Error recovery vs failure avoidance

I just love this clip from Randy Nelson – formerly from Pixar.  He explains how Pixar finds graduates who have depth, breadth, communication and a collaborative nature.

As educators I think there is a lot we can learn from his view about error recovery.  Nelson mentions that if we need graduates who will be innovators, we need to focus on their ability to recover from error rather than avoid failure – interesting to think about in our current system – are we nurturing students who can think of errors as learning opportunities?   He mentions that the proof of the portfolio is better than the promise of a resume – are we getting closer to seeing that development through the availability of technology?

First Days of School – A Collaborative Activity

I’m participating in Connected Educator Month where educators from the US (and beyond) are gathering online to share best practices, hear  wonderful keynote speakers and participate in online sessions both asynchronously and synchronously.  For many, this is a chance to check out what becoming a connected educator is all about and if that’s you, there is a great Starter Kit to help you on your way.    For me, it’s a way to make new learning connections and both share and receive practical ideas for teaching and learning.

One session, called The First Six Weeks, was a panel discussion kick-off, followed by a forum where folks are sharing their ideas about ways to make the first six weeks of school really sensational!   If you’d like to join in, you can hear the initial panel discussion recording here and participate in the forum now:

I shared an idea in the forum that I’ve used in the past and @snbeach, co-author of The Connected Educator, asked for a little example of how it works so I thought I’d share it here and include a graphic.   You might like to try it in your classroom, and I’d love to hear about  how it worked and how you tweaked it for class!

This activity gives students a chance to get to know each other and to find out what they have in common with some of their classmates.  It begins with students in a group of 3 and using a 3-circled venn diagram – one circle for each student.   They  record information about themselves and what they have in common with the other 2 in their group.   Students can share facts about themselves, their passions, their summer, their family etc., using sketches or words/phrases.  If 2 of the 3 like soccer, for example, they sketch a little picture or word about soccer in the section that overlaps their two circles.  If they have an interest or experience that is unique to their group, then they put that into their own circle, with no overlaps, and if something is common to all three it goes into the centre space – you get the idea!

It’s neat to see a visual representation of what they have in common and what is unique about them.  This also gives me a chance to see them interact to get a job done by talking together and asking lots of questions of each other –not to mention making observations about group dynamics.   I get to observe what modes students prefer when recording their ideas – text, images, phrases or a combination.  They also look great to display teamwork on the first day and to lay the foundation for that culture of collaboration and co-construction that is important in my classroom.

I’ve also done this on return from a school break – works well then too!  I’d love to hear your feedback on this idea – either how it worked for you, or what you would change!

Diving Deeply: Networks or Communities

Originally Posted by on Apr 13, 2012 in Voices from the Learning Revolution, PLP Network

I’ve begun teaching an Additional Qualifications course for inservice teachers, about the integration of technology into their classroom practice. I’ve written about this new learning journey before, and I began revising and rethinking the course as soon as it got rolling the first time around. This is what I miss most about being a classroom teacher — the creative process involved in shaping learning environments that work!

In planning courses we continue to find that many of the resources we turn to for guidance are often traditional, text-based models of learning, especially in higher education. This doesn’t often sit right with me. My goal is to help teachers imagine new possibilities in their own classrooms as they begin to shift their practice.

In setting out to model some more innovative practices, I hope that by seeing a variety of options as learners first, teachers will understand the power of these new approaches and feel free to play with some of these new tools and then reflect on them with a critical eye. Most of the teachers who will join me in these courses are newly connected to social networks, and therefore my aim is to plan a meaningful experience that is not too overwhelming.

These newly connected educators often look for some advice about where to jump in: Twitter? Blogs? Facebook? Social networks for teachers? There are so many choices! As a result, I’ve surfaced some thoughts about the difference between the work I do with networks and communities and how I might advise teachers who are newly connected.

Virtual colleagues? Business as usual

In an earlier blog post I was asking this question:

“I’m gravitating towards more collaborative work that involves a different kind of connection than something like twitter — what should I be recommending to others just starting down this path?”

I’ve been thinking about where I’m finding my best support for my own learning these days. While I’ve been going to my twitter network and saving links, resources, and graphics to help me plan this course, I’ve found that it’s actually my community of inquiry within Powerful Learning Practice that has lead me to the deepest learning along this new journey. Only a handful of these people are actually in the realm of my f2f connections and none of them are people I see day-to-day. Working virtually with people from my online community is just becoming business as usual!

As I begin teaching this course, I think I owe it to my learners to help them understand that while twitter networks might lead them to incredible contacts and resources, our classroom community will be where they can get down and dirty with some really messy learning.

Let me share a recent example. I was extremely lucky to be taking Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s PLP e-course Teaching Online: Becoming a Connected Educator back while I was building the first rendition of my own course curriculum. It gave me a source of feedback and critical friends when I was first drafting, asking questions, and pondering my next moves. Even now, 6 months after the PLP e-course, I am still in contact with several of those folks who I know would help me with revisions. This potential for an extended conversation about my work would not often happen on twitter, and actually I don’t know that it’s ever happened to me in a f2f context, either!

A great discovery

Next, something Sheryl recently posted in the PLP Community Hub caught my eye. It was a document that Howard Rheingold had shared, inviting folks to work on collaboratively transforming a course about social media for high school students. I had been cocooning a bit, thinking through my plans, and while following some of Howard’s links I discovered — a visual syllabus!

This was great. I already had the very (19th century) text-based one I’d created from the traditional University model I had been given as an exemplar. And I had the video version that I had made for my students as a course introduction for the first week. However, the ‘good’ thing about video is also the ‘bad’ thing about video…you have to watch it! You can’t scan it well. So a graphic organizer was just the thing I needed to turn the syllabus into more of an infographic. I got busy creating and came up with a first draft:

I posted this to my community inside the PLP Ning space, where Howard’s course outline is also posted, knowing that I would likely get some feedback, suggestions, and perhaps even a discussion wherein more folks share what they are doing in this area – and then BINGO – we’d be building collective knowledge.

Sure enough, the sharing began to happen almost immediately. Suzie Nestico posted a reply that caused me to think more deeply about some of the requirements that will need to be in place before my students will be able to understand the difference between “knowledge sharing” and “knowledge building.” This will help direct some of my next steps in planning.

While I learn lots and connect well with Twitter and my other networks, it’s my community of inquiry (both f2f and online) that helps me to dive deeper, which is where I like to be!

Is Knowing When to Cocoon a 21st Century Skill?

photo courtesy - TheGiantVermin on flickr

Connecting, collaborating, creating, and critical thinking are the 21st century ‘C’ words we hear a lot about these days.  I’m wondering if we need to add cocoon to that list — is it as important a part of transformation as our connectedness?

I guess it’s not a surprise that the longer I delve into understanding learning, and try to find those opportunities to go deeper,  the more complicated it gets.  That’s a good sign – I’m sure.  Last week was a chance to join my colleagues in the PLP ConnectU Community in Australia as they delve deeper into their journey as a connected, networked, learning community interested in deepening their practice with respect to PBL and developing a PLN.

My mentor and critical friend,  Peter Skillen and I both attended the excellent sessions led by  Will Richardson with a focus on networks and communities.   Will mentioned this new landscape of networked learning where we have the potential to be learning 24/7.    Peter and I have had many chats lately about the effectiveness of our PLN and our need to put some checks in place to make sure that, as he puts it, we are ‘zooming out’ in order to see the big picture.

Largely because of this post by George Siemens which I found through Stephen Downes’ blog and because Peter has been pointing me to some other folks who are thinking more critically about connectedness  (and in particular social media),  I’m attempting that zoom out.  Although there has been some push-back about social media, it continues to be a big part of my learning these days and I think some time spent thinking more metacognitively about balance and purpose is where I’m at.   Couple that with the thinking my PLP group has been doing around promoting creativity in the classroom and some questions arise for me:

  • what is the purpose of my network vs my online communities?
  • how am I controlling the flow of information that is coming at me, or is it controlling me?
  • I’m gravitating towards more collaborative work that involves a different kind of connection than something like twitter – what should I be recommending to others just starting down this path?
  • is my PLN diverse enough?
  • am I spending my time where it most benefits my learning?
  • do I set aside enough solitary time?

I’m finding that a big part of learning in this new space where information flows so freely is to know when to cocoon, take some alone time, do some reflecting or solitary thinking and then emerge once again to join in the conversations!

What about you…how do you try to keep a balance?  Or do you?

courtesy of Creativity+TimothyKHamilton

Taking the Plunge – Online Learning Communities

I’m enjoying getting started as a connected coach with a PLP ConnectU group from Australia this month. After listening to a wonderful Elluminate session as group leaders Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Will Richardson and Susan Carter Morgan got talking to folks about getting started on the Ning and on Twitter, I was reminded about that steep, but very gratifying, learning curve when I first began to participate in social media. I’m hoping to follow up on what they were saying with my top 3 tips for getting going in networked communities of educators.

Get on there!

Educators are the kind of people that value risk taking and shifts in thinking – especially those educators that you’ll find online. This is a supportive community that will teach you – don’t worry about making some mistakes! If you can try to make it a regular part of every day or so to check in online, you’ll soon realize that this is a place where you can ask questions, find resources, and get rich professional learning, virtually for free! You may find the people you are learning from will lead you in places you’d never dreamed you’d go – in a good way! You can find people who share similar interests and then bring back that knowledge to enrich your f2f school community.

Don’t worry about seeing everything!

Teachers are thorough. Teachers like to follow through on commitments. If they say they’ll do something it bothers them if they don’t do it. Being a member of a community like twitter or a Ning is a little different – and I’m recommending right now that you cut yourself some slack in this area. You needn’t worry about reading and responding to each and every piece that is posted. Instead, explore where your interests lie and let your passion for those topics enrich the community as a whole. Dive in when you need it, and contribute when you can! A quick check of the recently posted items will let you know if there is something that catches your attention.

Share your thinking online!

Tacit understanding is that unspoken knowledge that we acquire as teachers and boy, do we ever have a lot of it! So much of what we do is not made explicit in our daily work because it’s so complex and difficult to describe. Try asking a colleague what teaching strategies they used today and see how they answer! One of the amazing by-products of participating online, where you start to make thinking about your teaching practice explicit by writing or talking about it with others, is how much it helps you understand and increase the conviction and confidence in your own teaching practice and beliefs about learning. I think that’s been one of the most valuable parts of my relationships with people online – it’s like having a global staffroom of people who are interested in the best for students!

Pedagogy, tools and complex work

This post started out as a comment on Doug’s blog post this morning but I got a little carried away.  Thanks to Doug and Royan for getting me thinking and dwelling on some good stuff today!

I’ve been teaching for 24 years now so I’ve been around the block a few times.  I did not use computers myself in high school, but dabbled in a little programming during my undergraduate years.  I’m sad to say that most of my tech skills are self-taught, and aren’t that notable, but it’s definitely a lot easier now than in those pre-web days!

It might surprise people to know that before personal computers were being routinely placed in classrooms, good teachers were still maximizing technology and teaching 21st century skills.  We were pen-paling, we were publishing books (binding them even), creating voice recordings, building structures and photographing them (we spent a lot of time sending in film and picking up photos!) conducting field research, collecting data, going on field trips outside the classroom and even working in teams to produce original work!

Many of us were already bucking the worksheet and celebrating serious children’s work in the classroom, gathering resources from unusual places and inviting experts in.  It was harder then because you couldn’t just jump on the internet and find stuff, but you still had to have the desire to look for it in the first place and a knowledge of good pedagogy.  And yes, there were lots of teachers doing worksheets and ‘pseudo’ student-centred learning, just as you see happening with some of the electronic worksheet technology of today.  By now we’ve all seen iwb users that claim to be engaging kids with close exercises where the words can actually move around on the board. Wow!

What worries me about the “it’s not about the technology” argument, is that I think kids deserve to be doing more complex things with computers.   A book report done with Glogster is still a book report, and this can be a good thing or a not so good thing.  A “read an article and answer some questions assignment” on a Ning or a google doc is just that…and again can be a good thing or a not so good thing!

My experience using MicroWorlds Jr with Grade 1′s and actually watching them plan, program, problem-solve, collaborate, debug and share in Logo was exhilarating…it was hard fun!  I can’t tell you how much I hope that Ontario’s OSAPAC program takes a look at this software, as well as its versions for older students.   A wise woman I met at ISTE a couple of years ago (I wish I could recall her name), mentioned her disappointment at all the trivial things she was seeing people do with classroom computers, even after all these years.  I’m reminded again about the importance of programming as part of the school curriculum when I read Gary Stager’s passionate post about ‘really computing’…Gary says it so much better than I, but if you’ve read Papert’s stuff and you’ve had the experience of programming with kids there is a good chance you are converted too!  Peter Skillen introduced me to MicroWorlds about 7 years ago and it’s through a different lens that I’ve viewed educational technology ever since.

I stay positive and know that it’s the discussions around all this, as Doug points out, that are the key.  I don’t know how Doug does it, but even with his amazing computer programming knowledge he supports us all in our knowledge acquisition with a smile and no arrogance or annoyance whatsoever, even though he can run super-procedures around even the most accomplished among us!  Doug really does walk the constructivist walk, knowing that developing deep understanding takes time and support.

Peter’s reference to the blue water analogy is changing my thinking too.   We must push each other and examine and discuss what we see, not getting ‘wowed’ by the tools, but knowing that the technology does have important impact and has changed every part of our lives…shouldn’t it also be changing how schools work?

I’m still not seeing that yet…but I don’t think it’s the technology that will change the schools anyway, it’s the people!

Hemingway Recommends Walking Away

This time last year Steve and I had just returned from a whirlwind four days in Paris, France. My first trip to Europe happened as a complimentary perk as a result of his taking a school group to London, England…so what luck for us to ring in 2010 at Les Champs-Élysées!

After falling in love with the friendly people, the beautiful architecture and the amazing food (bread, chocolate, and wine topped the list) and the sound of that wonderful language, my friend Brent, who is equally enamored with Paris, recommended that I read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway writes this book of memoirs about his early years as a writer in Paris, strangely enough also writing for the Toronto Star at this time.

I’m enjoying Hemingway’s descriptions of the times and of beautiful Paris, but the thing that is sticking with me most is his description of his process of writing. He has a room rented just for writing, and he forces himself to walk away after a good day’s work and finds that following these periods of intense work, he has to walk away and distract his mind with other things: friends, exercise, family, in order to be able to pick up once again with a clear and creative mind.

I hope that I can remember Hemingway’s Paris when I’m struggling to find some balance this year. Can I walk away from my work every day and let things ferment like that lovely wine from France?  I’m thinking that he was onto something there and that balance would actually help me be more productive in a deeper kind of way.

And, maybe more importantly, are we sharing these insights with kids?  Are we helping them understand how their brains are sometimes jet-surfing for quick bites and other times need to take a deeper scuba dive?  That clever analogy comes from The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr and if you haven’t already checked it out you might find it interesting to take a step back and think about how our internet lives might be affecting our processing of what we read online.

As I’m finishing this post I divert for a moment to read Will Richardson’s most recent post on Weblogg-ed (ok nobody’s perfect, I’m still multi-tasking) to find he’s thinking about balance this year too.   I don’t claim to have anywhere near the hectic online life he must have, but I find it interesting that I’m having this conversation with many colleagues these days…especially with Ron, Peter, Doug and Barbara, some of the deepest thinkers I know.

Funny to find some great advice about balancing my networked life from of all people, Ernest Hemingway!  C’est la vie! :)

Ever Considered an ECOO Presentation?

The E-Call for proposals has been out for a while for the 2010 Educational Computing Organization’s 31st Conference: Inspire, Connect, Learn and I’ve been doing some tapping on shoulders lately…in fact, if I haven’t gotten around to YOU yet…consider yourself tapped upon!

These days I’m feeling very fortunate to have such a rich and varied PLN, especially for the past year during which time I’ve been more involved in Twitter than ever before.  Having had the chance to experience Educon for the first time and take part in the Critical Thinking Consortium‘s workshops sponsored by OTF, I’m realizing that there are so many educators doing great things in classrooms and in communities of practice both on and offline around the province.  One of the best things about being part of the ECOO Conference Committee is trying to see the big picture and play a part in selecting the kinds of presenters and events that might appeal to teachers just like ourselves.

We don’t have to look very far.  Sure, we need to bring in a couple of big names (hang on…we’ll be announcing them soon).   They offer a new perspective, inspiring all of us who are committed to the benefits of technology in our own learning and teaching practice (and especially for our students), but we need to also provide sessions for the smaller breakout rooms.  These sessions do something just as important and perhaps even more lasting.  They connect our conference delegates in a more informal way to new ideas, new approaches, and sometimes just to discussions about some of the celebrations and challenges of technology enhanced teaching that is embedded in classroom practice.

After realizing that the most interesting educators I know are right here under my nose, the next thing that I’ve come to realize is that teachers often don’t feel that what they are doing is worthy of sharing.  How wrong they are!  We want to have a focus on classroom practice that can be transformed by, among other things, technology.  We want to celebrate and share the kinds of things teachers are experimenting with and reflecting upon as we continue this journey towards better learning environments for our students, be they virtual or bricks and mortar!

So please, I urge you to consider sharing your insights about learning with technology at ECOO 2010 and submit a proposal.   Not only is it a great way to inspire, connect and learn with other Ontario educators interested in technology use, but we’ll thank you with a free registration for the day and a wonderful lunch!

What is Deep Understanding?

“It is the peculiarity of knowledge that those who really thirst for it always get it.”  Richard Jefferies

Regardless of whether technology is in the picture or not, I’ve been wondering about deep understanding: what is it, and is it a goal we can actually realize in our schools these days?  Sheryl Naussbaum-Beach did a great keynote at ABEL last week and mentioned how much knowledge will be generated over the coming years and the facts really blow your mind.  There is no way, in a time when knowledge is growing at such an exponential rate, that we’ll be able to keep up with curriculum that is relevant and comprehensive enough to serve our students. Or can we?

I keep coming back to the kind of thinker we’d like to see graduating from our schools after a dozen or so years with us.  That’s a practical vision we CAN have in the face of enormously fast paced change.

Maybe we should asking,  “What kind of thinkers do we want our students to be, rather than what stuff do we want our students to know?”

Especially in the face of ubiquitous access to information, it seems that we’ll need students who can manage large quantities of information, but still be able to reach deep understanding in some areas.

But what is deep understanding?  Can schools really provide the learning environment to nurture and develop it?

  • Deep understanding must involve a well-developed, rich base of knowledge that has relative complexity based upon developmental level.  Can we have deep understanding at a young age?  I think so.  As a teacher of young children I have seen our youngest children develop some relatively complex skills given the limitations of their development.  Although we can’t expect a 6-year old to have the base of knowledge of a 13-year old, we can begin to cultivate and model a quest for a depth of understanding at an early age.  If we have confidence that young students can be doing the ‘real work’ of learning we can help them develop habits of mind that allow for deeper understanding.
  • Deep understanding also involves understanding that is flexible and useful in solving real problems.  We hear this in our objectives at school all the time, but I struggle with how this can happen when we are always planning with the end in mind, if the end involves a static list of information that needs to be memorized or learned in a superficial way for a test.  Can schools provide authentic real problems worth solving if the teacher is not a co-learner and if the projects are always contrived?  Just asking.  Check out my friend @dougpete’s recent blog posting.  I hope Doug doesn’t mind me analyzing his thinking…but it strikes me that this kind of flexible real-world problem solving is evident in someone who has deep understanding that leads to creative work which often transfers to other areas, a synthesis of good thinking if you will.   This is the kind of thinker I hope to be helping to shape in the limited year that I have students in my classroom.
  • Deep understanding is not often treated as an endpoint, but more often encourages continued growth and the desire to know more.  Learning is seldom done, finished or complete, but rather leads us in a new path.  Can we cultivate this kind of thinking in younger students?  I think we can if inquiry-based approaches really do allow students the choice to explore their own well-developed questions.

Can we see evidence of deep understanding or does it occur only in the inner world of the learner?

Our challenge as educators is that we are given the task of showing evidence of this kind of thinking, and the kinds of assessment needed to allow the demonstration of deep understanding are not easy to create (that’s another subject altogether).   Here’s what I look for:

  • Are students make sense of what they are learning by creating meaning and making ideas their own?
  • Are students connecting ideas together and connecting with previous experiences?
  • Are students personally involved and engaged in constructing new knowledge (may include intellectual, emotional, social or spiritual domains)
  • Is there evidence of transformation?  Does the student take action or change their beliefs based upon what they are learning? How do we know if this has occurred?
  • Are students involved in making a plan to acquire the kinds of knowledge they need in order to go deeper in their learning?

I wish I was seeing more student involvement in learning in our schools.  There appear to be very few interesting or unique or student-driven questions being explored, and I wonder about whether new knowledge is being constructed.

In thinking about the ways that I might keep deep understanding at the forefront when I’m planning my teaching I’ve come up with these:

  • promote active learning and creative production of artifacts that demonstrate understanding
  • integrate the aspects of cognition, or ‘ways of knowing’ (word, sound, image, gesture) as suggested by Elliot Eisner in support of integrating arts and education
  • explore complex issues
  • give students opportunity to discuss, debate, and problem-solve collaboratively
  • emphasize the assessment of changes in student understanding (growth based assessment) rather than a focus on acquiring content
  • structure the learning environment to allow for the deeper exploration of ideas (e.g. through personal choice,  scheduled large blocks of time, complex  authentic performance tasks, authentic audience, self-evaluation)
  • provide an opportunity for public scrutiny and feedback of products, ideas, and performance

Technology fits quite naturally as one of the tools a teacher might use to support the quest for deeper learning, but as you can see the technology is not at the forefront.  I don’t think it’s helpful to name specific ‘tools’ as so many come to mind to those who’ve been around the cyber-block a few times.    No wonder we embrace technology…it has the potential to help students towards thinking deeply!