Tag: inquiry (page 1 of 2)

Sowing Seeds of Innovation in the Classroom

Original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cimmyt/8208414926/sizes/l

Original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cimmyt/8208414926/sizes/l

I have been struggling mightily lately with just how best to give our students more opportunities to imagine, invent, inquire, and create. I have witnessed so many formerly great teachers succomb to the quicksand of assessment preparation in recent years, abandoning the activities and settings that once inspired their kids to do amazing things. I am not judging these teachers. I realize the bureaucracy and profit-driven, immensely powerful forces that work against genuinely beautiful teaching and learning today. But we cannot just cave in and become glorified tutors, not if our kids are going to achieve their dreams and solve the problems we share tomorrow. We must find ways to inspire new ideas and dreams, and achieving exemplary scores on the state tests is, frankly, completely irrelevant.

With the goal in mind of creating this type of classrooms, I would like to offer this quick guide to regaining “genius-inspiring educator” status:

1. Be curious. Teachers who love learning, and I mean really love it, ask questions, read, visit new places, seek out strange new worlds, make, and explore. We all say we love learning, but few live it. Curiosity is contagious, and curious adults beget curious kids.

2. Be bold. Don’t fear trying a new approach or a new resource. Buy that Raspberry Pi or Arduino and see what you can do. You might fail, but you might succeed magnificently. The good news is that your students are highly unlikely to be ruined for life.

3. Be nonprofessional.  Resist the sage-on-the-stage role now and then, unless you have something to say that inspires or prods a student in the directions that help answer their questions or put their ideas into action. Give up the all-knowing-one title whenever possible.

4. Be equipped. Invention and creativity are resource-intensive tasks. Keep your classroom well-supplied with varieties of paper, fabrics, cardboard, glue, tape, simple electronic components, wood scraps, etc. A simple not home to parents is the ticket to keeping your supply closet or box filled.

4. Be a failure. Plan, execute, and fail, then let your kids see how you respond productively. Don’t fail on purpose, but don’t hide it, either. Ever have a lesson that just fell flat on its face, then you regrouped, redesigned, and conquered? Oh, me either…cough.

5. Be a borrower. Look for ideas from other teachers for ways to make learning more engaging, inventive, and meaningful. Get a PLN if you don’t have one, and start asking questions. Really radical idea–look for ideas from your students.

5b. Be a giver. Share your triumphs, your kids’ moments of inspired genius, your great activities, your hits, and your misses.

6. Be an advocate. Brutal honesty here, but too many schools and administrations have stopped caring about kids and want classes to exclusively be test preparatory programs, often to the point of forcing scripted, horridly standardized curricula. No research on the planet supports this model of student learning. Fight to make your class better for the unique needs of your kids. This means being a bit of a rebel at times, too. It may even mean looking for other opportunities, if leadership can’t reclaim the vision that brought them into the business.

Latest Podcast: #17: Why Ask Why?

This is a 15-minute followup to the blog post about Beautiful Questions. Like I stated, this book has my head bursting with ideas and implications, and there will be more to come. Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone.

The Power of the Beautiful Question

ask

I am currently listening to the audio book A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger. I’m only in the third  chapter, and the implications for education and my own work are already mind-blowing. I have spoken in presentations of the importance of giving students opportunities to ask questions and, very importantly, of teaching them how to ask questions, but Berger is placing even greater urgency on me to get the message out. Berger has conducted extensive research into the importance of asking good questions and the implications for both business/industry and education. He defines a “beautiful question” as

ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Put simply, questioning why things are the way the are or how things might be done differently has the potential to lead to real inquiry, which in turn leads to real problem solving. Teaching our students to ask these kinds of questions encourages creativity, innovation, and critical thinking.

Unfortunately, this is severely lacking in our schools today, and it has been for more than a century. Schools as they largely exist now are relics of an industrial age, which Berger explains emphasized rote, quiet, routine-filled activities designed to produce factory workers performing static, routine-filled jobs. Many of us in education have known this for years. I read a report just this week by a UK think tank that espoused filling students brains with as many facts as possible, a so-called “classic education.” This report was just 2 years old, and it was painful to read. Berger challenges the reader to ask what the purpose of school is. Is it to impart countless facts and figures as fast as possible, in order to produce citizens that can regurgitate information on a state-mandated test? Or, is it to create lifelong, self-driven learners capable of solving the problems of tomorrow? In a world where routine, assembly-line work is outsourced to countries with the cheapest labor, it should be obvious that our competitive advantage will be maintained by supporting the latter.

 

Why not?

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kathycassidy/4650210259

Technology has given our students unimaginable access to the knowledge, thinkers, and experiences of the world. However, if we fail to give them the opportunities to explore these resources based upon their own questions, we cannot expect them to be the citizens of tomorrow who will tackle poverty, sustainable energy, disease, crime, and so on. Berger talks extensively about the way schools and, often, businesses, discourage questions, because they slow things down or deviate from agendas established by those in authority. We value correct answers, not well-crafted questions. It is imperative that we change this, and we can start in simple ways:

  • Recognize a “Question of the Day” from a student. Celebrate questions at least as much as answers.
  • Designate group discussion times to explore questions about a topic before, during, and after a unit of study.
  • Embrace the fact that students will ask questions for which we don’t have the answers, and get to work helping them find them.
  • Teach students how to ask “Why…”, “How…”, and “Is it possible…” types of questions.
  • Strip out some of the pre-determined instructions and questions from class activities. Let students’ own questions and curiosities drive them.
  • Engage students in solving real-life problems, not just covering the textbook or curriculum.
  • Utilize technology’s unique capabilities for creativity, inquiry, collaboration, and exploration.
  • Give up control. Start by designating small blocks of time to regularly let kids share and then investigate what fills them with questions and wonder.

As I stated at the outset, I’ve barely scratched the cover of this fascinating book. I’m sure there will be more posts forthcoming on the ideas it inspires. If you are looking for a good read for the beach or poolside this summer, I highly recommend this one. I truly think it will inspire and challenge you to examine the role of questioning in your own classrooms or even with your kids in your own homes and inspire changes that will make each places of excited, engaged inquiry.

New Podcast: Innovation Ready Questions

In this episode, I’m talking about the types of questions our students ask in the classroom, and how we can encourage them to ask better, deeper, more probing questions. These types of questions are often open-ended in nature and encourage our kids to experiment, create things, break things open, and ask still more questions. Examples might be:

  • What if we had a serious earthquake here?
  • Why do people bully one another?
  • Can we make the traffic pattern around our school safer and more efficient?
  • Could we make our classroom warmer without using more electricity?
  • How does my phone send text messages?
  • Could I make my own device to send messages?

As always, I look forward to your responses (even the ones that disagree!).

What’s Taking Us So Long?

The pace of educational change is frustrating.

The pace of educational change is frustrating.

Dean Shareski, an educator friend whose ideas I highly respect, recently shared a post  on his blog entitled “Why Teachers Aren’t Making ‘The Shifts'”. His post was in response to an earlier post by Will Richardson, one of my earliest ed-tech influences, entitled “My Summer of Confusion“. The two posts both address the issue of a lack of change in most classrooms, despite increasing resources and evidence supporting such changes. Why do so many teachers attend conferences, read articles, or hear in the teachers lounge about amazing, innovative practices, yet fail to implement any significant changes in their own practices? Here are a causes of this inertia that I took from each blog post.

Will:

  • Many teachers and administrators lack a clear vision of what teaching and learning, particularly with technology, should be.
  • Educators lack the technology experiences needed to take those tools and skills and put them to work.
  • Educators don’t do enough to stay abreast of the “latest research, technologies, and news that impact learning.”
  • Resistance to change as a by-product of defending the old system against corporate reform efforts–a bunker mentality.

Dean:

  • Lack of autonomy.
  • Demands on educators’ time are just too great.
  • Inadequate or misguided teacher training–teachers are told by “experts” who have done the legwork what to teach and how. They need time to work through what that means in their own classes.
  • Some (a small percentage) teachers are just more prone to change like this than others, for a variety of reasons.

So much to discuss there, but I’ll just touch on a couple and add a little to the discussion. The vision, experiences, and research are intertwined. As Dean touched on so well, they are also time-consuming. I am fortunate to have a job that encourages me to do all of these things. I do a great deal of the vision building on my own time, reading blogs, tech sites, magazines, and engaging in professional conversations outside of school hours. But I don’t sleep enough, either, so it’s probably taking years off of my life. Seriously, Not everyone can or wants to devote significant portions of their own time to grow professionally. Families, recreation, and other demands do matter greatly. I believe, therefore, it is critical to build in much more time for professional learning, planning, collaboration, and vision building during the school day. The US falls behind most other high-performing countries in the amount of time devoted to growing its teaching pros. In the highly respected educational system in Finland, teachers devote less than 600 hours per year to actual teaching, versus 1,600 for US teachers. Much more time is devoted to research, professional collaboration, mentoring, etc. Singapore provides 100 hours  of PD each year, plus 20 hours/week for co-planning, observing other teachers teaching, etc. Here in the US, we talk about longer school days and years and rarely discuss the role of time for learning and collaboration as a route to improvement.

Inquiry learning works for adults, too!

Inquiry learning works for adults, too!

Dean’s reflections on the typical nature and quality of his professional development sessions are important. Think about what we know about the ways kids (people) learn best: inquiry, problem solving, and discovery. This is precisely the opposite of most technology PD, at least most that I’ve delivered over the last 11 years. I, the expert, have done my extensive legwork, developed my vision, and attempted to impart it to the willing masses. Interestingly, however, some of my favorite professional development sessions have been the few where I’ve asked questions, guided teachers to the resources and tools they needed to answer the questions in their own way, then sat back and watched professionals get after it. I have, admittedly, not conducted research into how the “stickiness” of these sessions compared to more traditional ones. I did read the very positive post-session surveys, however, and I suspect that the sessions probably produced greater levels of change than my standard fare.

I would add but one thing to Dean’s and Will’s fantastic assessments: administrator influence. Administrators have an enormously powerful influence over how teachers do what they do. First of all, administrators in schools where teachers are making exciting changes encourage teachers to take well-educated risks. If you’ve researched it, can reasonably demonstrate that it should have positive effects, then do it. It doesn’t matter that it hasn’t been done in their schools before–change and risk are welcome (and even exciting). Administrators who feel the need to have their hands in every move made by their employees or to enforce a one-size-fits all, misguided philosophy of teaching and learning, will likely never see innovation in their classrooms. Additionally, and I’ve said it before, administrators who are using technologies in powerful ways in their own lives and work will encourage others to do so. Administrators I have seen who fit this description show up with the new Galaxy or iPhone the day after release, are rarely seen without a smartphone or iPad in hand, tend to mix it up with how they share information (YouTube channels/videos, streaming, Prezi instead of a PowerPoint, shared Google Docs, etc.), and they actually attend technology-focused professional development sessions.

This is a vital discussion. Clearly, there is a disconnect between what we know is possible and what we know is happening, and it shows glacially-slow signs of changing. I don’t purport to have the answers down, just a few insights from a long time in the business of trying to foster change. What are your thoughts? What IS taking us so long? What do we need to do differently, or possibly throw out entirely?

Image credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/52748818@N07/4995276801;
http://www.flickr.com/photos/andercismo/2349098787

Summer Tech Camp Report and Reflections

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Creating video game controllers using MakeyMakey.

Last week wrapped up 3 weeks of summer technology camps. These are the first for our district, and summer tech camps are something I’ve wanted to do for years. We offered students who are entering 2nd through 8th grades the choice between 2 robotics-focused camps or a week focusing on programming and innovation. Each week of camp ran from Monday through Thursday from 8:00 a.m. until noon. Camps were offered free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. Approximately 80 students attended. Each camp had 3-5 adult counselors and 1-4 high school student CITs (<–callback for anyone who is a fellow Meatballs fan).

Campers build their first robot.

Campers build their first robot.

For the first attempt, each camp went off as smoothly as I could have hoped, primarily due to my phenomenal camp staff. Students were eager and engaged, and discipline issues were few and far between (Amazing how engagement solves so many of those issues, isn’t it?). Each day started with a quick debrief, then counselors either gave a mini-lesson or simply helped facilitate as students got to work. Robotics camp students initially completed a task involving creating a zip line with Legos. They next built their first, basic Mindstorms NXT robots. By the 2nd day, students were using their robots to complete tasks such as navigating a predetermined path on a Twister game mat. Local firefighters specializing in hazardous substance removal visited students to discuss how robots might be used to assist in their work, setting the stage for campers’ final project. Campers created and programmed robots to navigate a mock city (created by our CITs) and carry out specific tasks, such as obtaining simulated radiation measurements or moving hazardous cargo to a safe area.

photo8

SISD Robotics Camp

The final week of camp focused on programming, digital media, and inventing using MakeyMakey and a variety of household items. Students started this week by creating digital movies based upon the book Zoom by Istvan Banyai. They next created short stop motion videos using a free software tool called JellyCam, which I highly recommend. Next, campers explored MakeyMakey and invented their own video game controllers by pairing the devices with a variety of items, from limes and bananas to wires and nails to Play-Do. Finally, students learned the basics of Scratch and created their own video games. An example game by one of our campers is seen below.

I wanted to share a few lessons and observations from this experience, in hopes that they might be beneficial to others planning similar events in the future. I’ve also included a few student and parent comments shared in camp evaluations. I’ve attached both the student survey and parent survey we used.

  • Plan far enough in advance to ensure a smooth, simple registration process. We faced time constraints that made this process very cumbersome. Next year, we’ll be using some form of online registration to streamline things. I’m really intrigued by the Active Networks Camp Manager, which is feature-rich and FREE for organizations whose camps are free.

    photo7

    Campers created robots to complete challenges, such as detecting/removing hazardous cargo.

  • There should be a balance between structured activity and creative, explorative play. As an example, I thought that the initial robotics activities were great, but I was never satisfied with the hazardous waste project. I think I’d make that much more open-ended in the future. As one camper stated, “Make challenges more broad, less specific tasks–more thinking.
  • photo3I’m not sure about the age appropriateness of robotics activities for the youngest attendees. I felt as if many of the tasks eluded some of them, and we ended up separating older/younger campers and assigning slightly different tasks. However, one older camper requested that they “be a little more interactive with the younger kids,” and a younger camper asserted, “Little kids can do what the big kids are doing.” Even so, I’m leaning toward creating a very different, separate robotics experience for kids in 1st through 3rd grades next year.
  • I would really like to involve community members as volunteer camp counselors next year, particularly if they have relevant experience with technology (but not excluding those who do not).
  • We needed to create separate Scratch accounts for each student. My thinking was to use a single, camp login, which would put every project conveniently on the same page. Unfortunately, this resulted in chaos due to campers being constantly, unexpectedly logged off. Lesson learned.
  • Efforts should be made to contact families and remind them of camps when registration occurred weeks prior. The further from the registration date a camp was, the lower the percentage of attendance.

Parent comments:

  • “He was challenged and learned more about what computers can do.”
  • “He learned how to make anything control a computer and he’s happy with learning some programming.”
  • “I have been wanting to get my son started on tech knowledge, but I didn’t know where to start. This is a good launching point.”
  • “…make it a full week or 2 weeks at least”
  • “My child came home every day very excited about what she learned daily at camp. It’s great to hear that this camp sparked such an interest with her. Thanks!”

Overall, I was very pleased, and the many requests from parents for another opportunity next summer were very gratifying, as were the requests to incorporate more, similar experiences into the curriculum. Ultimately, I think this gave our students some valuable experiences, and we’ll hopefully see the fruits of the seeds we planted down the line.

(Almost) Rapid Response to TCEA Area 7 Conference

I had the privilege of once again attending and presenting the TCEA Area 7 conference up in White Oak, Texas this past Friday. Before they leave my cluttered mind, I wanted to share a just couple of moments of inspiration or semi-clarity that I gained from the event.

Key Notes From the Keynotes

The keynote speaker was the always amazing and inspiring Diana Laufenberg. Diana’s talks are always filled with fascinating and powerful personal anecdotes focusing on the power of inquiry/project-based learning and truly giving students ownership of their own learning. The following are a few of the big ideas and reactions that I noted via Twitter during the presentation (Follow-up thoughts today in green.).

  • School superintendents rank “comfort with no right answer” as least relevant indicator of creativity. So, so wrong!! (Misguided and misinterprets the attainment of 1, single correct solution as the end-all-be-all of knowledge. Innovation does not happen that way. Innovation is filled with missteps.)
  • “We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge gained from failure stuck around for years” -NASA
  • “We (teachers) set up barriers around the possible.” Yep–positive, happy, feel-good, self-esteem run amok. (Clarification–fear of damaging the psyches of students leads us to protecting them from failure far too often.)
  • John Dewey –“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”
  • Fostering inquiry by scaffolding curiosity.
  • If you truly value student voice, they must know that their ideas can direct the path of learning. (Too scary for many teachers to venture into such uncharted waters?)
  • “I want them to know what it’s like to stumble.” Yes, yes, yes–failing to succeed!

One Big Idea

Diana also shared a really exciting project where social studies students asked hypothetical “what if” questions about historical events. For example, students might ask:

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aunullah/5563371805

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aunullah/5563371805

  • What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War?
  • What if Prohibition had not been reversed?
  • What if President Kennedy had survived the assassination?

The same type of activity could certainly be applied to science (e.g. What if the earth’s gravitational pull was 25% stronger?), literature, math, etc. To answer these types of questions requires both a great deal of factual knowledge and a great deal of critical thinking, as there are potentially endless ripple effects of changing the world in such ways (Think butterfly effect.).  This type of learning activity is very student-centered and results very open-ended. It promises to be both engaging and very intellectually challenging, and I actually find myself very envious of classroom teachers who might try such a strategy.

That’s it for now–just wanted to reflect and get these ideas out there as soon as I had the chance. I’ll be presenting at ISTE next week–first time for that (Wish me luck!). I look forward most of all to the chance to connect to as many great educators as possible and be further inspired. Hope to see you there!

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