Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Valuing Perspectives & Opening Networks

Today is the last day of blog postings for #cyberPD discussing chapters 5 and 6 of Who Owns the Learning by Alan November. Laura Komos will be hosting the event today on her blog, Ruminate and Invigorate.  Other participants are posting their links in the comment space and on Twitter with #cyberPD.  Plus, there is a "jog" of all the postings, if you would like to catch up, at Who Owns the Learning? #cyberPD 2013.  Here are my thoughts as I finish the book and think about the future.

“We need to start teaching our students global empathy by developing their ability to understand and appreciate other points of view” (November, 2012, p. 65-66). This is a relevant and essential recommendation from November, and although he focuses on the role of students as global communicators and collaborators, I think developing empathy and respect locally is just as important. Students are living in a world of popular and social media, new programs and cartoons that value and highlight aggressive, egotistical and opinionated personalities that insite conflict and disharmony. Just look at how the cast members of Big Brother, Survivor and other “reality” shows are selected – the goal is to create as much drama and conflict as possible. Where are the models of adults engaging in authentic dialogue that seeks to understand - not just win? Even Congress, in their role as representatives of the people, focus more on party lines and winning than on authentic debate and collaboration.

Narrowing our view points through technology – I knew that Google “personalized” searches, but I guess I didn't realize how extreme this narrowing has gotten. Early in my teaching career, I taught students how to use multiple search engines, because they each searched differently. Now, there is pretty much only Google. Yes, it is easier to find exactly what you want, but as November observed, this develops an over-inflated sense of rightness. I need to be confronted with alternative perspectives to be able to clarify my own understandings, not just confirm. November also commented how the potential of the World Wide Web for building connections and opening up multiple points of views has actually narrowed it more. It is really easy to find your own niche and ignore alternatives.  I've noticed this with my own use of Twitter. Like many others, I tend to follow the people that I have a lot in common with – middle school teachers, literacy people, technology focused educators – but that leaves huge gaps in seeing alternative perspectives. Social media can be a great venue for support – but maybe I need to challenge myself to become “friends” with less like-minded people and expand my own perspective taking.

“Every day, I have to decide if I will write for my teachers or publish to the world” (November, 2012, p. 69). This statement, from a student who wrote prolifically on a fanzine site, but not much at school, really resonated for me. Why would students want to write for an audience of one, when the world could be their audience? Like November stated earlier – how many assignments end up in the trash versus making a long-term impact on a student. As he stated in chapter 6, he remembers experiences from his own schooling, not the tests. Like Vygotsky, I believe that learning is a social process that focuses on individuals making meaning of the world through their interactions with others. It isn't the paper or the test – learning is the process of gathering information, evaluating and synthesizing it to make meaning of it. We have focused too much on highlighting the solo work of students, and not the collaborative process of learning.

Here is a YouTube Video from a 7th grade student, posted in 2009. She describes her personal learning environment. When I first saw it, I was impressed. Now, I'm depressed, as it is 4 years later, and there has been very little support for students (and teachers) to develop these types of learning networks. What are we afraid of?

As November reminds us about what Daniel Pink has noted “the more we grade children on creative work, the less they'll do” (p. 83). Argh! Grading, assessment and evaluation. This is such a long and difficult debate and issue. There are so many political and social aspects of this issue too. But, as November observed before (building on Pink's work) the motivation to learn and take action happens when there is an authentic purpose, autonomy, and mastery. It isn't the reward of grades, money, bonuses or even praise. Real motivation comes from within.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Shift of Control

In chapters three and four, November describes two roles for students – that of scribe and researcher. Although new technologies provide different avenues for publication, audience and sources of information, these roles are not new. Remember the classic adage by Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Pre-digital times, I knew several teachers who sent home student-produced newsletters that described the activities of the week. Granted, in those days, the audience and feedback was not as immediate as a class blog. Which, of course, is part of what makes using technology so powerful.

Like November states, I also believe that having a public forum and audience for writing provides motivation for students to not only write, but to care more about their writing. The recognition from peers, parents and others is more interesting than a single grade from a teacher. On Twitter, I've seen many teachers ask Followers to check out and comment on their students' websites or blogs. I know students love tracking who had comments and where they are from. Many years ago, I had my 10thgrade students use a blog to learn about and respond to Cather in the Rye. This was a group of students who were reluctant to write about their reading in traditional formats like reading response journals or double entry format, but wrote multiple paragraphs when writing on the blog. Besides having a public forum and audience, there was a sense of legacy, as November stated, that encouraged them to revise and take pride in their writing.

For me, the student role of scribe and researcher doesn't seem very radical, but as November states, the challenge “will be redefining the role of learner as contributor, and building a collaborative learning culture” (p. 5). For too long, we have designed learning spaces that require isolated, individual learning and support competition rather than collaboration. This, I believe, is the bigger shift of control – to redefine the classroom expectations, not just introduce technology. And, as November also states, teachers need to do more networking and sharing of their work with their peers. I just completed a study with two third-grade teachers who team-taught in a workshop format. One of the most important catalysts to changing their practice was consistent, collaborative reflection. As teachers, we need to not only open our classrooms, but open our thinking to others.

As November talked about the role of student as researcher, I was thinking about how teachers typically respond to student questions – and not just in K-12 schools but in higher ed. too. I think the most typical response to a student question is to just give the answer. As a culture, we expect teachers and instructors to be experts in their area, and their role is to impart that knowledge to others. The second response I've noticed is the command to “Look it up.” This assumes that students know how to look things up – either in print or online. And, as November found, many students, though digital natives, have very limited repertories of search strategies. This past year I asked my students to research a family artifact. But, I spent almost two weeks in preparation to practice search strategies and evaluation of websites. It was a little frustrating for both students and parents, because they wanted “results” immediately. But, as November showed, there are a lot of bogus websites available, and the top picks of Google aren't necessarily the best. November talked about the website that denied the Holocaust, but here are two other websites that look legitimate but are hoaxes that I have used with students:

The final, less common answer, is the one November illustrated.  Modeling a stance of inquiry, the teacher would say, "How can we find that answer?"

As a graduate student, I returned to university after numerous years as a classroom teacher. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information and terms I didn't know and I felt stupid to ask, because it looked like everyone else understood. Some professors were supportive of having open laptops in class, other professors felt it was rude to have students typing away during class. In supportive classrooms, I was constantly looking up things I didn't understand and was afraid to show my ignorance. Because of this, I was better able to participate in discussion and understand the material. I try to remember this when I'm teaching.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Education is life itself

As I was reading the first chapters of Who Owns the Learning by Alan November, I was impressed by a couple of quotes that I'd like to ponder here. But, the principles of ownership, purpose, authenticity, autonomy, and self-directed, independent work seemed to stand out in the chapter.

“Education is not preparation for life; Education is life.” - John Dewey. Too often I've heard both teachers and parents explain to their children that what they are doing in school will prepare them for middle school, high school, college or the real world. I know I've used the phrase too, “In high school, your teachers will expect you to know how to write a five-paragraph essay, so we're learning it now in middle school.” But, how authentic is teaching a particular skill, just so it can be mastered in school but not applied in life?

Learning is a social interactive enterprise. In the last year, I had the opportunity to implement a reading/writing workshop in my middle school classroom. We had a set of laptop computers, and a few students brought their own laptops. At the beginning of class, we would meet as a whole group to work on some grammar skills, introduce and practice a new skill, strategy or genre, and review the list of things to do. Usually, students had a choice of activities that including reading, responding, writing, researching or creating a visual response. Then, the students would have workshop time to choose an activity and work on it. Students would grab the computers and spread out across the room. Frequently sitting on the floor with their back against the wall in groups of two or three. As they read or wrote or found an interesting article or fact, they would share with their classmates. I circulated to check in with students, revise with students, or just listen to the conversations. When visitors came into the room, they frequently had trouble finding me, because I was on the floor with the students reading a website or giving feedback on a piece of writing. There was a quiet buzz of activity in the classroom. Students read deeper and wrote more thoughtfully when they had the freedom to talk and share when and how they wanted. Were some students off task at time? Of course, but overall, I think students were more engaged in what they were doing because they had the opportunity to choose their work, their work space, and how they would work.

“We lost the value of children as contributors to the culture of school” (November, 2012, p. 5). A few years ago in a graduate class, I completed a discourse analysis of a set of emails between myself and the parents of one of my students. In George Lakoff's (1980) book Metaphors We Live By, he contends that the metaphors we use every day, often unconsciously, give an indication of how we conceptualize reality. (A summary of Lakoff's chapters 1-4).  In my analysis of the emails I sent to these parents, I conceptualized school as a place of business – with assigned tasks, assigned due dates, and evaluations of performance. I used phrases like, “The report was due on [date] and I haven't even seen a rough draft. Since the work is so late, there will be a deduction in points on the final grade.” However, I was not alone in conceptualizing school as a business or factory. It is the dominate metaphor for American schools ever since Taylor's model of efficiency was introduced into schools which produced a factory-like environment for students. Teacher's Mind Resources has an interesting series about the metaphors of education called Transforming Education Part 3: School as Factory: The Greatest Barrier to Transformation. In the factory model, the contribution of the students are not important -  the efficiency of measuring students against a standard or benchmark is the goal.

November suggests that we need to let go of existing structures of education to provide spaces for students that give autonomy, master, purpose, self-directedness, and independence to students in their learning. But, I have another area that I think we need to examine. What is valued as knowledge in schools? And, what happens when different types of knowledge are valued by different families, teachers, and administration?