As an Einstein Fellow at the National Science Foundation, I have spent the last month delving through research regarding best practices for instilling computational thinking skills in K-6 students so that they can be prepared to jump into computer science courses by 8th or 9th grade. Clearly students need to acquire the foundational knowledge (i.e. fundamentals of reading, writing, number sense, etc) critical to their success. However, as a computer scientist, I firmly believe that equal importance must be placed on developing advanced problem solving skills to prepare students for 21st century jobs. Almost every industry is now influenced by computer aided science and students who posses skills like critical thinking, computer simulation and modeling, and computational analysis are finding it much easier to find, and thrive, in high-level jobs.
The challenge is finding ways to instill these skills using technology that is vastly different now than it was merely 10 years ago. Many educational app designers, software companies, coalitions, and educators are working diligently to provide a deliverable solution to this problem, and many of them are having great success. However, as I have been reading about all of these efforts, I could not help but to reflect on my own childhood. In reflection, I have come to two primary questions: 1) How did I learn these skills in an elementary school that had a total of a dozen computers (administrative staff included); 2) How can I make sure my two daughters get these skills in an era when the focus is increasingly on test preparedness for math and English?
As the ed-tech arms race continues to gain momentum, researchers, trainers, teachers, and school officials have been scrambling to integrate the amazing power of emergent personal technologies into the education process. Specifically, it seems everyone with an interest in education is trying to formalize and articulate the most effective ways to harness these technologies. As the conversion evolves, a disturbing trend has emerged.
As the Fab Lab Director for STEM School Chattanooga during the '14 - '15 school year, I was blessed to get to experience education with from a totally different view. One such blessing, was the opportunity to work with several 3D printers. Below is a synopsis of an email exchange I recently had with a colleague who was asking for advise on bringing 3D printing into her school. She had a small amount of experience with 3D printing and was in the process of writing for approximately $5,000 in education technology grants for her elementary school. If you are new to 3D printing but are interested in learning more about how it can impact a classroom, this may be a good place to start.
In August 2008, I wrote my master's thesis petitioning school officials to abandon $6,000+ interactive whiteboards and instead invest in tablet PCs (remember the clunky, twisty screens HP and Dell introduced in the late 2000's?) with wireless radio frequency cards to project teacher notes for 1/6 of the cost. Then, in January 2010, Apple announced the berth of an entire new genre in computing when they introduced the iPad the world. Paired with Apple TV and a cheap projector, an ed-tech arms race began that is still growing and gaining traction. As of February 1, 2015, there were 4,446 teachers on www.donorschoose.com asking for community assistance in purchasing iPads for their classrooms. Grant writers, teachers, librarians, administrators, district officials, and parent teacher organizations have all been scrambling to find funding to put personal computing devices in the classroom. The emerging challenge is to develop strategies for integrating personal technology to enhance the educational experience of students. In 2008, I was trying to convince officials that these devices were the future and that to take advantage of the technology revolution of the day, the education community would have to set aside a long held tradition of making research-based decisions and start to innovating (regardless of the mess it would inevitably produce). Today, I work in a STEM school that does just that. As a 1-to-1 iPad school, every student and teacher in our building has an iPad and we are quickly shifting from costly interactive whiteboards to Apple TVs with televisions (a savings of nearly $4000 per classroom). There still are not a ton of resources for thriving in a 1-to-1 environment, but we are making strides.
Now that the educational community has generally embraced the fact that personal technology is in the classroom for good, it is increasingly important that educational leaders quickly adapt to the new possibilities and start developing training that takes advantage of the global shifts that have occurred in the last decade. In a February 2015 Wired article, Chris Kohler explained that with a few recent releases, the three major video game manufactures have now officially ditched the TV requirement for gaming and are providing gamers with the ability to stream their games wirelessly to their personal devices from their consoles. This marks the end of a subtle technology shift that has been evolving since the iPhone was released in 2007. As the author notes, "(a recent study indicated that 2014) marked the first year in which Americans who own smartphones or tablets spent more time engaged with small screens than they did watching TV." This is a substantial shift.
There has been a sweeping movement in education (especially math education) that has placed a high level of importance on students learning through failing. The general thought is that when a student tries to solve thought provoking, challenging problems, the instructor should cultivate an environment that embraces the power of learning new techniques by stretching slightly beyond the student's current abilities. While I completely agree with this philosophy, I have seen far too many instances where school leaders claim to support this research based strategy, but then put such a heavy hand on the faculty that they squelch their willingness to innovate because of risk of failure.
Below are five facts that I believe are critical to successfully failing.
As a Fabrication Laboratory (Fab Lab) instructor at STEM School Chattanooga, I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a day long "Maker PD" for our faculty. The goals for the activity were to: 1) give teachers a chance to developed relationships with others they do not ordinarily work with, 2) acquire a basic understanding of the types of products our students can produce in the Fab Lab, and 3) have teachers work through the process of producing a display-quality product in a short amount of time. The day started with a brief demonstration of our high-tech production equipment intended to give everyone a 'tip of the iceberg' glimpse of what could be accomplished in the lab. After the introduction, the teachers were placed into teams of three and given a sample of raw materials they could use to build their product. They were challenged to make a display piece that represented the school's mission. At the end of the day, no group had really finished the task. In fact, none of the teams had finished products, but all of the teams had amazing products in the works. We concluded the day long session with a debrief in which the teams discussed the ups and downs of the day, the inspiration for their designs, and the joys and frustrations they experienced throughout the challenging process. In reflection, I have summarized those observations into 5 keys to successful collaboration.
1. Heterogeneous groups allow teammates to fill each other's gaps.
When teams are populated with diverse personalities and skill sets, the participants are able to work incredibly efficiently to accomplish the goal. If the participants are willing to accept roles and value the roles of others, they are empowered to piggy back off the strengths of their teammates to accommodate each other's shortcomings and produce a high quality product. This also magnifies the opportunity to legitimately share individual expertise and hone specific skills within a non-threatening context. Mature learners recognize and embrace these differences as strengthening agents. Young participants must be taught the value of diversity and the potential benefits of heterogeneous grouping. Facilitators must work to ensure that participants are able to value the strengths of their teammates while accepting the fact that they approach the task differently.
2. Homogenous groups experience less conflict but must persevere to overcome shortcomings.
When teams are populated with similarly minded individuals, the collaborative process is naturally smooth, but the group must work to overcome their similar weaknesses without a teammate who can fill the gap. For example, a non-creative team must work to overcome this shortcoming if none of the participants poses the ability to provide this necessary skill. To do this successfully, homogeneous groups must work through initial frustration and persevere through their weaknesses. Mature learners do this instinctively but younger participants must be coaxed to avoid quitting due to initial frustration from perceived inability.
3. Acquiring competencies while trying to create a quality product eventually fosters a debilitating level of frustration.
Facilitators must deliberately set explicit expectations that are appropriately aligned with participants' abilities. When individuals feel pressure to produce high-quality work before they have developed the appropriate skill sets, they are likely to experience a level of frustration that is unproductive and promotes apathy. Regardless of the maturity level of the learner, most individuals eventually cave to the frustration that can result from an unbalanced competency to expectation ratio. This can result from either unclear expectations, or expectations that are too far beyond the ability level of the participants
4. When faced with a legitimate time crunch, teams must choose to sacrifice quality or design specs.
When collaborative groups are genuinely invested in a project, they must have a high level of time-management skills or they must be willing to accept the fact that they will have to sacrifice initial design specifications or the quality of the finished product. For mature groups, this is done instinctively as they self-monitor throughout the process. For young learners, the facilitator must work to ensure that the group makes a collective decision regarding this sacrifice. If not managed properly, individuals can feel dejected and undervalued if their teammates choose to scrap his/her contribution to the product without clear rationale.
5. When teams are collaborating at a high level, it doesn't always look like everyone is doing something...and that's ok.
Assessing collaboration must be done holistically. It is not possible to accurately assess the collaborative process by simply looking at a team with a glance, seeing a participant idle, and making a snap judgement that he/she is not contributing. While it is certainly important to ensure teams do not allow one individual to do all of the work, it is equally important to display an understanding that successful teams' participants will contribute in a variety of ways that may not look as "busy" as others. As the great coach John Wooden said, "Never confuse activity with accomplishment." Sometimes, the least affective members of a collaborative group are the ones that appear to be doing the most work. It is vital that facilitators take intentional steps to evaluate the collaborative process as a whole and that the results are used to develop a true value of teamwork among the participants. Remember that in many industries, the management team may look the least busy (in terms of physical activity) but they are often responsible for the majority of the high level decisions that ultimately delineate between the success or failure of the company.
There comes a time in every person's career when they finally get it. The light bulb turns on and they see the forest through the trees. For me, that has happened in the last nine months.
In August, 2014, I began working as the Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) instructor at STEM School Chattanooga; a 3 year old, burgeoning platform school in Tennessee. A long time opponent of the STEM movement, I was convinced that STEM was just another educational buzzword; a fad that would burn out like all the others before it. Having worked with the administrative team on a professional development opportunity a year prior, I knew they would be great to work for (even if I didn't necessarily agree with the philosophies). In the last 3 months, I learned that not only was it a great idea to work with this team, but my beliefs about STEM couldn't have been further from the truth. The problem was simply that I didn't really know what STEM was.
I was first introduced to STEM as a pedagogical philosophy that was rooted in discovery learning. As an upper level math teacher at the time, I often joked that this was ridiculous. It took mathematicians 2000 years to move from Euclidian Geometry to modern Calculus. How were my students supposed to "discover" that much progress in 90 class days?! Was I really just suppose to give them a great problem, sit down, and watch them discover calculus? I knew that was dumb so I always reverted to standing in front and being the expert I "knew" they needed.
Now that I'm the STEM school, I'm realizing that I am now living in a perpetual light bulb moment. Everyday I have an epiphany that totally rocks how I previously viewed education. Working at the STEM School, I have discovered that it's not about throwing a project at kids and watching them make awesome stuff. It's about sharing my experience and expertise with students as we work together to solve contextually meaningful, authentic problems. In this journey, students inevitably integrate STEM content into their educational experience. The big shift is that rather than working within trivial situations, the carefully designed PBL units we use foster an environment that promotes "accidental learning." This journey provides students with the ideal opportunity to acquire relevant and vital skills as they work to develop products they genuinely care about because they are creating products they have designed from their own imagination.
When students work within authentic frameworks, they engage in learning on a professional level. They may not (and often don't) formally realize what is happening, but they begin to actively seek out new skills to help them synthesize a solution for the product they have in their head. In this model, students accidentally learn new skills en route to creating unique solutions to real problems. I really don't care that they can solve the problem necessarily. The true value is in the process. In the 21st century, it's not about the content (everyone has access to the same content). It's about the process.
What I once thought was STEM was not STEM at all. STEM is about the process of developing self-sufficient problem solvers. That's what Science, Engineering, and Math fundamentally accomplish by harnessing Technology to enhance the types of problems we can solve. As an educational philosophy, STEM is about empowering students to become high-level problem solvers across all domains. It is about developing students who are capable of blending critical and innovating thinking skills to work together to solve problems. 21st century jobs require this. It only makes sense to impart that to our students as early as possible.
Instructional Technology Tips and Tricks
10 Things I Wish I Had Known About iPads
1. Doceri (and mirroring through Apple TV) is a must have in an iPad led classroom.
2. 1:1 iPad schools should pick a productivity package & make it standard for the entire school (iWork Suite, or Google Docs are quality choices to consider).
3. Faculty should begin participating in Twitter chats for PD (consider using http://tweetdeck.twitter.com
4. Embrace a note-taking app. (I suggest Notability -- $.99 ; Note Taker HD -- $4.99 ; PaperPort Notes -- FREE)
5. Dabble with a a few apps in the same category, choose your favorite, then deliberately plan mini-lessons that force you to master it.
6. Consider using educreations to create your own lessons, find lessons from others, and have your students create lessons to share with each other.
7. Use Symbaloo to find interesting web tools and to share your bookmarks across multiple platforms (PC, mac, iOS, Android, etc.).
8. Teachers can use business collaboration tools to control, share, collaborate, and interact with students directly on their devices. These tools allow the instructor to create a presentation and then control it on multiple devices (some tools let you control up to 35 devices from the instructor device). They come with a ton of options for developing a collaborative community within your classroom and across multiple disciplines/grade-levels. This is also a great tool for PD. (The best options for this are subscription based--from $10/month and up-- but idea flight enterprise and join me are emerging as school friendly versions that are free or inexpensive).
9. Have students create iBooks using bookPress for FREE! They can also actually order a real, physical book if they would like. This is a powerful tool that is easy to use and can quickly integrate clip-art, sketches, illustrations, and videos into book, textbook, cookbook, and comic book creations.
10. Engage students' creative streaks by having them create video presentations for just about anything! Some of my favorite video editing and video creation apps are listed below:
As a high school math teacher, I have spent the last five years trying to meet the challenge that I face daily. The challenge of teaching students mathematical concepts that most of them will never use, with context they know is contrived, mostly because the state requires them to pass a test and meet a core requirement so they can graduate. To really ramp up the task, in choosing math, I chose a subject that the vast majority of my students hate long before they meet me.
As a new teacher, I set out to use inspiring stories, cool videos, state of the art technology, and innovative, research-based instructional strategies to hook my students and show them that math really isn't that bad and that they were all capable of doing it. After my first year, I realized that my supposedly compelling lectures and class demonstrations were nothing more than a dog and pony show designed to get me good teacher evaluations without ever really considering whether or not the students were actually learning the material (and I mean REALLY learning ... not just performing on a test).
I decided to give my students a college-esque teacher evaluation sheet (link at the bottom of this page) to be filled out confidentially at the end of the year. As I poured through the student reflections, I realized, none of the responses mentioned any of the compelling lectures I had given, the cool homework we did, or the well designed tests I gave them. However, several of the responses referenced projects we had worked on, products we had produced, and discussions we had engaged in.
After three years of similar responses, it finally occurred to me that I needed to listen to what they were telling me. Whether AP Calculus or repeater Algebra, my students were clearly telling me that they understood things they actively participated in. They engaged in things they did. They needed an expert in the room to help guide them, to provide them with the tools necessary to complete the next task, to answer questions when they got too far off base, and to hold them accountable to reaching the goals, but they did not like, nor did they retain anything from my thoughtfully designed lectures.
This is not a new concept. For at least a decade, research has suggested collaborative, immersive techniques are are more effective. However, when I observe teachers, and when I reflect on my own classroom, I realize just how easy it is to fall into the trap of regurgitating my learning experience as a student instead of innovatively teaching for true learning. I realize that I am often guilty of making sure my kids can pass a series of tests but routinely fail to teach them how to actually learn. I spend too much time thinking about ancillary school things and not enough time planning quality units and lessons that truly inspire deep, meaningful learning.
To break this cycle, I have forced myself to take sometimes grueling feedback from my students and listen to it. I have started designing my lessons with the end in mind. Focusing on what it is I hope my students can actually do instead of hoping they can perform on some test. I have come to understand that the test scores take care of themselves. It's a giant leap of faith, but I now truly believe that if we teach for deep, meaningful understanding, we don't have to do much in the form of test prep to have good scores. Of course, this type of teaching produces much more than good scores on arbitrary, mandated tests. It produces students who are self-directed, self-sustaining learners who are eager to prove their mettle instead of eager to find a good reason to avoid my class.
My mother is an accomplished pianist heralded for her "ear for music." Playing in churches all of her life, my mom developed a unique ability to fuse jazz chords with gospel syncopation to create beautiful versions of classic songs. As a stay-at-home mom, she took several years off before working to finish her undergraduate degree in music. By the time she went back to school, I was already looking for colleges for myself. In her late thirties she changed her major to music and started back to college. She thrived in the music classes (even theory which she had previously not been exposed to). However, my mom is now nearing retirement age and has still not received her degree. The problem? A College Algebra requirement she simply can't pass.
I am exactly opposite my mom in many ways...especially academically. School always "worked" for me. At a young age I realized I was above average at math and science and that I was good at logic driven exercises. However, I also wanted to be good at music like my mom (and the rest of my family). I took several years of formal piano lessons and listened for hours as my mom would play and try to explain some of the things she was doing. I never got it. When I sit a piano today, I can't play a single song. Though I have had nearly four years of formal music lessons, I still cannot read sheet music (even the simple grade-school books). I am just not wired to "get" music in that way...certainly not on the same level my mom does.
In 21st century education circles, it has become increasing popular and acceptable to claim that every student is capable of being accomplished in STEM related fields. While I do not disagree with this concept, I staunchly oppose the pigeon-holing that has emerged. It would be deemed outlandish for a stakeholder to host a press-conference and claim that every student in the country is capable of becoming a concert pianist, but politicians, educators, and directors are heralded for claiming that every student can be an engineer, architect, or computer programmer. Not only is this absurd, it is crippling. As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, it sends the message to students that if you don't excel in STEM related fields, you are not "smart." I am called smart all the time, but there are tens of thousands of people who are much more advanced than I am in math and programming. I'm just better than average in those fields. Conversely, my mom is rarely referred to as smart, but many would argue she is nearly genius level in her natural musical abilities.
As a teacher, I believe it is my job to find my students' genius and make my content fit. It is my responsibility to tailor my content to their innate strengths in order to help them develop their whole mind. However, I also believe we have a problem entrenched in American education. There is no good reason every student needs to pass Algebra 2 to indicate they are ready to excel in college. Why do we require students with non-STEM genius to prove themselves in STEM classes? Math came easy for me so this wasn't an issue. But, if you told me I would have to acquire 4 piano, or 4 art, or 4 drama credits to graduate, not only would my GPA have cost me scholarship opportunities, it might have kept me from getting my diploma. Surely we can revamp this system and celebrate student strengths equally (whether deemed valuable by manufacturing/tech industries or not)!
--Comments, opposition, questions are always welcomed...that's how I learn best :)
NOTE: I intentionally mention STEM related fields and not "STEM techniques." I do believe that with modern technology demands, all students need to develop learning strategies that align closely with the STEM movement. I am referencing STEM as the basic acronym Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
Cleveland Rotary Club
Innovating Education Through Community Partners
NEA Foundation The Promise of Public Ed
Leveraging Teacher Leadership to Increase STEM Education
US Senate Briefing
The Need for a National Organizing Body of Digital Fabrication
NACCE California Symposium
Scaling Innovation through Partnerships
Volkswagen eLab Ribbon Cutting
Why Digital Fabrication can't be an Option
NSTA STEM Leadership
Developing, Incubating, and Implementing Public/Private Partnerships that Matter
Chattanooga Fab Institute
Revolutionizing Learning through Digital Fabrication
HCDE Future Ready Institute Launch
Developing PBL Units with Business Partners
STEM Fellows Celebration
Community Partnerships for Teacher Leadership
Scaling Innovation in Schools
Remake Learning Days
Dig Fab in the Community
Public/Private Partnerships Panel
Digital Fabrication in the Modern Classroom
Redesign for Student Success (San Diego)
Scaling Innovation through Digital Fabrication
GE Leadership Summit
Leveraging Innovative Technologies for Learning
Texas Open Innovation
Emerging Innovations in Education
FFT Leading & Learning
Connecting Global Ed
reMake Education Summit
National Governor's Asc.
Coding with Governors
US Dept of Education
Round Table with Secretary John King
K-12 Pathways for CS
K-12 Education Panel
Reducing the Racial Gap in Computing
Boston Museum of Science
Teaching with Toys
US Dept of Education
MSP CS Proposition