Summertime… à la “Porgy and Bess”

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“Summertime — and the living is easy….” Oh, the life of a teacher/instructional technologist when school is not in session! Or is it? As we move into the last month of the traditional summer break, I can reflect on whether my summer has been easy. So far, I have prepared and taught two week-long workshops, attended and presented at a technology conference, helped pack and move two children from one state to another, and begun to prepare for the fall. When does the fall begin? August 20, when our school launches a large professional development program called Choate iPadU. On that day, we begin two weeks of workshops designed to prepare faculty for the iPad program that begins when our students return to school. So, I am working diligently on the curriculum, and trying to incorporate it into iTunesU, a platform with which I was relatively unfamiliar until a week ago. In addition I am reviewing and enhancing a new World History curriculum developed by a few of my colleagues, preparing for an evaluation of Learning Management Systems, developing an ongoing professional development and support plan for the iPad program, retooling the courses I will teach this fall, and getting a head start on college recommendations for my students, Other than teaching classes, grading student work, and attending meetings, a good number of days are not that different than a typical day during the school year. 

That’s really the point regarding most teachers I know (public and private schools). Summers are not quite the two month vacation the general public and the traditional media might imagine. The craft of teaching (it is a craft, not a science) is far more challenging than many outsiders think. During the school year, days are long and exhausting. They extend well beyond the class day. In the summer, the days are different, but many are equally busy in different ways. Summer is the time for rejuvenation, retooling, learning new ways to improve teaching and learning, and to enable some downtime. Rest means less stress, and that means better thinking and ideas. So the living may not always be easy in the summertime, but it does provide a pace that is conducive to the kind of work that helps teachers to hone their craft. Some easy living is in order for all fo us, but most of the summertime is preparation for another challenging and fulfilling year.


That was my idea, wasn’t it?

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There has been some discussion in our schools about students using online “citation tools” to format footnotes and bibliographies. While that discussion is important in the sense that it begs for some consensus, in many ways it obfuscates the real issue. How our students take responsibility for attribution in a cyber world where everybody’s ideas and positions are revealed is the challenge. Very simply, is there much that our students could propose that has not been set forth by somebody else? If the answer is no, then should students be citing everything they write? Furthermore, when students recount information in their work, where do we draw the line regarding what is common knowledge (cataloged in an encyclopedia?) and what is not? As teachers, is it necessary for us to teach kids information they could easily obtain elsewhere or should we focus our talents on higher order learning skills? The problem with this inquiry is that the more you think about the topic, the more questions are raised. As we begin to recognize the complexity of these questions, think about the stress these questions might cause our students as they deliver papers, projects, and tests to us.

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The problem today is that the sphere of common knowledge has expanded if we define it as anything that can be found on the web in ten seconds or less. So when a student writes that “John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, TX,” and cites Wikipedia as the source, I tell that student “no citation necessary – common knowledge.” Does that mean everybody knows the answer, sort of like the sky is blue, or does it mean that the answer can be obtained online in less than ten seconds? Alternatively, if the student says “the British Empire declined, in part, due to its lack of tolerance for those living in the British colonies,” and cites Amy Chua‘s recent book, Day of Empire, am I satisfied with the reference? Does it matter that Chua’s idea is not original, and the student should have picked up the footnote in Chua that gives prior attribution to Niall Ferguson? And did Ferguson steal the idea from Edward Gibbon?  This is a slippery slope, you say. Perhaps we should just leave it alone and be thankful our kids are citing sources at all. Food for thought. I would suggest, however, that there is considerable scaffolding necessary before we can begin to develop some 21st century guidelines for attribution. When we are finished developing a framework, we will have completely undressed the idea of intellectual property in the digital world, and some of us will be very unhappy with the result. Imagine donating all of your original work and ideas to the “Creative Commons.” Is this a conversation we should begin or should we sit back and let higher education do the heavy lifting?

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Why Record Lessons?

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Recently, I viewed an On Demand movie called Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. Twice during the fairly complex plot, Cooper said something that I either didn’t catch or wanted to ponder. I rewound to hear the line again the first time, and stopped the video in the second case. Without On Demand controls, I would not have fully appreciated the film. As I thought about the benefits of On Demand movies, I also reflected on Salman Khan’s Mathematics videos. In his talks, Khan clearly says that his cousins liked the recorded version of him explaining Math better than listening to Khan live. This is a common sense scenario that we have avoided for years. When we read books, we have the luxury of rereading words and passages as many times as we wish. In the traditional classroom, however, we have one shot at capturing that key statement from the teacher. If we are shy, we are destined to find a classmate we trust to hopefully get the information. If we are bold, we risk being chastised by the teacher for not listening.

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In a world in which the teacher is the sole source of information and knowledge for the student, there is an expectation that students will be hanging on every word spoken, and to some extent, students do comply. When I approach the whiteboard with my marker, I hear the rustle of papers as students scramble to record what I am about to write. Most interesting about this scenario is the rationale for note taking. Our working memory can retain five to seven pieces of information before it overflows. In order to retain one of those pieces of information, a connection must be made by each student that causes that information to be incorporated into longer term memory. Writing what the teacher says does not make a connection. Writing something else meaningful to that student does, but how many students actually record those kinds of notes, and how many are instructed to?

One of the reasons Khan promotes his videos and the more generic idea of recording lessons and explanations is because it allows students to learn at their own pace, outside the classroom. Extending Khan’s idea to a broader learning model, one is introduced to the “flipped” classroom. In a flipped classroom, students learn material at their own pace outside of the classroom, and then come to class with the goal of increasing understanding by utilizing the skills and talents of the teacher. Those who learned more slowly outside of class are the focus of the teacher’s attention in class while those who learned more rapidly are either asked to help the others or move forward independently. Of course, there are many variations on that theme, but the general idea makes sense from a teaching and learning standpoint because it appeals to the strengths of both students and teachers.

The flipped classroom is not a radical concept. English and History classes have used the idea for years. Students read an assignment, and come to class with the goal of enhancing their understanding and analysis of the materials they have read. Where the traditional flipped classroom lost its identity was in the notion that the teacher subsequently had to reinforce understanding of the reading with a lecture or highly structured discussion driven by leading questions. What Khan and others are advocating is to shift the burden of learning from the teacher to the student both in and out of the classroom. Just as On Demand video is tailored to the needs of the movie watcher, videos of lessons and explanations allow students to absorb new material at their own pace, review lessons when studying for assessments and exams, and return to any specific detail when it disappears from one’s memory. In short, the mode of presentation is consistent with the operation of the brain and the mechanics of learning. Finally, the teacher is freed to be a teacher when students arrive in class, focusing on those areas that are most difficult for that specific group of students. Everybody wins.

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

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It’s been over a month since I finished “teaching” the 2011 Technology and Learning Institute (TLI). I have vivid and fond memories of my eight students (teachers, really), and the lessons these young people taught me (see their blog for more details). What I’m not sure about is whether those lessons apply to teachers of any age or early career teachers only. In the past, with teachers of mixed experience levels, I assumed the most effective approach was to “teach” them how to use a technology tool in several curricular contexts, and then turn them loose to play with and discover the capabilities of the tool themselves. This year, however, my teachers told me that my role was to “introduce” them to the tool for about ten minutes, and then get out of the way so they could learn and incorporate it into their own teaching styles and content; pretty sophisticated stuff from a group of teachers with no more than three years’ experience.

Most experienced teachers now understand that both “the sage on the stage” and “the guide on the side” are not pedagogies that can be used exclusively. When a child’s brain is learning effectively, teacher intervention is minimized, but when anxiety interferes with the learning process (the amygdala kicks in), teacher intervention is often exactly what is needed to restore student confidence. In the case of my TLI teachers, was it their familiarity and comfort with technology that instigated their independent learning or are the current technology tools easy enough to learn either through great product design or superb documentation? If the latter, then I have to rethink professional development for technology integration, minimizing the “presentation” element of the teaching, and becoming more of a resource to assist when teachers get stuck or be a sounding board for their curricular ideas.

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This is an important question for educational technology specialists because it impacts the allocation of our resources. Perhaps large group workshops will turn into information sessions rather than classes. Smaller groups will become collaborative exchanges of ideas rather than tutorials, and one-on-one instruction will really be exploration. In short, the real learning will occur during the interaction with colleagues, and the interaction with technology tools will be more self-taught skills. I welcome such a change if it is real, as it creates conversations in which my colleagues are  talking about student learning rather than which key to press next. What my TLI teachers were reminding me of in June was the need for us to stay focused on why we do what we do, to enable and enhance student learning. I salute these young people for their insights.

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