Saturday, January 31, 2009

Seduced by Novelty

It’s a new year, and with it comes more and more tools for teachers to use in the classroom. In my Twitter group, I still hear about more and more ideas that I can barely keep up with. Perhaps keeping up isn’t what it’s all about.

It never fails, I will be at my desk, doing research on bleeding edge technology, bookmarking sources, cross referencing…and the phone rings. A teacher wants to know how to set up a blog so other students can see posts, but not comments she makes to the students.Some may sigh and think, “A blog…that’s so last year.” However, my reaction is this: “This teacher didn’t even know what a blog was last year, and now she’s tweaking it to help her students…yes!”

The point is this: we sometimes get seduced by the novelty of a new tool or idea and want to do it faster than our colleagues. Well, perhaps instead of faster, we can do it better. I can honestly say that in 25 years of teaching I have stolen far more ideas than I have created. However, those ideas I have stolen I have tried to adapt and refine to best meet the needs of my students. The goal is not to be the quickest to apply new strategies, it is to wisely select the tools that create meaning and extend student learning.

Often, teachers learn that a tool exists, try it, and unfortunately move on.It’s one thing to say “I am doing a wiki with my kids,” and yet quite another to use the wiki tool as a means to extend the learning beyond what could have been done without it. Perhaps we need to revisit some “old” technologies (meaning older than this week) to make sure we are getting the most out of them.

Microsoft Word More than just word processing, Word contains literally dozens of features that enhance learning. One of my favorites is the comment feature which allows teacher or peers to neatly add comments in the margin. The viewer can read, revise (or ignore) and then quickly delete the comments for the final draft. Auto summarize allows the reader to have Word “highlight” key points. This is great to make sure topic sentences are truly topic sentences. Using the thesaurus wisely (yes, teaching is involved!) can increase a student’s vocabulary by recognizing subtle differences in connotations and select just the right word. And the list goes on.

Microsoft Powerpoint Clearly, the most abused software in schools, can be a powerful visual aid. However, too often the slides upstage the presenter, and at worst, become a teleprompter. Teaching students basic visual literacy through Powerpoint can be quite valuable. Color awareness and using as few words as possible on screen greatly enhance presentations. I have gone so far is to allow a maximum number of slides (5?) and words (say, 15 in the whole presentation). This puts the onus back on the star of the presentation: the presenter, not the software.

Digital Storytelling True, I do have a soft spot in my heart for DST, but that doesn’t diminish the power that it can create in the classroom. Focus on story and revision instead of flash and effects (in other words, avoid programs like Animoto). I find that the constant viewing of images along with listening to words enables students to greatly improve their writing. Encourage students to use images that metaphorically represent emotions rather than only literal representations. I picture of a lightning bolt may serve better than a one of “mom angry.”

Screencasts The value of using screencasts as a “how to” is undeniable. But here’s another idea: Why not have students create the screencasts? They could be used as a meta-cognitive tool to allow students to reflect on, say, a research project, and demonstrate for the teacher (and themselves) how they may have discovered a source, paraphrased a passage, or revised their thesis. Viewing these could give teachers a snapshot of what’s going on inside their brains (Thanks to Scott Meech for inspiring me to think about this).

Blogs OK, everyone reads them and more and more people seem to be writing them. But what role do they play for learning? Here are two ideas: First, we need to embrace some professional blogs as credible resources for supporting research. Professionals are constantly referring to colleagues’ blogs, so why aren’t students? And there’s a bonus: Students can actually ask the experts questions…and possibly get a response! I wish I would have been able to do that 30 years ago. Of course, we need to teach students to evaluate credibility of sources, as well as bias. The second idea (again, not new) is to set up individual blogs for every student, which are used as a means to record the writing and thinking experience of the entire course. The best feature is that it creates a means for continual communication between student and teacher allowing for a substantial “Assessment for Learning.” Teachers can even copy rubrics, highlight and comment on work, and view multiple drafts.

Wikis In an earlier post, “Turbo-Charged Wikis” I stress the important of Positive Interdependence and Individual Accountability. One of the best ways to achieve this in a collaborative writing experience (a rather sophisticated process) is to: limit participants to three or four per group, assign specific roles, and assess the work frequently. This will overcome the two biggest problems associated with wikis in school which are inequitable work distribution and the “quilt phenomenon” which occurs when students write their own section with little regard for what their collaborators have written. And here’s another idea: research supports that when students take a role in creating their own rubrics, they achieve more. How about a wiki that enables students to collaborate on the rubric itself.

Google Clearly the most conspicuous presence on the web, some educators shy away from this Goliath, or write it off as passé. Nothing could be further from the truth. Google has embraced education and offers more tools for student (and teacher) learning than you could possibly use in a career. If you don’t have an account, get one, and start looking. My new fave is the Life photo archives on Google. Try it! Also, if you get the opportunity to become a Google Certified teacher, I highly recommend it.

Creation software, Blogs & wikis, digital storytelling, and Google are entrenched in our lexicon so deeply, that it is hard to imagine a time when they weren’t. But just because they’ve been around for a while doesn’t mean their importance in the classroom has diminished. On the contrary, the acceptance of these tools in the mainstream has gotten us past the novelty concept where the tool du jour becomes the driving force. Now we can get back to “What do I want my students to do?” and use the repertoire of tools when the time is right.

So what are some "old" tools you're utilizing better than ever? Please share!

Image courtesy of Flickr contributor aaronfreimark.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wisdom of Finals?

With semester exams in full swing at my school, I have been rethinking the wisdom of finals. Ah, finals week: altered schedules, sharpened pencils stacked like cord wood, reams of scantrons, review sheets, kids frantically calculating—but not trig formulas—instead they are calculating how well they need to do on the final to get, or maintain a particular grade. (Are those students concerned with learning?)

My first question is this: What is the purpose of a final exam? I believe there is a theory and a sad reality to this. First the theory: A final exam can measure the cumulative growth of a student and evaluate the “total package” of what he has learned. Also if the final is a school-wide or district-wide final, it can measure how well the course is being taught, and whether or not students are meeting standards. In this respect, a final exam is a critical step in ensuring a guaranteed and viable curriculum.

The reality: One of three scenarios usually occurs: One, sometime in the last week of class a teacher frantically pieces together questions from previous unit tests and writes a smattering of questions based solely on her memory of the class. Two, the teacher is prescribed to give the “department assessment,” and spends the first ten minutes of the final period telling students which questions to skip because the topics weren’t covered. Finally, there is the “District Assessment” that teachers administer, scan the results, see that given the current scale, many would fail and “curve” the results to get their nice, neat bell curve.
Are these finals doing what we want them to do?

Writing a reliable, valid final examination is difficult work. Developing an assessment that measures all learning targets of a course can be done, but often isn’t. Also, the assessment needs to be written before the class commences (Wiggins, Understanding by Design) If it is created after, it tends to be “reactionary” as opposed prescriptive. One of my colleagues gives students the final on the first day of class, so they know what to expect. Kudos to her! Some may argue, “yes but then aren’t we just teaching to the test?” If the test accurately measures the targets of the class, then yes, we should absolutely be teaching to that test, BUT how often are tests that valid?

Standard final exams in high school usually represent something like 20% of the semester grade, which is equivalent to 4 ½ weeks of course work. Personally, I have a hard time quantifying this inequity.

We talk about the “student-centered classroom” “project-based learning” and “collaborative learning” yet our biggest assessment of the year is done in a timed, isolated setting with a student completing primarily recall questions in a passive, non-creative fashion.
Often times, the justification for administering final exams is to prepare students for college. If the theory is to give them practice at high-stakes tests, I think we have that covered even without finals. From the Iowa Test of Basic Skills all the way to SAT, ACT, and state NCLB requirements, students get more than their share of “big tests.”

Teachers may feel the need to administer a final because it’s “always been done” and may argue that in order to fully assess students, they need a “big” grade at the end. This gets me to my alternative solution. Instead of a timed final exam, I prefer a culminating “project” as the final assessment.. Here is an example of what I did in one class:
In my sophomore English class, I focused on the following skills:
• Literary analysis
• Text marking
• Inquiry-based research
• Proper documentation of sources
• Structured collaborative learning skills including writing
• On-line research skills

For the “final” project, study of Lord of the Flies I placed students in groups of three, and gave each group a particular “lens” for studying the novel. The students were to read, discuss, and research the book with an emphasis on that lens. Then they were to create a scholarly article (via a wiki) with an analysis of that lens or theme, and write two discussion/ analysis questions on that theme. For the last assessment, students read each others’ articles, and answered the questions posed by the students. They had all read the biook, but were only expert in one theme. This allowed them to learn from each other while mastering all the major foci of the book. I found this to be a much more valuable assessment tool for my students since it allowed them to display their skills in virtually everything we worked towards.
Most importantly, the project allowed students to demonstrate what they can do, not what they can’t.

I’m not sure all final exams do that.

(Photo courtesy of flickr contributor sashamd)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Turbo-Charged Wikis: Cooperative Learning Embraces Technology

When teachers first embraced wikis in the classroom, they met less-than-ideal outcomes. Usually students were disinterested in the topics or were not familiar with the technology, or were not adept with collaborative writing. The results usually consisted of disproportionate work distribution and copy-and-pasting: in other words, very little learning. Even if the work was evenly distributed, it resembled a “quilt,” with each student stitching in his own panel with little regard for what his partners wrote.

What was missing was a sound pedagogy for learning. By infusing structured Cooperative Learning strategies (Johnson and Johnson, University of Minnesota student-generated wikis become a much more productive activity.

Some of the more readily usable wiki interfaces are and A slick website that evaluates wikis head to head is Try it!

First, a teacher must establish a collaborative environment from the beginning of class. A wiki-based project should not be the first time students work together. Collaborative projects work well, but only if an environment of cooperation already exists.

The assignment of the project must possess two qualities. First, it must be an authentic problem or situation which must be solved collaboratively. Second, the final product must be utilized by another audience, preferably classmates to advance the learning of the entire class. In other words, the wiki cannot result in an assignment that is merely "turned in." Also teachers need to remember that the wiki is only the tool to enhance learning; the problem solving is what drives the project.

One example of this is an assignment I have recently given to students. While studying Lord of the Flies, students are placed in small groups (no more than 4 students) and read the book through a particular "lens" which guides their study and discussion. As they read, they research sources that analyze and support their particular lens. Since they are the ones becoming "experts" in their lens or theme, it becomes their responsibility to share their findings with classmates. To do so, they create a collaborative article analyzing the specifics on the theme complete with links to authoritative sources. The final step is to create two "foundation questions" (Inquiry Research) related to the theme and make them available. As a final class assessment, students read the analysis of themes done by classmates (total of four) and answer the foundation questions using the novel as well as their peers as sources to support their answer.

To make sure this project progresses, teachers need to instill the five components of Cooperative Learning: namely, Positive Interdependence, individual Accountability, Face to Face Interaction, Group Processing, and teaching small-group social skills. The most important of these are Positive Interdependence and Individual Accountability. These two seem, at first glance, mutually exclusive; a further look reveals that they are two sides of the same coin…somewhat of a “Yin-Yang” philosophy.

Positive interdependence: We are better together than alone. Johnson and Johnson identify twelve types of Positive Interdependence, and further go on to state that for a lesson to succeed, at least three need to be present. A wiki assignment constructed properly can have at least four. Goal interdependence relies on the teacher creating a challenge for the students to create a compelling document. A unified vision of that goal is essential. Role interdependence is achieved by assigning specific, unique roles to individuals in the group. Each may be responsible for drafting a particular section and revising another. Environment interdependence becomes inherent within the wiki itself. If students have a part in creating a unique space they tend to take more ownership; therefore, I encourage student to select color schemes, titles, and images to “dress up” the assignment…that is, after the text is completed. Task interdependence relates closely to “Role.” “Task” is the idea that one portion may not be completed unless another’s task is completed. Veronica cannot edit the segment unless Jonathan drafts it, and so on.

Individual Accountability: EVERYONE learns One of the common criticisms of “Group Work” is that an unequal distribution of work and learning often results. In order to ensure that everyone participates, contributes, and learns, the teacher must structure several layers of individual accountability. First, wiki groups should contain no more than four members, and two or three is actually more desirable. Identifying roles and assessing is much more realistic in a group of three. Furthermore, “hiding” among three people is very difficult. Also, teachers must assess the project at various times during the project. Teachers need to assess and give feedback at the outlining, drafting, revising, and publishing stages. Also, since most wikis have history features, teachers need to continually view the participation of each member.

In addition, teachers need to supply a structured system of expectations, due dates, and a constant flow of feedback throughout the development of project (Stiggins). Also, teachers must build in time for students to meet during class to negotiate meaning in the planning and revision stages. Assessment must be a collaborative endeavor, with students having input on the rubric criteria prior to the completion of the project, as well as an opportunity to self assess. Adherence to these strategies will ensure greater learning.

Additional Sources for Wikis in Education

The Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota

"Examples of Educational Wikis"

"Ideas for Educational Wikis"

Nielsen, Jakob. "Participation Inequality."

"Wiki Etiquette for Students."

Orech, Jon. “Wikis Make Learning Wicked Fun.” Tech Learning E-Zine

Schroeder, Barbara. "10 Best Practices for Using Wikis in Education."

"Seven Things you Should Know about Wikis"

Stiggins, Richard J, Judith A. Arter, Jan Chappuis, and Stephen Chappuis, Judith A. Erter. Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing it Right, Using it Well. Assessment Training Institute, Jan Chappuis, Steve Chappuis, Educational Testing Service. Published by Assessment Training Institute, 2004

ISBN 0965510158, 9780965510158

"Using Wiki in Education."