Prior Knowledge and The Flow of Learning


A friend gives you free tickets to an upcoming concert.  Although the group is fairly popular, you are not familiar with the artist’s body of work.  Assuming you elect to go, what do you do next?

Between now and the day of the concert, here’s betting that your old pal Google comes into play at some point.

What is the artist’s body of work?  For me, iTunes previews would quickly come into the picture.  I might even scan the reviews.  Then perhaps a dive into YouTube in a quest to actually see the band in action.  Maybe even an interview with the lead singer?  Does the band have a website?  What else have they done?  What does the bio tell me about where they are from and perhaps why they do what they do?

This approach works.  We know it does.  We’ve done it ourselves a thousand times before in similar situations.


Building schema

Here-  you are building schema.  It is what you do.  In this particular scenario…  it is what our students do as well.  Schema.  In terms of learning theory, the word was first used by Piaget as early as 1926.  Apparently, R.C. Anderson, a respected educational psychologist, expanded these notions into a more solid theory.

My wife and I just recently scored tickets to see Mason Jennings at a small club in Lawrence, Kansas.  I have listened to his music for years.  Erin however, has only known him from his appearance in the many playlists and mixes heard in the car and throughout the house.  His latest release wholeheartedly scored a new fan in my wife.  She had heard my favorite tracks many times over, but she wasn’t really privy to his larger body of work.

So what did she do?  Much as you might expect, she trolled the web finding as much as she could.  Given such a rich opportunity to experience an artist doing what they do best… live and in person…  she was going to make the most of it.  It was while watching these actions unfold that it hit me how similar this very behavior is to one I strive to honor as a classroom teacher.

Mason Jennings

We’re more attuned to a musical performance when we can identify with the art as it is unfolding.  This is not “rocket science,” folks.  I doubt anyone reading this far believes so.  Therefore, a quick transfer into the classroom should be a fairly easy proposition, right?

So what is it then that prevents us from a similar approach to concepts within our core content areas?  Why would we not make an attempt to harness this simple passion for constructing knowledge in other areas?  What do we know about the flow of learning?

Learner-based learning

“But I don’t get to take my kids to something as cool as a concert.”  I get it.  I understand that external holdup.  However, aren’t we the content experts our community pays to deliver lifelong learning for our children?  Can we not impart at least a sense of excitement about some future learning goal in order to generate student engagement toward that end?  Here’s me thinking that if we are to swallow the goals of problem (or better “challenge-based”) learning as our instructional model… we had first better devour the concept of establishing an environment that honors the learner first and foremost.

A purely constructivist learning environment is one that we are not remotely able to deliver given the rigid accountability brought on by NCLB in the last ten years.  Design, yes…  deliver, no.  And yet, that does not in any way stop us from building in the essential constructs of student-centered pedagogy.  We simply have to set students up to win when it comes to grasping the core concepts of our curriculum.

pond vegetation

Aquatic example

A few weeks ago, I knew that I would be taking my Dual-Credit Biology students to the MWSU campus to conduct a couple of field studies concerning species diversity.  One of these prescribed lab events required that students sample organism populations within a gorgeous little freshwater pond found on site.

If I hadn’t started with what students know…  their current schema…  I would have driven them down a path that many were quite unfamiliar with.  Who would guess that Midwestern students weren’t intimately acquainted with the life found in a freshwater pond?  I wouldn’t exactly call my school an “urban” school.  And yet, three or four out of our group had almost zero familiarity with pond life at all.  Yes, these students had never been to a pond.  Sure, I could have asked a question to elicit this data.  However, this realization would do little good toward building student knowledge for each of my twenty students individually.  Diversity, schmercity.  That knowledge would help me, not we.

One of the main uses of our online network is rich reflection.  This reflection is found throughout all phases of learning from engagement to evaluation.  In this case, we did what we normally do.  Prior to embarking on a well-worn lab design…  we explored what we already knew about ponds.  This was done first on real tables with real chart paper, real markers, and real student conversation.  Our work then proceeded to the digital realm to find anything and everything we could about the inhabitants and structures of freshwater pond ecosystems.  Our biology textbook can only deliver generalities.  Students gathered this information and presented it to one another and the world on a forum thread at Principles of Biology.

Students with a rich schema in this area were allowed to demonstrate that reality as well as search for more in-depth knowledge.  Students for whom the pond was a mystery…  and likely wrapped in misconception…  were also allowed to explore and share.  The difference is found within the reflections posted at the site.  In this arena, at this point, student knowledge isn’t judged for its breadth and depth.  Instead, it is valued for its inherent honesty and the deep reflections that follow.

a co-examination

After the hands-on field study at the pond, students were invited to return to the site and post direct replies to their previous posts…  highlighting the learning that took place and the knowledge they had constructed throughout the process.  What we end up with is a digital record of these experiences unfolded transparently in digital space for all to see.  And they do see.  Our site analytics show a flurry of activity surrounding this post as well as others.  Principles of Biology is full of similar cycles surrounding many topics embedded within our curriculum.

As students and teacher, we know we enter any given concept at different places.  We also know that through loosely-structured (but structured nonetheless) classroom experiences we will all push our knowledge far beyond what it was prior to engaging in the topic.  We also know that this will be done not only for ourselves, but for those who live vicariously through us via the web.

Or, I could line up the curriculum goals and objectives and march forward to hit each one in step whether or not the students “get there” with the rest of us or not.  They should have studied harder.  They should have paid attention as these ideas were skillfully presented in turn…  right?

So really…  when we wonder why the next course-level expectation or state-level curriculum objective doesn’t immediately resonate with glee…  take a step back.  Marching forward down the lineup of objectives does little for deep student learning if we are the ones doing the driving.  Instead, let your students take the wheel.  Step aside.  Plug in enough structure to encourage constructive discourse and let students learn.  Learn with them.  Seriously.  You already know it all?  Don’t assume anything.  Dive in yourself.  Learn with them.  Assess your learning every step of the way.  Ask questions.  Push students to ask even more.  Build schema to the point that you can all communicate as you move forward as learners.


*schema by jeloid (away) on Flickr
*Mason Jennings by whereisyourmind on Flickr
*pond shots…  me.

From Day One: Information Literacy In Core Content

Establishing tone

I believe information literacy is the responsibility of all content teachers.  The following piece is a bit about how I tend to kick off a new year, and how to easily aim at info literacy from very early on.  As I have said here before, I do not like to go shy into the new school year.  Our students are learning from us every second of every day.  The real question then is what are they learning.  As the lead learners in the classroom, this is under our control.


With this in mind, it is my goal to have my students leave the room on that first day with a few things spinning around in their heads like…

1.  “Wow. This class is active.  I was working with ideas and classmates the entire period.”

2.  “This guy means business.  He is infectiously passionate and serious about this class, and yet has room for humor within all of the intensity.”

3.  “He seems to have a longview for us in the class.  I can tell he has plans for us and cares that we are “in” as much as he is.”

4.  “I might be headed for a music major in college next year, and this will likely be my last formal science course, but I am actually thinking this class might be built with people like me (as well as the biology geeks) in mind.”

5.  “I had better get used to sharing my learning.  This class is open.  I will certainly have to step out of my comfort zone a little on this one.”

6.  “Not sure how I feel about construc…. whatever he called it…  but if it means I won’t have to sit while he talks all period, then I’m for it.”

I obviously believe in creating the ultimate mental model, and then working from there with my planning framed by those ideals.  This year we started the school year with built-in early release days and short periods.  Last Wednesday was our first full period of instruction.  I just don’t believe that on that first day you can just go gently into your course.  It is my philosophy to swing hard from day one.

So how can you teach your students who you are, what to expect, what you stand for, what and how they’ll be learning during the year…  all in one day?  As usual, I’m still debriefing the success of this one lesson, but I do believe that all of this is possible.  Stick with me on this one.  Here in a bit, I’ll ask you to help me assess some of this by scanning through the pages of online student writing about this lesson.  Here’s a small sample as a preview:

I believe this type of learning is important… the activity split up our class in two sections making each side work together in a very short amount of time. This helps build chemistry between everyone in our class which I believe is very important since we’ll be around each other for a whole year. It was also important, because it made all of us think and learn about a topic we most likely hadn’t heard anything about. Science has a lot to do with the unknown and I believe this issue on shark cartilage really challenged us on something we had no clue about. We had to work to decide whether or not the shark cartilage was effective and for that matter whether or not the information we were given was reliable.” ~Kerstyn Bolton

Day one

I don’t do stand-alone “ice breakers” any longer.  That’s not a criticism of those who do, but in my thinking that says to the students:  “we had to construct a special event outside of our normal work in this class in order to talk to and learn about one another.”  I design my first day to be authentic collaboration and sharing among students where classmates must rely on one another to complete a content-related task, or solve a content-related problem.

My learning goals for the day were rather broad.  It was day one.  They were as follows:   1. Setting classroom tone.  2. Building the foundation of a learning environment.  3. Proving the concrete, daily value of science.  4. Team-building.  5.  Evaluating and debating a scientific assertion in the field of medicine.  6.  Establishing an academic spirit for our first online work at Principles of Biology.

Principles of Biology

Shark cartilage?

So, to trim down a rather complex story…  We divided into two large groups (10 students each side) to examine the idea that shark cartilage supplements can be used as a safe and effective treatment for some types of cancer.  This is fringe alternative-medicine stuff.  There is a ton of web chatter on both sides of this issue.  Though the medical community is rather aligned on this issue, as with any “natural” treatment, there are many proponents on the fringes.  The data found on the web is, in short, a big area of gray to most people.

The information on this issue is all over the board.  There are a few freely accessible journal articles on the web, there are terribly crackpot e-commerce sites, and there are hundreds of examples in the gray area between the two.  Because I had to have a brisk pace to finish in one period, I constructed two packets… one for each group.  One group of ten got a packet full of public websites representing the “for” side of using shark cartilage supplements as a treatment for cancer.  The other group of ten were given a packet representing sites that represented the “against” side of the issue.

shark cartilage

With no formal instruction on argument nor debate, the students were led through a protocol to digest the content of the packet in short order and prepare a speedy argument aligned with their given viewpoint.  I led them through a series of skimming, compiling, active reading, and sharing tasks to help them build structure for an argument in about 20 minutes.  Considering this was a group of ten working with a subject they knew nothing about, that is saying something.  The action was fast and furious.  Frankly, they ended up engaging in a better debate than I had even anticipated.  Battles over sources cited and inherent biases came out without being prompted.

“I LOVED learning like this because I think it gave everyone a chance to teach everyone else.” ~Hannah Rush

Ultimately, they were to take their thoughts from the day and reflect on both the content learning as well as the process of the day’s learning events.  To me, I never go a day without sharing the strategic purpose for that particular event.  If I don’t have a best-practice reason for doing what I’m doing the way I’m doing it…   then I (and they by default) would quite possibly be wasting time.  This keeps us all on our toes and makes the “game of school” completely transparent within my class.

So let’s see where the rubber meets to road on this one.  If you haven’t been tempted to click through to the discussion thread on this already, please do so now.  I think you’ll be pleasantly impressed by the willingness to dive head first into this one and really discuss the issues.  As of this morning, there are seven pages of student discourse.  I think you’ll appreciate this look into how students approach the task of reflecting deeply over their learning in this class.

“I really thought what you said about “You learn only 10% of what you read, but you learn 95% of what you teach” was very interesting…  …This makes our activity in class so much more exciting to me! I remember a lot of what my section said about shark cartilage and that’s because I had to, because my team needed me…” ~Kerstyn Bolton

My LMS can beat up your LMS

Not only should information literacy not be an add-on, nor should your Library Media Specialist.  At Benton, we are undergoing a true paradigm shift in library media services.  By hiring Melissa Corey, we have in the span of a summer updated our services to bring the library’s digital tendrils into every classroom in our building.  Last year, the physical space of our library was scrapped for a full redo to bring it up to date as a learning space for 2010.  This year, we have the personnel to put the plan into action.

As this lesson was unfolding, I realized that I was setting up our new Library Media Specialist to fly in the next period, cape and all, to deliver the way to a more rigorous online research process.  What I didn’t know is how personalized this service would be.  Boy-  were we in for a surprise.  For starters, here is the slide show she used to help deliver our learning for the day:

What is amazing about this interaction was not the beautiful and informative slide set, nor her thoughtful and pleasant presentation.  What was inspiring is the fact that she stayed up the night before to craft an absolutely perfect example of “just in time learning” for my students.  Slides 4 through 7 show screenshot examples of the actual resources the students had used in this exercise on page after page of our discussion thread.  These resources are marked up and annotated with questions aimed at the authority, accuracy, currency and content of the piece.

The students were then led through a lesson on the peer review process as well as online database searches through peer reviewed material.  They were then to go back to the same thread and post some follow-up commentary after this latest search experience.

Extensions and infiltrations

As if polishing our lesson to a fine shine were not enough, Mrs. Corey (who as “BHS LMC” is a direct member of our classroom network) also took the time to post follow up connections and extensions to the lesson in the form of a blog post.  She also took a spontaneous conversation from our day…  discussion about a group of crows that were supposedly using cars to crack nuts… and created a completely separate extension in the form of a media-rich blog post (along the lines of info literacy in science) for our network.

screenshot from biology network

I cannot tell you how exciting it is to have such a partner in crime in my own building.  Forget the archetypal image of a librarian still etched into your brain.  Rather than archiving books and telling students to “shuuush,” my LMS is deeply passionate about pushing out into classrooms to help our students find, evaluate, and manage information in all subject areas.  My students now not only feel like they can walk to the library to visit our new librarian for help…  they know that within a single click on our classroom network, they can tap our building’s very own information specialist.  Did I mention the fact that she’s been working with students and staff here not for just two weeks?

Our “library” was until very recently defined as a “remodeled room in the annex… with books.”  The following image now better represents the effective size of our LMC:

Benton High School  --  CLOSE

Pretty stately-looking library for a public school, eh?  In reality though, like anything really useful…  it is becoming invisible.  Our media center and staff are now as ubiquitous as our student laptops.  Once they begin to follow our students home, we will extend the reach of our learning environment even further…


*Lattice by Todd Huffman on Flickr.
*Shark cartilage image courtesy of The Vet Shed.  Apparently, dogs eat this stuff.
*Image of Benton High School:  me.
*Student comments (featuring Kerstyn & Hannah) courtesy of our class network.
*The collaboration of Melissa Corey, LMS at Benton High School, in Saint Joseph Missouri.

On Sandboxes and Classrooms

Backyard classroom

Have you ever wondered why we build sandboxes for children?  That’s exactly what I did today.  Today I wondered while wandering about the yard, putting the finishing touches on a landscape and backyard garden update.  I wondered long and hard about the role of play in learning new things.  In between digging holes, sinking plants, and spreading mulch…  I took short breaks to watch my two year old daughter play with sand.  This backyard classroom is every bit as much mine as it is hers.

I watched her take that first chartreuse-shovel scoop into a fresh sandbox today.  I sat beside her as she pirated empty plant pots and filled them scoop by scoop with moist sand fresh from the bag.  I saw her level off the orange pots and pour one into the other, and the other into another.  Aside from the obvious tactile pleasures like digging naked toes into cool wet sand, there just seems to be so much going on with sandbox play.

A quick look at the packaging on the toy set which includes buckets, scoops, shovels, etc., reveals three things that are supposedly developed with these toys.  The three listed are:  fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and cause and effect.

Future Engineer

And more?

I think those three skills/concepts are easily seen in this type of play.  You could argue that the majority of toddler toys target those very things.  However, I just really feel like there is something more going on here- something far more sophisticated.  What did I see today?  I saw what seemed to be a child unknowingly acquiring the roots of understanding two critical concepts:  volume and mass.  Can she define either?  No.  Can she really even talk about it much?  Not really.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

The brain of a human child is an unparalleled learning machine.  Beyond grasping for nipples and blinking at bright lights, the first thing it does beyond survival is play.  I would argue that this play is not merely pastime.  I would contend that it is far more than fun.  I would suggest that it is fun for a toddler because that is what is needed to feed the brain at that developmental stage.  All a child needs at this point is the opportunity.

Though a child’s mind cannot comprehend an abstract concept like volume, the roots are taking hold in those moments.  Filling buckets… emptying a small one into a larger one several times, and on and on.  Today I wondered about whether we realize why we build sandboxes.  I bet the average parent doesn’t think about the why any more than the two year old does playing.  Not consciously thinking about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Fast-forward to the end of formal public schooling.  The brain inside the skull of your local quarterback cranked through calculus and physics last Friday night in an attempt to connect time and time again with his pass-catching receivers.  He managed perhaps hundreds of variables without flinching in order to control the trajectory of a very odd-shaped object.  He may or may not graduate having sat in a chair during a formal session of calculus or physics, but he’s doing it every day.  Even if nothing more than a calculation machine, the human brain is an amazing thing.  I am awed by its power on a daily basis.

High School Football

Think about a student’s ability (or willingness) to grasp those first formal attempts at abstracts such as volume or mass in a school setting.  What if those attempts hinge to a certain degree upon backyard experiences from age two or so?  Thoughts like that poke at my gray matter.  We almost universally agree about the power of diverse background knowledge as it relates to success in school.  Hearing complex conversation in your home.  Growing up surrounded by books.  Museum visits for “fun.”  Travel.  Experiences.  These are not things that happen in a typical high school setting (this is why you might want to continue reading past the first section of the aforementioned book),  and yet all is not necessarily lost.

So what?

So where is the “sandbox” in your classroom?  Does it even exist, and if so, is it really a place?  Perhaps it is a time?  Or is it rather interwoven throughout the environment you build for children?  Do you purposefully employ “play” in your classroom?  How similar is this “play” to the “explore” phase of the learning cycle model?  Do current practices in your school allow for purposeful play, or has it been politically pushed out of the classroom?


*Future Engineer by katherine lynn on Flickr
*High School Football by JamieL.WilliamsPhotography on Flickr

Facilitating A Squirrelly Strategy


The following video was recently posted by a colleague on a nascent district network that will go “public” in a few short weeks.  In what I see as an emerging “best practice” in setting up and facilitating online networks, we are busy adding rich instructional content prior to inviting members.   In other words, making it look -even upon first glance- as if “someone is home.”  Far too many folks try to set up a network on the Ning platform only to have it flail about in cyberspace because it doesn’t immediately grab people as a place where they can imagine investing a little of their time.  Take five minutes to watch the video before reading further…

How great is that?  In Angie’s (a fellow instructional coach) description immediately below the video, she said: “A great video with amazingly appropriate music to show goal setting and teamwork to achieve a goal.” I certainly do see those ideas reflected within the video.  However, I clicked to view the video full screen before reading, and my personal reaction was somewhat different.


To me, even more than goal setting and teamwork… this video speaks to the idea of honoring a constructivist approach to learning… and the gentle scaffolding required to get students to the ultimate goal within such a framework.

It seems that I chose to see the video not through the interactions with “momma squirrel” but instead through those that happened between the baby squirrel and the human observer. To me, the human (with the bigfat human brain) was the person in that situation who clearly knew how to achieve the objective.  You could easily argue that the momma squirrel didn’t get it.  Although, we truly have no idea what the ultimate goal was.  Perhaps going a different route, one that avoided the wall altogether, was not an option.  Though perhaps it was.  This we’ll never know.

Like a teacher honoring the fact that all true learning takes place within the brain of the learner… the observer(s) didn’t intervene at first.  They allowed the most powerful personal learning (in the brain of the baby squirrel) to take place first. They gave credit to the struggle that is inherent in accomplishing anything of real and lasting worth. They allowed small failures themselves to “teach.”

However, they ultimately they chose a strategy in which to intervene in a “least invasive” way… and then carried it out.  This initial strategy did not prove immediately successful for the learner.  The baby squirrel simply didn’t succeed after the “help” was applied.  The observers then took a step back, rethought the situation, likely looked around for other pertinent resources, and then applied another strategy to facilitate the baby squirrel’s accomplishment.

Pink Pearl

This series of calculated interventions is a good metaphor for what I see as one best case scenario for teaching and learning. Of course with today’s tricky world, and the complex sphere of standardized assessment we live within… allowing this full continuum of experience to play out with every learning objective is just not feasible. Yet, if we are truly focused on constructivism as a “best case scenario” for learning, then we will all make room for that very thing within our classrooms.  We can’t exist in a purely constructivist world today.  However, this is not an “out” for studying and practicing this approach to learning.  It is merely something to consider as you map out the classroom environment for you and your students as learners.

Once a teacher gives credit to the power of this approach to learning… they then begin to see its potential in more and more places. I think this is the point where we become sharp about when to allow this type of learning to run its course and when we have to “cut and run” to nail down the less “essential” objectives in order to allow the time for everything we want (and are responsible to) for our children.


So yeah, in short… I love the video as a reflection and teaching tool. In fact, I wrote 75% of this blog post in the comments section of that particular video on our network.  I could link to my comment there, but then I’d have to break my rule of going public with a network before it is already a microcosm of what I want it to eventually become.  You wouldn’t want me to hedge on my own philosophy for this would you?


So what do you think?  Did you see something different?  What metaphors did you see in the video?  How might you use this little clip as a teaching tool?


Pink Pearl by Heather Beltz Ingram on Flickr

“It’s Not About The Technology”


I’m certainly not the first person to utter that sentence in reference to the integration of modern technology into the world of education.  This was originally posted to our school’s professional learning network, Virtual Southside, here.

*Full size image linked in citation below.

Then what is it about?

Folks… our mission really isn’t about the “technology.” I think most of us are starting to come to that realization. I would love for you to weigh in on this assertion. I am becoming less and less fond of the “…if we’re gonna be the ‘technology school’…….” phrase. Are you?

To be honest, I never did want that. The reason we used the “technology” moniker is that: 1) it was largely “given” to us, and 2) it is familiar to all who hear it. As you know, familiarity can distort meaning. What we believe in is a move toward a student-centered, constructivist learning environment. The fact that we believe the best way to achieve this goal is through the integrated use of emerging 21st Century technologies… does not make us a “technology school.” A technology school is a school that is centered upon gadgets and tools. Some would say this is all “semantics.” I couldn’t disagree more vigorously.

Our goal as high school teachers is to deliver a relevant and rigorous curriculum laden with the concepts and facts of many different schools of knowledge… as well as (and perhaps most importantly) the processes of learning. “Technology” is not our curriculum. Nobody writes “use chalk here” in a curriculum guide, and mentioning any other technology will only date your work in about two years.  Technological tools are way to interact with said content and process… but they are only the curriculum itself in a scant few of our courses.

Honoring PD in this area for once

I never wanted us to “teach technology.” I have always wanted us to use modern and emerging technologies to access and extend our current curriculum. Are there times we need to directly teach the best uses of a tool? Yes, of course… but this is just the first tiny step.  The first waypoint in this mission is to ensure that we are collectively savvy as a faculty first.  Continuing to put laptops in the hands of kids, all the while skipping directly over the lead learners in the room is just…  wrong.  It is ineffective, irresponsible and wrong.  I’m so glad that we have a staff who believes in this important part of our mission.

Therefore, I would like to propose a new set of language about what we are doing as we move forth into year two of our initiative:

Benton High 21st Century Learning Initiative

Really think about what this title says.

Finding our own way

I think the kids who have had the opportunity to interact with our cohort teachers this year are far more adept at accessing information and in finding creative new ways of demonstrating their learning than ever before. We have all absorbed that which we found most valuable throughout this first year. Our development should be allowed to be as close to the constructivist ideal we seek for the classroom.  Why wouldn’t we?  Some of us have even carried the torch directly into our classrooms at a very high level already. I have seen it with my own two eyes. The district “tech study committee” saw this as well in our classrooms in a recent walkthrough of our building.

With the coming summer of reflection and relaxed study, we will surely begin our second year far more prepared to bring this learning to our students in the classroom in a very regular and integrated way. What do you think?

*Artwork: “move technology to invisibility” courtesy Will Lion on Flickr