Monthly Archives: February 2012

Rethinking How Students Learn: Chris Dede

Are you sick of all the talk about 21st century skills? I mean, we are almost 12 years into the new millennium. Some educational pundits go so far as to demand we stop using the term, but Chris Dede attempts to rationalize the “21st Century Skills” movement:

Inventing new problem-solving heuristics when standard protocols have failed is an important skill; when all diagnostics are normal, but the patient is still feeling unwell, for instance, a skilled physician can think outside the box and become an expert decision maker.

Will your students fit IN the box, or think OUTSIDE of it?

Our kids NEED to learn how to think outside the box. This isn’t always an easy skill for them to pick up. You see, they’ve grown accustomed to the 20th century educational method whereby the teacher provides the answers and the student regurgitates them on paper homework, quizzes, or tests to prove they’ve acquired knowledge. They have already mastered this educational “game” and they like winning it. Our students want to be able to finish tasks quickly and easily, with great success. But what they want isn’t necessarily what they need. How will they answer those difficult questions that may not have a clear or easily-accessible answer?

Dede goes on:

…the nature of collaboration is shifting to a more sophisticated skillset. In addition to collaborating face-to-face with colleagues across a conference table, 21st century workers increasingly accomplish tasks through mediated interactions with peers halfway across the world whom they may never meet face-to-face.

Our students NEED to be able to collaborate; this goes beyond mere communication skills. They need to be able to work in groups to achieve project success. They need to know how to use modern-day tools like Skype or Apple FaceTime to connect and work with colleagues on the other side of the world. The only way they are going to begin life after Heritage Hall with that skillset is if we, their teachers, allow them time and setting to develop the essential skill of collaboration.

I love the comparison Dede makes next:

Conventional, 20th century K-12 instruction emphasizes manipulating predigested information to build fluency in routine problem solving, rather than filtering data derived from experiences in complex settings to develop skills in sophisticated problem finding.

Ask yourself, “Do I provide ‘complex settings’ for my students to work in? Do I allow them to find problems instead of memorize information? Do my students create their own data?” Hopefully, the answers to these questions are affirmative. Our students live in an information age – in fact, some have called it the “Age of InfoWhelm.” As Dede suggests:

The ability to separate signal from noise in a potentially overwhelming flood of incoming data is a suite of 21st century skills.

The 21st Century Charger needs to be prepared and able to filter the meaningful information out of the endless deluge of data. He needs to be able to ask questions about the data and explore resolution to such problems in a journey mapped out by himself. It is critical that the teacher becomes the “guide on the side” in this process for meaning can only be 100% relevant when it originates from oneself (the student).

In the book I read, Dede refers to Henry Jenkins’ interesting list of digital literacies. They are: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transformed navigation, networking, and negotiation.

To me, those are clearly skills that would make a person successful in the world of the near-future. The question that lies ahead of us is…

How can we prepare our students for life and the workplace of their future?

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What Can Computer Science Learn from a Fine Arts Approach to Teaching?

I don’t teach computer science and I don’t teach fine arts – but I found this short study very interesting – and completely applicable to physics (and most other subjects too, I think). The study looks at two apparently similar programs, one in computer science and another in information technology. One is firmly rooted in 20th century learning while the other is embracing new ideas. The study shows that it’s going to take a new paradigm to tackle challenging educational problems (in this case: the gender gap in computer science). The specific & practical recommendations made were intended for computer science teachers, but could easily be extended to most any discipline.

Want to pass notes in class? Use Google Docs!

I took my Spanish class to the computer lab to use an awesome resource called Yabla.

Yabla is “online immersion television,” where kids can watch lessons or listen to authentic music, which has been organized by musical style, country of origin, and ease of understanding on a scale of 1-5.  As they watch the videos, a translator box appears at the bottom of the screen which shows them the spoken content  in both Spanish and English text.  Cool!

I have a few boys in my class who are great, but I do need to pay a little extra attention to make sure they are on-task.  About 10 minutes into the period, I heard two of them share a laugh.

“Uh-oh,” I thought, “surely they’re fooling around.”

I could see from a distance that they both had a Google doc open and the green and pink cursors told me they were sharing a conversation on each other’s screens.

“Well, that’s an ingenious way to pass notes,” I thought and crept up behind them for a closer view of exactly what they were sharing.  Gossip?  Intrigue?  Bad language?

Shock of all shocks, they were actually on-task!  They were using the shared document so they could compare notes on the video they both were watching.

I had not instructed them to do this, so I approached them to ask what they were up to. They pulled off their headphones and told me about the scene in the video and how it was just like something that had happened to them this morning.

Google docs allow multiple users to type simultaneously on the same, shared document.

I confessed I had doubted their intentions and that I was actually quite pleased to see how they were using a shared document to… well… share!

In fact, it gave me new ideas for collaborative assignments while they are using Yabla, like “compare and contrast pop music from Spain with pop music from Ecuador” and have them type it up while they are watching.

Many of my students are new to Google docs this year, and it is exciting to see them put it to use for their own purposes.

If media fluency involves using the right digital tool for the task, I would say these kids are doing just that: adapting the technology with which they are familiar to meet their needs.

I, for one, am excited to find more tools to add to their toolbox.

Rethinking How Students Learn: Linda Darling-Hammond

Waiting for Superman, movie poster

Did you know? On the 2006 PISA, an assessment of students in 40 countries, the United States ranked 35th in math and 31st in science. Shocking. It makes you wonder why.

Linda Darling-Hammond theorizes about the underachievement of American students:

  • The US educational system moves back and forth, like a pendulum, between polar extremes.
  • Top-performing countries have little external testing and instead emphasize school-based assessments that are open-ended in nature.
  • These top performers are constantly evolving curriculum and assessment, teaching both content and skills.
  • Teachers in those nations have an average of 15-25 hours per week in which they plan their lessons TOGETHER.
  • Students in those nations have longer periods of time to work under the guidance of their teachers on project- and problem-based activities.

Darling-Hammond’s observations made me think. He observations made sense. I especially am keen on the idea of longer class periods (like the “block schedule” many schools use) to allow students a more continuous stream of thought and activity on a given task. I also like the idea of teachers meeting together once a week for an extended period of time to plan interdisciplinary activities. But, 2006 results are far gone now. I was left wondering, are there more recent PISA results – and if so, how did the US do?

Here’s what I found. The 2009 assessment shows that the US has improved in some categories:

  • 14th in reading
  • 17th in science
  • 23rd in math

But in one important statistic, we still fall short. About 18% of American students did not achieve a Level 2 (“literacy”) score in math and reading assessments. Our schools still need change if we are to best prepare our students for their future.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of PISA scores Heritage Hall students would achieve. I have a feeling we’d be knocking it out of the park. And that is exciting, considering that, as a school, we are already embracing changes that will promote our students to think more deeply, express ideas more creatively, and collaborate in innovative ways with our world neighbors.

Puppet Pals, not just for kids

I first learned about Puppet Pals in kinder21’s recent post about connecting her classroom to China, and the very next day it came up in my class.

My students had divided a book we were reading into chapters, and each group was responsible for creating a video of that chapter’s main events.

It was a good way to review in a dynamic and memorable way.  The history teacher across the hall had been teaching his students to make Common Craft videos, and I offered this as an alternative to filming a live scene.

In an act of media fluency one student said “I think the app my sister is using in Kindergarten would be perfect for this!”  He described how it worked and it seemed interesting, so we quickly downloaded the free app and started testing it out.

Puppet Pals brings out the creative inner child in anyone who picks it up.  You can choose pre-set characters, or upload your own images and set them in pre-set or uploaded scenes of your choosing.

When the scene is set, you can hit record and narrate or give voices to the characters as you move them around the scene.  It’s essentially a puppet show that an individual can perform and film at the same time.

If you’ve seen a young child at play, moving toys around and giving them voices, this is the digital recording of that very same phenomenon.

The videos are fun to watch and the students have to summarize, problem-solve, collaborate, plan and execute the project… without even realizing they are using so many important 21st Century skills.

I love Puppet Pals, it’s going to become a standard fim-making option in my classroom.

Students use smart phones to research and edit their script while creating a Puppet Pals video on an iPad.

Collaboration Fluency: Foreign Connection (possibility!)

Collaboration fluency is team working proficiency that has reached the unconscious ability to work cooperatively with virtual and real partners in an online environment to create original digital products. Virtual interaction through social networking sites and online gaming domains has become a part of the Digital Generation’s and our daily lives…so why not include it in our daily routines at school as well!

While social networking is not necessarily explored in Kindergarten, I am excited about an opportunity this year! I have a student who will be moving to China in March. She will return for 1st grade next year, but will spend nearly 6 months in Beijing with her grandparents to be fully immersed in the language.

This will become a wonderful opportunity for my class to continue our relationship with this child, but to start a connection with a class on the other side of the world!

How can this build collaboration fluency? I have lots of ideas! The basics of Kindergarten include numbers, letters, shapes, etc. I think the kids would love to teach one another some “basics”. At this point in Kindergarten we are working on building complete sentences and even writing our own stories. I think it would be awesome for my students to create stories (for example on the PuppetPals App) and send them to the class in China. The class in China could then retell the story in Chinese and send us the new version. I need to explore ways we could exchange these videos to make it a smooth process for Kindergartners to manage. I know the possibilities could be endless with this, but I love the idea of storytelling to collaborate with the Chinese class. Knowing that one of the students there will be one of our friends will allow my students to jump right in to it rather than be nervous. My students will be very interested to learn about what her new class and teacher will be like, so it would be wonderful to compare and contrast the classroom environments she will be in. We could also exchange photos or videos of our classrooms.

The 21st Century Fluency Project website suggests that with our wireless communication technology, it literally puts a “death to distance”. the ideas I shared above holds especially true to this. Even the tremendous time change between Oklahoma and China won’t get in the way of sharing and exchanging ideas! In fact, I believe it would be a smooth process that the kids would be eager to explore. I will be eager to post about the progress as it develops!

Global Digital Citizenship

As I read my book, 21st CENTURY SKILLS I was very impressed with the examples of students that made a difference in their communities around the world. From the students in Sydney who uploaded data to track climate change trends, to the London students who prepared a plan to put a traffic light at a dangerous intersection near their school, these students found practical ways to bring about change. The Jewish, Muslim, and Christian students at a school for peace in Israel created a video sharing their ideas for peace in the Middle East. The one example that touched me the most was students in a Palo Alto robotics class that researched the needs of quadriplegics and those with mobility challenges. It was such a seamless blend of compassion, empathy, and service to mankind.
I had just visited with my 7th graders about the skills necessary to implement our 1:1 program next fall. They had a great grasp of what they needed to learn to be successful. It occurred to me that even basic concepts with a computer needed to be mastered to take the next step toward digital citizenship. As we progress with this venture, it will be interesting to see how the students can take these skills and apply them globally.

Solution Fluency: Expert Method & Action Research

Application: Expert Method

As a physics teacher, solution fluency is a skill always on my mind. All too often students respond to a physics puzzle with “I don’t know,” as if the solution was a bit of forgotten trivia. Instead of taking small steps that build toward solution, students attempt a single giant leap towards the answer. When this strategy fails – as it inevitably does for challenging problems – they are left with nothing.

As a part of a master’s degree I am pursuing with three other physics teachers, we are conducting action research into problem solving in physics. Although all four of us had already attempted to teach problem solving in our classes, our instruction was mostly ineffective (see psudoteaching). To be sure, our students could tackle problems relying on algorithmic like procedures. It’s hardly solution fluency to blindly follow memorized instructions though.

From the research we read, we discovered that the common types of “example problems” are grossly ineffective at improving student’s problem solving abilities. In hindsight, this is almost embarrassingly obvious since it is the teacher who builds up the problem, the teacher who supplies the logic and the teacher who evaluates the result. Problem solving, and physics in general, are not spectator sports. You can’t learn by watching experts any more then you could basketball.

There seems to be general consensus that experts effectively solve problems by systematically working from general to specific using the following steps:

  • Translate the problem into their own words/pictures (i.e. understand the problem)
  • Qualitatively describe the problem (i.e. what major ideas are relevant to the problems solution?)
  • Quantitatively describe the problem (i.e. apply specific pieces of major ideas to understand the problem in more depth – in physics this often takes the form of a series of equations).
  • Execute a solution (i.e. calculate/solve equations or graphs etc.)
  • Evaluate the solution (i.e. use multiple independent checks to determine a solution’s validity)

We took this general problem solving strategy, applied it specifically to physics and then printed out papers for students to solve problems on called the “expert method.” (a picture is below)

Although our research is very much ongoing, there are promising signs. Completely on their own, one of my classes asked if they could have expert method sheets on the final (Yes!!!!!). Additionally, since I require students use the expert method on problems they get stuck on, and most of the steps can be completed even without getting the right answer, it is very easy for me to distinguish between those who didn’t get the homework because they didn’t understand vs. those who didn’t get the homework because of a lack of effort.

Overall, I think this expert problem solving method has potential far beyond its obvious applications in math and science. Just like we have powerful reading strategies, I think we should empower students with specific problem solving strategies. Hopefully students will internalize these strategies with practice.