Memorization Is For The Birds, Or Rather, For The Fish

Google: Meet Pocket

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.

The Rub

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:

Tweet from Nashworld

…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.

PS-

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.)

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Off The Grid

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…

On Being a Public Educator, or: Once Again, Why I Love The Web

Transforming by connection

In my time as a teacher, I have tried purposefully to connect my students to experts beyond the walls of our classroom. When I began as a teacher in 1991, this was a pretty difficult task compared to today. Contacting local experts in biology or conservation took going out of the way to recruit the efforts of kind, caring professionals who were willing to share their experience with my students and I. Today, it can happen almost accidentally. Today, a few extra steps can flip the equation to a reality where talented individuals can find you. While balancing a myriad of responsibilities in the classroom of today, this shift in reality can be a transformational one… helping to bring relevance and authenticity to the lives of students.

Allow me to quickly switch to the issue at hand, and then wrap up my case by the end. Today, I bring you yet another opportunity to assist the education of students in Missouri, from wherever you may be. Cutting to the chase, a talented and giving artist from the state of Florida recently contacted my students and I with the offer to contribute an a work of art to help my students pay for the fees of a field study on the coral reefs of Andros Island, in the Bahamas.

Connecting to art

Cheryl Ferrari is a passionate artist and a giving person. My students and I are quite happy tonight to announce an opportunity for you to own an amazing piece of art while making a donation to hardworking students who are doing extra work on their own time to learn about something they are interested in. On Friday, I will be able to add an actual photo of the actual work. It is an beautiful and massive 36×24 inch print on canvas. Not only was the work donated at an approximate value of from $2000 to $3000… but the framing was donated by a local company. J. Franklin Gallery of St. Joseph donated the $400 framing.

 

 

Clicking the “buy now” button above will allow you to enter a credit card via PayPal from wherever you may be… to an SJSD account to earn a chance to win the print. This is essentially a donation where 100% of the funds go toward a rich educational experience for my students. We are offering each chance at $5, and three chances for $10. The raffle will take place on the night of March 28th, the eve of our upcoming field study in The Exuma Cays.

Yes, public

You see, I take the idea of being a public educator rather literally. In short: whenever and wherever possible, I pull open a window of transparency allowing a peek into the work we are doing. Softening the walls of the classroom in this way has brought us many powerful connections over time. Cheryl Ferrari is a Florida resident who grew up snorkeling and diving on Florida’s coral reefs when they were vibrant and healthy. She no longer dives today, and relies on photographs from those who do as inspiration for her work.

Cheryl messaged me via Flickr in April complimenting the work we are doing in chronicling the life (and sadly, death) of coral reefs today. She kindly asked permission to reference our work, and three months later, she messaged again with the image you see above. We could clearly see the elements of the painting that were inspired by photographs we have taken and shared. After more conversation on the details of our program, she offered to donate a limited-edition print to help student offset the costs of the field study portion of the course. And really, though you can’t quite tell it here, this connection has almost left me speechless at times.

Connecting to science

Since 2000, we have had authors join our discussions of their works. We have had the Center for Biological Diversity request photos for use in a formal federal petition to list two Caribbean corals as threatened, and eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. (it worked, by the way) We have had a former student of this program now with a Ph.D. and working on national marine policy, rejoin our community from time to time, as one of our informal teachers. We have had students live blog hurricane landfalls from the gulf, and report back from their work in fisheries from Dutch Harbor, Maine. And on and on. I’m certain I’d leave someone out if I tried to name them all.

These connections have transformed our classroom time and time again. It is this sort of real transformation that makes expenditures of modern technology worth the cost. Join us in some way. Take a chance on owning a bit of our story, and thanks so much in advance, from all of my students and I, for donating to such a relevant and authentic cause in the lives of kids.

Artwork thanks

Turtle Flirts” by Cheryl Ferrari… photograph of oil on canvas

Massive Sea Fan” is one of ours. See the connection?

Mike Westfall – Thumbs Up” is also one of ours

Another Thousand “Whoa” Moments

Defining whoa

A whoa moment is somewhat akin to the recently ubiquitous aha moment. And yet, there are important differences. Trolling online definitions of the “aha” moment generally returns descriptions of sudden comprehension or the “flash of insight related to a problem.” If I could be trusted to launch my own five-cent definition, I’d loft the “whoa” moment for your consideration. Allow me to stitch together a few words in defense (offense?) of such an idea…

whoa moment |wō|

exclamation
Informal in usage. Used to indicate a scope of reactions to a learning experience ranging from basic cognitive connection and mild surprise to profound respect and awe. Often uttered momentarily due to a lack of ability to define an experience at the time. Whoa moments often spur deeper future connections and learning along the original topic.


Some of these moments are certainly cerebral, but many others seem to originate deep within the limbic system. I challenge you to justify that sort of experience in today’s rather narrow description of learning. Benjamin Bloom roughly hammered out the Affective Domain of learning over fifty years ago. The affective domain is the domain of attitudes, motivation, and valuation of learning. As we move toward a more “national” definition of what should be learned, we rarely ever touch on anything beyond the cognitive domain. Even within the cognitive domain, consensus is tough to find. But really, when you can stuff so much of the cognitive domain into multiple guess questions, why bother with the rest? Characterizing the rest is just so… hard.

I’d suggest that whoa moments (beyond those of Bill & Ted fame) put the fringes of the affective domain, the elements of valuing… into something we can touch, taste, and marvel over. I’m not here today to hammer out a treatise on the whoa moment, and the value of immersion and authenticity in education. While that might be a worthwhile future endeavor, today I came here to share a bit of our recent Marine Biology field study on Andros Island in The Bahamas. This program was conceived back in 1999 and I have written about it here several times in the recent past. This was our seventeenth field study over the past twelve years, and like each of them, taught us all more than our share for one week.

whoa3

Finding a rare snow white hermit crab married to a bleached out mollusk shell, watching a lowly flatworm attack and kill a nimble crab, exploring a multitude of minute creatures in a natural reef nursery, finding a completely new and hidden crack into the chilly belly of the Earth (the locale of which is too good to mention in detail here)…  are all just a few of the subtly epic moments that were experienced during a week abroad and in the field this past April.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you aim for whoa in every single granular learning objective that falls within your curriculum. And I’m certainly not suggesting that learning out-of-doors, in the field, suits every academic pursuit. I don’t think it has to happen everywhere, but I do believe it has to happen. Somewhere.

whoa2

The world is an amazing place, and we live in amazing times. Big moments are all around us. Get on it.

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Online Learning Networks in Science – An Interview

In keeping with the concept of using this blog as not only a synthesis of what I think, but also of what I do, I add this post. Last week I recorded a telephone interview with the folks at natureEDUCATION on the topic of online learning networks in science education. The time I spent on the phone with Ilona Miko, Senior Scientific Editor for Life Sciences, made me realize why it is that she is doing the podcast and I typically stick to the printed (digitally) word. She’s a pro from the word go.

You wouldn’t think I have a fear of publishing or sharing in any way. And yet, I’ve always had a distaste for the sound of my own voice. I cherish real human communication. I thrive on face to face chats…  even virtual versions via Skype, etc. However, hearing a recorded version of my voice always reminds of of Kermit the frog with laryngitis. Perhaps even share-junkies have their Achilles heel. Now that I think about it, considering my avatar, some of you might even see the first image of my mug where I appear sane.

Nature EdCast

Scitable is an open online collaborative learning space within the nature publishing group. If you are a science teacher, or you know one, you’d be doing a favor by forwarding the link to a friend or colleague. NatureEdCast is a podcast featuring some interesting folks from many perspectives.  If you get a chance, check out some of the previous twelve episodes here.  I’m honored to have been selected to share a few minutes on this program. I think I sound like I’m having a phone conversation (complete with near giggles a couple of times), but hey… I guess I actually was. By the end I think we hit on some issues that are important to the world of education, and even science education in particular.  See what you think.

If I had to pick the one thing from the episode I’m most proud of, it would be the fact that although the title features the text “Online Learning Networks,” a significant portion of the program is about students being outdoors, on-site, in nature, and learning with all five senses. Living online is not my style. I’d never want to build a name for that. Although, if done well, extending our classrooms through space and time into the digital world can enhance learning for all students. For that, I’ll sign my name.

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