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.

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 should we flip?

June 4, 2011

My last post had some criticism of the flipped classroom.  David Cox, Frank Noschese and I were discussing the nuances on twitter and each had an important insight.  David noted that the better flip described in my example lesson is to put the problem first then the teaching.  Frank chimed in by noting that the example flips to put exploration before explanation.  Both of these ideas are not “new” (see problem based learning or the learning cycle), but our discussion highlights that the “what is done at home vs what is done at school” is not the most important “flip”.  In some ways, I believe the home/school flip is simply a reorganization of pretty traditional instruction. So, what then might be better “flips”:

  • Rather then explain then explore, have kids explore first so that the explanation better addresses their thinking.
  • Rather than explain a concept then having students try a problem, have students try a problem first to see what they come up with.
  • Rather than abstract ideas preceding concrete examples, instruction should start with concrete representations
  • Rather demonstrating procedures to students, encourage them to create their own procedures.
  • Rather than asking questions to confirm student understanding, ask students questions to guide their learning.
  • Rather than letting curricula decide how we teach, use student interest to meet curricula.
  • Rather than letting politicians decide the direction of education, education professionals should be setting the course.
  • Rather than using assessment to judge students, use assessment to better meet students’ needs.

Of course actually doing these things is much more difficult than simply switching where/when kids listen to a lecture and when they do practice problems (yes, I know this overly simplifies the flipped classroom).  Real educational change requires us to flip so much more than the the classroom work vs homework.  So, while the current notion of the flipped classroom is a step in the right direction, we still have a long way to go.

I am sure I've missed some flips. Please, add more in the comments.

Imagine a class…

June 3, 2011

Imagine a class engaged in an authentic problem*.  Let’s say they are trying to understand how to wire a ceiling fan (or some other thing, doesn’t matter).  One student says, “Hey, I have a room in my house where I can turn the fan on in two different places.”  The teacher then asks the class, “Why might this be valuable?”  Students give some answers and the teacher says, “ok, how would you do it?”  At this point the teacher might have students talk with partners, draw some pictures or mess around with some simple electrical circuits that mimic the room wiring.  Students might “discover” ways to do this, and if they don’t, the teacher can show them a way to do it (after students have mentally wrestled with the task a bit).  The key instructional piece comes next when the teacher can discuss parallel circuits and the flow of electrons through a circuit.

Notice how the teacher was able to leverage student experiences and interest to introduce a new concept in a way that encourages active mental engagement.  Notice how the problem led to introduction of content.  Yes, the content would be explained by the teacher, but only when students need the new information or to label something they have already mentally constructed.

A video (such as Khan Academy’s) cannot lead a group of learners like this.  The flipped classroom does not encourage the organic flow of learning like this.  I believe only a teacher who deeply understands their content and how people learn can create a learning experience like this.



*Please forgive the simplicity of of the example.


The Stillness of Chaos…

September 22, 2010
Organized chaos.
This phrase is how I often envision my classroom.  Today, we accomplished a lot.  We developed a list of questions to research, introduced the collaborative blog project, discussed classroom management, questioning strategies, motivation, wait time I and wait time II as well as learning styles and learning theory.
I embrace this chaos because I know that learning is not easy and learning is not predictable or straightforward.  If you expect and embrace this chaos, you will be much better prepared to deal with chaos.  Some teachers try to stick to such a strict schedule that when chaos happens (and it will) they don’t know how to deal with it.  Also, while the teacher might get through the schedule, I am left wondering if the students got through the same schedule.  I see the “chaos” as a way to authentically respond to student needs in real time.
As I noted in class, the attitude with which you approach teaching will determine a lot about your effectiveness.  Will you expect and embrace chaos? Do you really want to hear what your students think? Or do you want to “get through” the content and simply tell the students what to think?
The chaos also more accurately reflects what teaching really is.  We jump around topics so much because the topics are so interconnected.  What we do for classroom management is directly related to our goals for students.  How we manage the class is affected by what we believe about how people learn.  While separating the sections of teaching out makes the ideas easier, the discrete sections do not authentically represent the complexities of teaching.
I am enjoying our learning so far.  I hope you are starting to see where we are going and are getting excited about getting there!
*This post is taken from an email I wrote to my elementary science methods students.
**The title of this post was the title of on of my band’s albums in college.  So glad I got to reuse it!

A pedagogy of learning

September 15, 2010

My area of expertise is science education and I dabble in learning theory.  I subscribe to a “hot” conceptual change model (Pintrich et al. 1993) in which students conceptual frameworks, developmental levels, motivation, goals, stress, learning dispositions and attribution all affect learning.  These conceptual ecologies (Southerland et al., 2006) are difficult to understand and even more difficult to modify (read: TEACHING IS HARD!!!).

One lesson from the area of science education is the power of implicit messages (Clough & Olson, 2004).  One goal of science education is to teach students about how science works.  Unfortunately, when teachers focus on “right” answers and step-by-step laboratory experiences, students get the implicit message that science is simply a set of facts or that science does not require much creativity.  Although teachers don’t mean to send this message, they do.

Now consider the implicit messages we send students about “learning” itself.  The medium (teaching) is truly the message (learning).  Our actions as teachers send messages to students about what it means to learn, whether we want to or not.  When we focus on “right” answers, declarative knowledge, and accurately following directions, students are likely to walk away with very simplistic views of learning (i.e.: memorization).  These simplistic views of learning do not likely aid in students becoming more autonomous learners.  Instead my experience is that students with simplistic views of learning desire more structure and hand-holding rather than being willing to engage in more meaningful learning.  These students’ dispositions toward learning can actually cause them to reject the methods of teachers who are working toward education reform.  When teachers pose questions rather than give answers, students with simplistic learning dispositions seem to think the teacher is not doing their job.

If we want students to have more robust dispositions toward learning and view learning as a continual, effort-filled, and rewarding, we must consider the implicit messages we are sending out students.  What things have you seen teachers do (or you yourself have done), that might promote undesirable views of learning in students?  What things have you seen, or done that promote more desirable views of learning?


Clough, M.P. & Olson, J.K. (2004). The Nature of Science: Always Part of the Science Story, The Science Teacher, 71(9), 28-31.

Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63, 167 – 199.

Southerland, S.A., Johnston, A., Sowell, S. (2006).  Describing Teachers’ Conceptual Ecologies for the Nature of Science. Science Education, 90, 874-906.


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