The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

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Month: July 2010

I just read this article from 2007, originally posted in the Boston Globe, but available here online.  The point of the article is that participation in an Arts class helps students learn skills which may not be present elsewhere in their school as a result of a narrowing focus of schools on standardized testing.  To summarize the article, students can learn reflection, "such skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes" (Hetland & Winner, 2007).

It sounds to me like this list of skills closely resembles what we would consider critical thinking skills. Certainly it is an important set of skills and if this is the only place students are learning these skills, then Arts classes are critically important.  However, I know that I teach these skills in my own academic area of mathematics, and that this is possible for me because I do not have to focus on a huge standardized test at the end of the school year.

In my mathematics class students are expected to write out their solutions to problems, and to reflect on what we do. Students take turn blogging about what happened in class, and commenting on each others’ summaries. Assessment is done using projects for which students are given time to detail complete solutions, and more importantly detail the thinking the students did to arrive at these solutions.  Students have to evaluate their own work, and look for ways to improve it.

We take the time to do experiments in class to verify accuracy mathematical formulas.  For example, we will go out to the soccer field and use cones to create right triangles, and then compare the actual lengths of the triangles to what trigonometry and the Pythagorean theorem say the lengths should be. We talk about experimental error, and the importance in accuracy of measurements.  Students whose results differ greatly from the theory go back and do it again. If no one in the class were able to achieve the theoretical results, we would revise our experiment as a class and do it again.  All sorts of mathematics can be taught through experiments and I find these experiences invaluable for the learning of the students.

Fortunately at the school I work at, Arts education is not in danger.  We are a small private school and our head has recently invested in our students’ learning of art by hiring a full-time learning specialist for art.  However I know this is not typical of schools, more and more Arts and Music are being removed from schools because of budgetary concerns and a desire to improve students’ performance on standardized testing. There just isn’t the time to devote to the Arts in the school-wide curriculum.

You can change your own classroom so that the Arts is embedded in what you do if your school district is too short-sighted.  Critical thinking skills are too important to be discarded in favor of standardization of education.

Here is a great video shared on the Edweek blog.

This video should be something to show your staff at the beginning of the year. In  fact, I’d like to make the focus of my training next year on building personal learning networks for the teachers, so that they see the value of their PLN.  Some of the staff at my school are connected with teachers from other schools and other parts of the world, but most are not except in limited ways.  More than anything else, I’d like my staff to see the value in creating their own learning network.

You should read the entire blog post on the Edweek blog and then decide how you will start your school year.

This afternoon I had a great conversation with David Miles and Fred Mindlin. David works as an Academic Coordinator in a private school in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Fred works as an educational consultant for the Central California Writing Project.

Both of them are extremely articulate and intelligent people who have a lot to say about education. I’ve known David for about 5 years now ever since we worked together in London, and I met Fred for the first time this afternoon.

I asked David through Skype, and I invited Fred through Twitter, and we all met in a Skype group chat.  We decided to continue the conversation from #edchat and talk about educational reform.

This idea for a Conversation With Educators is from the podcast @betchaboy does, The Virtual Staffroom and is something I hope more teachers do. Talking with educators from around the world about what we do is a terrific experience. I hope to chat with more of you next week.

For now you can listen to this podcast episode below, or subscribe to this podcast in iTunes here.  This podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license so please feel free to remix it and share it, so long as you give proper attribution to the original work.

Listen here: here

For those of you who are curious about the production of this podcast, it was recorded using a program called Skype Call Recorder on Windows, and slightly edited using Audacity.

Last night @RobinThailand invited me to join a Virtual Staffroom podcast.  So I fired up Skype and accepted an invite from someone I didn’t really know before, @betchaboy.  I was following him but I don’t think we had chatted much before last night.

He runs a fantastic podcast called the Virtual Staffroom.  He describes it as, bringing a  bunch of people together to chat. Last night, the topic was open and we started with copyright law because of a question one of the people in the conversation asked. Our discussion ranged from copyright law, to creative commons, to finding sources of images, using iPods in the classroom, DRM of said iPods, whether or not the iPad is useful in education.  It was a great conversation and it felt just like we were in a staffroom discussing stuff at lunch.

The difference of course was that we had 6 people chatting from 4 different countries, representing 3 different nationalities.  A conversation about copyright law is going to be richer with such different experiences of what the law actually is, and how it affects education in our different countries.  About half of our conversation was about copyright in general, with consensus being that the current laws don’t make much sense.  If the purpose of copyright law is to protect innovation, we agreed the current laws are failing to do this.

However, aside from what we talked about, the structure for me really worked.  There were some small technical changes, but to me, this is what #edchat should be.  We have this gigantic "virtual room" full of people chatting during our weekly sessions, and while I enjoy the exchange of ideas, it has gotten too big to handle.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to handle the flow of information during this conversation.

If our purpose is to create conversation between educators, and exchange ideas, then I think we should look at our format more closely.  Is it really achieving that?  When the actual chat is over, #edchat continues more informally and works really well but when the official chat is on, I can’t really follow the entire conversation, nor would I want to.  I likened #edchat to 500 people shouting in a room, all trying to be heard at once to a colleague, and once she tried it, she agreed.

I’d like to see #edchat continue, but I think that next time, I will try and pull off a few people from #edchat to have a more personal discussion via Skype.  Rather than trying to have a gigantic conversation with everyone, I think a weekly discussion with 4 or 5 other teachers via live audio would be far more valuable.  Anyone want to join me next week?

Tonight I was at a birthday party for a young boy; I was invited as a result of my son being about the same age as the birthday boy.  While we were dolling out the ice cream and cake for the 5 boys at the party, I was struck by the realization that there was a relationship between their choices for ice cream and cake, and how we need to look at education.

Here’s what each boy wanted for this ice cream and cake.

What I noticed is that each of these boys, who ranged in age from 3 to 7, chose a different style of ice cream.  Already, by the age of 3, these kids had preferences about what types of ice cream they wanted, whether or not they wanted chocolate syrup with it, and how much cake (if at all).  These boys are all very different already.

The assumption that each child’s education has to be the same irks me to no end because I know that every child is different.  Nothing is more clear to me from this simple example that these children are individuals from a very young age, and as such they need to be treated differently; they need to have their needs met.

More than at any other time in history we have the ability to personalize learning for every student, but we keep moving toward standardized curriculum, externally moderated work, and increased accountability in the minutia of what we do as educators.  It is time to recognize that our students need more than this because if keep giving them all the same education, we will keep seeing some of them choosing not to participate in our system.

A common problem that is discussed on Twitter between educators is that they don’t have full access to the Internet due to a filter installed either at their school or at the district level in their area.  There are a number of arguments for and against the existence of these filters, summarized in the table below.

 Arguments for Internet Filters Arguments against Internet filters They satisfy need for control over what kids do in school. They don’t teach responsible Internet use. They prevent students from accessing sites which could be dangerous. Useful tools are blocked. They block access to social networking sites that may result in cyberbullying. They cause network lag and slow down access to the Internet. They make it easy to comply with educational regulations and laws involving Internet use by students. They are easily circumvented anyway. Google “unblock websites at school” or “proxy servers unblock websites” They teach kids how to avoid obstacles rather than how to solve problems. We are not teaching real life skills then, real life does not come with filters Internet filters tend to most often filter content for the teachers rather than the students: they know how to get by them. Within five years, the idea of an Internet filter will be antiquated.  With the development of 4G networks and the growth of smartphones, it’s only a matter of time before the vast majority of students have unfiltered access to the Internet in their pockets, whether IT dept’s like it or not. Many school districts have removed Internet filters with no ill effects. They create an artificial, limited research environment that will not help them when they move on to jobs or higher ed. The prevent valuable learning experiences about the risks involved with the Internet from taking place.

This document was produced by the collective wisdom of a few educators from #edchat working together. Our objective is to summarize all of the arguments for and against Internet filters in schools. The idea is, if we have the information and the argument worked out, our individual discussions with our local administrators will be a lot easier.

Most of us who chat on Twitter think that the Internet filters aren’t accomplishing their goal, which we think is to keep our students safe. What do they accomplish then? Mostly keep kids from making mistakes in school where they can be assisted with the consequences of their mistakes, and they prevent students from connecting to the most useful resources they could be using.

If you want to participate in the creation of this document, please feel free to add your thoughts here.

Today’s #edchat on Twitter was about how we can break free of the echo chamber that is #edchat.  We all have great ideas, but how can we turn those great ideas into action?  Our objective is not to stop our great conversations but to also move beyond our conversations into concrete action.

Here’s a great blog post with a summary of the different ideas from the night, as well as the perspective of the author, Matt Guthrie.  I don’t want to repeat what he says, but his post is totally worth reading.  The summary of the entire chat is here.

There was some action taken tonight, which I hope sees enough follow through to be useful. For example, one member of #edchat started a wiki where we can gather together our successes and failures in the area of educational reform.

I started a document to help organize a standard argument we can use to bring down the Internet filters at our schools.  The objective with this document is to share our individual arguments for why Internet filters are ineffective.

Another suggestion from @TeacherReality is to create local teacher "think tanks" which are linked to our national or international teacher organizations.

What other concrete steps toward educational reform have you see that were a result of one of our conversations on #edchat?

Update (2011): This absolutely as relevant for the 2011 conference as it was for last year’s conference.

First, I want to preface what follows with the stipulation that although I had the complaints listed below, I really, really enjoyed attending ISTE and will attend again.  I’d just like the conference to be more environmentally conscious.

When I attended ISTE this year, I was overwhelmed by the size of the convention center.  I walked around the entire place and just couldn’t believe how big it was and how many people there were attending.  According to a Tweet I read on Twitter, there were over 12,000 people in attendance.  After I looked around the conference I realized what a huge amount of waste must be occurring every day of the conference.

First there were the watering stations.  This was a great idea, with poor execution.  The idea was that we should fill up our water bottles at these stations, but every single station also had hundreds of paper cups available, which I saw people using often.  Every person at the conference could have been given a water bottle at the beginning, instead of the only 2000 which were handed out, and a sign could have been put up at the watering station directing people to go pick up their water bottle and refill it.  Perhaps by the end of the conference some of the people who had not previously been using reusable water bottles would get into the habit as an added bonus!

Next, every vendor had hoards of paper to hand out to people who attended.  This is a technology conference! People who come have internet access. Next time either give people a little card with an web address on it, provide QR codes so people can access the website directly with their smart-phones, or at the very least scan people’s ids (which all had barcodes) and promise to only send 1 email with the same information in PDF format.  The amount of paper wasted in this way was staggering, it must have been a few dozen sheets per person at least, which would mean well over 150,000 sheets of glossy color paper were given to attendees.

The ISTE organizers gave every participant a copy of the program guide to look at.  This included maps, which could and should have been posted up at strategic places within the venue itself, an out-of-date schedule, which was already in electronic form on the ISTE conference website, and a daily newspaper.  Again, this is a technology conference, use the technology effectively! Demonstrate best practices.  There were hundreds of laptops with internet connections set up all over the place; these could have been better utilized.

The food at the conference center was pretty horrible.  I mean, it was bland, boring, and tasteless.  When I went to a Thai restaurant on the last night of the conference (for reference Spicy Basil near 1st avenue and Broadway), I recommended that they contact the conference center and offer their services.  I was serious! Food which is bland and tasteless tends not to be eaten and this results in more waste.  Around the convention center there were various “free food” stalls set up, which was great, but I know that much of this food went straight into the trash later.

It seemed like the hundreds of laptops, which were set up for participants use, and all of the other electronic devices set up around the building were set on "always on" mode.  Everywhere I looked there was another screen blaring at me.  I put my laptop to sleep when I’m not using it, and it saves the battery because it uses a lot less power.  The amount of power a single laptop uses is not a huge amount, but hundreds of laptops around the convention center, and dozens of LCD projectors focused on interactive white boards, combined with dozens of television screens, all on for 4 days straight, has got to make an impact on the energy consumption of the building.

Our role as educators is not just to find examine our teaching practices.  As role models for our students and our communities we must examine our daily practices outside of school as well.  Technology is a terrific tool, but we must not forget that our planet is being overwhelmed by greenhouse gases and pollution and whatever little bit we can contribute to solving this issue is important.

Let’s try and run a greener conference next year, shall we?

The ISTE conference is over, and I’m finally able to unwind and get a chance to reflect on the experience.  The conference was awesome for many reasons, but there was a reoccurring theme that happened during the conference, which to me was the most important part of the conference.

When I first submitted my proposal to my school to attend this conference, I realized I would have to try and keep my budget down so I volunteered to stay with relatives of mine who live in Boulder.  My school happily accepted this compromise, and paid for my registration and airfare.  Unfortunately, it turned out that my relatives, who were originally able to put me up, were going to have to be out of town during the conference, and this meant that my free place to stay was no longer available.  Ugh.  I posted a request on Twitter for some help finding a place to stay, and within a couple of hours, @cindybuchanan generously volunteered half of her hotel room.  First connection made.

We met at the airport on Saturday, using Twitter to confirm out location, and picked up our bags.  Cindy had rented a car, so we went and picked it up, then drove to her hotel.  We stashed our stuff, thanked the staff for providing the spare roll-away bed, and went out to get a bite to eat and get to know each other.  Yeah, I spent the entire ISTE conference sleeping in the hotel room of a stranger, although of course by the end of the conference, we were friends.

Sunday, we slept in a bit, then headed to the first Tweet-up of the conference for us, at Marlowe’s.  We got a chance to hang out and meet people, and I met @mbteach, who is a huge part of #edchat on Twitter.  They had some awesome t-shirts with <nerd> on the front, and </nerd> on the back, which I really wished I remembered to purchase in advance.  Very cool.  If you have to ask why it’s cool, you aren’t a nerd.  I also met @geraldaungst and @kylepace here and many other Tweeps.  Second connection made.

That night we went to the Wells Fargo theatre in the Denver convention centre for the conference kick-off which was pretty funny.  Pretty silly, but definitely worth going.  We went outside and headed our separate ways for reasons which I don’t remember, and I missed the keynote address.  Well not really, I was outside the theatre at the Blogger’s cafe trying to watch it on the screen, but the speaker was being lambasted so much it was difficult to do.  Fortunately @dwarlick posted a mind-map summary of the keynote, which turned out to be much easier to understand than the actual keynote.

Cindy and I met up at the Hard Rock Cafe where we got to participate in another Tweet-up.  We got the opportunity to hang out and chat over some beers.  There were a lot of other people here from Twitter, including @angelamaiers and we made another connection. Cindy and I were pretty exhausted though, so we headed back to the hotel and got excited about starting the actual workshops on Monday.

Monday I participated in an early morning session on tablet PC’s in the classroom which I’ve blogged about on here already, and also the 10 Pitfalls to Implementing Open Source, run by Revolution Linux.  Both of these sessions were great, as was the time I spent during the day intermittently at the Blogger’s cafe.  In the afternoon I volunteered at the Twitter table at the Social Media playground, and converted 10 people into Tweeps.  It’s not hard, the argument is pretty simple and I’m sure most of you will have heard it before so I won’t repeat it here.

After a session on using Google Sketch-up for Beginners, Cindy and I met up again and went out to dinner at a Tex-Mex style restaurant before going to TEDxDenverEd.  The TED conference was great, lots of fun listening to all of these great speakers.  I know some people complained that they wanted a wider set of ideas, but to be honest my expectations were met completely.  I was very impressed with all of the speakers, even if I knew I wouldn’t be able to use all of the ideas myself.  We got to participate in a social justice idea brainstorming session which was lots of fun, listen to some more speeches, and then we got to go home.  Cindy also won a classroom response system made by Qwizdom which was very exciting.

I spent my morning on Tuesday checking out the exhibit hall, and hanging out at the Blogger’s cafe.  I submitted an application to the @inFocusEdu booth and won an interactive LCD projector.  I was super pumped about this, and happy that inFocus was willing to ship the projector directly to my school.  At the drawing, I ran into Dr Fred Mednick, the founder of Teachers Without Borders.  He was one of the speakers at the @TEDxDenverEd conference, and I invited him out to lunch.  We had a great discussion about education, and technology in education, and how these major conferences always seem to stray toward the use of the gadgets and away from our primary purpose, which is teaching kids.  This was a great connection that I made, and I am hoping I can find more time to participate in his program.

I then listened to a lecture by Jeff Lao on designing a successful 1 to 1 program which was pretty fascinating, if only because of the detail Jeff went into.  Jeff works for the state of Maine, and has helped set up the very successful 1 to 1 Macbook program that Maine uses.  I’m pretty impressed that an entire state is 1 to 1, and it gives me hope that the future of other states, and my own Canadian provinces will follow in their footsteps.

#edchat was being held live at ISTE, in the Social Butterfly lounge, but to be honest it ended up being a disappointment.  Everyone was on their laptops and the discussions that I would have liked to have had in person about education never really materialized, despite my efforts to engage a few of the isolated groups participating.  On reflection, I would probably have much preferred the session that @teachpaperless went to, on Games, MMOS, and Virtual Worlds.

Tuesday evening Cindy and I went to the @simplek12 Tweet-up for dinner, had some fun hanging out for a bit, but then bailed early because we were both so exhausted.  We went back to the hotel room, and I got a chance to finally reconnect with my wife for a bit, and put a little bit of work into my Masters degree, then I connected with my online gaming buddies and played an online game for a bit.

Wednesday went by pretty quickly.  The only session I really enjoyed was on using Blender in the classroom and most people at the session had difficulty.  For me, it was a great opportunity to get introduced to the program, and learn enough so I can get started on some more complicated projects.  Once this ended, I rushed to the keynote address by Jeff Piontek, which was excellent, but for me was a restatement of a lot of ideas I was already aware of and agree with.

The highlight of Wednesday was by far having dinner with @teachpaperless where we totally connected about some action that needed to be taken in education.  Shelley’s big idea was that we need to bring together people from all areas of education and have them work out a solution, rather than relying on a largely unsuccessful top-down approach.  Bring in people from the top educational management, the leaders of educational technology, teachers, students, parents, and government officials and have them work out some concrete solutions to the problem of educational reform.  Interestingly it looks like British Columbia, my home province, might be doing just that.

This conference for me was all about the connections that I made.  I may forget what was covered in the workshops, in the keynote addresses, or in the many tweets that I read, but I will never forget the people that I met, and the impact they have had on my thinking about education.