So, it happens that I was just checking out at the grocery store with my youngest daughter, Neve, by my side. While she danced around behind and beside me (literally), the checkout girl, who I could tell was quite green, asked if the bag of produce were avocados, “just to be sure.” My reply: “Yep… they sure are.” I smiled warmly in an attempt to soften her subtle, but obvious discomfort in having to ask.
A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.
Meanwhile, my littlest one pulled her 3-4 year old frame (she’s rather tiny for five) up over the edge of the counter by her hands. With her lips barely perched atop the rim and her feet afloat above floor tiles, she said to the girl: “Avocados are a fruit. They’re not really a vegetable.”
The checker replied: “Oh yeah… how do you know that?”
Neve: “Well… see… they have a seed in them and that makes them a fruit. (significant pause) …Even though some people think they are a vegetable. They’re not really though.”
The checker looked up to me for what appeared to me to be a slightly sheepish content check. I’m not sure what exactly I did in response. Did I wink? No, I probably nodded. I think. Maybe. She then said to Neve: “Wow. How do you know that?”
Neve: “I don’t know… it’s just in my head.”
Checker: “How old are you… five? Wow. You’re really smart! Maybe you could be president some day.”
Neve: “Nahhh… I don’t think girls are presidents.”
My “doorman” …or, “doorwoman.”
I had a bit of consulting to do after that last line. If you either, A) know me personally, or B) have read a bit of this blog, you can likely imagine our conversation in the car on the way home.* All of this has me wondering about the roots of empowerment. Do we really consider how early and deeply ideas become rooted in the brains of our little ones? When is “too early to matter?”
Actually, if you happen to be one of those die hards from the old days on the blog, you might remember a related story here: But Math is Hard. If you have not read it, you now have your assignment. And really, toward the end of the comments on that post, a rather beautiful thing was born. The web of links there will take you to a content area reading/writing strategy that I use to this day every chance I get. Now that I think of it, Miss Neve quite possibly learned that bit of history while observing the purely male string of presidents on Presidents Pro.
*These talks are usually the silver lining in the cloud of a 50 minute commute that is soon to come to an end. Why is this a negative thing? For one, I’ll just plain miss those long car conversations. Well, that and hearing her sing about 90% of the 96.5 The Buzz playlist from memory. (and yes, of course I have to switch to the iPhone playlist at times during The Church of Lazlo, she’s five.
When we look ahead to the sorts of things that could be happening (especially where every learner is saddled with an Internet-capable device) in our classrooms and beyond…
I just caught this image in a Facebook post by Will Richardson and it made me return here to record and share a few thoughts.
I think the infographic above begs this question:
“If this is already happening- if this is a truly a baseline average of what is currently happening online in a rather generic way, how do we harness the power of participatory culture for learning?”
It begs questions relating to relevance. It also begs for discussion about meeting kids where they are. It also makes me reflect on the theme of a rather powerful meeting this morning regarding “culture.” Is the culture we seek to create in school… from scratch and of our own doing? Or are these questions also an element of the debate? How can we also credit the culture being created today, and not only bring students into the fold of our vision, but also join them in new places to co-create a culture of learning for the future?
From where I sit, it is no longer a question of if we should. It hasn’t been. A few are already embracing these channels for good, and have been for some time. In my reality of classrooms soaked in the ubiquity of personal computing, I could easily be misled into thinking this is already the norm in many places. I’ve seen some pretty wise examples of this firsthand with teachers I work with. Yet, the reality is: the sort of smart, purposeful embrace of new media for learning I’m talking about is still existing only in pockets.
And yet, I think that if we aren’t yet at least asking these tough questions, we’re behind. Television captured attention in its day. Digital gaming was perhaps the next cultural crack to vie for the attention of youth. Today it is the web. Each of these entities was potentially more all-consuming than the previous… or potentially liberating. Yes, much of what is in this graphic is still little more than noise. That says little of the potential here. I believe it to be your mindset that largely frames the issue.
Do I think life and learning does or should exist solely in a virtual world? No. Not even close. Trolling back through the hundreds of posts here will show this to be true. I have been a life sciences teacher for 21 years. I have been a parent for the past six. I want all children to learn by touching, smelling and interacting with the real world. I want them to learn deeply and rather slowly at times.
I also want to credit the modern world that currently engulfs us. I want smart teachers leading the way. I want balance in these things. I have long been of the opinion that playing “defense” and plugging away on a path that doesn’t credit modern communication channels is just, well… nearly malpractice. Truly embracing these changes might be down the path for you and your organization, but that doesn’t mean you cannot engage in these tough questions as you strive to build a nimble and complete learning environment for the young people you serve.
Thank you……….. drive through.
*Will Richardson, who has pushed my thinking for well over half a decade.
*Dr. White’s Leadership Team address today that heavily featured the topic of school culture.
*My wife, Erin (pictured above) for being that kind of Mom to our girls.
Much has been said in the past five years or so of the diminished importance of raw memorization. The rise of mobile Internet devices has put “Google” in virtually everyone’s pocket. The practice of having kids slave over the memorization of certain sets of information has long seemed inappropriate to many. A few of our most superfluous classroom tasks from an afternoon Twitter conversation today were: U.S. states matched to their capitals, U.S. presidents in order, a litany of decontextualized historical dates, or the correct spelling of the first 36 elements of the Periodic Table. Do these things matter? Is memorization ever appropriate in a wireless, connected, 24/7 world? And if so, how are you tackling it using modern tools?
Allow me to attempt to do a few things here:
Draw a line in the sand between rote memorization as an end goal and contextualized memorization as a key step in transfer.
Characterize an important element of my Marine Biology course that requires really rigorous memorization.
Demonstrate a novel application of iOS Shared Photo Streams that has amplified our work in a really fun and effective way.
I cannot count the times during my own schooling when I was asked to commit a list of facts to memory. Similarly, it would be impossible to recall every time I was required to log hours and hours of practice reinforcing my ability to complete what seemed like a task or skill that I might never revisit in either higher education, nor in real life. Of course, I now recognize this as decontextualized learning; the focus on an element of content or process that lacks an obvious connection to a larger body of context or importance. Thus, I know today to do everything I can to avoid such disconnections between classroom processes and tasks and the wider body of knowledge, inquiry and purpose my course is designed to address.
Sometimes I think this country has lost its potential for nuance in general. We’re just so divided anymore. We’re divided between “ban guns!” & “guns for all teachers!” We’re divided between “no taxes ever” & “spend until we’re broke.” There is no room for a “purple” state in the current national dialogue. It seems at times we’ve lost our capacity to even register shades of gray at all. Pick a side. Stake your claim. Then be sure to get those earplugs buried in nice and tight. We just can’t imagine a scenario where the other side might be right. We make such poor arguments so full of holes because we cannot even bring ourselves to grasp an opposing viewpoint.
As polarizing as this “memorization” debate has been for much of my career, I found it very encouraging that, after tossing out the following tweet with somewhat-loaded language:
…what followed was a balanced, sensible, and informed back and forth on the role of memorization in the wider scope of learning and schools. If you spend enough time honing your follower list, you can have smart people of all walks on the other end of the line at a moment’s notice. Subtopics touched upon today were: relevance, authenticity, transfer, decontextualized learning, alignment, fact fluency, Understanding by Design, etc. I suppose, rather than a microcosm of reality, my Twitter feed is still skewed toward a set of rather wise and seasoned educators. I try to seek diversity in following, but then again I like the signal to noise ratio to be tolerable as well.
Yes: Still Teaching
My main professional focus today is at the district level of a school system making measured and sensible moves toward 1:1 computing for all children. Some might call our 13+ one-to-one schools a “pilot.” And yet, the reality is that they are only a “pilot” in terms of being smart about strategy and implementation. There are a rapidly decreasing number of citizens left that cannot see the landscape of the classroom changing toward the embrace of modern, relevant tools and access. It is no longer about whether we need the access and connectivity of computers in the hands of the learner, it is about implementation, fidelity, and crafting the best ecosystem for learning that is possible. It is easy to forget that textbooks for all kids was also a transformation of the system at one point in the past.
As the point person of a hardworking team of four, I am in charge of making the big picture vision and mission connect to the ground level in our classrooms. This is implementation, and implementation’s linchpin in professional development. If PD has its own linchpin, it might just be classroom relevance – relevance that comes from tested strategies. I still cling to the one course I teach. I think that matters. With all of my other tasks and responsibilities this presents a significant logistical challenge. However, my Marine Biology class is a Monday night course, and has been since 1999. That simple fact allows me to continue to moonlight as a classroom teacher… a teacher of a class that has by design existed to soften the walls of the traditional classroom. And yes, to answer a friend’s question: I really do have a much broader reach today than I ever did before.
My students are representatives of each of our three district high schools. At 6:30pm on 23 Monday nights throughout the year they roll into class… sometimes with a bag of Subway, sometimes still sweating from an athletic practice. We have followed this same schedule since 1999. This schedule goes a long way toward explaining why we were early to develop social technology strategies that were rooted in curriculum & instruction. We’re digitally connected 24/7/365 until the last week of March… when we’re disconnected from the rest of the world and living without outlets on sailing yachts in the remotest reaches of the Bahamas… snorkeling and exploring the coral reefs.
The “What For”
This course seeks a brain-friendly engagement trifecta of novelty, relevance, and authenticity of purpose. Every element of the program was designed with those goals in mind. An authentic science course seeks not only to learn about science, it seeks to conduct science. A big focus for this class for so many reasons is the characterization of reef fish populations. This requires direct sight identification of coral reef fish species in the field. Since our focus ecosystem for the course is the coral reef, and since we spend a week immersed in the reef, why on Earth wouldn’t we do some real data collection on the reef.
A decade ago, my students would learn to identify a few of the main coral reef species if for no other reason than to have a way to connect to such a foreign ecosystem. Today I require my students to be able to sight-identify approximately 125 species of reef fish before even setting sail. To make this even crazier in some respects, reef fish often look radically different from the juvenile, to the intermediate, and finally the adult phase. That kicks the number of visual patterns needing recognition almost by a factor of three. Why would we do such a thing in a high school science course? Why would I push students this hard at what seems so… “knowledge level?”
The answer is simple: This has never been an ordinary high school course. I have used it as a testbed for what a classroom could be since day one. When the carrots of relevance, authenticity, and fringe exploration are this large, you can ask students do more. When you get beyond the grade -and the entire team realizes that you are working on something bigger than a letter- you aren’t held down by a score. And instead of getting less performance, we get more. These students want to deeply understand what they are experiencing. They must operate at this level, or else the data we submit to REEF.org will be less than accurate and precise. That’s not good science, and all of a sudden, “good science” isn’t something to read about, it is something for all to actively protect.
Don’t get me wrong: identification, classification, and memorization at this level is not an easy task. This is not the 50 U.S. States & Capitals. This is 125+ vibrant, living animals darting in and out of crevices in a living coral reef. This is breathing underwater through a fat straw. This is recording data with pen & pencil while submerged beneath the ocean waves. This is not wanting to send bogus statistics to a national dataset that is worth protecting. This is science, and real science in the field often requires really specific skills. This is not your father’s 9th Grade Biology class.
Enter: Shared Photo Streams
As you can imagine, a classification, identification, and memorization task of this magnitude is not easy. Even with big student buy-in, this is a monster endeavor. Students soon learn the relative ineffectiveness of the hours-long “cramming” sessions they are accustomed to. This is deep knowledge-level learning. This is pattern-recognition in a very chaotic world. This is bacon-wrapped learning at its finest.
We have searched far and wide to find best-practices for a memorization scheme of this magnitude. One thing we learned early on is that no matter what strategy we employed, working often and in small chunks is a key. So, I’ve poked and prodded. I’ve been a nag using all available tools to intervene as a coach throughout the day. We use a shared GroupMe space for communication. I tap on shoulders using this, but still, nothing I tried felt like more than digital nagging. That is, until iOS 6 debuted with Shared Photo Streams.
Now, to be clear, Shared Photo Streams (SPS) were not crafted with such a purpose in mind. The Photostream itself was created as a way to sync photos across iOS & OSX devices. Shared Streams were merely an extension whereby you could instantaneously share a subset of your Photosteam with others. It is a great tool for families, but so is Instagram, right? We started off by kicking the tires on SPS just to see what it could do. Each of my students have a 32GB 3rd Generation iPad. We were quickly taken aback by the speed and elegance of the notification system. As soon as I would add an image to the SPS in class, 20 novel ringtones were set off. This was immediately amusing, and caused everyone to want to add in a comment to that image to set off another 20 ringtones. It was a huge spontaneous revelation for all of us. The immediacy of it all soaked in quickly.
Since that time, I’ve been adding images to the SPS one or a few at a time and managing the feedback for learning along the way. From about 6:30am until bedtime I gently poke and prod the fish ID nerve of my students at random times. We quickly moved to a rule where the first responder with the correct species would earn an “extra point.” Nothing like making a bit of a game out of it to entice the competitive nature in a few of the students. And what’s even better… when you look through the few screenshots posted here, you’ll see that I am able to subtly coach within this setting. You’ll notice a few friendly redirects here and there for all students to see. Can’t do that with flashcards now, can you?
In The End
For me, here’s the all-important metric: authenticity. Memorization of this scale “just because” would be ludicrous. It would amount to “rigor” in all of the worst possible connotations of that word. The fact that this work directly translates to being able to record a species of a reef fish that momentarily pops out of a reef crevice… and slides safely back in… makes it all worth the effort. A statistically significant database of species, and abundance overlaid with geographical data, etc., is the scientific “real deal.” When you promise real experiences, you can ask for real work. Even if that real work includes an almost insane amount of “memorization.” It sure is nice when potential tools emerge that can be repurposed for such needs. This is a fun time to be in the business of education. Check out the time & date stamps on the responses here.
No, your students might no longer respond to “homework” outside of class if it smells anything like a worksheet. Stop doing that. You’re kidding yourself. The one real consequence of having “Google in our pockets” might just be that anything lacking relevance & authenticity is a tougher sell today.
1) You don’t have to be a biology teacher to take advantage of the affordances of this tool. True, you need all to have access to an iOS device outside of school… but a large and growing number of students and schools are there. How might you use iOS Shared Photo Streams to support a frequent and informal discussion around the content of your course? If you don’t have this system, are you doing something similar? Compare and contrast that with what you see here. Let’s talk…
2) If you’d like to follow along with this Photostream, send me a private email with your Apple ID and I’ll certainly add you in. I do believe it helps to experience these things from the ground level. (My email is on the “About” page.)
This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve pointed toward Michael Doyle’s blog. But if you’re a new reader, and you have yet to visit his place, you can at least thank me for that much today. In reality, the rest of this post is essentially a response to Doyle’s post, “Just because…” from this morning. There, go read it. Go read it and come right back please. Save his site and spend those three hours trolling through all of the goodness he has there for later. Doing so right now will almost certainly throw you off task. What are you waiting for? GO.
Remember, this train of thought response to Doyle’s post won’t likely make a great deal of sense on its own. You are hereby warned:
“I really like how Gary Stager refers to the way science is often taught as being more or less… Science Appreciation. He’s right.
I’d say much of my “teasing out the nature of science” occurred during the six years I was crawling around knee deep in the hanging prairies of the Loess Hills landform in NW Missouri and SW Iowa. There is something very crucial to being able to “get inside” a scientific endeavor, and really bruise your knuckles on the nuts and bolts of it. It is perhaps the only way to learn the layers of complexity in this way of “knowing” the world.
A look across a Loess Hills ridge in the extreme southern part of the range in Missouri. These hills become less forested as you move north into Iowa.
When I needed to classify and assign a latin name to everything green on a mid-grass prairie undergoing secondary succession, when I had to come to terms with the subtle mathematical ways of describing how the distribution of each species relates to the total ecosystem, when I had to figure out how I was going to then convert all of this data to warm, acceptable, humanspeak, when that humanspeak was going to happen in public and be picked apart by far wiser and more experienced peers, then… I suppose I had to come to some sort of soaked-into-the-cells understanding of the affordances and limitations of science in being able to describe what was happening on my prairie.
This takes gobs of time, and there is most certainly no appfor that. As science teachers, even the best among us attempt to package up little experiences that allow for every element of the above. But there’s just something about time in this case. Perhaps it’s the weeks of thinking and reflection in between any of the “doing” that makes it a deeper experience.
I can realistically tell you this, the only students who have left me with a deep understanding of science, were students in a course we called Science Investigations. This course was from one to three years in duration and really sought to bring a true authenticity to the student experience. From the development of an authentic, self-designed (with coaching, of course) study, to the defense of said study to university professors… these kids did it all. I only had 10 to 18 students any given year, and there is truly no way I could have coached any more than that at any given time. My recollection of those days are memories of some of the best work I’ve ever done.
I say all of that because each year I also had another hundred or so students in Zoology, Botany, Ecology, Dual-Credit Biology, etc., who ultimately left us knowing quite a lot about the natural world. That might sound really great to the uninitiated, but I’m certain you see the distinction. Sure, many of those students were inspired enough to go off and become far more accomplished scientists than I ever was. But they didn’t really learn to be scientists from me. Perhaps they were ripe for this sort of learning when they arrived at the clock tower, but it was there they actually put the pieces together.
I don’t know… we require students to work deeply through the writing process from beginning to end don’t we? Don’t we expect them to be able to write independently and effectively when they leave us? (don’t get me wrong, I’m a writing-across-the-curriculum guy) But show me where we expect a similar efficacy in the processes and performance of science. We don’t. We just expect them to “*know a bunch of stuff.” Sure, we examine elements of the process, but only in chunks. Learning to write only in chunks leaves you quite short of that as well. In my opinion, it is worth getting upset about because changing this systemwide approach really wouldn’t require magic. It would just require a rearrangement of national and state priorities. Good luck, eh?
My classroom on the first night of class, August of 2003. Notice the sign in the upper-right. I might reconsider if I could go back now.
Back to the “sign wars” in your department… and your giant “WHY?” sign in the classroom. This might be one of those great minds think alike moments. Maybe curious minds is a better word. I had those four poster-board-sized characters on my wall from about 1993, on. Although, you’ll see that I, instead, used an overhead projector. Hey, I’m a font nerd. In practice, I tended to point in that direction as a “why do you say that?” in order to encourage students to provide reasoning for their claims. It was also a huge nod to the realm of wonder.
If I still had that classroom, I really think I might go in this weekend to change it from WHY? to HOW? I think your colleague is right on that one. How likely is the better word here. Although, there is also beauty in tapping into the why at the edges of what we study… even in biology class. You don’t have to be a card-carrying reverend, or the like, to at least point in another direction.
Sure, science is known by many for a set of processes it often includes. And yet, it is also truly a way of knowing. It certainly has limitations as that, but hey, so does religion, etc. Knowing a little about those limitations, and perhaps even hammering out a SCIENCE/SPIRITUALITY venn diagram on week one of class might be good.
You’re making me think too much (or at least report on such thinking) for a Saturday morning. Way to go.”
How do you tell the difference between commenting on someone’s blog and actually attempting to hijack it? I’m not completely sure, but I bet it looks something like this:
I blogged here pretty regularly in ’08 and ’09 when I was in the classroom more. As my role has changed over the past few years, somehow that frequency died back a bit. I suppose it is easier to comment elsewhere than attempt to relocate your own “voice.” The above screen capture was the result of trying to respond to Doyle’s blog with about 2X the character count of his original post. I’m glad I was checked on this one. Sheeesh. What a blog hog.
In the end, this little reflection took me back to the roots of how I learned to be a biologist… why perhaps I was able to foster the same in a percentage of students each year… and why curriculum and philosophy matters so much when trying to help students develop a true understanding of the world in which they live.
We’re off once again. Trying to contact me, or one of my little band of students, in the coming week will be next to impossible. We’ll be completely off the grid. We’ll be far from the pace that guides us in this country today. We’ll be far from conducting “school” in any traditional fashion. And we’ll be completely immersed. Completely immersed in the sea. Completely immersed in one of the most delicate ecosystems left on the planet. Completely immersed in learning.
You cannot know a coral reef from the dusty pages of a book. You cannot know a reef from a sleek and shiny laptop. To know the reef, you must enter the reef. And that is exactly what we’ll be doing until we return a week from now. Wish us safety and luck. Wish us blue skies. Wish the wind to gently nudge our sailboats to the next patch of coral. Wish my students the experience of their young lives.
Since I began writing this blog in 2008, the time between adventures with my Marine Biology students seems… compressed. It seems like we just returned from one of our Bahamian field studies. I’m pretty sure that’s a sign that I’m not getting any younger. Nor are my nerves any less frayed. I now spend a massive chunk of my days behind the screen of a computer, and that wears on you a bit at some level.
I need this week like my students need this week. Right now, I need to be off the grid. I need to step away from bits and bytes. I need to, wait… swim… away from the grind of rapidly moving an entire district into a 1-to-1 learning ecosystem. I need to swim to a place where I can think. I need to find renewed perspective. I’m betting I can do just that on a coral reef. I’ve done it before. In 1998 a similar experience helped me to understand not only the planet, but myself a little better. Here’s hoping the coming week does the same for a new crop of eager students…