This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.
For the last few years, I have found that, when appropriate, I get far more use out of my notes if I take them on a computer. Using the computer allows me to keep my notes organized, to instantly create links to related information (either within my notes or on the web), to flag my own questions as they arise (and unflag them as they are answered), to find ideas in my notes later (search is way faster than flipping through my notebooks and legal pads), to share my notes with colleagues and students, and to link to as references and resources in later iterations of documents.
It’s not always kosher to have your laptop open in a conversation. If I take notes in a one-on-one meeting in my laptop, there is a real danger that I will be talking to my computer rather than the person I am meeting with. (Simultaneously, if I take the notes on my laptop, I am able to refer back to them more easily than in handwriting.) Personally, I have found that if I feel compelled to take notes by hand, that those notes are not going to make it into my computer except in extraordinary circumstances, and that the only service that paper notes have for me is as a memory aid (“the information has passed from at least one neuron to at least one other neuron, crossing at least one synapse in the process, giving you a faint hope of remembering the information.” — Duane Bailey).
If there are network connectivity problems (or battery power level issues), my notes may either not be available or may disappear entirely (as happened at one point this fall, taking notes on [a major collaborative project] presentation). This doesn’t happen with notebooks. However, referring back to the last paragraph… those notes would have gone into the ether anyway (for me at least) if I had taken them on paper.
I find that I am much more willing to share my digital notes than I would hand-written notes — not just because of legibility issues, although those are real, but also because when I share my notes, I share it with an expectation that the recipient will be adding some input to those notes, adding value for me as well.
I have also found that using the tagging feature of the wiki gives me a tool for taking attendance at a meeting — who was there, so that I can find notes based not just on content, but on the makeup of the meeting: “I know we discussed this in EdTech, I think Scott said something about it…”
As someone who spent years not taking notes on anything, simply remembering what was said to the best of my ability, I find that taking notes on my computer is a massive advantage: it allows me to empty my brain and forget things with confidence. And taking my notes in a wiki makes them instantly shareable and referable from any computer, anywhere. I love it.
Seth Battis November 22nd, 2009
Nate Kogan, writing about his plans for “classroom 2.0” collaborative writing assignments in his history classes in the coming year, notes student resistance to working collaboratively:
While many students seem to dislike group work, I think the resistance stems more from the fear of being saddled with all the work by one’s potentially indolent group-mates rather than from inherent resistance to collaborative work.
[Full disclosure: Nate is my brother-in-law, and I have been following his thoughts about teaching with technology with some interest all summer.]
While studying for my M.Ed., I found myself revisiting the role of student full-time after a decade-long hiatus: it brought me back to the classroom with fresh eyes. The process raised two big pedagogical questions for me:
I think that these two questions are related: working collaboratively with peers creates a more free-flowing and less performance-anxiety-inducing environment than working independently and presenting to the teacher (and one’s classmates). Or, at least, it can. That environment could, if the stars align and sufficient support and guidance is provided, even result in an setting in which students are free to debate, critique and improve each other’s work. That is, they could learn how to reflect on what they’ve learned and ask questions of each other about that work and the progress that they have made.
In graduate school, I had a wealth of group project experiences. The least successful was my year-long “school developer” project that was, effectively, my master’s thesis with a group of four other students working with a local elementary school to develop a strategic plan for expansion from K-5 to K-8. Lord, this experience was miserable, partly because my Meyers Briggs profile was the complete inverse of my teammates, and partly because we had no idea what we were doing as a team and were thrown into trying to do things before we actually were a team. (It calls to my mind my panicky, parental feelings of inadequacy when my classes have to interact with outsiders early in their time together — I don’t trust them enough to believe that they’ll be presentable, and they don’t trust me enough to believe that I haven’t set them up for a fall or for boredom.) Long story short, the team suffered from terrible group dynamics, mission creep, lousy communication with our “client” school, confusing feedback from our peer teams and professor, and unclear end goals for both the class project and the school’s mission.
The most successful team of which I was a member was actually formed to write a single collaborative paper over the course of the semester. The professor, Janice Jackson — a former elementary school teacher and district administrator and all-around mensch — spent the first half of the semester devoting significant portions of class to not only teaching about group dynamics in the abstract, but giving us time as teams to work through those very dynamics as we learned about them. By the time we had any kind of work for which we were accountable, we were, quite honestly, a little tired of meeting and exasperated at Prof. Jackson. It all felt excessive. However, when we sat down to do our research and write it up, it turned out that all of our (very diverse) Meyers Briggs personalities meshed, that we each had clear roles within the group that we had explicitly negotiated, that we had clear expectations both of each other that we had explicitly stated and of what our end result should be (that we had proposed and had approved by Prof. Jackson, explicitly), and that we felt safe working through early drafts of our paper sections together and receiving what was sometimes drastic criticism and demands for reworking.
The process matters. It really, really matters. And that class with Prof. Jackson was the first time that I had ever worked in a group in an academic setting that had consciously set aside (or had set aside for it) time to figure out how to be a group. That that experience was bolstered by conceptual background in group dynamics surely didn’t hurt. Prof. Jackson gave us both the time and background to develop clear understandings of both the norms of our group and our own roles within the group. And this idea of understanding one’s role in the group, and trusting one’s collaborators to fulfill their own roles and responsibilities, is key to successful collaboration. Without that trust, one ends up either abdicating all responsibility (“yeesh, what a bunch of clowns — there’s no way we’re going to do well, why should I try?”) or striving to fill in all the perceived gaps (“yeesh, what a bunch of clowns — if I want it done right, I’ve got to do it myself.”).
So, how to develop this experience of a trusting, collaborative project with high school students? They’re certainly at a different developmental place than I was at 30 (well, I hope they are — mostly for my sake). I don’t think that loading them down with all the conceptual background and vocabulary that we received from Prof. Jackson will make a sale to them. But I do think that striving to develop that environment of trust and delegation among teammates, with clear understanding of roles is worthwhile.
I’ve tried to do this in a number of settings. When I was working at as an outdoor, experiential educator, I found that large group projects could be done well by delegating specific roles within the project to specific students, thus providing clear accountability for specific portions of the project. My preferred iteration is to work with the students to develop a top-down design (what Wiggins’ confusingly refers to as a “backwards design”) that parcels out the work into self-designed and allocated responsibilities. One iteration of this was to present a large question to the group (“How does human management impact the ecosystem?”) and then help each student develop an area of expertise within the larger question (water, birds, tourism, sound, etc.). The wrinkle is that no student can accurately predict a topic in which they will maintain an abiding interest throughout the project, and therefore slippage and shifting will occur and needs to be negotiated gracefully.
Another approach, which I used last year with my Application Design class as we were working to build a CNC lathe, was to break the project apart into modules with the class, and then solicit volunteers for small teams to tackle each module. We prioritized the modules, and each student was responsible for shifting from module to module as they were interested or the module needed development to support dependent modules of other teams. Students were encouraged to engage with other teams, and sometimes shifted from team to team based on changing interests, but there was always a core student or pair of students who was, at the end of the day, managing each module and responsible at least for rallying other students to that module’s cause.
In both cases, I found that developing clear (and concise — unlike this entry) roles for the students in collaboration with the students gave them significantly more buy-in. Students who engaged with the project were able to throw themselves into it without fear of having to “carry” their peers (each student’s contributions were documented along the way — automatically by Google Code, in the case of the CNC lathe project), and, in fact, over-achieving students tended to provide a catalyst for under-achievers: they asked thoughtful and critical questions, provided assistance and generally raised the intellectual atmosphere a notch or two. Simultaneously, the multiplicity of roles and modules provides enough overlap that if one or two students totally peace out, the rest of the team can gnash their teeth briefly and move on without being hindered or damaged. Where successful, I found that I had students who were pushing me to do more research to support their work and that I was relying on their work and questions to lead the class.
In both cases, I also took some significant time out both early on and throughout the project to step back, examine and work through group dynamics. Not necessarily conceptually, but pragmatically working to resolve issues and grudges (and, not insignificantly, to celebrate and highlight successes). While I strongly encouraged my students to hold each other accountable and to work issues with their teammates out with their teammates, I was also a consultant to individual exasperated students on how to do this, and a general-purpose umpire for the whole team, calling time-out when it looked like a brawl (or tears) was brewing. In my umpire role, I was also able to highlight particularly good or interesting work by individual students or teams for the entire class, providing a clear model of the desired outcomes and behaviors.
Seth Battis August 11th, 2009
Posted In: Teaching
Andrew Watt’s response to Sarah Fine’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post captures much of what resonated in her piece with me as an independent school teacher: the challenge of simultaneously charting one’s own career and life goals while working towards institutional goals which may be formulated, articulated and executed with varying levels of clarity and thoughtfulness. I think we can simply stipulate that administrative transparency and collaborative decision-making go a long way towards both better decisions and teacher longevity. (It’s really hard to imagine wanting to stay at a job where your responsibilities are both out of your own hands and unpredictable, right?)
What gave me pause was the throw-away thought at the end of Watt’s response:
The other side of this equation is the revolution in technology. Whether they’re technophilic teachers who embrace tech but chafe against daunting rules and regulations, or technophobes who fear so much as a cellphone in a student pocket, teachers are right to see computers, cellphones, and the Internet as a threat to their existence.
Because there are learning resources out there now which are better than at least some teachers, in some subject areas. The range and depth of these offerings are only going to increase.
I. Am. Not. On. Board. With. This.
And it’s not because I’m a raging technophile (which I am), or because I cling to an older model of teaching and classrooms (granted, I want to grow up to be Frank Boyden). It’s because I believe that teaching is not about content-delivery. Teaching is about helping students learn. And the best way for students to learn is to work (and play and live) with adults who espouse and model learning, how to learn and joy in learning.
Yes, technology is changing how we deliver content — and how we manage our classrooms, and how we assess student work, and how we research, and what sort of work counts as “work” by and for our students. And automobiles replaced the horse, the printing press replaced scribes, machines replaced craftsmen, etc. Change happens. The role of the teacher, however, remains essentially the same: facilitate, support and develop the learning process for students. How that work is done may change dramatically, but it is fundamentally the same goals with new techniques.
Teachers aren’t going to become superfluous because of technology. They’re going to become more necessary. They are more necessary.
[N.B. This is not an indictment of technophobe teachers. Suffice it to say that one of the real joys of my job in the past few years has been to engage in collaborative learning with master teachers who self-identify as technophobes. As we discuss how technology might support their teaching goals, I simultaneously learn a great deal about how to formulate and evaluate those goals, with masterful techniques demonstrated. Thank you! More on this at another time.]
Seth Battis August 10th, 2009
Posted In: Teaching
Having just struck upon the similarities between Pink’s six new senses and Gardner’s multiple intelligences, I continue to be fascinated by examples of folks employing these ideas in creative ways: enter Basildon Coder, recently highlighted on Slashdot for describing a Wodehouse-ian approach to code refactoring. As always, I look at this and start to ponder how to use it in the classroom with my students: one of the real challenges that my students face is not the development of new code (although that is challenging) but figuring out how to use a body of code written by someone else (me, their classmates, some godawful Windows GDI API, etc.). I have been struck by the difficulty my students have faced this year in grasping the 50,000 foot view of coding — perhaps a visual representation like this might be a first step. Sort of a Powers of 10 for programming.
Seth Battis March 23rd, 2008
Having just driven my sister to the Philadelphia airport, I am reminded of the value of education founded in general principles, rather than a rote memorization of steps to accomplish specific goals.
I grew up in Philadephia and I have no idea where I am or how to get there on most of my trips. This is doubly true when driving to the airport. I simply know a route (in the case of the airport, for many years all I knew was that if I got in a particular lane on the expressway, I would eventually end up at the airport). I don’t know the geography. If I had to leave my route for a detour (as I did a year or two ago), I would have no idea how to recover.
Compare this to my knowledge of Somerville, where I lived for nine months and drove far less than when I was in Philadelphia (and yes, the walking knowledge is part of my point). Somerville was the the third city in four years that I had lived in, and I had developed a different approach to learning the lay of the land than my approach to Philadelphia. I got lost. I got lost a lot. I printed out directions to every place I wanted to go, but when I thought I saw a shortcut or knew my way, I took it. Sometimes this went badly. But I rapidly developed a much better sense not just for routes, but for the entire geography of the city (I can’t speak to Boston, but this worked in Cambridge as well). I had taken enough wrong turns that I had a sense of how the streets were connected (even if I didn’t always know the names).
I started working in IT when I was in high school, supporting my school’s AppleTalk network and doing odd consulting gigs along the way. In the consulting, I had several regular clients who hired me to help them learn how to use their computers. These regular clients took copious notes as I explained to them how to perform various tasks on their computers (use a word processor, print, save a file). Those folks who noted down that the menubar was where actions (or, in one English teacher’s case, verbs) were stored, that each window represented a file on the hard drive, and so forth, were rarely heard from again: they had grasped the general principles of the situation. The ones who titled their notes “How to Save a MacWrite File” and then took step-by-step notes… those were job security. Not only did they tend to lose their notes (notes more akin to a treasure map than to knowledge), but they were unable to generalize from those notes to other related concepts like “How to Save a MacPaint File” or “How to Save an AppleWorks Spreadsheet” (and they weren’t entirely certain that a file and a spreadsheet were the same thing).
Why do I mention this? The takers of step-by-step notes, maps to the hidden treasure of the Save command were learning how to use their computers by rote memorization, with no real understanding of what they were doing or how discrete parts of the process they had learned could be applied to other, similar situations. They were driving to the Philadelphia airport.
When confronted with an alien technology (or landscape or process or culture), our natural inclination is to find out how to do the few specific things that we need to do (order food, print a paper, hail a taxi, etc.). If we learn those tasks in isolation, without learning the underlying and fundamental principles that define how that technology or landscape work, we continue to operate in alien terrain. It’s quicker and easier, initially, to have our cheat sheet than to probe the situation and figure out how the dang thing works.
The temptation when teaching students (or faculty) how to use technology is to provide the step-by-step directions, neatly illustrated with screenshots, describing how to perform X, Y or Z task that needs to be done for the assignment. I have certainly been guilty of this myself, even as recently as this fall (I tried to have the best of both worlds, describing the steps, but also what the steps were doing… but I have little confidence that anyone read those longer explanations under the time pressure of September and the start of classes). These cheat sheets prevent us and our students from learning how to use the system.
Earlier this fall, a fellow teacher described his approach to teaching his students how to use different web sites. He doesn’t. He gives them the URL of the main site, tells them what to look for, and gives them an evening to poke at it to figure out how to get the information they need out of it. They might collaborate and share their learning. They might intuit how the system works. They might not get it that first night and have to seek help from their peers. But they don’t have trouble with the second assignment: they have learned how the site works on that first evening.
This seems like an argument for teaching by not teaching. Rather, it is an argument for teaching by coaching, by presenting challenges to our students for which we have adequately prepared them and allowing our students to strive and succeed. The role of the teacher is not to be the master of all knowledge, but the sage adviser capable of guiding students to the knowledge. In practice, this is not easier but rather much harder than traditional teaching: it’s easy to tell someone else how to do something, to explain what you know so that they might understand it. It is much harder to create a situation in which genuine learning can take place, to not interfere while that learning is going on, and to help facilitate and process that learning during and afterwards.
This is the challenge for teachers of technology.
Rather than teaching our students how to use a specific technology to perform a specific task, we need to present our students with appropriate tools and background to learn to use those tools. Academic computing is often relegated to computer applications classes, where students learn skills devoid of context, or to specific projects where a student “learns PowerPoint.” Instead, we need to think more broadly: what are the academic computing skills that we wish for our students to have? How can we challenge our students to develop those skills? How will we know when they have attained this knowledge?
Do we want our students to learn to use Word and PowerPoint? Well, not really: I don’t care what programs they learn to use. Let’s rephrase the question: Do we want our students to learn how to develop and write about their ideas and present those ideas in a clear and compelling manner? Hell yes. We have several tools available to facilitate this, including Word and PowerPoint. But these are just tools. Offering a class in computer applications is like offering a class on pencils: everyone involved will want to gouge out their eyeballs by the second hour. These tools have to be learned as just that: tools, part of a process larger than themselves.
The great fear of teachers who are asked to use fancy pants technological tools in their classes is that they will need to know more about these tools than their students. I ask instead that teachers know more about the skills that they wish their students to acquire, and be willing to coach students towards honing those skills while using technology, rather than teach students to use specific tools.
Certainly a teacher can’t ask a student to use a tool with which they themselves have no familiarity. But if this is a tool that is supposed to help a student achieve and exhibit the desired skills, and the teacher is him or herself a master of those skills… shouldn’t it be incumbent upon the teacher to either a) be familiar with the tool or b) reevaluate whether or not the tool is itself useful to the skill? (I’m eating my own dog food on this one: I’m writing this blog!)
This fall I have worked with a number of teachers who want to learn specific tools to enhance their own teaching. This is how these tools will end up being taught, not because we have a mandate that all of our graduates should master the Microsoft Office suite. In much the same way that a history teacher who doesn’t use outlines for his or her own analyses is going to be less well-equiped to teach his or her students to use outlines, a teacher who doesn’t use technology is going to be ill-equiped to teach their students. (And, by corollary, leaders in schools should also be using technology to support their work with faculty — same reasoning: if it’s really a useful tool, we should be using it!)
All of this brings us back to the key point however: we don’t really learn until we have had to get ourselves unlost. And, as teachers, we need to be willing to let our students get lost. Not terribly, Robinson Crusoe, Moses-in-the-desert, talking-to-our-volleyball lost, but lost on the way from Someville to Cambridge. Define a bite-sized goal for our students and ask them to chew it on their own: ask them to learn to use a technology on their own. Give them a introduction, point them to the areas they will need to explore, and let them explore!
Seth Battis December 28th, 2007
Posted In: Educational Technology