that they're doing, as opposed to times where I need a little break from that and I have to do more direct instruction or the primary motivator is grades or making their parents happy.

Well, it's interesting that you mentioned that. What would you tell teachers who are looking for this balance? They hear this inspiring story that you just told with storytelling and using an authentic task and project-based learning. But then also, there's this pressure to quote-unquote cover the standards and teach all the standards and have the traditional lesson plans. What kind of advice would you give to a teacher that wants to start exploring PBL more, but maybe they're having difficulty finding the support needed to really just jump in?

Trevor Muir: Well, that's one of the things I love most about project-based learning or epic learning is that it's not another fad. Like, "Oh, here's a whole other system that I have to go and learn in order to be a good teacher." You actually get to keep teaching and using best practices that you've always used; except now, you're just giving authenticity to them. You can still use the best way to teach grammar, whether that's direct instruction or working at a whiteboard or having students do worksheets. You can keep doing that if it's still effective. But now, we're not just learning grammar to pass this test. We're learning grammar so we can put subtitles in the documentaries that we're creating. We're learning grammar so we don't distract people from the message of our videos or so that we have strong posters that we're putting up or whatever it is. It's given purpose for the work you're already doing.

I always say to teachers, "You don't have to get rid of the baby with the bathwater. You don't have to throw out everything you already do well. It's now, you're just giving more authenticity and purpose for why students are sitting through and doing that type of work." Does that make sense?

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Great thoughts there, because I think again you're making the learning meaningful. I think it's a complete transformation of how we view pedagogy. I think a lot of how we were, I guess, trained as teachers was that knowledge has to be imparted and that students have to do these tasks to be able to grasp this concept. I think it's a complete transformation of what students are actually doing when they're learning. This is not about busy work, it's not about repetition and practice, but it's about truly engaging into meaningful learning experiences, which sounds a lot like the epic classroom that you're describing.

Trevor Muir: That's right. I just think, as a teacher, I've done both. I've done a lot of project-based learning, but I've also worked in traditional environments where it was much more what we would all expect from a typical high school experience or middle school experience. I can say that it's been so much more fulfilling for me when I try to think of authentic ways for my students to learn, when I give them real tasks and have them create work that they're really proud of and that they're actually doing something with. It makes my job as an educator so much better.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. Well, so whenever you were engaging in these projects or your students were engaging in these projects, did you see the ... Because I always say that the level of the thinking, cognition, thinking creativity should increase. We want to make sure obviously we're not just doing this because it's, you said earlier, it's not a new fad or necessarily a new structure, but it's truly connected to more meaningful learning. Did you see their thinking increase at a new level? Did you see the higher order questioning happening? Did you see kids take ownership and really dive at the deepest levels?

Trevor Muir: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that's the main point. Some of the students who had the toughest time actually wanting to do this authentic project-based learning were my high-flying students, the ones that are in AP classes and honors and have always been able to game the system and do it well. Because now, it's not the formula where I just show up, I just listen and take these notes, and then I regurgitate it on a test and I excel. Now, you're doing tasks that cause you to ask questions and cause you to think deeper and use inquiry and really dig deeper and have to collaborate and critically think. All of this is now required in order to learn effectively, in order to solve whatever the task is. Those were the students who also got most frustrated with it, because now you can't just play the game like you've been used to doing. Which is a good thing, because now all my students are being forced to think at a deeper and more meaningful level.

That's why research shows that when students are engaged in work that has a higher purpose than their own personal benefit, so when students are doing some type of service learning, it's actually serving somebody beyond yourself, there's actually an increased cognitive development. Meaning, it's fine when we have community service hour requirements, it's great when we have service learning electives in school, but I feel like that research makes the case that we should have service learning, authentic learning in biology class, in geometry class, when we're teaching students Shakespeare. Because when there's this higher-level purpose, they're going to learn the content at a deeper, more meaningful level.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. Okay, last question, Trevor, and connected to this. What do you say to teachers that gets bogged down by the big summit of the big standardized test at the end of the year, and they're still a little bit stressed about, or a lot stressed about, having to teach in a way that's going to get them ready for the test? I think you and I probably share very, very similar opinions and thoughts about standardized testing and kind of the unfortunate state that we're in now with standardized testing. But what would you say to that teacher who has concerns over the standardized testing aspect?

Trevor Muir: First, I'd say to them is, I get it. I think you're justified in feeling that way. I don't think there's any shame in feeling that, because I've been in schools and districts that evaluate you based on your students' success, that evaluate your students based on how they do on these tests, on these limited measurement systems. For one, I empathize, I get it.

However, I've never taken the approach of I'm going to make sure my students do well on the test. I never have. I'm just not interested in that, and I don't think students are, and I don't think it actually increases learning when you just focus on tests. I think instead, you design learning experiences that are authentic and engaging and challenging and they incorporate the content standards. I'm not saying we need to blow up the system and stop teaching content standards or even that we need to get rid of all the tests. I think we should change them, but I'm not even making that case. I'm saying that we need to create learning experiences that incorporate the standards, but that's not the main purpose. The main purpose of the work is for students to grow and transform and solve problems that actually matter to them.

When that happens, students are going to be okay for the test. That's why if you've heard of the New Tech Network, which is a network of schools that focuses heavily on project-based learning, the last I saw, their students score on average 14% higher that students at a traditional school all on standardized tests. Meaning, their kids are not focusing on the tests, but they're doing better than kids who are just focusing on the test. It goes back to that research I said. Kids are more motivated, growing more cognitively because the work actually matters.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. So many powerful statements and thoughts there, Trevor, I really appreciate that. Our producer says we have to wrap it up, so we're going go.

Trevor Muir: Oh, we could go all day on this, good call.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yes. I know. Truly.

Trevor Muir: Probably a good call.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I'm game for that. Hey Trevor, how can we all get connected with you, stay connected with you through either website or social media?

Trevor Muir: Yeah, you can connect with me at trevormuir.com, where I put all my videos and my blog, and you can just get in touch and we can chat. So on there. Also at Twitter, @TrevorMuir. Then you could also check out my new book, The Collaborative Classroom, which is really taking a key part of this project-based learning and really talking about how do we teach kids how to collaborate effectively? How do we teach them to work well in school and to make collaboration, group projects a thing that teachers don't despise either? So you can also check out my new book or my first book, The Epic Classroom.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. I know that I will definitely be staying connected and watching one of your fantastic videos you put together. So I'm looking forward to continue learning from you, Trevor.

Trevor Muir: Yeah. Thanks so much, Nathan. It's been such a pleasure.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Thanks, Trevor.

Trevor Muir: Love your work as well.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that. All right, have a great one.

Thanks for joining me on the Deeper Learning With WeVideo podcast. If you liked this topic, recommend this to your friends, give us a five-star review, and check out our other episodes on this platform.

Be sure to get a copy of my latest book, WeVideo Every Day: 40 Strategies to Deepen Learning in Any Class, available now on Amazon. You can interact with me on Twitter and Instagram at @drlangraad. You can also check out more media content on YouTube at youtube.com/wevideo.

WeVideo empowers all students to express their ideas authentically and creatively. To illustrate these ideas of sharing stories, broadening perspectives, and promoting student confidence, check out WeVideo on Twitter @WeVideo, or also check out the website wevideo.com/education. See you next time. Bye.

About the Podcast

Deeper Learning with WeVideo explores ways to inspire creativity in the classroom, activities that ignite deeper learning for students, and interviews with thought leaders in education that motivate teachers and influencers in education technology. Listen to us on your favorite podcast apps: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, SoundcloudSpotifyStitcher and TuneIn!

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