Monthly Archives: September 2011

Enter NETS

This isn't a metaphor or anything. I just can't stop thinking about nets now. source:

Just some thoughts after scanning the ISTE NETS standards. I think I’ve seen them before, but I’ve never used them in the classroom myself. (Scan, by the way, is an autoantonym, one of those strange words that can mean its own opposite. I will leave the reader to decide which meaning of “scan” fits what I’ve been doing)

NETS for Students

My first thought is how sensible, flexible, and achievable a lot of the standards are. They seem like things that might be addressed in most classrooms. However, I need to be honest and admit that there are a couple of aspects that might be harder for me to address than others. The parts that I would find most challenging, I think, might be those that involve international collaboration. I usually find things like Skyping across time zones and the planning involved a bit daunting, and I think internationally collaborative projects are definitely something I will need to consciously strive to do well at.

Another thought is how closely most of these standards align with concepts from the MYP Humanities aims and objectives that are gradually being burned into my brain from constant exposure. Some of the phrases, like “global awareness” and the parts about the need to gather and synthesize information from different sources, are word-for-word identical with MYP Humanities aims. I think it’s great how similar the underlying aims of most subjects can be at heart, and how easy it sometimes can be to align standards from different subjects, if approached with the right frame of mind.

This is something I’ve been thinking about more than usual this week, because we were asked to brainstorm interdisciplinary projects during a faculty meeting. I like how independent of specific course content our underlying goals in teaching can sometimes be, at least at the broad level of unit planning. I think it’s much more interesting to approach planning not from the limited perspective of a teacher of one particular subject, but just as a teacher and learner pondering how to get across a basic concept in the most relevant way.

A third thought is that several of the standards refer to problem-solving – that is, students’ projects will attempt to simulate or solve problems in the real world. This is also something that I think is reflected in MYP Humanities’ aims, although perhaps in different language. I think this is an aspect of my Humanities planning and teaching that I could work on improving. I think I tend to approach Humanities as a historian, and it takes conscious effort for me not to focus on history as opposed to studying current problems. It’s easier for me to think about projects where students try to investigate and understand the causes and effects of problems, and I sometimes don’t make the leap to solutions. Working with the NETS would make that problem-solving angle even more prominent in planning assessments from the start.

In other words, a) I don’t really perceive these standards as being alien to my own particular subject or to what I’ve been trying to do, and in fact I see tremendous overlap, and b) rather than being a burden or an extra add-on, I like to think that addressing these technology standards during my own planning would help make me a better Humanities teacher. Perhaps in actuality I’d end up finding them somehow irritating or restrictive, but right now I feel excited and optimistic at the idea of incorporating these standards into some of my planning.

sourceL hydraworld-246blog/image/borat-high-five.jpg


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Three Things I’m Unlearning

How are my thoughts changing? Constantly, sometimes uncomfortably, but generally for the better, I hope.

Up until I became a teacher a few years ago, my views of knowledge, education – and by extension technology’s place in it –  were radically different. I think I amassed three or four erroneous “big ideas” about knowledge over the years which I’m even today trying to break free from. Fortunately I’ve been helped along my path of self-reeducation with the help of recent changes in tech which make my old “big ideas” even more obviously obsolete. Here are some of my biggest mental bugbears, in rough biographical order:

The Fallacy of Total Recall

From elementary school on I always did pretty well on standardized tests, which I think encouraged me to take a certain point of view towards knowledge – that mental recall of large volumes of data, however obscure, is very important.

I think this fits with a certain old-school view of education that prioritized filling students with lists of facts. Being able to regurgitate a certain fact on command would mean that you had “learned” it. I think this might be similar to the idea of “cognitivism” as criticized by Siemens in this article. As anyone who’s familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised or otherwise) knows, something that seemed like the Holy Grail to me in high school – memorizing enough vocabulary words to get a good score on the SAT – is really a pretty low-order cognitive task.

Now I try to focus more on overarching connections, concepts and analysis than trying to take in immense volumes of facts simply for their own sake, and I try to reflect this focus in my teaching.

Luckily for me, I think this shift in my own thinking has been pushed along immensely by the changes in tech over the past few decades. It’s increasingly clear, even to a trivia buff like me, that any cell phone can probably hold more facts than a person’s head these days, so brainpower should obviously be spent on “higher-order” tasks. Unless they’re stranded on a desert island, students in the future will be able to access collective knowledge any time, making the real task of education not memorizing facts but learning how to find, evaluate, connect and synthesize them.

The Futility of Hoard-Squatting

In college I studied literature and history. I think these studies encouraged me to unconsciously adopt yet another specific point of view towards knowledge – that knowledge is like a treasure that must be guarded. Literature and history are among the subjects that seem prone to lead to a kind of “Gatekeeper/Angry Librarian” mentality, producing experts obsessed with gathering, polishing, curating and above all retaining knowledge. In this view of things, professors, teachers and other experts should amass their hoards and squat menacingly on them.

Obviously, this model of the expert or teacher as gatekeeper of knowledge is becoming a thing of the past, and again it’s a shift that’s being helped along by technology. In this case it’s technology (like free e-books, wikis, translation software etc.) that takes the responsibility for safeguarding knowledge out of the hands of teachers and experts, and distributes it among the whole community.

I welcome the development, but since I went to school in the twilight era of teacher-experts, I think I do still sometimes struggle with my own mental concept of my role as teacher in this connected world, an open and shifting world of new types of connections and groupings which Siemens describes as “networks, small worlds, and weak ties.” 51EZXH604DL._BO2,204,203,200 PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpg

The Folly of Rule-Following

After college I worked as an editor and proofreader, and I think that experience also encouraged me to adopt a certain point of view towards knowledge – that there are rules to proper communication.

For example, I was taught by at least half a dozen of my teachers to never use the word “I” in an essay. I sometimes find myself with the urge to tell this to students, then I remind myself that, while students should avoid excessive self-reference, that particular “rule”, as it was inflexibly taught to me, was pointless.

Again, tech has changed along with my thoughts, and advancements in things like auto-correct and the rise of new media and new forms of communication have helped me realize how petty some of these preoccupations were. In a parallel development, my amateur readings in linguistics have helped me realize that in most cases a prescriptive approach to the world is unhelpful. Any act of communication succeeds if it is successful in conveying its meaning to its audience. Everything else is irrelevant. Textspeak, abbreviated tweets, video clips, slangy facebook messages – these new, outside-the-rules, and constantly mutating forms of communication are as valid as any older and more established format, as long as they are communicating what the speaker wants to communicate.

The bigger lesson I take from these thoughts about language is that education in general should be flexible, open to change, responsive to alterations in the real world, relevant to students’ own lives, and always aware of the bigger picture. Nowhere in Bloom’s Taxonomy is the skill of “perfect spelling” or “never split an infinitive” praised, and I don’t want to be the kind of teacher who judges students’ work by meaningless and outdated rules just because it’s what I was taught in school. (But sometimes I still find myself telling someone that “I” doesn’t belong in an essay – so there’s still work to be done.)


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Rupturing the Wineskin, or Funnel Vision

I’ve just read the article Disrupting Class by Christensen and Horn. A few thoughts:

The Right Direction

My first reflection is that I agree with the article’s overall surface message as I understand it, which is something like

  1. Education in many schools remains “teacher-centric”;
  2. It’s long been apparent that certain uses of technology should ideally help bring about a change to a more “student-centric” model, but
  3. This change is not happening in many schools, because many teachers simply use new technology as an add-on to or replacement for something they did in the past, and
  4. Using marketing terminology, technology use in school should be “disruptive” in the sense that it shouldn’t compete with existing “products”, but should rather create new “market niches” for new “consumers”.

I agree with all four of these points (albeit with some concerns about the fourth, to be expanded below). The role of technology in the shift of education’s overall focus from instructor to student is definitely important and essential, and this shift is definitely not something that automatically happens on its own by buying a few smartboards or adding a few laptop carts. Whenever possible, new technology should be used in school to do things that couldn’t be done before, in new ways.

Every implementation of a new tool or technology should be an opportunity for teachers to think “what could we do with this?” rather than “what can we continue to do with this?”

Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like this is obvious. We don’t use airplanes to fly from train station to train station. I like to think that most teachers are not consciously trying to put new wine into old wineskins, and that most of the worst problems in this area arise when teachers are under pressure from above to make students cram for standardized tests.

Adobe Flash Cards?

So far so good. But my second big reflection on the article is that I disagree with the article’s underlying paradigm of students as consumers. I initially found the article’s opening example of the ideal lesson of the future somehow perturbing, and couldn’t put my finger on why.

In a classroom of the future, students are learning Mandarin Chinese grammar. The students wear noise-canceling headphones and work with laptop computers.

One student is directing the work of a brick mason on his computer screen by having him assemble a sentence in the same way that he would construct a wall — block by block. There are stacks of blocks with words on them in the background of the screen; each is colored for its potential role in the sentence.

The student directs the mason to pick blocks out of the appropriate stacks and put them in the correct order of a Mandarin sentence. When all the required blocks have been assembled in the proper sequence, the Mandarin word replaces the English on each block, and the student joins the brick mason in reading the sentence (which is written phonetically in the Roman alphabet).

When the student doesn’t get the pronunciation right, the brick mason looks pained. The mason says the correct pronunciation, and when the student gets it right, the brick mason gives a high five. Mandarin is a tonal language, so the blocks then tilt to help the student see and feel the tones. 

Another student in the same classroom is learning the same material from the same software program by rote memorization — listening to a native Mandarin speaker and then repeating the sentences, in a mode of learning familiar to her parents’ generation.

Both students are learning to put together sentences that they’ll use in a conversation together in front of the rest of the class — some of whom are using the same learning tools as these two, but many of whom are learning Mandarin in other ways tailored to the way they learn.

This vision for the classroom of the future is not new. It’s one that people have talked and dreamed about for years in a variety of forms…

I wasn’t irritated because I thought the teacher should have been giving a lecture – I think learning should be student-centered. I have no problem with anything where students play little games or use headphones. I like when students learn at their own pace. Mandarin lessons from a cartoon bricklayer? Sure, why not?

I realized that my problem with the example was that the students are using technology entirely for cramming drills, and not for producing anything. The only moment of student creativity or independent thought above the level of doing rote memorization comes the end of the example, when a class discussion is alluded to.

In other words, in the article’s vision of the classroom of the future, technology will be a fancy version of flashcards. The students will spend a certain amount of time absorbing large amounts of context-free information passively, with a few interactive elements to make sure they don’t fall asleep, and then the technology will be put away and they will have a conversation. The performance task that comes at the end of this example lesson is something that could have been done around a campfire 100,000 years ago. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Perhaps some of this is a function of the article’s age. It’s undated, but the comments go back to 2008. However, given the elaborate allegory crafted comparing students and consumers later in the article, I think it’s telling how cognitively primitive the interaction with the software in the example is. (And they had a lot of collaborative, creative tools even back in the dark ages of 2008, so I think my criticisms are still fair.)

This is going to sound absurdly self-evident and trite, but I don’t think students should be seen as consumers. I think they should be seen as creators. We learn by doing. We learn by combining, collecting, analyzing, communicating, sharing. Maybe one step in those processes could be copying or memorizing, but thinking about the best way to use tech in education shouldn’t make us dream of a future of flashcard-like games and memorization drills with headphones. Online classes shouldn’t be a new way to be shouted at by a teacher for kids in rural areas.

Students should use tech to help them talk, write, brainstorm, connect, adapt, synthesize, analyze and transform _while_ they are learning, and they should use the most appropriate tools for those tasks all throughout the creation process. The article does discuss the possibility for a future of partially student-produced learning modules at its end, but in a sense that’s still the same teacher-student relationship, just with a certain fraction of peer-prepared lectures replacing teacher lectures. While I support the general message of the article, I’m a bit uneasy with how restricted its underlying vision for tech seems to be.

The end goal seems to be to put a student in front of a screen, where knowledge is pumped into him or her. Students shouldn’t be fitted with instructional software modules that give them drills to master or hoops to jump through – they should select from a variety of software options as tools for assembly, creation, and reflection while they are constructing their own understandings.

Therefore I think the article, while it mentions the importance of the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning, comes up short in envisioning possibilities for meaningful technology use. It still reflects a paradigm of students as empty, passive vessels waiting to have facts poured into them, and as technology as a sort of funnel – a new and shinier funnel, but still a funnel. It should be turned around and used as a loudspeaker.


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