August 31

Unintended Consequences

As I stood among the swirling mob, one of the sixth graders approached me. “Where do I go to get my stuff?” In the crowded entryway, there were several tables, with ranges of letters clearly marked, “A-F,” “G-L,” etc. This student explained his last name started with “N,” and he didn’t know which table was his. As I directed him to the appropriate table, a second student tapped me on the arm. “Where do I go…?”

It came as a shock that these eleven-year-old children didn’t understand alphabetization. I imagined that many (all?) of these students have never used a print dictionary. When they need to know how to spell a word, or to understand its meaning, they sometimes enter a proximal representation into a search engine, and up pops the answer. Or, they right-click on the word within a word processing app, and voilà, the correct spelling and/or definition appear like magic. They often have the additional cue of a red underline appearing each time they misspell a word, so there’s no apparent advantage to actually knowing how to spell. Or the sequence of letters and how they are placed in a dictionary.

Recycle Word Dictionary by PDPics shared under a CC0 Creative Commons license.

This disconcerting realization caused me to consider the ramifications of a generation(s) of students who haven’t learned and practiced alphabetization skills. The literature is rife with studies where memory system capacities, especially working memory, are measured and analyzed using span tasks which appraise the subjects’ ability to recall and sequence information. One such task is alphabetization, in which the subject is given an auditory series of letters and asked to rearrange them into alphabetical order and articulate the reorganized series.

The overwhelming conclusion of these studies is that subjects who are able to manipulate longer sequences have better fluid intelligence, and are more capable in many cognitive domains, including problem-solving, reading comprehension, and ability to confidently navigate complex social situations. Because our brains are “plastic” (neuroplasticity), sequencing abilities improve with practice. In past generations, this practice came regularly, while using dictionaries, memorizing information, mentally calculating sums… With the ubiquitous use of technology tools for these tasks, we no longer practice. I wonder what the fallout is?

Atlas, auto map, folded by Pixabay shared under a CC-BY-SA license.

Another example is our dependence on GPS systems to navigate our world.The conclusions from research done to-date are dismal, such as “using a GPS excessively might lead to atrophy in the hippocampus as a person ages, and this could put them at higher risk for cognitive diseases later in life.” Alzheimer’s, anyone? Researchers have also found that subjects who use spatial navigation (in other words, not GPS) have a greater quantity of grey matter, and score higher on cognition tests.

These are but two examples of how technology innovations have changed how we interact with the world. I don’t want to sound alarmist, because I am very fond of the ways technology has made my life easier, such as finding information for this article! But, I do think there are unintended consequences we haven’t considered. Especially ones that haven’t yet had time to manifest themselves.

July 2

#PBL as Professional Development (Part 6 of 6)

Previous posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5.

Evaluation

Once teams are satisfied their solutions are complete, they present them to a public audience. This audience should include all stakeholders: students, administrators, teachers, staff members, parents, other family members, community members, local business leaders, and elected officials such as school board members, city councilors, and state representatives. Experts the teams consulted with should also be included.

During project evaluation, a minimum of these HQPBL principles are being practiced: intellectual challenge and accomplishment; authenticity; public product; and reflection.

The audience participates in assessing the solutions and provides formal feedback to the teams. As such, this step serves as the summative assessment. How well do the project solutions respond to the driving question? How well do they fit within the identified constraints, such as cost and time?

As a final step, the professional development participants reflect on the project successes; individually, within their team, and as a whole group. A preferred way to conduct group reflection is with a structured protocol. This ensures the reflection is purposeful and productive.

All participants also reflect on ways the project design could be improved. This continuous improvement approach results in ever-better quality professional development.

And there we have it. Our professional development participants have completed a full life cycle of project-based learning. Since they have applied the process to meaningful work, and have reflected on their work along the way, their understanding of the concepts, purpose, and steps of the process has increased. When they then use the PBL process in their classrooms, they will feel more confident and capable. Something we all desire in our professional lives.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this process, how you think you could use it in your organization’s professional development, and of course, any suggestions for improvement!

 

April 6

#PBL as Professional Development (Part 2 of 6)

If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

Analysis

We now discuss the Analysis step of using a #PBL process for professional development. 

Ideally, the professional develop group of learners includes participants from both the teaching and administrative staff, in order to develop a cohesive understanding of PBL concepts, and to jointly create solutions.

We begin by using improv games to break the ice and start team building. To further create a positive environment, we develop group norms to guide our interactions. One of my personal favorites is “assume positive intent.”

Yes Letters Tablets” by geralt shared under a CC0 1.0 license.

We then examine the survey results, and ask the participants to identify the highest priority items. The number of topics selected from the list is dependent on the number of participants, with one topic per each 3-4 people. The participants then group themselves into 3-4 person teams based on their highest level of interest.

Each team then identifies the desired outcomes. What do we want the solution to the problem/question/situation to look like? Why? During this step, we do not consider the “how,”; that comes later.

Problem, Analysis, Solution” by geralt shared under a CC0 1.0 license.

And finally, in teams and as a whole group, we discuss the requirements for successful team collaboration. What logistical and strategic components must be in place for the teams to thrive? This is a critical element of overall success!

These analysis activities provide teachers with practice in two of the Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning principles: authenticity, collaboration.

Analysis provides practice in two of the HQPBL principles: authenticity, collaboration

Next up – Design step!

April 5

#PBL as Professional Development (Part 1 of 6)

Just as we ask our students to make a leap of faith to engage in a project-based learning (PBL) environment, we should boldly ask the same of teachers and administrators. An ideal way for educators to develop familiarity and confidence with PBL is to experience it!

I propose to launch educators’ exploration into project-based learning using the Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL), combined with P21 Exemplars to guide their work. First, we ask them to develop familiarity with the framework and with the characteristics of exemplar schools. Participants then respond to a survey which assesses the HQPBL factors and/or exemplar teaching and learning characteristics they think are lacking in the existing school environment.

Then, we guide them through a series of professional development sessions based on the PBL process.

Next post – Analysis step!

HQPBL Framework

  1. Intellectual challenge and accomplishment – Students learn deeply, think critically, and strive for excellence.
  2. Authenticity – Students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their
    culture, their lives, and their future.
  3. Public product – Students’ work is publicly displayed, discussed, and critiqued.
  4. Collaboration – Students collaborate with other students in person or online and/or
    receive guidance from adult mentors and experts.
  5. Project management – Students use a project management process that enables them to
    proceed effectively from project initiation to completion.
  6. Reflection – Students reflect on their work and their learning throughout the project.

April 4

Digital Divide

In a recent #PBLchat conversation, I committed to scrounging up current findings related to the Digital Divide. Et, voilà:

At home:

Pew Research – Digital Divide persists

Some 5 million school-age children do not have a broadband internet connection at home, with low-income households accounting for a disproportionate share.

Pew Research – rural vs non-rural

Rural Americans are now 10 percentage points less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband; in 2007, there was a 16-point gap between rural Americans (35%) and all U.S. adults (51%) on this question.

Communication, Internet, Internet Of Things, Tile” by Pixabay shared under a CC0 1.0 license.

Hechinger – content divide

But now we need to add to the conversation of digital equity. How do you also improve quality of usage now that everybody has access? And not just give in to the whims of advertisers or what surfaces to the top of YouTube.

Common Sense Media – homework gap

Only 3 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said that their students had the digital tools necessary to complete homework assignments, compared to 52 percent of teachers in more affluent schools.

At school:

EdTech – teacher prep, broadband speeds

Recent Education Week Research Center analysis found a near 10 percent disparity between high- and low-income teachers and their access to technology training.

Embrace Digital Literacy” by Wesley Fryer shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Language Magazine – digital literacy

Today’s students carry cell phones in their pockets that are more powerful than the NASA command center that landed men on the moon in 1969, but many still do not have the basic technology skills they need for success in school and in life.

NEO blog – teaching across the divide

Focus on the positive, work with what you have and get creative.

NetRef White Paper: The Digital Divide in the Age of the Connected Classroom

The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.

 

November 27

Shoes = Empowerment

Like many women, I spent years sporting attractive dress shoes. This was followed by years of mostly “comfortable shoes.” After all, they are best for our back and foot health. And, comfortable shoes are, well… comfortable.

Imagine my consternation to recently acknowledge to myself that wearing “tall” shoes contributes to my sense of empowerment. Chunky, stiletto, wedge, it doesn’t matter as long as the footwear is stylish and… tall. I am relatively tall even when wearing no shoes, so those heels shouldn’t make a difference. But they do.

Maybe we should ask our students what makes them feel empowered. We might be surprised.

 

High-Heeled Shoes by Capri23auto is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

 

July 14

“Sam,” or Differentiated Learning in #PBL

In my Meliora social studies class last year, I had a student I’ll call “Sam.” A bright eighth-grader, some of his ability to learn is impeded by a variety of sensory issues, and by his tendency to get distracted.

Since the students conduct two major research projects during the year, I invest significant time early in the year developing research and media literacy skills. We talk about the attributes that make one source reliable and another not. We discuss how to deal with situations where different sources have conflicting information. And so on. As part of that learning process, and throughout the year, I ask the students to conduct online research activities, and to share their findings.

The first time I asked Sam and his classmates to carry out one such task, he lost his composure because he felt overwhelmed. He was familiar with using books and other print resources, but was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with using the Internet and online databases for this kind of work, especially in a dynamic, “do it now” environment.

To complicate matters, Sam had arrived in class with a relatively black and white view of the world, and was disconcerted when I asked questions that challenged this rigid perspective. Over a period of several weeks, I communicated with his mother a number of times, working with her to identify ways to make Sam more comfortable with these open-ended kinds of tasks.

I recognized building trust was key, as is the case for all students. They need to feel we are supporting them, that they are in a safe place where they can exhibit uncertainty and can make mistakes as we challenge them to stretch and further develop their capabilities.

They need to feel we are supporting them, that they are in a safe place where they can exhibit uncertainty and can make mistakes as we challenge them to stretch and further develop their capabilities.

One breakthrough in this regard took place early in the school year, when I discovered Sam is rabid about statistics. I had given two assignments comparing characteristics between several Asian countries and the United States. One was a land mass analysis, the other related to human populations. Sam arrived in class rattling off detailed information, along with the results of several other analyses he had independently conducted. Taking note of this, I sought other opportunities to infuse statistical research and analysis into assignments and discussions, as it provided one way to grab his attention and encourage him to look more deeply into topics. By asking him to lead in-class research related to statistical data, I repeatedly validated that he is a capable student. I also used these opportunities to broaden and deepen his critical thinking, asking more complex questions as his skills improved.

Over time, Sam became more comfortable and more confident, especially in his ability to truly listen, and in his ability to clearly articulate his point of view. He discovered for himself there are many viewpoints, that not everything is “right” or “wrong,” that we can respect others even when we disagree with them.

Zone of Proximal Development by Dcoetzee is licensed under CC BY, via Wikimedia Commons

This example illustrates one of the great liberating qualities of PBL. We can differentiate learning using our understanding of our students, providing voice and choice which allows the students to start within their (comfort) zone of proximal development. From there, we can challenge them to dig deeper or wider, or to learn a new method, steadily expanding that zone.

In a discussion with Sam’s mother during the second semester, she practically glowed as she spoke of his academic growth, especially his improved critical thinking. She chuckled as she said, “when he looks at Wikipedia articles now, he criticizes them for the inaccuracies he finds.” Bravo, Sam. And, bravo PBL!

 

April 30

Rhizomes

I have been wrestling with the many out-of-control #rhizomes in the garden. Ferns are my current nemesis, as they are encroaching on the hostas and astilbes nearby, boldly erupting right in the middle of them. Since some of my PLN are rhizomatic learning zealots, I have dabbled in trying to understand that learning theory, and its parallels to rhizomes in nature.

My approach to gardening is fairly lackadaisical. I do not coddle the plants, nor play music to them. In general, I pay attention to what kind of lighting environment they need (sun? shade? some of both?) and in the heat of summer, I soak them, using the same method as for the lawn grass, “heavily at infrequent intervals,” which helps them develop a deep root system. Beyond that, I have faith the plants will thrive.

Maybe students would benefit from these same conditions. Maybe we need to provide them with a positive, nurturing environment combined with high expectations for their success and see what happens. John Hattie places “teacher estimates of achievement” as the largest factor which contributes to student learning and achievement. Instead of hovering and intervening at the first sign of struggle, we need to let students dig deep, help them develop a growth mindset. We need to teach them that failure is normal and acceptable, something from which we learn.

The one thing I do not do infuse into my garden is any form of chemical toxins. No chemical fertilizers, no chemical pesticides. As I pondered the “toxins” commonly found in school environments, the first thing that came to mind is the ongoing focus on student, and by extension, teacher success based on standardized achievement tests. In a 2014 survey, the NEA found 45 percent of surveyed teachers “have considered quitting because of standardized testing.”

As if to echo my thoughts, in this Sir Ken Robinson chat, he states “…certainly by the time they are in secondary school many kids are disengaged, bored by what’s happening, and far too often suffer from stress and end up leaving the system entirely…” Robinson thinks these have been long-term problems in schools, but “they’ve been made very much worse… by the emphasis on competition and standardization…The US for example, has spent billions of dollars literally on commercial testing programs for the past 15 years and seen no improvement to speak of… It’s based on a false premise… that education is in some ways still an impersonal process, that it can be improved by standardizing and removing the human factor …”

Robinson then makes an analogy to industrialized agriculture, and how pesticides were introduced, “because these systems for the most part were deprived of the natural process of self-protection, so pesticides were needed to keep away pests and so on, and to protect the crops. Now, it kind of worked, except that it’s destroying the environment, it’s polluting water systems, and it’s eroding topsoil…” He then describes how organic farmers “…promote diversity, they look at the health and ecology of the whole system, but the emphasis is on the soil. If you get the soil right, the plants will grow and be healthy. And, these are sustainable and natural processes. … we’ve lost sight of the natural processes of teaching and learning, and in doing that we’ve eroded the culture of education, the culture of learning… He finishes by positing that we need to “create optimum conditions in schools where [students] want to learn…”

…we’ve lost sight of the natural processes of teaching and learning, and in doing that we’ve eroded the culture of education, the culture of learning…

So, as I continue to dig rhizomes out of my garden, I will simultaneously think of ways to nurture the spread of student rhizomes through the use of high-quality #PBL, which incorporates relevant, real-world and authentic teaching and learning.

March 28

Just Let Go!

Earlier this year, my teen students were reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Some of them had embraced the rhythm of the epic poem, and were quite enjoying it. Others were stymied by the flow and vocabulary, and were not enjoying it at all.

To guide our in-class discussion, we use a Literature Circle protocol. Students are assigned a role (which changes each week), conduct their investigations outside of class, and bring their findings to discuss with their classmates. The students lead; I only jump in when I feel a point needs further analysis or elaboration.

On this particular day, in the middle of our discussion, the group headed off on a wild tangent. One of the students suggested writing another Beowulf story, with some twists to the characterization. From there, others joined in, and the intensity continued to rise. Ideas ran amok and included everything from Beowulf being gay and marrying King Hrothgar to Grendel’s mother killing Beowulf, and a whole lot of other derivations.

This discussion went on for some time, and included a lot of laughter and off-the-wall thinking. At one point, I was telling myself, “You need to get control back.” Fortunately, my wiser self stepped in and said, “Are you crazy? This is the best thinking they have done all year!”

I was reminded how important it is to be flexible, to savor those times when students are totally engaged in a process, and just let go! Deeper learning is the result.

October 10

Autotdidact \ˌȯ-tō-ˈdī-ˌdaktˈ\ : a self-taught person (Part 2)

In part 1 of my story of autodidacts found here, I describe an experience my son went through last spring, moving from oh-no-let-me-run-away to being labeled an autodidact by his German professor. He has continued his German learning this fall, with the same professor. At least he knows what to expect!

It has been very interesting to watch from the sidelines as he has grown from I’m-still-not-so-sure-I-have-what-it-takes-to-succeed to enthusiastically embracing the challenges his professor offers. Among a class of about 15 students, he and one other are more “advanced,” so the professor has invited them to take on more demanding work. One thing about this professor that thrills me is he uses real literary works, not a dry, dusty textbook. This is in keeping with the project-based learning (PBL) principle of authenticity, defined by the Buck Institute for Education as  “real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.”

Metamorphosis

The professor recently gave these two students a German-language graphic novel version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and is meeting with them one-on-two to discuss the book and to give them individualized assignments. My son arrived home and enthusiastically showed me the book, marveling at the fine artwork. In addition, with a grin he said “Mom, by the time I go to college, I will be ready to do my capstone in German.” [He is dual-enrolled, receiving both high school and college credit, as he is a high school sophomore.] How far he has come, from that uncertain learner to total confidence in his success. I wish every student’s experience could have such a magnificent outcome!