Monthly Archives: May 2012

1:1 Reflections; Course 4 Week 6

It’s been nearly a whole school year since all of my students have always had MacBooks. It’s been interesting.

A few reflections on being part of a 1:1 laptop initiative:

It’s awesome. I love laptops. I love them more when everybody has one. I can’t imagine going back to a cart, or to any less “connected” system. Being able to rely on students’ consistent laptop use in and outside of class is great. I really have very few thoughts about the whole system that are less than extremely positive. From my perspective as a Humanities teacher, I appreciate the opportunities we’ve had to use these great tools in most lessons, and I definitely feel everyone’s projects have turned out a bit more contemporary, meaningful and interesting this year.

It’s cut out a lot of waste. We’ve done a lot of in-depth projects this year that in the past would have been much more wasteful and cumbersome in terms of paper, ink and time. No more projects getting “accidentally” deleted or lost (well, fewer). Much less  time wasted transferring things with thumb drives or trying to connect to the school server. On my side, much less time wasted juggling folders of papers when grading. The time between my explaining an assignment to students and them actually starting work on it is often like 10 seconds where in previous years it might have been 5 minutes. True, some of this saved time is eaten away in turn by online distractions, but it’s a trade-off I’m glad to make.

It comes at a strange time when these individual devices are far more collaborative and “shared” than ever before. I don’t really know what to think about the convergence of individual laptops in everyone’s hands on the one hand, and cloud computing on the other. Students all have the same laptops, but a lot of the things we are doing could be done on any computing device in the world. It’s just interesting to think about how “personal computers” are not really personal any more. In terms of my classes, this means that we work on shared Google Docs a lot of the time, and students pass information around the classroom via chat and e-mail – and the connectivity doesn’t necessarily stop after school. We each have our own laptops, but in a sense we’re all using windows to the same shared space a lot of the time. I don’t have any real conclusions to draw from this, but I know that I like it.

It’s actually more like 2:1. I’ve encouraged the use of iPhones and iPods as optional parts of many assignments and I think this will only continue next year. Students document field trips, take notes, make calculations on, deliver speeches from, record voice with, record videos with, and, yes, play games on their smaller devices. Unless there are students who will be shut out of a particular activity because they don’t have a smartphone, teachers should be constantly thinking of ways to use these tools. Having them as auxiliary devices in addition to the laptops this year has been that much more powerful. On the other hand, teachers need to treat these just as we treat the more officially “educational” laptops – recognize that they have legitimate in-class uses, but also be vigilant for misuse. When I read articles about schools that enforce cell phone bans, I feel sad. They’re little computers! They’re amazing! There should be ways to use them in school.

Some students are struggling with laptop use, time management, and balance. So am I.

They might not always make the right choices, but they are more than able to understand complex issues of plagiarism and fair use. We’ve had several Digital Citizenship lessons at various times over the course of the year in Humanities class, and I’m always impressed by how sophisticated many students’ ideas about intellectual property often are. They know what remixes, remakes, reboots and parodies are, and they know when someone steps over the line. They know that pictures should be Creative Commons-licensed for their use if possible, but in any case should come accompanied with a link to where the picture came from. There have been some instances of cut-and-paste copying in students’ projects, but it’s so easy to spot, and so easy to avoid if projects are designed in a way that would make pasting impossible, that it’s been less of an issue than I would have thought.

There are still some things paper is good for – not many, but some. Brainstorming, mapping lost civilizations, designing superhero costumes, outlining an essay, making a Venn diagram – these are all examples of the type of things which I’m glad we still have paper for. All could be replicated on a laptop with a little effort, but there is some feeling of freedom or creativity involved in bringing something to life on a piece of paper that still, I think, has value. So I’m glad we have a few pieces still laying around. But I could do without them if I had to.

Consistency of devices plus plethora of tools goes hand-in-hand with increased student choice in project workflow. I think the fact that every student has the same basic laptop, with the same software installed, combined with the multiplicity and ubiquity of the online tools we use, has had a strange freeing effect on how I feel about how students use applications to complete work. Where, two or three years ago, I would have felt it necessary to specify “you must turn in a Word document, double-spaced, printed out on A4”, now I find myself saying things like “Pages, Keynote, Comic Life, Google Docs, iMovie, Prezi – you choose what’s best for you.” As long as students think that the tools they’re using fit with their plans for the project, and as long as they can get a finished project to me, I am much less worried about precisely which applications they are opening up to do it. And (aside from some teething problems most students seem to have with Prezi), I rarely find myself thinking “Gee, I really wish this project had been done in Powerpoint instead of Keynote.” In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever thought that.


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More on badges and gaming – Course 4, Week 5

Yes, that's supposed to be me. Yes, I made it but I also hate it.

Yes, that’s supposed to be me. Yes, I made it but I also hate it.

As mentioned in a previous post, I think that achievements and badges might be perfect for things like typing, flashcards, vocab drills, math drills – but all of those types of learning experience, as essential as they may be, are limited in their reach of the more abstract strata of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Without wanting to sound like a typically alarmist old person, I’m worried about the over-application of simple mechanisms like badges without relevance to the tasks they’re connected to, and I don’t like the possibility that students playing games or collecting badges could somehow come to be seen as a substitute for the more subtle, creative or collaborative skills which today’s students should be practicing.

Badges can be powerful and motivating, but they can also be a new version of busy-work worksheets. Achievement has to be meaningful in the context of the task, and ideally provide a reward that means something within the context of that task (something like how in Super Metroid most of the things you “collect” are all weapons and powers that enable you to then proceed to new areas) – confirming progress towards a goal is fine, but it isn’t any more an indicator of authentic learning than adding up scores on multiple-choice practice drills.

At a previous school, part of my ESL teaching duties involved supervising the implementation of a “learning acceleration program” that the school had invested in. This involved watching as the students sat, put on headphones, and played phonics drill games for 30 minutes a day. Whatever the value of this might have been for the students, it was not a fulfilling experience for me as a teacher.

I didn’t get to chat with the students about their lives. We didn’t explore anything, make anything, or do anything at all together. I really didn’t need to be there at all. I wasn’t teaching. I am not suggesting that programs like that are not useful – I’m using similar tools to learn Japanese, after all – but I do know that they aren’t at all part of what really excites me about teaching and learning.


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Gaming – Course 4, Week 4

I love video games. I think I’ve learned a lot from them. I think everyone could learn a lot from them. I learned around 1984 from Zork I that video games can engage your imagination as powerfully as fiction, and that success often depends on trying every combination of items and verbs you can think of, no matter how improbable. From Zelda and Metroid I learned that progress is all about exploring every avenue, then returning to where you’ve been before when you’re more experienced. From Harvest Moon I learned the importance of saving money and keeping up with daily chores (I didn’t say I practice what I’ve learned). I could go on all day. I think video games have shaped my life as powerfully as literature or poetry has, which is to say that I can’t imagine life without them.

Harvest Moon. Chore time. It's always chore time.

Harvest Moon. Chore time. It’s always chore time. Source:

As a teacher, while actual game-playing hasn’t been a huge part of what we work on in class, I think I’ve tried to incorporate a sense of play and game-like fun into projects wherever possible. One of my favorite projects in G6 involves inventing a fictional civilization, which involves the type of world-building that game designers need to excel at, from alphabets to temple architecture. Some students made models of their civilizations in SketchUp or Minecraft, and I want to push even further in this sort of direction with projects next year. On a smaller scale, I am constantly using examples from games to make points about history, architecture etc…. earlier today I discussed the history of the Hagia Sophia while we watched this video.

Assassin's Creed - like a history textbook, only with lots of stabbing.

Assassin’s Creed – like a history textbook, only with lots of stabbing. Source:

When it comes to the subject of “gamification”, “badges”, etc. in education, however, I get a little more cautious. I think that certain skill areas, like touch-typing, airplane piloting and mole-whacking, are probably better served by practice through games than any other instructional technique. I’m trying to learn more Japanese kanji, and the site I’ve been practicing on lately has a lot of badges and statistics and timed events. I’m not sure they’re helping me learn, but they certainly aren’t hurting.

However, I’m worried about the rush to talk about things like badges and achievements and “game-based learning”. Most gaming activities, however much I might love them, are what I would call formative work, and in many cases Bloom would probably barely even deign to taxonomize them. More meaningful work in a game environment would definitely be possible in something like Minecraft, or SimCity, or some simulated situation that allowed for creativity rather than jumping through virtual hoops. I’m worried, though, that this isn’t what a lot of people are trying to sell as “game-based learning”, and that what they’re envisioning is just an electronic version of worksheets. But maybe this isn’t being fair to the game-based learning crowd – maybe I’ve set up an idea of badges and achievements in my head that isn’t true to what people are actually trying to move towards. I’ll have to do some more research. And play some more games.


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Taming Bucephalus – Course 4, Week 3

“But you didn’t teach us anything yet!” This was kind of hard for me to hear. A student said it to me the other day as we started a project.

I might not be the best at small talk, but in the right setting I have a lot to say. School is one of those settings. Regardless of the subject (except maybe for calculus), I think I could stand in front of almost any class and grandiloquently pontificate ad infinitum. Just this morning, after I read the daily announcements, my G6 homeroom students got a 10-minute lecture on subjects including Facebook’s future, Chinese internet censorship, Seward’s Folly, the Louisiana Purchase, and Japanese Manchuria. I’m not sure what the students thought, but I know I was slightly sad when the bell rang.

Yet despite my clear aptitude for pedantic lecturing, I love project-based learning and am overjoyed to have it at the heart of what I do – even if it occasionally results in comments like the one above. First off, I love it because it fits with how I remember learning best as a student myself. In elementary school, whenever we got to choose a person to do a report on, I chose either Alexander the Great or Alexander Graham Bell. I chose them because we had the same first name. Stupid reason, but the results speak for themselves. I probably remember more minor biographical details about those two Alexanders than all the rest of what I remember learning in elementary school combined. Do I remember my 4th-grade teacher’s name? No (well, not at the moment, I’m sure it’ll come to me). Do I remember Alexander the Great’s horse’s name? HECK YES.

My childish obsession with my own first name aside, there are many other reasons why I love project-based learning. It fits with what I know about how people learn meaningfully in any context, it fits with what I know about motivation, it fits with what I know about personal growth, authentic experience, relevance, real-world connections, just-in-time learning, and a dozen other facets of what I think I know about how people learn. Obviously I don’t think a project-based model fits every type of learning. I didn’t learn to type on a keyboard or drive a car, for example, through brainstorming or reflecting. But I do think that it fits almost every type of learning that has as its aims the more effulgent Blooming of the human mind.

Where do I stand on challenge-based learning? I feel pretty much the same way about it as I do about project-based learning (of which I think it’s an interesting subset or provocative reframing, if slightly questionable because of “branding” issues). It’s great. It’s a great model, and it leads to exciting results. I’m not going to say that I think every project needs to be an interdisciplinary global collaboration that solves major world problems (because what room does that leave for studying Alexander the Great’s horse?), but surely it’s good if some of them are.

And what’s the role of technology in all of this? It’s how we formulate, plan, embellish, share and reflect on every one of these projects or challenges. It’s not indispensable (I suppose Homer finished some pretty awesome projects using just his head), but it is invaluable.

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Course 4, Week 2, Non Sequiteur

These tools are a visual metaphor for tech tools. I'm sorry.

These tools are a visual metaphor for tech tools. I’m sorry. source:

This week I ought to find myself asking myself the question “How can teachers and schools ensure that students are meeting technology standards in their school within an integrated model?”, but I think my answer to this would be uncomfortably close to my thoughts from last week, so instead I’ll discuss something else, completely unrelated, that I’ve been thinking about this week, namely:

Do teachers find that they develop and stick with a consistent “flow” of specific technology tools from project to project? What are they, and what are the pros and cons of developing this sort of flow?

For example, for me the last few projects I’ve done have fallen into a similar and sequential pattern of tech tools:

Prior knowledge / introduction: Wallwisher

Basic background information: watching video clips

Gathering research sources: Diigo

Assembling research: Google Docs

Designing the project: Keynote / PowerPoint (I’m not going to pretend – we do a lot of slideshows in Humanities)

Editing / adding music etc.: iMovie

Sharing and reflecting on finished project: Blog

This seems to be a natural progression of tools that fit each step for me, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve done multiple projects in Grade 8 in particular this year that used almost the exact same progression. So my question is: Is it helpful for students’ proficiency and comfort level to do more than one project that use almost the same mix of technology tools in any one semester, or is it boring? What sequence of tools have you developed or fallen into using, and what pros/cons have you seen in using this sort of mix of tools?


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Who’s Holding the Net? or Course 4, Week 1

I’ve recently been wondering to myself, “Self, whose job is it to teach the NETS standards to students and how do we ensure they are being met in an integrated model?”

This is something that’s come up more than once over the course of the COETAIL program, and my answer to this is usually a rather straightforward (yet, I hope, not simplistic) one: If a teacher is working within a project-based, constructivist framework and is responsibly trying to inculcate students with effective skills for high-level achievement in any content area, then I think that almost all of the NETS standards would more or less automatically be addressed.

For example, if a teacher had already designed a successful, up-to-date Middle Years Program Humanities project on Climate Change, even if the NETS standards weren’t explicitly consulted during planning, you would hopefully be able to later go down the list of standards and note that the majority of them are more or less automatically part of the project. Any project on Climate Change that didn’t involve, say, students being able to “locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media.” (standard 3B) probably wouldn’t meet either the teacher’s own curricular expectations or the MYP objectives for Humanities.

This isn’t to say that all of the NETS standards are automatically met by every well-designed project, and I do think that all schools should have Technology Coaches or similar people who encourage teachers to more explicitly address them during the planning process rather than (as in my example above) shoehorning things to fit them afterward – my point is just that I don’t think adapting a particular project to address the majority of these standards should have to be a difficult task or require re-planning everything from scratch specifically to address these standards. Most of the standards seem like building blocks of good projects to me regardless of the technology angle.

As always with discussions about potentially horizontally-integrated pedagogical initiatives, I can’t speak for everybody. Teachers of certain subjects might have more difficulty seeing natural links between their projects and technology objectives like the NETS. I think I’m lucky because MYP Humanities might have more self-evidently clear connections to responsible technology use than some subjects. Humanities’ constant focus on research, evaluating sources, gathering and presenting statistical and geographic data – all of these things make it a pretty easy subject to adapt to take advantage of changing technology. I’m doubly lucky because the MYP’s most recent publications explicitly include a section giving guidance for teachers on how to approach meeting technology expectations within subject courses, for example:

The use of ICT extends to all teaching and learning in every subject across the curriculum. The effective use of ICT is an approaches to learning (ATL) skill. Schools must ensure that a whole-school approach is in place to allow students to develop information technology literacy and become competent users of computers.

(MYP Humanities Guide, published Feb. 2012, p. 53)

Successfully meeting technology standards within subject-area curricula is a bit like ESL/EAL in my mind – just as I feel that it’s every teacher’s responsibility to address different levels of English-language proficiency in the classroom, but that at the same time schools should have dedicated coaches or support teachers to guide classroom teachers as they deal with EAL issues, I think technology use should be a natural and integrated component of each subject but that teachers should be able to call on the expertise and support of dedicated coaches or coordinators.

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