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EdTech Update





Impact of criticism

"Expand your current network of relationships with people who make you uncomfortable."
                                                                                                                   -Leadership Freak

Not long after I first started doing workshops and keynotes on a professional level, a very nice lady whom I had never before met approached me after a talk and said "Doug, please don't take this the wrong way, but did you know that all during your talk you played with the change in your trousers? It was distracting from what was a good message."

I watched the video of the talk and she was right. My hands were moving in my pockets throughout the talk and I looked like someone who not be in education or near children. It was a humiliating, embarrassing realization.

So now, before I give any talk, teach any lesson, do any workshop, I purposely remove all objects from my pants pockets and put them in my suit coat pockets or computer bag. And keep my hands out of the empty pockets.

To have this vivid memory of a single incident after 20 years tells me that the harder and more accurate the criticism, the more important that is. Perhaps we need to seek out those who are willing to be cruel to be kind - and for us to tactfully offer constructive criticism to others when needed.

How do we grow and learn unless we are open to improving through the criticism of others?


BFTP: Everyday problem-solving

At this past weekend's Rhode Island Educational Media Association (RIEMA) conference I shared an old solution to teaching research skills when working in a fixed schedule library program that I call Everyday Problem-Solving, 2002. The attendees seemed to find this idea helpful, so I am sharing it here as well.

Here is what I suggested then and still believe:

Practicing information problem solving needs to be a daily activity for every student in our schools, not just a biennial “event.”

It’s easy to quickly brainstorm a whole raft of information problem solving mini-activities that can be done in either the media center or classroom:

  • Use the Internet to check the weather forecast and make a recommendation about dress for the next day.
  • Search and report an interesting fact about the author of the next story being read by the class.
  • Email students in another class to ask their opinions on a discussion topic.
  • Recommend a movie or television show to watch the coming weekend using a critic’s advice.
  • Find two science articles that relate to the current science unit. Evaluate the credibility of the sources of information. Locate a place from a current news headline or class reading on an online map resource.
  • Recommend a book to a classmate based on other books that classmate has read using the school’s library catalog or an Internet source.
  • Update the class webpage with interesting facts from units studied and links to related information on the web.
  • Estimate the number of calories and fat grams in the meal served in the cafeteria that day.
  • Find a “quote of the day” on a specific topic and use a graphics program to illustrate and print it out.

Note that most of these tasks take fewer than ten or fifteen minutes for a skilled information searcher to complete. Each has direct relevance to the student’s “real” academic or personal life. Reporting the results of the research is informal and interesting. Most of these activities are meaningful ones that adults do as well.

Happily research seems to back this up as well:

Brain research shows that permanent learning only takes place when research activities are assigned frequently enough that students can exercise and develop the essential skills of critical reading, writing, higher-order thinking, and presenting ideas and opinions with a purpose.

Brain research also shows that these activities must be related to student interests about their world and provide the opportunity for them to develop their own “reasoned opinions” based on researched facts and expert opinions. This desired learning is impossible to do for all students when schools depend on the “term paper” as their only research strategy.

A recent study of Social Studies teachers indicates that the age of the term paper is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by shorter and more frequent types of mini-research.” Education Week – November 20, 2002.

So here are the new research rules:

  • Daily
  • Relevant
  • Genuine

Oh, tech integration specialists and classroom teachers, this applies to you as well.

Have a lovely weekend.

Original post May 10, 2010.


Elements of projects that encourage creativity: Scenarios

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. 

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

  1. What do you love?

  2. What are you good at?

  3. What do you want to change? (Google, 14)


The quality and effectiveness of school projects differ vastly. Consider the last time you visited an elementary school science fair. How many of the projects would be considered high quality using Google’s criteria above? I bet the volcano model  and the plant nutrient experiment wouldn’t pass muster. Does making a volcano out of paper mache demonstrate the scientific method? Did the child who tries different fertilizers on a plant have a passion for horticulture?

I’ve been thinking and writing about how we can improve the quality of projects for a long time. What separates a project that falls flat, that results too often in plagiarism or paraphrasing, that kids struggle with from those that engage students, that teach important skills and concepts, and that result in real learning? And allow students to create and innovate? That are more likely to be done by students themselves rather than by their parents.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many teachers attend a conference or workshop and hear another teacher describe in exquisite, step-by-step detail, the wonderful project she does with her students. But when the teacher returns and tries the project himself, it’s a dud. Was the first teacher a fraud? I doubt it.

What has happened in this type of professional learning about a successful teaching strategy has fallen prey to what I call “the franchise syndrome.” Despite the fact there are many, many wonderful independent restaurants doing quite well, very few franchise successfully. And the reason I believe is that while the menu, decor, and recipes can be duplicated, the passion of the individual restaurateur cannot be.

The same holds true for trying to duplicate successful projects. No matter how detailed the recipes for success, unless a teacher is passionate about the topic and pedagogy, it may well not be successful.

So instead of a dozen examples of wonderful projects, let’s look at just two projects that have the potential of releasing a creative spark or two as well respect craftsmanship and see if we can extrapolate some of the elements that made them effective. If we can find those elements, we can apply them to any subject about which we’re passionate.

Project One: Learning about Shapes

Ms Hanson’s math curriculum requires students be able to recognize standard geometric shapes: squares, rectangles, circles, ovals, and triangles. While worksheets and computer games have helped her students do this in the past, she decided that for too many students this knowledge is simply an abstract concept that has little relationship to the real world.

Since she now has a cart of tablet computers available to her, she decides to use the cameras in them to help students relate their math studies to their lives. Over the course of a week, Ms Hanson sends these devices home with her students asking each of them to find and photograph ten shapes they find in nature, in buildings, and in objects in their homes.

Once the photographs have been taken, students import them into a drawing program in which they use the tools to outline the shapes they’ve found with bold colorful lines. The tech integration specialist was in the lab helping on the days this was done. Student use a short checklist to make sure they have completed all parts of the project. One of the criteria is to find an unusual shape and give it its own name.

When complete, Ms Hanson has a short conference with each student about the assignment - what they learned, where they had problems, and how this information might be useful to them. The short checklist of requirements was used as part of the interview. When students failed to complete any of the requirements, she made arrangements for them to get extra help or practice.

Prints of both the original photograph and modified photographs were displayed in the classroom and online for parents and other students to review.

On reflection, Ms Hanson saw an unusually high level of motivation to complete the project, that higher percentage of students mastered the math concepts, and that both she and her students had fun. She’s writing a grant for her own set of five classroom tablets for next year and decides to start looking for a better graphics program for use with the project.

Project Two - Oral Histories of the Civil Rights Movement

Mr. Chaves has a state standard that requires students demonstrate an understanding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. When he has taught it in the past using a textbook and films, he finds that his students are uninterested in this piece of “ancient history,” often do poorly on the unit exam, and cannot recall any significant events or lessons only a few weeks after the unit has ended.

So with the help of his librarian, he decides to change the unit up, asking students demonstrate their learning by creating oral histories of local people who remember the 1960s.

Assigning students to groups he believes have a variety of skills, he gives them these guidelines and a rubric on which the project will be assessed:

You and your team must find a relative, friend, or neighbor who remembers life in the 1960s and is willing to share his or her remembrances of that time. While there are no specific questions you need to ask, your goal is to see if they can tell you about how minority groups may have been treated differently during that time compared to today. You may choose to record their recollections as a sound recording, on video, or in writing.

You will also need to select one other secondary source of information about the era - a textbook chapter, a book, or a documentary, and compare and contrast it with the oral history of the person you interviewed. Try to answer the question: Did the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s have a lasting impact? If you feel you have a more significant question about the era, that’s great - but talk to me about it first.

You may choose how to present your findings. You may give an oral report accompanied by a computer slideshow, create a video, or write a paper. Exemplary presentations will be original and creative. All reports will be shared online with the school and the interviewees. A short written personal reflection on what you learned is also required. This will not be shared.

Mr. Chavez spent time in class helping students establish group norms, determine job responsibilities, and develop a timeline to organize task completion deadlines. He also encouraged groups to develop their own quality criteria for the completed work - and to think creatively about their conclusion and presentation.

At the end of the unit, Mr. Chavez reviewed each project and his own effort. He observed that students were more engaged, demonstrated high-order thinking, and some students showed creativity both in their conclusions or how they communicated their findings. He determined the rubric needed to be clearer and some students needed extra help from the librarian in creating good videos and finding secondary sources . A short student survey of the project revealed that while students found the project challenging, they liked the personal relationships they formed with interviewees and were proud of their finished product.

While these assignments have different educational objectives and are done with very different age groups, both have some common elements that fall into three categories: Assignments, Activities, and Assessments (which I will share in the blog next weekend).