Archive for October, 2009

Frans Johansson and The Medici Effect

During the general session of T+L Conference on Wednesday, Frans Johansson shared his vision of the power of diversity in innovation. If anyone has had a diverse life, Frans has–from his quick recap of his life we can see that he’s had to pull together resources/ideas from a wide range. Luckily we can all benefit from his experience. We can ask ourselves and our students in a wide variety of situations to think about the material differently. The question “How is a neuron like a hand?” becomes a tool for exploration, innovation and discovery. The draw for many teachers to the profession is the ability to be creative. We like the process. Now we can use the “Medici Effect” to help guide us in fostering creativity in our students. Combine ideas that seem disparate. Ask if the seemingly impossible is possible–let’s try it!

Note: this blog post was also posted at http://boardbuzz.nsba.org/tl/2009/10/frans-johansson-and-the-medici-effect/.

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How a Virtual Learning Environment Can and Should Help Learners

Jeff Borden gave a great presentation on the rationale of why and how online learning can help students and teachers. His talk was not full of the often empty rhetoric about how “digital learners” are different from the rest of us. I’ve thought and written about this on my blog (MrPahs.com). Jeff said the learners haven’t changed–the way they and we learn has changed. I think the sooner we include everyone in the conversation about learners the better. No one benefits from creating a divide between so-called digital and non-digital learners. Another point that Jeff made was that students like technology because they like variety. We all like variety–young and old. Online learning can help address this deep need inside of all of us.

Another important way Jeff made for the case for online learning is that the technology can meet the many needs that teachers have everyday. As teachers, we want our students to write more, to think more, to create more. Online technology tools can help us achieve these goals. By using some very straight-forward tools effectively, we can get a lot of return for our investment. What really came through in Jeff’s talk was that he wasn’t just a “tech head” going off on the cool new tools. It was very clear that he uses these tools in actual classrooms. It’s great to hear from someone who has “the goods” and can help teach and inspire others.

Note: This blog entry was also posted at http://boardbuzz.nsba.org/tl/2009/10/how-a-virtual-learning-environment-can-and-should-help-learners/.

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T+L Conference–I’m excited!

I’m looking forward to the T+L Conference (Technology and Learning Conference) the next few days (October 27-29, 2009) in Denver, CO . It’s run by the National School Board Association (NSBA.org) and the sessions look very interesting. I’ll even be presenting at the “Excellence in Education” Fair from 4:30-6:30 Wednesday afternoon. What fun!

Here’s my blog post from the General Session on Wednesday: http://boardbuzz.nsba.org/tl/2009/10/frans-johansson-and-the-medici-effect/

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If It’s Not in Google, It Doesn’t Exist

I’m not making this up. One of the guest speakers at the iNACOL conferencea few years back told a packed audience this. He said, “If it’s not in Google, it doesn’t exist.” Seriously, I’m not making this up. Let me tell you a little more. The conference was about all about online learning. The guest speaker was a recent high school graduate who had done all of his schooling online.  He was there to give us his perspective on the world of online education. Much of what he had to say was very helpful to us as we were in the planning stages of creating our own online school in my district. The the idea that everything of value is catalogue by Google was laughable. Apparently this kid had never been to a bookstore. This was before GoogleBooks deal. Just for fun, I Googled the quote, “If it’s not in Google, it doesn’t exist.” Guess what? 27,100 results! There are a LOT of people who apparently feel this way. Somewhere along the way in the education of these individuals, they missed the part where knowledge CAN and DOES EXIST outside of Google.

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FETC-2009 Conference Keynote Speaker: Cavlin Baker

I just attended the FETC 2009 Virtual Conference for educational technology. The keynote speaker Calvin Baker from Vail, Arizona talked about how his district is using technology to promote teacher creativity. At first I thought it would be a talk about how technology can help teachers create “new media” to “wow” their students out of their stereotypical slumber. As you can tell, I dislike the notion that I need to use technology to entertain my students. Luckily, I was completely wrong. This was a great presentation because what he said made a lot of sense. Here are some poignant highlights. 

Districts need to get new technology into the hands of the teachers first. If you do, then they learn how to use it and incorporate it into the classroom. Bravo! Another thing Calvin talked about was that there needs to be accountability and structure when using new technology. It’s not a free-for-all. Many promoters of new technology want to throw any and everything against the wall to see what sticks. That’s irresponsible in education. Calvin explained a web tool they developed called “Beyond Textbooks.” It’s basically a way to connect teachers together in meaningful ways–in departments, within schools, across the district and even across the state. Too much of teaching is a solitary activity–to the detriment of the profession and to students. This tool includes shared calendars so a teacher can see what other teachers are doing and when. I like this type of sharing and accountability. An open learning environment benefits all. Too many teachers don’t do what they need to do and no one ever knows about it. A shared calendar is a step in the right direction.

Another aspect of Beyond Textbooks is the sharing of lesson plans. A colleague and I have been talking about this for years. There’s no reason a new teacher should have to spend years developing solid lessons when there are great lessons already available: they are in the filling cabinets of most veteran teachers. What Beyond Textbooks does it help pool all of the great lessons from across the district and make them available for all to use. My district has been working towards something like this but it’s a huge undertaking and we haven’t been able to get it off the ground.  Because the lessons are seen and used by other professionals, the quality of the products is very high. When there is an audience, people tend to perform better. Plus it gives teachers the opportunity for others to see what great stuff they’ve created. OpenEducation.org and THE Journal wrote about this initiative. Open up education–what a great idea!

There is a forum attached to each teaching resource so that teachers can connect to other teachers in a meaningful and timely way. Too many websites offer to “connect teachers” but they don’t have any real meaning. As a result, teachers join social networks and then never visit them again. The Beyond Textbook repository is key to the daily life of teachers: specific lessons tied to their specific state standards in their district. The forums allow teachers to comment and give feedback on the lessons thus improving the lessons. This technology can also give teachers the intrinsic rewards that we all crave.  

Teachers love to create and share the things that improve instruction. That’s why a great many teachers are in this business. Technology like Beyond Textbooks can help these creative individuals have even greater impact. I wish my state had something like this.

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“When am I ever going to need this?”

Every teacher has heard this question from students at one time or another. “When am I ever going to need this?” they ask. Sometimes teachers gloss over these questions, other times they retort with the empty response of “I had to learn it so you should too.” This type of question from students isn’t one that can be passed off flippantly. It’s exactly the type of question that good teaching fosters. If we as teachers don’t have a clear answer to it, then what’s the purpose of what we do?

Some educators have misguided answers to this question. “You will use math if you become a banker,” they say. “Let’s bring in a banker and have him/her talk to you about how they use math.” Seriously? If teachers need to bring a banker in to convince students that math is important then they clearly don’t understand the question. And they don’t understand banking either! Students aren’t convinced by pat answers or vague references to professionals “out there.” They need real answers that they can use each day in the classroom.

Early in my teaching career, I learned how important purpose is to the classroom. Since then, I have begun each semester with this question:  “when will you ever need this?” It’s one of the first things I ask them. As they think about it, I even chide them with comments like “Unless you are ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,’ you will never need to know about what we are going to study.” Or, “I’m pretty sure you will never be at the water cooler at your future job and say to a coworker, ‘What about those crazy Minoans.'” I press them to probe deep into the question why. You’d be surprised how many different answers they come up with–and they are real answers.  In our brainstorming sessions, students come up with no less than 15 solid reasons they need to take my class. I don’t teach anything particularly unique or useful. They are just regular social studies classes: Ancient Civilizations, World Geography, Psychology, Government, Colorado History, etc. As the classroom conversation progresses, we even throw in math and science to the mix. Sure, students understand that they aren’t going to love every subject. But they do have good reasons for why they are studying them. They know that they know that they need to learn about the world and that everything in their studies doesn’t have to have applicable to their life today. Of course good teachers know how to connect their content to everyday life but you can’t always do that.

Surprisingly, there is one answer that students rarely think of. To me it seems to me to be the crux of the reason why students need to be educated: it strengthens their brain. We know from years of neuroscience research how young brains develop and grow. We know how important the environment (i.e. education) is on the outcome of the person. Sad but true, I realize that very few people are going to need to know about the Assyrians or how to use the quadratic equation in their future careers. However, everyone is going to use their brain. So, when are students ever going to use what they learn in class? Every day! A good coach knows that physical exercise like push-ups helps improve his/her athletes’ performance. No one likes them but they all know it’s not about the push-up–it’s about the end goal: a strong body. Education helps strengthen the mind. 

Purpose is a powerful thing. Even if students don’t ask it aloud, they are wondering about the purpose of education in their busy brains. “When am I ever going to need this?”  There are simple and valid answers to this question. Our job as educators is to help them find that purpose.

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