Dec 092012

I tried something a little different this week, just to change things up and get away from all that silly prescribed curriculum nonsense. Just for fun and a little curiosity, I resurrected a problem solving activity I learned back when I was a kid and introduced it to the modern digital classroom. The good old, “balance 12 nails on the head of one” activity.

What inspired me to bring out the old hammer and nails, was that I recently became the last person on earth to read “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. In the Outliers, Gladwell makes reference to a math experiment that Berkley math professor, Alan Schoenfeld, does. It is pretty simple, nothing fancy. Schoenfeld gives the subject a math problem to figure out and then times how long it takes for them to find the solution or give up. In the book, Gladwell uses the example of a nurse named “Rene” who takes 22 minutes to figure out Schoenfeld’s math problem, then Gladwell goes on to explain in great detail why this is significant.

The long and the short of Gladwell’s well taken point, is this… (I paraphrase and take some poetic liberties here) In math, we tend to condition kids to try and figure things out quickly. We view those kids who can come up with the answer quickly, as the ones who are good at math. The ones who are left plodding along and take longer to figure out the problems, are the dullards and relegated to the numeracy dung heap. (1 guess which group I was a part of) In other words, our system rewards speed at the expense of thoughtful processing of the problem at hand.

This got me thinking about how the digital device might be furthering this fast is right conditioning we instill in our children. Just Googling it (as handy as it may be) might be compounding the problem of not taking the time to think things through. Why bother trying to figure out anything if you can just find the answer using your handy-dandy digital device?

But back to the nails… What I wanted to see was just how long it would take for kids to get frustrated with the task and either reach for their digital device for the answer, or give up.

The task is simple. Balance 12 nails on the head of a single nail, I had hammered into a block of wood.

  • I distributed 9 sets of nails to the class, so the kids would have to work in small groups. The idea being, that the problem solving process would be a collaborative.
  • I told the kids NO DIGITAL DEVICES to look for the answer on.
  • The first class I just let work straight on through, the second class, I promised a hint at the 20 minute mark.
  • Within 5 minutes some groups were looking for their device, which I quickly quashed.
  • At the 10 minute mark about 1/4 of the groups had given up but started back up again, at about 20 minutes whether I gave a hint or not.
  • In my first class, one student figured it out at the 45 minute mark and in the second class a pair of students figured it out at the 40 minute mark (with a hint).

The sad thing is, this was probably the best class I had all year. Fortunately I can put a curricularly relevant spin on the whole thing, so when the kids go home and say “Mr. Rispin is the best because we played with nails all class!” I will be able to justify it.

What this whole exercise has proven to me is that, we need to give kids the opportunity and the time to work on problems, whether they be academic or just silly nail hanging like activities, sans digital device. We spend so much time trying to cram curriculum down kids throats, that we forsake the value of thoughtfulness.

What is even more interesting, is that I was asked five times in less than 36 hours after that activity, if we could do that sort of thing again! So I think I am going to make it a Bi Weekly activity. Problem is coming up with the challenges.

May 042012

Well I am back. I have finally summoned enough energy to drag myself off the couch and over to my laptop in an effort to put together a bit of reflection on how last term’s iPad documentary project went. Despite what the title of this post might suggest, everyone is still alive and all in all, the entire project was a complete and unmitigated, fair to middling success. For those of you who prefer ed-speak, I feel all curricular objectives were met but the process by which we came to meet these objectives, is in need of some pedagogical realignment.

For anyone who is just joining us, the iDoc project was a little experiment where I had the kids create a 10 – 15 minute documentary on a teen health issue, using their iPads. At the end of the term, what I received from the kids was 6 documentaries on four different topics.

  • Eating Disorders
  • Gaming Addiction
  • Mental heath and the teen
  • Drug and Alcohol addiction
Since I let the kids choose their topic, I had some duplication but that was fine with me. What I was more concerned about was getting kids vested in a topic so they would have the interest to carry the project through to the end.

The way I set the project up was that all the documentaries were anchored by the research each group did prior to filming. This research was then supplemented with information I provided through direct instruction over the term and finally the students rounded out their information gathering by conducting interviews with students, teachers and “experts” on the topic they were documenting.

Because all the curricular content was still being covered during class time, the documentaries didn’t have to be the means by which the kids learned the content. This allowed the groups to concentrate on the production of the film rather than focusing on “learning” curriculum as they went along. This is not to say the kids were not learning anything but they were able to put their efforts into creating the documentary rather than learning the material.

Although I planned and delivered the curriculum over the course of the term as usual. When it came to producing the documentary, I purposely left the “how to” VERY unstructured. I provided the kids some basic criteria and showed a number of samples of what a documentary looks like but beyond that, it was left up to them. My reasoning for this was that I wanted a baseline. I wanted to see what the kids could create with only a topic, some research and a couple of iPads in hand.

The result was an interesting mix of inspired creativity and brilliance, connected by a fair bit of “WHAT THE ……. Was that?”

I laughed, I cried and frequently said to myself… “I gotta change that for next year!” but when all was said and done. the kids had learned something, I learned something and we all seemed to all have fun.

So what is next? Well from my pedagogical post-mortem, I now have a far better idea of how best to do this sort of thing in the future. I think most of the issues that could be encountered, were reveal and now the only place to go is onward and upward. For more info on how I will go about it… Read on!

The Unseemly Details 

Although most of the items listed below were discussed in class, they were not part of any sort of criteria students HAD to meet. The result is that some or all of these issues appeared in each of the documentaries. For the most part they were small niggly little things but they quickly added up to spoil at least a portion of each of the documentaries.

When using an iPad to film

  • Always film in landscape
  • Make sure your hand isn’t covering the mic
  • Make sure there isn’t much background noise while filming
  • Make sure you are filming just the torso of the person being interviewed
Text Slides
  • Use text slides to transition into new points you are trying to get across to viewers.
  • Text slides need to be timed so people can actually read what they say.
  • Don’t put too much information on a text slide.
  • Maximum length of each video clip should be no more than 2 – 3 minutes
  • Break up your interview clips with a text slide or image supporting what you are discussing
Use of supplemental video
  • Supplemental video should not be the core of your documentary
  • Supplemental video clips should be 15 to 30 seconds maximum
  • GIVE CREDIT to the producers of your supplemental video.

Biggest blunder on my part

One thing I totally dropped the ball on with this project, is that I should of had the groups create a story board before they even started filming anything. Story boarding is a basic precept of film making and leaving it out of the process was a colossal blunder on my part. This would have made the production of the documentaries easier and the end product much more focused.

Solution to all our problems But I can’t manipulate it to do what I want.

While we were working on this project the new iMovie app came out with their fantastic trailer templates which have story board built right into them. When I saw these, I immediately thought this is precisely what we needed for this project. It would be GREAT if I could create a template with which the kids could create their first documentary with. Built right into the template is the story board, transitions, timing … all the things that the kids struggled with in this project, could be easily managed with a template. IF apple ever makes this possible, mini documentaries will be flowing out my classroom door on a weekly basis.

In the end

I am really quite pleased with the results. Although things weren’t perfect and I wasn’t really breaking any “new ground”, as creating videos as a demonstration of learning is not new. What this little project served to do, is prove that using video has become as accessible as creating a power point or a poster board.

What once was a major undertaking has become a daily classroom tool. There are still skills that we need to develop to use it effectively but it is now possible to make video a staple in the classroom.

Final word

It is undeniable that the iPad is a pretty nifty gadget and it will evolve as a teaching and learning tool as time goes by but we must keep reminding ourselves of this single truth. The iPad in and of itself does not necessarily make the process of learning any easier for student or teacher, it just makes it different. Once again, this project has proven to me that there is more to skool then a cool tool.

iDoc Sample

[youtube_sc url=OURRFs0_sEc width=430]

Sep 232011

Well we are three weeks in, our routines are entrenched (kinda), the curriculum is flowing and summer break is a distant memory. This coming week will be our first scheduled check in with all the iPad teachers and I am looking forward to finding out how things are going.

For the most part, it would appear that things are going fairly well. At the very least, when an administrator walks by the classroom, the gentle glow of the iPad shining up on the students faces creates the illusion of engagement. I am not sure that this is what was imagined when the word “enlightened” was coined but somehow it is strangely appropriate.

What I do know for certain is that kids are getting work done and with surprisingly little fuss or muss. To be honest, I envisioned being in a constant battle, keeping kids on task and off Angry Birds but it really isn’t working out that way. Certainly I have kids playing games instead of doing their work but they are isolated incidents and hardly difficult to control. I have far more difficulty in my other classes with kids squandering time on addicting games in a networked computer lab, where I have complete control of each and every computer.

I think the difference is that because the iPad is application based, the ability to transition quickly from classwork to game and back to classwork is clumsy and inefficient. With a computer, this transition is much faster because almost everything is browser based and switching between tabs is quick and seamless. The result is that the iPad student is locked into one task at a time, therefore eliminating the tiring game of catch me if you can.

The biggest issue around distraction comes from getting the kids to listen for instructions and pay attention to what you are doing at the front of the class. As a general rule, when I talk, I like their attention. What I have to do is get the kids to turn the iPad face down on the table or put the cover on but it is astounding how quickly 25% of kids will be back on the device. As Stuart Shanker would say, they have some difficulties with self regulation. I have yet to master how to get the kids to resist the urge to play but I am working on it.

As for how I am distributing curriculum using the iPad? I am using the Edmodo App and for the most part it is pretty magical BUT there is one glaring shortcoming. Students cannot turn in completed work done on the iPad to Edmodo. This is more of a shortcoming of the iPad, as it is the way Apple has created the device but it is a pain in the backside regardless of whose shortcoming it is. I have been reduced to getting kids to email me the assignments but this is messy and time consuming. Kids can still link to an on line document and submit that but then you are defeating the purpose of having Apps like Pages or Keynote. I am investigating options such as Google Docs, Evernote or simply blogging an assignment but in my mind it is defeating the power and the purpose of the iPad and its Apps.

Finally, I had a little bit of a Twitter breakthrough this past week using the iPads, which was really kind of cool. I have used Twitter before to participate in various current events over the past year and I set my classes loose on a our Province’s Administrators during their 2010 BCPVPA conference but I haven’t used it as a question answer medium within a regular class. I have always been a bit hesitant about letting kids loose in this manner but this past week I had the kids fire up questions and observations they had about a documentary we were watching using Twitter and it worked phenomenally well. I find our iPad cohort a pretty tight lipped group but the twitter thread generated some great thoughts and questions which spun into a fantastic post viewing discussion. Twitter served as a fantastic discussion starter and I will definitely be doing this again.

So this is my third week. Nothing earth shattering or shocking to report just steady as she goes. At this point I cannot make any definitive statements about whether iPads are good bad or indifferent, they just are, and only time will tell if they are the panacea of an education system in transition.

Check Out: iPads In the Classroom – Assumptions

Sep 182011

I find it quite interesting when the conversation about education and technology comes up amongst educators. There is usually a variety of opinions on the topic with regard too its value in the classroom along with a broad spectrum of comfort levels in using it, ranging from no way to every day.

Weaving its way through this conversation is the assumption that kids are far more skillful in using technology then their teachers. It is an assumption which creates apprehension in educators and creates a digital divide (real or imagined) between Teacher and Student but it is an assumption that is quite frankly, incorrect.

Certainly there are kids out there who are incredibly proficient in using technology in constructive ways and I have few of my own that amaze me with their ability on a daily basis but for the most part, these individuals are in the minority. The rest of the student body know how to use their digital devices but only for the purpose of consuming digital media. Texting, game playing, video watching, socializing… The majority of these activities are consumptive in nature and by no means denote a “skill” in any way shape or form.

I feel that it is safe to say that the majority of kids are not using technology for any substantive utilitarian purpose. In fact, the majority of people regardless of age, never use technology in a manner which is anything beyond a reactionary relationship between user and device.

This error in assumption is currently being played out in the iPads In The Classroom trail I am involved in. Twenty five students who we assumed would be quick to pick up on or already have the knowledge to be productive in an educational setting, has fallen a tad short of the mark.

This is not to say things are hopeless. We have made some progress in getting things up and running and we have had a really cool twitter driven discussion about academic success but there are still some surprising “gaps in using the apps”.

The most common issues so far involve rudimentary user skills.

  • Linking third party accounts with various apps
  • Sending Email attachments
  • Familiarity with services such as twitter and drop box
  • Attaching links to assignments
  • Saving images from the web
  • Imbedding images to presentations

In addition to not knowing how to do these basic things, frustration amongst the iPad cohort is quick to set in when they can’t get things to work. The past two weeks of this digital immersion experiment has solidified my opinion that assuming that all kids are digital savants is simply wrong.

Educators need to understand that kids (as a whole) are not as well versed with using technology for functional purposes as we might think. We need to teach them the difference between consumption and production on a digital device. In traditional education terms, it is the difference between reading a book and writing a book. Being able to read and understand a message within a text, does not mean that you can write and effectively convey a message of your own.

It has become obvious to me that the biggest roadblock to creating effective digital learners lies in the assumptions we make about students innate ability to use technology for an educational purpose. Hopefully, we can begin to break this mold and begin to move ahead in creating a digital learning environments that are absent of these counter productive assumptions.

See iPad Experiment

Sep 142011

OK so perhaps “Great” isn’t the word to use here, especially since using iPads in the classroom is no longer bleeding edge but it still has some cache in the education world. Perhaps what is more remarkable is that I have somehow finagled a spot as one of five teachers who are giving these little technological marvels a trial run in our classrooms.

Five teachers and a single cohort of twenty-five students have agreed to make the ipad the center of their educational universe for one year. With iPad in hand, we have gone into a digital never land and hopefully we will return a little wiser for the experience.

Now of course, it is too early to tell how things will play out in the next 10 months or so but thus far, things look promising. Kids are certainty enthralled with their new toys, I mean learning tools! The teachers are enthusiastically taking up the challenge of using the iPad as an instructional / learning tool, now all we have to do is get some curriculum across to the kids.

Fortunately for me, Planning 10 is not one of those courses that has a standardized test attached to it. Sure I have to hit the curricular objectives along the way but I have significantly more latitude in my delivery and content I use. My colleagues on the other hand, have to please the testing gods or there will be hell to pay so they might be a little more restricted in their use of the iPads.

I suddenly find myself in the enviable position where I will be able to try all sorts of different things in the way curriculum is delivered and learning is demonstrated. If something is an epic fail, we simply dust off the digital debris from the attempt and move on. In fact, I am kind of looking forward to the failures as much as the successes. I don’t think we have enough failure these days, besides it sure is far more interesting then succeeding all the time.

It is going to be fun, a little stressful but most of all it will be a good experience so stay tuned for more adventures in iPads in the classroom. With any luck we might all learn something from “The Great(ish) iPad Experiment”

Nov 272010

I was thinking this week, about all these twitter feeds I am following and I could not get over just how…. Over the top, pro technology in the classroom they are. Twitter this, blog that. Gotta connect with kids on their turf, gotta be in touch with the pulse of web but there never seems to be any thought put to the other side of the equation. Perhaps if I followed #downwithtech or #twitteristhedevilswork I might get another viewpoint but I can’t help but wonder how my collegues who are less “wired” feel about this push to make their classrooms part of the digital landscape.

I know for a fact that there are a number of teachers who are not ready and perhaps will never be ready to drink the digital koolaid. They are great teachers, doing a great job in a classroom, just teaching it old school. They don’t need twitter, blogs, wikis and all the other digital tools at their disposal to get kids to learn. They are master teachers without the digital paraphernalia but they feel that the likes of me, are trying to dismantle and devalue that which they have spent an entire career creating and perfecting.

There are a number of other issues that lurk in the minds of the unconverted which we should be sensitive to well beyond the general notion that we Tech Geeks are out to get them and they are concerns that need to be heeded.

  • Availability of the Technology. This is a shortcoming for most schools. There simply isn’t enough technology to go around, for the kids or the teachers. We just haven’t hit a point of saturation yet where these digital tools are as ubiquitous as pencil and paper. Make it accessible without costing teachers anything and perhaps they will use it.
  • Some People Don’t Want To Use It! Plain and simple, some teachers see no need, nor do they want to use technology to teach. Does this make them bad teachers? NO! We the tech geeks need to respect that.
  • Management Issues. Even I, as someone who uses technology EVERY class, has issues around the appropriate use of the technology in the classroom. Some I ignore, some I stomp on but it is an additional piece of management which some people do not wish to have to deal with. Teachers have a dozen things going on at any given time in a classroom, why add more to their plate?
  • Foundational Skills. In the digital world it is EXTREMELY difficult to determine how much of a students work is cut and paste or simply written by someone else. Much of kids work is a conglomeration of different information sources and nary a word of their own. What’s more, in the digital world, most information is written in point form, written sound bytes. Twitter is an excellent example of how thoughts have been reduced to 140 characters of information, hardly what you would call a body of text which needs to be read and then dissected for meaning. I am in complete agreement with my luddite colleagues who firmly believe that, foundational skills are best taught and solidified through good old fashioned book lernin.
  • Just Don’t Got The Time or The Desire. Most teachers have lives outside of school and the 200+ kids they are responsible for in school. They are not all digital dependent like me, who spends more time with my laptop than I do with my family. We tech geeks love this stuff! We live it, we breath it and we have integrated it into our lives so that it is part of us. This is why using digital technology in the classroom is easy for us but some people DON’T want to make it part of their lives at home or at work.
  • Top Down Push. In my 15 years of teaching, I have learned more from other teachers than I have ever learned from an administrator but this is where the push to use technology in the classroom, seems to be coming from. All of us tech geeks have been playing with digital teaching tools for years but now that admin have caught onto the possibilities of digital learning tools, they seem to want all teachers to using them BUT if we are to expect other teachers to buy into the use of technology, it has to be a grassroots growth rather than by administrative decree.
  • The Digital Backlash This one is relatively new and has nothing to do with teachers. It is the digital backlash and the occurrence of parents who are not allowing their kids to have access to digital media. For me, this started last year with one kid and this year I have 6 kids of 160, who’s parents WILL NOT allow their children to have access to any type of social media. To tell you the truth, I am doing the same with my own kids. They will not have ANY social media account before their 16th birthday. I believe this is a growing movement and something that we as educators who LOVE this sort of thing will be faced with more, in the coming years.

Whether we like it or not, the digital revolution might just have to be a digital evolution when it comes to teaching. The reality is that there are good teachers doing GREAT things with kids without using the latest and greatest web tools. We the “tech geeks”, have no business going about, trying to (Star Trek Reference Warning) assimilate all teaching lifeforms into a digital collective. Yes there are some great things you can do, yes you can engage learners with digital resources, yes we have been sold BUT technology is not the end all and be all of learning. An excellent learning environment is about a teacher and the connection they have with the students and it. does not have to be a digital connection.