battis.net and I'm all out of bubble gum…

This write-up is an articulation of an idea that I first stumbled across last spring, in conversation with my colleagues around technology and academic integrity. I am enormously grateful to Lynette Sumpter and Ned Sherrill for pushing me and supporting me and challenging me and engaging me in the discussion that led me to this idea.

Let me preface this by noting that I am not a history teacher. Or a writing instructor. Or a teacher of social studies or literature.

But, I have played one on TV. And I have spent the last few years faking it in various settings (for example, teaching Third Form Seminar at St. Grottlesex, a studies skills class thinly disguised as a history class — or my current role teaching Media Studies, which is on the cusp of becoming Mark Taylor and teaching “liberal arts” as a discipline unto itself).

Fear and Loathing in the Classroom

I have been struck by how we teach our students to take part in academic discourse. I fear that we are teaching them to be fearful, rather than confident, outspoken and — above all — well-spoken. When I work with ninth graders writing their “big research paper”, it is clear that they are already viewing the process with trepidation. Not because they are not looking forward to the work (in fact, they often become absorbed in their research and legitimately excited about their chosen topic). They are terrified that they will do something that causes me to nail them to the wall for plagiarism. They are absolutely terrified that they will screw up their citations, botch their bibliography, accidentally confuse a quotation with a paraphrase, or in some other way incur the wrath of the gods of academic integrity.

This is ridiculous. And they come to me this way, already scared.

Why Cite Sources At All?

Let’s take a step back from the panicking ninth graders.

Let’s consider how we live our lives, as adults, day to day. Consider, if you will, a conversation with your friends. Better still, a conversation with my friends (they’re loads of fun): we’re talking about something that we have to do that feels ironically poorly suited to our temperment and someone around the table mutters “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Yes, we’re pathetic tools of popular culture. But we’re also making a reference to a known source. A reference that everyone around the table recognizes and appreciates.

In fact, by making that reference, we’re using a short hand phrase to conjure up a whole idea. At the most crass level. We’re probably not going to swing into the pharaohs’ catacombs on our bullwhip, blazing torch in hand, Nazis on our tails. But we’ve connected our plight to Indy’s, in our friends’ minds. Usually, among my friends, this then generates snickers. I am not someone who would plausibly swing on the end of a bullwhip.

This, at its core, is the purpose of citing another author: to make use of that author’s ideas in support of your own. To reference a whole, complex argument, made elsewhere, by selecting a short, notable phrase that stands in for the more complex idea. When we refer to “trickle-down economics”, we’re using an opaque term to describe a whole theory of how the world works — whether or not we agree with it, this provides a shared reference point between us and our interlocutors. By providing this shared reference point, we are providing an anchor on which to build our own arguments, share our own ideas, develop our our creations — in a way that will be more easily understood. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.

When we cite other sources and authors, we select sources that lend credibility to our own point of view, by dint of the the sources’ own credibility. Our arguments are stronger when we cite well-known and well-respected sources. Our arguments are stronger when we can clearly connect them to sources that are clearly well-founded, or are clearly connected to well-founded sources.

Thus, if we want our argument to have credibility, we want to connect our argument to other well-respected sources. We want to make those connections explicit, rather than making that argument in a vacuum. We want to accessorize our argument with the respect and credibility already carried by our sources.

So, What’s the Big Deal?

The big deal is that this isn’t how or why I was taught to cite my sources in academic papers. And it isn’t how I’ve seen students being taught to cite their sources. I have seen only fear and intimidation: “if you do not cite your sources, you will be penalized for plagiarism. If you are penalized for plagiarism, you won’t get into the college of your choice or you’ll be expelled from the college of your choice or you might become Vice-President of the United States.” <shiver> I don’t see anyone making positive arguments for academic citation when we are introducing it to our students. We only threaten the students with punishment.

I don’t know about you, but I tend not to really enjoy doing things that I’m doing out of fear. I often dig in my heels (I’m an ornery S.O.B.). I certainly don’t try and do what I’m doing better because I’ve been intimidated into doing it (in fact, I’ll probably passive aggressively do it worse). And it takes me a long time (20+ years) to find any real purpose or excitement in something that I have been bullied into doing. I understand the obligation to do it. I do it. But I cuss about it. And drag my feet.

Technology has Changed Citation

At the start of every school year, one or the other of my colleagues will forward around the ever-growing list of things that our new students won’t be familiar with (the original Star Wars, Indiana Jones movies that aren’t execrable, tape cassettes, a time before white earbuds, etc.). What bears more than a little examination are the things that our students are familiar with.

I have a whole digression about the issue of digital natives, and whether or not it’s even a defensible opinion, let alone a fact of life. Let us at least stipulate that our students have a different relationship with technology and media than we did growing up, and that that relationship is increasingly facilitated by technology.

How about a bizarre mash-up video that combines clips from television shows that are, at best, unfamiliar to us with music we think is terrible? How about a collage of corporate slogans standing in for a personal statement? What are these moron kids up to now? Isn’t this entirely beneath our dignity and station to even pay lip service to the activity that’s going on here? Well, this is the students having a conversation. Their conversations are moving out of “meat space” and online (note the rise of concern about cyberbullying and sexting — these aren’t new phenomena, they’re just moving from behind the gym to the digital realm).

In fact, on the creative front (moving away from a digression on online agression), these collages and mash-ups and massively uncited multimedia conglomerations are the same kinds of conversations that my friends and I have. Only we have them in person. Where I grew up with VHS and quoting movies endlessly, today’s students are able to literally quote movies. And music videos. And magazines. And web cites. And anything else that has floated across their consciousness in the form of bits. Even their teachers (and the first time I was an unwitting component of a student video mash-up was over a decade ago).

These videos, which are clearly violations of copyright law, intellectual property treaties and, often, good taste are just our students engaged in conversation. Online and digitally.

Transitioning from Conversation to Academic Discourse

Understanding that what we see as recreational plagiarism and piracy is, in fact, informal discourse is the first step towards connecting the dots with our students. What we need to help our students do — what our role as teachers is — is to engage in code-switching: when is it appropriate to have an informal conversation? When do you start to cite your sources? What are you doing — for yourself and your sources — by citing them? What standards can we use to cite sources? When do those standards apply?

Overall: what’s the point of this exercise? Are we doing it because we’re afraid that somebody will use Google to find out that a dozen other people have had this same idea, and we want to get there first? Or are we doing it because we’ve read something powerful, insightful, revelatory… and we want to share the impact of that source with our own audience? Are we sharing our sources because if we don’t someone will accuse us of falsifying our research, or because we have come across a marvelous, well-researched data set that, with our analysis, screams in support of our conclusions? Are we citing the work of others out of a grudging sense of obligation to them for work already done, or because making reference to other works makes our own easier: we are bringing worlds of ideas into our effort through the careful selection of a word or phrase?

In the past two years, this is what I have started to try to do with my students: rather than threatening them, engage them in that part of the world of research and ideas that I find so invigorating and exciting. Rather than whaling on them for botching a quotation, explain to them why getting their quotations and citations right (for their context) is meaningful.

For the first time, last week, when I was grinding away on my students to include links in their blog entries, and I asked why, one of my students said:

“Because you might want to read them too?”

December 24th, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

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This is perhaps one of those midrashim that strive to unnecessarily explain the inexplicable…

It is, perhaps, worth noting — in my endless struggle towards internal consistency — that I’m still on board with what I wrote about striving to be less authoritative in my own classroom (as a means of pushing my students to be more active and independent learners).

The term “Expert Plan” that I was throwing around last weekend (and that, in fact, has become a whole category unto itself on this blog) is not of my devising. And is, in fact, my department head’s effort to do exactly as I aimed to do in being less authoritative: distribute leadership, push the folks doing the learning to take control of their learning, and generally promote active, independent learning… among faculty in preparation for going 1:1.

I am working on an “Expert Plan” for using laptops in education wearing my classroom teacher hat, not my educational technologist hat (although, perhaps, documenting with the educational technologist hat in the vicinity).

November 26th, 2009

Posted In: Ouroboros, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

The Model

I wanted to structure the feedback that my students presented to each other during our video critique. We often brainstorm the criteria that we will be using to review work as it is presented, and I post our criteria on the board or on the wiki as a reminder throughout the process. This time, I created a new Form in Google Docs and entered our criteria as questions. I then embedded the form in our class notes for the day, and each student filled out the form as we viewed video. I embedded the responses as a spreadsheet on a linked page, so that the the students could review the feedback they had received and post their responses to our class blog.

In Practice

Creating the form live went relatively smoothly — the only hang-up was my inability to type in public. Fortunately, the students were proofreading on the screen and caught me when I made errors. They were also able to help guide me when I got distracted and forgot what I was doing (“Mr. Battis, we’ve already got that question at the bottom of the screen…”).

It took very little instruction for the students to figure out how to use the form. The most complicated thing they had to do was refresh the page after they had submitted their feedback so that they could get a fresh, blank form for the next video.

We settled into a routine where I played each video through twice, once for them to watch, and once to remind them of details as they entered their feedback.

Reflection

After we finished reviewing videos and posting feedback, I put the question to the students: was this better, worse or the same as having a verbal critique of the same material (which we had done in the earlier digital photography unit). The response, by and large, appeared to be that this was actually really helpful: there were enough things to pay attention to while watching the video that being able to take notes into the form let them not forget things that were important.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

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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.

The Model

This is actually a classic use of wikis — the one for which they were developed, in fact — and one that I have found very useful in the past. By documenting my work on a project in a public, shared space, I am both sharing information that needs to be known and inviting other participants to contribute their knowledge as well. I use wikis both for shared projects with my colleagues (as a way to guarantee that only the most current documentation is available, rather than distributing instantly out-dated paper handouts) and as a way of pushing my students to document their own work so that I can grade them on process. Additionally, wikis are a way for me to document my own thought process for both professional development and future planning purposes.

In Practice

Shared Projects with Colleagues

I have found that many of my colleagues (both at [my current school] and [at previous schools]) are hesitant to edit existing documents. The most reliable contribution that I have found my colleagues make is on meeting minutes, when I invite those who did not attend a meeting to insert their contributions to the meeting as comments on the page.

When working on a project with a similarly technically-inclined colleague (say, in the Education Technology department), the process is more likely to be more collaborative, as we edit each other’s work more liberally (although even this is not a guarantee).

Student Documentation of Process

Students don’t document their working voluntarily. I have only had success in asking students to document their work when I have both assigned the documentation for a grade (usually a grade separate from the end product of their work, so that I can distinguish between process and outcome not just in narratives but also in my gradebook).

The closest that I have come to developing a true classroom culture of collaborative documentation was last spring at [my previous school] in my Application Design classroom. In this case, I worked with the students to help them select and design an open-ended project for which they had to do immense amounts of research (they were creating a computer-controlled CNC lathe). I found that there was an inverse relationship between the amount of expertise that I demonstrated and the amount of work and thought that my students contributed: when they could rely on me for answers, they were lazy about documenting their work and finding their own solutions. When I professed no knowledge (often truthfully), students were far more likely to both do much more exhaustive research and to present their findings more clearly.

Professional Development

One challenge of creating a truly collaborative wiki environment (whether with colleagues or with students) is to get all of the participants to read, respond, revise and/or react to each other’s contributions. For example, I am doing a miserable job, on this page, of linking to the work of others in the Laptop Leaders program. I suspect that a major part of this is simply the “drinking from the fire hose” feeling incurred by the stream of data as everyone contributes simultaneously. In a classroom, I have had some success dividing students into groups around a shared research interest. To that end, I need to sift through the other Laptop Leader documentation that refers to, say wikis.

Reflection

At the basic level, my sense is that wikis represent such a shocking change in paradigm for how the web is used that the average user is either befuddled or intimidated by them. I found that I was explaining how wikis work to my classes and the students were fascinated and mildly horrified at both the ease with which they could make changes and the ease with which I could track their use of the wiki. I don’t know for certain, but I wonder if my colleague’s reluctance to update wikis is a combination of fear of the unfamiliar (editing the wiki) and fear of speaking out (publishing their words/ideas to a broader arena in a way that feels more permanent than, say, an email — more on par with a faculty meeting).

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

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As part of my education technology role at my school, I am a member of our high school “Laptop Leaders” group. A few weeks ago, at the end of our first quarter, the Laptop Leaders were asked to document the work they were doing, to create a shared resource, both for themselves and for other teachers. Ultimately, this is preparation for more large-scale adoption of laptops and technology in general as teaching tools in the high school.

The teachers in this Laptop Leaders group were selected last spring, so I joined the group late, at the beginning of the school year and had, really, only a sketchy plan for what I would be working on. The outline (lightly revised) is below. My intention is to share my various write-ups related to this process in this space.

Collaborative Writing and Editing

I’m working with students to develop a class wiki as a collaborative information source, with students contributing class notes, screencasts and other updates and expansions on course content.

Blogs

I’m working with students to use the class blog as a publication platform for ideas/questions relevant to the greater community in their discipline (e.g. develop [my class] blog into a discussion of [media and design] and related ideas in the outside world).

Social Bookmarking

I’m working with faculty (and students) to use social bookmarking tools (specifically Diigo) to create dynamic and annotated resources for each other (and for and by students).

Social Media

I’m working with faculty and students to develop personal learning networks that tie together all of these Web 2.0 tools to create an online identity and a group of “fellow travelers” studying and exploring the same area. In students’ case, we’re working on this as a class (blogging), but for faculty tools like Twitter (and personal blogs) may also be useful. Also looking at other sharing sites (e.g. Flickr) for use as collaborative tools.

Useful Tools

In the interests of sharing, when I was at my last school, I sat down and created an iusethis.com profile of the handy applications that I use day-to-day. I’ve added this to my profile [on the school wiki], along with a (slowly growing) list of tools that I’ve built for special purposes around school.

Updated November 22, 2009: I should mention that I have Bowdler-ized some of these posts to protect (at least a little), the identities of my students. When posted to our school wiki, there are a number of links to examples. If you pop me an email or a comment and identify yourself, I’m happy to share these examples. Just trying to do some due diligence with regard to my students’ privacy.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On an anti-rubric argument

Shelly Blake-Pock has written a very thoughtful, honest and, in many respects, bang-on attack on rubrics. He clearly defines the extreme ends of the spectrum for disastrous rubric usage:

First of all on the issue of transparency. Most rubrics come in one of two varieties. Either they are extremely didactic in a step-by-step hold-your-hand IKEA instruction manual sort of way or they are touchy-feely rubbish where you get a ‘1’ for ‘not demonstrating significant understanding’ but a ‘5’ for ‘demonstrating unique depth and content mastery’. Rubrics of the latter variety are meant to satisfy the political needs of institutionalized learning, while rubrics of the former are theoretical expressions of teaching to the lowest common denominator.

I’m pretty solidly on board with everything he says here. I don’t want my students to think that the one true way to do anything is to haul out my rubric for the assignment and fill in all the squares completely. I want them to think critically, to creatively synthesize ideas that we have learned together and to develop analyses, ideas and outcomes that are novel and unexpected — and well-supported, thoughtful and demonstrate clear connections to the ongoing work of the class. I don’t want my students to think that life is simply about checking off boxes on someone else’s list.

Point #1: Rubrics are a covenant between a teacher and a student

But here’s the rub, he goes on to attack the idea that rubrics can act  as a tool that promotes objectivity by the teacher:

I don’t want students to do ‘what I want’. I don’t want students to follow ‘objective’ rules. In fact, that’s entirely the type of behavior I’m trying to break my students out of.

I hear his argument that it’s counter-productive to educate our students for their lives to come by aiming them at expectations based on our own experience. Clearly, new contexts require new ideas and new expectations, and our goal should be to help our students learn to develop those new ideas free from the constraints of our own, out-dated thought patterns.

But, we also need to help our students develop skills and techniques for critiquing their own work, for judging whether or not it is objectively good for what it was meant to do (or even serendipitously good for something unexpected — therein lies a window into the power of portfolios, but I digress). A number of commenters suggested working with students to develop collaborative rubrics.

And, I say, this is exactly what we are doing whenever we challenge a student to identify their audience, to present their ideas, to argue for and support their own efforts and creativity and analysis and learning. In fact, there is an implicit rubric at play every time we work with our students to develop qualitative understanding of how they can improve their work.

In this case, the rubric is not a checklist, and it is not an attempt to trample the students’ learning with “my” objectivity: it’s a contract that I am making between myself and my student. “Here, this is what I am looking for in your work — and what you should be looking for in your work.” I believe that there is real value in making this contract explicit where possible, by developing rubrics for and with my students to anticipate what areas of their work I should be focusing on when evaluating drafts and final submissions.

And I think that this idea of the rubric as contract is particularly important because what it really represents in a covenant between the party with power (myself) and the party with less power (my student). I didn’t choose to set the stage this way, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who is entering grades for this student, and it is my evaluation of this student that will be definitive for this course. By making this covenant, an agreement between a party with power and a party lacking in power that effectively binds both parties, I am helping my student not only to focus their efforts, but hopefully alleviating distracting pressures by agreeing not to evaluate on certain aspects of his or her work.

Point #2: Not all learning is divorced from specific facts and skills

The flip side of this rubric conundrum is that not everything that I teach (or that is worth learning) exists without an objective, clearly-defined, body of specific facts and skills that must be mastered by the student. For example, if I were teaching Latin, I would need to work through at least some specific grammar, vocabulary and idiom as a foundation for more open-ended and creative learning. And I would have an objective standard for determining whether or not a student gets it — why would I not communicate that standard to my students? Why would I not give them a target to aim for?

I recall my high school graphic design teacher putting forth what I believe to be a sensible argument during a discussion of the rules of composition. Someone had pointed out that there were great works of art that violated all of these rules, and yet were still great: why should we have to follow them? And Denny Heck responded: “You don’t get to break the rules until you understand the rules.” Yes, she wanted us to learn the rules of composition, but she also expected us to be creative and find ways to violate them and still achieve successful compositions. But those violations would be educated, conscious decisions, aware of the challenges that we were facing — decisions made thoughtfully, well-supported and judiciously.

For assignments at lower levels and earlier in my courses, I do favor rubrics as a way of framing the goalposts for my students. I think that giving them a target to aim for when working to master concrete concepts and facts is a solid support of the education. In providing the rubric, I am also acknowledging that I am not looking for a total understanding of everything, that there could be some confusion in some areas, without the student being entirely at sea when it comes to building on that knowledge. The rubric lets me show my students that there is a “good enough” knowledge of the subject matter that will let us converse about more complicated concepts fluently and without distraction by their confusion.

August 21st, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

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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:

  1. How do I teach my students to ask questions? Not even good questions, just questions. I realized that, as a long-time A student, I’d never spent much time confused, and therefore hadn’t had to spend much time figuring out how to get unconfused. Over the course of my studies, I realized that this might be the most important thing that I, as a high school teacher, might be teaching any of my students. And, never having been taught (or, at least, never having noticed being taught — merely encouraged to just do it) how to learn reflectively and ask questions that clarify and resolve my areas of confusion… I was (am) a little at sea about how one teaches this intentionally.
  2. How do I teach my students how to work collaboratively? This is, after all, what the real world is about. It’s vanishingly unlikely that my students will find a role for themselves in which they don’t have to work with other people toward a shared goal (okay, one or two of them may turn out to be costumed superheroes or reclusive, genius novelists… but the vast bulk are going to have to play well with others).

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.

August 11th, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.]

August 10th, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

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Shelly Blake-Pock just posted a question on his blog about teaching math in a paperless environment (in fact, since I started gearing up to respond, he’s posted some follow-ups as well).

Last year, wearing my math teacher hat (nominally given to me as a member of the Math & Computer Science department — normally only worn on the most formal occasions), I got involved in a project with my department trying to work with our students to develop a mathematical Wikipedia. The idea was that kids would write up their mathematical knowledge for the younger students and their classmates, creating a review site focused on what the students thought was important to know about the material we were covering in class.

The big idea was that this would push the students to both reflect on what they knew (as they worked to articulate it for less experienced students) and take part in some independent learning (as they researched their topics to figure out how to write them up). It wasn’t really a rousing success, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the kids were assigned topics (rather than selecting their own) and ended up mostly parroting their textbook into the wiki. There wasn’t any real collaboration or peer-review going on, at least not in a really critical sense (“Why did you explain it the way the text book does? I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now… do you get it?”)

However, Brian Lester and I got excited about the idea of how one would pursue this project from a mechanical standpoint: how would you post mathematics in an editable, readable and shareable way on the web? We went through a number of permutations, but the solution that I think contains all of the desired mechanical qualities is this: use MathML. There’s a handy [take-a-deep-breath-this-is-about-to-be-a-lot-of-jargon] Javascript ASCII-to-MathML translator library online from Peter Jipsen at Chapman University. It works really well: you type in text as you would on a calculator and it gets typeset as you would see it in a professionally printed text. And you can go back and edit it.

MathML requires a plug-in for Internet Explorer 7 (no idea about 8, but I’ll bet it still needs the plug-in), but Firefox can read and parse MathML natively. Peter Jipsen has links to some helpful fonts to download to make it all look a little nicer, but they’re truly optional. Once it’s set up on your server, you just include a magic incantation at the beginning of the page to invoke the translator, type in your calculator equations, and whamm-o: pretty equations!

Now, this only handles equations on the web. We didn’t get to graphs or diagrams in our experiments last year. But I can tell you where I would look for graphs — Google has an embeddable chart generator that might work. I hope there are other similar tools.

Again, all this is with the stated goal of readable, editable, shareable mathematics online. This doesn’t address doing the exploratory work: this is the write-up and reflection after the exploration. Without a tablet, I’m not convinced that one can do general mathematical work on a computer. And with a tablet, I’d add FluidMath (still in beta, I think) to the list of must-have applications.

August 4th, 2009

Posted In: Educational Technology, How To

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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.

March 23rd, 2008

Posted In: Computer Science, Educational Technology

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