Thursday, March 31, 2011

While your are in Priovidence

Just a reminder... when you are at the Annual Conference in Providence next week, make sure to take the time to wander through the exhibitors... there are lots of folks who ready to support your middle school, take a few minutes and talk with these folks.

Also, plan to stop by your state reception. It is a great chance to meet the people who live near you who face the same challenges you do. (I actually met two different principals at a state reception in-- I think 1990-- and they both hired me. One to teach science a year 1992 and one to teach math in 1994!)

A Classic Introduction to Your Brain

I found this lecture on my iPod and listened to it while walking to school today. It is old (recorded in 2007), but it still gives an excellent overview of how the brain works. Seems like we need to help our students know how the three-pound clump of "stuff" in the skulls works.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The World is Changing... More Proof

We are all familiar with the recent events in Egypt. A TEDTalk was posted in March 2011. The talk was given in the same month. I have three reactions:

1) "The Internet" and the connections that are available do have amazing social consequences (good for the people, not so good for those opposed to the people).

2) Such events can be the focus of relevant curriculum for middle schoolers (and everyone else). How we can continue to ignore this in schools is beyond my comprehension.

3) How great to live in a time when I can (for free beyond the costs of accessing a computer and a connection) see a man who lived the important events describe the events.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Education in Vermont Changing?

This post refers to events in Vermont in late march 2011:

Politics and Vermont Education

In Vermont, there is talk about making the commissioner of education a position filled by the governor. Currently the department of education is independent from state agencies.

The reasoning behind this proposal is that the position will be more accountable. I understand the reasoning. I understand the political sentiment motivating the proposal. Education is an important public service. Education is an expensive public service.

Let’s recognize that education is not only a political issue, and let’s consider what the implications are for this proposal.

Education is a technology, and like all technologies it is based on natural phenomenon. The natural phenomenon that forms the basis of education is the human brain and the changes that occur in that organ when learning occurs.

Many are surprised to learn that only in the last few decades have scientists really begun to discover how the brain learns. Equally surprising is the realization that the assumptions that have been the basis of schooling for decades are not based on any scientific evidence. (These assumptions go the very foundations of what we believe about education. For example there is no scientific evidence that there is some set of knowledge and skills that should be learned--we call them standards; nor is there evidence that direct instruction is the best way to transfer those skills into students brains or even that testing is the best way to measure learning!) In reality, the science suggests that our schools have been built on very inaccurate ideas about humans and how we learn.

Education, then, has political dimensions but it also has natural dimensions. The challenge for government is to reconcile those dimensions and to ensure that political decisions do not violate the natural dimensions. Just like always, nature will win over politics every time.

Of course, education is not unique in having political and natural dimensions. Agriculture and medicine and human technologies that come immediately to mind that share this characteristic. In the history of agriculture, we can see an example of how nature won over politics in the past.

Now, a word of cautions... in the following paragraphs, I am not suggesting any connection between those who advocate for the new laws in Vermont and the leaders of the former Soviet Union. I seek to make a point about political decisions affecting science and the technologies built on that science.

Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) was a botanist and plant scientist who lived in worked in the Soviet Union. He was the director of the Institute of Genetics which was part of the Academy of Sciences within the USSR. In that position, he was able to exert political influence and he used that influence to promote a version of genetics that was based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. (You will recall from high school biology class, that is a dis-proven idea.)

Through his political influence, Lysenko was able to suppress science that was contrary to his beliefs. To make a long story short, Soviet agriculture (and the people who depended on it for their food) suffered because that technology was based on his false science and the political system that promoted Lysenko’s falsehoods and repressed dissenting (and scientifically-supported) views.

Again, I am not telling this story to find connections between the advocates for the changes in Vermont government and the Soviet leaders of the 20th century. I am telling this story to point out that what political leaders decide and what nature decides are not always the same, and that those political decisions that are contrary to nature are doomed to failure.

I think Vermont’s leaders are slightly off the mark with this discussion. It does not matter if the people responsible for making decisions about schools are appointed by the governor or by some other process. The concern of our government should be to make sure that those who do  make the political decisions affecting our schools have sufficient direction and advice from those who have understanding of the science behind their decisions to be sure those decisions move our schools in a direction that is supported by the best knowledge of human learning that is available.

The knowledge we need comes from experts. The expertise comes not from business leaders or the other citizens who dedicate their time and energy to serving on boards of education or in the legislature, nor even from education leaders (most of whom have built careers building compromises that satisfy different constituencies). The expertise comes from scholars who have built careers studying the factors that lead to learning and the scholars who are sufficiently forward-thinking to envision schools that will prepare students for their future.

(Full disclosure-- The blogger has worked as a professional educator since 1988. He holds a bachelor of science in education, a master of arts in education, and a doctor of philosophy in education.)

Is the President Catching On?

Last week (or was it longer ago than that?) we read in the newspapers that President Obama intended to continue the NCLB focus on testing to measure student progress.

Those of us in middle school education know that is a dubious practice. Now, we read that he appears to be advising educators against education for tests as it could become "boring." (I would choose adjectives such as "irrelevant," "meaningless," "inauthentic," "backwards," etc.)

Perhaps our leaders are getting the point that just because "we" (defined here as well-intentioned adults) know about the schools that we attended and the type of eduction we received that is no reason to conclude that those schools and that education are sufficient to prepare young people for their future.

I suppose we all need to stay tuned to see if this is a sign that our government will change direction in public policy towards eduction or of this is simply a smoke-and-mirror change.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sir Ken Robinson-- Learning Revolution

My post about Paulo Freire seems to connect quite well with one of Sir Ken Robinson's recent TED Talks:

Paulo Freire

Over the weekend, I finished reading two essays by Paulo Freire, the educational philosopher from Brazil who died in 1997. He wrote about critical consciousness and argued that when we see education as being the transmission of information from one brain (in most cases the educator's brain that is thought to be knowledgeable) into another brain (the student's brain that is though to be ignorant), then we can hope for (at best) students who behave as if they are "smart," but who have very little knowledge.

His ideas seem particularly timely today, as we are dealing with a world that seems rich with contradictions, and increasingly complex technology and information, and space and time have been annihilated, and everyone has a soapbox, and there is a day's worth of video uploaded to YouTube every minute.

For educators, Freire's work makes the point that we need to move from practice (blindly following whatever the latest educational fad happens to recommend) to praxis (evaluating and designing practice that is based on sound understanding of theory and evidence). He makes me think of those educators (we all know them as colleagues, principals, curriculum leaders, etc.) who practice sound-bite research or who take whatever a vendor or pundit claims about a practice. Deep understanding of human learning and pedagogy and society are necessary for education that is relevant in the 21st century.

Friday, March 25, 2011

OK... here is something worth seeing!

On the Internet sites I visit, I have seen some chatter about Khan Academy in the last few months, but I have not had the chance to go and look... I did this morning, and I am wishing I had been there earlier.

Several thousand videos that explain "things" that I have explained time and time again as a middle school science and math teacher. Now, I have no problem showing students how to (for example) subtract fractions; but I get tired, I make mistakes, and I am not always around when the student needs a refresher. These videos, on the other hand, never tire, never make mistakes (as long as the original coach didn't make any mistakes), and they are always available.

Our world is changing... the relevance of any educator who keeps doing things the way he or she did in the 20th century is pretty much gone.


One of my goals for this blog is to introduce and reintroduce the community of middle school educators to tools they can use for curriculum and instruction that are available through computers and information technology. These represent the growing media landscape of our society.

We all know iTunes, the software for managing files on industry-standard for portable music player- the iPod. iTunes can be install on any Macintosh or Windows computer and the free content on iTunes can be accessed from the computer with or without an iPod.

One of the greatest collection of free content is in iTunesU (iTunes University). Thousands of files created by and for the education community-- lots of university stuff, but also much that is appropriate for middle school students.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Annual Conference Keynotes

Still not sure about attending the 30th NELMS Annual Conference in Providence that starts two weeks from today?

Check out the keynote speakers:

Thursday, April 7th

Title: Middle School Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice
Presenter: Joan Sedita

A review of the recent research, legislation, and federal policy shifts regarding effective literacy instruction for grades 5-8.

Friday, April 8th

Title: Teaching in 4-D
Presenter: Rick Wormeli

Too often teachers and principals limit themselves to their current operation metaphors, seeing only one thing at a time and in a narrow dichotomy: we teach this way or that way, we're higher or lower in some criterion, and we use this technology, not that one. If we're not careful, we become trapped in an echo chamber of our own creation, thinking this is all there is, blind to the new democratization of knowledge. As students navigate a large and complex world integrating multiple facets simultaneously, they need teachers who transcend linear and dichotomous thinking. Join us for a tantalizing and practical address in which we explore four critical dimensions in middle level teaching: Creativity, Expertise, Failure an Collaboration. Not one of them can do it alone, but when integrated daily, we provide a compass rose for the next generation of great thinkers. Join us in a visual and auditory catalyst for Teaching in 4-D!

Saturday, April 9th

Title: Pep Assemblies, Red Pens, and School Lunches – Is that all it's really about?
Presenter: Dedra Stafford

You came into the education filed full of hope, energy, and a desire to CHANGE the world! Now you catch yourself looking at the bank attendants, and door greeters wondering how hard it would be to make the transition. Educators are care givers who give until they can't give anymore. Dedra will help you put yourself at the top of the list, create habits that will prevent burn-out, and remember why you are where you are. This keynote will have you laughing and learning as you get reconnected to your passion for teaching.

Now go register!

Google Art Project

On this blog, I have mentioned Google projects-- Earth, Body Browser, and others. On of their recent projects is the Google Art Project. Basically, you can take a tour of several well-known art museums. I find the images blocky and the zoom feature to be weak, but it is surely an option for introducing students to some art that is not otherwise available.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hybrid schools?

My principal just dropped of a recent copy of the Harvard Education Letter and he drew my attention to the article suggesting hybrid schools are useful for the "iGeneration."

My response was, "yeah, sure, but the advantages are even greater for the iGneration's teachers." We are all familiar with the productivity paradox of computers... we purchase (or upgrade) a computer (or software) because it promises to increase our productivity. The reality, however, is the opposite happens; our productivity is not improved, and if we factor in the time needed to learn how to use the new technology, our productivity is decreased.

A hybrid classroom, however, will allow us to improve our "productivity" (I use quotes here because productivity is a meaningless concept for educators' work) by using the online site to manage those parts of education that can be well-managed via a computer.

Need to know the missing homework? "Go look on the course site."-- Because I post the assignments there and the site does a better job remembering what the details were and when I gave it than I do.

Need to see which questions you got wrong on the quiz in the parts of the microscope? "Go look on the course site."-- Because the computer can compare your answers to the ones I expect far better than I can and I want to make sure we know this "stuff" quickly before we move on to the good stuff of looking at cells.

Need a review of the parts of the microscope? "Go look on the course site."-- Because there is a good video that reviews the important points and the video never gets sick of pointing to the microscope and naming points like I do.

So, my point is that computers are far better at performing certain tasks than I am, and a hybrid classroom is one way I can use computers for what they do best and save our time together as a class for more interesting topics.

Yet another AC reminder...

Excuse the additional reminder, but please take a moment and click through to the Annual Conference registration page at the NELMS site... in a couple of weeks you will have the chance to attend on of the best conferences you will ever attend, and it is right here in New England!

Here is the most recent draft of one of the slide sows I will be using to support on on my focus sessions:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Graphic organizers are helpful for middle school students (and everyone!).

The Inspiration folks have written great software for creating graphic organizers... and they have a web version that is in Beta-- it is in development, but it sure seems to work well.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Free Online Conference

This just came my way also...

Emerging Trends...

Although I am no longer responsible for managing IT in my school, I still get lots through my inbox that is meant for IT mangers rather than for educators. One recent article reviewed 10 "hot: areas of expertise for IT folks... basically it listed the steps that business and industry are taking to provide IT services to clients and employees.

The details of the list are boring, but overall, the trend is obvious: to the cloud! The list focuses on Internet access and using the cloud to provide productivity and information support for all users.

If you haven't started with cloud computing... get a GoogleDocs or Zoho account today, and start.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Math Resource!

I know many math teachers are using GeoBebra, a free software title for math students and teachers.

A colleague recently sent me a link to a collection of video tutorials (including some step-by-step procedures)... it looks like a good list... I send it to you to judge!

Media Awareness Network

In today's world, the media we (teachers and students alike) have access to is amazing; many of us suffer from overload. The Media Awareness Network which is maintained by some folks in Canada have some terrific resources to help us and our students develop skills necessary for the modern world.'

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Change Mind-Set

We are having a two-day in-service meeting and the focus of our attention is the book Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen. The thesis of the book is that children who live in poverty display behaviors that are not typically associated with positive academic performance, and Jensen details the  reasons as explained in recent research.

Among the suggestions is that we (as educators, especially those who work with populations experiencing high poverty) adopt a mind-set of change as we need to accommodate these children if we are going to maintain our role as providers of universal education and if we hope to help children from these populations access education as a potential way out of poverty. I appreciate his suggestions on how to adopt a mind-set of change (or more accurately how not to adopt such a mind-set); he suggests we not:

  • Focus on the basics
  • Force compliance with our standards
  • Reduce access to arts and physical education
  • Decrease interaction among students
  • Implement similar "heavy-handed" solutions
Jensen's book is an ASCD title:

Another View from the Past

Here is what the future looked like when I was four years old!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Rest of My Response the Recent NCLB Announcement

Yesterday, I commented briefly (to briefly?) on President Obama's intention to continue many of the central parts of NCLB. I did not think that was a good idea, and I still don't, but I read something today that explained my aversion to this plan.

I was reading the Introduction to the Cambridge Handbook Learning Sciences and the editor (R. Keith Sawyer) summarized the assumptions about human learning that were that basis of how schools were structured in the 19th (and then the 20th) century:

  1. Knowledge is a set of facts and procedures.
  2. Learning involves getting those facts and procedures into human brains.
  3. Teachers can transfer those facts and procedures from books (and any other media) into human brains.
  4. The order of transfer matters: start with the simple, then move to the complex.
  5. The best way to measure the transfer is with a test.
That sure sounds like the schools I went to and it sure sounds like the schools NCLB wants.

There is only one problem... and I have know this for a while, and many in the NELMS community know this, and Sawyer reminded me in his Introduction... none of this has been demonstrated by science!

I am not sure how long this will be available, but the Dilbert comic on March 15, 2011 (today) sure illustrates what appears to be our approach to science:

Tech Counts '11 Released

Education Week has released its annual report on the state of educational technology for 2011. My subscription to EdWeek lapsed and I have not renewed it, but I was able to download this year's report today... get your copy while you can!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Recent NCBL Buzz

Yesterday's news was unfortunate for those of us concerned with our children's future...

It’s unfortunate that President Obama is stuck in the 20th century. Any education policy that measures success with a test is doomed to failure. There is a large body of research indicating that the problems we face in the 21st century require new ideas, new skills, and new perspectives.

We are more than a decade into the NCLB age. I have seen evidence that the drop out rate has risen during this age. I have seen evidence that the tests and the curriculum and instruction common in schools are not connected. I have seen evidence that the standardized curriculum developed in response to NCLB ignore the needs and characteristics of diverse populations. I have seen evidence that students’ opportunity to read what interests them has eroded during this age. I have not seen any evidence that students who performed well on the tests administered under the auspices o NCLB have performed any better in college (or in trade schools or any other endeavor they choose to enter).

The mantra of the NCLB advocates has been “data driven” or “research-based” reform. It sure seems to me that the data is clear, and if we are to reform schools for the 21st century (which I believe we need to do), then the direction for the reform cannot be from outdated practices and assumptions. It also has to be truly data driven and thus more flexible.

The instructional spaces we create need to be technologically-rich and places where students engage in solving authentic problems. Preparing students for their future requires they get experience dealing with complex issues and answering unsolvable problems, not answering simple questions on a test created by out-of-touch adults.

New Media Landscape

When I was in school, events like the recent disaster in Japan were available on the news, and we had our choice of three outlets: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Now there is an unimaginable collection of choices. More interesting and more useful for school audiences, I believe, are options such as the "before-and-after" slide shows such as the one that appeared on the Huffington Post.''

I recall seeing similar slide shows after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Another AC Reminder...

I have been on the NELMS web site on several occasions in the last week, and each time my attention is drawn to the section announcing the 30th Annual Conference-- APril 7-9, 2011 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, RI.

In particular, I have looked over the Ticketed Sessions. These offer an extended opportunity to hear from some of NELMS's most skilled presenters (and I write that because of the others' who are doing those sessions along with me-- I am trilled to be included in that group!). I have attended those sessions in the past, and have found the few extra bucks in registration costs to be well worth it.

If you have not done so, click on over the the NELMS web site and register for the AC-- see you in Providence.

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A Blast from the Past

Here is an interesting (and in retrospect funny) video ca. 1995... oh how the times have changed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

TED Education

I am sure many are familiar with TED Talks-- a terrific collection of less than 20-minute presentations by brilliant scientists, artists, and thinkers.

The group that sponsors that effort is preparing to launch their Education Brain Trust. Their site indicates they are looking for innovative educators to be involved... sounds like they need the New England Middle School community to be involved!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reinventing Education

Sir Ken Robinson is well-known for several of his presentations focusing on creativity in education. One of my favorite versions of his presentations is the RSA animation on YouTube. I have posted that video on this blog previously, but it is worth taking 15 minutes to look at again.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wolfram Demonstrations Updated

The announcement of an update to Wolfram Demonstrations (one of my favorite sites for supporting science instruction) arrived in my inbox yesterday. The site has been updated (in conjunction with the release of the new version of Mathematica).

To use the demonstrations now requires the download and installation of CDF (computable document format) viewer, and then the demonstrations can be viewed in your web browser. The Mac version that I installed was big (almost 600 MB), but the ease of use is worth the time and effort for the install.

A Dangerous New Trend?

Yesterday, my 20-year-old son, my wife, and I sat at a particularly long red light (2-cycles, 10 minutes-- seriously!). We all made a particularly upsetting observation at the same time. People talking on their cell phones while driving. Interestingly, however, we all noticed that none of the young people were doing it-- only people who appeared to be at least my age (45), most were noticeably older.

That seems to validate the observation that young people carry cell phones, but they talk on them very little. For them, being connected seems to mean being able to send text messages and get to FaceBook.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Brain Freeze

For those who missed the recent article in Newsweek magazine, it is worth taking a few minutes to read.

Sharon Bagley, a well-known writer of books on brain science for popular audiences, reviewed recent research on the information overload that can affect those who can't seem to ignore the vibrations in their pockets whenever a FaceBook update or Twitter post or text message arrives on their phone.

Fortunately for those who do not have access to the print edition of the magazine, there is an excellent web version.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Social Media!!!

So, I just posted the video about social media, and grabbed my book to go read for a few minutes (ya' gotta love snow days when you have a good book!).

My son came down the stairs and said when he woke up this morning checked FaceBook (on his iPhone) and noticed that several of his friends had posted "Snow Day" for their status, so he pulled the covers over his head and went back to sleep.

Anyone remember when kids used to listen to the radio for those announcements?

Did You Know... The Videos Continue

About five years ago, a video called Shift Happens was making its way around all of the educational conferences and education blogs, and for good reason... it made the point that the world is changing quite well.

The trend has continued and variations find their way on to YouTube on a regular basis. One of my current favorites focuses on social media. It is becoming increasingly clear that we educators are ignoring the realities of this phenomenon. We might block access to these sites from machines attached to our networks (although I think our reasoning is flawed and not supported by evidence), but students come into our schools with phones that are connected via networks we do not control.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Math Education

Math education is an aspects of schooling that can be infuriating. In my experience there is no subject area that gets so much attention that keeps the curriculum and instruction so backwards and contrary to what we are learning is good for kids' abilities in schools, their preparation for the future, and their confidence as learners.

In previous posts, I have pointed to talks by scholars for using technology in math education. On Saturday, March 5, 2011, Weekend Edition on National Public Radio featured Keith Devlin, their "math guy," talking about "new math," "old math," and the truth about math and human brains. This is a "must listen" for anyone interested in math and math education.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why PowerPoint doesn't cut it anymore...

Fifteen years ago, PowerPoint was a good tool to support education. We could add visuals to our presentations and kids would pay more attention. In the intervening years, however, PowerPoint has become "supelame" (a word used by a middle school student). We can explain that phenomenon: Media researchers have found that as humans get more familiar with media, they get more bored by it and attend to it less. Also, it media is too complex, humans do not attend to it. HUmans do attend to (and learn from) media that is somewhat between bring and complex... this graph illustrates the idea

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Walter Ong: More non-neutrality

Walter Ong was a scholar whose work influenced Marshall McLuhan (the medium is the message). One of the important books he wrote was Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. In that book he differentiated cultures with primary orality (cultures with no writing) and literate cultures (those with writing). Interestingly, Ong suggests that of the 10,000 languages that survived to the beginning of the 20th century (only about half those still survive) only about 100 had writing. The conclusion is that we can draw is that writing (despite it being so "natural" to us is that have lived in text-rich cultures) is actually not the typical method of sharing and storing information.

As we review Ong's characterizations of primary orality and literacy, we can see that communication with 21st century information technology in many ways more resembles cultures with primary orality than literate cultures.

Ong's book is not terribly long, but for those looking for brief summary, I have found this to be a good resource.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Technology's Non-neutrality

It seems that we in education still believe that technology is a pipeline through which we access information. (That follows from the models that emerged in the mid-20th century- Claude Shannon, Vannevar Bush,  JCR Licklider all treated information technology as the venue that we used to access and process information.) In the 1960's Marshall McLuhan popularized the work pointing out that information technology is not neutral. His work was unfortunately questioned by some who misunderstood the evidence and the arguments, but "the medium is the message" is supported by a rich researcher tradition by scholars such as Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and Eric Goody.

Modern scholars continue to point out that technology is an active part of determining who we are and how we think.... this classic YouTube reminds us of that:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Annual Conference 2011

The annual conference program book is now available. I am always amazed at the quality of the presentations, right here in our backyard and for a quite reasonable price.

I attended every AC from 2002-2009, and then was unable to attend last year (due to a conflict with another conference). Check out the program book and register today!