Saturday, April 28, 2012

From Tools to Toys

by John T. Spencer (or in this case, Tom Johnson)

An excerpt from Pencil Me In:

For millennia, it was a cultural universal that games existed for learning. True, children had fun, but the games were designed to teach both social and physical skills. Children learned to be warriors, how to govern, how to access cultural narratives all through the act of play. In fact, Plato theorized that one could learn more about a person through an hour of play than a lifetime of conversation.

Even in America, where we have shifted toward a sit-in-your-desk-and-shut-up-and-learn model, our games become methods of accessing these cultural skill sets.  We get the darkest factory values in child's play. Thus, Simon Says teaches social conformity and prepares small kids for the prison-like environment of their future careers. Dodge Ball teaches Social Darwinism. Hide and Go Seek teaches children that transparency is overrated. Best run and hide from others. After all, this is the building block of many adult relationships.

On the flip side, our games teach the best of American values. Hide and Go Seek helps teach autonomy and creativity. Simon Says teaches listening skills and proves to kids that language can be powerful. Dodge Ball helps with teamwork and allows kids to see the value of throwing things at people for sheer enjoyment.

So, in our class, we create a game to make sense out of capitalism. It's a market simulation game, where students graph their own investments and interact with one another. Throughout this process, they write reflections, send mail messages and join a pen pal network. A few of them even plog (short for pencil logs) about the process.

When the game ends, students debrief the information in their plogs. After words, we set our pencils down and talk. On some level, it feels like waking up for a daze. Students debate the pros and cons of a market system, talk about the risks of speculation and relate this to the economic crash of last year.

The pencil smudge girl from yesterday raises her hand, “I think there is a danger in playing this game, but I'm glad we played it.”

“Can you elaborate on that?” I ask.

“I think the people in Wall Street got suckered into the same vortex that we were just in. They got selfish and that led to the Panic a few years back. It became a game to win. I think that's how it is for some of the people who run Wall Street.”

All of this has me reconsidering the notion of fun. I don't want my students to be amusement-addicts who play a violent Hang Man game or throw wads of paper out of boredom. I want students to use pencils as a tool. However, I'm realizing that games can be a tool for learning. I’m left feeling conflicted and confused.  Perhaps technology can be a toy and the game can spur deeper reflection. Maybe the power in every game is the fact that it creates a safe place to rehearse reality.

So now I'm sitting at home with my daughter. She's tossing a ball at the fence. The ball has been the dragon that attacked her fortress made of blocks and now it's a magic ball that will lose its fairy dust if it falls on the ground more than once. She's playing and learning and there isn't much of a divide at this age.

Perhaps there shouldn't ever be such a rigid divide. Perhaps when my students ask, “Can we play games?” or “Can't we have fun?” the answer doesn't have to be “these are tools not toys.” Maybe the answer can be, “Maybe they are tools, but maybe they're also toys. Sometimes it will be fun.  Sometimes it will be difficult. But I will always try and make sure it’s meaningful.”

And it has me thinking that maybe innovation happens, not because we use our tools appropriately but because we play with them. We hack them. We change them. We use them in ways they weren't intended to be used and in the process, they become better tools. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Problem with TED Ed

by Shelly Blake-Plock

The problem with TED Ed is the problem of what we define in traditional education as a "lesson".

In life, we learn lessons by trial-and-error. We burn our hand on the stove as children and therefore learn that the stove gets hot. Over time we realize it gets hot because its purpose is to cook food. Some of us learn how the stove works and become mechanics or industrial engineers; others of us become chefs. Most of us just realize to keep our hands out of hot stuff.

But we all learn by doing and by making mistakes.

And I emphasize "doing".

TED -- in the form it is presented online to the masses -- is not about doing. It is about watching. Listening. Consuming. Maybe leaving a comment or sharing a link to improve your TEDCred score. Yes, there is a wealth of interesting information and lots to think about. Personally, I find many of the lectures to be inspired. But we shouldn't confuse an inspiring lecture and provocative ideas with "learning".

And much of what we have called "lessons" over the decades really aren't lessons at all -- they are consumables. They are short narratives consumed by students who are then asked to fill in bubbles that demonstrate that the student either was paying a modicum of attention or that the student has good natural deductive skills in parsing the quiz-maker's craft.

And so we added the essay, the brief constructed response, the formal answer. And we said it was good because now we had brought qualitative and subjective response and the skill of argument to the assessment of learning. And we judged it objectively. And we kicked the poets out of town.

None of this led to "learning" for the overwhelming majority of students. If it had, we would not be at the crisis stage in education and culture.

And so, I was interested though skeptical of TED Ed when it was announced. And now, in seeing where it is going I am depressed.

Let's consider the things that TED Ed asks the learner to do: watch a video, take a multiple-choice quiz, write brief constructed responses, and read through a bibliography. If I took the name TED out of this scenario, I would suggest that many educators would say that this format is exactly the type of traditional assessment that project-based, inquiry-driven, personalized learning is at odds with.

It is perfectly fine to watch a video. It is perfectly fine to view a lecture. It is perfectly fine to quiz yourself on what you remember from the video or the lecture. It is perfectly fine to write a brief response about a big question. But let's not call that a lesson. That's just a starting point.

Lessons come from doing.

Our mother told us the stove was hot. She told us not to touch. If we were asked what mother said, we would say: "She said not to touch the stove. The stove is hot."

But we didn't learn a lesson until we touched the stove and got burned.

Lessons worth sharing are lessons that come from out of doing. And if we are going to bring education to the online space what we need right now is a platform that exists to help us do a lot more than flip the classroom. We desperately need a platform that exists to help us learn lessons by doing.

Will TED Ed evolve into that? Will MITx? Will any of the current rage of MOOCs?

Therein may lie a lesson.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

If School Was Like Twitter

a lesson I couldn't learn on Twitter

by John T. Spencer

As the kids filled out their silent, kill-and-drill test, I found myself wanting to interact on Twitter. I wanted to share my questions and frustrations with the people I've gotten to know. It had me wondering what school would be like if we modeled it after Twitter.

At first, this ideas sounded intriguing. We would get together in random chats, organizing our thoughts and sharing resources according to shared categories that grow organically. I'd have the permission to speak and to listen, engaging strangers at times and somehow making close friendships in the process. When things got too loud, I could move into a one-on-one mode, sharing small direct, personal messages back and forth.  There would be space for deep, conflict-ridden discussions and light-hearted humor.

Then I thought about the times when I've learned the most and they had certain elements that simply don't work that well on Twitter. They involved direct action and reflection, painful conversations, longer narratives, novels and paintings and solving equations that I had to wrestle with on my own. It was never entirely self-directed, often shaped, in positive and negative ways, by the will of the group.

I really enjoy Twitter, but I grow professionally from a pint or a cup of coffee or a long hike or a game of catch or a favorite novel or a perplexing historical monograph.

I love Twitter. I really do. I love blogging, too. But I'm struck by the notion that social media should not be the basis for how we design schools. Instead, we need to design social systems that reflect the profound, the superficial, the nuanced, paradox-filled, muddled, messy nature of humanity.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

We Can't Define Social Media

by John T. Spencer

Educators clamor for open access to social media in schools. We (including me) write about the need to teach digital citizenship to the digital natives. And yet . . . how do we even define social media? I witnessed many metaphors yesterday and each one of them seemed to suggest that we are attempting to find things in our physical world in order to make sense out of the digital.

I'm not sure it does make sense. At least not to me.

Should we view social media as a public location? If so, does it matter where one tweets from if he or she is "on Twitter?" Is it about the network? the equipment? If it is a space, is it truly public? Does it make a difference that someone must willfully follow a person on Twitter or "friend" a person on Facebook? My speech is, in this sense, less public than it would be at a supermarket or a baseball game.

Defining social media through the lens of location becomes tricky, though. Twitter is, on some level, a spaceless space. It is real-time, but not bound by time. My words do not evaporate the way they do in conversation. Instead, I leave a ticker-tape of thoughts behind me for anyone to pick up asynchronously. In addition, social media allow users to be in many places at the same time in a way that is simply not possible without a horcrux (Harry Potter reference). 

If I can speak openly about my faith at Starbucks with a group of friends then what changes if it in a tweet instead? The size of the group, perhaps? What size is large enough to be "broadcast?" If this is the case, it would seem that the larger issue is less about the Establishment Clause than the right to assemble publicly.

Should we view social media as the tools we use for the content that we produce? Is it similar to writing a book, publishing a magazine, posting a blog? What makes a tweet different from a bumper sticker in a staff parking lot, where a student might see political, personal or religious speech? How are my Instagram pictures any different from putting photography in a museum? 

The difficulty here is that the content is more accesible than in other forms of media. It is public, open to the entire world anywhere at any time. And unlike other media outlets, it is one in which the creators of the content do not have any voice in who owns the method. 

If so, then are the issues of free exercise and the establishment clause really relevant to social media? At this point, it seems that it would be more an issue of the freedom of the press. It is hard to deny the power of the pocket journalists in the Arab Spring who used social media to report on the issues in the world. 

Should we view social media as a method of communicating? Is it simply another form of conversation, not unlike body language, voice, text, etc.? When I'm tweeting am I simply having a conversation with whoever cares to listen? 

The problem here is that social media doesn't work like traditional forms of communication. The permanence, the broadcast nature of each medium, the difficulty in determining who is "listening" make it challenging. Moreover, it becomes even more challenging when it social media, by nature, are multimedia. Twitter involves videos, pictures, symbols, text, all moving digitally. 

Should we view social media as an expression of one's identity? We use terms like digital citizenship, online identity and branding, which all suggest that social media moves beyond simply communicating and into "being." 

The problem here is that it is easier online to choose anonymity and to craft identity in ways that are much more difficult in person. In addition, social media force the individual to create separate accounts  if he or she wants to compartmentalize. I am always a teacher at school. It is my identity. My speech changes when I am off the clock, outside of school. 

I see a real danger in the notion that employers (especially if it is the government) essentially "owns" a person at all times when he or she uses social media. When the speech is permanent (as it is) and the profile is static (as it is), I don't have the chance to switch roles and responsibilities. 

What does it mean, then, to protect the personal side of a teacher (or any worker) online? At what point does a teacher still represent a school even when he or she is "away" from that context? 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to lecture in a PBL classroom

by Mike Kaechele

Disclaimer: I teach in a PBL school where every core class follows the PBL process. I am a firm believer in PBL as an excellent application of student-centered, constructivist learning. I believe that PBL is ONE effective way to teach and provides a clear structure for teachers to transition from a teacher-centered to student-centered classroom. I do NOT believe that it is the only way to effectively teach.

In reading comments to John Spencer's post about The Problem with PBL I felt like people have a bit of a narrow view of PBL. It felt like many define it as students engaged in a project, usually inquiry based. PBL at its heart and soul is a process that can include any teaching style in it including simulations, research, individual and group work, and yes even lecturing. So here is how lectures fit into the PBL model.

On a recent project on WWII students were considering the driving question "When is War Just?" They were required to present their findings to the class using the methods of their choice. I team teach with an ELA instructor and part of her requirements was that students submit a bibliography according to the MLA format. Students had done a very poor job of this on a previous project so we asked what we could do to make it better. She had already done whole class and small group, voluntary workshops (PBL lingo for lectures; I know the lingo is overkill, but don't shoot the messenger). Most students had not followed the instructions.

For this project we waited until the day before the project was due and required each group to send one member to the workshop on MLA format. This was very effective because students had their bibliographies "completed" but were able to see in the workshop any mistakes and fix them. This is how lectures are used in PBL-"just in time."

Instead of forcing a lecture on students who are uninterested, PBL encourages students to struggle and get stuck first. Then they can request a workshop on a topic that they need help on. Now they are ready to listen and get the help that they need. Frustration and struggle with a topic creates a need for the teacher lecture. Oftentimes attendance to a workshop is voluntary. Other times a teacher may require certain students to attend based on a formative assessment that shows weakness in a certain area. This allows the lecture to be focused on those students who need it when they need it.

So for those readers who say that PBL is part of a holistic education and not the whole. I am curious what other techniques do you use in the classroom that you do not feel fall under the umbrella of the PBL process?

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Problem with PBL

by John T. Spencer (@johntspencer)

Every time I've visited an educational conference, the big buzzword (is an acronym a word?) is PBL. I have heard to definitions of the PBL acronym: Problem-based and Project-based (or Product-based). I'm not sure why it's not PL, because of the hyphenation, but I won't ask. Either way, it is presented as a fix-all for education.

I like the PBL framework. However, I see a subtle danger in pushing PBL as something that should be happening in every classroom with every student all the time. Most often, the reason behind this is that in "the real world" we learn through inquiry, problem-solving and projects.

I don't deny the validity of that argument. However, in the real world (and in the magical world, too - folks still learn in Narnia), we learn in ways that go beyond the PBL approach.

Take inquiry. Life doesn't always begin with my own questions. Sometimes someone asks me a question and the motive is external. Sometimes epiphanies happen. Sometimes I learn through something that is not a question at all - just an observation or an explanation. Sometimes I start with an answer and then question it later, as I intuitively create something new.

Sometimes life isn't a problem to be solved. There's a place for nuance and paradox and the recognition that we don't have all the answers. I ran into this a few years back when I had a Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process PBL. In the end, a student approached me and said, "I read about fatalism and the history of that area. What if peace isn't possible? What if there isn't a solution? More importantly, what if it's not our job, as Americans, to solve the problem?" We should have looked at the human element, at the conflict and the culture without treating it as a problem to be solved.

In the real world, learning isn't always a product or a project. Sometimes it's a conversation over a pint or a cognitive process in a time of distress. Sometimes it's a Google search when something sparks my curiosity. Sometimes it's a metaphor as I watch a baseball game. Or it's a tweet. Or a hike. Or a profound way in which a song speaks to the human condition.

I am not against PBL. I see it as a vital part of authentic learning. However, as amazing as it is, it still remains a part rather than the solution to a holistic education.

Edutopia: on 'How Did School Do?'

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Edutopia published a guest post of mine today about the 'How Did School Do' project. Here's a snippet...

It wasn’t long ago that language arts teacher Wheeler and his Lakewood City School District biology-teaching colleague Ken Kozar –- along with a class of eager 10th graders –- realized that certain questions weren’t being asked online. And one question above all resonated with teacher and student alike: How did school do?
Read the whole article at Edutopia.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

How Did School Do?

By Sean Wheeler and Ken Kozar

Learning comes more from asking questions than it does from answering them.  

Of course, the education paradigm that we find ourselves in is based upon an opposite notion.  This notion holds that by measuring students’ responses to questions that we put in front of them we can somehow surmise how effectively students learn, how effectively we teach, and how well the educational model that we’ve developed over a couple hundred years serves to prepare our students for engaged and meaningful lives.  

Perhaps it’s time that we begin to explore a different path.

A month or so ago, the team of teachers we work with came up with an interesting idea based on a post that Shelly Blake-Plock had written entitled, “If School Is Not Relevant”.  

“Imagine if schools were judged not by how well students achieved while they were in school, but in how well they achieved once they left. If schools saw their worth not in how many kids got accepted to college, but in how many kids went on to live meaningful and engaged lives and who would point back to their school years as the point of relevancy that was the foundation of it all.”  
In an age of massively networked communication and virtually unlimited access to information, it seems like our educational model should be exploring the tremendous potential our students have in regards to asking big questions of -- and to -- their world.  Authentic audiences can be easily accessed, broadcasting is incredibly simple, and our mission as educators should include teaching our students to work in a world in which everyone is connected.  

We can now ask huge questions of the world, and learn from listening to the conversations that develop.

But we didn’t want to only imagine an education assessment model like that, we wanted to create one.  What would we find out if we actually asked people to reflect on the relevance of education in their adult lives?  What questions could we begin to ask of a data pool like that?  Who could use that information and for what purposes?  What would it mean if we could begin to analyze this qualitative feedback and learn from it in the aggregate?    

So we approached Shelly Blake-Plock and Andrew Coy with a suggestion that we team up and use social media to gather this feedback.  What we came up with is theHow Did School Do?” Project, and we’re hoping to learn from the feedback we get.

Our students will watch the videos, study them, and begin to propose research topics based on patterns that will begin to emerge from your feedback.  Students will then set out to explore their topic, engage in conversations about their topic, and ultimately report what they’ve learned online.  

We’d like to invite other classes to join us as well, and will do our best to support a network of students studying these reflections on school relevance.  We also invite anyone else who’d like to join us in learning from what your videos tell us.  We hope it sparks many great conversations about what works in our schools.  So please submit a video, share this with your friends and family, and help us to get a really big answer to a really big question...

How did school do?

Question of the Day: On Mission Statements

by Shelly Blake-Plock

This one came up yesterday during #EdInnoMeetup -- a new quarterly gathering of edu thinkers in Baltimore: "Is your school's mission statement relevant to your students' online communities of practice and social influence?"

In my experience, school mission statements do a good job of telling us what influence the school will have over the student, but not vice-versa. Thoughts?

Creating Effective Passwords

I have been giving a lot of password advice at work lately, & over the years I’ve read several different ways to invent passwords. I think I have a pretty good system for creating them. Here it is:
1. Come up with a password that has absolutely no significance. I call this the “root password.” Use at least six characters. More is better. So is a variety of letters, numbers, & symbols. example: k5$3b4
2. Memorize it. (You can write it down somewhere without worrying about it. Read on.)
3. For whatever site you need a password for, take two characters from that site’s name and then add them to the root password. Use the same system for all sites.For example, you can use the first two letters of a site’s name. Facebook = fa, YouTube = yo Add them to the beginning of your root password and your password for Facebook becomes fak5$3b4, YouTube is yok5$3b4.
There are an infinite number of variations for this. You could use the first and last letters of a site’s name, second & third, capitalize them, add them to the end or in the middle of your password, or split them with a punctuation mark.
This system has worked for me. My passwords are different for all sites & they are easy for me to remember.
Two more bits of advice: If you use a mobile device make sure the characters you choose for your root password are easy to access. On my laptop the percent symbol, %, is just a shift key away, but on my iPad it takes three taps. It is still a good idea to change your password regularly. When you change your passwords simply vary your system or root password.
If you would like to check you password strength, can do this and also gives some ideas for creating a stronger (root) password.

Cross-posted on my blog.