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Posts tagged ‘learning’

So what’s my job?

An assessment researcher said once that

The role of the learner is not to passively receive information, but to actively participate in the construction of new meaning.

B. L. Shapiro, 1994

I would not disagree with that at all. In fact, much of the recent buzz in the K-12 social studies education movement has focused on the idea that kids need to be doing more and sitting less.

Thinking more. Analyzing more. Evaluating more. Creating more.

But if the role of social studies students is to actively participate in the construction of new knowledge, it sort of raises another question, doesn’t it?

What’s my job?

Complete the following sentence:

The role of the teacher is not to _________ but to __________.

It’s the learning, stupid

In 1992, Bill Clinton was running for president against George H.W. Bush. Just months before, Bush had a 90% approval rating. And to help keep Clinton’s campaign on message, his political strategist, James Carville,  hung a sign in the Little Rock headquarters that read:

  1. Change vs. more of the same
  2. The economy, stupid
  3. Don’t forget health care

Although the sign was intended for an internal audience of campaign workers and a reminder to the campaign to keep hammering away at what was truly important, the phrase

it’s the economy, stupid

became the de-facto slogan for the Clinton election campaign.

I think teachers sometimes need a sign like that. Something to remind us about what’s really important.

Over the last year or so, I’ve had the chance to participate in a couple of ongoing educational conversations – both of which go to the core of what we do as teachers. What is learning? How do we measure it? What’s important to know? How do we make sure kids acquire what we want them to know?

One has revolved around the idea of grades and homework. (Just so you know, I think most homework that we assign is a waste of time and that most of us don’t really understand the purpose of grades and grading scales.) Another has focused on the creation of state level history / government standards.

And I’ve heard a lot of things that don’t seem to have much to do with actual learning:

My kids weren’t turning in their homework so I changed the weighting to make homework count as much as tests. This will convince them that it’s important.

If they change the grading scale, I’ll just assign more work.

I count attendance and neatness as a big part of their final grade.

I give zeros for work not turned in and no re-dos in my class. It better be right the first time.

Standards aren’t that important. I’ve got these great slides from battle sites I’ve visited so I’m planning a WWII unit for 6th graders.


We sometimes get so caught up in the day to day surviving that I think we sometimes forget the point. We need a reminder, a sign

It’s the learning, stupid

posted where we can see it every day.

And I’ve got just the thing.

Part of our ongoing state standards conversation has revolved around the idea of a “rigor rubric,” a way to measure what we and our kids are doing while in our buildings.

The tool that will eventually end up in the revised standards will be a bit different than the one created by the International Center for Leadership in Education but theirs is pretty good. I like the quadrants idea.

This should be up in every one of our classrooms. This is our sign.

The goal is to move all of our kids to Quadrants C and D. That’s the stuff that we should be worried about, not wasting time grading worksheets or busy work assigned over Thanksgiving break to teach our kids “responsibility.”

It’s not about attendance, busy work, neatness, names in the right place, straight rows of desks or even the grading scale.

It’s the learning, stupid.

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Thinking about teaching – Something new?

The Curse of Knowledge.

It can be a killer.

The Heath brothers talk about the Curse in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Apparently first used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, the Curse means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do.

The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

Sound familiar?

We teach the way we’ve always taught, using the same language, assuming that kids are getting it because . . . after all, we get it. Our stuff is actually pretty easy, right? And if kids don’t get it, we can’t figure out why they’re so stupid. The content is obvious, the steps are obvious. If students aren’t getting it, it must be because they’re not really trying. Read more

Opinions not the same as knowledge

Okay. This educational reform idea could be a tough sell.

In his recent book, Learning in Depth, author and university professor Kieran Egan suggests that the current school system doesn’t provide enough content depth. We spend too much time asking kids to remember a little bit about everything without finding ways to ensure deep knowledge about anything. This leads to dis-engaged kids, under-educated global citizens and lazy thinkers.

His solution?

Have a kid study the same topic for 12 years. Bees. Apples. Treaties. War. Pretty much whatever.

In a recent Washington Post article, Egan uses dust as an example:

Dust could take a student from house dust to the Dust Bowl, from the origins of the color khaki (“khaki” is Urdu for “dust”; how it came to refer to a color is a long story involving British camouflage uniforms and Afghanistan) to the origins of the planet.

In this process, students will have learned important, even life-changing lessons about the meaning of expertise, the value of dedication and the delight of knowing something in depth. This sort of learning can engage student imaginations and emotions and enable a broader understanding of the human experience.

One of the great paradoxes of education is that only when one knows something deeply can one recognize how little one actually knows.

My first thought is the guy’s nuts.

But another quote got my attention:

People who know nothing in depth commonly assume that their opinions are the same kind of thing as knowledge.

In a society that typically relies on “truthiness” rather than facts, Egan’s idea starts to make a bit more sense. We need to find ways to develop critical and rational thinkers.

Columnist Leonard Pitts once wrote:

To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper’s online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.

Egan’s solution seems a bit extreme but the concept itself maybe isn’t. Could a modified Egan plan work in our social studies departments? Create mini-experts on different periods of time or different historical concepts and themes over a period of three or four years? Some schools already have high school seniors create year-long projects. Why couldn’t we expand that a bit?

It would encourage teachers to become more generalists that specialists, facilitators rather than presenters. And it would make for some awesome problem-based learning.

Traditionalists would like it because it emphasizes in-depth mastery of knowledge. Progressives would like the idea of providing choice and achievement-based rather than time-based learning.

What would your topic be?

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Facebook is not a killer app – for grades, that is

My daughter is hooked on Facebook. Should I be worried?

According to recent research by a group of marketing students at the University of New Hampshire, probably not. After talking with over 1000 college students, researchers concluded that social media use of up to an hour a day has no impact on student grades.

The student researchers classified light users of social media as respondents who spent less than 31 minutes every day on social networking sites. Heavy users, according to the study, spent more than an hour daily on social media sites.

Sixty-three percent of heavy users earned high grades—A’s and B’s—while 65 percent of light users received high marks

And while I can question methods, survey group, question types and perhaps even the researchers themselves, it does raise an interesting topic:

  • Has the use of Facebook and other social media such as Twitter and Youtube changed even in the last few years? And if it has, has the change had any impact on grades?
  • Perhaps most important, has the use of social media by kids impacted their learning?

Chuck Martin, the professor whose class conducted the study, suggests yes.

(The use of social networks) has evolved so that people dip in and dip out. They use it in short spurts. They may be using social media 30 seconds at a time, rather than 30 minutes at a time.

The result?

. . . students have grown up with social networks (and) they are now simply part of how students interact with each other, with no apparent impact on grades.

My experience with my own kids would support Martin and the findings of his students. My kids are on Facebook, they do use YouTube as well as other Web 2.0 tools. But I don’t see them heads down in their laptops for hours on end. Like Martin said, they “dip in and out.”

But are they smarter or dumber? Of course, since they have their mother’s genes, they were pretty bright to begin with but I not sure I can answer that question. How do you truly measure that kind of impact?

Farrell, Rolland. “Facebook Ilustration.” 19 February 2009. 12 January 2010.

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Video clips, your students and Little Hitler

During a short break in a training last week, a bunch of us were sharing favorite YouTube clips. As in, what YouTube videos work best for instruction.

It reminded me of John Medina’s Brain Rules book and his Rule #10 – Vision Trumps All Other Senses:

We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.

Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time.

Toss your PowerPoint presentations. It’s text-based (nearly 40 words per slide), with six hierarchical levels of chapters and subheads—all words. Burn your current PowerPoint presentations and make new ones.

I still believe that we don’t do enough to tap into the power of images and am convinced that sites such as YouTube, when used appropriately, can help increase learning.

A video clip that caught the attention of the US /World History teachers in the group is titled “Little Hitler.”  And while it obviously oversimplifies that whole World War II thing, I think it would be great as a mental organizer – something that you could hang content onto throughout your unit.

The lesson for today? Head over to YouTube and do some poking around. (YouTube blocked in your building? Try TeacherTube or download the YouTube clip.)