Tag Archives: collaboration

Learning Dilemmas of the 21st century (it’s not all bad)

Teaching internationally has excellent benefits and, at times, heart-wrenching costs. There is a high degree of stress that comes with the wide-range of responsibilities shared by faculty and staff that make weekends feel short and workdays stretch. Educational historians may look back at the initial decade of the 21st century as the “dark times” prior to an even larger paradigm shift in formal secondary education. A time when collegiality was replaced with cynicism; a time when break room conversations turned vitriolic regarding the changes that all could see coming. There are those that distrust emerging tools and 21st century approaches to education, and others ready to ‘storm the barricades’ in it defense. In the international community, where reputation and professional growth are the driving factors behind successful postings, teachers have rare opportunities to be mavens in education by escaping the standardized testing climate of home. International teachers are not interested in things like tenure because they are impractical; we are interested in “what’s new?” or “what’s coming?” and how can this help me both professionally and personally.

The topics covered in Coetail #2 have really provided context in understanding the values that will likely drive formal education in the future: the importance of sharing and having empathy. With proper use of intellectual material and protocols to use materials, content will continue to proliferate and the opportunities to create shall be a visible force for change. Blogging about cyber-bullying, in the shadow of the death of young boy who took his own life as a result of bullying, hit me very hard as a teacher and father. Standardized tests didn’t help that young man and I’m sure that is what all of his teachers focused their attention upon. The situation is as much sad as it is criminal.

The Coetail 2 project our group developed is a very elaborate and engaging lesson plan for teaching proper use of intellectual property and the thinking that drives Creative Commons. Our group from Ruamrudee International School collaborated and commented one another’s contributions and tailored the lesson toward students with options for informing parents. Students will take a short assessment that will email them the results. The lesson will be useful to any program teaching digital citizenship or relying heavily on visual media.

I would like to say that the face to face time in the cohort has gone way beyond any classroom experience I’ve ever encountered as a student. The case studies and engaging opportunities are great, but the large group discussion with so many fine teachers and fine people have been excellent. We do have a great cohort with great ideas (as the blogs indicate), articulation, and visible passion for teaching.

To finally arrive at the point of the title of this entry, I do see the problems in education as something that can be fixed (in order to make room for new problems). We have awfully intelligent students who are on the average smarter now than any generation before them. They are doing things much earlier and with higher expectations of results. So what is the PROBLEM? Maybe it’s us as teachers always trying to solve something or sensationalizing the issues because at least then we have something to make a crusade about. I guess there is always something to complain about. Even in a world that’s pretty damn awesome.

My concern: my pre-school aged daughter will be a member of the Class of 2026. I am inclined to ask her teachers (many are younger than I am) what they believe the world will be like in 2026 and are they really preparing my child for that kind of environment. That should be a driving question for all educators.



8 things I have come to understand (about high school students). Part 2

Well since no one seemed to have an opinion on my last entry I am inclined to forge ahead and reveal the rest of my ideas regarding high school aged students. Perhaps in the end readers may interpret my observations as a call for change in regard to how the last four years of secondary education equips people for the next stage of their lives.

5. Even though it is embedded in their socio-cultural experiences, high school students are all over the place in regard to proficiency of technology and information literacy.

In 2008, I began piloting a 1:1 laptop program in an ESL History class as it seemed to be an appropriate time & context  to begin my exploration of using computers as a ubiquitous element of instruction. The class was small, about 10 students, and differentiation through the multitude of web resources was easily facilitated. We set up collaborative Google docs for peer editing, created thematic charts using forms, and utilized news sources to identify thematic concepts in the local, regional, and global settings. I was hooked. But do you think the students were? Not really. The most glaring issue was bandwidth which frustrated the students more than me. However what began to  emerge in the classroom was a very interesting continuum of technical proficiency, organization, and intrinsic motivation to fully explore the opportunities afforded by the web. I still see this today and often ask students to reflect upon what they know about the World Wide Web and how it relates to their lives. Does it make it easier? Does it make it more difficult? The continuum I’m speaking about still exists today as students are confronted with an endless amount of web2.0 tools. Presentation, mindmapping tools, voice threads, & video related resources have learning curves and take practice in order to master and realize full functionality. Students need time in class to explore these tools and they need collaborative buddies to work with them to maximize their features. Identify those students who are patient enough to navigate a new resource and have them demonstrate how it is done.

This can be the kind of product generated:

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More importantly, do not assume that students know how to use (or know the premise) behind a certain tool, especially social media tools. For an early in the year activity create a shared resource that articulates how & why certain tools should be used and update it every month or ten weeks. Tim Tyson recommends a de-gimmickification of web based tools and one way to accomplish this by outlining very clear design elements into your rubrics that the technology may enhance. Either way the message is clear from students: “we don’t always know the technology so give us time to learn it if you want good results and full functionality.”

6. They are generally illiterate.

The focus here is upon the premise that there exists multiple literacies that require student fluency by the time they go off to college. I am not talking about academic benchmarks or standards but more of an ability to understand in contexts and have the aforementioned abilities to construct meaning for problem centered tasks around those contexts. This generally needs to start in an early years program (think TV literacy, or analyzing commercial advertising) and progresses into specific disciplines that require their own set of implicit and explicit knowledge complementing a systems-based understanding of the subject. In history classes this literacy “looks” like recognizing point of view (how a persons belief is connected to their identity) and understanding causation; but it also incorporates systems thinking like historical accident and conjuncture, while having the capacity to understand an event or an idea at the individual, group, and institutional level. Historical literacy is tough stuff. What about media literacy or financial literacy? I would assume they have their own systematic approaches, specialized vocabulary, and practical application. We may wish to consider whether or not our high school diploma grads can read a financial report or a Paul Krugman column, or better yet verify the authenticity of media reports & Wikipedia. Systems thinking and specific literacy initiatives are a logical first step in upgrading curricula.

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7.They are afraid.

I would be too if I was graduating from college with no prospective jobs waiting for me. But really the fear is not related to that but more to the enormous life transitions that await them after graduation and the layers of uncertainty around their relationships, their financial resources, and the weight of future life choices. One could argue that this is a natural phenomenon: the are supposed to feel that way (it’s part of the adult-transitional stage of development). Stress on teenage students from parents, teachers, and friends contributes to the over arching fear of failure. As a Psychology teacher, I have watched the self-fulfilling prophesy in action as learned helplessness becomes a endemic of the high school structure. There are many reasons for this but the two that stick out to me are the rigid pacing of learning and the lack of exploratory learning. More importantly, in the traditional classroom with the “sage on the stage” students are denied regular opportunities to comment and speak on topics or verbalize connections and relevance to what they were learning. If they enter my classroom today and are told to work together with other students, many will struggle due to the lack of real social tools to make this happen or worse, are discouraged by the demands of a problem and believe that the assignment (and teacher) will go away. Basically grades don’t motivate while fear of failure elicits little to no personal investment, cheating, and general apathy. Once again, this should have it’s own blog entry down the road.

8. They are in trouble before school starts.

This is the elephant in the room people. Teenagers (we all are actually) are averaging one less hour of sleep than 30 years ago. The ramifications of this are extremely detrimental to every component of what is necessary for learning: motivation, attention, reproduction, and retention. Executive functions are the hardest hit by sleep deprivation and I am inclined to say that engaging students in verbal skills and developmental is basically fruitless as studies have shown the negative impact of this “lost hour” on verbal fluency.

I for one have attempted to address this issue by cutting back on homework, using time stamps for anything produced outside the classroom (say 10pm time stamp or not accepted). I understand the circadian rhythm phenomena used by apologists that believe students will still stay up past their bed time regardless of school commitments. But I am convinced that through a combination of multiple changes to the time frame of schools along with parent collaboration, it would be possible to marginalize the damaging effects of lack of sleep.

There is still much I intend to learn about my students and for now I am optimistic that innovation and sound research will initiate paradigm shifts in education. I added a photo to the top of this blog yesterday. It is my four year old son Donovan climbing the biggest, steepest temple at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He was determined to get up those steep stairs and with a little guidance and a strong safety net (Me) he achieved what he wanted to accomplish. I pray this trend never changes for him.

8 things I have come to understand (about high school students). Part 1

Top ten lists may still have its place on David Letterman but since I have lived overseas I rarely get the chance to end my day with Dave. I’m a big fan of lists (not as much as my wife) and feel that they have enormous value in the classroom; especially the attendance roster – I am convinced that class rosters are the most important list for an educator and in my 15 years as a teacher I have perused countless rosters. In this time I have come to develop some basic suppositions of high school students based on interactions and experiences in and out of the classroom; as individuals and in groups. Whether from Upstate New York, Tel Aviv- Israel, or Bangkok, Thailand, the average teenage high school student, globally, is remarkably salient. While I am in no way generalizing or attacking young adults (or even worse stereotyping), I will point out what I have come to understand about high school age students and how educational change on mutli-levels would benefit them. This was part of a faculty presentation I gave on 21st century learning and now it is the premise of my first COETAIL blog entry.

1.They have difficulty solving complex problems. (So that’s what we give them)

One of the comments I have heard a number of times from past students is that I “make them think too much.” I always say “thank you.” I take it as the greatest compliment a student can give a teacher (or coach, or anyone since a state certification is not required to pass on understanding.)  Divergent & critical thinking opportunities need to be embedded into our student face time more than ever. I am reminded of the “uses of a paper clip” exercise in a 6 +1 writing traits course. Throw a problem into the center of your class and walk away. I am always amazed at the results, and more importantly, the process students go through when considering creative solutions. This is the origin of innovation and we need young people with the cognitive fitness to embrace such challenges.

2.They love to communicate…but on their terms. (So put their communications on your terms)

Kids love to talk (or text) and they always have. My four year old and I have wonderful conversations and I am afraid that will change as he enters formal education in its current form with traditional top down emphasis on teacher talk time (TTT).  Talk as process and talk as performance strategies emphasize verbal fluency and increase student talk time (STT) which is directly supported by current brain research as essential for retention and higher order processing. Getting kids to talk about things they generally would not talk of is the key; a teachers ability to utilize elevator pitches, paired verbal fluency, group talks, podcasting/screencasting, the back channel tools, and other technologies can allow them the opportunity to demand higher quality products that emphasize voice, preparation, and other ELA elements that communicate a depth of thinking. At the same time, the students executive function portion of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) is charged enhancing individual verbal fluencies and complex vocabularies.

3.They demand very specific directions (also called “hand-holding”) while avoiding risk. (So let them figure it out and reward risk taking)

Consider the difficulty of tasks when constructing problems for students and give explicit guidelines for a product and then stop there. Encourage them to visualize a solution or product that addresses a problem. As a teacher one of the hardest instincts to ignore is a student with a need and that is good. But there is a difference between ignoring a student and not getting in the way of an opportunity to learn through experience. Reward the risk takers and more importantly the EFFORT. Emphasizing effort over performance is supported in recent behavioral studies and the opportunity to choose their own path to learning affects the cerebral cortex — the seat of executive function. The world needs risk takers as they have historically been the agents of change.

4. Many still expect you to tell them what to learn and how. (Ask them what they want to know….their answers may surprise you.)

It is called the Tools of Mind program and it’s results have been outstanding. I will probably devote an entire blog entry to it but let me just say that it supports a very important paradigm shift in institutional learning: the handing over of learning to the individual and away from the teacher (or curriculum). I read the book Nurture Shock last October and was profoundly changed as a result. It resonated on so many levels with what I had been observing in high school aged students for years. The discipline issues, the poor organizational skills, and general lack of self-control I had observed in high schools in three different continents could now be linked to the general lack of empowerment in their own learning an experience started in Pre-kindergarten. Self-control, empowerment, and confidence are three pretty strong life-skills that we better be teaching in our classrooms and it starts with courage to allow students to learn and explore not only what they want to learn about but how they want to demonstrate that understanding.  Re-shaping and upgrading curricula to emphasize these skills should be articulated in every schools long term strategic plan. Putting students in the center of their own learning is the critical component of constructing life-long learners.

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The video above has been viewed 3.5 million times….I have watched it probably ten times as there are several ideas worth dwelling upon. The re-thinking of educational design with the student in the center of their own learning is not only progressive but vital to our future; Sir Ken Robinson provides effective insight into the origins of our current system where it may be headed. It’s inclusion is to remind me of why I’m taking this course. In the next few days I will post part 2 of the list and I’m hoping motivate others to consider what they have learned about their students.

Does your clock look like this? (Can I get one for the classroom?)

I am intrigued, driven, and invested in re-shaping education to empower learners.  Who’s with me?


Part 2 after the jump.