Saturday, July 30, 2011

Two Great Digital Tools = Infinite Engaging Content

Digital technology is changing the way we teach on a daily basis.  I wanted to share two tools that I found this summer, and am currently using, that will allow my classroom to be more visual and allow students to interact with the visuals in a much more engaging way.  For more information about the rise of Visual Learning read this article from eSchool News.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Facebook Was Invented 32,000 Years Ago

Thirty two thousand years ago, entranced by a dark hole in the ground, a group of ancient humans took a chance.  Filled with fear and exhilaration, they crawled down into the darkness away from the safety of the sun.  In the pitch black they moved, slowly finding their way until the narrow cave opened into a large chamber, the belly of Mother Earth.  What did that feel like? Did they think they had found the place where all life sprang forth?  I don't know.  What I do know is that they were inspired and awed by what they saw.  Because they returned, and in the light of their flickering torches, left the first Wall Post in the history of mankind.

Thirty millenia later we are still leaving our marks on a wall.  For many its Facebook, others Twitter, but it is still the same desire, the same need that drives us to leave our mark in the universe.

From caves to computer screens, our need to communicate has not changed.  We send great yelping radio waves into the night sky in the hope that we really are not the only ones in the universe.  Because if we were all alone in the dark, the truth of our isolation may be an idea that is too large to wrap our minds around.

There is a lot of talk about mobile classrooms and virtual learning and the great race to be on the front end of the digital revolution in education.  But are we losing sight of teaching students the skills of being creative people in the race to integrate technology?

Some have said that technology alone will save education.  Different programs, like One Laptop per Child, are sending computers around the world.  Google has launched satellites to connect these computers to a network.  Within six years real time voice translation will be possible during online conversations or even during face to face contact.

The whole world will be able to access the same information at the same time.  Communication will no longer be a road block.  Though I embrace technology and its use in the classroom as a powerful tool, how are we preparing students to work in a world where everyone has access to the same knowledge?  Is their an app for that?

If we are preparing our students to compete for a fixed body of knowledge then we are training them for obsolescence.

We have traded cave paints for iPads, cave walls for digital walls, have we also traded the magic of creating and expressing for the mindless regurgitation of collective knowledge?  Lets focus our conversations this new school year on teaching universal concepts and skills and then find the technology tools to help children express their thoughts instead of giving the kids the technology and expecting the technology to fix our problems.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The State of Education

The State of Education

Three Books You Might Like To Read Before September

Summer is almost over, I know because I have received three e-mails and one letter outlining the itinerary for my first "official" week back to school.  I must say, now that my paycheck has been digitized, I do not enjoy receiving snail mail with district letter head in the top left corner of the envelope.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Offering Students the Chance to Shape their Own Lives

Many years ago I attended a Franklin Covey "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" Training.  It was a great training because it was universal in its themes and applications. One of the seven habits, the second one I believe, is to Begin With The End in Mind.  It ties back to the trite question we often ask children, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eight Sites I Have Grown to Love this Summer

It's getting close to the end of July and the bare white walls of my classroom are like a Siren call in my ear.  The itch of "getting my room ready" is getting worse everyday.  But this year, getting my room ready is not going to be the same as my previous fifteen years in education.  My "room" includes the four walls and door that my district assigned me but it also includes the digital classroom that I am also preparing and have been working on all summer.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

May I have your attention please!

The neurology of attention is fascinating.

The brain has two information filters:  the Reticular Activating System and the Amygdala.  During a single second our five senses send 400 billion bits of sensory data to our brain.  Talk about touching a live wire!  If all that data hit our nervous system at one time, it would account for a major neurological shut down (in the time it took you to read this paragraph your five senses inundated your brain with 4 trillion bits of data!)

Monday, July 18, 2011

One Click Away: A Dystopian View of Ed Tech

Remember this scene from Terminator 2:  Judgment Day?  Young John Connor (Edward Furlong) and The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) explain to Dr. Miles Dyson (Joe Morton, foreground) about the day the computer program Skynet became self-aware.  Scientists and the military tried to shut down Skynet but the program defended itself leading to the eventual creation of Terminators and the battle between humans and technology. 

This past week a convergence of separate events in the world of education made me wonder if we are seeing the beginning of an educational Skynet.  A technological system built with the best of intentions but with the capacity to create catastrophic consequences.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Florida Bill Makes Online Learning Mandatory

We stand in the doorway between two ages.   Behind us is the Knowledge Age.  Fueled by the Industrial Revolution and the need to educate as many children as possible, as efficiently as possible, the Knowledge Age created brick and mortar schools to provide a Free and Appropriate Education to millions of children.  The sole purpose of these schools during this time was to feed the insatiable appetite of the Industrial Machine with new workers.  

Ahead of us is what Texas A&M University Architecture professor and acting director of the Institute for Applied Creativity Dr. Rodney C. Hill describes as the Conceptual/Creative Age.  "In this world of accelerating change and global access to knowledge, the only people who cannot be outsourced are knowledge generators.  We approach the necessity for creativity and problem identification and solving to be able to survive and strive in this century," Dr. Hill said.

For some educators this transition has been and will continue to be very difficult.  They will see the passing of Florida House Bill 7197 - Digital Learning Act Now and decry the eventual destruction of the education system as we know it.  And they are right.  The education system as we know it must be destroyed.  The model does not fit our students and they are turning away from the school in ever growing numbers.  There has got to be something wrong when the education system designed to service student needs is actually pushing them away.

So to help teachers through this transition we should think about the advantages to education especially from the perspective of the suits sitting in various administration buildings around the country and three challenges that teachers need to face immediately and get over even faster.

Advantages to Education

Individualization of the Curriculum:  
For decades educators have been asked to meet the needs of the individual learner.  In 1984 educational reformer Theodore Sizer said, "That students differ may be inconvenient, but inescapable. Adapting to that diversity is the inevitable price of productivity, high standards, and fairness to the students."

As teachers we know that one size fits all education does not work for all students.  We know it in our core and for years we have worked hard for and worried about those students who are outliers to the mainstream delivery of instruction.  But year after year, despite our resolve to be better, we find the needs of 25 individuals are too diverse to meet adequately in an eight hour day constantly interrupted with distractions.

The advantage of the digital classroom is the ability to individualize or differentiate the curriculum.  Technology makes it easier for teachers to differentiate by plugging students into the timeline of the curriculum which is appropriate for their Zone of Proximal Development.  Technology also makes it easier for educators to tap into student interest.  When teachers can match developmentally appropriate learning objectives with student interest then the learning becomes relevant to the student.  

With all students, especially with gifted students, the information has to be relevant so that there is enough intrinsic reward to engage their brain's attentive focus (Willis, 2009).

The Cost of Education
From a school business perspective this news from Florida is awesome.  The University of Phoenix model can now be brought to the public school system.  UP has over 400,000 enrolled students in their various programs.  In 2010 University of Phoenix made a profit of over one billion dollars (University of Phoenix (2010) 2010 Annual Academic Report University of Phoenix AZ: University of Phoenix).    

My school district services around 69,000 students with an operating budget of $488,500,000.  That is about $7,000 a year spent on each student.  When my students see that number they want to know where all that money is going and I have to just smile and say, "Eight five percent of it goes to pay me and your other teachers."  

The fastest way for school districts to cut costs is to maximize the student teacher ratio.  If the recent education budget shortfall in Texas has taught us anything it is that school districts are going to cut their operating costs and teacher salaries is the fastest and easiest way to do it.  Now that secondary teachers have 40 - 45 students in their classrooms it will become very clear that it will be even easier to have the students access the content online and have one teacher administer to 100 or more students.

From a financial standpoint this Florida Bill makes sense.  Times are tough and for administrators it just makes sense if they can educate even more students, more efficiently and at a cost point that is much lower that what they are paying now.  It will also be easier to assess more students at a much lower cost point.

Ease of Statewide Assessment
The Florida Bill makes it so that all state assessments will be delivered virtually by 2014 - 15.  I, for one, am very excited about this development.  We pay our bills online, we shop online, we make reservations online, we communicate online.  Why not handle the monetary and logistical nightmare that is state assessment online?

The biggest benefit to virtual assessment would be to minimizing the cost of administering state assessments.  In 2009 the State of Texas paid NCS Pearson Inc. $88 million dollars to test Texas students.  A virtual alternative would eliminate many costs, right off the top would be the paper waste created by printing testing booklets and answer documents.

Another benefit I see associated with virtual assessments is that they will minimize the ability of teachers and administrators to alter student answers.  The most recent example of large scale cheating occurring recently in Atlanta.  Nothing puts me in a worse mood than sitting through my yearly test administrator TAKS Power Point for an hour listening to all the ways I can lose my job based on administering one test.  It is a no win situation for those of us who have to administer these tests.  A virtual administration should lower the risk that teachers take when administering statewide assessments and decrease the opportunities for cheating on a large scale.

Challenges to Teachers

Getting up to speed
Compared to other industries education finds its woefully behind the times.  For some teachers the curve is so steep, and they feel they are so far behind not only their digital coworkers but even further behind the students, that it is easier to throw up their hands and quit before they even try to understand the digital opportunities for their classroom.

Teachers are going to have to spend more time in staff development or using their own time to take advantage of the numerous online courses that are available like Atomic Learning 2.0 or

The good news is that this cloudy sea of technology gets easier to navigate as more educators embrace Web 2.0 and connect to each other via Facebook, Twitter, Edmodo and blogs like this.  The purpose of technology is to make it easier for us to communicate with each other, to share, to challenge, to learn.  When we embrace the tools ourselves it becomes easier to see how to integrate technology into our classrooms.

The stark reality is those teachers who do not embrace technology, or worse stubbornly resist, will not be teaching a decade from now.  Maybe sooner in Florida.

Shifting paradigms
Educators have to make a fundamental shift in how they view their profession.  The ability to access information on the internet has made our job as knowledge disseminators obsolete.  It is no longer appropriate for teachers to stand at the front of the room showing off how much they seemingly know.  Our job now is to teach the students what to do with the information, to verify its credibility, to connect and synthesize their thoughts with the information and most importantly to generate new knowledge.  

We have to reverse the role of the learner and as we reverse the role of the learner so do we reverse our own role in the classroom.

Integrating Standards
Our standards are not going away, nor should they.  Virtual schools will still work to teach state standards to the students.  It is yet to be seen how effective that will be?  In the end its still about connecting students to the content.  We know what best practice says about how to do that.  The key is finding the best digital tools to help us connect more kids to the content, faster and in more meaningful ways so that they become knowledge producers.

The full ramifications of the passing of HB 7197 in Florida are unknown.  What we do know is that virtual school or brick and mortar school, teachers will remain the heart and soul of education.  But we have to adapt to the changing needs of our students so that we do not become obsolete and replaced by  computer servers.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Magic of Incubation During Brainstorming

In 1926 Graham Wallas published his book The Art of Thought.  In 2011, ranked The Art of Thought #3,835,792 in Books.  Not very prestigious for a book that laid the foundation for the way educators and psychologists look at the creative problem solving process.  

Wallas, in his attempt to describe the magic of creative insights and illuminations, described the creative process in five steps:

  • preparation:  basically a person sees that there is a challenge, absorbs the information surrounding the challenge and takes time to explore the dimension's of the challenge
  • incubation:  the information surrounding the challenge settles into a persons unconscious mind and though nothing seems to be happening externally
  • intimation:  the person looking at the challenge gets a "feeling" that a solution is close at hand
  • illumination:  the creative solution bursts forth from the unconscious self, manifesting itself to the person as conscious awareness
  • verification:  the solution is elaborated on, then applied to the challenge
This model has been revised and edited many times in the 85 years since its creation.  One key component of the model that has withstood the test of time is the incubation stage.  And of Wallas's initial five stages of insight and illumination it is my favorite.

I have spent almost a decade as a team manager or coach in various team problem solving programs.  My teams have been successful, winning many awards on their way to present their solutions at various state and international tournaments.  When I think about why my teams have often done better with their solutions to challenges than other teams it seems to be because of the amount of time I expect my teams to let their ideas simmer or incubate.

Alex Osborn developed the concept of brainstorming in the 1930's and 40's to help his advertising teams come up with new and unique campaigns for their clients.  What does brainstorming have in common with the incubation of ideas?

Quite a lot it seems.

If a brainstorming session is well organized and participants are clear on the stimulus (presentation of the challenge) than a rather consistent phenomenon occurs.  The initial or beginning moments of the brainstorming session will be an avalanche of ordinary ideas - ideas that most people analyzing the challenge would come up with.  Nothing unique, nothing original. 

After that initial flood, their will be a quiet plateau stage, where few ideas are generated or silence fills the room as additional thinking time takes place.  This is the plateau state.  Common responses have cleared away, much like someone skimming the crud off the top of a stagnant pond, and now the respondents have access to their deeper, subconscious creativities.

Then the true magic takes place, the magic of insight, illumination, creativity.  Outstanding ideas come forth, and when that happens it is the most exciting and fascinating time for everyone involved in the process.

What I have found in working with children in creative problem solving situations is that they are quick to run with their initial solutions to the challenge.  Imagine that!  Children being impulsive.  I know you may have never experienced such a phenomenon in your life, but I am here to tell you brother I have been to the mount and can testify to that such a thing does exist.  The role of the coach or team manager at this time is to have the team pause, continue to think on the ideas and maybe even end the meeting for the day and reconvene at a later time.

Stephen King, in his autobiography "On Writing," tells first time writers that when they are finished with their first drafts, put it away, do not look at it for at least six weeks.  "You've done a lot of work and you need a period of time to rest.  Your mind and imagination - two things which are related, but not really the same - have to recycle're not ready to go back to the old project...until you've gotten so involved in a new (project) that you've almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of your life every morning or afternoon for a period of three or five or seven months."

The often quoted Albert Einstein reinforced the point when he said, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”  

I think about those quotes often when I watch students present their solutions to challenges and each solution is a slight variation of the one before or after it.  No time had been given to clear away the pond scum of the ordinary, to swim deep into the depths of the subconscious, to uncover the light of illumination (insight) and then show the glow of originality to the world.

In planning activities for students in the classroom make sure that they have time to think about and ponder their ideas, to make them put their work aside for awhile and give themselves a chance to see it again with fresh eyes.  Then they will discover true ingenuity and original solution.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Research with Little Work: Kindergarten Cameras

Standards.  I have no problems with standards, no problems at all.  I think we are misguided in how we evaluate mastery of those standards but that’s what happens when you have people outside of the domain of education making educational decisions.

For Kindergartners the standards are based on the squiggles and lines that make up the letters of our alphabet, that tell us what sounds to make with our mouths and how to combine them into patterns that make words that are to be read. 

Kindergartners are beginning to understand, at various levels, the importance of print and its place in their expanding ego-centric view of the world.  And whether you believe in phonics or whole word teaching everyone agrees that letter identification is important.

So how do we learn to identify letters and incorporate research in a kindergarten classroom?  Easy.  Get some digital cameras or smart phones, and prepare a scavenger hunt that will allow students to take pictures of all the signs in your school building. 

Begin the scavenger hunt by asking your students why letters are important.  You may want to write down their answers on chart paper to refer to later.  Then tell your students you want to show them how important letters are by finding letters in your school building.

You can differentiate the activity on many levels from the number of kids per camera to the number of signs you designate as part of your scavenger hunt.

And then begin cataloging the letters in your building by taking pictures of the signs, bringing those cameras back to your classroom, downloading the pictures or printing them out and then counting and organizing the data on a chart.  Groups of students would sit around their pictures counting the number of C's and P's and talking about which group has more and why did this letter beat that letter.  

After going through the data, go back to the chart that documented students thoughts on why letters are important.  Re-read the chart with your class and ask them if they would like to revise or add any thoughts now that they have finished their study.

A great writing assignment would be to report the results in a class created research paper that could be distributed to other classes or grade levels.  This would be a great chance to model and share writing to inform and to let the students know that research is not just about collecting data but also sharing it with others who also might be interested.

What better way to incorporate science, with math, with language arts?  It is a great way to put technology in young people’s hands and then teach them about how to handle that technology, how to use it responsibly and begin discussing the legacy of their digital footprint (especially for those children who choose to take pictures of each other instead of the signs).

Also the children are much more attentive to the importance of the letters and the discussions can begin about why some letters are more important than others or even why some signs use different type of print than others.

The creativity of this project is limitless and can be adapted to first grade classrooms and the search for sight words or punctuation or numbers.  Try it out and let me know how it works.  I think you will have your students full attention and they will see the importance of letters and sounds.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Research with Little Work: The Morning Routine

Every day you and your students conduct research in the rowdy, controlled chaos of morning routines. Attendance and lunch count. Both rituals are required elements of your teaching day and both are examples of descriptive research. Descriptive research answers the question of what is going on in my classroom right now. Who is here and what do they want to eat? Research. It answers a question, but it also has the potential to spark deeper questions…what does it mean? Why does this happen?
The key to any great thinking in your classroom, especially for gifted students, is not the what of a situation but the why. A one day snapshot of your attendance and lunch count may not answer the question of why something is happening but it might if you were to continuously collect the data and then organize it in a way that would show patterns visually. What is attendance like in our room before holidays? Why were so many students out in February? Why do more students bring their lunch on Tuesdays than Fridays?

None of these answers can be found with a google search query. The answers can only be found in the analysis of the data the students collected in a space they truly care about. The beauty of children is their complete and utter ego-centrism, it’s also true of adults but a lot more annoying. If students care about something they will pass through fire and smoke to get to it, if they don’t they will turn your life into a burning inferno of the underworld.

Many experienced teachers learned early on how to be efficient in taking attendance and lunch count. It was a matter of survival. Plus with everything that needs to be done in a classroom it is much better to make the students responsible for their space as well as the teachers. For many of my colleagues with control issues this is often difficult. However, it is easy to train five year olds to place a clip on their picture if they are present in class and to mark if they have a sack lunch, buying a hot lunch or getting some other choice your cafeteria is providing that day. Bang! The class has been surveyed, the data is on the board, now all these scientists have to do is record the data in a way that is easily accessible for future study and review.

At this point our friends in the primary grades (K-2) would model or guide students in inputting data into a spreadsheet of some sort. We have the technology, may as well use it. If not, a handy dandy notebook will have to suffice.

The basic data gathering will be the same in every grade but the amount of modeling, sharing and guiding will change. It would not be uncommon for kindergartners to gather data independently but to have the teacher model, share and guide the rest of the research process. Whereas fifth graders may be almost completely independent if the process have been modeled, shared, and guided for them in previous grades. That is a big if. Too often we release responsibility to our students too soon and they frustrate us with their inability to complete the tasks we have set forth for them. We criticize their failings without realizing at first that it was our failure to teach that has led to the impasse.

So no matter what, in any new activity, for now and forever, you have to gradually release responsibility to your students so that it is clear what the expectations are for them and you can be sure that you have done your job teaching. You may now put your hand down.

Now comes the longitudinal study, the search for patterns, and the trip through the data set to notice anomalies and to begin asking why does that happen?

How often will you look at the data set? Once a month? Will you compare days of the week? Once you have determined patterns will you ask why? And if you find the why and it is a problem for your school will take your research and then take action to solve the problem?

If you answered yes to the last two questions your classroom will be on the cutting edge of education reform. You will not have passive, dependent learners. They will be producing new data, based on their experiences and working to find out what that data means in their lives. You will have taught them a skill that will transfer to so many areas in their future lives.
The author and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention “It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively.” I can not think of a better way to set up your environment then by letting your students know right when they walk in the door they are taking control of the environment by being active learners and observers.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reversing the Role of the Learner

My own children hate research. Well, they say they hate research. Let me clarify, they hate science fair. They hate the cookbook science fair that has come to predominate our current notion of what is true first hand investigation. I am not sure where I first heard the idea of the “Cookbook Science Fair” but it rings true. The term cookbook becomes an appropriate descriptor of any investigation when students know the results of their experiment before they collect one supply or finish cutting and pasting their hypothesis from the internet.

What my own children do like is the type of research they join my wife and I on when we look at open houses getting ideas of market value, upgrades, kitchen design, bathroom tiling and a thousand other home improvement ideas. They enjoy it so much they come home and pretend they are real estate agents and show our house to prospective customers.

That is engaging, real scientific investigation. Asking questions, gathering data, analyzing results and then making decisions about what the research means for our house and the future value of our home when we look to place it on the market.

I don’t know a science teacher who would not want their students to go home and experiment and question and test and find answers to their questions. So how is it that we have not been able to capture student’s imaginations and show them how to answer the burning questions that they ponder?

Easy, we, as educators, have not shown our students the skills that will transfer their wonderings into real world problem solving. We live in an age where if it doesn’t exist on google then it never happened. But at what point does the system turn on us. Are we raising millions of children who will only search for information and stop creating it? If that’s the case, when does it become a zero sum game? When does it come to the point that nothing new is created and we are only regurgitating the same old "facts" over and over again?

So, as educators it is our jobs to teach our students the skills to organize and preform first hand research in the classroom, to turn our students into questioners, data collectors, analyzers and reporters. Basically take their natural born curiosity and show them the skills and the tools they need to channel that curiosity into finding answers.

All educational domains from psychology to biology, sociology to chemistry, math to language arts incorporate research into the study and development of their fields. Every domain asks questions and every domain uses the skill of the scientific method to answer questions…so why not teach the skill in a way that makes sense. By making sense I mean that it is easily transferable to everyday life. So that the skill used in your classroom today could be used at home or in the mall or on Facebook tomorrow.

Two great resources for teachers are books I have used often in my own classroom:

Looking for Data in All the Right Places: A Guidebook for Conducting Original Research with Young Investigators by Alane J. Starko, Gina D. Schack

Research Comes Alive!: A Guidebook for Conducting Original Research with Middle and High School Students by Alane J. Starko, Gina D. Schack

In 2011 it is time to stop talking about accountability and higher standards and dancing around the issues. We can cover all of our standards and prepare students for the future by reversing the role of the learner:

change learning from a passive activity where teachers have all the answers to active engagement where students investigate ideas they are interested in within the domain they are studying,

instead of force feeding students large amounts of information lets let them use their digital devices and the skills we teach them to begin producing information that is important to their schools and communities,

finally push them away from depending on the teacher in any given domain and allow them to become independent and autonomous in their learning.