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.


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