Posts Tagged teaching

Should Schools Resemble A Business?

There are a lot of differences between education and businesses. There are also a lot of similarities. Too often educators don’t think about schools using cost-benefit analysis. If they did, especially when it came to technology purchases, schools would be in much better shape. For example, should a school purchase a computer lab for teachers to use with their classes during the day? It’s easier to gauge the cost–most educational leaders usually just look at the dollar amount. They don’t take into consideration installation, maintenance, upgrade and replacement costs. This doesn’t include software costs either. These factors all need to be taken into account when making hardware purchases. What’s the benefit of the lab? What about the benefit of installing two labs? It’s difficult to quantify benefits often in education but experienced educators can make some fairly accurate predictions. Some educators just buy technology hoping teachers and students will use it. The reality is that technology needs to fit the vision and purpose of the school. Technology for technology’s sake is a waste.

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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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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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Information Explosion!

With the creation of the internet, the amount of information available to people is overwhelming. The sheer volume of stuff out there is staggering. There have been lots of estimates of how much information is accessible via the internet but as it grows, the numbers continue to increase–exponentially! People have even calculated how much the internet weighs! So, this must be a problem for educators. What should they teach now that there is so much new information out there?

But is this really a new problem? If you’ve ever been to a large library, you’ve noticed that clearly there is more information in all of the books than the average person can consume in a lifetime. The problem of information explosion in not new. What is *relatively* new is the technology allowing us to access. It seems like the information explosion is a new problem but it’s not.

Educational leaders and those who talk about school are panicked about this “information explosion.” I’ve been to more than a few in-services and lectures where speakers astound us with their calculations of how much information is “out there.” Then they tell us that it’s changing everything. What they forget is that too much information has always been “out there.” Since the invention of the printing press, there has been too much information for one person to absorb. So the task of a good educator is the same as it’s always been: to help students make sense of the world. The tools that help us do that have evolved and changed but that’s always going to happen. Nothing stays the same so we adapt. Our core job is and must continue to be to help students understand the world and give them the tools to continue understanding it. The students won’t suddenly begin to teach themselves with the Internet. We can’t just turn students loose on the Internet so they can “find” the information themselves. Knowledge without the guidance of a skilled teacher is chaos.

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Should All Teachers Be “Tech Experts”?

If you have ever gone to an educational technology conference, it seems that every teacher there is a technology expert. The presenters and workshop leaders explain how easy their technology is and how much it improves student learning. Many teachers I’ve talked to, especially ones new to technology, come away feeling excited by new possibilities but also a little deflated because of the sheer volume of possibility.

If all of the new technologies were that easy, why isn’t everyone using them? Part of the reason, I believe, is that there are so many technologies available. Teachers can’t be experts at all of them. The prevailing opinion of many technology folks is that teachers need more and more technology. It’s true that many aspects regarding technology are relatively simple. Users have menus and boxes to click the various options–it’s all right in front of them, right? The sad reality is that unless you have already learned which box to check or which menu to select, it doesn’t matter. Implementing new technology takes time, energy, and effort. And these are scarce resources in the teaching world. So what is a teacher or instructional technology specialist to do?

Leverage your talents.

What I mean by this is that you need to  take advantage of the wide variety of technology skills in your school. Everyone doesn’t have to be a “blog expert.” You just need one or two. Find someone on your staff who is or can become the expert on one technology. They do what I call the “heavy lifting”–they research good blog tools, they learn how to set up accounts and find out which check boxes to select, and they learn how to effectively integrate blogs into the classroom. Then you leverage their talents during Staff Development time. They help teach the rest of the staff. If you have a core set of technology tools and a core group of experts who can help others, you will be on your way to tackling the mountains of technology available. And you will have success.

Teachers don’t have to become technology experts. By leveraging training and support, schools and instructional technology specialists can achieve much more.

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Windows Live Office

In the world of education, Apple dominates the field. Often Microsoft is seen as the bad guy. However, Windows Live Office is a service that I began using recently and I really like it. All of my documents are Office documents (Word, PowerPoint, Excel). I’m at that point that I can’t keep track of them at home and at work. I like being able to access the same document wherever I am. The upload to Office Live was easy–I uploaded 10-15 at one time. When I edit them, they open on my computer in the native Office program. Then they save back to the web just like it was part of my hard drive.

I have also tried Google Docs. I could upload only one document at a time and many of my documents didn’t look the same after they were converted. I like what Google is doing with their Google Apps product. I especially like the forms you can create. However, I don’t have time right now to convert all of my literally hundreds of documents to the Google format.

So I’ve decided that since I have Windows Office available at home and at work, why not use the Windows Live Office product. The main downsize is reliable access to the Internet (cloud computing’s main weakness). I’m not sure if I will be the eventual Google Doc convert or if the full features of Office will keep me committed. What I do know is that I really like being able to upload documents on the fly and then access them anywhere. Regardless of the specific tool, isn’t that what networks are for?

PS. I just copied and pasted this text to MS Word to double-check my spelling and grammar. I could’ve logged into my Google Docs account to proofread it but it was quicker to open Word.

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Talk About Lost Opportunity

When I think about all of the things in technology to discuss, it’s almost overwhelming. Probably the one topic that leaps to the top of my mind is “lost opportunity.” There are so many chances to help teachers integrate technology effectively into their classrooms. However, much of the time, it doesn’t happen.

I just spoke today with a colleague who was part of a year-long technology education program. He wanted to do something new professionally and he wanted to challenge his students. However, after a year in a very “forward-thinking and collaborative technology group,” he only came away with one or two lessons. That and a laptop. (Not surprisingly, the promise of a laptop was the main draw for many who joined this program.) In the end, the main obstacle to effective change in his classroom was time. He told me that it was too difficult to learn the software, to teach it to all of his students and then to teach them how to use it to demonstrate understanding of a concept. For him, it wasn’t worth it.

Unfortunately, there are hundreds of teachers who feel the same way. So what can educational leaders do? They can listen to their teachers. Often the leaders of schools listen disproportionately to the many “technology experts” that promote the use of this tool or that tool. Too often these experts aren’t in the classroom anymore. They spend much of their time learning about new technologies and teaching others. That’s a fine thing to do. But to be most effective, they need to be in the classroom on a regular basis–not just for quick visits but full-time. Then they would know and understand the difficult realities of integrating new technology into the classroom.

Seasoned technology specialists who still teach can help other teachers implement technology effectively in their classrooms. They can help turn lost opportunity into real possibility.

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