Sunday, December 26, 2010

Interview with Pearce Delphin (Part One)

Connected teachers spend a lot of time discussing the future of education on social networks. One main theme that continues to be a focal point of these discussions is how modern education needs to be more student-centered. The conversation usually takes place between teachers and I thought it would be of value to invite students from around the world to join the discussion.

I recently connected with a 17 year old student from Australia named Pearce Delphin, also known as @zzap on Twitter. Pearce came onto my radar after I read a story about some controversy he was involved in on Twitter. He struck me as a very intelligent and opinionated 17 year old, so I decided to ask his opinion on a host of subjects that interest educators in my learning community.

Pearce lives in Melbourne, Australia, he just completed high school at Peneligh and Essendon Grammar School, a private school in Essendon, Melbourne. He obtained a scholarship to Monash University and he is thinking about getting a Business/IT degree there. Pearce is interested in politics and describes himself as a deontological libertarian. He loves "coffee, philosophy, books, and of course, IT and the Internet."

Q. How would you describe your social media use on a normal day?

@zzap: On a normal day, my social media use is heavy. Along with my coffee
intake. In fact, I don't know what's heavier. The only thing I like more than social media is coffee. Amongst other things. Social media is generally limited to Twitter, though. Naturally I have a Facebook account, and a YouTube account, etc., but they really don't do it for me like Twitter does. Facebook is swamped with inane idiots I had to put up with through my school life, so unless I'm organizing a meet-up with some school friends, I tend to try and avoid it. Because really, I don't care much for most of their poorly structured, grammatically grotesque status updates or (foursquare rip-off) "check-ins".

Since mentioning foursquare, I also use that. It's a great way keeping track of your friends' whereabouts, similarly with Google Latitude, although you need to be more careful of you allow see your Google Latitude location, since it automatically updates your location, unlike foursquare where the user has to check in to a certain venue.

Q. Are you a gamer?

@zzap: No. Games have never really interested me. I like Grand Theft Auto (mainly San Andreas; the sand-boxy feel to that game was awesome), and of course the Sims and sometimes SimCity. But I wouldn't consider myself a gamer; I play them very infrequently.

Q. In the intro I linked to a story that gained you some notoriety in the news-- how did you learn to do that?

@zzap: No idea. I just acquired skills over time, I guess. It wasn't anything particularly fascinating. I just observed a flaw in Twitter and I exploited it. I have never had any formal programming training or classes. In fact, I don't particularly like programming/coding. It seems so dry.

Q. Has the incident changed your views on how you use technology at all?

@zzap: Not really, no. I was concerned for a little while that Twitter would remove my account (like they did with another user I know who used the exploit to cause anyone who viewed the tweet to automatically retweet it like a massive spam worm). I had had that account for a good four years (I was an early adopter) and I certainly didn't want it taken away from my now. But thankfully they didn't, and all was fine. Other than that, my views on technology and how I view it hasn't changed.

Q. Do you think school, as an institution, is valuable? Why?

@zzap: School is valuable to the extent to which the students are willing to learn. I don't support a compulsory schooling system (not sure about over there, but here you're legally obligated to attend school until 15 y/o), because all it does it reduce the lowest common denominator and drags everyone else down with it. When the standard is set so low because everyone has to attend, it causes the intellectuals to become frustrated and bored.

This goes the same with higher education -- university used to be exclusive. Now almost anyone
can get in to do whatever they want. Do we really need commerce degrees for salesmen? I mean, trying not to sound elitist or anything, but you cannot argue that the value of some degrees (as in the effort required and what that effort can tell you about the ability of the person) has been significantly cheapened in recent times.

Naturally, these leads to to the depreciation of degrees in general -- the degree itself now turns into just a piece of paper that entitles you to a job interview. Employers having to test a degree holder to verify that they now understand the things that completing the degree should imply shows that the degree becomes worthless. It's just a title of no value. And that fact is sickening.

Q. What aren't you being taught in school that you feel should be taught?

@zzap: Real life skills. Which seems to have completely disappeared in the last 20-years or so. Hell, I wasn't even taught grammar. GRAMMAR. You see all the kids of today not knowing the difference between your and you're, and you feel like you want to be angry at them because they're too moronic to pay attention in English class. Then you realize, perhaps they were paying attention in English class and their English teacher just never taught them the difference between a possessive pronoun and a contraction.

Schools also ought to embrace technology more. I don't want to go into too much detail about this, because I went to a very conservative private school who considered modern technology on the same realm as the Devil. But in general it seems like schools don't go to enough effort to include technology in the curriculum. Typing class would have been nice. I can type at 110 WPM, yet I still use two index fingers only. It would have been nice to know how to touch type or whatever you call it. You know, with all the fingers? I'd be unstoppable then! mwuahaha.

All the things that they seemingly used to teach, but then they removed from the curriculum. For whatever reason. I mean, how can you say schooling is becoming more progressive and embracing when they used to teach something like typing and now they don't? If anything, in some sense, it's going backward.

Q. What do you do in school that you feel is a waste of your time?

@zzap: Everything. Almost all of it is a waste. But I think that is something more personal. I'm an independent learner; I feel like attending class is a waste of time for me. Generally I disregarded everything that occurred in class, and if I had a test I would cram the weekend before and then go and ace the test. This was my life for two years.

Waking up each morning questioning the point of it all, cramming on weekends, and then going well. The worst thing was that a lot of teachers ... they didn't so much "dislike" me, they just became frustrated with me. Because I ignored their advice in class, I didn't hand up my homework, because it all seemed pointless.

Unlike most, I had acquired an effective technique to learning. Certain teachers resented that, and wanted all their students to do it their way. I was not prepared to sacrifice my learning for those kinds of teachers; and in the process, I pissed some of them off. Regardless of this, I received a good score in my final exams and there were some teachers that accepted my independent learning techniques. That's what we need more of: more acceptance of alternate mechanisms of learning.

(To be continued in Part Two)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Global Wikis & 2nd Graders

This year my 2nd graders built a wiki with students in the Bronx and Australia. The wiki is a central location to post pictures about the different environments where we live: urban, suburban and rural. My students used BrainPOP Jr. movies to learn the vocabulary, took quizzes and drew pictures on BrainPOP Jr. to assess their understanding, used digital cameras and created their own pages on the wiki. It was an exciting lesson, the students were engaged, learned a lot, and had fun. When I describe this project to people the first question they usually ask is something like, “How do you even start something like that?”

The answer is social media. Connecting with people is a fundamentally important skill for educators heading into the second decade of the 21st century. Connecting not only helps you learn what is happening in other classrooms, but it helps you build relationships with other educators that bear real pedagogical fruit.

This past summer, I connected with a teacher in the Bronx who had an idea to connect kids from the three different environments as a way to bring her lesson to life for her students. We began to plan out the details to see what was logistically feasible. She was in an urban setting and our school is suburban, but we still needed a rural school to round out the project. If I did not have a worldwide network of educators to reach out to, we would probably have had to give up on the idea. However, I knew a teacher from a rural part of Australia and I decided to ask if she could help.

So, sitting on my couch, smartphone in hand, I tweeted out the question. Within minutes she responded with contact information for a teacher in a rural school who might be interested. Over the course of the next few weeks, while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, waiting for the waiter to bring dinner or during commercials on TV, we used social media to plan together.

If it wasn’t for social media, the three classrooms would never have connected and this project would never have happened. BrainPOP Jr. supplied the content, social media supplied the connections, and our students supplied the application of the lesson on their wiki.

Blending twitter, BrainPOP, wikis, time zone differences, and different schedules is not easy, but if you are passionate about educating kids and modeling the skills they need to succeed in the coming decades, it is worth it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Be Marco Polo

Fear of the unknown is a powerful force in education. There are many teachers across America who view social media, mobile phones and other modern technologies the same way 13th century Venetians viewed The Orient. This is why technology educators need to be the Marco Polo of their school. The good news for us is that we don’t need to travel thousands of miles to make new discoveries. The rate of innovation today is astounding and we can not afford to stay in a conceptual Venice surrounded with out-dated pedagogical methods.

We need to be explorers.

We need to seek the new and the unusual. Not that everything new and unusual is useful for educating our children, but we will never know what works unless we try it ourselves.

Do technology teachers need to be early adopters? I think we do and not only that, but it is our professional responsibility to be early adopters. When it comes to hardware innovations, this is not always practical but much of what is new and unusual is on the web and often totally free. To expect teachers to be able to buy iPads on the grounds that they are “explorers” is a tough sell, but it doesn’t cost a dime to try Voicethread or Tumblr or Hashable.

Marco Polo probably encountered things in Asia that he was thoroughly unimpressed with and let these things remain mysteries to the people of Europe, but he also brought back new ideas and new tools that helped galvanize a new era. This is our job as educators—to galvanize the new era. We need to be the change we hope to see in schools and by definition, change requires new ideas, new tools and new approaches. It is our job to do the research, to try the new and unusual, to explore, to be Marco Polo for our schools.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Repetition is the mother of learning.

Think about the things you remember from school. We remember our friends, our teachers, how the hallway looked, where we played at recess and dozens of other non-academic experiences. Most of us do not actually remember the moment we learned anything in school. If you think back you can probably identify the moment you learned some specific skill or some unusual fact, but the overwhelming majority of what we learned in school we learned through repetition. You probably don't remember any isolated moment where you learned 6 x 7, but you do know the answer.

You know the answer because you practiced your times tables over and over and over again. You used them in context while solving other, more difficult problems. You saw them, you heard them, you wrote them down. It may have been brutally boring, but repetition was the process that helped transfer the answer "42" from your short-term (working) memory into your long-term memory.

While there are a number of ways people the learn things, the basic process boils down to two steps. Step 1: You are introduced to new stuff. Step 2: That new stuff is transferred from your working memory to your long-term memory. I would describe step 1 as "exposure" and step 2 as "retention".

If I watch a concert pianist play something by Rachmaninoff, I am not really learning how to play piano, I am simply being exposed to that knowledge. I can see fingers hitting keys, I can hear the sounds that correspond with those keys, but all of that information is stored for mere seconds in my working memory. If you ask me years, or even hours later what keys he hit with what fingers in what sequence, I will not be able to tell you. I won't be able to tell you because I did not retain that information.

On the other hand, if I learned how to play piano and got the sheet music to that same piece of music, I could practice Rachmaninoff every day. Over time, I wouldn't even need to look at the sheet music any more because I would be able to pull the next sequence from my long-term memory. In other words, I would be learning the piece. Repetition helps us retain skills and knowledge and frees up our working memory for other things. When information is stored in our long-term memory whatever process we are trying to recall becomes automatic. Cognitive scientists call this "Automaticity." Once a person achieves automaticity, they are able to critically think, problem solve, gain a deeper understanding and create on a higher level than someone who is burdened with juggling new information in their working memory. If Rachmaninoff had to Google the answer to the question, "What key do I hit next?" before each note, we would never even know his name.

As a technology teacher I come across a famous quote from Alvin Toffler quite a bit: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." Many people in the Educational Technology world misuse this quote as a justification for substituting Google searches for repetition. Based on this concept, some people believe that retaining information is an obsolete facet of education. I think Toffler's quote has truth to it, but only if we understand how important retention of information is to our ability to "learn, unlearn and relearn."

If you believe that the words "learning" and "retention" are synonymous, take a look at that quote with fresh perspective: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot retain, forget, and recall from long-term memory." When viewed from this angle, Toffler's quote is in many ways an indictment of substituting Google searches for genuine retention. The more we retain, the richer and more complex our schema becomes. We learn more quickly and easily when we can attach the new information to information we already have. That's why a rich, complex schema is vital to learning new things.

It logically follows that if retention is vital in the 21st century and repetition is vital to retention, then repetition is vital for 21st century education. The reality is that repetition is vital to 20th, 18th and 22nd century learning as well. Repetition is the mother of learning, period.

The trick for educators is figuring out ways to make that repetition enjoyable. I think people with the educational technology mindset and people with a traditional mindset can learn something from each other. Traditional educators understand how important repetition is to learning, but in my opinion, the methods they use to achieve automaticity are not only dull, but inefficient. I can remember sitting in class reading the times tables aloud with my classmates over and over again. I can remember writing the times tables on loose leaf paper over and over again. The good news is that it worked; I learned them. The bad news is that I hated it, I hated school and I resisted learning very step of the way.

Educational technology is most valuable when it offers enjoyable ways for teachers to help students transfer skills and knowledge into their long-term memory. Sometimes it can be as simple as letting younger kids play an educational game like CarrotSticks, where they are competing head to head with other kids (and the clock) to see who can get more answers right. I use games like this when I tutor and it is shocking to see how many more problems a struggling 3rd grader will solve when the repetition is delivered as a game rather than a more traditional worksheet. They frequently ask if they are allowed to play this game at home too. That never happens with worksheets.

There are hundreds of games like this that help make repetition fun, but over time even these games can lose their appeal, especially for older students. Today’s teachers need to think up other ways to leverage technology’s power to make repetition fun. Here are a few ways I have used technology to help students inch closer to automaticity through repetition:

Hip-Hopurriculum: Our 8th grade students wrote hip-hop songs about what they were learning in their classroom. During the course of crafting lyrics that rhymed and fit the cadence of the song, students read and re-read the important elements of how the circulatory system worked, how photosynthesis happens, what the order of operations is, and numerous details about the explorers. They got even more repetition while they recorded and re-recorded the tracks. Then they got more repetition while they lip-synced for the video. Not only did they listen to their own finished product over and over, but they listened to all their friends' finished songs over and over again as well-- all without being told to do so. Technology helped make repetition the students' choice.

Student created digital textbook: Our 7th grade students were assigned the task of teaching other students something from their math textbook. They used Voicethread to upload a picture that they could draw over while narrating their explanation. During the course of this project, students researched various explanations that were already online. They then wrote their own script and thought about how to best explain the concept to someone else. During the course of these first steps, students were deeply thinking about math problems and how to understand them. They then recorded and re-recorded their explanation. When they were finished they listened to themselves over and over. Just like in the Hip-hopcurriculum, they listened to their friends' lessons over and over without being told to do so.

Those are two examples from my experience. What are some creative ways you have used technology to help students leverage repetition and aid in their learning process?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Social Learning and the Bazaar

We are witnessing the advent of the social media revolution and a crisis point for educators. The students of today and tomorrow have access to more information and are connected in more ways to more people than any previous generation. This is an extraordinarily disruptive change in our society and educators need to recognize this change in order to diagnose the challenges, respond to the changing landscape and execute more effective classroom strategies.

The good news for educators is that we don’t have to construct a new model from scratch; we have templates for social learning models all around us. Some educators have already started to adjust and they engage each other regularly on social networks in an effort to self-educate and take the responsibility for improvement into their own hands. Teachers use social networks to form Personal Learning Networks, or PLNs. In a PLN there is no set hierarchy, no boss. Everyone, regardless of title can contribute to the knowledge and skill of the group. The only way people are measured is by their impact on others. In many ways it is a pure meritocracy.

This is quite different from the traditional classroom model. The role of the teacher needs to be re-evaluated in this context. Hopefully the teacher is still the person who contributes the most knowledge and skill to the group and hopefully they have a larger impact than the students we trust them to teach, but how they view their role needs to shift.

For those of you that have not read The Cathedral and the Bazaar, by Eric S. Raymond, it is a book about Linux and the Open Source Software movement, but it is also an extremely valuable conceptual resource for educators looking to transition from dictators to facilitators. Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux did not write all the code that went into creating Linux. In fact, he wrote very little. Raymond summed up Torvald’s contribution on p. 47 by saying that a coordinator of a project like Linux doesn’t need to have great ideas but they need the ability to “recognize good design ideas from others.”

Raymond goes on to discuss how when enough people look at a problem, all problems are easy to solve. The power of the crowd is that individually we may only have a small piece to contribute, but once you gather together a collection of people who all have a different piece, the product can be quite impressive. Wikipedia is another example of this crowdsourced knowledge production model.

In an area of Brooklyn, NY called Gowanus, there are two people who enacted this social learning style where groups of people can get together, share small bits of knowledge and learn from each other in a leaderless environment. Jen Messier and Jonathan Soma started the Brooklyn Brainery as a way to offer classes that used to require an expert to teach but now take advantage of the social learning model. Here is a little video I created that tells their story:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Invisible Hand of Learning (Part 2)

How do we motivate adults to learn new things? This question has been on my mind for months. In my first post for ISTE (The Invisible hand of Learning: Part I) I wrote about how we changed our Professional Development (PD) concept from a top-down to a bottom-up model. The experiment is now on it’s fifth month and so far we have had mixed results.

On the positive side, I have noticed that when teachers choose what they want to learn, they are more engaged, more excited and there is a greater chance the tools they learn will be incorporated into their classroom in some way.

The negative is that many teachers are not signing up to learn anything new. Some teachers have even tried to use that time to work on things independently (like checking e-mail or writing a letter to parents) that required no help from me-- and they would like to get credit for workshop hours. This puts me in an ethical bind, but I have been trying to err on the side of being teacher-friendly.

If we took away the 20 hour requirement, what would happen? Would the teachers who drag their feet ever learn anything new? Is it worth it to try to mandate that someone learn something even when they show no interest? For the teachers that use the time to their advantage and are active participants in their own PD, would removing the 20 hours diminish their enthusiasm? It seems like there are some teachers who would rather go home after school and do what they want, but as long as they have to stay and learn, they make the effort. With no incentive to learn, will they continue to learn or will home seem more appealing?

For the remaining few teachers who are ravenous learners, what is the point of removing the 20 hour requirement? If they are learning for their own sake, keeping track of their hours spent learning should have no effect on them one way or the other.

At our school teachers are encouraged, but not required to take workshops in other areas (literacy, classroom management, dealing with ADHD, etc.). Technology is certainly not the only important thing to learn, but for most teachers, it is currently an Achilles heel. Digital Literacy is growing in importance and just this week I came across two examples on Twitter that showcase why we need to be technologically literate.

Example 1- I know someone who was just hired in a social media role for a major academic journal. The journal has a Facebook page, but couldn’t understand why it had no fans. Within minutes at the job, she diagnosed the problem, “turns out they just had the ‘view fan comments’ setting disabled.” Imagine all the feedback they have been missing because of digital illiteracy.

Example 2- Another friend checked his e-mail at work and saw a message sent from his personal e-mail account in his work inbox. When he opened the message he saw it was actually sent from a botnet that had infected his computer. His yahoo account was hacked and had been sending e-mails to everyone in his address book. He quickly changed his password from work and stopped the spamming.

These are just two small examples from the last week. These people were able to solve problems because they were digitally literate. Problems like these will only increase in frequency and magnitude in the coming decades. Digital literacy is as important in 2010 as traditional literacy was in 1910. Teachers need to cultivate both types of literacies in their students. It follows logically that if we are going to teach English Literature, we should know how to read and if we are going to prepare students for the 21st century, we should be digitally literate ourselves.

Building that digital literacy doesn’t necessarily require a certain amount of hours spent learning, however. It just requires some learning goals and possibly proof that learning occurred.

Would it be better to have a “project” requirement?

Meaning, teachers are responsible to planning what they want to accomplish, then taking as much or as little time as it takes to learn how. For example, a teacher may want to use Diigo to have a digital discussion about an article. In August that teacher could say, “For our current events class each Friday, I am going to ask the kids to annotate and write about the articles I post using Diigo.” In order to do this, they would need to spend a certain amount of time learning how to use Diigo, creating an assignment, teaching the children how to use it from home, etc. Maybe instead of having a certain number of hours as their PD requirement, they can set a certain number of lessons? They can fulfill their tech requirement by learning how and then meeting their self-imposed goal of using Diigo each week.

Maybe a teacher wants to start a blog to communicate with parents and children about the topics in their class. They can set a goal of writing a blog post once a week summarizing the weeks lessons and providing food for thought and debate. In order to accomplish this, a teacher will need a certain amount of training and assistance in learning how to embed videos, pictures, moderate comments, etc.

After a few months, the teacher should be so adept at using their new tool that they no longer need much help at all. It might mean less time spent in a workshop learning, but if the end result is genuine tech integration in their learning environment, isn’t that the whole point anyway?

When I see the level of enthusiasm for learning among the faculty, it makes me wonder if having a requirement of 20 hours of PD is a good idea. I can see both sides of the issue, but I am more interested to know: what you think?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010



Your assignment is to watch at least one of the videos below and write a thoughtful, detailed response. Underneath each video are questions and links to start any further research. The questions are there to give you some direction and food for thought. Your essay comment should not simply be short answers to the questions I posted. Your response should be at least 200 words.

Points will be given for the following:
1. Essay is the required length.
2. Essay demonstrates research on the topic.
3. Essay contributes original thought and reflection to the discussion.

**Bonus points will be given to any students who also reply to another student's comment. Replies must be thought provoking or conversation starting. Simply writing, "Good work" will not count.**

Video #1: India in the Past

Source: Partition Emory University
Source: Partition Wikipedia Entry

What does "partition" mean?
Who ruled India before 1947?
What 3 countries eventually emerged after 1947?
How many wars did India and Pakistan fight after partition?
Do either of these countries have nuclear weapons?

Video #2: India in the Present
Mumbai Attacks

How did the gunmen arrive?
Analyze the terrorists' targets: what did the people who were targeted have in common?
What message were the terrorists trying to express?
Approximately how many people died in the attacks?
What is the historical cause of the problems between Pakistan and India?

Source: BBC Story
Source: Wikipedia-Mumbai Attacks

Video #3: India in the Future
Vision of India 2020

How many people live in India?
How does their economy rank in the world?
How many engineers and scientists does India have?
How does India compare to America?
Do you think India will surpass America as the world's superpower?
Source: Time of India Vision 2020
Source: Khaleej Times: India, China and Next Superpower