Monday, December 19, 2011

Kindergarteners Do Work That Matters

Colorful candy constitutes beautiful roofing.  Pieces of chocolate serve as an inviting walkway to the front door.  As gorgeous as the house is, the learning and joy associated with kindergarten students’ work on the gingerbread house is even more impressive.
Students in Mrs. Murawski’s kindergarten class at Magruder Elementary School knew that their work mattered.  One reason they fully committed themselves to carefully designing and constructing the gingerbread house was because they are donating the house to a local senior citizen’s home to bring joy during this holiday season.
At the start of the construction project, Mrs. Murawski convened her students for a design team meeting.  Each student chose to serve on a committee which planned one aspect of the job.  For example, the landscaping committee planned the layout and creation of the yard while the roof committee developed ideas for the top of the house.  These five year old children learned a lot about team work.  Mrs. Murawski commented that one of the biggest challenge for students was "working with a committee of students, making decisions together and realizing that you have to compromise.  As they came together with their research information and began to share the ideas with each other they realized that they may indeed like what they saw in their classmate's research booklet."
Each committee created a blueprint for their aspect of the job and then the class created a master plan linking the work of the separate project teams.  The father of one of the students, who works in the construction business, visited the class to explain blueprints, provide advice, and talk about his career in construction. 
This student stands below the Master Plans.
Although the gingerbread house was prominently displayed near the entrance of the classroom when I visited, signs of the complexity of the project were clear.  Several students showed me the project timeline and explained that listing the steps of the project helped them complete it.  One student proudly held up the blueprint for the front of the house that he helped create.  Another student showed off the master plans.  Click on the icon below to listen to a third student explain how he felt after completing the construction project.
I am incredibly impressed with the strong work ethic displayed by Mrs. Murawski’s students.  Their effort and the quality of their work, however, stems largely from the fact that Mrs. Murawski gave them work that mattered.  Students made choices regarding what work they would do and how they would do it.  They had the opportunity to be creative and to be problem solvers.   They knew they were making a product that others would value.  Hats off to Mrs. Murawski for providing her students work that matters because this project also made a difference for students in terms of the development of important skills and knowledge.  The construction of the gingerbread house was a sweet experience for all involved!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Learning in the Shift Age (welcome remarks at Virginia ASCD Conference)

I want to ask educators in Virginia to think back for a moment to August.  Do you remember what we were dealing with in August?  Hurricanes.  Earthquakes.  A Fire in the dismal swamp (which is finally out, by the way).  I found myself thinking of a music group from the 70s and 80s.
Although Earth Wind and Fire was a great group, the challenges of August were not great.  What were we doing when the challenges hit?  We were getting ready to start the school year.  And our efforts barely, if at all stopped: we just dealt with the challenges.  As teachers, principals, superintendents, as educators, we are expected to deal with any challenge that comes our way. 
Today David Houle, coauthor of ShiftEd, is going to challenge us to deal with change.  He says we are entering a shift age in which we can master the opportunities provided by global connectivity.  He talks about the emphasis on choice, customization, and flexibility and he challenges us to transform schools in response to these changes.
Houle and coauthor Jeff Cobb write,
Embracing and rapidly managing change is fundamental to the consciousness of the Shift Age.  The speed of change has accelerated so much that it is now environmental: we live in an environment of change . . . The old phrase “standing on solid ground” no longer has merit.  If an individual believes she is standing on solid ground and has a clear, certain view of the world, it is now a given that whether it be six months, nine months, or a year from now that person is going to suddenly realize the world has changed while she was busy being certain.
Karen Washington, a first-year principal in the school district in which I work, had an experience in August that relates to this notion of not standing on solid ground. She was facilitating her first heavy duty instructional conversation with her staff when the earthquake hit.  Do you know what she did?  She kept right on--talking, asking questions, listening.  She didn’t miss a beat.  She admitted later that she actually didn’t even notice the earthquake.
When she told me this, it reminded me of another group, REM and their song in which they sing of "the end of the world as we know it.”

Click on the videos below to check out these brief excerpts of the music video.

It wasn't the end of the world in August, but there was an earthquake, and Karen Washington was totally fine.  Will we be totally fine with the end of the world as we know it--with the shift age that David Houle is about to describe?  I am optimistic that you will each be fine because you are here at this conference because of your commitment to learning.  And our professional learning will be a key to thriving in the shift age.  With the shift age we have opportunities for learning that did not exist previously.  A superintendent who wrote an essay that is part of the ShiftEd book spoke of her sense that there will be few boundaries of space time or place for learning in the shift age.
One example of learning that is not limited by time or place is the conversation that occurred during the last few days via Twitter regarding ShiftEd.  Teachers, principals, and superintendents planning to attend the VASCD conference started the conversation and others who would not be attending soon joined.  Comments were posted at all times of day from people throughout and outside of Virginia.

It is this type of limitless learning that will help us deal with the Shift Age and the earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires of the future.   So, let us get started!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shift Ed Calls for K-12 Transformation

Here are some key points set forth by David Houle (@evolutionshift) and Jeff Cobb in Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education.  Each key point is set forth in fewer than 144 characters.  I wrote them in this format so that I could share some of them via Twitter in an online discussion of ShiftEd in the days leading up to Virginia ASCD Annual Conference, which starts today.   At the invitation of Ann Etchison (@ann1622) and @VASCD, I will be providing welcoming remarks at today’s conference, prior to David Houle’s General Session keynote address. 

Here is a link to the Shift Ed web site:
Shift to #teaching 21st century skills unlikely in current K-12 ed system says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
K-12 ed system more of a containment area than place to prep kids 4 21st century says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
widespread disagreement re: K-12 but we need unified vision says @evolutionshift how achieved? #vascd11 #shfited
Stop tinkering w/ ed system & curriculum-instead look at what it needs 2 become says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
How has ed responded to new tech world? It hasn’t says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
We compartmentalize tech driven change so traditional teaching is untouched says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
In 2 many schools #edtech is little more than an add-on says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
Next 20 years are the Shift Age when we master opportunities of global connectiveness says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
Schools must move beyond being purveyors of info says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
@evolutionshift Is connectedness a force separate from “flow to global” or just its cause? #vascd11 #shifted
Connectivity-global culture-power 2 individuals are key 2 Shift Age says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted #edchat
Choice-customization-flexibility explode in shift age says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
Constructivism cited in #shifted is not new-but in time of emphasis on individual is the world finally ready 4 cnstrctvsm? @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
Should we confine kids w/i 4 walls for set time to be fed set content? asks @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
Most of current #edreform is reactionary
Need to shift 2 thinking about #learning experiences not ed systems says supt woodward in #shifted @evolutionshift #vascd11
We need to be creators of #learning experiences says supt woodward in #shifted @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
There should b few boundaries of time space place 4 #learning says supt woodward in #shifted @evolutionshift #vascd11
Students will gradually assume responsibility 4 #learning says supt woodward in #shifted @evolutionshift #vascd11
How much freedom should students have 2 decide when where how 2 connect 4 #learning asks @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
What are skills needed 4 #learning in social networks asks @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
we need to customize means of #learning-should we also customize outcomes @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
Are schools only or even mostly physical places? Asks @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
What do you think of the common core? @evolutionshift
Schools must become better at shape shifting to meet new demands says @evolutionshift #vascd11 #shifted
#shifted web site has additional resources

Friday, August 5, 2011

It’s Not About the Angry Birds—Or is it?

How are our students using technology?  As you are no doubt aware, Angry Birds is an incredibly popular game.  However, if our students’ use of technology were limited to playing Angry Birds, we would not be effectively leveraging technology for learning.
Superintendents, principals, teacher-leaders and other leaders should promote a shared vision of how technology supports teaching and learning.  The essential conditions for leveraging technology identified by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) include the existence of a shared vision.  The Consortium for School Networking Initiative emphasizes that leaders need to “develop a vision of web 2.0 for achieving your district’s goals.”  Without a shared vision relating to technology, the educators in your school community who use technology may just be techno-cheerleaders, the term Mark Bauerlein uses to describe people who assume that technology automatically yields benefits.
Your vision for technology should be linked to your overall vision for teaching and learning.  Because they are at the heart of our district’s vision for teaching and learning, the concepts of student engagement and 21st century rigor drive our efforts to leverage technology for learning.  Another blog post provides examples of student use of technology which reflects engagement and rigor.  ISTE, in fact, encourages leaders to promote a culture “that provides a rigorous, relevant and engaging education.

The point isn’t that you must use the concepts of engagement and rigor to leverage technology.  Your district’s vision for teaching and learning may revolve around other hooks, such as project-based learning, problem-based learning or differentiated instruction.  Embed your technology initiatives in your district’s vision.
I recently was preparing for a presentation (slideshare link) at the #BLC11 Conference hosted by Alan November.  When I shared the concepts with a colleague (@ccrudy), she gently suggested that I reconsider my statement that it (integrating technology) is not about the Angry Birds.  She shared a link to a blog post entitled Angry Birds in the Physics Classroom.  The author shared multiple investigations that students could carry out relating to Angry Birds and physics.  For example, one video clip of an angry bird is accompanied by the question, “Does the blue angry bird conserve momentum during its split into three?”  This blog post led me to recognize that perhaps leveraging technology is about Angry Birds in the sense that we can use this game to tap student interest in digital tools to engage them in rigorous learning experiences.  So, before you dismiss Angry Birds, ask how this game, or any technology, can help your school community realize its vision of teaching and learning.

For a podcast discussion I had with Alan November regarding fostering change through leadership, visit this link.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Passion & Strategic Plans: An Oxymoron?

Who knew?  An international community of latte artists create artistic coffee.  They blog, tweet, and use Facebook to connect with one another regarding their shared passion of latte art.  They share photos of their latte art online for others to enjoy, comment on, and judge in competitions.  Others throughout the world use social media to connect regarding their shared passion of yarn bombing.  They knit covers and place them on lamp posts, benches and other items in public spaces during the night so others discover them the next day.  They participate in International Yarn Bombing Day.

I was not aware of these unique communities of passion until @torres21 described them last week at the Building Learning Communities 2011 (#BLC11)conference.  And in workshops following the keynote by @torres21, @AngelaMaiers emphasized that when people have a passion, they commit themselves to that passion.  They are willing to persist in the face of difficulty to pursue their passion.  They are willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of passion.  The penguin below was a sacrifice that allowed his peers to swim, although I'm not sure this was a self-sacrifice . . .  

The latte artist- and yarn bombing-communities of passion were on my mind as I prepared to speak to leaders in our district yesterday regarding our strategic plan and our upcoming Quality Assurance Review for district-wide accreditation.  Strategic plans often are dead documents which generate yawns, not passion.  Strategic plans should instead be a representation of the collective passions of our school community. 
The big ideas in our strategic plan are worthy of our passion, our commitment.  These big ideas relate to student engagement, 21st century notions of rigor, excellence, the key role of staff, relationships & school climate, and efficient, effective, service-oriented operations.  Staff members will vary in terms of which of these big ideas are most worthy of their passion.  However, what binds our school community together is our collective belief in these big ideas.

Our principals, teachers, and others are building professional learning communities that will spur action in pursuit of our collective vision. Today, principals, assistant principals, teacher-leaders, and district-level leaders gather for the second day of our Leadership Academy to focus on student engagement and rigor.  We will be talking with one another, tweeting with one another, connecting.
So, if you think that latte artists and yarn bombers are passionate, you have not seen anything yet.  As we continue to strengthen our professional learning community, as we build the back porches for shared learning, our passion for the big ideas of our strategic plan will allow us to sustain and build on the excellence of our district.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Avoiding Envy with BYOT

In March 2011 the iPad 2 was unveiled.  Up to 15 million people were immediately envious.  After all, approximately 15 million iPads were sold prior to the release of the iPad 2 in the United States in April 2010. 
This simple fact illustrates one key reason our school district is encouraging students to bring their own technology to school this September in order to access our public wireless network, rather than providing district-purchased technology to every student.  Think of the shift in popularity from PCs to notebooks and then netbooks.  Observe the transition in the cellular wireless world from 2G to 3G to 4G.
Watch this absolutely hilarious Best Buy commercial. 

This video humorously emphasizes the rapid changes in technology and how desirable the latest technology is.  Bring your own technology initiatives allow students to take advantage of the latest devices they own.

Last spring, we piloted a bring your own technology initiative in the classroom of one teacher in each of our five secondary schools.   During the 2011-2012 school year, all secondary students will have the option of bringing their laptops, netbooks, notebooks, iPods, iPads, and/or smart phones to school in order to connect to our wireless network for learning.  Students who do not bring in their own devices will have access to laptops, iPads, and other devices owned by the district.
Our school district cannot afford a 1:1 initiative.  Even if we could purchase laptops, iPads or other devices on a large scale, we would almost immediately have technology that was outdated in terms of what students are accustomed to using outside of school. 
We cannot cure the envy of the millions of owners of an original iPad who have not yet purchased an iPad 2.  However, at least many of our 6000 secondary students will be able to avoid the frustration of using district-owned technology that is older than what they use outside of school!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Effective Virtual Learning: Not Just Plugging Them In

A group of Virginia legislators are doing their homework on virtual learning.  Today, Reggie Fox (@fox1210), the Online Learning Coordinator for the York County School Division in Virginia, and I (ewilliams65) spoke with the Education Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee.  Our message was that effective virtual learning is not just a matter of plugging students in to a computer.  Effective virtual learning is not a cheap, mass production affair.
Reggie Fox addressed the legislators regarding our experience and plans.  In my introductory remarks, I made three key points:
·    Effective teachers of virtual courses, like other teachers, develop strong relationships with students.  They interact extensively with students through e-mails, videoconferencing, phone calls, and interactive group discussions on the computer.  They ask questions, answer questions, moderate discussions, encourage students, and provide feedback to students regarding their work. 

·    The extensive interaction is crucial for success.  The students who have taken our virtual courses have a strong record of success on state exams, but success also entails learning to collaborate, solve problems, and create work products—not just memorize information.

·    This extensive interaction is more expensive than some other approaches to virtual learning, which are not much more than students completing a bunch of worksheets on the computer.  The mass production model does not lead to deep learning.

Yesterday, the Virginia Department of Education announced that our school district is one of two districts statewide (along with eleven other organizations) that have been approved to provide virtual courses to students throughout Virginia.  During the presentation to legislators today, we we explained that this school year the York County School Division will only serve students from outside our district through agreements with other school districts.  A school district may choose to enroll its students in one or more of thirty-nine courses that we offer as a Multidivision Online Provider.  The participating school district would retain the per-pupil state funding, while paying our school district a per-student fee.
Reggie Fox posed several questions today for consideration.  Will we continue to use Carnegie units?  Should students be assessed based on mastery?
The members of the Education Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee deserve praise for doing their homework on virtual learning.  During the legislative session of 2012, hopefully budget and policy decisions will be made with a recognition that virtual learning is not just a matter of plugging students in for mass production, low cost, education.  We will achieve so much more if we avoid this perspective.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How Can Microsoft Skype Support Student Work?

                Educators are spoiled.  As one amazing digital tool after another is introduced and improved, we continue to want more enhancements.  So, don’t blame us for wanting Microsoft to improve Skype to further support student collaboration, problem-solving, and learning. 

                Imagine students and teachers chatting with one another while jointly analyzing or creating a document.  The document is displayed alongside live video feed with collaborators in multiple locations. One student makes a text-based reference to illustrate a point while highlighting the cited text so others may easily focus on it.  Another student writes a note on the margin of the document to emphasize a point.  One participant, with approval from a facilitator, displays a video.  The students and teachers ask questions and enter comments into an active discussion forum window displayed next to the video.  Later, one participant uses a polling feature to survey the group regarding a topic under discussion and immediately displays the survey results.  The entire session is recorded for reference.
                 Web-based videoconferencing systems such as Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate and Wimba), Adobe Connect, and iVisit each offers many or all of these capabilities.  Each month additional teachers and others within our school district experiment with using Elluminate to support student work.  An elementary student read a story he wrote to his mother stationed in Kuwait during a parent-teacher videoconference.  Students in two elementary schools collaborated on a writing project using videoconferencing.  Middle school students held a videoconference with their Algebra teacher in which students demonstrated their attempted solutions and sought help.  In the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Japan, high school students connected with a teacher less than 100 miles from the damaged power plants.  When the need arose for an impromptu meeting with principals earlier this spring, we met virtually via Elluminate to view and discuss the latest budget documents.  Shortly thereafter, a principal videoconferenced with a teacher who demonstrated how to use new software. 
                Many people outside the school district express a preference for using Skype, rather than Elluminate, to connect with our students and staff because they are familiar with Skype.   Many staff members who have used Skype at home would prefer to use it at work as well.  If Skype incorporated more sophisticated features, we would not need to convince people to try alternatives.
Some observers believe that the acquisition is a setback for Skype since Microsoft is not open source like Skype.  However, even if open source systems become increasingly prevalent, if Microsoft integrates Skype with the Microsoft Suite of applications, then many more students will gain access sooner to advanced audio and video conferencing technology.  After all, the IT directors of many school districts believe that Skype is not a great match for enterprise networks with their firewalls and filters.  So, IT directors are more inclined to embrace Skype if it is part of the Microsoft Suite of applications.
                Access would be maximized if Microsoft Skype users retain the ability to use Skype on non-Windows platforms, like Macs, iPhones, and Androids.  As our school district transitions to allowing students to access our wireless networks with their netbooks, smart phones, and gaming devices for learning, students will benefit if digital tools can be used on a variety of platforms.  Besides, given Microsoft’s stated desire to bring people closer together, it should not build barriers between people by restricting Skype to Windows-only platforms.
                So, while others in the blogosphere are gnashing their teeth over the Microsoft acquisition of Skype, I’m asking for an upgrade.  Yes, we are spoiled, but if we don’t ask for more, we’ll never get it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Teaching a Commitment to Excellence

Can we teach students to commit themselves to excellence-to the pursuit of mastery?  When we celebrate and commend students who have committed themselves to excellence, does it increase the chance that they will continue to pursue mastery?
The characteristics of the work that we give students influence students’ level of engagement and the likelihood that students will commit themselves to excellence in completing the work.  In several other blog posts, I have reflected on how choice, affiliation, affirmation, and other design qualities increase engagement and encourage students to pursue mastery.  Clearly, a task can be intrinsically motivating.
Although we should provide students with intrinsically motivating work, providing the right kind of extrinsic motivation also plays an important role in teaching students to commit to excellence.  My previous blog post includes the text of remarks in which I commend students at the Virginia Odyssey of the Mind competition for their pursuit of mastery.

However, Dan Pink states us that extrinsic rewards can turn play into work.  He warns us about contingent rewards, what he refers to as if/then rewards-if you do this, then you get that.  He observes that if/then rewards can actually negatively affect motivation and narrow our thinking.  Nevertheless, regardless of whether you think we overemphasize grades, isn’t there still a role for extrinsic rewards that are not of the if-then type?
Shouldn’t we explicitly celebrate when students pursue mastery?  Shouldn’t we encourage students to take pride in their pursuit of excellence?  In addition to providing intrinsically motivating work, if our commendations contribute to students’ satisfaction with the pursuit of mastery, then we are teaching students to commit themselves to excellence.  Let’s look for opportunities in our classrooms, schools, and school districts to celebrate and commend students who have committed themselves to excellence.
How do you celebrate and commend students for pursuing mastery in your classroom, school, or school district?  How can we celebrate and commend students for committing themselves to excellence, while avoiding the pitfalls of which Dan Pink warns us?

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Joy of the Pursuit of Mastery: Remarks at the Virginia Odyssey of the Mind Awards Ceremony

To sum up this day in one word, WOW!  Today we have seen mouse-trap powered vehicles, complex machines, classical characters as tour guides, weight-bearing balsa wood structures, interesting series of changes, and money-making characters. WOW!
Odyssey of the Mind participants, I know that your performance today, and the preparation for today, has been very rewarding. However, I hesitate to use the word fun.  The word fun might suggest that it was fun like going to an amusement park, a movie theater, or a party.  Odyssey of the Mind is rewarding, even fun at times, but it also involves hard work. 

Participants, you should be proud of your pursuit of mastery.  Recognize that you never truly master Odyssey of the Mind, or any pursuit, for that matter.  As Daniel Pink observes, you can approach mastery, you can come close, but you never fully master a pursuit.  But, as I think you have discovered, the joy comes in the pursuit-in trying to get to mastery. 
One Odyssey of the Mind Coach posted an entry on my blog in which he described how his team of 5th grade students reacted when a vehicle they created broke during the competition.  He explained
how the students wisely set the car aside, completed the other required tasks, and then calmly working together to repair the vehicle and perform the task with 23 seconds remaining in the competition.  Overcoming challenges like this brings joy.  And participants, what brings you together-what unites you- is that you actually do find this to be fun, in a crazy sort of way.  It is fun working with others who share your crazy zeal-your passion for Odyssey of the Mind, your desire to overcome the challenges that Odyssey of the Mind throws your way.
So, during this ceremony, we recognize the winners in each of the categories.  Perhaps these teams have come the closest to mastery.  But all of you should be proud of your pursuit of mastery.  So savor these moments.  Cherish what you have accomplished during this pursuit.
I want to close with a challenge.  Commit yourselves to the quest for mastery, not just in Odyssey of the Mind, but in your other endeavors.  You will continue to see that the quest for mastery is incredibly rewarding.  Congratulations!
*Why is the work of Odyssey of the Mind so engaging?  Check out

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blended Learning Varies in Effectiveness

Even when teachers skillfully tap into students' interest in digital tools to engage them in rigorous learning, their efforts may not include blended learning.  In a blog post today, Tom Vander Ark, a former Superintendent and the first Executive Director for Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, responded to my recent blog post entitled Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning.  Tom suggests that we should not be satisfied with students' effective use of digital tools in traditional brick and mortar settings. Following up on his post on HuffPost Education, Tom advocates the use of a blended model, in which students spend at least a portion of the day in an online environment. 
Blended learning should be encouraged in the context of a larger vision for teaching and learning.  In my last post, I described how students' use of digital tools in York County, Virginia is promoted within the context of our vision for engaging students in rigorous work.  Just as one should not assume that the use of technology in traditional brick and mortar settings will automatically yield benefits, one should not make the same assumption with blended learning.  Not all blended learning opportunities are equal or equally valuable.  So, as we expand blended learning options, let's be clear regarding how they fit in a larger vision for teaching and learning.
Tom Vander Ark recognizes variations among blended learning options.  He notes that many of the big state and national online learning providers are a "first gen" version of blended learning, featuring mostly flat and sequential content.  They do not realize the potential for a student-centered, customized approach, as described by Tom. 

Tom praises blended models not only for improved learning, but also for improved productivity.  While blended models offer tremendous learning potential, effective blended models may not be any less expensive than traditional brick and mortar models.  Tom envisions an important role for teachers.  For example, they might  custom-craft a " tech-rich project-based environment  .  .  .  (and) teach small groups ready for a specific lesson."  Less effective blended models minimize the role of the teacher and student-teacher interaction.   Last week I facilitated a panel discussion regarding virtual learning options at the Virtual Learning Virginia Conference.  It was clear from panel discussions and informal conversations that some blended learning experiences are cheap, but lack much student-teacher interaction.

We (the York County School Division) offer more than fifty virtual courses to our students.  We have applied to the Virginia Department of Education for approval as a multi-division provider in order to work with other school districts in Virginia to serve their students.  However, I am even more enthusiastic about our initial steps with integrating virtual learning with the courses in our brick and mortar schools.  Several of our teachers of virtual courses are experimenting with using our digital learning platform as part of their more traditional courses.  Their students access web sites, videos, problems, and other content through our digital learning platform.  All of our middle school teachers of Spanish, Algebra, and Geometry include a virtual component in their courses.  For example, one middle school Algebra teacher held a videoconference with students via Elluminate in order to review for a mid-term exam.  Student posed questions orally and through the chat feature.  The teacher watched students attempt to solve problems, while also demonstrating solutions herself.  This videoconference and our other initial steps with blended learning reinforce our sense that blended models offer significant potential.

Where will our journey with blended models take us?  Tom writes, "The old elementary job of one teacher and 25 kids of  the same age but varying learning levels in the same room for 180 is too hard.  The old high school job of teaching five sections of 30 kids doesn’t work very well for students or teachers." He also calls for dynamic scheduling, team-based staffing, case-managed services, and competency-based assessments embedded in learning experiences.

I'm not sure what blended models will look like in a few years, but, as we move forward let's proceed within the context of a broader student-centered vision for teaching and learning.  Also, let's not overpromise in terms of the cost of effective blended models.  While blended models are not a cheap panacea, they offer substantial potential for engaging students in rigorous learning. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Using Technology to Transform Teaching & Learning

Students’ use of digital tools should be promoted in the context of a broader vision of teaching and learning.  Without a broader vision, technology may merely automate what has always been done.  Using PowerPoint as part of a lecture is an example of automation, regardless of how interesting and informative the lecture is.  Similarly, students in a computer lab may complete the same problems that previous students solved on a worksheet.  With automation, nothing has really changed.   Techno-cheerleaders, as explained in the previous blog post, may assume that technology automatically yields benefits, but that is not the case.  
Focusing on a broader vision for teaching and learning increases the likelihood that technology will transform teaching and learning, rather than just automating old practices.  In York County, Virginia, our efforts to tap into students’ interest in digital tools are occurring in the context of our efforts to engage students in rigorous work.
Designing students’ work with digital tools so that it reflects the Schletchy Center’s design qualities helps us realize the potential of technology integration. 
Design Qualities That Promote Student Engagement
Product Focus:  Are digital tasks and activities structured so that what students learn is linked to a product, performance, or exhibition to which the student attaches personal value?  Tabb Middle School Algebra students recently created tutorials in Animoto to teach solving two-step equations, converting fractions to decimals, and other skills. They then posted the instructional videos on the class web site. 
Similarly, students in an Algebra class at York High School recently used cell phones, flip cameras, and video cameras to record the answers to an exam review on topics such as algebraic properties and solving inequalities.  They posted the videotaped answers on the class web site and on SchoolTube. 
The teachers report that their students took this work seriously because they wanted their explanations to be accurate and easy for their peers and others to understand.  As Alan November explains, publishing student work on the web gives students a compelling sense of leaving a legacy.  November states in Empowering Students with Technology,
As children grow up, they have a developmental need to know that they can make a difference and be productive in society.  Using communications technology to add value to the world is one way to teach students that they can make a difference and that their work is important.”  (p.43)
Affirmation of Performance:  Are we designing digital tasks and activities so that the work of students is visible to persons who are important to students?  Is it clear to students that the quality of their performance matters to peers and others whose opinions matter to students?  Students at the Waller Mill Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School are preparing for a film festival during which each class will screen one or more videos for popcorn-eating visitors, such as “Math Wars” and “Rock Cycle Video.”  Although Oscars will be awarded, the public display of work will be even more affirming. 
A fourth grade teacher at Bethel Manor Elementary School arranged a videoconference with one of her student’s parents who was deployed in the Middle East.  The student treasured reading a story that he had written to his deployed father.  She certainly felt affirmed by this school-to-family connection.
Affiliation:  Are we designing digital tasks so that students have the opportunity to work with peers, parents, outside experts, and other adults, including, but not limited to the teacher?  A Yorktown Middle School student loved connecting with survey respondents from throughout the world.  She created a health survey as part of the study on global obesity that she was doing for a culminating IB Middle Years Programme project.  She enlisted friends and staff members in seeking responses via e-mails and Twitter.  By the end of the first week, she received more than 200 responses from the United States, Canada, Korea, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.  Energized by the global affiliation through the survey, she is analyzing her results using Excel.
Novelty and Variety:  Are we giving students the opportunity to use a wide range of tools in a variety of ways?  Seventh grade English students at Grafton Middle School worked collaboratively with one another using a variety of tools (GoogleDocs, MovieMaker, PowerPoint and Audacity) to create and publish  presentations regarding the Holocaust. 
Choice:  Do our students have the opportunity to choose either what they are to learn or how they learn?  Students will be more engaged if they frame questions to answer and identify problems to solve  even with significant guidance and structure from the teacher. 
Authenticity:  Are we linking the work of students to topics of interest to students?  In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and the start of the nuclear crisis in Japan, York High School students videoconferenced with a teacher eighty miles from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.  Student interest in the crisis in Japan drew them into this lesson.

Designing student work with digital tools that reflects rigor also helps realize the potential of technology integration.  In creating student work, we should focus on rigor as envisioned by Tony Wagner, rather than traditional notions of rigor which emphasize covering content.  Wagner emphasizes that in a rigorous school, student work involves the following skills:
·         Critical thinking and problem solving;
·         Collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
·         Agility and adaptability;
·         Initiative and entrepreneurialism;
·         Effective oral and written communication;
·         Accessing and analyzing information; and
·         Curiosity and imagination.

Skills:  Are we designing work with digital tools that requires problem solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication and other skills, often referred to as 21st century skills?  Students at Yorktown Middle School create a weekly, school-wide broadcast with news and feature stories.  The students choose story topics, write the scripts, film each segment, edit footage, and assess their broadcasts.  They overcome technical difficulties, cancelled interviews, and other challenges as they work to meet their deadlines.
These students have a sense of ownership of their work, rather than just seeing it as an assignment from their teacher.  Their teacher plays a key role, helping students choose story topics and suggesting approaches to stories for their consideration, but the students have a strong sense of responsibility for their learning and work.  This teacher’s approach reflects the philosophy that Alan November articulates as he advocates shifting control to students so that they own the learning.  As November observes, “the process of shifting control of who owns the problems can result in some of the most motivated and focused student work possible.”  (p.55)

The Rigor/Relevance Framework, developed by the International Center for Leadership in Education (, integrates the knowledge taxonomy and an application continuum.  The framework shows the connection between levels of rigor, as reflected by the knowledge taxonomy, and relevance, involving the application of knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems.  Applying knowledge to unpredictable situations is the highest level of application.

Rigor/Relevance:  Does student work with digital tools develop cognitive skills throughout the knowledge taxonomy and involve adaptation and application of knowledge and skills?  Fourth grade students at the Yorktown Elementary School Math, Science, and Technology Magnet participate in the Stock Market game ( Students manage a virtual portfolio, starting with a $100,000 balance, analyzing investment opportunities via the internet to assess which stocks to buy and sell to try to increase the value of their portfolio.  They work in teams, taking turns serving as captain, researcher, trader, and checker.  Cleary, they are applying knowledge and skills as they invest in the volatile, unpredictable stock market. 

These examples illustrate the power of promoting the use of digital tools in the context of a broader vision of teaching and learning.   They reflect an assumption that the use of digital tools is not the ultimate goal, but rather a means to an end.  As Alan November emphasizes in Empowering Students with Technology, “The real problem is not teaching technology skills.  Many of our students can learn about technology as fast as-if not faster than-adults.  What our students cannot learn on their own, and what makes teachers more important than ever, is the urgent need to teach critical thinking and global communication skills.” (p.32)  Clearly, using digital tools to engage students in rigorous work can help transform teaching and learning, rather than just automating old practices!