Learning to Walk

October 20, 2012

The following abstract came across my google reader today. What are the insights you’re seeing for learning/teaching in K-16 education?

A century of research on the development of walking has examined periodic gait over a straight, uniform path. The current study provides the first corpus of natural infant locomotion derived from spontaneous activity during free play. Locomotor experience was immense: Twelve- to 19-month-olds averaged 2,368 steps and 17 falls per hour. Novice walkers traveled farther faster than expert crawlers, but had comparable fall rates, which suggests that increased efficiency without increased cost motivates expert crawlers to transition to walking. After walking onset, natural locomotion improved dramatically: Infants took more steps, traveled farther distances, and fell less. Walking was distributed in short bouts with variable paths—frequently too short or irregular to qualify as periodic gait. Nonetheless, measures of periodic gait and of natural locomotion were correlated, which indicates that better walkers spontaneously walk more and fall less. Immense amounts of time-distributed, variable practice constitute the natural practice regimen for learning to walk.

Why schools don’t change

October 4, 2012

You must go check out Ira Socol’s most recent post in which he links the slow progression of medicinal practice to educational change. I found myself thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” & paradigm shift. In science, a paradigm continues to reign as long as those locked into the paradigm persist or enough anomalies are collected to re-evaluate the paradigm despite the beliefs of those in power. I wonder when we will accept that too many anomalies already exist in education (i.e.: too many kids are not learning).

Technological evolution, not revolution.

January 20, 2012

As much as people want to believe in the revolutionary power of technology, technology advance more closely resembles evolution than revolution because new technology is developed in light of previous technologies (McArthur, 2007). Usually, new technologies are simply a recombination of older technologies. Because new technology reflects previous technologies, educators should carefully consider the past.  That is, in what ways do new technologies simply reflect past approaches to education?

Not all developed technologies are adopted on a wide scale.  What technologies are adopted is likely of greater consequence than what technologies are developed. As new ideas are more likely to be learned if they fit within existing mental frameworks (Piaget, 1970; Posner et al., 1982), new technologies are adopted if they fit reasonably well into and existing framework. For example, consider why the interactive whiteboard makes so much sense to many educators.  The chalkboard, the overhead projector, the whiteboard, PowerPoint and the interactive whiteboard are all intricately related.  One wonders if the interactive whiteboard would have ever been developed had the chalkboard not been so widely used.  More curiously, one wonders if lecture-based instruction might be less pervasive had none of these technologies been developed.  By not recognizing how technology evolves and why new technologies are adopted, educators miss the ways in which new technologies often reinforce ineffective teaching strategies and further add to the institutional momentum that prevents systemic change in education.


This post is from a paper I recently presented at the Association for Science Teacher Educators. For the full paper and citations, click here.

Creation of what?

August 1, 2011

When we talk about the use of technology in schools we often note how the technology can be leveraged to increase students’ level of thinking.  Bloom’s taxonomy placed “creating” (used to be synthesis) near the top of the “thinking pyramid”.  I agree that creating is something we ought to be having students do, but there are some subtle traps awaiting our implementation.

When teachers have students create a Powerpoint about topic X, the students are not necessarily creating using their understanding of topic X, they are creating using their understanding of Powerpoint and maybe topic X.  A students can know little about X and still be able to create a wonderful presentation about X.

For example, students might create a Powerpoint about density that has loads of examples and explanations of density, but not really use this information in any meaningful way – other than to “present” it.  Instead, if students create a solution to a problem (how can we separate oil from water), or design a product (a submarine) using their knowledge of density the creative act is much more closely aligned with the intended content.  Also, notice other thinking such as application and analyzing come into play.

So, have kids create, just be careful about what they are creating.  Despite the obvious mental development benefits, creation may distract us (and students) from the intended learning goals.

What does flipping miss?

June 15, 2011

First off, the flipped classroom is not so very new, but then again, not much is.  Consider the learning cycle.  This “flips” traditional instruction by starting with student exploration, then going into concept development.  The problem is in implementation.  When using the learning cycle, many teachers simply have kids “play” with stuff, then go into a lecture and call it “concept development”.  The real downfall here of the current flip system is that “concept exploration” is defined by activities such as watch a video & listen to audio.  This is not so much concept development as it is an attempt at concept collection.  This is a subtle but important point.

Concept development is when students are the ones, with teacher guidance, developing mental models and ideas around a concept.  Concept collection, in my definition, is more like expecting kids to “collect” the concepts from the teacher in tact instead of construct the concepts from prior experiences and teacher guidance.  In most of the current dialogue around flipping, the exploration and concept development remain isolated events.  In the very best classrooms, I envision exploration leading organically into concept development.  What I envision is idiosyncratic, is VERY hard to plan for, and very hard to accomplish.

Additionally, the whole “students can engage with material at own pace” rhetoric is old news.  Kids could do that with textbooks too, but did they?  IMO, the key difference in changing education is how connection is made between content & experience. Having a prerecorded lecture cannot authentically react to kids genuine experience. It will be contrived, just like a text book is. Yet, video & textbooks are great as additional resources. As long as video or text (no matter how well designed) is the major mode of content delivery, little has changed. While kids might be doing more application in the classroom, application is very different than creation & synthesis. Application as a step forward, but it is not the goal – I want students to create as they learn, not just after they learn.


*Hat tip to Frank Noschese

How we should use Khan Academy

June 9, 2011

Khan Academy is not going away.  So, how could we make use of Khan Academy?

1) As a textbook.  After students have had experiences and discussed ideas in class, I often gave students reading assignments out of textbooks (notice the reading comes AFTER the exploration of ideas).  Khan Academy could be useful in the same way.  After students have explored topics and put forth their own ideas and been guided by an expert teacher toward accurate conceptual understanding, then Khan Academy can fill in the gaps.

2) As a model for learning (hear me out on this one).  What Khan has done is taken upon himself to learn and then demonstrate that learning by attempting to teach others.  What Khan has done is exactly what we want students doing!  We don’t want students watching Khan’s videos, we want student creating such videos to demonstrate their understanding.  Or, consider having students create the textbook – that is, students decide what are the important ideas and what examples to use regarding your content area.

3) As example in Schools of Education.  I showed my preservice teachers videos from KA and from Veritiasium and asked them to compare them given what we know about how people learn and effective teaching.  All I’ll say is that I have very bright students who recognized important differences immediately!

4) As assessment for students.  After students have learned about X topic.  Have them watch Khan’s video on X.  Their assignment will be to identify the inaccuracies or important pieces missing from the ten minute summary of a topic they spent weeks coming to understand.

What other ways would you effectively use Khan Academy in the classroom?

PS: There is little reason to use Khan Academy as a “review tool”.   If you want students to have videos from which they can review, take 15 minutes at the end of your day and do it yourself – you know your students better than Khan, and you likely know your content better too.

First, do no harm.

May 5, 2011

Reputations happen.

I usually develop a reputation for having a frustrating/difficult class.  Some recognize that they learn a lot.

When I’m asked about why I choose assignments, activities, and assessments that are frustrating, I respond with two points:

1) Learning sometimes involves modifying deeply held beliefs.  Making sense of complexity, paradox, and nuance is not straight-forward.  Reinforcement of established beliefs is easy, but learning is frustrating.

2) When parents discipline their children, the children do not like it.  Yet, parents continue to discipline because they believe the discipline is good for the child.*  I know students might not like certain aspects of my course, but I hope they know that I have their best interests at heart. **


*I know this could be used to defend all sorts of atrocities,

but this is where paradox and nuance enter the equation.

**Perhaps when we only worry about what kids “like” we

do more harm than good.

Why education cannot move forward.

November 15, 2010

We in education have been stuck in a rut for a very very long time.  We are constantly bombarded with educational fads that hold very little merit.  We fall prey to entrepreneurs out to make a dollar. We are dazzled with slick presentations by people who have never taught in a classroom and for whatever reason we continually look to textbook publishers for our curricula. So why is education so prone to whim where other fields are able to resist?

One possible explanation is that educators (teachers, professors, researchers, etc) are unwilling or unable to claim a common knowledge base.  Some say we need to be sharing our ideas and resources more, but this sharing is not fruitful if we cannot accept a common standard against which to judge ideas.  I’m not saying all of education ought look the same, but education has to find some set of knowledge on which to ground itself or we are doomed to continue to fracture into unrecognizable bits with little, if any, coherence.  If there is no coherence, there is no direction, if there is not direction, there is no common goal.  Without a common goal we cannot align our efforts.  By having a common set of knowledge we have a standard against which we can measure our efforts, goals, and innovations.

Now, like all areas of inquiry, this common set of knowledge will change and be refined over time so I am not promoting a static set of core “beliefs”.  But we have to get past this notion of good teaching as a “style”.  When we think good teaching is a matter of choice or opinion, we deprofessionalize education and our dialogue is counterproductive.  Our dialogue is counterproductive because it has no reference point, it has not direction.

Natural scientists consistently compare new findings to accepted paradigms.  If the new ideas do not fit with the current paradigm they do NOT create a new paradigm (that’s what we do in education though, resulting in many competing paradigms).  Instead scientists will actually look at the research that produced the seemingly contradictory finding with close scrutiny.  That is, scientists will actively look for mistakes in the new finding rather than question the established paradigm.  Now, this seems like it is not objective (duh), but the paradigm is what helps scientists have a direction, have common goals and therefore, aligned efforts.  Now, if the problem identified by the new findings persists, is repeated, or grows, the established paradigm may be modified or replaced, but not until a new system of knowledge seems to fit the new and old findings as well or better.  Having a paradigm (or common knowledge base) is undeniably productive.  It does not limit science.  Instead, paradigm adoption actually provides the tracks for science to move forward. (for more on paradigms see: Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”).

Education needs a paradigm.

Some of the fields on the periphery of education, such as psychology, have paradigms.  Their knowledge base continues to strengthen, but our views on effective classrooms and teachers continues to be vague at best.  Now, I don’t want to say that education researchers have no paradigms, but there seems to not be a coherent paradigm that bridges all of education.

Some might say that this is impossible as each educational situation is unique.  I call shenanigans.  Evolutionary theory bridges almost all disciplines within biology (cell, genetics, molecular, ecology…).  Perhaps education is more complex than all of life on Earth, but I think perhaps we are giving up too easily.  It is easier to say that each teaching situation is unique rather than investigate how they are similar.  While it is easier to focus on the uniqueness, this focus in counterproductive.  If every teaching situation is unique, why do teachers need to go to college?  Why do PLN’s exist?  Why do teachers share ideas? If every situation was unique, ideas and strategies would not transfer.  Yet , we all desire to share ideas and hear what others are doing because we know that ideas DO transfer.  We have an instinct that there just might be commonalities across teaching situations.

So, what should be included in our education paradigm.  We need a system of understandings to which we can compare new ideas.  Only by having this set of common ideas can we possibly prevent fragmented effort (if we all pull in different directions, our net movement is zero – which has been the case thus far).  The common set of understanding can also help safeguard us from entrepreneurs out to make money and from educational fads.  Also, if we have a common set of understandings politicians won’t be able to so easily shift our focus – they will be held to the same standards all ideas are.

Below are some ideas I think should be included in the paradigm.

-How people learn

-Teacher Behaviors such as questioning and using wait time,

-Common goals for students (you’d be surprised how most teachers have very similar goals, but few actually explicitly work toward those goals).

Michael Clough wrote an article that puts many of these pieces together.  His framework provides an excellent way to conceptualize a useful education paradigm (yes it is heavy on science, but it applies elsewhere).  Please notice technology appears nowhere in the proposed paradigm.  If (as so many edtech advocates claim) technology is “just a tool”, its use ought be used in light of the paradigm, not be a part of the paradigm.  Because technology changes almost whimsically, it does not belong in a foundational framework.  Instead we should look at teachers technology use and compare the use to the framework.  That is, the framework should guide our tech use, rather than let the technology dictate our framework.

If we are willing to accept a paradigm/framework, then our collaborations will be useful and our efforts aligned.  Right now, our paradigm is so fractured and broken (of our own doing) that outsiders (politicians and entrepreneurs) are trying to assemble some sense of the pieces.  No wonder they aren’t able to do so – we have only ourselves to blame.

Technology literacy: More than just how to use.

September 29, 2010

I very lively discussion is going on over on Scott McLeod’s blog about teachers’ responsibility to use digital technologies.  I feel this responsibility goes far beyond using technology.  I left the response below:

OUR WORLD has changed and will continue to change.  We cannot predict how it will change.  Because we cannot predict what technologies will be of use to students in the future, preparing them to use specific technologies is a pointless goal.  Our goals should be focused on student thinking and habits of mind rather than the simple use of technology.  Only by preparing flexible thinkers can we hope to prepare students for an ever changing future.
TOO MUCH focus on digital technology may actually limit students flexibility.  Consider how too much focus on textbooks limits the flexibility and creativity of “traditional” teachers.  Might we be setting up students and future teachers for “lock in” in which they are not prepared to flexibly adapt, but only to make use of today’s technologies.
SOME MIGHT say the only way to learn to “flexibly adapt” is to actually use technology.  I would agree, but there is an important caveat.  We must help our students think critically about technology.  We must help students identify what the technology does for us and in what ways the technology limits us – what improvement technology brings and what negative impact technology has.  If students and teachers can’t philosophize about technology, they cannot make informed decisions about technology use and will be doomed to “follow the crowd”.  This following the crowd is what I see promoted in this post.  The only rationale offered for using technology is because “everyone is doing it”.  Shame on us for ever doing something because it is popular.
PERHAPS MORE important than engaging with philosophy about technology, we must help our students be better learners.  I don’t mean help them learn better by using technology, I mean help them learn how to learn.  Importantly, principles of learning apply to learning with or without technology, they even apply to learning ABOUT technology.
LET’S BE honest.  If you want to prepare students for the “real world” do you really think “glogster” is used by most adults for their professional lives?  How many professionals out there today were taught how to use email in their schooling?  For those over 35, probably none.  Yet, they are capable of using email.  Teaching a technology should never be the point.  If we focus on helping students learn how to effectively learn, they will be prepared for any technology advance that comes along.  If we focus too much on the technologies themselves our students will be in the same rut many teachers are.
ONE FINAL point that must be raised.  Yes, technology is changing our world, but we assume all of this change is for the better.  We, as teachers, must wrestle with what is worth conserving about “traditional” teaching alongside of what must be subverted.  Imagine if Socratic dialogue was no longer used in classrooms because it is antiquated.  Also, consider the harm Powerpoint has done to higher ed and by trickle down (its not just for economics) has done to k-12.  A technology almost single handedly caused a focus on efficiency in education rather than on deep learning. Sad.  (Yes, i know the shift toward and efficiency model is more complex than the introduction of powerpoint, but it became the vehicle in which our classrooms were changed).  We have to admit and then figure out in what ways new technology might be changing our classrooms for the worse as well as for the better.
PS. Before I am dismissed as a Luddite (as often happens).  I teach an education technology course for preservice teachers, used technology often in my middle school classroom and qualify for the “geek” category when it comes to gadgets. :)  However, technology literacy runs much deeper than knowing how to use technology.  Just as science literacy must include some knowledge of the philosophy of science (not just facts), technology literacy must include some knowledge of the philosophy of technology (not just the hardware and software).

Reform your classroom: Introduction

September 29, 2010

Let me start by apologizing.  I’m sorry for the arrogance that seemingly permeates this post, I don’t claim to have “the” answers, only “some” answers.  That said, I will argue that I am a very competent teacher.  I got along well with the “problem” students; I taught my curriculum through inquiry/ I didn’t assess students using multiple choice tests; I spent significant effort helping my students understand how to learn; I worked in a “low SES” school and not once used it as an excuse; I integrated technology in meaningful ways; and I asked my students to be cultural critics.

On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be apologizing.  I read the education reform literature and the edreform blogosphere and I worked my ass off to implement the things that are being written about.  So, I hope you won’t find me arrogant, but I certainly should not apologize for doing what I believe all teachers should do.  Reform your classroom!  It’s the one place you have control over.  If you don’t think you can reform your classroom, leave.  I’m not saying if you haven’t “arrived”, leave.  However, if you are not willing to take on the difficult task of moving your classroom in a positive direction, you  should not be teaching.

I had a lot of success in my k-12 teaching.  I still get emails, twitter messages, and facebook comments from former students who ask me to come back, who ask me why other teachers don’t teach well, and who say my class was the only class they ever actually learned in.  I share those messages in humility.  I do not want to claim to have teaching “all figured out”, but I do want to provide some notion that I actually did do some pretty cool stuff with students. Of course there were things I could have done better and I constantly worked to improve my teaching, as I still do.  The fear that drives Shawn Cornally resonates with me.  I wanted my students to be well prepared as learners, I wanted to encourage their natural curiosities not squash them.  I wanted my students to learn about science, but more importantly I wanted them to learn about their own greatness as well as their limitations.  I have decided to reflect on my teaching in a new series I’m calling “Reform your classroom”.  This series will be my attempt to wrap my head around my own teaching.  Some of my teaching was well-rooted in education research, some was trial and error, and some was simply my personality showing up in my teaching.  This series is an attempt to share what I learned trying to implement reform in my little corner of the edusphere.  I hope you will enjoy the stories.

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