Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Thoughts on Papert: Kid Power?

I thought I was on Seymour Papert's side within the interview "Ghost In The Machine" until he made this rather bold prediction: "This fragmentation of the day into periods devoted to different subjects will go away. Curriculum-driven structure of learning, by which I mean you learn something because it is the day in which you are supposed to learn that. As opposed to project- or application-driven learning, you learn it when you've got a need for it." As much as I would like to believe this, it will not happen for a looonggggg time, if it ever does. Schools are historically slow to reform themselves, so to believe that a change of this magnitude will occur anytime within the next decade or so is deliriously Pollyanna. Furthermore, his notion that "it just takes a sprinkling of kids in every class who know there is a better way of learning, have experienced it, and so can make a bigger demand in the classroom" is equally absurd. I'm all for teachers tailoring their lessons to be more kid-friendly, but to argue that kids have a better understanding of how they can learn a concept better than their teacher is pushing it. I agree with him on reinforcing both the constructional and informational sides of learning through one another, as well as the general idea of technology making the learning shift "less abrupt," but many of his ideas revolve around student motivation, which has no easy answer.

What Is At Stake For Millenials?

There are two sides to the Pew Research Center's results regarding whether or not millenials will benefit or suffer from their overconnected lives. Optimists say that "many of the young people growing up hyperconnected to each other and the mobile Web and counting on the internet as their external brain will be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers who will do well in key respects." Pessimists, however, "express concerns that trends are leading to a future in which most people are shallow consumers of information, and some mentioned George Orwell's 1984 or expressed their fears of control by powerful interests in an age of entertaining distractions." While I feel that ultimately it will be a balance (however precarious) of these two options, the latter seems more likely. As mentioned last week in the article regarding Google making us "stupid," the attention spans of even relatively smart people is shrinking rapidly. We aren't learning as much from the information we are getting, but rather looking for more and more of it, when we need time to process our thoughts. As mentioned in the results, some believe that "they lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the internet and mobile devices to function," and this is very true to me. Students, and myself included, are almost too reliant on the internet for just about every task imaginable, and it is hard to disconnect when necessary. 

There were two points in particular that I agreed with. The first was media scholar Danah Boyd, who writes that "I suspect we're going to see an increased class division around labor and skills and attention." This is not only true, but equally terrifying. Again, I suspect I am not the only one who tends to procrastinate when I am online, so for this to be just another thing to separate us is disconcerting. Second, futurist Marcel Bullinga focuses on the educational reform aspect of it, saying "educators should teach the management of multiple information streams, emphasizing the skills of filtering, analyzing, and synthesizing information." I recently gave a WebQuest on A Christmas Carol to my students, and to see the amount of plagiarism is stunning, despite the fact that the directions were to put your answers "in your own words," believing that changing a few words would suffice. It is important to find the information, but it is equally important to show that you know it rather than do a simple copy/paste.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The saddest movie death scene? Possibly.

"In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That's the essence of Kubrick's dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence." So says Nicholas Carr within his Atlantic article, and it is hard to disagree with much that he says. In fact, his own experiences (along with those of his friends mentioned in the article) regarding deep reading reflect my own troubles. As an English major who actually enjoys reading, it has become increasingly difficult to just sit down and focus; my mind is always somewhere else, and it takes a lot more effort than should be required to get me back in the right frame of mind. Much of this can be blamed on the Internet's suspect code of ethics: through various avenues, specifically "content" on top of more content, it is in their (insert company here) "economic interest to drive us to distraction." More page views equal more dollars.

Within the article, Carr cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University. She makes two excellent points: that "deep reading... is indistinguishable from deep thinking," and that "the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity" for deep reading / deep thinking. This is troubling, especially its implications on schools. Is the answer to disregard any sort of deep reading activities? Hopefully not. How any English class will survive if that is the option is beyond me. Literacy is still just as important as ever, yet it doesn't mean that one needs to be able to read, but that one needs to read well, i.e. comprehend and analyze a given piece. In my class, we have begun to read A Christmas Carol. My mentor teacher has the kids read in-class, but with an audio version playing along, and she will occasionally stop the recording to ask the students various questions. This provides students with short bursts of reading, along with informal assessments to see if they are following along and comprehending the material. The downside to this, however, is that if this were utilized with every reading, it would not only become stale, but it would slow down the reading process considerably. It allows everyone to read at the same pace, but gifted students may not feel properly challenged.

One thing that isn't mentioned in the article, however, is something else entirely: that our intelligence is declining as we evolve. In a recent study, Stanford researcher Gerald Crabtree posits that "evolution is, in fact, making us dumber — and that human intelligence may have actually peaked before our hunter-gatherer predecessors left Africa." However, Crabtree adds that "no matter how deteriorated our intellectual abilities may have become over the millennia, advancements in technology will someday render these changes insignificant." Enter Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google's founders who believe that "if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off." It's terrifying to think how prescient Kubrick was with 2001.
evolution is, in fact, making us dumber — and that human intelligence may have actually peaked before our hunter-gatherer predecessors left Africa

Read more:
evolution is, in fact, making us dumber — and that human intelligence may have actually peaked before our hunter-gatherer predecessors left Africa

Read more:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reflecting on Prensky

Out of all of the essays and articles we have read in this class, it seems like Marc Prensky gets it the most. "Passion is the students' true motivator. Once a student has a passion to know or do something - anything - the chances are excellent that he or she will do much, on their own, to follow it." As great as technology is and can be, it's useless without people who are operating it with no direction or dedication. Most students have the tools necessary, but self-motivation is critical. 

However, it is equally important that teachers teach these students how to use basic technology. As Prensky mentions in Teaching the Right Stuff, "even where the things are going the best, where the new tools are being fully utilized by all students... the students are already behind the technological curve. Because we are not teaching our students the tools of tomorrow." This past week, a class of my students did a pre-assessment activity by going to the computer lab and working on a webquest related to Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol. The complete lack of any technological literacy was dispiriting, to say the least. The entire class of 7th graders had no idea how to double space a document in Word. The concept of tabbed browsing went right over their heads. When I told them that they could email the document to themselves or post it into their backpack on EdModo, they were clueless. This is basic technological know-how, yet whatever it is they are learning in their Computer Literacy class is obviously insufficient. And these are the things that Prensky wants us to move away from, in favor of video, virtual communities, and programming, three things that require a strong computer-literate foundation.

If there is one thing I disagree with, it's Prensky's assertion that being able to write a good letter, report, or essay is worthless for today's job seekers. I find it hard to believe that essays and reports are going away, and arguing that "at the most I would write blog posts, or perhaps articles" seems to be more of an issue of semantics. Good writing leads to good thinking, and being able to incorporate all forms of writing, and not just shorter text mediums like blog posts or emails, would be best for student development.   

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Khan Academy: How Good Is It?

While I definitely find Khan Academy to be a useful supplement, I have several issues with the program itself. First, there is nothing of value for English teachers. There are numerous subjects within the domain of English Language Arts that could be elaborated on in a ten- or fifteen-minute video, yet the subject itself has yet to be explored by Khan. The only way an English teacher could potentially utilize the site would be through one of the history or science videos, specifically if the text that an ELA class is studying involves said video. But why do that when there are tons of other great resources available both online and off?

This brings up another issue: the history section is lacking. There are few videos and worksheets, and this may be an issue that Khan may have an issue addressing. Whereas the math and science videos are capable of solving and explaining problems and concepts within a small window, history can be so comprehensive that it cannot be properly covered in a six-minute video (especially the video on Lincoln's assassination above). 

Khan's bread and butter is his math and science section videos, and he should be commended for his intentions, yet his arrogance towards those who correct him (see this article) is appalling. One of the goals of all teachers is self-assessment, and Khan seems to lack this. For a guy (with no education background) who is admittedly winging it with each video to proceed and denounce those who challenge the veracity of his "lessons" is more than off-putting. The goal isn't merely to have student's learn at home but to have them learn correctly.

I'm all for changing the status quo in education, and I like some ideals of Khan Academy and the flipped classroom in general, yet it can only go so far. It is up to teachers and parents to motivate and excite our kids; furthermore, kids need to be willing to work and accept some responsibility for their own learning. Students also need to be able to decompress from learning, so having them watch a series of videos at home is not going to do much if they don't have the motivation or time to do so.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

1931 vs. 2012: Assessments

While this test could not be used at the current 8th grade level, there are some elements that I find rather admirable. First of all, while some of the questions are merely testing whether or not certain trivial information was remembered, this is still an important and prevalent part of student testing (the material not so much). Students need to know the basics, and this is certainly effective. I also liked how there were no multiple choice questions (which is the worst) and was predominantly short answer or essay questions. Strong writers often become strong thinkers, and tests like this help teachers assess a student's critical thinking capabilities.

Yes, it is obvious that this test would not work for current 8th graders. However, context is important. Living in 1931 West Virginia at the height of the Depression was probably not the time schools were terribly focused on educating children, and children were probably far too busy and stressed to worry about a silly test. We might scoff at some of the questions (especially those about hygiene, penmanship, and what your county is known for producing), but these questions were certainly relevant and important to know at the time. A few of my kids could certainly go over the basics of penmanship and hygiene.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Thoughts on "Leveraging the Power of Social Media in the Classroom"

Of the many presentations available through the K12 Online Conference, the one that jumped out at me was Elaine Plybon's "Leveraging the Power of Social Media in the Classroom." There is no ignoring the force that social media is becoming, so to potentially find a resource that utilizes its potential capabilities in the classroom definitely piqued my interest.

This presentation did not meet the expectations I had in mind. Prior to viewing Plybon's video, I thought it would focus on how to actually use the likes of Facebook and Twitter within class, and perhaps as a way to further discussion outside of the class as well. Instead, it was merely her telling about "educational" fake websites like FakeBook, MyFakeWall and FakeTweetBuilder that supposedly engage students. In my experience with these websites, there is very little actual learning being done. As a way to potentially reflect on a lesson, it may stoke a student's creativity, but it predominantly does nothing more than parrot back surface-level pieces of learning. For example, look at the Facebook and Twitter projects Plybon displays. What higher order thinking skills are being illustrated? Both also use textspeak, something we as teachers should be actively dissuading our students from doing rather than reinforcing through projects that any (read: most to all) tech-savvy and tech-literate students could accomplish within a short period of time.

I did however like the idea of the Pinterest board as a tool. While it may not be as visually stimulating as a PowerPoint or Prezi, I definitely think it could be effective within the classroom. Same goes for a blog, whether a student is reflecting on their own thoughts or using it as if they were a person from the past or literary character. There is a greater opportunity for depth and exploring further complexities in these two tools when compared with a fake Facebook page or Twitter feed.

Yet according to one person in the comments thread of that video, "I would never want to write another biography paper again if I had the option creating a project like this instead." This is a terrifying thought. Maybe I am a bit biased as an aspiring English teacher, but the need to effectively communicate will always be an important tool, especially for developing minds. Good writing leads to good reading and good thinking. Students (and adults) can always further hone this skill, so to ignore it in favor of projects like this does more harm than good.

As for these videos as a tool for teacher professional development, I see no real problem with it. Whether you agree with the content or not, it is important that teachers remain curious, assess their own abilities, and try to better themselves whenever possible.