In Their Own Way

An interesting article came out of the Huffington post this week indicating that all the free web content, flipped videos, and "google-able" answers will never replace good teaching. The author Chris Liang Vergara admits to be trumpeting Mind Research Institutes math enrichment program which he currently presenting on at SXSW this weekend with fellow developer Matthew Peterson. At first, this just seems like a self promotion with more interactive and "text-less" learning as opposed, to say, Khan academy.  In either case, both engender personal traits of:
  • Persistence
  • Learning through ones mistakes
  • Self-paced learning

Are These the Solution?
Are we not at the holy grail moment of education where such technologies are making the life of a teacher considerable easier? With such programs, why is is that students still turn off of learning and may not be motivated to sit through a youtube tutorial? 

Failure is essential for learning. So why do parents and students fear it?
Image Courtesy of CC

Because what these programs do is teach essential skills and knowledge, but don't well enough engage students in the question "Why must I learn this?" and what relevance does their learning have to benefit their local communities? I think in this regard, all the well intentioned flipped learning advocates, and self paced app developers fall short.  One of the more inspirational videos I read this week was about the power of "Design Thinking" which came out of Edutopia this week which shows a group of students redesigning their local environment. After one sees this, it becomes immediately noticeable where skills and knowledge play a part and how teachers can use these as teachable moments, essential to the project.  

It's these skills which we would all agree make a well-educated individual. More and more articles are coming out advertising what employers are really looking for in their workforce. Contrary to popular belief, it's not passing standardised tests (if you can believe that), but the ability to work cooperatively, solve problems, learn and apply new skills on the job that is nouveau.

Measuring What Matters
To people that try to compartmentalise learning as a checklist of bulleted facts and skills that can be checked off with a standardised test, they'll never see this bigger picture. What education reformers often fail to understand is the difference between giving students the skills to be a scientist and inspiring them to be one. I'm not saying that assessment doesn't have a role (actually, I would argue that is has a big one with assessing for understanding) but the application of skills is what is difficult to measure, so it's not.

"What education reformers often fail to understand is the difference between giving students the skills to be a scientist and inspiring them to be one"

Are such skills an indicator of future success anyways? Thomas Friedman reported yesterday that even Google is shying away from hiring college graduates and has roughly 14% of it's staff on some of it's teams without college degrees. G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. ... We found that they don’t predict anything.” said Laszlo Bock, senior vice president for people operations at Google. If you want further proof, ask yourself how the United States has been the global economic superpower for the last half century and producing mediocre educational testing results. 

Designing a Distillation Apparatus to Create Potable Water

In about two weeks, my students will complete their projects; distillation apparatuses that purify water which is a UN millennium development goal. I told my students on the first day of class that this would be our focus and they'll upload their instructions of how to build one and their data results to the internet for free. The result has been dynamite. Lessons are based on teaching skills and knowledge essential for the project and relevance has seamlessly tied into lessons. This has give the students the ability to be creative, struggle, compromise, apply and learn humility. The use of educational technology has also played three key roles:

  1. Modifying Data Collection. Our school is making strides to get teachers more involved in using formative assessment rather than assessing merely at the end of a unit. Formative assessment may seem like a huge time consuming task, but using such feedback turns failure into information, and electronic tools allows teachers (and students) to see their progress in real time which improves cognitive abilities through brain-based research. Such scripts like autocrat allow for generating personalized feedback after assessments on google forms. 
  2. Documenting Process. Engineering a device is a rather cumbersome process, and one that is best augmented with the use of visuals; either pictures of video. In this capacity, the Ipads have been great because such apps allow for a sleek presentation of how to do any procedure. Some of my kids used "Explain Everything" although most of them used a new app called "Snapguide" which was a first for me, but a nice product. 
  3. Publishing Their Results for Peer Review. I've been a big advocate of blogs for student portfolios and I've been connecting with other teachers around the world and their classes that do the same. Now, more than ever, students can share their work with a greater audience and invite others to comment and critique their research which is now possible. 
Peer review motivates students to do better work and write for an actual audience
Image courtesy of CC

I'll finish with a quote from Jay McTighe who once said at a workshop, "What does it mean to really understand something?" All teachers have scratched their heads at one time or another when a student has seemed to "demonstrate" something to turn around and show no application of it later. What led to this disparity? Simple forgetfulness? Poor pedagogy? It up to us to keep at it, teach what's important and allow for students to show this, all in their own way.


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