Question Your Textbook (cont)

Photo of Historian Examining a Historic Artifact
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been all week on the road — either presenting, traveling, or sleeping, and it leaves little time to blog or even tweet.  But I’ve spent some more time thinking about Clay Burell’s project, “Teaching ‘Against the Textbook’.” 

What’s I find so interesting about this project is that the students are learning about history (or what ever the subject) by acting like historians.  When a historian encounters a new artifact or a new idea from a fellow historian, part of the job is to find the evidence that the object or ideas is appropriate to the conclusions that it implies.  Does its acuracy, validity, reliability… support the message?

Asking students to find the evidence that the information in their textbooks (or other resources, including their teachers’ lectures) is a way of learning how to learn.  And I continue to maintain that this is more than a social studies, science, health, or mathematics skill.  It is a literacy skill — what I might call “Learning literacy.”

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The Greatest Change in Human Communication in Human History

Screen shot from the video

“We’re trying to help our students learn to express themselves in words and images, and moving images in particular,” says Richard Miller, Chair of the Rutgers English Department, in a YouTube’d video presentation, The Future is Now: Presentation to the RU Board of Governors.  He continues,

This is all building towards a larger vision, re-imagining the humanities for the 21st century.  Unquestionably, we are working in a world that is driven by technological advance and improvement, and some people see that as obviating the need for people who excel in spoken expression, the written word, telling stories — for some people that (technology) is the fluff of life.  But actually, that is the backbone of life.  We work in an area that is essentially concerned with the quality of living.

In this presentation, Miller introduces the university’s planned/proposed Center for the New Humanities, and he says that new humanities should be considered a single phrase.

Having mentioned Wikipedia earlier in the presentation, he states that,

At the center of this new humanities is a collective, collaborative kind of composition that is represented by this globe (see left).  But what Wikipedia doesn’t have is what the university has to offer.  That is sustained study and deep understanding.  When you add that to the picture, you get human creativity put at the center of the humanities.  Over the past 10 to 20 years, the humanities somewhat lost its way, becoming overly focused on critique.  The real function of the humaniteis is to engage in the act of creativity, moment by moment, to improve the quality of the world we live in.

You don’t need me to tell you how much Richard Miller is talking about a much MUCH broader world of education than the Department of English at Rutgers University.

We have lost our way.

I discovered this video through a blog entry, (We Can Do This. We Should Do It.) from Carl Fisch, where he mentioned this entry (Videos – The Future of the humanities in the Internet Era) by Scott McLeod.  They both embedded two other presentations by Miller, This Is How We Dream, Parts I & Part II.

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21st Century Literacies

My vent about Arne Duncan’s six-day school week kicked up a lot of discussion over the past few days. I can’t remember the last time one of my posts attracted 40 comments. Of course many of them are my replies, but still…

Unrelated: Here are some photos I took yesterday. I just can’t get enough of these dogwood blossoms. They won’t be around much longer. (click to enlarge)

Reading through those comments reminds me a bit of a debate that was held more than 10 years ago at a CoSN conference in Washington, between Judy Salpeter, then editor and chief of Technology and Learning Magazine, and Todd Oppenheimer, who had just written a piece (The Computer Delusion) for The Atlantic Monthly, critical of technology in education.  They both made points — and very effectively so.  But they were both taking aim at different targets — at different visions of what education should be doing for us today.

It’s what I see here.  There is a dramatic difference between what Arne Duncan (and many politicals) probably sees when he envisions appropriate education for today’s children, and what many of us are certain needs to be happening in our students formal education.

I love it when someone smarter than me, says it better than I ever could.  In his opening blog post for Online Instigator, Howard Rheingold explains that our children and grandchildren need to…

…grow up knowing how to pluck the answer to any question out of the air, summon their social networks to assist them personally or professionally, organize political movements and markets online? Will they collaborate to solve problems, participate in online discussions as a form of civic engagement, share and teach and learn to their benefit and that of everyone else?

In my vision of the formal education that inspires these skills in our children, the classroom plays only a very small part.  These are not just literacy skills.  They are learning skills — and they can not merely be taught.  To do so only insults and irritates our children.  These are skills that must be practiced authentically in order to become habits, not just skills — and the most authentic place to practice them is outside the classroom.

What I’m suggesting is less time in the classroom, not more.

Rheingold continues pressing the point of the importance of these skills when he says that…

The speed, scope, and spread of knowledge might be more critically important at this historic moment than microchips, initial public offerings, business models, 3G networks, Web 2.0 services, or fiberoptic cables.

The nature of information has changed — not in what it does and what it means, but in what it looks like, how it flows and grows, and where and whom it comes from, how we find it, what we use to find it, …  It means that there is still much that needs to be taught.  The teacher and classroom, though I suggest might take up a smaller part of our students’ day, has actually become far far more important.  The library and librarian has become far far more important — if they can re-image themselves to reflect a new information landscape.

Rheingold continues…

And don’t swallow the myth of the digital native. Just because your teens Facebook, IM, and Youtube, don’t assume they know the rhetoric of blogging, collective knowledge gathering techniques of taggers and social bookmarkers, collaborative norms of wiki work, how to tune and feed a Twitter network, the art of multimedia argumentation – and, by far most importantly, online crap detection. (Rheingold)

Our children know how to play the information.  They still desperately need us to teach them how to work the information.

I have to smile when I consider that the fellow who shares such insight into our children’s education still wears tie-died shirts — but so be it.

Education researcher, James Paul Gee, writes (article) in the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research that…

We live in a high risk world of interacting complex systems. A world subject to dangerous global warming, a now melting high-risk global economy, and massive destruction due to unchecked poverty and population growth.  Natural systems are no longer independent of human beings.  Urban environments and human energy seeking now affect temperature and storms.  Things that were once “acts of God” and are now also “acts of man.”

In my view, in the twenty-first century we need the following—and we need them fast and all at once together: embodied empathy for complex systems; “grit” (passion + persistence); playfulness that leads to innovation; design thinking; collaborations in which groups are smarter than the smartest person in the group; and real understanding that leads to problem solving and not just test passing.  These are, to my mind, the true twenty-first century skills.  We will not get them in schools alone and we will never get them in the schools we currently have. (Gee)

We need to reinvent education, not just prolong it!

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Gee, James Paul. “Games, Learning, and 21st Century Survival Skills.” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 2. 1. April 2009 Web.11 Apr 2009.

Rheingold, Howard. “21st Century Literacies.” [Weblog Online Instigator] 10 Apr 2009. Web.13 Apr 2009. <>.

Working for Value

Attendee of my workshop being a Personal Learning Network

I have to say that last week’s NCTIES conference was one of the most valuable conferences I’ve worked in a long time — and it was a treat to be able to use Raleigh’s new and quite impressive Convention Center.  The only complaint I had was about the projectors and displays.  The featured speakers presented in two nearly identical rooms that were visually striking, roomy, and cozy at the same time.  However, there were no drop down screens, and we had to project onto a side wall that was entirely too small and uncomfortably angled.  I think that this is the sort of thing that you learn the first time you use a new venue.

A little less forgiving were the Promethean IWBs that were installed in the other presentation rooms.  The worked quite well, but were intended for classrooms, and were simply to small, and even more frustrating, to low to be useful to attendees sitting further back than the forth row.  It was a technology conference, and part of the point is to be exposed to new technologies, but not at the expense of the teaching and learning that is at the heart of conferences.

The information experiences that help to define our Digital Natives:

  • Responsive
  • Measure Accomplishment
  • Values Safely Made Mistakes
  • Demands Personal Investment
  • Rewards with Audience & Attention
  • Provokes Communication
  • Is Fueled by Questions

I was satisfied the the results of my sessions, two of which were more unconference in nature than presentation.  The first of these sessions, ambitiously entitled something like Foundational Structure for Learning 2.0, sought to build a framework, so to speak, for formal learning experiences that take advantage of specific qualities of our students outside-the-classroom information experiences, or native information experiences.  The qualities, which resulted from an extended activity I did with teachers in Irving,Texas several years ago (read more here).

I described each element by illustrating how it might manifest in a particular video game or genre of game, while operating within a social network, or engaging in conversations via IM or text messaging.  For instance, I showed a rather richly adorned player avatar from an MMORPG, to illustrate measured accomplishment and personal investment, and a video clip from Justin TV (Ustream-type service, where kids broadcast their video game play, while engaging in conversation with a global audience, illustrating audience and attention.

The conversation that followed this brief introduction revealed some aspects of these experiences that had not occurred to me — which was, of course, the purpose of the activity.  I asked the audience to work for a few minutes in groups and to come up with a story that illustrates what formal learning activities that incorporate these qualities might look like. 

Now that I think back, none of the stories were imagined, but true life learning stories, some of which mutated from traditional assignments into something more interesting.  For instance, one person told about her son, who was preparing a report for sociology, and his questions could be answered only from web sites that were blocked by the school’s filtering system.  He resourcefully found a way to redirect the content of the sites into his classroom through sites that were acceptable.  I wish I could remember how he did that.  He also put together a way to digitally survey his classmates, to collect further data to support his study.  His activities were fueled by questions, demanded personal investment, and he used the web to provoke communication.

What most resonated with me came out of conversations about responsive information experiences.  I showed a nostalgia-evoking video of Pong and a Facebook thread to illustrate this quality.  Most of the stories incorporated responsiveness in that they involved students writing or in some other way producing for an authentic audience.  One of the attendees, a rather precocious youngster from a middle school in Union County, described a project from his class, where students produced videos (don’t remember the topic), and then invited their parents to come in on evening to watch and talk about what they saw.

As I often do, when the teller exclaims how motivated the students were, I ask, “Why!”  “Why did it excite you to have your parents see your videos.”  What came out of these follow-ups was a fairly dramatic distinction between authentic audience and teacher as audience.  When writing, let’s say, to the teacher, you are communicated to be evaluated.  Assessment is the outcome, based on some set of expectations involving skills and/or knowledge.

However, when writing to an authentic audience, what you are trying to earn is not an evaluation (though there may be one coming in the process).  What you are writing for is a response, and that response will be directed toward what you have invested in the work, not just the facts you have included or the skills you have demonstrated.

One difference that occurs to me is that when delivering to the teacher, you are working for for correctness.  When delivering to an authentic audience, you are working for value.  It’s not an either or, of course.  We should be striving for both evaluating of learning and response to value.

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More on what Matters…

J.D. Wilson commented on yesterday’s blog post, Should it Matter? and he got me thinking about several things. Here is the first paragraph of his comment.

What concerns me as a high school teacher is getting the content into the class. I think the tools the new technology offers are impressive and do enable me to expand the boundaries of my class room. But I have difficulty with those that think the technology by itself is going to make a subject interesting. It is like trying to get someone who does not like baseball to like baseball by changing the rules of baseball to make the game look more like football…

Ditto! Technology, by itself, will not help, and I think that his comparison with sports rules is very effective.

I often ask teachers who are seeing new excitement and increased learning gains, when they start using something like blogging, “What do you think is the reason that your students are doing so much better?” ..and I often (almost always) hear, “It’s because ‘It’s Technology.'”

Now I have not been in these classrooms and haven’t seen the students working, but I can’t help but feel that this is not the true reason.  First of all, it isn’t technology to our students. There’s nothing special about blogging or working with simulations to them.  Participating in large, ongoing, and nearly always available conversations, and playing with simulations is a part of their childhood.  It’s part of their culture.

We are just now starting to pay attention and to understand some of what our students are doing, but it still looks like technology to us.  We see the machines, because we’re looking in from the outside.  To them, it’s the information.

I think that it has a lot more to do with what they are doing with the technology — and more than that, it’s what they are doing with the information.

It is what it is and must be appreciated on its own terms. Students who dislike Chaucer (I am an English teacher) are not going to like Chaucer just because he is being studied using social networking tools. I struggle with maintaining the rigor while trying to make the material as interesting as I can.

I agree that Chaucer is not going to come to life just because students are using social networking tools.  However, he may come to life, become relevant to their world view, and even become enjoyable because of the conversations that are having in the social networking tools. 

For instance, you might ask them to share comebacks from the fellow travelers Chaucer wrote about (sometimes insultingly).  What might that lazy cook have said back to Chaucer, if he’d been able to read and write.  Show students the Where the Hell is Matt (2008) video and ask them how what Matthew Harding did is like what Chaucer was doing.  How might Matthew Express his travels without a video camera and with the Internet?  Find other traveling bloggers and find comparison, or ask students to find comparisons.

I can’t really give a good example, because I’ve never taught Chaucer.  But if reading his work was not useful or interesting to someone, we wouldn’t be teaching it.  I’m convinced that if we can include our students voices in the conversations, causing them to invest themselves in the study, then Chaucer becomes something else.

I agree that a teacher cannot do any more than the community in which she or he teaches will accept and most communities seem to be more interested in talking about reform than in doing the very hard work that reform requires. I think as a culture we have bought into the idea that there are simple solutions to every problem and that is rarely true.

This is so true.  It’s not that generating the big ideas is easy.  It isn’t.  It requires that we get out of our boxes and look back in with different lenses.  But we’ve become very good at saying things like, “Learning is conversation,” and “Students will learn better through networks of other learners.”  The question now is, “What does that look like?”  “What exactly are you seeing when when this is happening?”

Right now I’m sifting through the comments posted during a session I did at Educon, where I asked participants to share examples of information-rich learning activities, and many of the answers were brilliant.  But very few of them truly painted a picture of what students and teachers are actually doing.

We need to start doing a much better job of visualizing and describing what learning 2.0 actually looks like.

It is my experience that modern education is becoming more about documenting what we do than about doing anything. I think the definition of a public school teacher is becoming someone who documents in great detail what they would do if they had time to teach.

This is brilliantly said, J.D..  It reminds me of something that Yong Zhao said when I saw him speak a few weeks ago.  He said something like, “We seem much more interested in doing ‘it’ right, than doing the right thing.”

However, I do not think that simply getting rid of the documenting — the testing — is going to be enough.  We need to have something to replace it with, something that is complex, but can be described simply and compellingly.


Now I have to rush to the gate.  I’m in the Pittsburgh airport, and it’s a lively place!

Are You Asking Dead Questions?

I had an amazing conversation last night, with Lynne Anderson-Inman, at the speakers reception for the TRLD (Technology, Reading, & Learning Diversities) Conference.  Lynne is the Director for the Center for Advanced Technology in Education, at the University of Oregon.  We started the conversation, and the evening with methods for inspiring students to want to learn. 

Inman told me that they were learning that questions intended to spark learning had to be simple and basic.  They had to start small.  What is this (holding up a strand of barbed wire)?  What is the history of that house on Karl street?  What is the story with old Miss Crabgrasse, on East Main Street?  These types of questions, she said, tended to lead to more questions, inquiries that take on a life of their own.

The questions I was asked in school, and that I asked as a teacer, were not simple and they started in the middle.  I asked them only after I had lectured or after students had read their assignment.  Then I asked them questions, not to inspire curiosity and inquiry, but to assure that the assignment had been completed and knowledge was gained.  These questions were asked, answered, and then they died on vines that could have lead not only to more learning, but to self-personalized engagement.

This took me back to a conversation I’d had years ago with Jim Moulton.  We concluded for the wildly gyrating logic of our discussion that we should be teaching history backwards.  We should start with today and work our way back via various topic threads, that might best be determined by the students.

You’d be starting with simple questions about something you can point to.  Why is everyone so excited about Barack Obama’s presidency?  Why are there all these windmills all over the place?  Then you work your way back asking and answering more interconnected questions.

Here are some links that Lynne e-mailed to me:

It was at this point, that Lynne gave me ample of opportunity to leave, that her next avenue of logic would probably not be of interest to me.  Of course, that is no way to stay someone’s curiosity.  So she went on, describing her new passion and the subject of her recent grant proposal.  It’s Antique Samplers!

OK! before last night, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine what Antique Sampers were if mentioned.  Here is the Wikipedia definition:

A (needlework) sampler is a piece of embroidery produced as a demonstration or test of skill in needlework. It often includes the alphabet, figures, motifs, decorative borders and sometimes the name of the person who embroidered it and the date.

Lynne said that this is how girls (and sometimes boys) were taught the alphabet.  They decoratively stitched them on cloth.  The practice, for all intents and purposes, ended in the 1860s.  But she said that before that time, to be taught writing was not the same thing that we think of when planning writing instruction today.  It wasn’t about learning to convey ideas with words.  It was about lettering, calligraphy, PENMANSHIP.

For the most part, girls were not taught to write, they were taught to read, but not to write — and it was while learning to sew that they learned the letters.  When we see paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries of a mother and daughter sitting and stitching, we may be seeing a mother teaching her daughter to read.

Inman added that there are instances of women wanting to write (in our sense) and using their leaned skills to do so, producing a letter to a relative by stitching the letters into cloth — or an entire memoir.

I wonder when we started teaching writing as a communication skill, rather than just the mechanics — and why?  Just about every day I talk about how information, until recently, was a product that we merely consumed.  It was a book or magazine we bought so that we could read it, a CD to listen to, or a DVD to watch.  Today, we all have the ability to produce a book, music, movies, for others to enjoy — to consume.

But does the capacity to produce messages require us to teach the skills involved?  No!  I don’t think so.  What does make the ability to express ideas compellingly so important — so BASIC — is what Daniel Pink characterizes a abundance.  There is so much stuff, so many opportunities, so much information, that there is enormous competition for our attention.  It is information that competes, which means that for your product, idea, message, or story to gain an audience, it must compete for the attention of that audience.  You have to be able to describe it compellingly with the appropriately assembled message.

Part of doing this is asking questions that go somewhere.

Method vs Approach

Unbelievable.  A computer, plastic cup of ice, AA-issued can of Diet Pepsi, and a digital camera, all resting on an economy-class seatback table.

I’m in the middle of about a half dozen books, all fresh from under the tree on Santa day.  But on my way out the door for my first trip of 2009, I grabbed Presentation Zen, by Garr Rynolds.  I’d not started it yet, PZ feeling more like desert, compared to some of the others I’m working my way through.  I’m also having fun learning to take notes on the Linux side of my Netbook, using Freemind.  It’s a bit odd to have room here, for my computer, a plastic cup of ice, an AA issued can of Diet Pepsi, and my digital camera, all on an economy-class seatback table.

Early in the book, as Reynolds is making connections between Zen and business (and academic) presentations, he suggested an interesting distinction.  He writes that designing presentations is not a method.  It’s an approach.  It is not a “..step-by-step systemic process.”  It is “..a road, a direction, a frame of mind.”

This seems to me like a useful way of thinking about how we use technology and how we teach it.  Anyone, who has delivered technology staff development, has witnessed teachers, desperately writing down notes, step-by-step instructions, so that they will be able to repeat that specific function when they return to their own classrooms.  I’m not making fun.  Repeating steps is sometimes the best way to accomplish a goal.

As I think about how “digital natives” and “settlers” go about working through their tasks with information and communication technologies (ICT), compared to how many immigrants go about it, the method/approach comparison makes a lot of sense. 

Considering the differences between my generation’s use of information technology and the way my children use it, I want to think about my wrist watch.  When I was growing up, all watches looked and acted pretty much the same way.  You set the time by pulling the tiny nob out and twisting it, to twist the hands around to the correct positions.  I still wear an analog-style watch.

However, the time-pieces of years later, digital watches, all came with three different buttons, and with those three buttons, you could perform fifteen functions, by pressing the buttons in seeming infinite combination.  I wear an analog watch today, because I can’t remember the steps.  My children grew up learning how to reason their way into the solution.  In fact, they don’t wear watches at all.  It’s all in their cell phones which tell time, keep schedules, record addresses, take messages, and, oh yeah, communicate through a 26-character alphabet with fewer than 26 keys.  You operate these devices natively, by approaching it with a certain frame of mind, not by method.  There is absolutely no harm in this.

The harm comes when we try to teach technology by method.  When we try to teach word processing, spreadsheets, and image editing software through scripted lessons — to kids who are at home accessing and interacting with the world from their pockets — there is a disconnect that may well be a big part of why so few of our children are interested in pursuing technology fields.  The harm comes when we try to test our students proficiency with technology through method, when we ask them to solve a problem with a computer and then score them based not on how resourceful they are with the tool, but to what degree their solution matched the one that was taught.

This is one more reason why I am increasingly insisting that we, as educators, need to began to picture ourselves as master learners, and to project that image of ourselves to the community.  If we become enthusiastic learners, then we are modeling the concept and process of life-long learning.  If we walk into our classrooms as master learners, then we might come to better understand that working with information is as much about approach as it is about method.

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This is Cool!

You Might Be Too Busy IF… 2/9/08

I think that one of the coolest things about Personal Learning Networks is when they blossom into something interesting, useful, or funny. The later appeared yesterday when Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach published a list of statements shared by educators in her PLN. She’d asked, through Twitter, for statements that began with “You know when you’re busy when…”

Read You Might Be Too Busy If…, and enjoy the fact that it is a collaborative effort of busy educators who are learning every day, and enjoying the benefit of a greater brain!

Mine is the one about Saturday and Sunday — and I think that one of them is today 😉

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