The Moss-Free Stone

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old” -Peter Drucker

He Thinks He’s Just Playing…

March 23, 2015 by · No Comments · 21st Century Skills, collaboration, creativity, Educational technology, innovation, Questions, Social Networks

My son, Reilly, is a fairly typical 11-year old. He is into Pokemon, his Xbox, iPads, and sees school as valuable because it connects him to his friends and the library, but little else. It’s not that he is not a ravenous learner, mind you. Give him something challenging and interesting, and he is all in. It’s just that school is rarely either for him. He puts out the minimum effort he has to to make A’s, generally. At least to this point, he’s the polar opposite of my “valedictorian or bust” daughter, who applies laser focused effort no matter how mundane the school task.

If you want to see effort from Reilly, relevance and intrinsic motivation are where it’s at. For instance, he got engaged in an idea and ending up winning the award for the top 5th grade science project at his school this year. The project involved burning things and was completely his own invention. Fire and personal choice. Can’t miss.

Reilly's alter ego.

Reilly’s alter ego.

For consistent apex effort, though, you need to observe him working with and learning about Minecraft in all of its 8-bit, retro graphic beauty. His teachers would be insanely jealous. If allowed, he will spend hours researching, studying, creating, re-creating, collaborating, and communicating with, in, and about Minecraft. On occasion, I have been known to sit down and play Minecraft with Reilly. I tell people that the conversations go something like this:

Me: “Look, I made a house!”

Reilly: “Awesome, daddy! I made a city with a solar-powered, aerial tram system that is activated by this pressure plate inside the passenger cars. Each tram station also has an anti-creeper and zombie, redstone-powered security system and is designed to look like a natural part of the landscape and have zero carbon footprint.”

Me: “My house has windows.”

So last night I went into the living room to watch him play. He was in creative mode (meaning limitless resources, and you can fly) in an online Minecraft server. The last time I checked his game out a few days prior, he was creating a house he described as a “modern design”. Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved of the glass and lines, the big-screen television, the modular sofa, and the ground-level bed. He had since finished the 3-story house using blueprints found only in his mind and helpful tips from another community member whose structures Reilly had admired.

His next project was astounding to me. He had created an underground shop next to his house. Inside, visitors could find a collection of amazing and creative Minecraft character heads (Reilly referred to his store as a “head shop”. I internally giggled and decided that was some learning that could wait for much later.). There were at least 40 varieties of heads, as I recall. Visiting Minecrafters were actively browsing the store as I watched. Reilly had set up a brilliant system for visitors to order their own Minecraft heads:

  1. Visitors browse the collection of numbered heads, hanging on the shop walls.
  2. They next visit the order box and fill out an order form with the number assigned to each desired head. Return form to the box.
  3. Reilly reads the form, copies each desired head, and places the filled order into the filled order box.
  4. Visitors pick up filled orders.
  5. Reilly files filled order forms in another chest for safe keeping.

He explained that he could charge something like silver or gold or diamonds, but prefered to give the heads away for everyone else to enjoy. A “customer” messaged him as I watched and invited Reilly to visit his Minecraft home to see the collection on display. Reilly obliged and gave the inquisitive and grateful user a few tips on how to “rank up” before returning to his virtual home.

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/eXMx43

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/eXMx43

After dealing with several visitors back at the store, Reilly decided to post instructions on his shop wall, telling visitors how to make their own free copies using a combination of keyboard keys and mouse buttons. This would allow users to enjoy their own heads even while he was offline. It was a hoot watching him direct a pixelated customer over to the instructions, see the character reading them, and then heading over to copy a couple dozen varieties of heads.

If we don’t pay attention, we might miss all of the value here. Reilly created, he applied economic principles, he collaborated. He solved problems, designed, and redesigned (He tore the modern house apart numerous times as I watched, meticulously trying to get it just right.). He showed initiative in seeking knowledge from experts and shared his knowledge freely with other learners. He was organized, open to criticism, and willing to make mistakes. He demonstrated patience with others and their myriad questions and generosity with his resources. I observed him engaging in communication, science, art, and math.

Reilly calls this fun, a game. I call it worthwhile. I call it inspired. I call it amazing. I call it learning.

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Imagine: Seguin ISD Technology and Innovation Celebration 2015

March 5, 2015 by · No Comments · Educational technology, innovation, robotics, Spreading the Word, Teaching and Learning

Imagine: SISD Technology & Innovation Celebration by randyrodgers on GoAnimate

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Podcast #23: Do This

March 3, 2015 by · No Comments · creativity, Digital Storytelling, Educational technology, iPad/iPod, mobile computing, podcasting, Teaching and Learning

My latest podcast discusses Tech Fair, some astounding tech news, and podcasts. Remember a few years ago when everyone in education was talking about podcasting? We still should be!

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Documenting Twitter Chats With Storify

February 26, 2015 by · No Comments · Digital Storytelling, Educational technology, Twitter, Web Tools

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Growing Genius

February 9, 2015 by · 1 Comment · 21st Century Skills, creativity, innovation, robotics, TCEA 2015

I had the great pleasure of working at and attending the 2015 TCEA convention last week in Austin. The week was something of a blur, but it was and always has been such a re-charger for me. The professional conversations, in particular, always leave me flush with new ideas and possibilities.

A wonderful highlight was the closing speaker for the week, Arizona educator Fredi Lajvardi. Fredi and his students are the subject of a movie, Spare Parts, and a documentary, Underwater Dreams. The films both tell the story of a group of students that in 2004 approached Fredi about starting a robotics team. The team goes on to shockingly knock off college teams in national robotics competitions, including powerhouse MIT. The best part of the story is that these students are not the types of kids most people would look at as technological and engineering wonderkids. Students at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, where Fredi teaches, are predominantly poor, hispanic, and often cannot speak fluent English. Many are the children of undocumented immigrants. Fredi’s talk was raw and authentic. He passionately described the challenges his kids and team faced and proudly shared their moments of triumph. He was especially proud of the incredible list of achievements his former students had compiled and the legacies they were creating.

UNDERWATER DREAMS – Trailer – 2-2014 from 50EGGS on Vimeo.

Fredi hit on so many critical points, and his students’ experiences spoke volumes about what we do and do not do in our schools. A few of the points that stuck out most vividly to me are:

1. Students drive. The original idea for the robotics team came not from administrative mandates or Fredi himself, but from students. The results were levels of engagement and dedication rarely seen in classrooms.

2. Failure is a step. Students encountered many, many struggles and failures, such as a leaking robot on competition day. They rallied around these problems, though, and turned them into productive failures through re-design, creativity, and innovative solutions (such as using a tampon’s absorbent materials to solve the problem of the leak).

3. Aim higher. Fredi stated that his team decided to compete against college teams, because they wanted to learn from the best. This is an example of setting genuinely high expectations in a powerful and meaningful context, and it motivated students to achieve. Simply tossing around terms like “higher standards”, “rigor”, etc. can and will NEVER accomplish this drive to succeed.

4. Thinking beats memorizing. Fredi stated, “Focus should be on process, not content. Google has all the content we need.” Memorizing facts is great for standardized tests, but thinking is great for real life tests. We continue to languish under a system that is a relic from the 19th century, when it was dictated that memorizing certain facts in 5 core areas made a person successful. Clearly we still aren’t thinking, or we would have seen the folly of this decades ago. As Roger Schank writes in Teaching Minds, “Memorization has nothing to do with learning, unless you want to become a singer.”

The most beautiful thing about hearing stories like that of Fredi and his students is how vividly they illustrate just what our kids can do when the opportunity is presented to them. When they can be in control of real, exciting, challenging learning experiences, barriers like poverty, language, ethnicity, family situations, etc. can be smashed as students rocket skyward. This is a useful reminder of what needs to drive me daily.

One last point. I noticed that Fredi never once mentioned his students’ test scores. Instead, he talked about his former kids’ engineering degrees, non-profit foundations, startup companies, and new families. He talked like a proud dad or friend. While it is practically impossible to precisely quantify the effects of the robotics program and Fredi on these student outcomes, it is reasonable to assume that the impact was far more significant than even the best test prep program has ever achieved. If we must have standards (The talking heads all say we do.), isn’t this the type of standard we should be judged by–the legacy and life-impact our classes have on our students?

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The Online PD Experiment

January 7, 2015 by · No Comments · Educational technology, eLearning, leadership, professional learning

This morning, I was updating some district professional development data, including assessing online coursework and giving teachers the credits they had earned. I started offering a few online technology courses to our teachers in November of 2013. To this point, we have offered courses in Google Apps for Education, iMovie, digital storytelling, and flipped classrooms. Our teachers are required to complete at least 6 hours of instructional technology focused PD yearly. We offer a variety of forms, including traditional, in-person sessions after school and during the summer, a summer technology conference, etc. Since the beginning, I have been admittedly skeptical about online professional development, at least in the voluntary context present here. I am all too familiar with studies of online learning and low completion rates, and I know from my own online studies how busy we can get, and how deadlines simply pass by our good intentions. I want our teachers to have opportunities to learn in ways that meet their needs, however, so I created the courses using Moodle, recruited instructors, and put them into the district PD catalog. I decided to make the typical course last roughly 6 weeks, although a few have been shorter due to school scheduling constraints.  After a little more than a year, I did a little data gathering, and I was actually pleasantly surprised at the results.

  • online completionNumber of courses created: 4

  • Total course sessions: 13

  • Total teacher participants: 215

  • Number of participants completing courses: 98

  • Percent completion: 45.6%

 

Now, there is a sneaky little trend that can’t be ignored buried in those figures. January completion rates are, well, a wee bit higher:

online course januaryI am sure, of course, that is simply due to the fact that the winter break has teachers energized and ready to learn, and it has nothing to do with the fact that teachers who have completed their training receive a February comp day. After all, the experts say the best motivation is purely intrinsic, right? :)

There is a plethora of studies of completion rates of online courses, and they are pretty pretty dismal as a rule. However, I’m coming around on this type of PD, and I will be putting together more courses. Here are some observations that I think will help us be successful in our online PD program moving forward:

  • Do what it takes to get participants participating in the first week. Set a “post or be dropped” deadline and enforce it. Most folks who don’t get involved right away never do at all.

  • Expect regular (at least weekly) communication on the part of the instructor. This can be as simple as a group email or post to the course forum. Just a word of encouragement or a helpful tip reminds folks to get going. I’m not completely sold on purchasing subscriptions to online PD, by the way, because I haven’t seen the level of instructor participation I think is critical.

  • Respond to participants’ posts and submissions. I freely admit that I am not as good about this as I should be, but I know from my own experiences how reassuring it is to read something from my instructor about my own posts.

  • Encourage participants to interact. I say encourage instead of require, because I think it is even more powerful when we get a comment or question from someone who is not being coerced into doing so.

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No, It Won’t

December 9, 2014 by · No Comments · 21st Century Skills, creativity, Educational technology, innovation, Teaching and Learning

There is a new video about educational technology and reform that is all over social media this week (see below). It’s a well-produced, nicely narrated, and basically says nothing that hasn’t been said for decades. It asserts that, essentially, ed tech’s potential to reform is limited to a small degree by the type of media and to a much bigger one by the way the teacher creates the learning environment. As Will Richardson points out in a comment after the video, this is Dewey, Papert, Montessori, etc. There are heavy influences of Mayer’s theories on multimedia and learning. All of which is fine, but the video’s creator stops there, and really offers nothing new or nearly radical enough to truly “revolutionize education,” as the title promises.

Same chapter, different verse. Reform will not come through social learning experiences, focused, concerted attention on curriculum, rigor, standards, data analysis, letting kids sit on yoga balls, etc. We’ve been doing that. It isn’t working, yet we keep trying harder.  The word “change” means “to make or become different.” This isn’t different–it’s re-labelled, louder. Will nails it when he asserts that different in education is for us to do something very uncomfortable and radical– to unclench our grips on the profession and our students. He comments, “The bigger issue I have here is that it says nothing about transferring the agency of learning to the learner.” This means handing control over, actually letting kids determine the course and style of their learning. Will rightly contends that meaningful, sticky learning occurs when students are actually self-driven learners, exploring things that interest and mean something to them. In his latest blog post, he shares a passage from Seymour Papert in which Dr. Papert describes education as it exists today as being unnatural and structured in a way that is nothing like native learning. He explains that teachers are constantly pulled between the rigid, technical structures imposed by the system of education and their desire to make learning meaningful and learner-centered, even natural. I often jokingly describe my job as “Director of Non-Compliance”, and I really do see a big part of my job as being to help teachers struggle against the limitations of the system. Back in 1994, when he wrote The Children’s Machine, Papert had the foresight to know that the technology tools I share had the potential to either complete the entrapment of our students in our expectations and structures or liberate them to take control of their own destinies. He was spot-on, and all one has to do is visit multiple campuses, classrooms, labs, etc. to see this played out to either extreme. The astounding intelligence and capacities of our technologies has the potential to free our students from our out-dated and limiting expectations. If we come to grips with the idea that there is no ideal curriculum, no checklist of state standards that will satisfactorily prepare our kids for their tomorrows, technology, books, the classroom, other learners–all can become tools for exploring, connecting, creating, inventing, imagining, and learning. This, by the way, has to become the school model, not just an activity tucked in an hour here or a day there. It begins with an examination of what we want from our schools and our kids’ learning. If, as many would assert, we want “21st Century Skills”, life skills, discipline skills, or whatever label we choose here in 2014, our kids need daily chances to actually DO them.

Here is a challenging but worthwhile exercise. Imagine your own ideal classroom, with no limits but your imagination. Try to envision something beyond the system you and I came up through. What does it look like? What are the kids doing and who decided what they would be doing? Where are you, and what role are you playing? What is technology used for in your class? If it’s hard for us as educators to go to a truly new place, it’s no small stretch to say it’s darned near impossible for educational policymakers to do so. If, however, we really want things to change for the better, this is what reform must become–education must “become different”.

One more thing occurred to me even as I wrote this. This applies to the hottest thing out there, the flipped classroom, in a big way. Flipped classrooms still most often dictate the what of learning, the when, and the how. While it may be a good strategy to maximize our instructional time, it is nowhere near the type of reform I’m talking about here and it is far from being about giving students power.

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