When my co-operating teacher (CT) came to me with an email from our district’s technology TOSA, I was excited about the possibility of teaching an #hourofcode in my 10th grade World History class. With coding in my professional background, I know the benefits of this literacy firsthand and wanted to empower others to create using programming. The annual global event is designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. My goal was to turn the light on for ONE student in the hopes of broadening participation in the field of computer science.
My CT challenged me to link the lesson to WWI, and so we did by discussing the story of wartime communication. The Zimmerman telegram, which was encrypted and subsequently deciphered, altered the course of the United States’ participation in the war. We discussed different ways to secretly send information, including homing pigeons, codebooks, and ciphers.
I decided that students could learn to program Caesar ciphers using Scratch, a free tool created by MIT. Scratch allows users to build programs with small blocks of code. Their sandbox environment is inviting and visually supportive. I thought the students would have fun typing secret messages to one another.
The night before the lesson, I couldn’t sleep. I was obsessing over the perfect instructions and worried the kids would riot over something “soo new, Mrs. Johnson!!” In my first period, admittedly, students were frustrated. My initial strategy was to give them some basic guidelines and then turn them loose in the fairly intuitive sandbox environment. Tinkering is a crucial process in coding and I desired that bumbling feeling to be replicated in my lesson. After assessing progress, and receiving feedback from the TOSA, I decided to slow down and provide much more support and many more rounds of it on the second go. Students who caught on quickly simply moved on to their independent practice, while those who needed more guidance watched along as I created each key in my cipher.
It worked! Several students who were not normally activated in my class were engaged; students were shining and working with their neighbors. More than a few of them surprised me. We had multiple successful ciphers and an environment of joy in our classroom.
When all was said and done, I was excited about the results. Not only had students learned the basics of programming, but I had a lightbulb moment myself. My teaching practice relies on boldness to inquire, which makes it important that I join my students by conducting inquiry myself. I learned that my students needed more "hand-holding” through using the new tool. Specifically in that classroom, it didn’t work as well to minimize instruction and place them into a "laboratory" setting. What seemed to work out better was supporting an iterative process so students could have multiple quick attempts and real-time feedback.
Several students did touch base with me afterwards. I’m fairly certain I turned the light on for at least a few.
My earlier blog post, here, describes a fast-paced, performance-oriented school setting in which students become prepared to compete for careers at Google. Students who currently worry about grades and brand-name colleges need to remember that skills, tools, and thinking strategies are also important, according to the author's interviews with Google recruiter Laslo Bock. Well-developed creative and analytical capacities-- which may or may not be signalled by a transcript of good grades-- are requirements for most 21st century jobs.
That being said, as educators we must remember that a professional job at Google is only one of many paths that students can take to live meaningful, productive, and caring lives.
Some contemporary jobs simply don’t require high-level cognition, creativity, or analysis. So how do we make school meaningful for students who may ultimately land in (or, for a period of time land in) one of these jobs?
I believe that students’ own quests and personal interests are an important part of preparing them for Google or elsewhere. As students deepen their care and knowledge of the world, they reinforce important learning patterns that allow them to persevere in challenges, participate as a team member, and contribute to healthy relationships. While some may have their sights set on innovation, others may want to provide a service or experience for others. If all of my students leave high school prepared to invest in an area that matters to them, that’s my value-add.
Friedman, Thomas L. "How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2." The New York Times. 19 Apr. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Thomas L. Friedman’s articles on getting hired at Google give us a lot to think about as educators. As Friedman references the hiring practices of Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations at Google, we learn the number one thing recruiters look for: cognitive ability. In other words, smarts. They’re looking for smarts. Only “smarts” used to be evidenced by top marks and admission into prestigious colleges. Not any more. Even with a high GPA, think-on-your-feet-ability is the new smarts; it's the new predictor of value-add to the company. If students were truly being trained to compete and collaborate in this environment, our assignments, our assessments, our inputs would look very different.
I think that students could adjust to demonstrating value instead of simple knowledge. Sure, knowledge (and memorization/exercise) is a part of the process, but what matters now is "what can you do with what you know?" Students should practice this process long before joining the professional world, and also before college. If assessment were to change, students could apply what they learned in class to do, make, generate or perform something.
My favorite high school math teacher used to tell us that the exams were like Math Fashion Shows. It was a time to show off, strut-your-math-stuff, and to apply what was known to specific problems in a given time frame. I agree that students should practice more problem-solving and skill application in order to build deeper, sharper cognitive skills.
Friedman, Thomas L. "How to Get a Job at Google." The New York Times. 22 Feb. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Shawn Cornally makes an interesting point about motivation in school. Students are rewarded extrinsically--with points—which damages the circuitry for higher-level motivation. A more sustainable way to engage students at school is to permit them to pursue their own questions. When this can happen, the role of the teacher is not primarily to remind, motivate, reward or punish—things I feel I do waaaaay too much of for my tenth graders—but to “manage the 100 different threads of learning that are taking place.”
I agree that it would be more enjoyable (for all parties involved) if I were to spend my teacher-energy as a consultant rather than a disciplinarian/reminder. Uggh! It can be so exhausting! Stay on task. Sit in your desk. Keep writing. Look at the prompt. Did you read the instructions?
But I can’t help but think that these issues of dependence may be solved when students start to take a bit of control over their learning. With little skin in the game and a faulty rewards system, why should they demonstrate care, urgency, and attention?
Mr. Cornally’s proposal for a binary grading system applies especially well in science and technology, but for Humanities, I’m not quite sure how it would work. I’d have to think about it more. I also get a bit concerned about my students' ability to generate worthy questions. Is that horrible to admit? I’d like to embrace this style, but perhaps start small, a 10% type of project. Students would be permitted to use 10% of our classroom time to freely work on answering a topical question they want to solve.
It’s definitely time to re-think the reward system in school. Low student motivation has been one of the biggest surprises to me so far. And I myself graduated high school with high marks but little capacity to structure my own learning. The root of the issue with motivation really breaks my heart: students simply don’t see why they should go to the trouble of answering someone else’s deep questions. When students are held back from managing their own learning, they learn to either “play by the rules” or “get outta the game,” both of which damage the learner.
Overhauling the grading system represents a huge change to the educational system, but there are some pioneers to follow. At Reed College in Oregon, students are encouraged to focus on learning and not on grades. There’s also Bennington College in Vermont, where students may request optional letter grades. Both of these colleges turn out top-notch graduates and have highly ranked classroom experiences. Students are learning, and enjoying the process!
TEDxEastsidePrep - Shawn Cornally - The Future of Education Without Coercion. (2011, June 07). Retrieved December 02, 2016, from https://youtu.be/gPeKdXhGcZQ
It’s impossible to watch Gever Tulley’s talk on Tinkering School and not want to get involved in some kind of playful experimentation. Whether with building materials, musical notes, a raspberry pi, or words on a page, playing around is an important process for students of all ages.
Unfortunately, standardized curriculum and routines at school don’t leave much room for unstructured play, but I think we could…
While we do have end products in mind — for example, I do need my students to give me a product that shows they've learned about New Imperialism— why should that stop us from workshopping, fiddling and “decorating” our way to the result? The idea that tinkering needs to take place in woodshop or auto mechanics limits students' use of this powerful process. Why not make two different plans for an essay, or develop six supporting paragraphs and select the nicest three? Why not create birthday cards or yearbook notes to historical figures to uncover their motives and feelings? Or, why not tinker with different settings and strategies for close reading?
Importantly, the role of the educator changes in the tinkering-fiddling-workshopping classroom. But I like what Tulley suggests when he says that his most important action is to “keep the landscape of the project tilted toward completion.” In that sense, instructors preserve forward momentum and can reward students for their work, progress, and practice, and not simply the end product.
In his video titled Who Owns the Learning? Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age, Alan November explains that classrooms need to embrace a culture of learning-ownership. Who owns the learning? Is it the teacher, as she lectures and explains difficult or complex material? Or is it the student, as he asks deeper questions, uncovers meaning and applies the concepts?
As I interact more and more with students, I am aware that my desire for their understanding influences my evaluation of whether or not they have learned it. I want them to get it sooo badly! But students often nod their heads or have something copied from google, and when I ask them to put it into their own words, they can’t. If they can’t speak it, then they don’t own it. So then we go back, searching for something on which to hang some new meaning.
In an atmosphere inundated with tech tools, Mr. November’s talk explains that the real work of teachers is not learning new technology, but re-designing assignments in order to require critical thinking in spite of technology. He states that “the traditional transfer model [of learning] is frankly, easier. It takes more skill to create a classroom where students are truly motivated to manage their own learning. And that is very special teaching.”
I agree with his assessment. As our classroom has been 1:1 chromebooks this year, we’ve had plenty of informational resources at our disposal. But this does not mean that students know how to deal with the information. We’ve had to spend time teaching about credibility, bias, primary sources. We need to discuss paraphrasing, linking, and corroboration.
To extend the analogy of ownership, our students are like savings account bank tellers. They are constantly receiving checks during our class. Do they deposit them? Do they store them up, accumulate interest? Does the incredible value pay off both now, and later? Or, do the checks lay on the desk as mere slips of paper -- mere words, visuals, and activities that are part of another day of compulsory education?
While it’s easy to get bogged down in making lessons that pay off today, tomorrow, five years from now... it’s simply too important not to get to work doing it immediately. As students gain the stamina and confidence to struggle through an important analysis, they will naturally crave the challenge and begin fueling their pursuit with their own motivation. When we reflect, as educators, on how effective our instruction has been, we must consider, do they OWN it?
Alan November - Who Owns the Learning? Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age. (2014). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from https://youtu.be/NOAIxIBeT90
In the TED Talk called “Hackschooling Makes Me Happy”, Logan Laplante describes how his hacker-mindset drives his well-rounded education. Outside the traditional arenas of the school system, Logan’s classes stress creativity, wellbeing, and spiritual depth. Logan’s path is through home schooling, but elements of his approach should be incorporated into the public school model.
Although “hacking” connotes dark rogues breaching firewalls, the hacker-mindset actually applies outside of computers. In fact, hacking is a close relative to the now-popular maker-spaces that are sprouting up in schools and communities around the United States. In education, hacking is important. It requires creativity and rewards perseverance and originality. These are skills essential for 21st century learners who have grown up in the digital age. Remember, the business and social problems they will be required to solve may not even exist yet! The hacker-mindset permits children to challenge and change systems to make them work differently, or, find alternative systems altogether. It allows students to explore and tinker; both processes apply to instruction and learning in history, writing, physics, engineering and so many more.
This concept, usually reserved for tech circles, can enrich the entire school curriculum. As educators, we must discover how this mindset could be more widely adopted through students’ personal input, small-group learning, and more flexible school days.
La Plante, L. (2013, February). Hackschooling makes me happy [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h11u3vtcpaY (TED Talk, 11:13)
I think the most important line from Dr. Michael Wesch’s TED talk on Knowledge-ability is that “Students Learn What They Do.” As I participate in instruction for tenth grade students in World History, these students don’t resemble historians at all! If they are truly learning what they do, then “Sit Still and Follow Along” would be more like it. Watching Dr. Wesch’s talk “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able” reminds me that contemporary challenges require students to prepare by practicing. Solving real-world, complex, and interdisciplinary problems requires that students solve real-world, complex, interdisciplinary problems. Go figure! And collaborative technology like Google Apps for Education can help, but the more urgent priority is to calibrate instruction such that it requires students to use and develop critical thinking alongside the foundational concepts of the class. For example, in our classroom, it is important that students know (essentially, they need to have memorized) factors that “caused” Britain to industrialize. Without direct instruction and emphasis placed on this foundational knowledge, students would not be equipped to apply their knowledge to similar contexts. It’s here where we educators really need to pounce! Because beyond memorizing that coal, culture, rivers and farm-tech revolutionized Britain, we’d like students to think about various reasons that many European countries did not industrialize. Were these countries geographically isolated? Culturally lacking? Were there not enough people to put to work? Not enough capital? And beyond that, how about the nations that are still struggling to industrialize, today? These are the types of questions that beg us to put our brains to work. While I agree with Dr. Wesch that active participating prepares students for the real world, I also can't give up the solid ground that students gain by reading, studying, and remembering direct instruction. Education needs to be more active, for sure, but should also maintain balance between solid foundational concepts and active problem-solving.
Embracing the challenge to prepare students for 21st century CCC—College, Career, and Civic Life— we ought to remember that digital fluency is not reliant on an individual’s year of birth. While it may seem true that students were born knowing how to use an iPad, engaging with a digital environment is really much more complicated. None of us was born understanding how to build coherent messaging (online, or on paper), identify bias (on television, social media, or on a webpage), or connect with potential collaborators.
Dave White’s principle of Visitors and Residents addresses how users engage with digital technologies and the wider web. Addressing Marc Prensky’s concept of the Digital Native and the Digital Immigrant, White suggests that engagement is related not to fluency but rather to motive. Therefore, no matter who you are— or how old you are— no one’s judging your internet skeelz. What we're more interested in is why you're online, and why you're working digitally.
White tells us that a Visitor is motivated by an end-goal, his or her desire to see or to do something specific. Residents lean in and out of digital environments more fluidly, sharing and collaborating as they go. While I like White’s illustration, I have a hard time placing myself on his continuum. As a lifelong learner, I have engaged in numerous online classes (think Kahn, Coursera, and University Extensions). I also maintain profiles on social platforms, and in general, like toodling around online. However, more often than not I have an end-goal that motivates me to learn, experiment, or build presence with a new digital tool. Personal, professional, or educational… there simply isn’t the time to tinker around with all the cool tools, platforms, and collaborative options. I like to turn it off and focus on “meat space” now and then.
It reminds me of the words of advice I received from a sophisticated-looking Parisian man as I de-planed on my first trip to Europe. Are you excited? He smiled at me as if I were about to inherit something valuable. Yes. Very, I managed to pipe back. What shouldn't we miss? I asked. My best advice, he said, would be to just sort of wander about, smartly.
If you watch White’s explanation, he tells us that web users behave according to their motivation. Being a Visitor is great. Being a Resident is great. I’m just still not sure where I stand. I like to make to-do lists, I like to just explore -- you know, to wander about, smartly.
[Dave White]. (2013, May 31). Visitors and Residents. [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sFBadv04eY