Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Problem With Not Having Problems

Do you ever get sucked in, totally absorbed, ridiculously excited about total nerd shows? I'm not talking about The Voice here, people! The other night I couldn't stop watching this documentary on KCPT focused on solving the problem of preserving the shark population, while protecting the public from shark attacks. How do we protect humans without injuring or killing sharks? What struck me about the show was the process of problem solving and how different it is from the problem solving that often occurs in schools.

Image Source
1. Do you have a clearly defined problem?  Do you (the teacher) already know the answer?  One idea that really made me pause during the show is that we have all these field experts who genuinely don't know what to do about this problem.  They've tried a variety of methods to keep public safety, but there is still a big problem.  How can we give students more problems in school that don't already have a solution or a single correct answer?  Additionally, how can we actually use problems that exist in the real world and provide students opportunities to share their ideas in a public platform?

2. How do we develop individual expertise and collaboration?  Solving the shark problem involved collaboration among marine biologists, lifeguards, politicians, pilots, marine technology experts, and more.  Each individual possessed a specific expertise, but solving the problem required collaboration among all of them.  How are we preparing students to have deep expertise in a given field?  How are we creating cross-curricular opportunities to learn, explore, and problem solve?  How are we helping students learn to collaborate?

3. Do our students know how to collaborate across cultures?  While the shark story started in Australia, the team quickly partnered with experts in San Diego, California, to gain new perspectives, learn other options, and test solutions.  More and more, the opportunities to collaborate globally are expanding.  How are schools preparing students to find people in other parts of the globe that may have expertise on a problem that needs solving locally?  How are we teaching students about efficient ways to communicate globally?

4. Are we encouraging students to fail forward? These marine biologists developed a multitude of solutions to the problem, and they failed several times before they succeeded.  How do we create the culture of failing forward in our schools?

5. Are we leveraging technology?  The most simple and effective part of the shark solution was to use Twitter to quickly notify beach-goers of shark sightings and alerts.  Are we teaching students to think about Twitter in ways other than a social platform?  Using high-definition cameras, the team developed a method of spotting sharks despite changing weather and ocean conditions.  Obviously these are very specialized tools, but are we giving students access to basic digital tools and teaching them how to use them?

Clearly I have more questions than answers, but I know we must be FIERCE in our pursuit to create opportunities for students to learn in these contexts. There's nothing nerdy about that.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Dangers of NOT Using Wikipedia in the Classroom

Recently I've been working with a social studies teacher on guiding students in exploring how the philosophers Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau influenced the American framers.  Rather than have students try to absorb this information through the textbook or lecture, my colleague really wanted his students to dig into the primary sources of these thinkers.  Suddenly this conquest became more about reading historical documents, thinking like historians, and distinguishing among ideas!  

As we tossed around ideas for guiding students toward these goals, one idea we discussed was allowing students to do some crowdsourcing in order to gain a basic background knowledge.  I even suggested letting students use Wikipedia as one possible source of information for the crowdsourcing, even though I knew it would make my colleague cringe!  I was right; he CRINGED!   His reaction really caused me to reflect upon my suggestion.  Have I lost my mind?!  So I'm thinking out loud here, and I worry about the effects of NOT using Wikipedia in the classroom.  

If we don't show students how to use Wikipedia as a starting point and then move beyond it, I worry they won't understand how to move beyond Wikipedia when they are learning on their own. We certainly live in a sound bite culture, and Wikipedia provides conveniently condensed information on so many topics.   It's a fantastic place to build some basic understanding of the who, what, where,  and when, so that students can launch into deeper questions of why, how, which, etc. These questions should propel them into more complex texts.  Why don't we model this for students?  If we don't, I fear we will raise a generation of thinkers content to stop at the simplest of sources like Wikipedia and SparkNotes. 

Wikipedia is a petri dish swimming with questions about currency, relevance, bias, authorship, and more.  In the information age, it's essential our students are savvy with evaluating information. Because of the nature of how Wikipedia entries are created, it is the perfect environment to teach students to question the information they are reading.  Can the information be verified on other credible sites?  What information is missing? 

While Wikipedia is straightforward, it's not reading for dummies.  Wikipedia has mastered arranging information with headings, bullets, and tables of contents in order to make it accessible.  It's a great model of how to use these text features to guide readers through information.  But if you do a google search for a topic and filter results by reading level, surprisingly, Wikipedia entries frequently show up under the advanced reading level.  

Wikipedia equals opportunity. If anyone can contribute to this open encyclopedia, why don't we give our students that opportunity?  What better way for them to understand how information is created on the internet and why it's important to always be critical consumers of content?  For more information on how to contribute to Wikipedia, check out Contributing to Wikipedia.

So have I lost my mind? I'd love to hear your thoughts via the comments box below, Twitter, or email. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Getting Started in a Digital Classroom

I love the excitement of teachers readying their classrooms for the new school year.  It's energizing to watch how teachers will decide to arrange the room, what will go on the walls, how they will create an environment that is both engaging and organized.

As we embark on year 2 with 1:1 in our school, it's equally interesting to watch how teachers ready their digital environments.  Your classroom web presence IS the modern chalkboard with potential for anywhere/anytime learning.  It can, however, be overwhelming to think about how to get started.  What should go on my web presence?  How can I make it more dynamic?  How should I collect work in the digital realm?  How do I establish practical boundaries for my students with these tools at their fingertips?

Here's a compilation of tips I shared with our new staff recently based on the tips and tricks our teachers have discovered.