"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, November 29, 2010

Learning by video games

My first principal (who should win a humanitarian award for letting me learn to be a teacher in her school) was, for all her faith in her students, leery of the use of games and competitions in the classroom. She was concerned that students who do not function well in a competitive environment will failure scenarios reinforced for them, and tend to detach and denigrate themselves. The trick, of course, is to come up with competitions that different students with different skill sets can succeed in. Hopefully everyone reading this knows that games which rely solely on rapid recall and response favor a certain limited mode of learning and thinking over others, sadly a mode which is celebrated in traditional school environments at the expense of other modes. I often used a review game in which I arranged students to compete against students of similar skill levels. (And how I enjoyed being proven wrong about a student who had learned more than I thought, even if it messed up the game.)

By and large, however, students do not take classroom games and competitions as seriously as we think. (I say nothing about league or team sports or other extracurricular competition, such as pageants or dance competitions -- they do not fall within the purview of a school-oriented blog.) They can shake off small defeats and return to the game with renewed determination to master it, just as they do with any video or digital game. I have never seen a kid go into a spiraling depression at being beat at Guitar Hero or World of Warcraft. Win or lose, they just want to play some more.

It seems foolish not to harness this. Not only is it a benignly addictive activity (well, maybe not so benign for those college freshmen who flunk out due to video game obsession), but a person playing a game is always learning something, especially a game in which, as is true for most digital games, the rules are not explained in advance. Like the so-called "real" world, one enters the environment with a general goal, but the specifics of how that is to be achieved and what obstacles will be encountered along the way is not laid out for the player ahead of time. This is what might be called simulated authentic learning.

Therefore, it is quite natural that someone would build a school on these very principles. So, as described in a New York Times article, we have the school Quest to Learn, which incorporates both the instinct to play and technology into a more global learning experience. Here is the money quote from Katie Salen, a co-designer of the school, who comes from a design and technology background, rather than traditional education:
The traditional school structure strikes Salen as “weird.” “You go to a math class, and that is the only place math is happening, and you are supposed to learn math just in that one space,” she told me one day... “There’s been this assumption that school is the only place that learning is happening, that everything a kid is supposed to know is delivered between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and it happens in the confines of a building,” she said. “But the fact is that kids are doing a lot of interesting learning outside of school. We acknowledge that, and we are trying to bring that into their learning here.”
We are still living with the lingering attitude that Learning is a thing that happens in a certain place at a certain time and that everything else is Real Life. But as George Ade wrote, "There are At Least Two Kinds of Education." Learning is going on all the time. The trick for educators and parents is to harness that process which is going to take place anywhere.

Games teach the brain a habit of mind, especially games in which the rules or even the goal are not pre-disclosed. It teaches habits of inquiry, of exploration, of an interest in "what works" not "what is the Right Answer which I am expected to vomit up on a school paper." That is real education, and I for one am going to be fascinated to see how this evolves and how game-playing can be used not just as an occasional bit of spice in the classroom, or a term-end review technique, but an essential structural element in education going forward.

Because one thing becomes clearer and clearer as I get older -- if there are rules in this life, there's nobody around to tell you what they are. You're going to have to find out for yourself.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Some reactions to new proposed school models

I have heard from friends who are not professional teachers (just amateurs like most people) in connection with the new school models I have posted about so far. One reaction is found in the first comment under the previous post (below). Here are two others:
Bill Vinson taught 4th grade to [three of my children]. [Two of the them] were the kind of student who would excel in most modalities, but Bill's style was really wonderful for [the one] who has ADD. [He] hadn't yet been diagnosed in 4th grade, but upon review by the school psychologist in between 6th and 7th grades, he was fairly classic. He lacked the hyperactive "H", and he also functioned well above grade level in most skills, so he was labeled as lazy and a clown rather than receiving a correct diagnosis and an IEP.

The classroom functioned as an "office". The students sat at round tables with an interlocking partition which make "cubicles". [My ADD child] had a folder which was his "inbox". If he completed his assigned tasks he could receive a bonus, which was no homework. Assessment was built into the assigned tasks. Upon mastery he moved on to the next skill level, or did "specials" which were enrichment activities. [My son] thrived in this environment where he learned a task and built upon it. When he was not bored he loved to learn, and the energy he used to use clowning was now focused on what he going to do next.

Bill gleaned stuff for the daily work folders from everywhere and anywhere. He had found the old SRA reading system and several other reading systems where he could track performance while letting the students work at their own pace. He had an incredible classroom library and he knew the books well so that he could integrate them into the childrens' reading for vocabulary, spelling or other enrichment. He also knew the kids and their interests.

Bill had a computer program for the kids to do their spelling tests so that they could test themselves. He used computer games for spelling and math reinforcement. The programs were personalized for each student so that they would be working on their own set of spelling words or math skills. He used every bit of technology he could find from an old Atari up to a pentium PC (remember this was like 1995....). The school only paid for one computer in the classroom so he dug up anything he could find and made it work.

[My son]'s daily work could still include some of the dreaded xeroxed work sheets, but since they were for skills he was learning rather than stuff he had mastered two years ago, they were interesting. He would also have assigned spelling time on the computer. He might have to complete 2 sets of SRA for reading and 2 units in the basal readers. There might be a science experiment or activity to complete and definitely something about the state of New York (because that is part of the mandated curriculum for fourth graders per the New York Regents).

An unexpected bonus of all this is that the students push each other to excel. There was a lot of healthy competition and mentoring in the classroom. Ben enjoyed helping his friends and wanted to do well.

Having all the students working individually rather than as a group does take much more organization and planning than having everyone move along at the same pace. But so worth it.
Bill sounds like a master teacher. And here's from a friend who has been a life-long student--in the good way:
I like [the method proposed in School of One]. It acknowledges the student for who they are and where they are at at that moment of time in their life when they are learning. It also gives room for the turmoil that can be happening within the student's home life.

These days with forclosures and all else it has to be very difficult for a student who has to keep up with a prescribed learning schedule that is rigid. There is something to be said for discipline, too. Students need that balance. I've done quite a bit of college, but during my days [in high school] when talk of independent study was run by me I liked it.

I've been accepted into Empire State College which is much like this for my last two years for my BA. Guided study appeals to me for learning Chinese because a formal classroom wouldn't serve me as I have so much on my own learning in that language. Still there are holes. Students like me who are interested in everything do well with this. I hope the school system you teach in is open to this. It's very ZEN.
Thanks for sharing, and I encourage more readers to do the same. So more models coming up...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Teaching what kids need to learn with varying modalities

Below is a link to a Freakonomics podcast discussing a NYC school experiment called "School of One." It combines three basic concepts in a new model for schooling. First, teach what the student actually needs to learn. Sylvan and Huntington tutoring systems have been practicing this for a long time. They have each student take a pre-test to figure out what skills they have mastered and what they need to work on. Then each skill is presented separately, given guided practice, independent practice and then assessed. The student continues to work on the skill until she demonstrates mastery (at Sylvan that was 80%.) You don't waste time teaching the kid what she already knows, and you don't let her get away with pretending to know something she doesn't.

This reporter compares this sort of individual tailoring of instruction to Pandora Radio. If you haven't tried Pandora, you have to. The report describes it, but in brief, it builds a library, starting with the musicians you tell it you like, tries to identify common characteristics and expose you to new music. If you don't like it, you can skip it, and the system learns what you don't like. They compare it favorably to conventional radio, where everybody gets the same tune (and the same commercials) at the same time, whether they like it or not.

How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System? | Freakonomics Radio
(Approximately 28 minutes)

Next is where School of one gets really interesting to me. They employ at least five different modalities of instruction, namely, large live instruction (teacher in a big box of kids); small live instruction (teacher in a more intimate box of kids); small group collaboration (each one teach one); virtual tutoring (one-on-one with a tutor you communicate with online in a Skype-type set-up); and independent practice (working on skills with the software). I would guess this is far better suited to basic skills and skills in the math, science and nuts-and-bolts literacy than it is for higher-level humanities. Still, this is just where we're weakest.

At first glance, it might seem as though this requires more teachers. But not necessarily. A lot of these students are working independently, or only require intermittent consultation or support from a teacher. My thumbnail estimate is that roughly the same number of teachers is needed, but that they are performing more different types of functions than they do now.

And third, and here's the real kicker for me -- students select their own modalities. They don't have a Child Study Team or psychologist telling them how they learn. It's student directed.

School of One has only been in place for a year, but so far it seems to be working well. At least, when I was a student, I had much rather been learning from a playlist than a curriculum.

Teaching kids real math with computers

I don't know much about math or teaching it. But I like the idea of teaching mathematical thinking instead of calculation. I defer to Conrad Wolfram, an actual mathematician who is actually concerned with education.

So? What do you think?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New models for schools and school buildings

Perhaps this is a road to frustration, but over the next few posts, I'd like to look at some new models for schools and school buildings that apply what we have learned over the past 30 years or so about teaching and learning. By and large, a high school teacher from 1870 would be completely comfortable with the way I am expected to teach most of the time in most American schools: 1 teacher with 25 kids seated at desks, stuffed in a box for between 40 and 80 minutes in a time. We now know that this serves about 15% of the students in front of us well. The rest of them are either forced to try and adapt or spin their wheels, which can interfere with the process for me and the other students.

I am not delivering any news here, but I hope I can spread some of the ideas people are playing with to get teaching to line up with what we know about learning. Above is the winning entry in a competition by Slate.com to come up with new models for the 21st century classroom. The hallmark of this design is the variety and flexibility of the space. As the article points out, the space for a single classroom incorporates
adjustable furniture, a messy art area, video screens large and small, communal areas for classes to share, carefully placed mirrors that allow for eye contact when a student and teacher sit at a computer together. Trish Fineran, the teacher on our panel of judges, loved that the tables were on wheels. She loved the integration of spaces enabling solo work as well as large and small group projects.
Check out some of the other leading proposals here. I hope I'll have the opportunity to highlight a few more from this competition, but first I want to get some other ideas from other sources in posts to follow.

In the meantime, I must still try and literally think outside of the box our 80-year-old high school buildings are made out of. I must try and make my plans more authentic, introduce more collaboration and capitalize on the skill sets and prior knowledge my students bring to the classroom. I don't know if my career will last to the day when we can fix these dreadful old buildings, but maybe I should pretend I'm already in one.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Negative lessons

OK, it's hard to explain why I've only just seen this film for the first time, but boy does this sequence nail down the factory approach to education. As Paul Simon said, it's a wonder we can think at all.