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.)

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

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.

Inter-Class Authoring

At Edudemic, Holly Clark presents 5 Amazing Ways To Collaborate With Another Class. The list includes excellent ideas such as Mystery Skyping and using Youtube as a means of communication between two classes situated in very different time zones. One that particularly got my attention is the 100 Word Blog Challenge:

It is a weekly creative writing challenge for children under 16 years of age. Each week a prompt is given, which can be a picture or a series of individual words and the children can use up to 100 words to write a creative piece. This should be posted on a class blog and then linked to the 100 Word Challenge blog. The link is usually open from midnight on Wednesdays until midnight the following Tuesdays.

The Blog Challenge lets groups of students work from the same starting place, with each participant producing a unique piece inspired by the start. The Blog Challenge folks suggest pursuing it in conjunctuion with another item from Holly Clark’s list, Quadblogging:

As the name implies, a QuadBlog involves four classes blogging together with one class blogging while the other three comment – all classes take turns being the main contributor. This is empowering because you know the kids will have an authentic audience for their blog.

I would love to see QuadBlogging used with a tool like BoomWriter, which allows classes to collaboratively author a book. In the normal sequence of events, students submit and vote on chapters to decide how the story would develop. The students vote to select one submission as the official chapter, then begin writing the next chapter to build on the one that was selected.   This normally takes place within a single classroom.  An interesting alternative would be to have one class do the writing while another class (or three others if we’re following the QuadBlogging model)  does the reviewing and chapter selecting.

Or what if two classes were working on the same book at the same time? It would be interesting to see how differently the story unfolds with a different class doing the writing. One way to capitalize on these differences would be to have the classes select next chapters for each other. In other words, each time a class selects a chapter, it becomes the official next chapter for the other class they are participating with.  So both classes begin writing from the same story start. Class A and Class B each write and select an official chapter 2. Now class A has to write chapter 3 using class B’s chapter 2 as a point of departure — and vice versa.

This would represent true collaboration between classes.


Stories that Leverage Technology

The Digits are not only “the galaxy’s greatest unknown rock band,” they are the heart of an interactive game environment that teaches math skills via “submersive storytelling.”

Writing at EdTech Digest, Scotty Iseri (creator of the Digits) talks about two important ways that his game makes the best possible use of technology as applied to storytelling:

1) Narrative Interactivity: The Digits Episodes have more than one ending. But itʼs not a simple “Choose Your Own Adventure” style of storytelling. The different branches of the story are determined by gaming elements that blend seamlessly into the narrative. The viewer becomes the player and actively engages in the storyline, and has to put their math knowledge to use. When the player fails at a given task, a different branch of the story tree is launched wherein the player gets a chance to practice to try again.

2) Community interactivity. For all intents and purposes, we consider our characters “real”. You can write Gorgolax an email. You can leave a comment on our YouTube channel for Ray Ray to answer. Heck, you can even do a live video chat with our characters. Modern audiences are used to having access to the tellers of tales, whether through @replies or Facebook posts. By treating our characters as real, we allow the audience some direct access to them. And more importantly, we respond.

In providing this kind of shared experience for its users, The Digits serves as another good example of a sandbox — a shared social space for learning. Having students engage with the story itself is key, making them co-creators of the experience rather than just passive observers or recipients of the intended message.

It’s interesting to note the role that storytelling can play in developing math skills. Math is the M in STEM, after all, yet we don’t think of storytelling as being a core STEM skill. Once again, a whole new literacy is being introduced — one that challenges not only our assumptions about the relationship between text and visuals but perhaps even our assumptions about the relationship between numbers and words. Sure, there have always been “word problems” and “story problems” in math, but the Digits takes that idea to a whole new level. Check it out:

Everybody is an Author

At the Langwitches Blog, Karin Hallett tells how she turned a group of first graders into authors by changing an assignment from producing a traditional report to one of writing a book. She lists the following benefits of the exercise:

    • from handing in paper reports  arrow to  sharing eBook/pdf files with the world
    • from consuming information  arrowto creating and remixing their own information
    • from using and printing out photos and illustrations arrow to properly citing digital and analog sources and creating their own illustrations
    • from working in one medium (paper/markers/pencils) arrowto building fluency between media and apps.
    • from “handing” in an animal report to a teacher arrow to uploading and embedding their creation to their blogfolio as an artifact of their learning in this particular moment in time


I would take issue with that second point —  student can’t write much of a report if he or she is acting only as a consumer of information — but otherwise this is a great story about expanding students’ horizons by providing them a new kind of creative challenge and a new space to work in.

There is a lost to be said for introducing the idea of authorship early on. We are quickly moving from a model wherein the product of education is a set of test scores and credentials to one where the product is an electronic portfolio of student achievement.  These first-graders have gained valuable experience in the end-to-end creation of an information product. And they have a nice addition to their own portfolios to show for it, as you can see here.


Like it or not, today everyone is called on to be an author, an editor, a photographer, a producer, a director, and so many other things. The opportunities are tremendous, but so are the challenges. Getting students oriented around these many roles as early as possible makes a lot of sense.

A Bit of a Paradox

Drawing on the Pew survey of teachers we cited recently in our piece about the possible need for a new kind of literacy, Educational Technology and Mobile Learning presents the Eight Digital Skills Students Need for the Future .


While it would be hard to argue with any of the eight skills listed, the relative weighting of the items as provided by the teachers is pretty interesting. So 91% of those surveyed think that judging the quality of information is essential, only 23% believe that working with audio, video, or graphic content is essential.

Here’s the problem. Whether we want to believe that these forms are essential or not, students are going to be getting more and more of their information from audio, video, and graphic content (as well as text) and often from sources that combine all of these elements. If we downplay the importance of these different sources of information, how likely is it that students will ever be able to judge the quality of that information. Being an excellent judge of written communication is only so helpful when you get half (or more) of your information from other sources.

If item 1 on this list is important, item 8 must be, too.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

Shelley Carson, in a piece written a while back at Scientific American, explores the link between eccentricity and creativity:

Albert Einstein picked up cigarette butts off the street to get tobacco for his pipe; Howard Hughes spent entire days on a chair in the middle of the supposedly germ-free zone of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite; the composer Robert Schumann believed that his musical compositions were dictated to him by Beethoven and other deceased luminaries from their tombs; and Charles Dickens is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London. More recently, we have seen Michael Jackson’s preoccupation with rhinoplasty, Salvador Dalí’s affection for dangerous pets and the Icelandic singer Björk dressed for the Oscars as a swan.

It isn’t just average Joes who perceive highly creative individuals as eccentric. These individuals often see themselves as different and unable to fit in. The latest findings in brain imaging, creativity research and molecular biology suggest that these perceptions are not just based on a few anecdotal accounts of “weird” scientists and artists. In fact, creativity and eccentricity often go hand in hand, and researchers now believe that both traits may be a result of how the brain filters incoming information. Even in the business world, there is a growing appreciation of the link between creative thinking and unconventional behavior, with increased acceptance of the latter.

If eccentricity is so vitally linked with creativity, then it’s likely that efforts to rein in the one will have a dampening effect on the other. Traditionally, schools have not been noted as particularly welcoming environments for eccentrics. Part of the blame there can be assigned to teachers and administrators, who need to create some kind of orderly environment and who end up enforcing a good many social norms without ever giving the matter much thought. But a large share of the blame must also be apportioned to the students themselves, who are tireless enforcers of social norms and who can be tremendously intolerant of departures therefrom.

Obviously there has been a good deal of progress in these areas over the past few years, and there is no question that schools today are more tolerant of differences, even some very odd differences,  than they were a decade or three ago. And partly through efforts such as the various anti-bullying campaigns, but also due in part, I think, to a generational tendency towards a more live-and-let-live approach to to the world, students are a significantly less hostile to the Weird Kid than they were in the past.

This is all to the good if we want our schools to provide an environment where creativity can flourish. And as Carson sees it, that is probably something we should want very much:

The good news is that the plight of square pegs may be improving. The ascendancy of innovative technology as a key factor in economic growth has elevated creativity from merely a positive trait to a highly sought-after commodity in the global market. Many leading corporations—such as Coca Cola, DuPont, Citigroup and Humana—now have chief innovation officers on their leadership teams. Prestigious business schools—such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale—have added courses on creativity to their curricula. And Fortune 500 companies, including PepsiCo, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Aetna and Marriott, now routinely put employees through creativity training programs. Trainers in these classes use a variety of tools and techniques to help noneccentrics open their minds to “out of the box” thoughts and stimuli that might otherwise be ignored or suppressed.

It makes sense that the economic value of creativity would drive us towards greater tolerance of eccentricity. But technology may have a greater role to play than just that of an economic driver. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been looking at the role that technology can play in enhancing student creativity. A whole new literacy is evolving, powered by computer technology, which enables students to combine verbal expression with more visual forms in ways that were never before possible; shared social spaces are providing  motivation for students to improve the quality of their work (even the choice of computer hardware is being evaluated from the standpoint of how it will contribute to such spaces). Meanwhile, a focus on learning outcomes rather than adherence to traditional classrooms on the one hand, or the gee-whiz aspects of technology on the other, is allowing for some truly innovative educational options, particularly where creativity is involved.

It has been established that one of the key benefits of effective educational technology is its ability to individualize the learning experience, to make it specific to a particular student’s learning style. These shared social spaces will have to do that one better. Accommodating individual learning needs and preferences is a great start, but what we ultimately need are social spaces that accommodate individuals, period. The social learning space must be one where eccentricity can flourish as it never has before, a place that says, “Come on in. And let your freak flag fly.”

Automating Teachers

Hey, speaking of English teachers, Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun has some interesting things to say about how grading is done for online coursework:

A grader for a computer program is called a compiler. It’s either right or wrong and there are computer programs that can help you. And even there it’s not completely trivial. If you want to prove a theorem, it’s not entirely obvious how to assess a theorem, but by and large it’s easy. Compare this to critical dialogue in philosophy, discourse in philosophy. There, it’s really the subtlety of their language that makes all the difference and more—it’s not just about assessment, it’s not about grading, it’s also about feedback. When someone writes an essay, you want to give meaningful feedback so they can improve. I’ve seen good progress on the assessment of essays; I’ve seen almost no progress on qualified feedback. And that’s where you have a very simple opinion—you just have people do it. Our classes right now require essay writing, and those essays are being graded by people and it’s just fine, in my opinion. Why not? There are a lot of unemployed people in this country. I don’t think it has to be all computerized.

So while the MOOC environment replaces the teacher and classroom environment, sometimes you still need a flesh-and-blood teacher to do the grading.  A compiler can “grade” the composition of computer code, but you wouldn’t want something like Microsoft’s grammar checker to grade English compositions.

It’s interesting that the more highly valued STEM courses are easier to fully automate than liberal arts courses. So English teachers will be among the last to be automated out of a job. Of course, the requirement for a human in the loop will only make liberals arts courseware relatively more difficult and expensive to provide, meaning that there will be fewer such offerings, and that they will be more expensive.

Advantage: STEM courses

[Photo by Jiuguang Wang.]