Tag: learning (page 1 of 5)

Does Educational Technology Matter?

Over the Thanksgiving break, multiple family road trips served as good opportunities to catch up on some audio books that I’ve been carrying around in my phone for the past year or so (My family might question this, but I’m driving, and they have their own headsets, so…). Once book I’ve been listening to is Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek. It is an interesting read/listen, if a bit repetitive at times. I have long believed that  vision was the best motivator of people, and Sinek shares many examples of groups where shared vision nurtured great accomplishment and sustained success. While primarily focused on business, the importance of understanding our why might be even more important in education. Our best schools and best educators are certainly not motivated by money or fame, after all. There is something more intrinsic and powerful that makes great teachers get to school early, stay late, create colorful and engaging learning environments, lend an ear to a student in crisis, continue to learn and grow professionally, put up with the tests and budget cuts, etc.

The book prompted me to do some reflecting on why I work as an educator and digital learning leader. Educational technology has been a source of some debate for many years. Research has, frankly, painted widely varying views of the educational impact and value of investing in computers, iPads, software, peripherals, etc. Entire schools have been set up as computer-free zones. Classroom technology and infrastructure funding are annually sources of debate and always on the chopping block. Still, technology integration remains something that some of us passionately promote at staff meetings, conferences, professional learning sessions, in social media, and even over family dinners. Here are my whys, which happily made a convenient acronym, CORE, and everyone loves acronyms!

  • Creativity — technologies offer countless opportunities for students to create.  Creativity is demonstrated and strengthened through producing an imaginative multimedia presentation or video, writing an original program, constructing a robot, or designing a 3D prototype. The most powerful moments I have witnessed involving educational technologies are those where original ideas became concrete products. Importantly, creative thinking transfers to almost all areas of life, whether solving a problem at work, fixing a car, raising a child, etc.  The creative processes of imagining something, making it, evaluating its quality, troubleshooting, and making needed improvements  are vital to our students’ future success, and technology is a valuable partner in their development.
  • Opportunity.  Whether a geek or a caveman, it is impossible to deny with sincerity or credibility the importance of some level of technological proficiency in the home, workspace, etc. Students who graduate without being able to use multiple tools and platforms are immediately at a disadvantage to more experienced peers, whether in the college classroom or the workplace. It is my goal for our Matador students to be exposed to a wide range of technology tools and, when possible, to master them. The opportunity to use these tools also opens students’ eyes and minds to future learning and working opportunities that they might have never considered or imagined. In short, I don’t want any of my Matadors to be limited in life by a lack of experiences while a student here.
  • Relevance. Used well and appropriately, educational technologies make learning immediately more relevant to students and the way they live. For example, a teacher could take students to the library or refer them to the class encyclopedia or dictionary to conduct research. I have heard teachers express that students need to know “how to do it the old fashioned way.” I have never churned butter, and it hasn’t once kept me from putting too much on my pancakes. I won’t argue against library research skills, but for most of us, research happens in the palm of our hands or sitting in front of a monitor. Name an elementary or middle school research topic, and a student can find an informative and suitable Youtube video in seconds (something they usually didn’t need a teacher to learn). Ed tech is comfortable and familiar to students, and the actions and products created reflect what they are doing and making outside of school. T
  • Engagement. My 3rd grade teacher’s biases aside, I have always found that happy students are more effective learners. Students faced with interesting, relevant, and challenging learning tasks  engage deeply and, therefore, learn better. Technology alone does not guarantee engaged kids. However, when technology is a part of a powerful, creative learning experience, and when it is a tool for creatively sharing ideas or projects, engagement soars. While “fun” should not be confused with engagement, students’ affinities for technologies make learning tasks less tedious, resulting in greater effort and stamina. The engagement effects can be especially significant for populations most at risk.

It should be mentioned that I don’t spend a lot of time promoting or supporting prescriptive technologies or software. I do recognize the value or place for some of these. However, specialized math tutorials, reading programs, commercial assessments, and similar technologies are simply too narrow in focus to fit the CORE reasoning behind what I do, and subject area specialists are often best suited to make those choices. For them, an important why might involve a student mastering multiplication facts or understanding context clues. My work necessitates that I focus on tools and strategies that have broader, more open-ended impact, and my whys reflect this.

It is also significant that I do not see high test scores as a worthy why or goal for using educational technologies. In my experience, effective, engaging learning experiences produce students more than capable of handling the tests. I wanted my students to truly lose themselves in the learning, and that is impossible if our why is just a  test. Tests are not a why that kids will share, and learning will suffer.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. What are your whys? Leave your comments below. 🙂

Questions First

I’ve written about it before, but the new year is a great chance to re-visit the topic of teaching and encouraging effective, powerful questioning in our students. As your students get back into the classroom this year, make it clear that questions and a sense of wonder and curiosity are critical to the learning that will take place. Save a spot on the wall, bulletin board, class website, or class Twitter feed just to recognize outstanding student questions–a “Question of the Day.” Better yet, have students nominate outstanding questions as they occur throughout the day and pick the most outstanding at the end of the day. All meaningful change and innovation starts with questions about real problems, yet questions consistently take a backseat to regurgitated answers in education. For much more information and resources to teach effective questioning strategies, visit and join the Right Question Institute. It’s free and filled with helpful tools and information.

Other resources:

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


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.

Mistakes Are Not the End

"...fail as fast as you can." -Whurley

“…fail as fast as you can.” -Whurley

Among the hottest trends in education right now is this idea of teaching students to  embrace mistakes. For decades, researchers have known the value that can be gleaned from errors and missteps. Today, scientists can even watch as the brain learns through trial and error. However, until very recently, education had few practitioners who actively applied the researchers’ conclusions. The numbers are still relatively small, but they do appear to be growing. The basic thrust of the idea is that we learn from our mistakes, and we shouldn’t be so mistake phobic when it comes to our students’ work. This is admirable, but there are some who justifiably worry we might be creating a culture that over-glorifies mistakes at the expense of good work. The difference, I believe, is where we place mistakes in the learning process. A typical classroom process might look like this:

  1. Teacher presents lesson.
  2. Students complete assignment.
  3. Teacher grades assignments and returns them to students.
  4. Teacher and students move on to the next lesson.

In this scenario, the grade is the ultimate conclusion to the teaching and learning process. Students get their one shot to impress with their levels of mastery. Mistakes come at the price of a reduced grade. This, of course, can have negative consequences, such as failing courses, being held out of extra-curricular activities, having the X-box taken away at home, etc. Little wonder that students therefore dread mistakes and the resulting red ink.

Some schools are implementing changes to this decades old practice. Mistakes are not seen as the end of the process. Rather, they are seen as steps along the path to mastery. The process might look like this:

  1. Teacher presents lesson.
  2. Students complete assignment.
  3. Teacher grades assignments and returns them to students.
  4. Students examine and reflect on errors.
  5. Teacher works with students to correct errors.
  6. Students re-attempt the assignment.
  7. Teacher re-assess student work.
  8. Process is repeated until mastery is achieved.

Mistakes gain importance because they provide insights into students’ learning and mastery levels, and they are stripped of the negative consequences of traditional assessment. This is more in line with the way research confirms that we naturally learn. It also reflects more accurately the way that most important innovations, inventions, and creative ideas come to be.

Image source: http://blog.inventright.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Chaotic-Moon-Labs.jpg

Image source: http://blog.inventright.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Chaotic-Moon-Labs.jpg

This weekend, Seguin ISD held our 11th annual Technology Fair. One highlight was a presentation by William Hurley (@whurley). Whurley is an energetic bundle of creative energy. He shared several projects undertaken by his successful Austin company, Chaotic Moon Studios. A recurring theme of the presentation was the value of mistakes as part of learning and innovating. He encouraged students to “fail as fast as you can.” Whurley shared through story after story how Chaotic Moon embraces and expects mistakes along the path to innovation and invention. A video of a smart shopping cart being developed by the company showed numerous missteps, such as the cart not understanding commands or almost knocking over a display of wine bottles. It also showed how truly creative ideas have to master the art of reflecting on mistakes and trying new approaches until success is achieved.

Now more than ever, in an educational environment of high-stakes assessments, no-pass-no-play policies, and stressful hyper-importance placed upon grades and class standing, ed tech can lead the way to a new appreciation for mistakes. Students who are given the opportunity to create, to code, to tinker, and to invent with technologies have unique opportunities to engage in productive mistake-making. The processes involved in writing a program, building a robot, or creating a 3D object with software and a printer are inherently mistake-laden. All one has to do is note the frequency of updates to a computer’s operating system or the apps on a smartphone to see how developers respond to and learn from mistakes. When we give our students hands-on, sometimes messy opportunities to use technology in these kinds of ways, we are preparing them for something bigger and more important (no matter what a state agency might believe) than being able to pass a test. We are equipping them to be the minds of tomorrow who will stare down society’s problems and create solutions that obliterate them. So, in the spirit of Whurley, let’s get our kids out there making mistakes as often and fast as we can.

Toward a Learner-Centered Pedagogy

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.

  1. The district or school curriculum is faithfully and thoroughly followed in my classroom. We have walk-throughs, you know. (True/False)teachercentered
  2. The arrangement of classroom furniture is a carefully crafted, scientific plan created by me for maximum discipline and efficiency. (True/False)
  3. My students are well-behaved. My voice is the most frequently heard voice in the classroom. (True/False)
  4. You can have my interactive whiteboard and document camera when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers. (True/False)
  5. I work hard to master my subject area knowledge and skills, so that I can impart my brilliance on to students. (True/False)
  6. Time is precious, so the day must be planned down to the last detail in order to ensure we cover the material. (True/False)
  7. Students should study what interests them, absolutely. Right after their homework is finished. (True/False)
  8. I take pride in being a magnificent lecturer. Students have literally cried after my recount of the Gadsden Purchase. (True/False)
  9. Risks are the natural results of poor planning. (True/False)

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?

(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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