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EdTech Update





BFTP: Teachers shouldn't have to be technology superstars

Since when has the world of computer software design been about what people want? This is a simple question of evolution. The day is quickly coming when every knee will bow down to a silicon fist, and you will all beg your binary gods for mercy.  - from Bill Gates interview spoof

A couple days ago I listened to a very enthusiastic teacher/techie explain how he built a "roll your own" content management system for teaching online classes. Discontent with Moodle, he created a stew of a half dozen free Web2.0 apps and a little HTML and Java coding and, voila, he had system he loved.* And I sat there thinking, 'What teacher in his/her right mind would not only refuse do this, but be able to keep from running screaming from the room at the thought of having to do this?"

Let's face is - teachers should not and cannot be expected to be technology experts in order to use technology well. It's like asking good drivers need to be good car designers or good cooks to be good farmers. I don't think so. I want my teachers thinking about teaching and learning, not technology.

Nathan left an interesting response to my last blog post in reference to creating a program that uses mobile computing devices systemically in schools. He observed:

We've brought in a ton of iPod Touches in Special Ed with Stimulus money this school year. Monday we visited another school that was hosting a site visit, to check if we were missing anything. The key thing I came away with that day is it is ALL about great instruction. The 7th grade math teacher we observed was inspiring...and made me wonder if we had anyone that dynamic in our district to really extract all that technology has to offer in the classroom. To be fair, they might not have another teacher like him in their district. I felt good knowing we weren't behind the curve and ahead of pretty much all the other districts there, but worried that we might not have the players to pull it off. The Yankees do well because of Mark Texiera and CC Sabathia win games...not the grounds crew, the GM or the owner.

But here's the thing, Nathan, - teachers should not have to be the instructional equivilant of Texiera to be able to use technology in the classroom effectively. The technology should be transparent (simple, intuitive, powerful) enough that any teacher who is open to new, or even enhanced, ways of teaching would quickly and willingly use the "stuff." Period.

And it is our job as librarians and tech integration specialists to evaluate technologies with this in mind. We should review and reject the junk that is overly complex, time consuming and just plain badly designed. And keep it away from our hard working teachers.

And yes, I've been beating this drum for a long time. ('Tis a Joy to be Simple, 2001)

* If this fellow spent as much time on course content buidling as he did on creating the CMS, it must have been a terrific course!


Original post May 19, 2010


Creativity and project-based learning 2

I am not very good at self-promotion. Minnesota modest, I guess. Yet I also think my new book Teaching Outside the Lines: Developing Creativity in Every Learner may improve kids' lives. With that hope, I will be putting short excerpts from the book in a blog post each weekend for a bit. Good thing I don't have to make my living as a salesman.

This is the second part of a post begun here. References in this post to Chavez and Hanson are to the earlier part.

From: Chapter Five: A Job Not Worth Doing is Not Worth Doing Well: What are the attributes of projects that help instill creativity?

Assignments that matter to the student:

  1. Projects that allow creativity have clarity of purpose and expectations. As I wrote earlier, good teachers make sure students know the “why” the subject is important. Ms Hanson told students that being able to describe objects in geometric terms everyone agrees on will be useful all their lives. (I’d like to buy an oval table, please.)  Mr. Chavez knew that some of his minority students are still impacted by societal discrimination and they need to know that discrimination is something that can be mitigated politically. Checklists and rubrics of expected quality criteria were given at the beginning of these assignments. Students knew exactly what each teacher expected them to do. Each tool, however, encouraged students to think creatively. Models of past projects, both good and bad, can provide an excellent focus for discussion on the qualities of an effective final product.

  2. Projects that allow creativity give students choices. If the purpose of the assignment is to teach a basic understanding (how past events impact our lives today) or a set of skills (being able to recognize a geometric shape), it doesn’t make any difference what the example might be. If a student takes a picture of a toy with a circular design or a tree stump, does it matter? Dig down and look at the core concepts that projects are trying to teach, and let the students pick specific subjects that interest them.

  3. Projects that allow creativity are relevant to the student’s life.
    For today’s students, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Washington is about as real as George Washington crossing the Delaware.  But by asking his students to interview their families or members of the community, Mr. Chavez added real faces and lives to these events. The stories resonated with those doing the interviewing. By taking photos of their environment, students learn geometric shapes exist in their own lives. So many times we ask our students to research important topics – environmental, historical, or social issues - but fail to help them make the vital connection of why the findings are important to today. Strive for projects that are relevant because they are timely, local, or personal.

  4. Projects that allow creativity stress higher level thinking skills and innovation. Think how different the results of a project that asks for a creative solution to a problem are from a paper that simply asks an “about” question. (List ten facts “about” the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement.) Find ways to move up Bloom’s taxonomy from the Understanding level to Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating. (“What are the three most common geometric shapes you found in your house? Why do you think that might be?) If a teacher doesn’t ask for originality, the best they’re going to get is creative paraphrasing.

  5. Projects that allow creativity answer genuine questions. At the beginning of the project, most students didn’t know the impact the Civil Rights Movement may have had on members of their community. Mr. Chavez probably didn’t know these things either. Ms Hanson didn’t know what children might photograph as an example of a triangle. Genuine questions are ones to that the teacher does not have a preconceived answer. Unfortunately, adults rarely ask questions to that they do not believe they already know the answer. Good projects try to answer only genuine questions. As a side benefit, unexpected products are a whole lot more interesting for the teacher to read or view too.

Activities that involve the student:

  1. Projects that allow creativity involve a variety of information finding activities. As teachers and librarians we are comfortable with our familiar primary sources of reference books, textbooks, periodicals, and trade books. Yet the answers to many personal, local, and timely questions cannot be found in them. While they can provide excellent background information of important facts, we often need to talk to experts, conduct surveys, design experiments, or look at other kinds of primary sources to get precise information. The learners in these examples spent time with secondary sources, but the generation of new knowledge and creative perspectives came from interviews and original photographs.

  2. Projects that allow creativity are hands-on. Students in the examples above conducted interviews, did online searches, created presentations and photographs, and gave oral presentations. Mr. Chavez’s students used cameras to take photographs and videos to be used within the slideshows. Ms. Hanson’s students used tablets to take photos. They learned how to upload and modify photographs. Students were learning by doing, not just listening. Notice too, how many corollary skills are practiced in these projects: interpersonal skills, writing skills, interviewing skills, photography skills, layout and design skills, and speaking skills.

  3. Projects that allow creativity use technology in productive ways. Whether for planning, for research, or for communication, most students find the use of technology motivating. The students in the examples used computer programs that were not purposely designed to be “motivational.” It is the challenge of creating original content and designing containers for that content that give good productivity tools like cameras, recording equipment, graphic programs, slideshow creators, and web page construction kits - the virtual equivalent of a set of LEGOs – their motivating qualities. And of course, open doors for original uses.

  4. Projects that allow creativity use formats that take advantage of multiple senses. Mr. Chavez’s students were asked to communicate their finds not only with words, but sound and sight as well. Our ability to digitize and present information is no longer restricted to the written word but now can include drawings, photos, sounds, music, animations, and movies. All are formats that carry important and often unique information in possibly innovative ways. By asking for information be presented in more ways than writing or speaking, the “intelligences” of a larger percent of the class can be harnessed and validated. While I can write, I think I’d want team members with good interpersonal and design skills on my team doing oral histories.

  5. Projects that allow creativity are often complex, but are broken into manageable steps. One of the first things Mr. Chavez helped his students do was outline the tasks to be done and established a timeline for their completion. Checking off completed tasks is satisfying, and students learned some corollary planning and time management skills in the process. Large projects can be overwhelming even for adults, but planning smaller steps, building timelines, creating frequent deadlines, and scheduling multiple conferences turn complexity into manageability. This task-chunking for many of us makes us “grittier,’ a disposition critical to creative success as we learned in Chapter Two. It’s also clear that some tasks in effective projects often require sustained periods of time to complete. In an overloaded curriculum, this can be problematic leading to the Platte River courses that are a mile wide and only an inch deep. We should ask however if one effective teaching strategy - project-based learning - might be less time consuming than re-teaching standards, year after year, through more traditional methods.

  6. Projects that allow creativity can be collaborative and result in better products than individual work. Mr. Chavez asked his students to work in teams. Joint problem solving, assigning and accepting responsibility, and discovering and honoring individual talents helps create a synergy that resulted in better, more satisfying products than students working alone would have produced. Not every project needs to be a joint effort, but real-world work environments increasingly stress teamwork. Teamwork in school is not only more enjoyable, but gives students the opportunity to practice creativity in the interpersonal domain. Remember that students can show creativity in interpersonal tasks.

Assessments that help the learner:

  1. Projects that allow creativity have results that are shared with people who care and respond. Mr Chavez’s kids got the same credit as those who may have simply taken a multiple choice test or written a short paper on “the Civil Rights Movement.” So why would kids go to all the extra work a project like the one described entails? Kids get hooked because adults take the time to really look at the work they have done and comment on it. The community, both physically and virtually, could view the student’s online presentations and leave comments – both compliments and criticisms. Ms Hanson’s students knew their parents would see their work during open house or parent/teacher conferences as well as online. Assessments and reviews by peers, experts, and neighbors (any audience beyond the teacher) are common in scouting, athletics, dramatics, 4-H, and music groups. Students who know they have a public audience tend to have a higher degree of concern about the quality of their work. Let’s face it, some kids just don’t care what the teacher thinks.

  2. Projects that allow creativity are assessed by an authentic tool rather than a paper and pencil test. Students had the checklists and rubrics at the beginning of these project and used them several times to determine their progress during the project. It was easy to recognize both what was completed as well as what needed improvement. These tools provide a effective means of doing formative assessments. When students are given quality indicators like these at the beginning rather than end of the assignment, they can use them to guide their learning and keep guesswork to a minimum. When shared, parents can become partners by doing quality control. As students become more sophisticated in the assessment process, they should be expected to choose or design their own “quality indicators” - one of the attributes of a genuinely creative person.

  3. Projects that allow creativity ask the learner to reflect, revisit, revise, and improve their final projects. Ms Hanson’s individual conferences asked even her young students to reflect on the project - what they learned and still needed to practice. While Mr. Chavez’s class had a completion date, students continued to edit and revise their work as they received feedback from website visitors and their peers. For many students, this project became a part of their digital portfolio of work. There is satisfaction to be gained from observed growth. Creative work, like gardens, musical repertoires, and relationships, are always works in progress.

Why don’t all teachers design projects with some or all of these elements. Well, a 4th “A” sneaks in.

Attitude is Everything

  1. Teachers who enjoy authentic, project-based learning in which creativity is encouraged are comfortable with a loss of control over time, the final product, and “correct” answers. If some parts of the curriculum don’t get “covered,” if conflicting evidence causes confusion, or a controversial solution to a problem is suggested, these educators roll with the punches. They have the intellectual confidence to handle ambiguity.

  2. These teachers and librarians enjoy active students rather than passive students. They have developed new rules of behavior that stress student responsibility, and have trained their principals to differentiate between active learning and students out of control. Doing rather than memorizing involves movement and noise.

  3. The professional’s belief that given enough time, resources, and motivation, all students are capable of high performance is critical. It’s not just the talented and gifted student who can make choices, solve problems creatively, and complete complex tasks. These teachers and librarians know that all students rise to the level of performance expected of them, that great ideas can come from anyone in the class, and that all students can have original ideas and execute them. It’s formative assessment that recognizes time, not native ability, is variable in student achievement.

  4. Teachers who do exciting projects recognize that their expertise is in the learning process, information literacy, and creativity development rather than in any particular subject area. No longer is the primary role of the educator that of information dispenser, but of guide for information users and creators. The sage-on-the-stage is being overshadowed by the video-on-YouTube. The happiest teachers are co-learners in the classroom, especially when learning new technology tools. And students get the satisfaction that comes from teaching as well.

  5. Teacher enthusiasm becomes more important than ever. The best projects are designed by teachers who are enthusiastic about what they are doing and how they are doing it. They are personally excited about their subjects and believe deeply students need to know what they have to teach. The downside to this is that it is very difficult to create recipes for specific projects that can be easily adopted by other teachers. We can all use principles and guidelines like the ones in this chapter, but to say a project, no matter how well designed, is going to work for every teacher or every group of students is impossible.

Teachers who work on these kinds of project know that they don’t always work the first time. But they keep trying. These teachers display grit as well.












Educator, assess thyself.

The end of the school year is a time that many of us take a moment to reflect on what we've accomplished and what we failed to accomplish.

If you are like me, you will base that assessment on a list of professional tasks that you set out for yourself at the beginning of the year. You can find mine here.

For those of us in education for which standard classroom teacher evaluations aren't a good fit (technologists, librarians, coordinators or one sort or another, etc.) establishing annual profesional goals is critical. Whether one is asked for them or not. And if we supervise others, we can ask those whom we are asked to evaluate to take a more active part in evaluating themselves using self-created professional growth targets.

I've always encouraged school librarians to have long range goals and annual objectives for two reasons. First they are a great communication tool that can help inform administrators about what one's work entails beyond teaching library classes. Co-authoring goals can be an opportunity to build administrative buy-in to your program.

But for me there is somewhat hidden value as well:

Good assessment tools are not used to simply evaluate work at the end of a given time period. They should serve as a guide and reminder for day-to-day activities. Regular conferences with the principal and/or building library committee have always helped force me into working on objectives through out the year rather letting my natural sense of procrastination convince me to set them aside until May. Progress toward long-term goals based on the needs outlined through a formal program assessment can guide the discussion at such conferences. Indispensable Librarian, 2nd ed

So, educator, assess thyself- even when you are not required to do so. It really is in your own best interest.