Tag: teaching (page 1 of 6)

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:

10 Easy Steps to a Maker’s Mentality Classroom

Here are 10 things the innovators of tomorrow should have opportunities to do every single day:

1. Think critically about a real problem

2. Ask questions. Deep, probing, open-ended questions.

3. Communicate/debate the problem.

4. Envision solutions to the problem.

5. Test/prototype the solutions.

6. Solve problems arising from the solutions.

7. Persevere in the face of frequent failure.

8. Regroup and revise solutions.

9. Share what they’ve accomplished and learned.

10. Reflect on the bigger implications of what they did/learned.

The Teacher’s Role in the Blended Learning Environment

Source: https://flic.kr/p/5KS8nD

Beth Holland has a great post in Edutopia on what is necessary for blended learning to be disruptive, transformative, and powerful. There are so many excellent discussion points in Beth’s article that it’s hard to begin to respond. What resonates most with me at the moment, though, is the role of the teacher in a blended learning environment (BLE).

Very significantly, Beth makes the point that the BLE should take control out of the teacher’s hands and make learning more individualized and learner-centered. As she points out,

“True blended learning affords students not only the opportunity to gain both content and instruction via online as well as traditional classroom means, but also an element of authority over this process.”

The blended classroom should offer students not only a variety of means to get information, but options for communicating and applying learning. Contrary to this, many so-called BLEs merely digitize the traditional, teacher-centered lessons, activities, and assessments of yesterday. Paraphrasing a point I made in a recent conversation with a wonderful, forward-thinking educator, “Simply substituting the teacher’s voice on a video for a lecture is not transformative and is, in fact, quite likely to be less engaging.”

Source: https://flic.kr/p/dryrWw

If Beth’s points about moving away from the teacher-centered, traditional mode of instruction are viewed as valid, what, then, become of the teacher’s role? I have a few roles I think are as or even more important in a BLE:

  • Stage Setter. There is a real art in catching hold of the imagination and engaging students in learning. Teachers should be skilled at asking head-scratcher questions, provoking debate, stimulating questions, etc. This is also where scaffolding and differentiation of instruction can take place.
  • Resource Gatherer. The teacher likely has a broader range of sources for information or creating/sharing products than many students. Once a student is hooked and engaged in learning/doing, the teacher should actively provide the tools (websites, books, software, outside experts, etc.) to get them where they want to be (as needed).
  • Model Learner. Students are not born with the complete set of skills needed to be powerfully equipped, independent learners of everything. Teachers should model skills such as asking deep, open-ended questions, evaluating the quality & usefulness of information, organization, effective communication strategies, collaboration skills, empathy, and more.
  • Co-Pilot. Even enthusiastic learners engaged in powerful, student-driven learning often benefit from redirection. The teacher in a BLE should be actively communicating and monitoring every learner to identify misconceptions or guide students to more effective strategies, resources, etc.
  • Assessment PartnerUnless the robots take over, the teacher will always play the key role in the assessment of student learning, both formative and summative. In a BLE, students’ roles in assessing their own learning and doing should be amplified, but the teacher should be the highest authority in classroom assessment.
  • Motivator. The best teachers have always made children hungry to learn, hungry to achieve. That doesn’t change in a BLE–teachers provide leadership and motivation for learning by helping students understand the power and benefits they can expect. They create a welcoming and positive atmosphere that makes the classroom a desirable place to be.

Blended learning has been proven to be effective and impactful, but it can only reach its potential when the classroom teacher abandons the roles of the past. As Beth states,

“Blended learning can mean a step forward toward something greater—giving students agency over their own learning, but that is dependent on the direction chosen by the teacher.”

Many of our students will embrace the computers, the websites, the iPads, the videos regardless of how we teach, because students simply love the resources. We have to teach differently, better, though, or we should consider spending our education dollars in more worthwhile places.

5 Classroom Strategies to Build STEM/STEAM Skills

One reason I and others promote STEM or STEAM education so passionately goes far beyond the outstanding job opportunities the field affords. Beyond this is the abundance and importance in STEAM of so-called “soft skills”such as problem identification, creativity, innovative thinking, collaboration, critical thinking, etc. Creating a generation of students who are thusly skilled is not just vital to ensuring competitiveness in the current and future global economy, it equips them for life. This is particularly true when paired with other traits/skills, such as adaptability, organization, empathy, initiative, and grit.  As I am preparing for a talk at the STEAM Academy at TCEA next week, the following are some ideas and classroom strategies to promote STEAM-related skills, including critical thinking and problem solving in any subject area:

  1. Stimulate wonder. In any subject area, teachers should work to create situations that will make students scratch their heads and experience a certain level of confusion leading to curiosity. I don’t want to confuse this idea with what I was taught as a young teacher was the “anticipatory set”, which was basically review at worst and far from engaging or stimulating on a good day. Think of a provocative statement, an argument, a perplexing question, a quick but powerful video, or a dramatic demonstration. Our kids need more opportunities to get really engaged in a topic and experience fascination and wonder.
  2. Solicit questions. Once students have been hooked, get them asking good, probing, open-ended questions.

    Image Source: Right Question Institute

    As discussed here before, this is no given, since students all but forget how to ask such questions by middle school.  Re-teach them using a process such as the Question Formulation Technique and give them daily opportunities to practice.

  3. Be less direct. Let your students sort through processes without so much guidance from you. I know I was very guilty of step-by-stepping most of the labs in my science classroom to death when I was still teaching middle school. The best ones, though, were ones where I followed my own advice above and set the stage with a statement or demonstration, then let the kids figure out how to explain, prove, disprove, etc. on their own or collaboratively.
  4. Forsake the multiple choice. I have heard “assessment experts” defend the venerable A, B, C, or D (all of the above) test format for years, claiming it is poor question design that has weakened the art. I believe anything worth learning cannot be sufficiently expressed and assessed with such a format and with no opportunity to see into the student’s thinking. The product of such assessments has no relevance or meaning in the real world, and is I believe multiple choice assessments are a reflection of teacher laziness or inexperience (Before anyone gets your feathers too ruffled, I was as guilty as anyone. Remember those clickers? Ugh.). Leave the format to the people who are paid big bucks to construct shallow assessments and disengage our kids–the testing companies. Instead, utilize performance and alternative assessments, such as rubrics, face-to-face conferencing, self-assessment, demonstrations/presentations, physical products, etc.
  5. Failure doesn’t end with an “F”. There are times in life when you get one shot to get something right, like choosing when to cross the street in heavy traffic. Most of life outside of school, however, is based on a series of trial-and-error events and choices. Whether designing a science project, solving a math problem,  writing a narrative essay, or learning to shoot a basketball, students need to tackle tasks that require evaluation and improvement. Our obsession with grades (in the face of much research demonstrating their failures) means that we too often give students failing marks for a failed attempt, usually the first attempt, when we should be offering meaningful feedback into the process the student is going through. If your school/district requires grades, use them in conjunction with actual feedback that makes the numbers have actual meaning. But, as I advised a robotics instructor in my own district, be careful not to view a step in the process as the end, and be careful not to see a project that has not met hoped for goals as a failure. I watched a robotics team build no fewer than 20 prototypes of 1 model without achieving their very lofty desired outcome, but the group made strides and learned everything I could have hoped. An “F” would have been both crushing and inappropriate.

This is a work in progress, so please give me any ideas or feedback you might have. If I use your comments/ideas, I will even give you a shoutout in my presentation. Thanks!

STEM students image source: http://www.dfrobot.com.cn/images/upload/Image/20140306141707uca3mg.jpg

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.

Growing Genius

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?

Older posts

© 2017 The Moss-Free Stone

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

Skip to toolbar