I apologize outright if you are from a drought-striken region desperately searching the electronic ether for a glimmer of hope, only to have arrived at this post courtesy of the title. There are no deluge-inducing instructions here. No chants. Barely a plea. But questions? Yes. This post is about questions.
While sitting on the deck taking in a beautiful early evening outside, I began my traverse of the daylight/dusk/night barrier when my five year old daughter approached me at the table on the deck, and asked to climb into my lap. While shimmying in for kitten-like comfort, she kicked up a seemingly simple conversation…
Neve: “What are you reading?”
Me: “Oh… just about about ways of thinking. Just something to help me be smart about the work I do.”
Neve: “So, can you read a book to get smarter about anything?”
Me: “Almost. Yep… If you think about something you want to learn about, or know how to do… you can probably find a book to help you. You can pretty much learn about anything you want to today.
So, yeah… if you want to learn something, we’ll find books and things to help you.”
Neve: “Can you get a book if you want to learn how to make it rain?
Me: “(pause) Well… actually yes. Probably. There are people who have been trying to make it rain for a very long time. And sometimes they’re getting pretty OK at it in small spaces. Sort of.”
The conversation from there got a little too lengthy and geeky to relay here, but you get the idea. Learning at age five has so…… so much potential. Infinite, really.
I’m really not entirely certain what the segue might have been between these two events, but, fast-forward twenty minutes to when I posted this*:
“Holy cow…… the girls asked what a cardinal sounds like. I pulled up a video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab on my iPhone, and seriously, our backyard is now a cacophony of cardinal music.
Why have I not done this until now?”
The comment stream below the post was rich as well, with several connections from those who had done similar things, as well as some fantastic suggestions for taking this to the next level. I get smarter, kids get smarter, rinse, repeat.
Once the girls heard the cardinals come to life around us, once they saw two land on the fence directly in front of us, they were in. “What does a goldfinch sound like?” “What about an oriole?” “Does a hummingbird make a sound?” While we Googled every last question in the fading light, I tried to interject a thing of two about the limits of their quick little tests. “Maybe those other species weren’t close by.” “Perhaps this was the wrong time of day for them to respond in that way.” Maybe this, perhaps that… but at this point they had already crossed over into trying to mimic backyard birdsongs themselves to even hear my prompts. At this point, science was bridging a wee bit into art and I knew this wouldn’t be the last time we attempt such an exploration.
Here is my question for you: do you realize how close real, honest-to-goodness, publishable scientific inquiry is from this very point? Once you’ve asked a fascinating question (often by accident) and taken the time to muck about and explore the elements of the investigation, you are so close to real sophistication. The sophistication of the process. It is at this point you begin to take those “what ifs” and figure out the scope of what you might be able to find out next. You’re digging into what others have already discovered. You are figuring out feasibility. You are formalizing. Little kids don’t need names for these things to inquire, they just need a guide. A guide who will stay out of the way. A guide willing to intervene minimally and only when needed, but a guide that is curious and kind enough to keep pushing. Gently pushing. Ask questions to get questions. Fewer answers. More possibilities.
Science education begins quite young if you let it. Ask the questions. Keep asking them. Once you get more in return than you give… you’re winning. Go ahead, make it rain.
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.
After stumbling upon the article, “Switch to e-books was ‘an unmitigated disaster,’ says school principal,” in my feed this past week, it occurred to me that there are increasingly predictable patterns surrounding stories of failed “innovation” in digital learning initiatives. Schools have been assigning computers to each child for some time now. And still, we continue to see stories like this in the media.
In short: we can do better.
The real target
But how? Unfortunately, none of these stories are terribly surprising. Many who read this article will likely slide straight into: “The HP Elite Pad? No wonder this was a disaster. That’s clearly the wrong device.” Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t recommend such a purchase for most classroom situations. My preferences over the past five years can likely be mined from the pages of this blog. But keep in mind: most outright failures of a digital learning initiative aren’t about the laptop/tablet you choose. I’ve noticed that time after time, most of these stories of failure in the media seem to arise from schools that set their sights upon a “digital conversion.” To me, this usually indicates a black hole of vision within the system. Making a massive systemwide purchase all in the name of trading out paper textbooks for digital textbooks is drawing your aim at the wrong target. Carefully consider this point: adopting computing devices as front-line learning tools is not the end game, it is one strategy in building a modern and responsive educational ecosystem.
It is true that a move from a dearth of access to one where every student is saddled with a laptop/iPad/Chromebook/etc. is a significant one. Because of this, it is easy to sit back and bask in the satisfaction of tackling the access issue. It is certainly a celebration worth having. Computers are everywhere on day one of a 1:1 rollout. Access is the easiest box in the plan to check off. It is true that getting to this level of access requires significant logistical, financial, and political struggles. The real festivities should happen when, and not before, the entire learning environment has changed for the better. The issue at the heart of all this is where you want to be when all of these hurdles are cleared. If you cannot envision the details of the learning ecosystem you are seeking, go back and dig into what this means for a learning institution. The last thing you want to do is try to figure this out after every child and teacher possesses a digital device in support of yesterday’s educational ecosystem. Start at the top.
Get out the telescope
Ask yourself what it is you really want for the children in your charge. Are you still comfortable with the following?
Textbooks being the central resource for course content
Student tasks submitted for an audience of one: the teacher
Every child learning the same thing in time with every other child
“Creative” experiences consisting entirely of document creation
Online learning that consists of a checklist of independent tasks
School as defined by what is taught as opposed to what is learned
Measuring seat time and percentage grades as indicators of academic success
If you can say “yes” for many of the above, you might not find the logistical, financial, and political friction required by a move to 1:1 worth the trouble. If you’re still comfortable with many of these elements, you are still content with school as it has been for decades, and so often continues to be. Changing any of these characteristics takes more than a pocketbook and a five-step rollout plan. Developing educators as leaders on top of a shifting paradigm of what learning can be today is a far different task. This requires a plan with a robust framework for professional development and a built-in ability to be responsive to the needs of educators at each stage of the process.
We already know this to be true. Outstanding teachers effectively plan on two levels: 1) designing a long-term framework for learning built directly upon standards, that 2) includes a system of short-term responses to react to individual student needs based upon authentic formative assessment of learning. You read it right, a two-tiered plan involving both proaction and reaction. The best planning at any level involves a complex interplay between the two. The long-range and the short-term. The big picture as well as the detail. Education is serious business, huh?
Plug in the microscope
The same attention to proaction and reaction applies to the planning needed to move any learning organization into new territory. If you are truly no longer comfortable with the seven elements listed above, the next step is to dig into the details of your vision. Ask yourself and your team the following questions:
What resources for learning are available today? What would an ideal mix of resources consist of? Who is responsible for vetting said resources?
How can we best harness the power of the Internet to cultivate authentic audiences for student work and learning? What does open inquiry look like today?
What is the ideal progression of learning for a child? Do we plan for this at the student level? Do we react to this at the student level? How do we facilitate this?
What is an authentic learning task? What does creativity look like today? Does your definition extend beyond the realm of documents? How do you feel about digital “poster projects?” Study the TPACK & SAMR frameworks together.
Define “blended learning.” What do you think of when you hear the term, “online course?” What should define an “online course?” Where and how does conversation fit into the description? Talk about space and time. Talk about the Carnegie Unit.
Is a 1:1 implementation an opportunity to study standards-based grading? If you’re really daring, try considering… why grade?
Can you sketch three scenes depicting what your ideal school should look like? What is happening in those scenes? What is not? I’m really not kidding here. Do this. Don’t just discuss it. The value is in the slow process and the conversation.
If you really commit to an open study of these questions and tasks, then you will have a far clearer picture of what you believe today. You will possess the raw mental material for the next step. The next step will be to design the framework for the future. This is the fun part; the good stuff. This is the step I cannot even attempt to deliver generic bullet points for. This is the stage that, based upon your responses, moves in a unique direction for every learning community. How do you know when your educators are on the same page? How will you know your broader community understands what you’re trying to do? Quickly get beyond the jargon. Disclaimer: There is nothing inherently magical or official about the above set of mental metrics. They are merely questions I believe lie at the heart of this work.
It all comes back to your vision for and philosophy of learning. If you continue to see school as a top-down endeavor where knowledge is first owned by the teacher and then somehow magically transmitted into the brains of students, then that will guide (no: govern) your mission of bringing modern technology into classrooms. However, if research and experience have led you to the idea that perhaps real learning happens within the mind of the learner and is influenced by many inputs (one of which is a skilled teacher)… then you’ll likely make significantly different decisions for the future.
Design the process
This morning’s stream of thought reminds me of a post I logged four years or so ago. I can actually say I still stand behind those “four pillars” after considerable experience since that time. Like I said back then, “It’s not that dark in there anymore. Trust that there are others who have proceeded down this path before you, and they have learned many important lessons.” Get the right people into the room from the start. If you fear, “we don’t know what we don’t know,” get some outside experience into the room. Represent all levels of your organization. Think big, and think little. Ask the big questions first. Then work through the details before even mentioning “the device.” Many will want to jump there. Stay strong. Design protocols that help protect the conversation. Develop a true vision. Let it guide you. Under our best progressive lens “unmitigated disasters” rarely happen.
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.)