The Joy of Doing Something Real

At Edudemic, Jeff Dunn describes How To Get Students Excited To ‘Do’ Science. It’s not as complicated as you might think:

Citizen science programs allow students to participate in real science. To date, students in the GLOBE Program have contributed more than 100 million measurements to the program’s database, creating meaningful, standardized, multi-national professional-grade data sets that can be used in support of university-level scientific research. Scientists at NASA, NOAA and NSF develop the program’s protocols, ensuring students are participating in rigorous, relevant education. Not only do programs like GLOBE foster the next generation of scientists and STEM leaders, but also help students develop critical thinking skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

There are two major principles that make the GLOBE program Dunn writes about such a success:

It lets students do something real.

It lets them really do it.

That second point is key. So many “hands-on” exercises have students performing a simulation of a real experience. Here the students are really doing the measuring and reporting, collecting data that will be used for ongoing research.

As motivating and fun as games and simulations may be, they are by definition at least a step removed from the actual experience. Students are more highly engaged when they are doing something real (and when they are the ones really doing it) in part because of the satisfaction that naturally emerges from accomplishing anything. Learning to use a new tool to perform a particular task is especially rewarding because we get both the satisfaction of accomplishment and the boost that comes along with performing the task better in some way. This is another way of saying that if the tool doesn’t enhance our ability to perform a task, there is no point in using it. The reason technology exists in the first place is to increase our capability. A car, for example,  increases how fast and how far we can move. Or a calculator increases how quickly we can come up with the answer to a complicated math problem.

When we provide students with tools that make them even more effective at doing something real, we are firing on all cylinders. Make those things happen in concert and you have a highly engaged classroom.

(Photo by Deutsche Fotothek.)

It’s All About the Impossible

Check out ImpossibleHQ for a free download of a great educational eBook: 50 Quotes to Inspire You to Do the Impossible. A few choice ones:

To the timid and hesitating everything is impossible because it seems so — Sir Walter Scott

The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible — Arthur C. Clarke

It is either easy or impossible — Salvador Dali

This is not only a great resource for helping students to see past limitations, it is a useful model for the kind of project that should be well within the capability of today’s well-technology-equipped students.

Rather than just taking inspiration from reading a book like this, students can publish their own book with quotes they find particularly inspiring. (And note the careful attribution of all the images used — another good example set.)

We’re already mentioned BoomWriter as a great resource for collaborative writing projects. It would be a good choice for a book with more of a story or narrative focus. Glogster we have also mentioned a s good resource for creating posters — including those of the inspirational variety. For a full-on eBook, the best bet might be Google Office suite. There are also some fantastic iPad apps for creating this sort of thing, although those will all involve a certain amount of cost.




Teaching Money Management

Money management is a crucial skill, one that needs more focus and attention than it currently gets (particularly with older kids.) Here’s a good summary of options from Emerging EdTech:

1. iAllowance — Not only does iAllowance teach your kids about saving money and personal finance, but you can even set up money management tools for chores, allowance and goals. It’s a great tool for motivating your child, as it will show them how much they need to save to have enough money for something they might want to buy. It’s perfect for the five to ten-year age range. Its cost is $4.99.

2. Savings Spree — Winner of the Parents’ Choice Gold Award and several other accolades, the Savings Spree app is all about teaching kids the basics of money and personal finances. The game demonstrates the choices involved with making financial decisions, as well as some of the uncontrollable factors that come along with managing your own money. The interface is kid friendly and extremely engaging. The reviews would appear to make this $6 app more than worth it.

3. P2K Money — P2K Money is a free option that mimics much of what you get with iAllowance. If you need an app that will maintain some of the functionality of the paid options but with a free download; this is the way to go. It is more geared towards allowing your kids to manage their money, and less ‘educational’.  This application would be a good option for kids between the ages of 8 to 13.

Is it just me or in this case does the free app seem like the less appealing option? Normally I’m all for free ed tech software, but there’s something about this subject area that says there should be a price, if only a small one.


Enabling Possibility

At Teachthought, Terry Heick writes about The Only Thing You Need To Be A 21st Century Teacher. It’s probably no what you think:

The reality is, in 2013 there are an incredible variety of digital tools, learning models, and supporting data to suggest a thousand different approaches to preparing students for the work of their lives. That may be the defining characteristic of learning early in the 21st century learning.


If nothing else, every classroom should be an highly curious, question-based, connected and joyful petri dish of learning experimentation, adaptation, and change.

It could well be that embracing rapid change is the most important skill that we can help our students develop. Learning to recognize and respond to new possibilities as they emerge has always been an important skill, but never more so than in what has been described as both the age possibility and the age of capability. The two go hand in hand. An environment rich in possibility is one where students truly can unlock their own potential. We have to help them expand not only their view of the world, but their view of themselves and the role they can play in the world.

All implementations of technology for education should be evaluated with this challenge in mind.

Photo by Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps

Three Words

Kirk MacDonald, president of PubMatic, has some words of advice for fresh college graduates with a none-too-encouraging title:

Sorry, College Grads, I Probably Won’t Hire You

His advice to young people looking to land their first job in “media, technology, or related fields” can be summed up in three words: learn some programming.

Generally, I think this advice makes sense. In fact, I find it odd that in this day and age it’s possible to graduate from high school (much less college) without having written some computer code. Assuming there are still some rigorous secondary educational programs out there — the kind where kids have to learn algebra and geometry and how to diagram sentences — a little basic computer programming would fit in nicely.

Of course, if we’re really facing the shortage of technically literate employees that McDonald claims, we’re going to need more than that. Fortunately, technical education (as distinct from certification / credentials) has never been easier to come by.


(Cross-posted from Transparency Revolution.)

The Entrepreneurial Classroom

We recently  looked at an app that lets kids create their own games.

The founder of the Incubator School, which opened last week in Los Angeles, wants to take it up a notch from there. Already on the record telling kids to make games rather than just play them, with her new school Sujata Bhatt wants kids to build a startup around the games they create — or any other sound business idea:

Students at the Incubator School will spend the first two years (sixth and seventh grades) learning the principles of entrepreneurship before actually launching businesses in the eighth grade. It’s too early to predict what kinds of ventures the students will launch, but Bhatt exudes confidence that many students already have a natural disposition for entrepreneurship.

Teaching kids to build a business may sound exotic and cutting edge, but the truth is that our economy is rapidly changing, and nothing is evolving faster than the nature of employment.  As I was just observing earlier today, encouraging technology startups may be the key to improving the employment picture. Or to put it in more stark terms, the only job that may be available in the future is the one that the student (graduate / job-seeker) creates for him- or herself.

If students do have a natural disposition for entrepreneurship — and I suspect that more do than we would realize — we need to look carefully at the environment that we are putting most kids in and ask whether it is doing anything to encourage that vital skill? My guess is that this story is more or less typical:

In elementary school, my friends and I would re-sell snacks that we purchased from Costco at a lower price than what the vending machines and lunch lady charged. Profit margins were low, but hey, making any money at that age was quite exciting.

Unfortunately, the school didn’t appreciate such “disruptive” activity. We were (partially) shut down and left with a bitter aftertaste of the school system.

The Incubator School is looking to create a different kind of environment, one where that kind of activity would be encouraged and, presumably, rewarded. Perusing their Digital Sandbox (I like that name), I observed that they are looking at gaming development systems, augmented reality, maker spaces — all the kinds of things we have been describing here as potential components of an overall shared creative space.

So there may be an interesting convergence here. In the near future, all schools might need to emulate some aspects of Incubator School, if they are going to help students develop vital life skills around creating and managing their own opportunities. To be effective in helping kids develop these skills, providing shared creative spaces may be of paramount importance.


To Google or Not to Google?

That is the question.

At Edutopia, Beth Holland is taking a hard stance against students citing Google as a research source (which makes sense) and against using it to find things (which doesn’t make all that much sense.)

The part that makes sense is helping students to understand that Google is not a source of information per se, and that it must never be cited as such. Students need to understand whether what they are looking for is a definition of a term, an overview of a topic such as might be found in an encyclopedia, or more in-depth information such as might be found in a book on the particular subject. When you type a search term into Google, it will bring back an unfiltered combination of those things.

So what to do? Well, the obvious answer is to eschew Google.

Holland tells this story:

While on my Google tirade, I happened into a kindergarten class. In the midst of exploring dinosaurs, one little girl asked a question that the teacher didn’t know. “Let’s Google it,” the teacher suggested to the student. Unable to contain myself, I jumped in and showed the student how to access World Book Kids ­- which not only had information at a lower reading level, but also included text­-to­-speech.

That’s great! But I can’t help but wonder — where would the harm have been if the kindergarten teacher had been allowed to go ahead and use Google and had entered a somewhat more refined search than just, say “dinosaurs,” something more along the lines of dinosaur information for kids.

Of course, citing Google as a source makes no sense. It would be like citing the card catalog as a source. And kids need to understand the differences between the various sources of information they are accessing. Still, whatever those sources are — Google is a great way of getting to them…if you use it properly. Strategic use of search engines is an important life skill (much less educational or research skill) for kids these days. Do we really want to put artificial constraints around how they go about finding information so that things will be more like they were in years gone by?

Search engines get us to the sources of information in a very different way than the research tools of the past. But this is as much a feature as it is a bug. Let’s work on a developing a new set of skills to make the best use of resources available. Google can be an extremely able research assistant if given the right instructions.

Making Stuff

A while back we took a look at Maker Camp, an online summer program that gives kids the chance to make their own toys, games, and other gadgets. Like augmented reality technology, maker activities provide a shared creative space for students to learn and interact while interacting with the real world…with the added benefit of actually making stuff! programs like the Maker Corps are working to integrate maker spaces into public school classrooms and after school programs. At the same time, libraries are getting in on the act and providing these kinds of spaces not only for students but for patrons of all ages.

Often these programs are set up in partnership with a third-party company or nonprofit. A good example is the collaboration between Sparkfun and the Jefferson County libraries in Colorado:

The idea behind the collaboration was two-fold; it would serve as a way to provide open, equal community access to tools and kits that might otherwise be out of reach, and it would offer libraries a way to upgrade their relevancy as a centerpoint for large-scale literacy, in a world where books are losing currency to emerging tech & new generations. The leaders of the Jefferson County libraries were extremely enthusiastic about the program, so we set out supplying Belmar – the first of four JeffCo libraries to adopt the makerspace-model pilot program – with SIKs and other kits, as well as training, to get them set up to offer the same tools and classes to the public.

There are a lot activities that come to mind when we think of libraries: reading (obviously), studying, book clubs, other kinds of discussion groups — but how many of us think of soldering when we think of the local library? How many of us think about designing and building circuits? That’s now part of what kids are doing in the Belmar library. We can expect to see a lot more of that sort of thing both in libraries and in the classroom.

More Fun to Cook than to Eat?

The last few posts have been about collaboration between classrooms, primarily in an environment that enables kids to write their own books. I was thinking about students reading the books they write themselves when I read this:

This App Teaches Kids To Code By Letting Them Make Their Own Games

A common (if pat) critique of video games is that they stifle rather than inspire creativity in children. Never mind that just the opposite might be true–that young gamers are often just as if not more creative than non-gamers. But what happens when children devise and create video games for themselves? That would demonstrate not only imagination, but also resourcefulness and follow-through–a marriage of just what we say we want from education.

With the Hopscotch iPad app, created by Samantha John and her co-founder Jocelyn Leavitt, kids learn about programming with by designing and writing code for their own animations and games. The app is divided into two parts: an editor that uses a simple visual language, where users can create their program, and a stage where they can see their program in action.

My guess is that students find it more fun to write these games than to play them, just as they probably find it more to write their own books than it is to read the books they write.

And that’s okay! What’s important here is the skills that are being developed and reinforced through the development of new content / new interactive experiences. A great chef may enjoy the process of cooking a sumptuous meal more than he or she would ever enjoy sitting down to eat it. Do we therefore doubt the chef’s skill?

On the contrary, most of us would take that preference as confirmation of the chef’s expertise. Anybody can eat. Not everyone can cook.

BoomWriter Review

Since I have mentioned BoomWriter in my last couple of posts, I thought this would be a good time to provide some more information on the platform. I am a little too close to BoomWriter to write a credible review myself, but have a look at what David Kapuler had to say about it over at

BoomWriter is a fantastic site that teachers and students alike will love using. Teachers will love it because it’s free, easy to use, and engages students to optimize their learning. Students will love the kid-friendly look and feel of BoomWriter, as well as using technology to create and share stories with classmates.

Check out the full review. David gives BoomWriter a more thorough treatment than we have been able to provide here, and provides excellent insight on why it is becoming a favorite for students and teachers alike.