Digital Learning with Math

This post is part of a #Peel21st community “blog hop” in which participants share a digital learning experience in math.  After reading this post, be sure to click the links to others’ posts at the bottom of the page, and make your way through all of the contributors.

I am a high school physics teacher and physics naturally has a lot of math in it.  So, I decided I would post about a teaching experience I had a few years back and what it taught me about “21st century students.”


For a long time I have utilized some form of online social networking space in my classes (wikis, blogs, Ning, Elgg, Edmodo, etc.).  I have found that providing an avenue for student voice online has contributed greatly to the sense of community that is built within my classes.  Moreover, I have learned a great deal about my students and about physics from what and how my students share with the class.  I highly recommend it!

Back in 2012, I was using Edmodo because it was easy to use and was one of the few platforms that had a mobile app (something that I think is very important if you want students to use the service).  My students and I regularly shared ideas about physics, and links to YouTube videos that were either useful for learning physics, or demonstrated the amazing applications of physics.  After providing my students with some additional practice questions in class, I logged in to see this:

edmodo post 1

Followed the next day by this:

edmodo post 2

Here is what stuck out most to me:

  1. These posts collectively had 165 replies, and most of the replies were substantial contributions.
  2. The initial posts were not a call for help, but an offer of service.
  3. These students were engaged in discussing mathematical problems on a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evening.

Compare this with my students in years previous, who were likely sitting at home, working alone on problems, and probably getting frustrated and giving up.  These days, even if the teacher does not provide an online space for collaboration, students will often create their own because they know how much better they can learn when the connect with others.

Ultimately, the key take-away for me was that students want to learn together, and that digital learning spaces can really help to facilitate that sharing.  Even when learning a subject that is as abstract as math, online spaces permit students to discuss concepts, share what they are learning, and ask for help.  Blended learning environments are becoming essential for digital learners in the 21st century.


Pick a blog to jump to next.  Happy hopping!

Phil Young

Shivonne Lewis-Young

Jay Wigmore

Don Campbell

Jonathan So

Jason Richea

Tina Zita

Graham Whisen

 

Learning in the 21st Century

This post is part of a #Peel21st community “blog hop” in which participants share their thinking on what learning in the 21st century means to them.  After reading this post, be sure to click the links to others’ posts at the bottom of the page, and make your way through all of the contributors.

Learning in the 21st century has one important focal point for  me:  Learning is (now, more than ever before) a lifelong endeavour.

Alvin Toffler is often quoted as stating, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Although this is technically an adaptation from something that Toffler quoted from Herbert Gerjuoy (noted here), the phrase is nonetheless quite powerful.  Given the rapid rate of change  in our modern world, learning in the 21st century is, then,  the process of learning how to learn, adapt to new paradigms, shift our thinking, and adjust to unforeseen challenges.

Although I feel like there are a thousand more things I want to say to expand and articulate my vision, part of this blog hop challenge was to be brief, so I will leave it there for now.

Image Credit:  ConnectIrmeli

Pick a blog to jump to next!  Happy hopping!

StopMo – #Peel21st Blog Hop

This post is part of a “blog hop” and I am excited about the opportunity to participate.  In this case, a group of educators have decided to post a blog on the same topic at the same time.  This is my first time participating in this type of thing, but I like how it builds a stronger community among bloggers, and I look forward to learning from the other participants.  The focus of this group blogging effort is to explore a educational tech tool.  I have decided to write about an app for creating stop motion videos.  Be sure to link off to the other blog posts at the bottom of this one.

Stop motion has always been something that has captivated me.  I think that my fascination with this form of animation comes from the ability to make impossible motion seem real, because of the careful planning and effort that creators put into their creations, and because it can be just plain fun to watch.

A year ago, a colleague of mine introduced me to the NFB StopMo app, and I immediately saw the value of this tool (and others like it) for education.  As a Science teacher, I am always trying to assess how well my students truly understand some very difficult concepts.  It is one thing for students to be able to recite definitions and equations for certain concepts, but you have to be much more innovative to determine how deep their understanding really goes.  Stop motion is a great way to have students really engage with difficult concepts, and communicate their understanding in a visual way.  Even more than an assessment tool, creating stop motion videos provides a platform for students to work collaboratively and co-construct an understanding of concepts together.  In one of my favourite examples, I worked with a teacher who gave her grade 10 science students a simple task:  produce a stop motion animation of mitosis — use whatever resources you need to understand the process, and whatever materials you want to visualize the process in your animation.  Looking back, I wish I had kept some of the videos, but the results were amazing, and the class was fully engaged for 90 minutes straight.  It was also clear that the students had a thorough understanding of the stages in this important process.

Apps like the NFB StopMo lower the barrier to creative output (something I have blogged about before).  For those of us who lack traditional skills for creative output (fine art, music, drama), these apps provide one avenue for creating content that can actually be very good.  More importantly, with access to an iPad, students and teachers can now create high quality productions that would have been impossible (or extremely expensive) even 10 years ago!

I have used other stop motion apps in the past, but for the purpose of this blog hop, I decided to sit down and tinker with the NFB StopMo app.  I found that the learning curve was incredibly small and the interface was very easy to navigate.  This app costs $2.99, but it is completely worth it!  In only 15 minutes of playing, I was able to produce this masterpiece:

If that video doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will!!

 

Check out the other posts in this Blog Hop here:

Code.or by Erica Armstrong

Puppet Pals by Debbie Axiak

Scratch Jr. by James Cash

Educreations by Matthew Oldridge

IFTTT by Jason Richea

Photo Editor by Aviary by Tina Zita

Pocket by Greg Pearson

Notability by Phil Young

Social Networks are Supposed to Serve Us, Not the Other Way Around

I was having a meeting yesterday with an educator who wanted to get better acquainted with the online social realm and start cultivating a Professional Learning Network.  Of course, we started with Twitter as a cornerstone for building a PLN, though our conversations wandered into Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.  There is no doubt that if you’re just starting to dip your toe into the online world of social networks, it can be pretty overwhelming, and I could sense that somewhat from my colleague.  At the end of our conversation, I wanted her to be perfectly clear on one thing:  Social networks are supposed to serve us, and not the other way around.

While I have made an effort to join many different social networks (mostly to understand what they’re all about), I don’t feel any obligation to participate in networks that don’t serve my needs.  In general, here is where I put my energy:

  • Facebook – Personal connections with friends and family
  • Twitter – Professional connections and learning
  • Google+ – The occasional update, mostly because it’s a place where I can post files publicly that I hope others will find useful (e.g. my creative commons images)

I get why other people fall in love with Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and other networks.  But, no matter how good these other networks are at what they do, they don’t serve my needs enough to warrant much of my time.

This got me thinking about how I promote social networking in education.  Personally, I have had tremendous success with integrating social networks into my classes in the past (Wikis, Ning, Elgg, Edmodo, GAFE, etc.), and I encourage other educators to try it with their classes.  However, I have heard many teachers complain that, “kids don’t use the course wiki/blog/site; they don’t want a Facebook for education!

I have a strong inclination to think that this lack of participation is an issue of relevance:  Your online classroom exists to serve your students, and not the other way around.  So, if you’re kids are not engaged with your site, you may not have adequately answered the question, “what do my students really need this site for?,” and by extension, “how do I redesign my site or my approach to social networking to address that need?”  (Remember, creating a class blog so that you can assess your students’ writing skills serves your immediate needs, not theirs.)

Here are a few questions to consider if you’ve been disappointed with how your students use your class site:

  • Are you holding onto the reins too tightly?  (e.g. “You are required to write two blog posts that connect to our Sound unit by the end of the week.”)
  • Do kids have the freedom to take some ownership in the online space? (e.g. “Sir, I added a section for funny Physics videos!”)
  • Are you empowering leadership? (e.g. “Melissa – will you be in charge of posting a tricky math problem on the class site every Friday?”)
  • What can kids get on your social network that they cant get anywhere else?  (e.g. Hint:  Class community – Students making help videos, posting photos from class, or sharing inside jokes, etc.)

To be clear, I don’t think you should try and compete with Facebook – you cant, and shouldn’t.  Facebook (or whatever kids use) is already serving the social needs of your students.  What you are trying to do is serve the learning needs of your students.  Posting up assignments is a start – the kids definitely need to have those.  But cultivating a community online that is focused on learning will serve the other needs of your kids:  the need to feel connected to others in learning, the need to have a voice in learning, the need to laugh and have fun while learning, and the need to ask questions and get support while learning.  This is what will make your social network relevant to your students.

Photo Credit:  Tanja Scherm

Another Look At Engagement

 

“Engagement” is one of those things in education for which teachers often have different perspectives on how important it is.  On one hand, there is the sense that without engagement, there is no meaningful learning happening (which is probably true).  On the other hand, there are many who argue that “fun” is definitely engaging, but that having fun does not necessarily imply learning (also true).  Ultimately I think that all educators want the same thing: to maximize learning.

The way I am currently seeing it, there are a variety of elements to engagement that will facilitate greater learning.  I discuss each one below, starting from the aspects that I think have the highest impact on learning:

Meaningful and Relevant

Completing tasks that students see as meaningful and relevant will produce the greatest foundation for engagement.  In this state, the learning becomes self-directed and inwardly motivated.  Students are learning about something that they think will benefit them (beyond getting them a good grade), or that they are personally invested in.  In the best case scenario, the task will also benefit others.  Clay Shirky talks about participating in projects that are of communal value (useful to a community of peers – e.g. your class, or school) or of civic value (useful to society at large).  From this perspective, teachers can ask themselves, “is the world (or our city/school/class) a better place from the investment of time that my students put into this assignment?”

Purposeful

The idea of making lessons and assignments purposeful has a strong relationship to being meaningful and relevant.  But even if we scale back the picture a little bit (after all, not every lesson or assignment can change the world), it is still very useful to focus on how what you are doing right now relates to what students will be doing in the future.  In other words, do students understand how this lesson/activity/discussion/quiz/work period is part of the larger “roadmap” of the unit and course?  If not, they are likely to see their investment of time as busy-work.  I think it is often the case that, though the teacher has a clear understanding of the big picture, they often fail to articulate the process well enough for students to become invested.  Better yet, can your students help you create the roadmap?

Social

Long ago, Vygotsky brought clarity to the idea that learning is a social experience, steeped in cultural and institutional contexts.  Since then, the amazing research that has been done on Cooperative Learning reinforces the idea that we learn better when we talk and interact with others.  In my experience, if you want engagement, you have to learn how to effectively implement cooperative learning strategies (which takes time and practice – a journey I am actively on).  When students have meaningful conversations with each other, they will be engaged, and they will be learning.

Fun

If nothing else, try to engage students with fun.  “Fun” does not have to mean playing games, though “gamification in education” is probably something worth giving some attention to, as it goes far beyond creating “Jeopardy review” games.  Fun can also mean telling stories, drawing/animating, building things (or breaking things), moving around, acting out, and exercising creativity in general.  As teachers we all know there is content that just needs to be covered because it is important to the broader body of knowledge in a subject. If you can’t find a way to make the content meaningful, relevant, purposeful, or social … at least try to make it fun.

 

Ultimately, engaging classrooms are not built on only one of the elements above, but incorporate many (or all) of them at different times and to different levels of use.  It’s also important to remember that students understand that not every lesson, activity, or assignment is going to be unbelievably engaging.  The problem is when your default state is, “I know it’s boring, but you have to do it anyway.” Students will let you get away with that to some degree, but too much of it and they will turn their brains off at the door … so you can throw the learning out the window!

Image credit:  mikhoohkim

What Stops Some Teachers From Moving Forward?

In my new role as an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, I have the opportunity to meet many teachers from all across the school board. In only the first two weeks, I have met some amazing educators who are really pushing the envelope of what classroom teaching can look like. Obviously though, not all teachers are moving forward at the same pace.

As I was driving home the other day, I was trying to understand what it is that stops some teachers from moving forward. From my perspective, there are three reasons that teachers may be resisting productive change:

1. They don’t believe the THEORY

In other words, these people have not been sufficiently convinced that moving forward in one direction is the right thing to do. A simple example from assessment and evaluation is one that has been around for at least 10 years (since I started teaching). It is the concept that assigning zeros to a student who has not submitted an assignment is generally bad assessment. Although there is a lot of great research and many case studies to clearly indicate that using zeros is more harmful to learning than it is helpful, many teachers simply reject the notion outright. It is their conviction, regardless of what research shows, that assigning zeros to students is a good motivator.

So, if a teacher doesn’t believe the theory, they will not change.

2. They believe the theory, but they don’t think it will work in PRACTICE

This group of teachers understands the theory and even agrees that it works in a philosophical sense, but believes that the theory does not apply to them in their school. For example, a teacher may feel that assigning zeros is a bad idea in general, but that it is necessary for the type of students he has.

So, if teachers don’t believe the theory will work for them, they will not change.

3. They just don’t WANT to change

This category is simple enough – change is hard work, and sometimes (for any number of reasons, sometimes good ones) people just don’t want to change what they’re doing.

If you have a problem with number 1, then you probably need to do more reading/learning. The research is out there. Assessment, classroom community, literacy, numeracy, technology, instruction, leadership, brain science, and on, and on – these are areas of teaching and learning that are either highly developed, or becoming more refined each year. MORAL: If you resist change because of number 1, you have more work to do.

If you have a problem with number 2, then you probably need to talk to the people who are actually making it work. I have always enjoyed the quote by Elbert Hubbard, “the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.” The reality is that many teachers are having tremendous success in all areas of teaching and learning. MORAL: If you resist change because of number 2, you have more work to do.

It is my fear that most resistance to change is actually because of number 3, though teachers likely convince themselves they don’t change because of numbers 1 and 2. Moving forward in education is as much a personal journey as it is a professional one.

Photo credit: KimManleyOrt

Excitement is Building

The eve of another school year is an exciting time.  As a classroom teacher, and edtech enthusiast, I always have big plans and new ideas for how I am going to develop my teaching strategies and classroom practices.  This year is a bit strange for me because it is the first time in 8 years that I am not returning to the classroom in September.  Instead, I will be starting in my new role as an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, and will likely spend my first week in meetings and professional development.  Although different school boards use various terms for this type of position, the mandate of the job is simply to work with classroom teachers (and schools in general) to build the capacity of teachers with the use of instructional technology.  In practice, this could mean anything from helping a teacher get acquainted with a particular tool (such as a Smart Board, document camera, etc.) through to helping teachers redevelop their assessments to engage and empower 21st century students.

If you have read my blog before you will likely know that the ITRT position is very well suited to my interests in education, technology, and leadership.  But, what makes this job so exciting for me is that I feel lucky to be transitioning into this leadership role at an amazing time.  There is an enthusiasm building in my school board, and teachers are embracing the concepts of 21st century classrooms now more than ever before.

Last week, I was a conference put on by the Peel Board called Teaching and Learning in a Digital World (#TLDWpeel).  The amazing thing was that the organizers were planning for 350 attendees, and over 600 teachers came!  I have been to many edtech-y conferences over the years, but this one had a different energy in the air, and there was an enthusiasm that many people commented on.  I believe that energy came from the fact that the attendees were not “edtech enthusiasts”, but were teachers who have slowly been recognizing that an evolution is taking place, and they want to be a part of that change.

The conference reminded me of the Technology Adoption Cycle shown here from Wikipedia:

While it may still be too early to tell, I believe we are at the beginning to see the wave of the “early majority” rising up.  And for me, in my new role, that is very exciting!

Thinking about this blog post, I went online to watch this fun video from a few years back:

Watching the video I was reminded about the risk-taking involved in being an innovator/leader, and the important role of the early adopters who give credibility to the leader’s vision.  But, what really stuck out to me this time was seeing the enthusiasm of the early majority as they run into the scene to be part of the action.

Now, if we can only get a room full of teachers to dance around like this … that would be something!

Image credit Jim Renaud

Limits on Creativity

Creating something new is challenging.

The way I see it, there are two major obstacles to “creating.”  The first is having creativity – you actually have to think creatively to create!  The second is skill – you need certain skills to go from an idea to a product.  For example, if I wanted to draw a picture, I need to be able to envision what I want to draw in my mind (creativity), and then I need to have drawing ability to actually produce the work (skill).  The same can be said for producing music, or writing a short story, or landscaping your backyard, or designing and building a shed, or preparing a delicious meal.  Each of these examples requires having creativity and skill.

I have often felt that I have a desire to be creative but lack the skills to actually produce quality work.  Recently it occurred to me that technology has improved my ability to create because it lowers the barrier on skill.  Technology makes creation more accessible.  For example,  with only a rudimentary level of skill in digital photography, my DSLR camera helps me take (some) great photos.  In addition, programs like Adobe Photoshop, and Lightroom have allowed  me to turn great photos into stunning images that I am incredibly proud to share with friends.  These technologies help me to produce a level of quality that I never could have attained with my limited skills.

Over the past 2 years, I have been thinking a lot about fostering the creativity of my students.  I continue to look for opportunities for students to be creative in my lessons and assignments.  Since technology lowers the barrier to creativity, it has often been the conduit through which my students express themselves.  For example, I have had great success with student blogging, film making, and designing infographics.  My students have started poking fun at me saying,

“Sir, none of our other teachers have ever used the word ‘infographic’, and you say it at least twice a week!”

These days, I am excited to explore  more low-tech forms of creativity in my classes (such as creative writing and drawing).  Sunni Brown gave a great 5 minute TED talk called, “Doodlers, unite!”  In it, she explains the benefits of doodling for brain processing.  I found the talk inspiring  and I am already making plans to incorporate doodling into my Physics lessons on a regular basis this coming semester.  My hope is that doodling encourages a deeper (or more concrete) understanding of concepts in Physics.  And, as a bonus, I might be able reuse some of their cartoon gems to teach concepts to future classes!

Photo Credit: Kim Petersen

Getting Kids Excited About Books

The post that follows is a guest blog from Elaine Hirsch.  Elaine is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and videogames.  This makes it difficult for her to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead.

I was happy to see the topic that Elaine chose because I think that it is a nice compliment to the last post I wrote about how I struggle reading books in an era of blogs, twitter, and TED talks. Elaine offers some insight into the value of having kids become avid readers, and offers some suggestions of how to encourage them to read. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.


In an era of unprecedented access to digital texts, it’s becoming less and less common for young people to actively engage in reading books. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Books require a level of attention and long-term commitment absent among the growing variety of digital media sources such as Facebook, online schools (including even PhD programs) and the Blogosphere. While this is perhaps the greatest benefit of the book as an literary medium, it is also one of the factors contributing to young people’s aversion to them.

Easy access to internet-based text media has created both an explosion of access to information and a convenient way for people to distract themselves from information they are not necessarily interested in. This fact, coupled with the unfortunate truth that the American school system has consistently undervalued literacy in its educational focus, has led many young people to completely abandon recreational book reading in favor using text for online social interaction with peers. It’s not hopeless, however, to get young people to read books, and the benefits for doing so are immense.

According to Kim Medaris of Purdue University, children who read books recreationally display superior writing skills. Greater writing ability leads children to higher achievement academically, and professionally later in life. The question we must ask is: what is the most effective way to interest children in books?

Introducing books to children in their earlier years can be extraordinarily important and not terribly difficult. Before children achieve basic literacy, it’s a huge benefit to read to them whenever possible. Children are masters at learning by imitation, and if you read aloud to them on a regular basis it will encourage them to follow your example. It is also greatly advantageous to acquaint children with libraries at an early age. With a library card, books are one of the few sources of absolutely free entertainment, and this can help encourage children to continue reading later in life.

Some libraries have had success organizing children’s book clubs, and these can provide a fun environment where children not only develop literacy but also socialize with peers. another important factor in developing a child’s interest in reading is simply having books around the house. Books can inspire curiosity in young children, and even before they can read there are great benefits to exposing children to the look and feel of books. After literacy has been developed, however, the strategies for keeping children hooked and reading change from merely encouraging learning how to read to encouraging children to find reading exciting and stimulating.

Getting children hooked on popular book series has proven very successful in the past. Young readers develop relationships with characters as the series progress that lead them to be more interested and keep them reading further. As children’s reading skills improve this will lead them to explore other, more challenging books to seek ongoing literary satisfaction. Like any skill, literacy becomes stronger with practice and continuing to read opens access to successively more rich and valuable texts. Knowing this, it is certainly not impossible to elevate a child’s comprehension from Harry Potter to Hamlet over the course of a few years.

Ultimately, however, the decision of whether to become an active book reader lies with the children themselves. It is the responsibility of parents and communities to develop environments where reading books is encouraged and rewarded. If good reading habits are instilled in children early on, particularly in a sociable and fun way, it will be nearly impossible to stop them from becoming engaged readers for the rest of their lives.

Image Credit:  ooh_food

High Scores

When I log into my school board email system I am presented with a news feed that is received by all the teachers in the district.  Usually there are short stories about the accomplishments of different students/teachers in the board.  A few weeks ago I saw a “news release” that told about two students in our board who graduated high school this year with an average of 100% (based on their best 6 grade 12 courses).

100%?!?!

What kind of assessments are these students exposed to such that they are able to score 100% on EVERYTHING?!

I can see how it may be possible for a student to demonstrate all of the knowledge requirements in a course, but as teachers we are responsible for far more than knowledge-based assessments.  I can only assume that if a student can finish with 100% in all her courses, then there has definitely been an over-emphasis on traditional tests and projects.  This is disappointing to me.

As teachers in the 21st century we need to create engaging learning environments where students are challenged to be critical and creative thinkers.  We need to develop assignments that encourage students to be resourceful and self-directed.  We need to provide opportunity for students to have meaningful collaboration and teamwork.  And we need to be aware that we are preparing our students for a world where the problems that need to be solved don’t fit on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, nor will they be solved with “test taking skills.”

Over the past few years, I have been trying to make the following changes to my classroom:

  1. Students learn from each other as much as possible.  Nurturing a classroom community is very important.
  2. Developing assignments that absolutely cannot be completed by copy/paste, memorization or “cramming.”
  3. Creating some projects that are broad in scope to allow students to “make it their own” in meaningful ways.

Personally, I think that the tradition of publishing the names of the students who have achieved the highest overall average in the board is an obsolete practice.  It comes from an era in which marks were emphasized above all else and the marks were based on old-school assessment practices like traditional tests, quizzes and homework checks.

In today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world, achieving high marks in high school will only be one predictor of future success – and not the best one by far!  Instead, look for students who are intrinsically motivated, who are creative thinkers, who are self-directed learners, and who are able to build and maintain personal learning networks.  These are now (and have always been) better indicators of future success than a student’s graduating average.

Image Credit:  clspeace