Tag Archives: 21st Century

We need more invisible refrigerators

This year I am taking part in an EdTech/21st century year-long PD program called Cohort21. We had our first face to face session last Saturday, and the morning discussion centred around the use of technology in the classroom. The following are some thoughts arising from that session:

During the morning discussion of technology in education at the first face to face session of Cohort 21 we discussed the idea that technology should be transparent, invisible, in the background supporting learning, rather than being the focus. Like a refrigerator – it does an important job, but we don’t focus on refrigerators when preparing dinner, we focus on the food. Since we don’t focus on the refrigerator, it is effectively invisible when cooking.

Digital technology, however, is not. While we really want it to be, we have to spend a fair bit of and energy getting the applications to do what we want, making sure the students know how to use them properly (and actually use them…), and adjusting our methods to fit the paradigm of the software. All of this prevents the software (educational and otherwise) from becoming invisible.

I spend a good deal of time checking out educational apps and software, hoping for new tools that can support my classroom without getting in the way. Most often I find parts of of each of them to be quite desirable, and then other parts that make it almost useless (think smartphone apps for marking MC quizzes, but don’t give any feedback to the students).

Evernote is one application that does an awful lot, and is very flexible for recording observations, note-taking, tracking progress, and really anything else you want to make note of. And it’s shareable. Google Apps is on it’s way, but not there yet (but if Evernote could save to Google Drive, now that would be something!). But I’m having trouble thinking of other software that might fit into this category.

Most Educational software requires us to deliver in a certain way, or assess in a certain way. What we really need in EdTech is more invisible refrigerators.

The straw that fixed the camel’s back – Moving to SBG

I am always on the lookout for ways to improve my courses. Recent(ish) innovations include flipped learning, layered curriculum, modelling, SBG, and on and on. I like them all – or rather, I like most of most of them, and parts of all of them. But inevitably there is something about them that either doesn’t fit, whether it’s with my subject, my teaching style, or the requirements of our Ontario curriculum, there always seems to be something.

But recently, while perusing again through resources on SBG (Standards Based Grading), I re-read this post by Kelly O’Shea. But this time, something clicked, and I realized how I could mesh SBG with the Ontario ministry requirements of assessment and evaluation, layer the content in a meaningful way, and have it all make sense. And It all works with how I like to do things, which is probably the most important thing.

So here’s what I’m doing:

I started by going through the list of ministry expectations for the course, and then through all of my tests and assignments, and figured out exactly what it is I want my students to know. The list came out at 82 things, which were further subdivided into categories of Knowledge, Inquiry, Communication and Application (it’s an Ontario thing…). I also identified which standards involved core knowledge and skills, and which were more advanced.

Every standard is graded on a 0-3 proficiency scale, and all standards are effectively weighted equally. The core skills, such as  I can draw and interpret d/t and v/t graphs in uniform motion, and I can identify/determine whether forces are balanced, will earn students a score up to B+ (we don’t officially have letter grades here, we have number levels, but they correlate: 1 is a D, 2 a C, 3 a B, 4 an A. You get the idea). Advanced skills add on top, bringing the mark up into A territory. Which means, technically, a student could get a B+ in the course without ever even attempting an advanced skill (but hey, if they are ninjas with the core skills, why not?). I have a few additional rules – mostly to force conversations of a student earns a 0 or 1 on a core standard, but you probably get the gist.

On any given assessment, I will typically have three or so questions for each standard (sometimes multiple standards per question), and will generate an aggregate grade of 0-3 (whole numbers only)  for each standard based on the results. The only way to get a 3 is to get 3’s on all questions addressing that standard. Two 3’s and a 2 is a 2 (since they have not fully mastered that standard). Errors on things that are not addressed by a standard in a question are given feedback, but not penalized. There are no overall grades for tests and assignments, only on standards.

Students will have regular opportunities to be re-assessed on standards.

I have only been using this method of assessment for a month now, and I have already noticed many  advantages. Because all standards are weighted equally, it forces me to create assessments that cover a balance of topics, as well as a balance of core and advanced level questions. Students and I know exactly where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and ask for specific assistance in order to achieve proficiency. And, frankly, as I start working on my first set of reports, It is ridiculously easy, as at a glance I can see a student’s progress through each standard.

I have to say, so far so good!

How do you spell conundrum?

Previously I have written about how textbooks get it backwards, authenticity, using challenge, and all kinds of posts on pedagogy, ed tech, and “21st Century learning” (a phrase I am growing tired of, because we are well into the 2nd decade of the century…). I have also written about various challenges dealing with recent cohorts of students, and how the trend for general disengagement from learning in even a progressive classroom seems to be on the rise. It really is time for wholesale change.

I have experimented with flipping my classroom, with mixed success. While many students appreciate it, I still have students who just don’t do the preparation, and so they are unable to participate meaningfully in the activities that are based on the videos. So my plan is to build a hybrid/blended course with all of the content laid out online, so that all students can stay caught up, even if they are away at sports, or ill, or I am absent.  Here is what I am thinking:

  1. Build the course online, in Google sites, with plenty of embeded videos (mine and others) and interactives, questionnaires, wiki components etc.
  2. Make use of Google groups and/or Google+ for asynchronous discussion, backchannel, etc.
  3. Have students do ALL their classwork in  drive, shared with me, so that I can access and comment at any time.

 Now, the items above are not really new. Others have been doing things like this for years, and I have used pieces of it myself, just not integrated them all, whole-hog. But here’s what else I would like to do:

  1. Incorporate the concept of 20% time.

I spoke with some of my students the other day about the idea of spending every Friday class (we have classes every other day, so we have Friday classes every other work. But it is still one class in five) on a project of their choosing. While intrigued with the idea, they suggested that it would be difficult to implement meaningfully, because, as they put it, “We’d just play Tetris”. So I thought about it some more, and hat the following train of thought. In order to implement 20% time, I need to streamline the efficiency of the course, so we can address the essentials in 20% less time. Fine. So, what would happen if I were to streamline the course, and use the Friday classes not for projects, but for homework? If content delivery can be compressed enough for 20% time, it could certainly be compressed so that there is no need for homework. So what about the 20% time? Well, what if students were required to spend, say, one hour a week outside school time working on a project of their choosing, but with no other required homework? In other words,

  1. Flipped 20% time.  

This, I think, might work. With students journalling their progress there would be accountability, and ideally it should be something that is meaningful enough to them that there would be intrinsic engagement.

Now, here is the conundrum part. In order to pull this off, I have to compress a course that, historically, has typically been rushed as it is down into 80% or less of it’s former time allotment. Looking where the time goes now, I can see that  some time is spent in delivering factual content, some in what to do with that factual content, and some in providing context for both. So where to trim the budget?

In terms of factual content, whether I give it to them, or they look it up themselves, time is required. In grades 9 and 10 the curriculum is particularly fact heavy. I can carefully trim the list of things they absolutely have to know, but it is hard to trim the time significantly. As for the doing part – if anything I would like to increase the amount of time on using the knowledge learned, so not much room for cutting there. So that leaves time spent contextualizing, and the heart of the conundrum.

We know as educators that lists of facts just don’t stick. They are meaningless words. New knowledge requires meaningful context for it to be effectively retained, and that requires providing students with both context in which to place the knowledge, and context for the students to relate to. My informal, subjective observations seem to indicate that it is this contextualizing that takes up a significant portion of the time, and so this is the only thing that can be trimmed significantly. And yet, it is arguably the most important use of time. So what to do? How about something like

  1. Layered context

If the course material is provided online, as opposed to in a textbook, it can be presented with basic context, but with links to additional background information, examples, videos, diagrams, applications and so on, so that those students who need the extra context have ready access to a veritable buffet of all the information they need, while those who get it quickly do not have to slog through unnecessary material. And if those who need more context are able to turn to those who “get it” for help, so much the better.

I still have a lot to wrap my brain around, and I would love to hear from anyone who has tried (successfully or otherwise) to implement any of this.

Random thoughts on things to implement in my class

There are lots of strategies I would like to try in my classroom, but I’m not always sure how they would work. But here are a few of the ideas I have been tossing around, in no particular order:

  • Make MUCH more use of google tools – I picked up a lot of great ideas at the GAFE summit in April, and I’m dying to put them to practical use. Pages, shared resources, research tools built in, no losing documents.
  • 20% time – based on the Google model, where employees spend 20% of their time on a project of their choice.
  • On the Fly response forms – using a generic response form and creating questions each day to go with the questions, and/or using it as an exit ticket
  • more portfolio, journaling, less testing – build emphasis on ongoing learning, break the dependency on cramming and memorization
  • “tests” as formative – Despite making practice tests available, I find students rarely make good use of them, and then doing poorly on a test comes as a complete surprise. I have considered giving tests, just as they are, as a means of  providing feedback on what students still ned to know before they complete their work on the unit – whatever that might be.
  • “streamed” course for layering/differentiation – allow students more choice in how they complete each unit. Offer perhaps three “pathways” through a unit, from more traditional reading/lecture/worksheet, to grad-school like complete independent research, with a kind of hybrid/pbl in between.
  • change the way I assess. I need to a) make students more independent and responsible for their own learning, b) make it more meaningful, ans c) make it less onerous for me.
  • flipped classroom/blended learning – get more videos up, migrate my notes online, build the course in google sites as a sort of online textbook, complete with embedded docs for students to contribute like a wiki
  • Project/inquiry based learning. I really like the concept of the modelling method. The problem is that much of the material in grades 9 and 10 is purely factual, which leaves little room for inquiry.
  • introduce students to formal logic early. Hey, it’s science. Causation vs correlation is something science students really need to know.
  • make simple interactives. Flash, Construct 2, whatever. But something that can be embedded.
  • 3 before me – help to emphasize that I may be AN expert but not THE expert, and help break their dependence on me as the sole source of knowledge. They have to consult three other sources (classmates, textbook, internet, for example) before they ask me.
  • provide a road map of the course, that students must fill out as they go, with links to their work – students often ask what we did last class, or what we are doing next class. If i provide them with a syllabus/sequence on google drive, they can make a copy, and turn each heading into a link to their own work as we go along.
  • change the way I assess – Definitely.
  • “do I get it” self-assessment checkpoints
  • Incorporate Karplus learning cycle – important, particularly in science, but tricky to make relevant when the information is predominantly fact-based.
  • have students measure and graph everything they possibly can – It’s science. Measuring and graphing are what we do.
  • Maker Spaces – I love the idea of a maker space classroom. Making something is an incredible exercise in problem solving in the real world, and students don’t get nearly enough of it.
  • Change the way I assess. ‘Nuff said.

I don’t yet know how I can implement any of this properly, and implementing all of it is nigh impossible. But I know I have to make changes, and starting with a list of possibilities seems like as good a place as any.


Looking ahead

Last week I attended the ECOO (educational Computing Organization of Ontario) conference, titled “Learning in the Now Century”. It was a wonderful event – I have lots of new tools I am eager to try out, and lots and LOTS of information I am still trying to parse.

One of the themes that carried through the keynotes, and echoed by many of the presentations, is the level of technology and the pace of change. During the panel discussion, Jaime Casap of Google pointed out that “the worst technology today’s students will ever know is the iPad 1. It’s their Commodore 64″. And look how far we have advanced in the last two years.

We are only just into the second decade of the 21st century. Look how far we have come in a decade. Now can anyone predict, with any kind of certainty, what we will have available to us in the next decade? Because that’s what today’s kindergarteners will be using in high school, and today’s high schoolers will be using in the workforce.

One of the points John Seely Brown made during his talk was that context is becoming at least as important as content, and probably more so. I think I need to really wrap my brain around that. In my subject area there is a lot of content – that is, there is a lot of factual information that must be leveraged in order to answer questions and solve problems. The question for me, I think, is how much, and what, of that information is actually necessary to know, and how much need only be findable? And how much of the takeaway from a course should be content, and how much context? And how can we best achieve the goal of preparing our students for a world we can’t predict?

Of course, I don’t have any answers to these questions. I just think they need to be repeated out loud.

You can watch Nora Young’s keynote address here: http://ecoo.org/blog/2012/10/26/ecoo12-nora-young-keynote/

and John Seely Brown’s here: http://ecoo.org/blog/2012/10/26/ecoo12-john-seely-brown-keynote/


Don’t impose yesterday’s standards on tomorrow’s children.

Do you ever get those moments when something pops into your head that is just so intuitively obvious you wonder why you never considered it before?

I was thinking about the generational differences between students – that is, how students and learning today differ from when I was growing up, and how it differed for my generation from my parents’, and so on. I was thinking about this because once again I was chatting with a parent who was of the opinion that “what was good for me in school should be good for my kids”.

I started thinking about the differences between today’s students and students from when I was growing up, namely ready access to information, an expectation of instant answers, and easily available on-demand stimulation in the form of videos, movies and video games. And all of this is accepted as perfectly normal. And then I thought about why these wonders are readily available to today’s sudents, and I realized, duh, it’s because we gave it to them.

So now we have people from my generation suggesting today’s students should learn like they did, because it was good enough for them. We should take away their digital stimulants and cheating lookup tools and make them sit down and learn from books. But it was us, my generation, that gave them those tools. So really, how dare we. How dare we provide these wonders and then yank them away and insist they not be used.

It is valid to argue that students should know how to work without them. Students should know how best to tackle the world with whatever tools they have at hand. Personally, I think everyone should know wilderness survival skills too, but that doesn’t mean students should be deprived of all tools all the time. After all, when do we work without them? Think about it – we work with far more technology now than we ever had at our disposal three decades ago. Today’s students will have tools in five years that we can’t even dream of. So to suggest that students need to always function without digital tools because “they won’t always have them” is absurd.

How about instead we teach them how to use those tools properly. Or better yet, stop imposing our outdated opinions of how a completely new generation should learn, and let them learn how they learn best.


Real EdTech, Part Deux

Yesterday I posted about using portable everyday technology to do simple but spectacular things.

But wait, there’s more!

One of my students was with me in the library two days ago when I posted the microscope video on YouTube. Not only did he subscribe to my channel and post a question about what he was seeing in the video, he also told his friends about it. So when we did the activity in class the following day, almost everyone brought smart phones and wanted me to show them how to do microscope videography.

How cool is that?!

Losing the narrative

Please bear with me as I muse over these ideas on paper – well, digital paper. As i tell my students (or, as they might say, nag them), put ideas down to help you think them over, because you can only juggle so many ideas at once in your head.

And there I go again, providing back story…

Most of us in the teaching profession have commented, lamented, bragged, or at least observed that teaching and learning ain’t what it used to be, due to some combination of changes in students, their teachers, society, culture, and values. In particular, I am finding that over the last few years I am losing the narrative.

Have you noticed that when you study a complex subject in depth, that it seems to get easier the more you learn? At first glance this seems counter-intuitive – you might think that the more you learn the more you have to remember, making it harder. What is happening, however, is that we are completing a giant puzzle. At first, the pieces are separate, and make little sense. But the more pieces we have, the easier it is to see the picture, and everything starts to reinforce everything else. We begin to understand the system, rather than having to remember the pieces.

It has always been my stated goal to help students move toward understanding the system, rather than trying to remember the pieces, and so I try to provide as much context as possible, to weave a narrative around the whole on which the parts can be pinned. But I am finding it more and more difficult to transfer that narrative. Maybe it’s me, maybe the students, maybe the curriculum, but I think it is some combination of all three.

A few years ago a colleague from a different school took a sabbatical year, and as part of his research, he read the Campbell Biology textbook from cover to cover. He said the truly remarkable thing was that it read like a novel. It is a good text, but when read from start to finish the entire text is a narrative, with each new concept carefully pinned to the storyline. Meanwhile, I am finding the Science curriculum I am required to teach to be more and more characters, and not enough plot.

One contribution to the problem is the shift towards brevity. I am more of an old-school orator, and trying to weave a complex contextual framework in a soundbite world is a challenge. I struggle somewhat with trying to balance context and facts – there is really only time in a course to do one of them well. Experience tells me that context is harder for the students to learn, while facts are easy to dig up in the information age. But it is also less concrete, and harder for the students to see the relevance of. They see the facts and details as the things that should be “taught”, because that is what they are used to. And what their parents are used to, and what we are used to.

I find that while students today are capable of finding out information quickly, they develop the sense that any question has an answer than can be found quickly, and they are less likely to spend time digging and working through problems. As a result, they need more guided work time during class when I can help get them unstuck as they work through the more complex material. They are less likely to complete those tasks on their own at home. So while context an narrative is becoming more important to teach than ever, I have to chop my lessons down to “just the facts Ma’am” in order to maximize hands-on time.

Flipping the classroom (which I am experimenting with in my grade 9 astronomy unit) is one way to help deal with this issue, though so far my results have been mixed. Modelling is another approach that helps students build their own context as well as facts, but it requires considerable training to accomplish. Blended learning can provide a self-guided course with teacher supervision and support, but requires a certain maturity and self-motivation from the students to be effective.

I’m not sure what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. Certainly not a quick answer. But it is a problem worth spending time exploring. My students are worth it.

Check Out Project Noah!


I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover Project Noah. It is a citizen science community that, in their words, is intended to be “a fun, location-based mobile application to encourage people to reconnect with nature and document local wildlife”. Essentially, you take pictures of animals and plants, and upload to the Project Noah website. But it is based around smartphones. With the app installed on your iPhone or Android, users can snap anything interesting (or mundane, too) and upload. You have the option of identifying what you have uploaded, or requesting identification. The location information can optionally be attached to help learn more about geographic distribution. There is also a social network for chats and discussion, and even patches for accomplishments.

The images and locations are searchable online, so it can be used by amateurs and researchers alike, and as they say their “ultimate goal is to build the go-to platform for documenting all the world’s organisms and through doing this we hope to develop an effective way to measure Mother Nature’s pulse.”

I uploaded my first image today of a snail (me: “Oh! Gotta take a pic of this snail!” My wife: “Geek”),  and I took the time to double check the identification and enter that information. I think there is potential for this to be used in the classroom in many ways – an image resource, a class project or hands-on biodiversity lesson. Having to take a few minutes to identify and classify what has been found is an extra layer of analysis and engagement which requires a bit of patience, but pays off.

Of course, now that I have my first upload, I’m hooked. And, as with my snail picture, I expect to be called a geek a lot more often…


I have been assimilated

(…and no, that is not why I haven’t posted anything in a while)

I have been assimilated. I have become a cyborg.

Allow me to explain…

The term Cyborg is a contraction of cybernetic organism, and basically refers to an organism that has extended or enhanced abilities due to technology. Since I am an organism, if I enhance my abilities through technology, I become a cyborg. A few months ago, I purchased an iPhone…

It really didn’t take me long to get hooked. I use it frequently throughout the day to check weather reports, look up information, use maps, perform calculations, take and share pictures and video, check email, check twitter and facebook, browse my feed reader, check my bank balance, make shopping lists, and see when the next bus is arriving. I even occasionally make phone calls with it. And that’s just the personal use stuff. I also use it in class to record events, upload snippets to Evernote, set timers, operate my computer remotely, collect data, and a host of other uses, all conveniently at my fingertips without having to sit down at a conventional computer keyboard. My ability to retrieve information, or to catalog, or record and share information has increased substantially and dramatically thanks to this technology, so I am being quite serious when I say that I have become a cyborg.

This transition also gives me a substantial insight into the perspective of my students. We talk about the disconnect between a student’s outside world and that of the classroom, but until I became a cyborg it was an academic point. Now I better understand, first hand, the feeling of accessibility smart phones provide, and the sense of disorientation when that access is removed – and I have only had my iPhone for three months! For my students who have been using this technology for a significant fraction of their lifetimes, the separation anxiety is undoubtedly much stronger. So when we instate rules banning smart phones in class we are not just hobbling our students, we are then increasing their anxiety by threatening them with punishment (or worse – confiscation!) if they violate those rules.  It really must seem arbitrary and barbaric.

Like the fictional characters Hugh and 7 of 9 on Star Trek, I am quite capable of leading a disconnected life. There are times when it is necessary, and times when it is just much better to do so. I think that is the message that needs to be relayed. Without being heavy-handed, students should be encouraged periodically to perform mental and hands-on tasks without the use of technology, to help them recognize that they can function without it, so it is less stressful when they are required to do so.

We are only two years in to the second decade of this century. The degree of integration of technology into our lives with only increase, and it will do so rapidly and exponentially. And while the technology can be a temptation and a distraction, it won’t be long until K-12 education is the only place that technology is disallowed. If education has not caught up with the times by then it really will be absurd.