Discussion of some alternatives to essays or PowerPoints.
Last summer at the ISTE Conference in San Antonio, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a Canadian educator by the name of Jared Nichol (For those too young to know, no, that’s not a picture of him–it’s Ritchie Cunningham…in reference to the title. Google it.) . Jared is a high school multimedia and language arts teacher in Cold Lake High School, in eastern Alberta. He shared with me the Wikiseat project his students had taken on. I was intrigued by the simplicity of the idea. Students receive a 5″ tall tripod made from angle iron pieces and design and build chairs using them as the centerpiece, or “Catalyst“. The Catalysts are the creation of a young San Francisco man by the name of Nic Weidinger, who came up with the idea as a senior project for design school at Ohio State. While certainly not something most would call “high tech”, the project emphasizes design, artistic ability, creativity, inventiveness, and engineering, all valuable, marketable skills.
Excited by the potential, I started plotting immediately to get our students involved. Wanting to make this year’s Technology Fair something more about skills than tech, I decided the project would be a perfect fit. So, during the last week, I visited the classes of willing art and engineering teachers and sold students on why they should participate in a voluntary project that would be done in their own time. Amazingly, almost 40 high schoolers chose to participate. Catalysts have been ordered, with the goal of sending them home to students after spring break. The plan is to have students display their seats at the Tech Fair in May and share their processes with attendees, and possibly to auction off a few (from willing students) for a local charity. I may try to get them shown at a local art museum or community event, as well. My only real concern in keeping students engaged in the task so that we have a significant number completed. To that end, I’m offering participants a drawing for a nice prize, event t-shirts, and regular visits to classes to encourage students to keep at it. I’m very open to other suggestions in this area, so don’t hold back.
We’re also planning a team cardboard challenge, MakeyMakey inventors lab, programming/robotics playgrounds, and other events at the Tech Fair, and more ideas (like a student film festival) are percolating in my brain. This effort is a small (for now) part of a bigger plan to encourage our students to be innovative, creative thinkers, not just techno-savvy. I believe we’ll do so through technology-rich and technology-poor projects and activities–the key is giving kids the chance to go through the process of looking at a problem (make a chair), planning a solution, building a model, testing the model, and improving it as needed. I will share updates in the next 2 months as students progress. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts? Are you or your schools focusing primarily on technology aptitudes or more general skills? Which do you feel is right?
The genesis of my latest podcast is the reflection I’ve done on last week’s TCEA conference in Austin, and on some of the Twitter conversations that took place last Friday after the conference ended. The discussion centered upon the nature of most conference sessions, and whether or not they could get past edtech bling and focus upon how we teach and learn. Here is a sample exchange from some folks I hold in very high regard.
I share my thoughts on this discussion in the podcast. In Readers’ Digest version, I agree that we need more focus on pedagogy, less on the tools, but I don’t think the tools discussions are completely unworthy of our time or attendance. I’ve ranted against the “list” sessions myself, but I still manage to see a few things that I can use in almost every one I attend. I always try to imagine how the resource might help a student as they work on a project or promote a skill (creativity, critical thinking, empathy, etc.) that students need. I also think we have to remember that effective and desirable teaching practices (in contrast with what we use to teach) can’t possibly be covered in a typical conference session. We can pick up or share small pieces, but real change in terms of classroom practice takes lots of time, practice, collaboration, coaching, etc.
I also share a few thoughts about some sessions on project based learning that I had the chance to attend. Sometimes, you can learn more from mistakes than successes–I’ll leave it at that.
Please take a few minutes to give a listen, and I always relish your thoughts, questions, arguments, whatever!
I’ve often stolen a page from Sir Ken Robinson by asking a group of educators whether or not they considered themselves to be creative people. The responses have always been overwhelmingly negative. I’ve then asked them to answer the same question, but to do so while imagining that they were there kindergarten selves. This always elicits a laugh and an vast majority who responds in the positive. Somewhere along the line, we stop seeing ourselves as creative beings. There are probably numerous reasons for this, but the way we school our students is without a doubt a key contributor. Somewhere in the sea of the school routine, the drills, the worksheets, the test-focused, inane curriculum, we forget how to imagine, to create, and to invent.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of leading a group of teachers in a “maker” workshop at TCEA’s annual convention. The workshop only had time for a couple of activities, unfortunately. Participating educators used cardboard to create chairs and MakeyMakeys to create video game controllers. This was the first time I’ve done a cardboard challenge with a group of teachers. They worked in groups with the instruction to build a chair, which would be judged based upon aesthetics (art/design), strength (physics/engineering), and comfort (engineering/design).
As I circulated among groups, observing their interactions and work, I felt a sense of pride and excitement that no other presentation or professional development I had previously designed had ever given me. It was truly as if that creative, innovative kindergartener was reborn. Groups created chair designs completely unique to one another. They planned, built, tested, analyzed, and revised. They engaged in genuine critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. All of this through the use of cardboard, tape, and a few other, low-tech tools (such as MakeDo, a set of really cool tools for building with cardboard).
In the educational technology world, it is very easy to become enamored with flash and style. As a certified gadget junky, I know this all too well. It is commonplace to become infatuated with the newest tools and to want our classrooms to be outfitted with a magnificent array of interactive whiteboards, tablets, laptops, student response systems, digital projectors, document cameras, and on and on. However, these are all nothing more than tools, and like any tools, they are only as useful as the skills brought to their application. If we have only learned how to use a hammer and apply that to a screwdriver, the screwdriver is useless.
In education, if we are going to continue to use our tools in the same ways we used the tools that came before, they become a colossal waste of time, resources, and money. We have to learn new ways of teaching, not just the latest, shiny things. When we create opportunities for students to build, create, innovate, and invent, we open up incredible possibilities for our technology resources to foster the 21st century skills we give so much lip service to. In fact, as the cardboard chairs demonstrate, we can even do this without the latest gadgets. Technologies simply up the possibilities of our students imagining and creating the truly revolutionary.
So, how do we do this in the classroom? Here are a few steps I would suggest:
Finally, we need to be patient (but not too patient) with ourselves. Chances are that you, as did I, grew up in a school world that focused upon the passing of knowledge from the teacher or textbook to students’ minds. As a result, this is what we know, and this is what we do. Changing our habits will take practice, skill, and time. It’s a change that must be made, however, even in the face of an incessant, seemingly overwhelming call for standardization of everything. Our kids are not “standardized”. We as educators have spent too much time and effort on completely impotent “reforms” and initiatives that are, at their core, just doing the same, ineffective things more frequently, more loudly, with new buzzwords, and with more conviction. This isn’t change or reform or anything worthwhile. Anyone who honestly and critically looks at the results of the past decade and a half of school reform mandates and efforts can come to no other conclusion. Quite the opposite, the results have demonstrated that a complete re-imagining of what we are doing is going to be the only way to truly revolutionize education. Look for opportunities for students to ask questions, solve problems, create, invent, collaborate. Create learning spaces that are filled with tools and resources that encourage inquiry, experimentation, and exploration. Start small, if needed, but dream big. Just like I experienced yesterday, I believe it will leave you and your students feeling amazed and inspired at what can transpire.
I’ve embedded my TCEA presentation for Wednesday, February 5th and added a list of resources with links, including several recent additions.
Resources for developing innovation and creativity skills:
Wired magazine recently shared a great story about Sergio Juarez Correa, a teacher just across the border in Matamoros, Mexico. Mr. Correa was young but already disenchanted with teaching and in search of new pedagogies and more professional fulfillment. He took the radical step of taking control of his own learning, finding professional books to read that exposed him to new ideas. He became particularly enthralled with the work of Sugata Mitra and his learner-centered ideas. The Wired story relates what happened when Correa committed to changing his practices, and he began to make learners the central focus of learning. His story is really an amazing account of what can happen when a teacher is willing to get off the stage and put students squarely at the center of the classroom. It’s also something that most teachers are unwilling or unable to do (often due to mandates from above to teach this and do it this way). This is despite the fact that in the vast majority of pedagogical debate, the majority of educators would likely wholeheartedly agree that this is the ideal way for kids to learn. In reality, of course, classrooms are rarely places that are either exclusively teacher-centered or exclusively learner-centered, however. They usually at some point along a scale between the two, and very often in a different place from one day to the next or even one moment to the next. Teachers dip their toes into the learner-centered pool whenever the curriculum allows it to fit naturally and comfortably.
I would like to offer the following (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) quiz to assess how far along the teacher-centered to learner-centered spectrum your practice falls. For every “true” response, give yourself 1 point.
Scoring: The higher the score, the greater the likelihood you prefer a traditional, teacher-centered approach. The lower, the better the chance your students have greater influence over teaching and learning.
Now do one more thing. Close your eyes (after reading the rest of this). Picture your favorite teacher, the one who inspired and engaged you and who you strived to be like when you started teaching. Rate them using the same quiz. Where do they fall? Who we respect and admire speaks volumes about who we eventually become, doesn’t it?
Finally, if you didn’t before, read the Wired article. It will take a little while, but it is a really compelling argument for giving learners more control over what is learned and how it is learned. Also of interest to me was the reaction of a Mexican bureaucrat to the happenings in Mr. Correa’s classroom (Shows how alike our countries can be.).
What’s your take on teacher-centered versus learner-centered instruction? Is it a valuable shift in practice, or is it a fad that will likely fade and be replaced by the tried-and-true teacher leader practices we’ve employed for centuries? What barriers exist to becoming more learner-centered?
Something I noticed today made me get all reflective…
On December 8, 2006, I wrote and shared my first blog post, something about educating parents about Web 2.0 tools. That’s a quick 372 weeks, 2603 days ago. Since then:
So, what does this mean? (It definitely means I don’t have the most popular blog on the Web, for one thing.) Importantly, that first post on December 8th represented the first day I started building my PLN–first blog conversations, then Twitter, Google+, etc. Too many great, professional and personal conversations to count. Imagine the challenges connecting with even a fraction of those numbers of folks only 15 years ago. That post led to others and to the first reader comment (Thanks, Jeff Whipple–my co-workers still make fun of me for an over-the-top celebration of getting a comment from a stranger.), the first conversations, numerous collaborations, and genuinely close friendships. It also was the start of some healthy and productive reflection. I never liked diaries or journals. Hated ‘em, in fact. Yet blogging has somehow been something that I have enjoyed and stuck with, and it has helped me grow as a person and professional. I liken it to people who talk to themselves to sort out their thoughts, only someone occasionally eavesdrops and chimes in to find out what you are talking about.
Over these 7 years, I’ve read opinion pieces saying blogging is dead or has already died. Thankfully, those writers get paid to write nonsense (I do it for free–yea!), and I look forward to doing this for the foreseeable future. I encourage every single educator to give it a shot, too. Professional reflection is a very worthwhile exercise, even if you don’t load up on comments (Don’t discount the possibility, though!). While you’re at it, get your students blogging. It is a great opportunity to apply writing skills, share with an authentic audience, and start putting together a record of their growth as students and individuals. On top of that, it is quite simply a truly pleasurable undertaking. Thanks for reading (not just you, Mom)!