Finding a great, current leadership and technology oriented blog is like Finding Carter [the TV series]

Finding a great, current leadership and technology oriented blog is like Finding Carter [the TV series]. The balance between where we are now and the way we were brought up creates episodes of drama. Blogmaster and educational technology expert Scott McLeod, with his blog titled Dangerously Irrelevant hits his readership with a constant barrage of repent-from-your-old-ways messages, which are difficult to palate, but are also the wake-up calls we all, collectively, need to hear. Change is hard. As McLeod points out in his About Me link, the point of his blog is to make a strong effort to resolve inherent incongruities educators experience when technological and social change makes traditional approaches to learning “dangerously irrelevant.” So then, how will we meet our children’s’ learning needs?

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The way I see it, educators are not recognizing Jovans Paradox on a large enough scale. It is the paradox educators need to understand and believe in order to share the full-front embrace educational technology deserves, but slowly, with the help of educational leaders like McCleod, teachers and administrators are figuring it out. In economics, Jovans Paradox is when technological progress increases the efficiency of a resource which, in turn, reduces resource needs. Educators understand that part. Technology is making the information teachers have portioned out over the ages ready and available, but the paradox is that with the increase of knowledge availability and decreased need for teacher-lead knowledge rations, the demand for knowledge has increased, and therefore, the need for teachers as facilitators and guides has dramatically increased. That is what makes traditional approaches to teaching incongruent in today’s society and economy. The paradox is that students need teachers more than ever, but in a new way.
Tech lead Kent Beck, in his book, Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change, said, “The business changes. The technology changes. The team changes. The team members change. The problem isn’t change, per se, because change is going to happen; the problem, rather, is the inability to cope with change when it comes.”
Coping means more than finding and understanding the cause of our dramatic episodes with technology in education. Coping means applying strategies to change ourselves, and that is why Scott McLeod is pushing so hard. Change is the only relevant way to make a positive difference in education today.
Beck, K. (2005). Extreme programming explained: embrace change (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River,NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
McLeod, S. (n.d.). About me [Web log comment]. Retrieved fromhttp://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/bio

Five Lessons I Intend my Students to Learn

Decisions Ahead

As my students begin to see the summer light at the end of the hallway, I think about the set useful experiences they will carry from my classroom as they matriculate away in June. Beyond knowing the content of the fourth grade NC Standard Course of Study, I intend my students to have embedded habits that will give them the learning-independence they need to meet with confidence the coming challenges of school and beyond, or at least the seeds of those habits.
First, I expect my students will assume responsibility for their own education.
Second, I expect my students will maintain comfort in the midst of uncertainty.
Third, I expect my students will thrive on metaphorical expression.
Fourth, I expect my students will differentiate academic language from basic interpersonal communication,
and fifth, I expect my students will have a sense of when and how to negotiate, that is, yes, how to argue.

Self-regulated learners distinguish themselves with a unique set of assumptions. I work to get my students to embrace these assumptions. When my students do well, they think they had something to do with the results, which encourages them to repeat such actions. When things go awry, they believe the associated problems are correctable, and they are encouraged to fix what missed the mark. In class, praise for things done well are easily expressed. I believe that limited praise and false praise deter upward progress. I make it clear to my students that they have not been successful by accident. This may seem trivial, but I believe it is important for them to know that success is linked to their action. Self-regulated learners take responsibility for their education. The work of Barry J. Zimmerman and Dale H. Schunk goes into greater detail about self-regulated learning.

When kids get confused, they initially tend to think that being a little bit lost means being greatly lost, but instead, that disequilibrium is the very point in time when they learn. Thoughts of self at that point distract, so I encourage my students to stay focused on the topic and not on themselves. It is a difficult skill for classmates to avoid saying, “You are wrong,” instead of, “I think the solution is more like this.” Fear of focus on being wrong deters upward progress. Feeling safe to be wrong leads to comfort with uncertainty.

When I shared the first sentence of this blog entry with my fourth graders, they understood that summer light means summer fun. We all need to use abstract metaphors to think and to express our thoughts effectively, so providing plenty of opportunities to cipher them is an important and welcome challenge. It is a pleasure to watch while one student explains to another what just happened in the class discussion.

Too often students learn vocabulary in isolation by simply knowing a definition that does not strike a melodious chord in context. I try to use comprehensible input, as Stephen Krashen has explained for second language acquisition. (See this clip for Krashen’s explanation of comprehensible input) Helping students use academic language instead of interpersonal strategies parallels the way they learn second languages. Mathematics has its own language students need to acquire. Instead of vague descriptions and smiles, I encourage my students to use the correct words for the concepts they mean to express.

Students need the skills and experience of presenting themselves and their own ideas beyond doing what they are told to do. They need the means to come to terms with things that are important. Once students take responsibility for their own learning, they take a serious interest in what they are learning. They develop depth of interest that gives them the will to weather uncertainty. Curious metaphorical connections interest them, and they care to explain their thoughts well using the right words. Any student ready to do all that will certainly need to negotiate meaning, and to negotiate direction. Once my students have begun to separate and wield academic language effectively, they are ready to use interpersonal communication to express their point of view. They know to present themselves calmly, and that “I don’t want to…” holds very little argumentative weight.

It is great to know stuff, especially standard course of study stuff, but when students make the knowledge their own, they begin to see all things in a new light, and then go there.
I look forward to your input and comments.

Free Range Students Make Better Choices

Bulletin Board fourth grade students created to promote exploration, but not exploration that goes too far.

Bulletin Board fourth grade students created to promote exploration, but not exploration that goes too far.

I shared a notion with my fourth grade class last semester. It occurred to me that free range chickens are very good at what they do because free range chickens cooperate well, and live a good life, short as it is, as they scratch and explore about. I pointed out to my class that free range chickens are not contained by a fence, and yet, generally speaking, they do not run off. It is a curious thing. I added the fact that not all chickens get to be free range. Some farmers maintain their chickens very tightly. Some farmers bound their chickens within small areas,and control their experience.

I told my class that I like to be able to act more like the free range chicken farmers. I like to give my students the liberty to explore, but that requires them to be ready to stay on relevant topics, and to make reasonable choices, and to not get lured away by things frivolous, silly, or social, and to make safe choices even when I am there to supervise. The trick, I told my class, is to get this group of fourth graders to use exploration as a problem solving skill. Of course, sometimes frivolous and silly ideas help the problem solving process, but the successful free range skill is to not get carried away by those ideas.

So, driven to thought by this whole comparison thing, my fourth grade students decided, and asked, to make a bulletin board (posted above) to express their need to go out and explore,along with their need to not get carried away. They came up with the slogan/ mantra/ bulletin board title: Be Free Range, but Not TOO Free Range. Each student created him or herself as a free range chicken, and each likeness was set in the scene with two barns and a path. Not all the chickens were placed on the path, but they were all nearby.

I had to point out to the class that the beauty of this comparison of students to chickens works well because students and chickens are so different in so many significant ways. That is what makes the overlap clear. My students are learning that, given lateral opportunity to figure things out, there is an inherent reward that comes with staying purposeful when traditional restraints, and the expectation of traditional restraints are loosened.

Validity and Reliability of Testing

If all students started doing really well on the standardized tests, the tests would probably be considered less valid and therefore, less reliable. Test creators would be forced to change the test so that a bell curve would reemerge. I recognize that standardized testing success does not demonstrate a complete expression of learning, and that the act of answering multiple choice questions well is not an enduring life skill, but since the tests reflect the content, the tests do provide enough feedback to create an academic passage. Although students are required to go through the standardized testing process, they move on from the tests whether they do well on them or not.

Students must display a degree of creative application to demonstrate learning in all topics that are more than training, and it is difficult to assign statistical results to creative application. So the portions of the content that standardized tests evaluate so well with high validity and reliability are an incomplete assessment of the student’s learning. Teachers can use strategies to make their formative classroom assessments reasonably valid and reliable, but the narrative of learning looses value in a straight-jacket. Well crafted rubrics serve as the best attempt to make each student’s unique application to the content valid and reliable. While valuable to a point, standardized tests need to be viewed in concert with data that captures more authentic manipulation of the content that is not as easily numerated.

Keeping Students on Their Metaphorical Toes

Here is a comment I made to Ben Johnson’s blog  titled, College Readiness: How to Help Students Think Abstractly

Half the fun of learning and teaching is to crisscross bridges from the concrete to the abstract and back. We do it all the time. For example, in my latest post <sdodd.edublogs.org> I share the way I physically float papers to students as a way to get them to consider the abstract concept of, “Think before you speak.” Students delight in figuring out and learning metaphors such as, “The rub is….” Puns, too, help students think. (Of course, all my students know that the arguable reason cows have bells around their necks is because their horns don’t work.) Also, morphing common sayings such as, “Speak now, or forever hold you nose,” and at the end of the day announcing to the class, “Chair up! Be happy!” are ways to play with images through words. Metaphors, puns, and saying surprising, catchy statements keep students on their mental toes and engaged with the notion of, ” What will happen next?”

Teaching Moments

I teach moments, and I float papers to students to do so.

From day-one of the school year, whenever I distribute paper to individual students in class, the students reach out to receive the pages and I give the paper a slight, early push. The paper glides for a moment into each student’s hand. For a while those floating moments go unnoticed, until one day, one of the students will glance up in recognition and delight in the moment we just shared between the giving and the taking of the paper. Other students soon notice, too. Eventually one of the students will say, “Why do you do that, Mr. Dodd?” and at that point I have earned the opportunity to explain.

I tell my students about my high school classmate, Bert Raddock, who taught me the notion, “If you can’t think big, think fast,” which I get them to agree is good advice-especially the “think fast” part. Then I go on to explain to my inquiring students that I float the papers to them to give them a concrete example of hidden moments they really need to use. “In fact,” I tell them, “even if I did not float the papers, there would still be a moment between the giving and the taking of the paper, and the same moment is there when you talk.”

Now here is the point. The students need to identify and learn to exploit that moment between the instant they think of something to say and instant they decide to say it or not. There is always time in there to think and make a decision. Using that “floating”moment of thought takes practice because it is an elusive moment for young minds to recognize, but the paper makes it real. Even some of my second graders get the idea. My fifth graders begin to perfect it.

Once we have had the floating moment discussion in class, I tell them that I do not need to float papers any more, but they usually convince me to continue the float, and I am glad, because it is fun to do, and it reinforces the point they need to remember: Think before you speak.

 

The Two Great Things to Know about Magic Wands


I found myself, along with my family, sightseeing through the mountains of North Carolina last fall. We stopped and wandered into a local art store. With 150 artists represented inside, I looked around and thought to myself, “A better name for this place would be, ‘Hell, I Could Make That!’” My only interest there was to get some ideas that I might use to build into a classroom lesson sometime. To my surprise, though, I encountered a small, sand-filled barrel with ceramic stars on sticks arranged like a flowers. They were, “magic wands,” and the stars that stood out to me were the ones that said, “Poof! You’re a Genius!”

Without hesitation, I knew I was willing to pay the $20+ price tag for one of the magic wands, but I wasn’t exactly sure why. I knew there was something about it I needed to explore beyond the little ceramic heart attached to the bottom end of the stick. With the magic wand inside a fancy bag in my hand, I queried myself about the relevance of my purchase as we returned to the car and continued to drive the mountain roads.

At first I thought I landed a joke, which I am confident was the artist’s intent. To extend the joke I was going to make a Plexiglas-fronted box to place in a strategic place in my classroom with the wand visible and the words, “Brake glass in case of emergency.” We have all harbored the notion that if we had at least a little more brain power we could solve our problems. So I planned the construction of the box.

Later, I got to thinking more about my plan. I began to consider the implications of the joke. Suppose a student in class makes a mistake. I might pull out the magic wand and affectionately tap the student on the head and say, “Poof! You’re a Genius! Go and do better.” We would laugh together, I am sure, but what message would I be sending? The joke sends a message to the heart that I do not believe I am willing to express. The joke is that the person is not good enough in a way that only magic can change. Since it is a joke, we both would know the magic would not work. So with a tap I would have told the student that he or she was not good enough simply for the sake of a laugh. The real message would be that there is nothing the student could do in difficult situations. I was beginning to regret my purchase.

But there was still something about the wand that attracted me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was underestimating the pervasive wish we all have to be endowed with better brains, and that is what  I could use to send a different message. I found the relevance of the “Magic Wand!”

Now, I keep the wand in my top file drawer. When things get tough in class and the students feel trapped, unable to successfully solve a problem, I pull the wand out and ask them, “What are the two great things we need to remember about this Magic Wand?” Since they have all seen the wand before, they quickly respond, in chorus with renewed enthusiasm, “It doesn’t work, and we don’t need to be a genius!” Then they go and do better.

New School Mission Statement Ties Purpose to Expected Outcomes

The elementary school where I work has a new Mission Statement. It reads:

“At [CBES] we will be a positive, supportive community focused on helping all children become responsible learners who are well versed in 21st Century Skills, and who are able to express a purposeful attitude of life-long learning by demonstrating consistent improvement of North Carolina Standards.”

The new mission statement makes a connection between the learning community the school wants to be and the accountability it must be responsible to fulfill without making those two efforts synonymous. CBES teaches students to be curious, to pay attention to detail, and to discover new ideas that will stay and serve them with them as they grow.

To some, it may seem as though the school is making a pledge to force students to go to infinity and then beyond, as if solid school-wide standardized testing scores are unattainable, and then to ask for more. Instead, the school’s intent is the other way around. If CBES helps students become thoughtful problem solvers with a useful vocabulary, the students will be able to navigate benchmark probes and End of Grade Tests as one more of life’s problems to solve. This way life-long learning comes first.

Accountability is necessary. The school’s new mission statement reminds the school community to stay on the track of ensuring that each student achieves his/her highest potential. It is a track that passes through successful End of Grade Testing.

Giving Students the Vocabulary They Need to Describe Their Levels of Understanding

While teaching students new information, I recognize their need for a cognitive strategy to help them identify their own level of understanding.  I think this is certainly true when the they are learning verbal information such as lists, and I think similar strategies would benefit the students when they are learning intellectual skills such as concepts  and even motor skills.

I came up the vocabulary to describe four levels of understanding based on degrees of prompting and  fluency. Cleverly, I decided to call the levels, Level One, Two, Three, and Four. Greater understanding is the higher level, but the levels are not directly associated to letter grades or the four-point grading scale. Let me explain.

Level One Understanding means that the student can achieve 100% accuracy of a knowledge set WITH assistance and WITH hesitation. Level Two Understanding means the student can achieve 100% accuracy of a knowledge set WITH assistance but WITHOUT hesitation. Level Three Understanding means the student can achieve 100% accuracy of a knowledge set WITHOUT assistance, but WITH hesitation. Level Four Understanding means the student can achieve 100% accuracy of a knowledge set WITHOUT assistance and WITHOUT hesitation.

After introducing and working with these levels in class, students and I  have come up with a description at each end of the scale for learners above and those below the four basic levels. When students know a poem so well that they can recite it with emotion and meaning, we call that “Level Four-Ahhhh!.” When a student cannot muster correct answers to a reasonable list with a reference aid and with plenty of time, we call that, “Level One- Yeech!”

It is important for each student to know that Level One Understanding of a new list is a normal part of the learning process and not an embarrassment. From my experience, students who are comfortable with the beginning stages of their own learning tend not to advertise their ignorance as they progress. On the other hand, students who are not comfortable with their own learning process tend to make loud, demeaning jokes about the material and/ or themselves which halts their learning process. When my students learn to be comfortable with themselves at Level One, they move to two and three and four more readily.

My students reach Level Two Understanding when they become more familiar with the material. They still need help, but level two offers the students a license to receive help while taking on increasing responsibility.

Students achieve Level Three Understanding when they know material without any help or prompting, but when they still hesitate. Level Three can get a student an A on a test, but in conversation and in practical terms, level three understanding is not really effective because the opportunity to apply the knowledge usually comes and goes quickly which leaves the students with the notion that they knew what they should have said because they staggered to recall information. One of the key elements of this strategy is to get students to recognize the value of their effort to achieve Level Four Understanding.

Therefore, Level Four Understanding is the goal of learning materials for application, and the goal of the students study efforts. Fluent recall of some knowledge sets are used for life. Multiplication facts are one such example. In a future blog I will share the method I use teach math facts that incorporates the Four Levels of Understanding. I created a notebook on it to keep me organized as work with students who progress at different rates and everything. Stay tuned.

Academic Respect in the Classroom

As I work in the  classroom, I seek a vocabulary that will help my students become better learners. One recent word-convention I now share with my class is the phrase, “academic respect.” The practice of shared academic respect gives my students permission from their peers to ignore social pressures and pecking orders that are normally negotiated on the playground and in the lunchroom.

The difference between socializing and academic respect is a shift in focus. When we socialize, our focus is on the people, the players, the human interaction. With academic respect the focus is the concept at hand. With that shift in focus to the concept, the rules change. For instance, when two students discuss a problem together, there is no stipulation that the students are close friends, or that their peers will talk about how the two like each other. They can discuss the topic without the fear and distraction of what others think because the focus is the topic not the people.

Academic respect means social-game-off. During the time of shared study in a room that accepts academic respect, the learning is respected. The social games are simply put on hold. Academic respect is a zone.

During academic times I ask students to be sociable without being social. The students are expected to speak to each other kindly. The skill of listening as a way to hear and learn new ideas from other students replaces the ineffective social habit students have of impatiently waiting for the opportunity to talk. Harry S. Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.

Teaching students to have academic respect in the classroom is a way to develop a culture of learning that does not disregard individual and group differences. Academic respect is a coming together. It is a meeting place over ideas that affords the  possibility of closer ties between unlike individuals once they return to the rules and regulation of the roving pack.