Why I Love/Hate Standards

August 1, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

Some years ago (2001), in my book “Technology Standards: A Leader’s Manual” (you must remember it–it sold literally dozens of copies) I made this point about academic standards:

But standards are not merely goals and objectives. In fact, real implementation of standards in a school system should turn instructional practice on its end…’Traditional instructional practice  fixes the time that a student has to learn and allows the learning outcome to vary. You take Algebra II for nine months. At the end of that time, the result might be that you get an A, an F, or something in between. Standards-based instruction, on the other hand, fixes the learning outcome and allows the time to vary. Every student will show mastery of the performance standards, but some of them will show mastery earlier or later than others will.’

Read that again. It is a fundamental change in instructional practice that should shake public education to its foundations. In a standards-based system, giving a grade in reading, math, or written language would be almost impossible because what we should be measuring is progress toward mastery of a standard, not performance relative to a fixed time line. Our job as educators is not to grade students on what they remember over time but to make sure that they attain the standards set by the school system or the state, no matter how long it takes.

I still stand by my statement, but I’m increasingly aware that the standards movement of the H.W. Bush era backfired on us. The move toward academic standards should have driven a shakeup in the way we educate K-12 students. Instead, it gave us high-stress, high-stakes testing and new restrictions on creative instruction. I think it’s more than coincidental that our schools have become progressively less engaging for students as a result of the standards movement, when just the opposite should have happened.

That’s why the Common Core Standards movement concerns me. Don’t misunderstand me–I support the concept of clearly defined academic standards and I don’t have any specific quibbles with the content of the Common Core standards. However, I think the focus on standards–e.g., curriculum–detracts from the real issue of what’s wrong with our schools: instruction.

We need to face the fact that, in spite of considerable effort over the past 30 years to establish state and federal academic standards, students in many K-12 classrooms are simply disengaged from the process of learning as a result of instructional methodologies that focus on memorization and test-taking in lieu of problem solving and creative pursuits. If it’s not on the test, it’s not covered. Schools have typically been slow to adopt new technologies, and when they are adopted they are often used to extend traditional instructional models instead of creating new ones.

I would argue that what students learn–call it content, curriculum, standards–is ultimately less important than how and why they learn. Passionate involvement in a topic–any topic–will produce a better-educated student and one that is more prepared for current and emerging careers than will a focus on high-stakes test content.

I applaud the notion behind the Common Core Standards. But I fear that national adoption will create a “feel good” sense of accomplishment that will deflect focus from the real reason that our schools are failing our students. Focusing on standards did not work in the 80s-90s and I have a hunch that, in the absence of a fundamental transformation in the way we instruct K-12 students, it won’t work this time either.

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Several Days After The World Changed

December 15, 2008 · Posted in iPhone, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

In my last post I addressed the sense of empowerment that I felt from using my iPhone 3G. My enthusiasm has not waned in the slightest. Quite to the contrary–I find it more useful every day. Given that experience, it was inevitable that I should begin thinking about the possibilities of using an iPhone in K-12 education.

The promise for a device like the iPhone in K12 education is limitless. It’s not at all difficult to imagine the way it would transform field trips, project-based lessons, and collaboration. The problem, however, is obvious–you need to sign an expensive cell phone contract in order to use one. Unless a teacher or a well-heeled student with unlimited minutes is feeling generous, the likelihood that an iPhone will appear in a classroom is remote.

However, Apple makes another device with much the same appeal as the iPhone–the iPod Touch. As a wi-fi device, it can function on school or public networks, saving documents for later perusal and running much of the same software that runs on the iPhone. It can load and view and, to a limited but growing extent, edit Office documents. It’s capable of loading and viewing very high resolution documents from the Library of Congress and other reliable educational sources. You can add dictionaries, translators, conversion programs, and other useful utilities. You can download and view movies, podcasts and electronic books on a variety of educational topics. With the addition of an inexpensive microphone, it’s a voice recorder. Add a VOiP program such TruPhone and you can make free phone calls over the wireless network to anywhere in the world. (Sister school, anyone?) As is, it makes an intriguing and engaging teaching and learning tool. It’s missing just two elements that would make it a viable replacment for laptop computers in many cases–a camera and GPS capabilities.

An iPod Touch with GPS would be able to make full use of incredible tools such as Google Earth and Google Maps on a school network. It would allow accurate geotagging of pictures (taken with the hoped-for camera), data gathered on a field trip or information from a sister school. The camera would give students an opportunity to gather data for posters, web pages, slide shows, and other place-based projects and transmit them over a wi-fi network to anywhere in the world. The possibilities are endless.

Either way you look at it–a GPS/camera enabled iPod Touch or a phone-disabled iPhone–this is a device that would have as much of an impact on K-12 education as the original Apple desktop computer did back in 1978. I hope someone is listening out there…

Some Recent Articles of Note

August 26, 2008 · Posted in NCLB, Personal, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

The beginning of each school year–whether it be k-12 or post-secondary, since my teaching activities touch both worlds–is always a reflective time for me. I think about what I can do to improve my own instruction and, hopefully, the ability of my post-secondary students to expand and improve their instructional activities in preparation for their careers. But mostly, I think about the nature of the K-12 world for which we are preparing our students. What kinds of problems will they encounter, and how might they respond.

In that light, here are a few recent articles that are worth a look by K-12 educators and those who are responsible for preparing them to teach.

One Teacher’s Cry: Why I Hate No Child Left Behind
How much control do K-12 teachers have over their curriculum? Does a “one size fits all” approach to teaching work for everyone? What will current students remember about their schooling 10 years from now?

Remember ‘Go Outside and Play?’
As an adult who very fondly remembers leaving my front door each morning, finding a couple of friends, ending up at someone’s house for lunch, going back outside and returning for dinner, I appreciate this article’s emphasis on the importance of independent, unsupervised play and exploration. There are many lessons for school experience embedded here.

A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash
How can a teacher who believes in the power of science to explain natural phenomena teach evolution to students who refuse to accept one of its basic tenets? A fascinating, in depth article about a teacher who truly cares about science education, and a cautionary tale for most teachers entering the profession.

12 New Rules of Working You Should Embrace Today
While this article is focused on the business world, there is much food for thought for K-12 and post-secondary educators–particularly in the areas of online collaboration and applications. Schools exist in a social context that is rapidly changing to adapt to new methods of communication and productivity. How should schools educate their students for this evolving context?

Beloit College Mindset List
It’s always a good idea to get a demographic handle on the students you are working with. Beloit’s annual Mindset List is an amusing but thoughtful glimpse at the realities of our students’ lives. Definitely worth a bookmark.

A Tantalizing Tabblo

May 6, 2008 · Posted in graphics, Teaching 2.0, Tools, Web 2.0 · Comment 

Over the past three semesters, my education undergraduate students have been working with Panraven, a compelling and interesting web site that allows users to create, publish, and even print online storybooks. We have used Panraven to create sense-of-place projects with an eye toward using Panraven as a K-12 classroom tool. My students’ reactions to using Panraven–expressed personally and through their blogs–have been remarkably similar. While they love the final product–a nicely-formatted online storybook–they consistently struggle with Panraven’s many frustrating limitations and apparent beta bugs. Among those:

  • Upload of images is frustratingly slow and often hangs in progress, requiring a browser restart and loss of work;
  • Dragging images from the media folder to a project sometimes simply doesn’t work at all, again requiring a restart;
  • Text boxes cannot be resized to accommodate more (or less) text than will fit in a given box;
  • Images are fixed and cannot be moved around on a page to facilitate creative layouts;
  • Viewing storybooks online seems inordinately slow, even on a fast campus-wide network.

For these reasons, most of my students reluctantly conclude that Panraven is not a reliable classroom tool, particularly for younger elementary students. The final product, while very compelling, is not worth the potential frustration of using the tool in a K-12 setting.

That’s why I was thrilled to be directed by a colleague to Tabblo (pronounce it “tableau”). Like Panraven, Tabblo creates online storybooks. (It also creates comic books and posters up to 24″ x 36″, but that’s another blog entry.) Unlike Panraven, however, uploading images is very fast. In fact, in my side by side tests on the same computer using the same network, Tabblo uploaded images many times faster than Panraven. Tabblo never hesitated to upload properly, and dragging photos into a story within Tabblo worked perfectly each time I tried it.

Viewing storybooks online is also much faster than with Panraven. Turning a page in Tabblo produces a pleasing”page curl” effect (which works forwards or backwards at both the top and bottom corners of a page) and there is no noticeable delay in loading the next page as there is with Panraven. On the other hand, Tabblo stories appear much smaller on a web page than do Panraven stories (which give you the option of enlarging the display if you want), making captions or small text difficult to read. If there is a way to enlarge Tabblo books, I have not found it yet.

Creating layouts in Tabblo is a breeze, and, while you can choose from a variety of preset layouts, the author is afforded complete control over the placement of images and text boxes on any page. Pictures can be moved from one place to another on a page or dragged off the page and stored in a virtual lightbox for use later. Text boxes can be any size and can be resized easily. It’s simple to insert new pages or delete unwanted pages. And–these actions happen quickly, with no discernible delay in execution.

Tabblo doesn’t win in every category, however. Panraven allows you to embed your stories into a blog, wiki, or other web page. I like this feature very much. Tabblo generates code that “simulates” embedding (that is, it places an image of the storybook cover in your blog), but that image is in reality just a link to the Tabblo web site. It would be wonderful if Tabblo allowed true embedding of projects into web pages.

Below is a test story that I created with Tabblo. Notice that the captions are difficult to read. I cannot find a way to increase the text size in the captions.

Tabblo: Canwell Glacier Tour April, 2006

See my Tabblo>

Even so, it looks like I am going to have to change my fall semester syllabus. We’re moving to Tabblo as an alternative to Panraven.

Does Technology Produce Antisocial Kids?

April 29, 2008 · Posted in citizenship, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

There are many times when the reality of a situation seems counterintuitive to an observer. A heavy skier reaches the bottom of a hill more quickly than a lighter skier, even though we think that objects should fall at the same rate or that a heavier object should push down harder on the ground and therefore move more slowly. (Google “terminal velocity” for the answer to that one.)

Similarly, we may intuitively feel that technology inhibits social skills of K-12 students, assuming that students must be interacting less with each other if they are using a computer. However, a pair of recent studies reviewed together in eSchoolNews suggests that, at least in a school setting, the use of technology can increase social skills among young students.

In “Tech Encourages Students’ Social Skills,” researchers X. Christine Wang and Cynthia Carter Ching explain the social upside of technology in a primary classroom setting. The first study, “Social Construction of Computer Experience in a First Grade Classroom: Social Processes and Mediating Artifacts,” examined the social interactions of a group of kindergarten and first grade students around two computers scheduled for their use during the classroom day. The newer, more capable computer was the students’ favorite, being everyone’s first choice for free time. Access to the computer was determined by a sign up sheet, and the rules were fairly simple. “Only two students could use a computer at one time, and a timer was used to limit each student’s time on the computer to only five minutes. Those students not being the first to select computers as their first choice activity had to sign up on a waiting list and do other activities while waiting for their turns.”

Wang and Ching observed that students tended to cluster at the computer and enforce the rules in ways that were fair to everyone. Achieving a common goal–in this case, reaching a higher level on a popular game–was a driving factor in the students’ ability to maintain order and also be successful at the game. The students were learning valuable social skills through having a common goal and a common interest in using the computer.

In the second study, “Digital Photography and Journals in a Kindergarten-First-Grade Classroom: Toward Meaningful Technology Integration in Early Childhood Education,” Wang and Ching observed kindergarten and first graders in the same classroom who were creating photo journals using Apple iPhoto software on an iMac. While students were to work with an adult helper while composing their journals, the researchers noted that other students typically played close to the iMac and interacted frequently with the journalists, often asking questions, supplying tips, or commenting on pictures or journal entries. They also interacted with each other while they were taking pictures of their classroom for their journals.

Wang and Ching feel that these studies provide evidence that students’ social skills can be improved through the thoughtful integration of technology tools.

“…the children are engaged in valuable social construction…of their classroom experience and culture by engaging with well-integrated technologies, such as computers or a digital camera.”

I realize that the scenarios presented by Wang and Ching are a far cry from the image we may hold of a high school student locked in his darkened bedroom late at night playing games and chatting–although these are also social activities of a sort and probably deserve some additional study as well. But studies like these help us realize that there is nothing intrinsically “unsocial” about technology. In some cases, technology can be a strong factor in successful socialization.