What is Learning?

As teachers, we are in the learning business, right?  If so, how important is it that teachers are able to answer the question: "what is learning?"

It is quite possible that how a teacher answers this question will govern how he or she actually teaches. Ideally, a teacher should be able to articulate an answer to this question precisely and succinctly (in one sentence?)... hmm, let me try this:

For me, learning is a direct outcome of solving problems.  There, I did it... one sentence!  Of course, this is most likely not all-inclusive.  I mean, I think I am capable of learning in instances not directly related to solving a problem but the most meaningful learning (for me) is associated with solving some issue.  Connecting data, information and knowledge to a relatable experience is critical for my understanding.  

If this is my learning belief, what would my classroom look like?  Hopefully, my classroom environment and teaching style reflect this belief (theory in practice vs. theory in use).  Obviously, reflecting about the learning activities I conduct with learners goes a long way toward helping me ensure that my beliefs and my practices are in sync.

I hope that this question, and all the derivatives of this question, are being discussed frequently with (and by) teachers, administrators and students.

So, what is learning to you? How important is it that teachers can define learning? Will a school operate more successfully if teachers share common beliefs?  

Does Google Change Education?

One of my colleagues sent me this interesting article the other day.  The basic premise is "does Google numb our brains or does it make us smarter?"  I haven't really thought about it before (at least not formally).  An interesting question and not what I'm really going to talk about in this post... but only because the article got me thinking about something else :-)

It got me thinking about how does education (or our delivery of education) change in a world where students can, and do, have access to more knowledge than ever before.  I guess the question is, what are we doing in schools teaching students facts that they can Google if they ever need to know the answer?  I mean really, what's the purpose? Instead, we should be providing them with the skill set required to navigate the information that is "out there" in a effort to make them effective at finding and validating what they find.  Then, we can help them put that knowledge into a larger context and get them thinking critically about what they found.  One way to do this is to ask "Google Proof Questions"... questions that require analysis, interpretation, and investigation.  In other words, higher order thinking skills.  You can, and should, read more about Google Proof Questions.

Ultimately, students should then be creating their own content that documents their understandings of the world around them... adding to the growing knowledge base that is "out there".

There are a couple of other comments from this article that jumped out at me:

three-fourths of respondents believe the Internet will make us smarter in the next 10 years.

Access to information/knowledge does not make us "smarter".  It's how we think (and reflect), the problems we solve and the connections we make that makes us smarter.  If we want students to be "smarter" we need to redefine what we value in education...

I think Google makes us lazier but facilitates our learning faster.

Hmm, lazy?  I'm not sure about this.  Did the advent of the written alphabet make us lazier?  How about wide-spread access to books?  Access to information does not make us lazy.  Again, the value isn't in finding information but in what you do with it.  From this standpoint the exact opposite could be possible.

The online survey from Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University in North Carolina and Pew Internet project asked 865 Web users whether the Internet would improve reading and writing by 2020.

I guess this is reading and writing in the traditional sense of the word.  The Internet is all about communication, this is not limited to only reading and writing.  When it comes to making sense of the world, there are many more ways to express this than just through writing.

He doesn't allow students to use Wikipedia.

Sigh. Wikipedia is amazing.  Does it have faults?  Of course it does.  Is the solution to prevent students from using it altogether?  Nope.  Will Richardson does a much better job than I ever could talking about Wikipedia so watch him.  This one is good too.

Fear Change!

I know that President-elect Obama is promising change but what if I don't want to?  What if I think everything is fine and dandy.  Thankfully, Steve over at LifeHack is here to help with his timely post on "5 Ways to Avoid Change"  Personally, I've been a lifelong fan of point #2: Set your expectations low!

Remember we are all in this together.

"Simple is Good"

I'm lucky enough to live near Washington, D.C. where we get all sorts of wonderful exhibits that come through our plentiful museums.  This summer* I went to see a really amazing one about Jim Henson (yes, the Muppets guy) called "Jim Henson's Fantastic World".  I knew it was going to be good when I saw the sign above the entrance:

simple is good

What I came away with was that Jim Henson was an extremely talented and creative soul who lived his life through storytelling and storymaking.  His legacy is one filled with joy; I mean real joy.  You could see this happiness on the faces of the people in the exhibit (especially, the 30-40 something adults who grew up with The Muppet Show).

At some point, the educator in me started to wonder, "how would a young Jim Henson have done in today's NCLB classroom?"

It got me thinking, what are we doing to foster creativity (by students AND teachers) in our schools?  Can you successfully learn (or teach) math, science, languages, history through activities that employ a healthy amount of the spirit of creativity?  I think so.  In fact, I sincerely believe that the use of technology tools can really facilitate the creative processes in students (and teachers).  The challenge is to break down the barriers (both real and perceived) that are preventing us from taking the risks to teach by blending technology and creativity into our teaching.

So, channel the spirit of Jim Henson and create a little puppet theatre in your classroom and let your students make some puppets, write a script designed to teach other students all about Mitosis (or plate tectonics, or the electoral college, or conjugating Spanish verbs...) and perform it to the class.  Go ahead and take a video about it, put it on your blog and share it.  I'm sure the results will be wonderful and the learning that will happen around such a simple project will amaze you. Take a risk, it does not need to be fancy or polished, remember, "simple is good".

Make sure to "prime the creative pump" by watching some of The Muppet Show prior to doing this activity with your students.  This will give them a glimpse into the genius of the man and, who knows, might launch one of them into a similar direction.

I'll leave you with this final quote from Jim Henson that I found in a book in the museum bookstore.  By random happenstance this was the first page I turned to.  Thank god for mobile phone cameras...

henson quote.jpg

* I've been thinking about this blog post for some time now :-)

Report Cards... for the Teacher

I came across a blog post the other day that discussed the possibility of having an annual report card for school teachers.

I’ve given some thought to the notion of report cards for teachers. The school board and superintendent along with the teachers union can work together on the design. One important function of the report card would be to communicate the “teacher’s results” to the public (that is once we determine what the results should look like and from what they should be derived!)

Now I'm not a fan of report cards for students for a variety of reasons so I will remain very skeptical about report cards for teachers. Now, this being said, the issues I have with report cards are that a) they don't tell you very much; b) they don't accurately assess ability; and c) people tend to "fixate" on them even though they are not helpful (a) and not accurate (b).

I guess I'm not sure to what problem a "teacher report card" is the solution. Is it to hold "bad" teachers accountable (good luck defining a "bad" teacher)? Is it to help the teacher to identify areas of need (according to whom)? Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. I'm all for helping ALL teachers become better at his or her craft, I just don't think this would be a logical way to go about doing it.

See inside your brain

So, scientists are working on new technology that will let you see your brain activity, in almost real time. This has huge potential for learning. Imagine being able to see what is going on inside the head of a student while they are learning something new. You could use this information to route around learning disabilities, or increase functionality. We like to say that all students learn differently, well, now we can actually see this happen. Pretty amazing. Watch the video, less than 4 minutes long.

Top 100 Tools for Learning

So, a week or so ago my principal signed up for a del.icio.us account. I'm really happy about that, honestly, I could not keep my online links organized without delicious. Apparently, lots of other people think the same way. Delicious recently topped the list of the top 100 tools for learning (narrowly beating out Firefox). I use 7 of the top 10 all the time but this list has plenty of new places for me to explore. You should too.

Write like Ernest Hemingway...

Uncle Ernest

... well, not literally like him. I mean, he is one of the worlds great literary minds and you... well, let's just say you are not quite there yet. But you can use his 5 simple tips to help you out. Tip #5 does have some bad language in it, but since it is a direct quote that somehow makes it okay, right? Just in case, kiddos should close their eyes when reading tip 5 (then master the sound of one hand clapping...).

Hemingway's 5 tips for better writing
@ copyblogger

What is del.icio.us?

In a nutshell, delicious is a simple way to organize your bookmarks (I literally have over a thousand of them). By organizing, you make it easy to find them later on. I couldn't live without it. I recently came across this video tutorial that explains, in plain English, what delicious is and can do.

I love this video presentation style. It showcases that an effective presentation is informative, accurate and interesting and does not have to be hi-tech. The presenters at common craft are really masters of this and really creative. You should check out their site - I wish they had more videos. Some of my favorites from them are...

  • Blogs in plain English

  • Zombies in plain English

  • RSS in plain English

  • Hello TED.

    So, I was over at Tekzilla looking at their show notes and came across this:
    Jessica is in love with TED, the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference. The ideas is to show off "Ideas worth spreading" and at the TED website you can find "talks by the world's greatest thinkers and doers." The trick? The presenters have to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes, max. TED makes the best presentations available to the public, for free! Jessica's favorites include Jeff Skoll's Making movies that make change, Dan Gilbert's Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy? and 11 year old Sirena Haung's Dazzling set on a violin.

    Sounded like an interesting site so I cruised on over to check it out. TED might be my new favorite site. The content on this site is simply astounding. The fact that the interface is slick and unique (and that they have some ze frank) is just a bonus. Please, check it out. Honestly, I can't believe I have not come across this site before. The fact that I know about chocolate rain but not TED is pretty embarrassing.