Hybrid Class Discussions

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The independent school world has always prided itself on an approach to learning that was effective and well-suited for smaller class sizes. It is popularly known as the Harkness method, named for the inventor of the oval tables (1930) that were used to promote self-directed class discussions. The belief was that students could be trained to participate regularly and substantively in discussions that were designed to ferret out the answers to essential questions of the daily lesson.

Harkness Method

Harkness Method

For three quarters of a century, the Harkness method has worked well in educational environments where the faculty believes that students are capable of discovering and constructing knowledge with well-crafted coaching from the teacher. As I reflect on my experiences with what we tend to call “discussion-driven” classrooms, I see some challenges with today’s students that might be addressed with minor modifications to the original concept. These changes are based on two assumptions:

  • Not all students participate in discussion for a variety of reasons, even if it is an expectation of the course.
  • Even though class sizes are smaller in independent schools, discussions of 12-16 students almost guarantee that not everybody will be able to participate regularly.
The hybrid model is not an original idea. Others have proposed several iterations over the past few years, so this proposal is simply a variation on a theme:
  • Divide the class into two random groups of similar size.
  • One group engages in a traditional class discussion.
  • The other group participates in the discussion through a live blog such as CoverItLive that is projected in the classroom (they are not permitted to speak).
  • On a daily basis, students shift frequently between the spoken and written contribution, but both groups are expected to participate together and in concert.

There are several benefits to this strategy (if it works) that might speak to the individual needs of some students. Those who are intimidated or prefer not to speak in class will have the opportunity to participate. Those who prefer to reflect on a question before responding will have the opportunity to do so in the written genre. Those students who dislike writing as a form of expression will write more frequently, and about topics and viewpoints that they feel strongly about (the same motivations for speaking in class).

Will there be challenges implementing the hybrid discussion? I can anticipate several. First, the logistics of ensuring some continuity between the two camps may be complex. Traditional discussions sometimes move at a pace that would be difficult to match for writers. On the other hand, slowing down discussions to encourage more depth might be a benefit. Second, students may not like the hybrid format, both because it is different (and therefore risky) and because they will not always be able to play their stronger suit, depending on the group to which they are assigned. Again, alternating groups might strengthen both spoken and written skills over time.

After I have experimented with the hybrid discussion in my class for a few weeks, I will report back in this blog with anecdotal results and student feedback. I am hoping I can add the hybrid discussion to the “teacher toolkit for increased student engagement” that I am building this year.

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Engagement and Learning

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I’m currently taking an online course from the Online School for Girls (OSG) entitled “Teaching Online Courses.” I’ll talk more about the experience when I complete the course in two weeks, but I do want to talk today about one of the challenges of online course design that I have encountered.

Online Learning

Image via Wikipedia

Posting content to an online course doesn’t seem very different than posting that same content in Blackboard for my face-to-face (F2F) classes. The greater challenge is what to do online to replace the 200 minutes of class time that will no longer exist, at least as we know it in the traditional sense.

If I am to keep a high school student’s attention for 200 minutes over the course of a week without any F2F contact, then I will have to provide individual and collaborative lessons that are high on the engagement meter. What do I mean by engagement? I love Carol Ann Tomlinson‘s explanation from her 1999 book, Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum:

Engagement happens when a lesson captures students’ imaginations,
 snares their curiosity, ignites their opinions, or taps into their souls.
Engagement is the magnet that attracts learners’ meandering attention
and holds it so that enduring learning can occur. Understanding means
more than recalling. It means the learner has “wrapped around” an important
idea, has incorporated it accurately into his or her inventory of how things
work. The learner owns the idea (p. 38). 

After pondering the passage, I think of either highly collaborative activities that require students to work with their peers, engage in problem solving, and resolve differences in point of view, or individual activities that emphasize good communication skills, initiative and entrepreneurship, and a good deal of imagination (Wow! These are among Tony Wagner’s seven skills students need for their future). I’ve addressed a few of these in the F2F classroom, but that was my option, or so I thought. In the online classroom, I must develop these skills if I wish to truly engage my students.

The last sentence in Tomlinson’s quote, however, is the most telling. How do we, as teachers, help guide our students to ownership of ideas? This is not a legal question about intellectual property, but a pedagogical question about the role of the teacher. When you design an online course, many of the traditional structures of teaching and learning are collapsed because the classroom is no longer fixed in time and space. Therefore, I cannot be a “sage on the stage,” and must morph into a “guide by the side.” Isn’t it interesting that those elements that are essential to online courses are also critical to student engagement and mastery of skills for the future? If one accepts the premise of the question, then one would also want to transform or at least modify the traditional F2F classroom in the same manner, even though it may not be a requirement.

That may be why current research from the U.S. Department of Education (Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning) concludes the following (with qualifications): Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction (p.xv). Thus, my conclusion is that every teacher learn to teach an online course; not because many of those teachers will likely teach an online course in the K12 world or because K12 education will become primarily online in delivery, but because it will help to instruct us in making our traditional or blended curriculum more engaging for our students. That is the primary reason I need to take the online course I am taking very seriously. It will make me a better teacher regardless of the delivery model.

In future posts, I’ll talk about the experience of taking an online course and how integrating some online or blended courses into the curricula of bricks and mortar schools can create a more acceptable cost model for the school.

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Physical Stacks or Virtual Stacks

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Ten years ago, I looked forward to a few weeks of summer vacation for more than one reason. Yes, I would have some time for R&R, but I would also be able to make significant progress through the stack of sixty magazines, books, and journals I wanted to catch up on. During the school year,


Image by The Daring Librarian via Flickr

I read about one piece from this stack for every three that were added, so it is easy to see why the stack was at sixty by the summer. And yes, vacation locations were usually accessible by car so the carton carrying the stack would fit neatly into the trunk. Of course, there was some family tension when a beach chair or cooler had to stay behind to make room for the carton with the stack.

Over the past ten years, I have slowly built a virtual and personal learning network, although at the outset it didn’t really have a name. The effort became more pronounced six years ago when I shifted roles from information technology to instructional technology. I felt that my learning curve would be steeper, and I needed access to as many people and other resources as possible. At the time, I was not aware of building a personal learning network (PLN); instead I viewed my plan as simply subscribing to email lists so i would have a forum to ask questions and float ideas. As web services and social networks evolved, however, it appears I was building a PLN, and that has been confirmed in the new book, Personal Learning Networks by Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli. Let it be known, however, that I still consider the most valuable sources of information the personal relationships I have with colleagues like Rob and many others. But unlike ten years ago, when it was possible to make a list of those who were the most knowledgeable in my field, today that list would be too long and I could not keep up with phone calls and meetings to each and every person. Enter today’s PLN, made up of hundreds of electronic resources, with more information than one could ever hope to read and digest. Now my stacks are virtual rather than physical.

I thought it would be of interest to catalog and profile my PLN, just to ascertain whether it is typical or unusual. Be forewarned, I tend to overshoot on every task, so my PLN may be more than most people, including myself, need:

Joel’s PLN

  • 3 Books simultaneously either in print or on my Kindle (1 for Technology PD, 1 for History PD, and 1 wildcard)
  • 7 Print Publications (all could be read online, but I still cling to the past)
  • 3 Publication summaries via email
  • The New York Times Digital Edition
  • 11 Email lists
  • 48 RSS feeds (I currently have 748 unread feeds)
  • 8 blogs (6 that I subscribe to, 2 that are mine including this one)
  • 2 wikis that I maintain
  • 9 Nings that I have joined
  • Twitter (I follow 38; 36 follow me)
  • Facebook  (104 friends, but limited use for PD thus far)
  • LinkedIn (181 connections, 16 groups)
  • 3 Curriculum sharing sites
  • New attempts to use FlipBook, NetVibes, and Yammer
Even if I were retired, I would not have enough time to read and react to everything I receive; the Richardson/Mancabelli book suggests some strategies for keeping up in the final chapter. What I do know, and the authors point this out repeatedly, is that there is little information or answers to questions that elude me when I need something. Now you’re probably wondering how I sort the information that I do see (I estimate that I review less than 5% of what I receive on a daily basis, but it is 5% more than I would otherwise — the glass is half-full). Anything I deem to be useful or important for current or future use is filed in Evernote, a note-taking app that grabs almost anything in any format and is accessible on all of my devices. I also have an app to handle articles I am attracted to, but don’t have time to read. I run Read It Later on my iPad, and one tap of a button stores these articles so i can return and read them at my leisure (again, a discipline is required to keep this list from continuously growing).
I would encourage you to take the plunge into PLNs, regardless of your occupation and situation, for two reasons. First, you will learn in the manner of 21st century people. With PLNs, we will become learning machines, capable of knowing the answers, having our ideas influenced, and contributing to the world of knowledge and ideas on behalf of our peers. Second, we will better understand how our students learn today and why we have to incorporate that pedagogy into our classrooms. Personal Learning Networks provides both the rationale and a prescription for making the transition (the authors call it a transformation). There are many ways to proceed, but the key is for the adults, specifically teachers, to incorporate this type of learning into his or her own style first, so we can model it for our students. That is one of my goals for this year: to introduce virtual stacks to my students so they can develop their own PLN, and then use that PLN for a class project before the end of the year. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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To Effect Change, Keep It Simple


4 Faces of Personal Learning Network (Activity)

Image by catspyjamasnz via Flickr

The subtitle of the new book, Personal Learning Networks, by Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli is “Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education.” When I finish reading the book, I will comment on the work as a whole, but at the halfway mark I am focused on the subtitle. There are numerous great suggestions for the classroom and a companion website for easy access to those suggestions. I am hung up, however, on the word “transform.” It’s a powerful word, and in many ways, it is code for a teacher, implying a difficult uphill battle that may not be worth the energy. I like to think we can take incremental steps in the right direction, and perhaps some day end up with a transformation, saving the pain and upheaval of rapid change. Everett Rogers, a classic sociologist, wrote a book called Diffusion of Innovations, in which he explains why sustainable change cannot occur rapidly. There is a process, beginning with early adopters, that must be absorbed by the appropriate culture, if change is to be sustainable. In the case of schools, we are referring not only to teachers, but also to administrators, students, and other constituents such as parents. All parties must recognize the benefits of the change or it will be short-lived.

Here’s an example of designing simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. Consider a public elementary school I know that is aware of the fact that their students lose much of the reading level progress they make during the school year over the summer. Consequently, each September is a treadmill of raising those kids back to the level they were at the previous June. Research has reinforced this point for years, but many schools simply live with it or encourage their students to read over the summer (these are kids who struggle with reading). Enter an insightful Literacy Specialist with a simple idea that could be easily funded by the local PTA. Create a voluntary summer reading program for students that requires a commitment from parents. Each family that participates gets ten books at their child’s reading level in June. In July, these same families return to school for one hour, one evening, and those students tell each other the story of his or her favorite book (a parent is required to attend). At the end of the session, the paired students exchange books so they have a new set of ten books to read in August. This is not a complex or expensive program, but it will return these students to school in September reading at the same level they were at in June. The added bonus is that the parents of these children have a much better understanding of the importance of reading, and their role in encouraging their children to read. A complex problem is addressed with a relatively simple solution.

What might I do in my world history classroom this fall to solve complex problems with simple solutions? Some of the tools suggested in the Richardson/Mancabelli book, borrowed from other classrooms, will be launched or continued, perhaps with some tweaking:

  • Keep the students writing in a “public” forum – I will continue to ask my students to write daily in a class blog. I began using the class blog approach last spring after using individual blogs for a few years. The individual blog, that only the student and I could see, was simply a digital replacement for a handwritten journal, but the class blog brought a backchannel class discussion to life, and the blog was shared by three sections of the same course. In short, the discussion was not limited to the time and space boundaries of the classroom.
  • Change the nature of the class discussion from a forum of selected students who feel confident speaking regularly to a dual forum of groups of students who speak and those who report and reflect – Using a live blogging tool such as Cover It Live, those who report and reflect will also publicly participate in the discussion, but use their written rather than spoken skills. Furthermore, these dual forums will change in membership on a daily basis. Those students who are reluctant to speak in class will sometimes have the opportunity to write instead, and when they are assigned to speak, they will be speaking in smaller, less threatening groups. Also, we will have the added benefit of a chronicle detailing each class discussion.
  • Make peer editing of papers a more social activity – Using Crocodoc, drafts of papers will be posted, students will choose the paper(s) they would like to edit, comment on, and correct, yielding suggestions from the classroom community. Since no two students write on the same topic, the plagiarism issues are minimized. Using the “wisdom of crowds” theory, the peer editing process should be of higher quality, level the playing field among peer editors, and add an interim writing stage that will be more public, raising the bar for the written work of my students.
I have other ideas I will share in future posts, and I can’t know in August whether all of these ideas will actually improve teaching and learning unless I am prepared to completely buy into the Richardson/Mancabelli thesis now. I feel more comfortable trusting them to a degree, but waiting until I see evidence that the power of connections will continue to transform my classroom through a series of simple steps over a longer period of time, as Everett Rogers suggests.
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