I like to make use of teachable moments in the classroom, so I pulled together a quick slideshow for my students to teach about the earthquake in Nepal this past weekend. I included a quick refresher about plate tectonics then show the consequences. The earthquake also triggered a series of avalanches that impacted climbers on Mt. Everest.
Dan Meyer is a young math teacher offering novel methods for moving beyond the traditional word problem. He suggest using multimedia to create situations that relate directly to the students' world, something that might actually be similar to something they would see or need to do in real life. So rather than using the idealized questions that most textbooks provide the students with puzzles where they have to contemplate what the best way to solve it might be, rather than just plugging in a formula and making it work.
His guidance for creating good math problems is so similar to what we have been learning about creating good inquiry-based science lessons. Throw out a simple question that is complicated to answer. Have the students come up with the steps and investigations to get to the final answer. Then help them with the skills to complete those steps and eventually reach that answer.
Dan Meyer calls this "Math Intuition." That is, the ability to have an innate sense of how things relate to one another mathematically. You have to know what the right questions are first, before you can get the information to solve the problem. And knowing how to ask the right question is probably the most relevant part of mathematics for real life. Watch his video below:
Another recent video I was impressed with was this one by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. He first discusses how he has seen students that learn to write computer code, even simple ones, benefit greatly from the process of debugging. That is, making mistakes in the code and having to figure out where the mistake is in order to fix it. Again, this seems like a form of inquiry, where students are provided a simple question that is complex to solve. They have to test a hypothesis (I think this bit of code is wrong) to determine if that is actually the mistake. And it becomes like a game for them, helping their minds become accustomed to solving complex problems.
He goes on to talk about how there is strong evidence that the worst thing in the American education system is the constant testing. Students have to give up on real learning so that they can simply become good test takers. He points to Finland, where their students consistently rank far at the top of global education ratings. Their secret is that they have taken the testing and competition out of education. We are "testing our kids to death," he says. And our system is broken because of it.
This app Storify offers a powerful tool where anyone can create slideshow to tell a story, bringing in a huge range of resources from around the internet. Here, I used Instagram to tell a simple story of life in my backyard. I could have just as easily brought in my, and other's, posts from Twitter, Facebook, Google and other social media.
In education we're constantly telling stories, using them to make connections between natural phenomenon, society and our students. Stories can be powerful and they help to give context to the world. But it's critical to not rely on any single story to define your view or perception.
The novelist Cimamanda Adichie speaks to the importance of hearing, or reading, multiple viewpoints about a place or people. She warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. She's absolutely right. For instance, there is an old phrase that says "history is written by the winners." This points to a belief that "facts" are only true in the given context. But if you look at an event or place from another perspective then it might appear completely differently. If all we have is that one story then we risk it becoming our reality.
Relating this back to the classroom, it's critically important for teachers to understand that each student has their own story, their own issues they are dealing with. We cannot afford to make assumptions based on a student's appearance, attitude or performance. It begs the question, how can we ask students to tell their stories? How can we incorporate their lives into the group's understanding? Their experiences are real and should be respected and honored. This is how we create a stronger bond between and among members of our society.
Watch Ms. Adichie's video below to better understand this danger of a single story.
Michael Wesch is a forward thinking educator from Kansas State University, pushing the limits of what can be done in the classroom using the vast resources and knowledge of the internet that have been created mostly by individuals. The past decade has seen an incredible change in the way that people interact with the world, plugging into massive networks of information like Wikipedia, that are completely crowd-sourced. In the past the academics and institutions held complete control over the creation and spread of knowledge. But now people are coming to realize that information must be freed, and that we can all contribute to the greater knowledge-base of the world. Unfortunately our education system is still mired in the past, relying on methods and goals from a half-century ago. Students are taught through a very small lens of material that has been sanitized and boiled down to a few thousand facts that must be memorized in order to move on to the next topic. Of course this is not how the world works in the age of the internet, and students are not being prepared to live and work productively or efficiently in that world.
Students today are growing up ON the internet. It's part of their DNA. If we want to reach them we have to meet them there. This is how they will thrive. Teachers and the education system must figure out how to utilize these powerful new resources to ensure that our future citizens understand how to use them to solve real problems and to collaborate with others. They are constantly in touch with their network of friends, let's teach them how to plug into the massive network of knowledge that is growing exponentially every year.
Grant Wiggins recently shared a story about a veteran teacher and teaching coach who decided to "be" a high school student to try to learn from their experiences. So she shadowed a couple students for two days. The idea was to follow the student schedule, sit in the student seats and do all the student work. What she found was pretty amazing. and is worth the read. Below is my view on her key takeaways.
1. Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
In the work place we recommend that people get up and move around occasionally to refresh and energize themselves, and to avoid injuries. But in most classrooms students are told to sit still and work quietly, while the teacher is up on their feet moving around. All that sitting can actually wear you out because the blood's not moving and you're being completely passive. Your body starts to feel horrible. It can be tricky, but it's important to "read" your students and recognize when they need a break to recharge. Instead, why not create lessons and run your classroom in a way that students get a chance to move around, interact and wake up their bodies and minds. Last semester we had reptiles in the classroom and we would try to take 5 or 10 minutes in the middle of a 2 hour block to get everyone up and go outside to feed one of the lizards its daily greens. This was both refreshing and entertaining, and it kept the students awake and alert.
2. High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
The majority of classrooms are very teacher-centered, with the students listening passively and not interacting with their classmates, the teacher or the material. Learning can work so much more effectively if the students are actually participating or creating. Students need activities and participation in order to get the most out of their learning. Be sure to get their feedback on what they might be confused about so that you can address their concerns and reteach or clear up misconceptions.
3. You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.
It's easy for teachers to get annoyed with repeated questions and requests from students who were not paying attention or were busy with work. That annoyance can turn to sarcasm and exasperation directed at the students. How awful that must make them feel when a teacher rolls their eyes and huffs and puffs simply because they're asking a question. We need to dig deep into ourselves to find the patience and tolerance to realize that we all can get distracted and that it's not a crime to ask for clarification.
I really appreciate this story and it's hugely valuable to read it at this point in my career, just as I'm beginning. It's great to be able to benefit from the lessons of veteran teachers. I encourage all to read the story.
Tony Wagner makes a strong case for a major overhaul of the secondary education system in his book The Global Achievement Gap. He clearly demonstrates how our high schools and testing systems are outmoded relics of the last century. Business leaders consistently state how our schools are simply not preparing students for the modern workplace and that they just don't have the skills and strengths needed to add value to their companies.
In 2013, Wagner told the NY Times' Tom Friedman how this is playing out, stating:
Today, because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’ ”
I think it comes down to the ability to think critically about problems and know how to leverage existing resources and relationships in order to solve those problems. Wagner suggests a set of seven skills that are needed in order to survive and thrive in today's economy:
Creativity is not limited to just the arts. In order to come up with novel solutions to problems we have to be able to think outside the box and tap into our creative minds to make new connections. Schools should be helping students recognize their innate creative abilities outside of the typical academic fields. We each have our own strengths and we just need to find them and tap into them.
Focus is the ability to sit down and get things done. I see kids all the time who struggle to complete a simple assignment. They are too easily distracted by the constant inundation of social interactions and digital media made possible by the latest technological gadget. If we expect these young people to be able to concentrate on the things they need to do, perhaps we can figure out ways to help them learn to tune out the distractions and really put in the time to grow these critical skills.
In my classroom I hope that I am able to teach lessons and guide students towards all of these critical survival skills. I want my students to be ready for whatever challenges come their way and to contribute to society. In science classes I think that the biggest part of that will be to encourage curiosity through inquiry and project-based learning. I want students to learn to seek out information and new answers, solve problems that are put in front of them. Work and collaborate with their peers to productively analyze data of various types to create solutions to the world's troubles.
It's interesting to see how out of date Wagner's discussion of technology use by teens is. Not because the patterns or behaviors have changed, but just that the specific tech tools and apps that kids use has changed so dramatically in just a few years. He talks of teens spending massive amounts of time on Myspace and Instant Messaging apps, even Facebook, all used on a personal computer. The book was written just seven years ago, but of course these have all fallen out of favor with teens today, and in fact I think that the majority of students spend very little time socializing on a family computer. Everything has moved to mobile apps, where teens can quickly and easily share what's happening in their lives, right now.
The first iPhone was introduced in 2007 and just look at how much of our lives has changed because of that model. We have instant access to the world's knowledge through a quick google search. If a thought or question pops into our heads, we can share it with thousands of others or snap a picture and send it off to our closest friends. There is no more waiting for anything related to information. And high school students today have basically come of age with these amazing tools at their fingertips. The idea of researching a topic with a bunch of books in a library is completely foreign to them. And while this is a very different mindset than what most teachers know and grew up with, it is no less real. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. If we want to connect with kids and help them to develop skills that are useful in today's high-tech economy, we need to figure out how to use their strengths and digital modes of learning and communicating.
Chapter 6 looks at a few models of teaching that are very different from the norm. Their primary difference from the typical US education model is that they are very student-centered and aim to provide personalized support to ensure that the students each succeed and live up to their own potential. Contrast this to most American schools that have strict requirements for all students to take the same classes and pass the same tests, creating a very homogeneous student body.
High Tech High, in particular, offers a very intriguing model where student learn through projects. They are faced with a challenge or problem that they must research and apply what they learn in their content classes towards real world applications that they can actually connect with. Teachers act as coaches and mentors assisting students in the learning process, guiding them through inquiry, design and construction. They have to clearly demonstrate that they understand all the moving parts of a project and the underlying lessons behind them.
HTH, along with the other schools that are reviewed, seem to do a wonderful job of nurturing the whole child and offering many options for demonstrating their learning. This is a great change from the typical classroom filled with lectures, worksheets and quizzes.
It's been almost 25 years since I last played a trombone. I had gotten pretty good (not great) through high school and spent many hours reading and playing music. Eight years of that makes it pretty natural to look at a piece of sheet music and be able to quickly decipher the notes and rhythm. Now that I'm trying to learn the bass guitar, that basic skill definitely takes some time to regain. The rhythmic patterns are pretty straightforward to figure out. But assigning a specific note on the sheet to a particular fingering on the guitar is going much slower than I thought it would. I really have to concentrate and repeat in order to consistently play each line. Now luckily most bass lines in rock music are pretty repetitive so a lot of it is just building up muscle memory.
If you play guitar or bass already then you are aware that reading Tablature (tabs) music can be much easier to learn the notes of a song. Tabs are basically just a way of representing notes by putting a fret number on a line for each guitar string. Like this:
The Studybass.net site offers a good overview of the pros and cons of Standard musical notation vs. bass tab notation. Basically, if I want to be able to play a wide variety of music and to potentially create my own music then I definitely need to be able to read traditional sheet music. Luckily I have the background so I just need to keep practicing to get my skills back up.
Thom Markham offers a take on what it means to be a teacher in modern times with his KQED post "Redefining Teachers with a 21st Century Education ‘Story’". He hits on the ever active tension between classroom accountability and the need to expand students' minds beyond the rote memorization required for most standardized tests. It seems easy for teachers to become cynical and frustrated when they are constantly pushed towards the priorities and learning methods of the past.
We hear from businesses and employers that they value very different characteristics in young employees than they did 50 years ago. Yet the education system has mostly not kept up with those needs. Markham says:
‘Smart’ these days includes grit, resiliency, empathy, curiosity, openness, creativity, and evaluative thinking. Figuring out how to teach, instill, or elicit these strengths in children as they move through school is the most acute challenge education has ever faced. No one really knows how to design a system that leads to ‘better’ people—and yet that’s the task.
Teachers and classrooms are often disconnected from the realities of the world and how best to prepare young people. Markham makes solid suggestions for staying inspired and energized. Always remember that we are part of the global community and teachers have great opportunity to contribute to improving that community. Every student we teach will add value to the world, and we have the ability to support their aspirations and push them to live up their potential. There are huge digital networks of teachers all over the world that you can tap into for support and reflection. We're not out there alone. Constantly look for new ways to encourage curiosity, inquiry and creativity since these are what will create adults who have the skills to thrive in the modern world.