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Virtual Learning Coming … Now!

January 5, 2011 Leave a comment

On January 5 2011, Microsoft brought virtual reality to the masses by announcing Avatar Kinect. Avatar Kinect will allow users to engage in virtual environments, through an avatar that will depict real facial expressions and movements. Users will be able to enter virtual environments as their avatar, and engage in conversations and various other activities – even learning activities. This could push virtual reality to the critical mass that would make virtual learning environments feasible for millions of people.

Avatar Kinect will be able to run on the over 50 million XBox 360’s that already sit in living rooms – and these numbers are growing fast. It is possible that the software will eventually become available to all Windows users which is about 1 billion people. In the not too distant future this may be a regular way you connect with your students and colleagues – at which point I can finally stop having to worry about aligning my interactive white board!

Who’s Doing The Talking During Class Discussions

October 25, 2010 2 comments

I had an interesting conversation in my class tonight regarding the development of discourse and hosting student conversations in (math) class. I shared with my classmates an observation I’ve had as a consultant: during most class discussions a teacher will say a few dozen words, and then a student will respond with two or three.  Teacher then affirms or rejects the students input, says a few dozen more words, and eventually elicits another 2/3 word response from a second student. This pattern continues until the conversation ends, and the teacher wraps up the ideas for students.

When I think back to my own classroom practices, I wonder if my classroom conversations were the same. I believe conversations are one of the most important activities that students can be engaged in during the learning process, but students need to actually be engaged. Sometimes we educators monopolize conversations in class in order to guide the discussion to where we want it to go.

I worked with a teacher today, John, who very successfully implemented an online discussion (shameless plug) in his social studies (grade 9) class. Students were highly engaged writing pages upon pages of ideas, pulling in evidence from online sources and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada) to back their opinions. John only had to add his input on occasion to gently nudge the conversation (moderating) keeping it on topic. Students were very successful and in turn, so was John as a teacher facilitating discussion.

John took it further and added something that I haven’t seen before. He told students that they were required to read through the entire conversation before the next class, and write a brief 1 or 2 paragraphs. The focus will be on how their thinking has either changed or their opinion has become stronger due to the comments of their peers. In addition to having every student participate in a conversation, John now has students reviewing the collaborative learning process and synthesizing it on their own. Brilliant!

If you value conversations as a part of the learning process you may want to reflect on what experience your students have during a class ‘discussion’. Are students listening to you state facts and ask a few questions from a handful of students? Or are they deeply engaged in a conversation, given the chance to think about their own ideas, revise them, and challenge each other?

One things for sure, the next time I host a ‘class discussion’ I’ll be considering who’s doing the talking, and who’s doing the listening.

E

REBEL: Reform IS Happening, One Classroom At A Time

October 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I think that the discourse surrounding educational reform often becomes heated because the language, the intentions and meanings of the common phrases, are still being negotiated through the process of discourse itself.  I find that when engaged in talk of reform, others are speaking about systemic change; the need to change the teachers, the physical buildings, the resources, the school boards, the funding, the students, the politics and the overall opinions of society on education.  I prefer to focus simply on the process of learning that students are engaged in.  The former is a massive undertaking perhaps better left to the politically powerful and ambitious.  The latter is doable by me, a teacher, each and every day, in a very tangible way.

Realistically, most of us aren’t going to wake up Monday morning and change the world by Friday at 3:00 pm.  What we can achieve during the week is reform for our own classroom practices.  In fact this is already happening from the efforts of many individual teachers.  As a consultant I see hundreds of individual classrooms through school visits. What I’ve noticed over the past year is; more student collaboration, increased discourse in the classroom (and beyond the classroom using the interactive web), creativity being honoured and encouraged, discovery and inquiry becoming common methods of constructing understandings, problem solving, critical thinking, and a general understanding that knowledge on its own is no longer power, but being able to use it in unique ways is!  Phew!

While it is becoming increasingly important to look at possible systemic change in education, we need to start with change in our own classrooms. For many of us, this is already happening.  We need to celebrate these individual victories, and use our own classrooms as a model for our schools, our district, our states/provinces, and eventually the entire institution of education.

E

For more blog posts on educational reform, please see the REBEL Education Reform WallWisher

Inspired By a 10 Month Old

September 23, 2010 1 comment

I’ve spent the past 10 months head over heels, smiling ear to ear because I am a new father.  I spend as much time as I possibly can playing with my son, Ben.  This evening while considering the enormous amount of learning that Ben is experiencing during our playtime, I realized my important role.  To Ben, I am a safeguard; someone he trusts and who loves him.  When I’m around, Ben has no fear, no inhibitions.  He explores whatever interests him in whatever way makes sense.  I provide the resources he needs; toys, books and musical instruments (he strums the guitar pretty good BTW).  Coupled with a safe and comfortable environment, Ben will learn everything he needs to learn to be ready for life.

At home, I truly am a facilitator of learning.  If only we can figure out how to make it work this well in the classrooms… with a set curriculum, 36 kids, nearly no budget for great resources and during a 67 minute period.

E

I’m Writing This On An iPad


When I first read about the iPad I was impressed, but I couldn’t see it being used efficiently in the classroom. Now I’ve been playing with it for about an hour and all I can say is, wow! I have been completely converted. This machine, As so many have said before me, is just impressive. The ebook reading apps, the interactive games, the video, the speed and ease of search all add up to an efficient experience. The experience is so seamless it is as if there is virtually nothing between you and all the information of the world.

I plan to buy an iPad very soon, and I will explore further the possibilities of iPads in the classroom. I can’t say too much, but I have a feeling that some local schools will be buying in soon. When they do, I hope to be a part of their experience.

Assessment in the 21st Century: What Should It Look Like?

May 26, 2010 4 comments

If you’re reading this post, chances are you keep up with the trends in education.  You are aware that a grassroots movement is underway to turn education up side down right side up.  Impromptu discussions, professional development sessions, twitter posts, TED talks and blogs (much like this one) have all been drawing teachers together with a focus on 21st century learners.  What do these learners need?  What can we provide for them? How does education need to be changed, reformed, or revolutionized?

These questions almost inevitably lead to (or include) discussions of assessment.  There is disdain for standardized exams, and desire for individualized assessments.  Many discussions have gone to extremes, suggesting that facts are not important; that assessments should only be authentic, individualized, and assess higher order thinking.  Even the history of my own twitter posts may be interpreted to mean this.  Don’t buy into this thinking too fast.  Consider a world where knowing facts is not important.  Seems scary to me.

Sure, our education system needs to culminate to more than just facts and figures.  It’s not enough for our Chemistry students to be able to name the chemical with the formula H2SO4(aq), or for History students to know the significance of the year 1767.  But knowing these facts is valuable.  In the lab, not knowing that H2SO4 is a strong acid can lead to serious injury.  Knowing the events leading up to July 4 1767 (or July 1 1867 if you’re from Canada such as myself) gives us perspective, an appreciation for our great countries.

My point is that acquiring a large number of facts is valuable even if it isn’t the only reason to send our kids to school.  Sure, students need to synthesize and evaluate; but synthesis becomes really hard when you don’t have any pieces to assemble.  Facts are the individual parts that students use to compose, to synthesize.  So, how do we respect students needs of higher level thinking and 21st century skills, yet honour the necessity of possessing a diverse wealth information?  Maybe the solution is a dual track assessment system.

Track 1: We need to accept that facts are important, and that an efficient way of assessing a massive amounts of information is through multiple choice and short response exams (quizzes, tests, assignments, call them what you will).  This first track of assessment would happen periodically throughout a semester to assess how much raw knowledge students have gained.  We essentially have this infrastructure in place, though we may need to cut back. There is also a need to have professional development on item writing.  From what I can tell many exams, including ‘standardized exams’ have some poorly assembled questions.

Track 2: This is the track that doesn’t yet exist in most cases.  It should be more of a continuous assessment that happens along side the daily grind of learning vs the periodic assessments as described in track 1.  Assessments here should be authentic and meaningful, based off of student performance of various skill sets (including 21st century skills) as well as high levels of thinking.  Tasks should be highly engaging, and allow for student judgement and creativity.  The focus will not be on facts, but more on enduring understandings.  Here, students won’t be required to have memorized the 4 main greenhouse gases, but they may be required to take on an authentic role in the study and solution searching of global warming.

Ok, so obviously I haven’t worked out all of the details.  Maybe I am completely off beat here, I’m not certain.  I am certain that the world (including myself) isn’t ready to give up teaching facts and, simultaneously, students need to focus on so much more.

Discuss:

What are your views on the need for facts in our schools and our assessments?  Should we be tossing out all assessments of facts, and focused purely on performance assessments?  Maybe you think we should go the other extreme as we’ve had through most of the 20th century?  Please, share your ideas and opinions below, I’d love to chat!

Interactive Whiteboards ≠ 21st Century Classrooms

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

We hear about interactive whiteboards (SMART, Promethean, Hitachi, etc.) from televised news, parents, teachers, and principals.  For the most part people are excited about them being in the classroom.  At a recent public forum, Alberta parents expressed to school board officials that technology, such as SMARTboards, must remain a priority for the district amidst financial cutbacks.  Even teachers and principals are proud of 21st century initiatives that include purchasing and installing interactive whiteboards.

It is disappointing that so many people have missed the point, or so it seems.  Yes, it is nice when students get to use technologies in the classroom that create a novel and exciting atmosphere.  But at up to three thousand dollars per equipped classroom we need to expect more than nice.  Our students must become disciplined, respectful and ethical (as explained in Gardners ‘Five Minds for the Future’ 2005).  Students need to be collaborating, creating and synthesizing.   Students need to be doing.

From what I can tell, an interactive whiteboard is perfect for teacher modeling.  It is pretty good for students during group guided practice.  But as the teacher releases more responsibility towards the students, the interactive whiteboard becomes less useful.  When every student is doing, the whiteboard sits.  So during this critical stage of gradual release (Fisher, 2006) our expensive whiteboard becomes less than ideal mediums for students to create, synthesize and collaborate.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be installing and using interactive whiteboards.  In some respects they have been an important catalyst for a shift in North American pedagogy.  But before we spend what few dollars are allocated to education, we must consider how the purchase will change the classroom practice (read: student practice).

The 21st century pedagogue needs to be critical of everything adopted into the learning experiences created.  If a lesson, activity, or technology isn’t the most relevant investment for your students, consider not making it.

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