School Time

September 9, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · 6 Comments 

Longer ago than I care to think about, when I was teaching a very bright and motivated group of individuals that comprised my 5th grade class, I made an unintended remark that has stayed with me all these years. My class was busily working away at various projects and there was the usual healthy buzz of talk and activity in the room that assured me that my students were engaged in their pursuits. I was working on some task at my desk. I don’t remember what it was, but apparently it required a level of concentration that I was missing because I rather spontaneously said, “Hey, guys, I need about five minutes of school time.”

I’m not sure why I chose those words, but my students immediately went back to their desks, got very quiet, and stared at me.

I stared back at them for a few seconds as the weight of what I said sunk in. First, I was surprised that I had dredged that term up. I didn’t say, “Sit down and be quiet.” I didn’t say, “Return to your seats and listen to me.” I just asked them for some school time. The fact that my students knew exactly what I meant by it spoke volumes to me about how my students perceived school–and, by contrast, my classroom.

It frightened me. School, to my students, was sitting quietly at their desks waiting to be told what to do. They had to stop activities in which they were happily engaged so that I could have some School Time. Whatever task I was working on was quickly forgotten as we spent the next 30 minutes or so talking about why they reacted as they did. The consensus was clear–in school, you sit at your desk, keep your eyes forward, don’t talk, and wait for instructions.

I asked them if they thought that our classroom was different. This was a tough question for most of them. We were in a school, after all, and there were desks and books and all the other familiar trappings. And yet, they clearly perceived that this experience was different, as evidenced by their quick return to their desks after my remark. Mindy finally offered a suggestion: “This is school, but it’s fun.”

Ouch, again. Wasn’t school fun? Not really, apparently. School was a set of rules that often countermanded what students really wanted to do. But don’t we have rules in this class? Yes, but they make sense. Why do they make sense? Because they let us learn.

AHA! It finally made sense to me. School wasn’t fun, but learning was fun. Students who were happily engaged in learning followed classroom rules because those rules facilitated learning rather than restricting it. When a classroom is about rules, you get School Time. When it’s about learning, you get a group of engaged students.

I did have a set of classroom rules posted on my wall. I did so because we were required to have them. They were:

  1. Be nice.
  2. Study hard.
  3. Use your brain.
  4. Don’t ask the Forbidden Questions.

They seemed to work in just about every circumstance.

For the rest of that year, whenever I needed some quiet in the room, I asked for School Time. In some ways, I regret that, as it tended to reinforce the notion that school was about rules. But it worked.

Oh. The forbidden questions were “How long does it have to be” and “Do I have to?” Tough habits to break.

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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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The Tyranny of the Vertical

April 16, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · 12 Comments 

My university uses Blackboard. When I say we use it, I mean that we have it available. It’s actually used by a very small percentage of the faculty. In my estimation there are a number of reasons for this–resistance to change, lack of effective implementation models, no mandate, lack of training, too much work, the usual litany. I used to think that it looked bad that so few professors were using this tool and tried to encourage more widespread use. However, I have joined the ranks of those who don’t use it for instruction–and let me tell you, it feels great!

First, a little background. I’m an instructional technology teacher. I used BB extensively for all of my classes. All of my assignments and supplementary materials were posted there. I used extensive embedded media resources and tweaked the HTML to make things look and work just right. But it wasn’t long before BB’s limitations started to show. Students couldn’t submit multiple iterations of a single assignment. (Didn’t the BB authors ever hear of rough drafts?) Discussion boards were uselessly difficult to follow. The tiny editing window was frustrating to use. Assignments–the heart of Blackboard, to me–wouldn’t copy from one semester to another and had to be recreated each time. I couldn’t make ad hoc student groups for projects. Students couldn’t access their work after the semester ended. Social networking tools such as blogs and wikis, while present, were pale imitations of the real thing. The gradebook didn’t interface with our Sungard grade reporting system. And then there was the endless clicking on OK buttons…

I decided to move my content to Google Sites. There I had much more control over the format and functionality of my content. Media files were much easier to manage. My students set up real blogs and used real wikis for their work and we linked them to the class site. Instead of working in a vertically integrated management system, students were working with real tools and learning skills that would help them in their future careers. They were developing portfolios using Google Sites (some purchasing their own domains from Google) and creating online materials for use in their classes. They were in control, not Blackboard. It has been liberating for all of us.

I’ve concluded that Learning Management Systems place a much greater emphasis on management than on learning, and the learning that does occur is not always transferable to the world outside of Blackboard. Learning how to use Blackboard is a dead-end skill for students. How much better is it for them to learn to create portfolios with real world tools, to be able to access their work after the semester ends, and to gain an appreciation of personal learning networks and a potential audience for their thoughts through social networking tools?

My use of Blackboard now consists of a link to the “real” class site and a My Grades button so that students can check the progress of their assignments–as long as they just submit one iteration of it. Next semester, I’m going to drop that function as well.

It’s great to be free of the tyranny of the vertical.

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Trees Falling in the Forest

April 9, 2010 · Posted in Personal, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

A long time ago, fresh out of school with a shiny new M.Ed. and a desire to change the world, I took my first public school teaching assignment in Fairbanks, Alaska. The school I taught in is no longer there, but a lesson I learned there has stayed with me for over 30 years.

I thought I was pretty good at what I did. I crafted my lesson plans carefully (indexed to district curriculum, no less!) and I worked hard to put on a good show in front of the class. One lesson built on another, a veritable symphony of pedagogic order and logic. I was stoked. Until I talked to Brandi.

Brandi was a fifth-grader with huge blue eyes and an engaging smile, the sort of person that easily made friends with peers and adults. She always tried to pay attention and she worked hard in class. She was a “special” student–identified as learning disabled, but really, as I came to find out, just a very deliberate learner who needed a lot of repetition and hands on work to grasp concepts that were easy for most of her classmates. After a series of math lessons–which I thought were beautifully crafted, if I do say so myself–I became aware that Brandi just didn’t understand the concepts I was teaching. I was a little irritated. I had spent a lot of time constructing and delivering those lessons, and I was perturbed that she didn’t get it. I think I said something like this to her: “Brandi, what’s wrong with you? I taught this last week.” I may be fuzzy on the words I used, but I’ll never forget her response: “Well, you taught it, but I didn’t learn it.”

Ouch. Catharsis can be painful. Everything I had been taught about teaching suddenly came crashing down around me. By just about any measure, I was considered a “good” teacher, but here was a perfectly willing learner under my care who was not learning what I was teaching. At that moment, it dawned on me that the most important activity in my classroom was not teaching–it was learning. It wasn’t about me, it was about them, and I wasn’t doing right by them.

The rest of that year–and the rest of my life, so far, anyway– was spent in rethinking my approach to teaching and in unlearning much of what I had been taught about effective teaching. Reminiscent of the koan about the tree falling in the forest, it turns out that teaching without learning isn’t teaching at all.

Flash forward thirty or so years. I look around in K-20 education and I’m constantly reminded of Brandi, sitting dutifully in class but not gaining much from my fledgling efforts at teaching. I see districts adopting reading and math programs that dictate that all students be on the same page of the book on the same day and that all teachers say the same things to all of the students, and I think about Brandi. I watch lectures about constructivism at the post-secondary level and I think about Brandi. With great anticipation I observe one to one laptop programs, hoping to see students exploring and collaborating and discovering only to find so many of them simply doing research on the web and writing a report, and I think about Brandi. While there are many efforts at reform based on authentic learning models and implementation of technology tools, there seems to be an even larger effort to turn public schools into factories turning out uniform products.

Convince me otherwise. Please. Let me know what’s happening in your situation that is helping to insure that the Brandis of the world can be successful and learn productively.

And Brandi–if you’re out there, I hope you’re a teacher. Experience counts for so much.

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The Problem with Synchronicity

March 4, 2010 · Posted in distance, Teaching 2.0 · 3 Comments 

Distance delivery of instruction has always presented educators with problems–particularly, as in my case, when you are delivering the same content to on-campus students as to off-campus students. Some of the problems are obvious: how do you deliver a hands-on science lesson to someone in another state, for example, or how do you demonstrate a geometry proof to a student when all they can see is the instructor’s  smiling face on a monitor? Most are much more subtle: how do you make the distance students in your class feel as if they are part of a community or cohort, or do you split your class into two sections and address each class separately? If you do the latter, how do you assure that both groups are getting equal access to every part of the instruction? Can you undertake some activities with one group that you can’t with another? Will that “dumb-down” one of the sections or give some students advantages over others?

Technology has solved, at least partially, many of these problems. Videoconferencing systems are much more sophisticated than they were a few years ago, allowing an “almost like being there” level of participation from distance students. Even many desktop video solutions allow multi-point connections and file exchanges in real time. Access to broadband is increasing in many areas of the country, making these services more approachable for more students. We’re getting close to the point that most students will be able to fully participate in synchronous, real time classes just as if they were sitting there.

And therein lies the problem.

The more I deal with issues of distance delivery, the more I find that striving for total synchronicity can be a waste of time (pun intended). It’s easy to assume that the more we make distance classes like face-to-face classes, the better the distance class will be. I’ve come around to the notion that we should make our face-to-face classes more like our distance classes.

I have been giving a lot of thought to distance education lately. While I have taught distance classes in the past, I had never until last year taught two sections of the same class at the same time where one section is on-campus and the other is taught via distance delivery. My initial desire was to teach the distance class via videoconference–that way, I could engage my students in real time, share my computer screen with my students, and make the experience much like being in the same classroom with me.

As it turned out, most of my rural Alaskan students did not have access to videoconferencing services. I’d have to teach the distance class using more conventional methods–Elluminate, Blackboard, and maybe even some audio conferences. I was quite concerned that my distance students would miss out on the experience of being in a “real” classroom.

So, I planned my distance section differently. I provided most of the instruction that I normally would have done in class in asynchronous formats–podcasts, streaming media, wikis, shared Google documents, etc.–and I planned the times that we were actually “together” via Elluminate so that we used the time to interact, share ideas, and react to the instruction that was provided asynchronously. I thought carefully about what it meant to interact with an instructor and planned those interactions to give students maximum time to talk and interact. We eventually decided–as a class–that we really didn’t need as much synchronous time as the schedule provided, because students were able to interact with me and with their peers in a variety of different ways, many of which were new to them.

The results were fascinating to me. My distance students interacted with me and with each other much more frequently and on a much deeper level than did my on-campus students. The distance students consistently took more initiative with their projects and eagerly shared them with their classmates, whereas their on-campus counterparts tended to perform in the usual “school” mode of finding out what they had to do to complete the project and doing just that. (We’ve trained them well, unfortunately.) And, my distance students have maintained that contact over time, whereas my campus-based students have not made efforts of similar magnitude.

My experiences with those two classes changed the way I structure my face-to-face classes and has given me new insight in what it means to bring students into a cohort with common objectives. The elements that I initially perceived as barriers to distance education became strengths, and the traditional nature of synchronous teaching–for me, at least–looked more and more like a barrier to effective interaction and involvement. When all we have is traditional structure, the answer to every problem is to create a class for it. That’s wrong. We need to create inquiry-based cohorts of students and instructors who know how to leverage their time together to get the maximum benefit from that time. We’re in the post-class era of post-secondary education, whether we know it or not.

I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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.

Does Schooling Still Have Value?

August 16, 2008 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 3 Comments 

“I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain

I’ve been aware of the concept of “disintermediation” since reading Donald Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital in the mid-90s. Essentially, disintermediation refers to the elimination of the proverbial middle man in a supply chain. As an example, consider what has happened to travel agencies since the advent of digital technologies. Airlines found that they could save considerable money by selling their tickets electronically directly to customers instead of paying travel agents to sell tickets for them. Travel agents became irrelevant to the process of buying tickets, forcing them into one of two choices: close up shop, or figure out what kind of value they could add to travel that customers would be willing to pay for. The mantra for disintermediation is this: “If you don’t add value to a process, then you’re only adding cost.” If you’re only adding cost, you’ll be quickly disintermediated.

Over the years, I’ve given much thought to the idea of disintermediation with regard to K-16 education. I think it makes sense to apply the disintermediation mantra to schools. We should constantly be asking ourselves which processes contribute to the value of K-16 education and which processes only add cost. True introspection might reveal some shocking answers. For example, elementary school teachers bristle at the suggestion that they are babysitters, but in truth one of the values that K-6 education holds for most working parents is child care. If you don’t believe me, try shortening the length of a school day one day per week to provide professional development to teachers. Parents will not allow it.

In education, we do many things because, frankly, it’s what we’ve always done. We make high school students start school at 7:00 am even though research clearly shows that older adolescents are not morning people–a fact that will come as no shock to most parents. We build schools with multiple closed classrooms and few large or flexible spaces because a class has 25 students and one teacher…right? Schools are probably one of the few institutions that look today much like they looked 50 years ago, despite the fact that very few of the social structures, methods of communication, or technology tools that exist today were around even 10 years ago.

My interest in disintermediation was again peaked by a recent article on (Higher Education – Dangerously Close to Becoming Irrelevant). While I do not necessarily agree with every point made in the article, I immediately welcomed another opportunity  to look critically at what I do and why I do it and, most importantly, whether or not it is relevant to the effective education of my post-secondary students.

A citation from Dr. David Wliey immediately caught my attention:

Consider Wiley’s description of the typical college classroom experience.

“Students are inside a classroom (tethered to a place), using textbooks and handouts (printed materials), they must pay tuition and register to attend (the experience is closed), talking during class or working with others outside of class is generally discouraged (each student is isolated though surrounded by peers), each student receives exactly the same instruction as each of her classmates (the information presented is generic), and students are students and do not participate in the teaching process (they are consumers).”

My first reaction was that this pretty well summarized my high school experience in the 60s and is largely accurate in that context today. My second reaction was “Haven’t we learned anything yet?” The reality is that digital information tools and ubiquitous access to information and to collaborative learning tools long ago smashed that monolithic model in most businesses and social institutions, but for many (most?) schools the older models of instruction still prevail.

Again quoting Wiley, the unnamed author provides a potentially more relevant contrast to the old instructional model:

“From her dorm room / the student center / a coffee shop / the bus a student connects to the Internet using her laptop (she is mobile), uses Google to find a relevant web page (a digital resource which is open for her to access). While carrying out her search, she chats with one friend on the phone and another using instant messaging to see if they can assist in her search (she is connected to other people), she follows links from one website to another exploring related information (the content is connected to other content), she quickly finds exactly the information she needs, ignoring irrelevant material (she gets what is important to her personally), and she shares her find with her friends by phone and IM (she participates in the teaching process).”

Sadly, this model happens entirely outside of the context of a classroom. What is the potential lesson for us as K-16 educators?

Basically, I think it is absolutely incumbent on educators at every to critically examine what it means to be a student in our classrooms. What is the value of being in my classroom? Are there ways that I could add greater value to the process of educating my students, particularly with regard to the time they spend with me in class? How much time do they really need to spend with me in class? Assume a class period of 60 minutes. If I have a 45 minute lecture and expect a 15 minute discussion, would it be better to podcast that lecture, assign it to students before class, and use the entire 60 minutes together for discussion and extension activities? Apply the disintermediation mantra–are you adding value, or are you only adding cost?

Let’s put ourselves in the place of the travel agents alluded to in the first paragraph. We may realize that our business model is toast and that changes need to be made, or we may hold on to that model until we become completely irrelevant to the process of travel. In the first case, we need to rethink every aspect of our business, figuring out which elements provide value to our customers and which elements are merely costing us money. We then need to develop a model that is relevant to our customers’ needs, and we need to continually reapply the disintermediation mantra to assure that we remain relevant over time.

Or, we can continue to do what we’re doing until the last few customers leave for a travel service that meets their needs.

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