January 11

Why I do #PBL

Sheri Edwards recently posted about how working on hobbies helps instill a desire for #lifelonglearning and a willingness to #struggle. She pointed to #GeniusHour as one way to incorporate student-centered hobbies during the school day.

Absolutely! In my #PBL practice, I put a lot of thinking, planning/designing and #reflection into finding ways to make the academic work the teens do as compelling as possible. I apply the High-Quality PBL framework to my designs. As part of that framework, I offer students a lot of #VoiceAndChoice in how they develop their projects and in how they present their evidence of learning.

I commit to implementing projects that challenge, engage, and support students as described by the six #HQPBL criteria.

Notwithstanding, there are times I get frustrated with what I perceive as a lack of enthusiasm, or a lack of devotion to their work. It is in these moments that feedback from an outside audience reminds me of how capable these students are.

At our student showcase in December, a group was presenting a video documentary. They encountered some technical difficulties related to projecting from a laptop to a large screen. With no apparent anxiety, they persevered in their troubleshooting and soon the video was smoothly rolling for the audience to enjoy.

At the end of the showcase, one of the audience members came up to me and said, “Wow, it’s amazing that they knew how to fix the problem! I would have had no idea where to even start!”

It is true that my students, through regular practice, develop a variety of technology skills. Since they use #realworld tools and apps, and sometimes know more about the technologies they are working with than I do, they become adept at figuring things out. When they encounter #failure, or a product works differently than they expect, they momentarily retreat. Then, they consult among themselves, look at YouTube videos, “ask Google,” and occasionally even ask me.

In other words, they are #problemsolving, one of the “Seven Survival Skills” identified by Tony Wagner in his work on transforming education. It is moments like these that cause me to recommit to the chaotic, messy, exhilarating process called project-based learning.

January 4

“Digital natives?” or something else?

I have been dabbling with Flipgrid this year, so far (mostly) successfully prodding students through one assignment. I asked them to develop and record two-minute biographical stories, choosing from a selection of well-known Eastern European leaders. Their recordings were then peer reviewed by their classmates and me. Based on the feedback they received, they were asked to revise their stories and re-record them.

The reaction to using Flipgrid has been mixed. Some students embraced it, others completed their assignments begrudgingly. When I have asked them what they dislike about Flipgrid, I get responses such as “I liked writing the story, but didn’t like recording it,” “I don’t like my voice,” etc. What most of the reluctance seems to be tied to is discomfort with communicating using this app.

What I find surprising about this reaction is that these same teens are fully launched on apps such as Snapchat, where they communicate with their friends through a video medium, complete with goofy stickers and other embellishments. (Flipgrid has a few of those, too.)

So, what is the difference? Do they perceive Snapchat as “not real?” Or is it because the Flipgrid assignments are “for real,” since the other students and I watch them and provide feedback? I don’t have a definitive answer on the reasons for the student attitudes, but I do know asking them to create Flipgrid videos is a good way to build their competence and confidence in communication.

There isn’t an online world and an offline world, there’s one world… ~ TEDxVictoria – Alexandra Samuel: Ten Reasons to Stop Apologizing for your Online Life

In this 2017 article, Alexandra Samuel debunks the idea of today’s teens being “digital natives,” and argues there are three different categories of technology users arriving in adulthood. She identifies them as “digital orphans,” “digital exiles,” and “digital heirs.”

“Digital orphans” have grown up with a lot of tech access, but very little guidance on appropriate use and consequences. Samuel sees this group as having a hard time meshing their online and offline lives, and in forming healthy face-to-face relationships.

The flip side of the coin is the “digital exiles,” who have minimal, limited access to online environments, highly controlled by their parents. Samuel sees them as heading in one of two directions when they gain access. Either they will go crazy with social media and find lots of ways to get into trouble online, or they will follow their parents’ teaching and become “neo-Luddites.” The question Samuel raises in regards to the second group is whether their day-to-day surroundings will be able accommodate their rejection of technology. (Have you tried booking an Uber ride without a smartphone?)

The third, and most balanced category Samuel identifies is “digital heirs.” They have had access to technology, combined with guidance from parents and teachers. They understand how to be responsible digital citizens. They have learned how create content across a variety of mediums. They will be prepared to navigate #reallife, whatever it looks like at the time.

Samuel’s assertions validate my belief that part of my purpose as an educator is to help students develop digital/media literacy skills. They also need practice with a variety of technology tools so that as they step into adulthood they will feel competent in #realworld responsibilities and careers.

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.