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.  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Good, The Bad, and The Questionable

Reflecting on reading Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology chapters 7 through 10, I will focus on ideas and concepts that I thought were either good, bad, or questionable.

The Good

Recognizing that "lifelong learning requires moving away from highly structured schooling institutions... [since] learners will need to develop the skills to judge the quality of learning venues and the kinds of social networks that provide guidance and advice" (130) is an imperative. It should be a school's / teacher's job to foster the intellectual curiosity we were all born with, rather than snuff it out with busy work and topics that are not relatable or uninteresting to each student. Student choice is a necessity. One idea proposed by Collins and Halverson that I found quite interesting was the apprenticeship / credential model. When I was in high school, it seemed like the only option presented by teachers, counselors, and administration was college, despite the fact that many students would be better served with other options. The inability to even present vocational schools or apprenticeships as an equally worthy choice only makes those students more uninterested and unwilling to learn, which in turn creates a flawed learning environment. Students will focus on what interests them, all while learning basic literacies needed to communicate and think, as well as going to a job and creating their own identity. Why keep students in the class if they feel they have no reason to be there?

The Bad

As much as I love video games, I have to disagree vehemently with Collins and Halverson regarding their benefits. Yes, there are several games out there that truly challenge and engender one's critical thinking skills and creativity. Unfortunately, these games are few and far between; just like any other medium, be it books, movies, television shows, music, etc., there is a glut of garbage out there. To quote:

For example, the people who play massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), such as World of Warcraft and Lineage, use basic literacy practices to develop a whole range of other applied literacy skills, such as negotiating, bargaining, forming alliances, strategizing and outwitting opponents, calculating which approach is most likely to work, and communicating with different kinds of people. These applied literacy skills occur naturally in MMOGs but are difficult to maintain in traditional school environments. Yet, because we think of literacy skill development as being directly tied to traditional school content, most people regard gamers as wasting their time playing these multiplayer games (134).

This would be the surface-level truth to two men who have little to no idea what comprises gaming culture. There are those who fully maximize the social potential within games like WoW, but they are very, very few. The devotion and amount of time needed for this endeavor is staggering. I talked with a friend who played WoW for several years and quit playing within the last year. To sum up his thoughts: WoW is strictly seen as entertainment. "There are some skills to be gained, but ultimately it is a time sink." A lot of the game is essentially monotonous busy work. You do communicate and strategize, but it is not always productive, and with most people keeping anonymity through avatars, online civility is often nonexistent. Furthermore, as these games become more popular, the objectives become watered down so these companies can sell more copies of the game.

Also, Leeroy Jenkins isn't exactly the ne plus ultra of collaboration (language NSFW):

The Questionable

The authors note that "for the first time in history, children are more comfortable, knowledgeable, and literate than their parents about an innovation central to society ... they are a force for transformation" (122). This is only partly true. There are adults who are well-versed and literate and can further enrich children. Yet Collins and Halverson argue that "the virtue of communities of kids with shared passions is that they can take place without any involvement of schools and with little adult involvement" (124). Adults, especially those who know how to operate certain technologies, can provide wisdom and help steer children away from making mistakes, not to mention the obvious (that parental and adult involvement can keep children safe from those who may be interacting with them). Rather than disregard parents and adults in the learning process, they are just as integral, and can encourage their kids / students while monitoring and assessing their progress.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

21st Century Learning: How Do We Get There?

First of all, I have to wholeheartedly agree with the idea of teaching 21st century subject themes including "financial, health, and environmental literacy" (45). I certainly did not have this type of education six years ago after finishing high school, and I would love it if I did. Providing students with a basic understanding of how the world works is a necessity.

Furthermore, if "critical thinking and problem solving are considered by many to be the new basics of 21st century learning," (50), I'm a little more than disappointed that this wasn't already the case. While I do not have a great deal of experience within the classroom, it seems to me that a majority of teachers still tend to ignore engaging a student's higher order thinking skills. Considering the glacial rate of change with any of the numerous school movements that have swept the country, I can only imagine that critical thinking and problem solving will be the new basics by the end of the 21st century.

The only thing that can seemingly quicken this pace is the technology available today "for accessing, searching, analyzing, storing, managing, creating, and communicating information to support critical thinking and problem solving" (53). While this is all well and good, there are still major hurdles. First, the issue regarding equity; so many students and poorer districts cannot afford to maintain or keep up with the ever changing technology produced. Second, is the technology even there yet so that we can fully maximize its potential? I don't think it is. The article mentions that "students can now reach experts by email [and] text message" (53), which seems like it could cause students to be distracted by the amount of knowledge.

Ultimately, there is one piece from the article that I found to be the most important takeaway:

These skills [communication and collaboration] can be learned through a wide variety of methods, but they are best learned socially - by directly communicating and collaborating with others, either physically, face-to-face, or virtually, through technology. Team learning projects that intense communication and collaboration during the course of the project are excellent ways to develop these skills (56).

I understand and embrace the push for greater technology use in the classroom, but there can certainly be times when it is too much. The number of teachers I have seen sit at their desks to type notes on the board is astounding; there is little to no enthusiasm when this happens. Students need to feel like what they are learning is important, and not just told. Right now, the technology available in most classrooms is more of a bauble than something of actual practicality. The technology needs to serve a purpose and allow for a student to think critically.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Learning How To Learn

There was one particular excerpt from the reading within Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology that resonated strongly. Collins and Halverson describe how learning how to learn and learning how to find useful resources as arguably the most important skills we must teach our students, allowing us to focus "more on generic skills, such as problem solving and communication in different media, on interpersonal skills in order to interact with people from different backgrounds, and on learning to find information and resources and to learn from them" (95). This, in many ways, is a return to apprenticeship, labeled as the first era of American education. Rather than continue the mass-production pedagogy of the second era, "the pedagogy of the lifelong-learning era is evolving towards reliance on interaction" (97). There are students of all ages, but most are confined and grouped based upon where he/she is with the respective content. In my (albeit exceeding limited) experience within the classroom, group work is where students find most success in learning content. There is less pressure, and students tend to be less judgmental than teachers (unfortunately) when helping their fellow struggling students. Within this new learning standard, the teacher can serve as an overarching "master" of the content's direction, answer questions, and provide potential sources and avenues for further instruction / information.

Unfortunately, there is one major caveat to this style of learning outlined within the chapter, and Collins and Halverson try to underplay its significance. The two mention how revolutionary this way of teaching and learning is / may be / will be, yet admit that "the downside is that learners working in such environments may become more isolated from social interaction with other people" (98). This is a substantial concern. Schools are not merely outlets for content and disciplinary knowledge, but an area where people learn social etiquette and mores. Collins and Halverson previously stated how the SCANS report argued for a student's skill set to be equipped with "basic skills, thinking skills, and interpersonal qualities, such as responsibility and integrity" [emphasis mine] (96). There is something to be said for technology within education; in fact, there could be classes based on Internet civility, something that is certainly lacking when reading the comments on a YouTube video or a newspaper article.

While we may be connected to the Internet at all times, the vast majority of our daily lives are spent interacting with people in one form or another. The outlets of education are changing, but teachers are not replaceable. As mentioned near the end of the chapter, "computer systems have limited understanding of students as individuals and do not provide the warmth and support of a good human teacher" (103). Good teachers show themselves to students as good role models. I don't want to simply dismiss the value of incorporating technology within the lifelong-learning mode; I have been extremely fortunate and learned a ton of new things through the Internet. However, there needs to be a more balanced line of thought. Collins and Halverson seem far too optimistic about how soon this lifelong-learning model will reach its apotheosis. To me, it seems like its decades away, for far too many reasons, whether it's a matter of the infrastructure being suitable and equitable or various bureaucracies and governments being afraid to adapt / change. It is still something to work towards.