Mystery Breeds Intrigue


This past November, I gave a presentation at the Science Teacher’s Association of Ontario annual conference.  The presentation was called, Social Networking in Science Education:  Learning Beyond the Classroom.

In the presentation, I tried to make the case that our students are, in many ways, different than the generations of teenagers who came before them – primarily because of the world in which they have grown up.  Furthermore, that recognizing exactly how students are different must inform our teaching practice if we are to remain relevant to students in the 21st century.

One of the ways that I have been expanding my ability to reach students has been with the use of social networking sites in my classes (like Ning, Edmodo, and  There is no doubt in my mind that social networking has been a phenomenal success with my students and I continue to be excited about using this tool to break down the walls of my classroom.

The following was the printed description of the presentation at STAO:

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized the way that people interact online.  This presentation will discuss how teachers can leverage social networking technology within their classrooms to improve student engagement and extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom.  The presentation will demonstrate how to use many different free online services to create moderated social networks that uphold student privacy and maintain safety.

Previously, at the 2009 STAO conference, I delivered a presentation called Wikis in Science Education.  The turnout was wonderful – 45 attendees, who filled every seat in the room.  Going to this year’s STAO conference, I expected a similar turnout.  After all, everyone knows what social networking is and I thought that my description would have been perfectly clear and unambiguous.

As it turns out, only 8 people came.

I still feel the presentation was a wonderful success and the small number created a very intimate sphere (of which I was very thankful considering it was my first time giving this talk.)  In fact, because of the small group, we were able to have much more discussion and audience participation, which I think brought a more personal element.

Reflecting back, I have wondered what made the difference in attendance from one year to the next.  I would have thought that if “wikis” could draw a crowd, then certainly “social networking” would be an even bigger pull.

Then it dawned on me – teachers may already think they know what social networking is all about!  Moreover, many teachers hold the belief that social networking is the opposite of what their class needs.  After all, Facebook consumes the attention of our students, drawing them away from good ol’ fashioned learning!  A teacher might only read the title of my presentation before deciding that they already know everything they need to know about the presentation.

Yet, few teachers really know what a wiki is.  That word is still novel in the world of education, and because it is a little bit mysterious, it develops intrigue.  I think that when I prepare presentations in the future, I will be more careful in the wording of the title and description – specific enough so as not to mislead, yet elusive enough to generate interest.  Of course, this idea is just a working hypothesis.  It is entirely possible that my wiki presentation in 2009 sucked so badly that no one wanted to hear me talk again in 2010!

I am lucky enough to have opportunity to deliver the social networking presentation again in May at the conference for the Ontario Association of Physics Teachers.  This gives me an opportunity to test my hypothesis.  Any suggestions for a new title and description that would develop more mystery and intrigue?

Image Credit:  turboalieno

Small Successes

Although I am a strong advocate for the use of instructional technology, I have never been a proponent of “technology for technology sake.”  In actual fact, my approach to education has little to do with technology and much more to do with creating 21st century learning environments that will prepare our students for a world that is rapidly changing.  Of course, technology is one component of creating these types of learning environments, but not the most important part.  Instead, we need to help teachers think differently about what “their job” is, and help student think differently about what “school” is.

The past few weeks I have had a few interactions that have made me believe that positive changes are happening in the world of education.  I wanted to share these success stories with you.

My Grade 10 Applied Science class has 22 really nice kids.  Generally speaking, they are not excited about Science, but I do my best to make it interesting and engaging for them, and we usually have a pretty good time.  I have always worked hard to model for my students an appropriate use of technology.  I am probably one of the few teachers in my school who does not have a “NO CELL PHONES” policy – Instead I have an “APPROPRIATE USE” policy.  At the beginning of each year it sometimes feels like I have opened Pandora’s box because I am constantly having to manage students’ use of their cell phones.  It takes many focussed conversations and a lot of modeling, but eventually students start to “get it” and I don’t have to work so hard any more.  This Monday, my Grade 10 class really got it and it was so cool to see.

Students were doing some reading in small groups about the different ecozones on Earth.  One of the short articles made reference to flying squirrels and one of my students asked me what they were.  I tried to explain it but I knew that a picture would communicate the concept much better so I pulled out my phone and Googled it.  They thought that was pretty great (and that flying squirrels are pretty creepy).

Ten minutes later I overheard Jas say, “what does epiphytic mean?”  It wasn’t 30 seconds after when I heard Nicole reply, “It’s a plant that can grow on another plant.”  I was completely caught off guard (mostly because even I don’t know what epiphytic means!).  When I asked Nicole how she knew the definition, she said, “Sir, I just looked it up on my phone,” as if I had just asked her a mundane question like what she ate for lunch.  I got so excited that I called everyone’s attention to praise Nicole publicly and reinforce her decision to use her cell phone in an appropriate way for our classroom.

Of course I expect that my students will still make poor choices about their cell phones from time to time, but I believe the message is getting through and that is a success story worth sharing!

Other success stories came from a few teachers at my school who recently attended the OSSTF Toys and Tools:  Technology in Education conference with me.  I was pleased to hear that they enjoyed the conference and have been trying some new “tech”-niques.  Some teachers from our Social Science department were inspired by Danika Barker’s presentation at the conference to start their own social network using Ning.  When I was talking to these teachers, they were excitedly telling me how the social network has already become an enriching experience for their students because …

“students are learning and sharing outside of the classroom, any time they want”
“students are learning from each other”
“students are making deeper connections”

It was like music to my ears!

Also in the past few weeks, I have had many teachers come by my office to tell me how they have been using web 2.0 tools in their classes:  PollEverywhere to facilitate a unit review, Voicethread to facilitate online discussions, MixedInk to practice writing lab reports, and the list goes on!

As a teacher who endorses the vision for 21st century learning environments, it can sometimes feel like we are very far away from reaching that goal.  However, a significant shift will take time and it is important to step back and recognize the small successes along the way.  These small successes give me a lot of hope for the future of teaching and learning.  If you have a success story to share, please tell us about it in the comments.

Image Credit:

Cell Phone – Mykl Roventine

Flying Squirrel – nikoretro

Learning Environments

IMG00035-20100513-0950When I first started teaching, I used to get more frustrated with my students.  I remember feeling that the only time they took learning seriously was when I would stand at the front of the room and deliver a note.  If I asked them to participate in an activity that required any self-regulation, such as a lab investigation, my students would always get off task.

I have learned to stop blaming my students.

I came to understand that my students didn’t take my activities seriously because I didn’t take the activities seriously! Unintentionally, I would undermine their commitment to each task by the simple fact that, in my mind, I believed the tasks represented “bonus learning” – that the activities were auxiliary to a lecture/note.  For example, I would deliver the content as a lecture and then ask the students to “investigate” the content in a lab.  Or, I would ask students to debate an issue and then lecture them about the pros and cons in the lesson the next day.  I was undermining each activity because the students quickly came to know that the activity was not as important as the note that came before or after.  It was easy for students to think, “why should I learn something on my own if Mr. Whisen is going to tell me what I need to know afterwards anyway?”

A couple of years ago I realized that I needed to change my approach.  It is now clear in my mind that the activity is not auxiliary to the lesson, the activity IS the lesson!

To help clarify this change in approach for my students, I decided to outline explicitly the different types of “learning environments” in which they will be actively engaged throughout the course.  I even created simple icons to capture the essence of each learning environment.  There are 5 in my mind:

1. Direct Instruction

  • lessons, demonstrations

2. Independent/Reflection

  • homework/problem sets, independent reading, reflective writing

3. Class Activity

  • labs, debates, discussions

4. Tutorial Groups

  • small group discussions, projects, cooperative learning strategies

5. Social Network

  • blogging, forums, photo/video sharing, social bookmarking, wikis

Instruction Independent-Reflection Classroom Activity

Tribes clean Social Network

I believe that re-framing the way I understand “learning environments” has had a profound impact on the level of engagement in my classroom and it has improved student learning.  However, it was not as simple as just telling the students about the different types of learning environments.  It’s one thing to say that an activity “IS the lesson,” but it’s much more difficult to create an activity that can truly be considered a standalone instructional piece.  It takes careful scaffolding and a balance between being too challenging (that they give up) and too easy (that they become disengaged.)  Accordingly, I have been slowly building up a repository of standalone learning activities, but it takes time.

Students need to know why they are being asked to do something.  I have learned that by emphasizing all of the different ways that students will be expected to learn, they begin to see each activity as important.  In order to communicate my learning expectations to students, I put a far greater emphasis on #2, 3, and 4 in the first few weeks of classes.  I think this helps to get the class off on the right foot.