Monday, July 18, 2011

Do we really believe in collaboration for learning?

Humans learn collaboratively from birth—from the adults and others around us. We model their behavior, learn their language, their customs. Brain research from cognitive neuroscientists tell us that we’re wired that way, with mirror neurons, that make us feel that we are completing tasks as we watch others do the tasks.

However, this is not enough. Watch a mother teach a child to tie her shoes-the parent shows the child, but then has the child do the activity. This is taking the activity from short term memory to long term memory; and in the case of a physical skill, it needs lots of practice. Many other areas of the brain need to be involved as well, for that skill to become automatic. The brain and the hands must be trained through practice, support, correction, and more practice.

Schools have long relied on this model-teacher does, student practices. It is the core practice of the entire modern school system. And yes, students absolutely need to see expert models of what is expected if they are going to succeed; but the expert modeling and student practice is not enough. Something is missing; ultimately students aren’t learning and keeping material in their long-term memory. When they arrive in the “real world,” they cannot seem to apply what they have learned to new and practical situations. Businesses have long complained that schools aren’t producing people who are qualified in writing, collaborating, and critical thinking.

Does the answer reside in this notion of collaboration? In the example of the mother teaching the child to tie her shoes, the child has one teacher who becomes a collaborator. If the mother wants the child to learn to do things for herself, the mother must back away and allow the child to do it on her own, but can still provide suggestions and guidance. In a sense, the mother steps out of the teacher role to become a facilitator.

If you’ve watched young children learn to tie their shoes, then you know that something else happens. The child will go to preschool, or kindergarten, or playgroup, and practice this skill with other children. The children will give each other suggestions, share the tips their mothers and fathers taught them. Older brothers and sisters will join in, sharing their tips, guiding the practice. Neighbors, aunts, uncles, grandparents—everyone joins in until the child masters the skill. The child’s learning becomes a community collaboration. When the child finally succeeds, the whole community has succeeded.
In our age of accountability and test, test, test, very little of this authentic, collaborative learning is happening in our classrooms. Teachers have moved away from collaboration to individual skill and drill because ultimately, they need to prove that each child learned on the all-powerful test. And they have so many skills to cover. One teacher cannot possibly collaborate with 25-30 children in the same way that one mother collaborates with her child. And, many teachers reason, if children are working collaboratively, I cannot prove that they learned individually.

Yet, in the shoe tying example, the child did individually learn the skill, through a combination of individual practice and collaborative help. The child succeeds through this learning method in a rather short period of time, when one considers the scheme of time in a five-year-old life. Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the child is highly motivated to learn this skill; it is, after all, a real-life skill that everyone around her is using. She sees daily application of this skill and she wants to be a member of the community, adults, using it. If everyone around her is helping her to learn it, the skill must be valued, and therefore, something she must learn. The skill will lead to independence and mother and father will let me do it myself. Yes, the child becomes highly motivated to master the skill.

Where is this thinking in our classrooms? For our k-5 students, so many skills are now taught out of context and to students individually—where is the learning that is relevant to what a child sees in his/her real life? Is it surprising that test scores do not improve? In 6-12, we then move to dumping content into individual brains, with lecture and individual practice still dominating the teaching method of choice. Though now, in our current testing atmosphere, many English Language Arts classes have adopted the skill and drill mentality of the lower grades. In Arizona, students through 10th grade are now drilled on the all-important five paragraph essay, on answering multiple choice questions for benchmark tests and AIMS reading and math; yet we seem to be making very little progress in improving those scores. And year after year, the NAEP scores show very little improvement nationally—there has been little gain since the early 1970s!

So, it is really no wonder that teachers of all age groups have moved away from an emphasis on collaborative learning in the classrooms, if they ever used it in the first place. As someone who has sat through countless in-services, professional development sessions, and graduate classes, it has always amazed me that the attitude of most teachers is, “Here we go again, more cooperative learning.” This was the attitude of many high school teachers even before the accountability craze, and it certainly accounts for the lack in gains in student learning—if teachers are going to resist research-based techniques and refuse to change their teaching when they return to their individual classrooms, then no reform initiative is ever going to work.

When I worked as a teaching and learning coach, first at an individual high school, and then in an entire district, I was shocked and disappointed as I visited various middle school and high school classrooms—there was almost no collaborative learning taking place, except in the classrooms of those whom principals considered “exceptional teachers.” Students cited these same teachers as their favorites, and those from whom they believe they learned the most.

I am not blaming teachers for this attitude. Well, ok, maybe a little. After all, aren’t we supposed to be life-long learners, modeling the thirst for knowledge for our students? Shouldn’t we always seek out and try new methods to benefit the students in our classrooms? Rhetorical questions, yes. But mirror neurons are powerful, and memory is deeply engrained—we teach how we were taught. That is, unless we make a conscious effort to change our practice, and we have to believe that changing our practice will benefit students. Many teachers I have encountered, especially high school teachers, have the attitude that “This is how I teach; the student will have to learn the way I teach.” Yet the world, and research on learning from both neuroscience and educators, is demanding that teachers rethink their roles in the classroom.

Given the “real world” focus on technology as a collaboration tool, then, how likely is it that these teachers will implement these collaborative capabilities in their classrooms for student learning? Assuming that teachers and students have access to technology and online applications, a major paradigm shift needs to take place for this to happen—for teachers, students, and parents.
First, teachers, and students, will need to believe that students can learn as much from each other as they can from the teacher. The teacher will need to create a collaborative atmosphere, one where everyone is valued for their ability to contribute something to the learning of others, whether that person is sitting next to you or is on a wiki or Skype. More importantly, while the teacher will still be able to view himself as the expert model, he will need to let go of the idea of himself as the only expert and source of definitive knowledge in the classroom. If expertise is distributed on the Internet, and the teacher brings in collaborators from the Internet, then the teacher becomes as much information manager and model for information literacy; he become the facilitator of learning rather than the only source of learning.

This is a revolutionary change in the role of teacher. Many high school content teachers become teachers because they love their content and hope to inspire that love in others. They want to be the expert in the classroom, want to share their vast knowledge of the subject with their students. Collaborate and bring in other experts? I want the focus on me!
Most teachers would not even realize, of course, that this is their underlying motivation. And I don’t mean to slam on teachers as completely egocentric. The vast majority of teachers I have met in my life and career have truly cared about their students and their learning, despite what others may say about them. But as society has changed, teachers have not; whether we like it or not, we have to change to meet the demands of the 21st century society in which we reside and for which we are charge with preparing students.

Teachers do need to know their content, but as with anyone else today, a teacher who can merely rattle of the facts of his/her content is a dinosaur. I don’t believe that teacher education students need more content classes—they need more methods classes, and more time in classrooms with master teachers who model the teaching strategies that are needed in today’s schools, those exceptional teachers who are using collaboration for student learning.

It is through collaboration that students will remember the content and think critically about the content—they will be able to remember, analyze and apply the information. Using technology for collaboration motivates students because it brings what they are seeing in their “real lives” into the classroom. Using technology collaboration tools also means that learning does not only take place from 9-3 in the confines of a classroom. This will require a paradigm change on the part of students as well, who must be willing to “learn” on their “own time” and who must believe that they can learn from others, not just the classroom teacher. Students must be willing to turn to others for answers, whether it is to “Google it,” connect with 24/7 help, or to ask a peer for help on a class discussion board, IM, Facebook, or old fashioned email.

In my first year as a university instructor, it was quite a shock to me to see that undergraduates still expected the “professor” to teach them everything they needed to know. I was under the impression (and hope) that our Millenials would be quick to collaborate and would willingly use technology for learning purposes. While they were willing to surreptitiously get on FB during a lesson to criticize the class, or to text their classmates, I didn’t see a lot of adoption of technology for the actual learning. In fact, they were often resistant-discussion board posts were perfunctory and they complained about having to do them. There was no “figuring it out” of new technology—a lesson on Google sites became quite frustrating as I had to run around to 35 students to re-teach individually what they had directions to do right in front of them. Our over-tested students now think that everything needs to be taught by the teacher, scaffolded just for them, and made simple and easy.

I also know that digital tools lose their power when brought in to the classroom for inauthentic purposes. Were the discussion board posts perfunctory because the students were not interested in the topic of the reading on which they were commenting? Did they see any real life application? On the other hand, when students were required to use technology to create a digital story on a topic of their choosing, something they were passionate about, many of the students were willing to figure out the technology, to produce something that they cared about. Students became far more collaborative, showing each other in class what they had learned about the tool. Learning was taking place 24/7—I received many emails asking for help at all hours. Students wanted feedback from me and from their classmates, willingly made revisions, and produced some amazing products.

Knowing that the digital story would be shown to classmates and posted on YouTube was certainly a motivator as well. When the audience is merely the teacher, students are not nearly as willing to produce their best work. When the audience is public, students will care far more about their products. I saw this when I used the writing workshop method with high school students; when students wrote persuasive letter that were to be sent to corporations, elected officials, and the principals, they cared far more about the grammar, spelling, and content of their writing. They were willing to collaborate to get feedback from their classmates, although ultimately they still want feedback from those they consider more expert—the better writers in the class and the teacher.

And, ultimately, that may be the crux of encouraging student collaboration. As a student, I want to collaborate with those who are at least my equal or more expert, so that I can learn something from them or at least get feedback that I will trust. The Internet promotes this thinking—newbies to gaming sites are mentored by those who are more expert; those who become more adept work together to figure things out and share their learning. On the other hand, newbies are also respected because they might bring a new way of thinking, a new insight, something new to the conversation. Everyone, however, is expected to contribute something, to work towards mastery, to participate actively in the conversation. The individual and group accountability are there; this is the thinking we must bring into our classrooms.

Finally, while businesses are demanding a new paradigm for learning, parents are often unwilling to accept a new paradigm of schooling. There is a distinct “it worked for me” attitude among many parents. The “Back-to-basics” movement is a reflection of the general acceptance of the role of teacher as expert and student as passive learner. In a recent technology training with teachers, a teacher from a “Back-to-basics” school told me that while he could incorporate technology for his lectures (PowerPoint, white board), the parents at his school expected him to use the textbook in class and to assign homework from the textbook every night. Sending students to the Internet for research or collaboration, he said, would never work in his school.

Yet many parents are recognizing that this is not teaching what students need to know for the future. Many parent groups have contributed money to schools to purchase technology; parents are flocking to public and charter schools that promise technology integration throughout the curriculum. The question is, how is the technology being used? Is it still merely skill and drill, or teacher-centered? Or is it in the hands of the students, promoting collaboration and student-centered learning?

As I write this, my own nine-year-old son Daniel is sitting in the room, playing online Pokemon video games and switching back and forth to video episodes of the tv show. Finding an original tv episode (from possibly five years ago) he exclaimed, “Look at these old graphics, Mom!” He also owns a Nintendo DS on which he plays Pokemon games. When he received the Pokemon game, he first tried to figure it out himself, but was very frustrated. The next day, his friend came over with his DS and the same game; together, they figured out what Daniel needed to know. Listening to their conversation, I noticed that the friend was not merely giving explicit directions, but was giving hints so that Daniel would still have to figure it out for himself. Daniel discovered some things that his friends hadn’t noticed about the game, and they both excitedly continued to play and converse. I was amazed by the high level critical thinking taking place in their conversation and couldn’t help but reflect wryly that I had rarely heard that kind of collaboration in my own classroom at the high school or college level.

Daniel, by the way, loves to read actual books as well; he scored 100% on his multiple choice reading benchmark, and 97% on the math. His technology use is not harming his school learning by any means! In fact, when he is interested in something at school, he comes home and “Googles” more information. After a unit on Greek gods and goddesses, Daniel came home and researched for days; he also asked me to purchase books on the topic. He watched movies. He’s a true multi-media child.

Daniel and his playmates are in our schools and there will be more and more like them; they are our true Millenials, growing up from birth with the collaborative technology mind-set. Daniel is constantly in trouble in school for trying to talk to others, even when he insists he is just trying to help someone else do their work. He doesn’t understand why they can’t work together. I hear the same from other parents about their children, and the complaints from the teachers who don’t understand the world-view of the children they are teaching.

I am searching for the school that will use the techniques I believe my millennial child needs-technology, collaboration, project-based inquiry learning. Home schooling isn’t an option—he’s too social and he likes learning with others face-to-face, not just online. I’m starting to believe that I may have to open that school myself and hire those “exceptional” teachers that use those techniques.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Please take a survey!

What do you think of Twitter?

Want to learn technology? Play!

With each passing day I become more convinced that the true mindset for learning technology is a willingness to play, explore, and learn from mistakes. Oh, and to ask for help! While there might be step-by-step guides for software programs and help, these are no substitute for just getting into something and messing around with it--after all, you can't really break it!

When I first started playing around with technology, in 1990, I too wanted someone to teach me exactly how to do it. After all, that is how I was schooled--sit in rows, the teacher tells you exactly how to do things. I bought my first Acer computer so that I could use Word Perfect to word process graduate school papers. For me, it was a glorified typewriter.

When I became a public high school teacher, technology mostly passed me by. After all, Arizona isn't known for putting large funds into student learning, so schools couldn't really adopt alot of technology. Slowly, teachers received technology for email, attendance, productivity purposes. But technology for teaching? Who needed it? Except for research papers, of course, which were still done in the school library.

With the explosion of the Internet, I used technology to find lessons, share ideas, etc. I played around with my own blog, took a few workshops, but still couldn't imagine using technology in my own classroom. Technology was still a personal and productivity tool.

It wasn't until I became a teacher librarian and began working on a Masters in Language and Literacy that the power of teaching with technology became apparent. I was determined to learn everything I could about new technologies. Yet, when I went to workshops on more advanced tools, I found myself frustrated--the presenters weren't really teaching me to use the tools. So, I just started playing and figuring it out for myself. And started advancing very quickly through many different programs.

When I became an instructional technology coach, this lesson really hit home. We were asked to train teachers on five technologies without receiving much training ourselves. My team's response? We spent a week playing with it all and figuring it out for ourselves. We put together workshops for teachers and, mindful of my own experiences, tried to really "teach" the teachers how to use the technology. We also told the teachers that they needed to be willing to play. Their response--when are you coming back to teach us more? We're not going to play, we want you to teach us.

One teacher asked me how I had become a technology expert. I told her that I did not consider myself an expert--there is always so much more to learn. But I am willing to play with new things, so I learn them quickly. She did not like my answer and told me that she would not use technology in her lessons until she felt like an expert; she wasn't willing to show students that she might not know something. And she certainly wasn't willing to invite student expertise in as co-teachers if they did know the technology.

I see this "teach me" mindset with the undergraduate students in my current teacher education courses. Their teachers didn't use technology for learning, so why should they? After all, we teach how we were taught, right? And the students in an online basic technology course are really struggling as well--they want the exact directions, but they don't want to figure out how to get them from the help center in the course. Our students are used to being spoon-fed and they have a tremendous amount of learned helplessnes, a product of our test-driven teaching, in my opinion.

Yet one student told me tonight that he has been learning alot by playing around and figuring it out for himself. He said that he remembers it better. This is the mindset needed for successful technology integration. The future belongs to people who are willing to play. If our schools don't meet the need for this mindset, all of our students will be left behind when it comes to 21st century jobs.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Videos for SUSD Essentials 12

So, because SUSD puts so many blocks on accessing videos from external sources, and because Wikispaces makes it difficult to upload large video files, we're going to try the videos here!

A Vision of K-12 Students Today

Wikis in Plain English
(from Common Craft, Lee Lefever:

Blogs in Plain English
(from Common Craft, Lee Lefever:

The Social Media Revolution


Monday, April 12, 2010

Intel Module 3 Blog: Using the Internet to support teaching and learning

How can I use the Internet to support my teaching and students' learning? Honestly, I wouldn't know how to teach without the Internet anymore. First, I began using the Internet to find lessons and ideas for lessons about twelve years ago (can it be that long?) when we received access at school. I found such great ideas for higher level thinking and student involvement. Then the teacher librarian and I began creating web quests for students as part of projects (she used a guided web quest creator, and I am totally blanking on the name right now). Now, I belong to online sites like the English Companion Ning and a Teacher Librarian Wiki and I get ideas from those sites as well.
The more students used the Internet, the more I recognized that I had to teach them to use it responsibly and to identify whether or not information was "relilable." Even before I was certified as a Teacher Librarian, I started creating lessons on website authenticity and how to tell if the author was trustworthy, biased, etc. Then, as a TL, it became clear that students really had no idea how to tell who a website author was, what bias was, etc., so I started to really develop lessons for Information Literacy. Once we began to talk to students about what was appropriate for scholarly research, how to use keyword searches, etc., we really started to see a lot less "off task" and inappropriate behavior on the Internet. The coolest thing to me was the behavior of the seniors I worked with recently--they turned their senior research papers into digital documentaries--using pictures, video, etc. We heard a lot of conversation from the students about whether or not their pictures were appropriate, what websites they should use, etc. It was clear that they knew the difference and were analyzing the Internet on their own

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Access to information?

Add to Technorati FavoritesTomorrow I am supposed to teach classes about evaluating blogs. Ironically, the more information I find on the net about blogs, the less I think I know. I learned about Technorati and Blogpulse and that neither identifies my blog during a search!

Of major concern in teaching this class is that students cannot actually access blogs at school. Our school district has blocked all student access to blogs. It makes it quite difficult to teach students to be information literate if they aren't allowed access to the information. I will have to guide them through the evaluation procedure by using my own log-in and a program called NetOps. NetOps allows the teacher to take control of all the student computers in the computer lab and has a demonstration mode--the students will see whatever is on my screen. So, I will walk them through some sample blogs and they will ask the questions that were suggested by Joyce Valenza at the 21st Century Information Fluency website: Then they will have to try to find blogs that relate to their research paper topics.

There is the question of equal access in this case, too. Not all of our students have computers at home, and even if they have a computer, many families have turned off their internet access as economic times get tougher (and some never had any in the first place). Other students must share the one family computer with parents and siblings. Many of our students work at night, so they may not be able to utilize the public library, and blog access is blocked in the school library. It's really a catch-22--how can we teach them to be information literate if they don't have access to the information in the first place?

As this economic downturn plays out, this will become an important question for schools and districts. Will we help students bridge the digital divide by providing access in schools, or will the digital divide widen along with the economic haves and have-nots?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Online literacy vs. print literacy

Add to Technorati FavoritesLast week as I was helping student work on bibliography cards for their research papers, I was reminded of something that we've noticed before: students do not know the difference between magazines, newspapers, books, etc. when they read things online. A database might tell students that the article came from Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, or San Francisco Chronicle, but students do not know which one is which to use the correct bibliographic format.

My first thought-response is usually, "How could they not know these things?" especially when copies of Time and Newsweek are on a table ten feet away from them in the library. Then, I try to think back to myself in high school--did I know these things? Of course, I went to high school in the dark ages of the 1980s when the librarians had microfiche and a few years of back copies of magazines, so when I did research papers, I was using, touching, reading actual magazines and newspapers. Even on a microfiche reader, the articles still looked like they were copied from the actual newspaper or magazine. It was easy to tell the differences between sources.

For students today who use online databases, everything looks the same. Unless they are looking at pdf reproductions, how could they really know the difference? Even dates don't help--how can they tell if something is a daily, weekly, or monthly publication? So students need to rely on knowledge of names of magazines or newspapers--knowledge which it seems they do not have. While our library supplies copies of major news magazines, it seems that many students are not aware of them or do not choose to read them.

How did I become aware of magazines and newspapers? How was print literacy introduced to me? My own answer is: home. My parents ordered a daily newspaper and even brought in a second on Sundays. My mother never missed doing the Sunday NY Times Magazine crossword puzzle, so I knew that the magazine existed as well as the newspaper. We received Time, Reader's Digest, and Sports Illustrated. In short, I came from a home that valued literacy in the sense of reading and in the sense of knowledge about the world. Reading print materials was the way to become informed about the world.

So, when I began completing research projects, there was no confusion about magazines, newspapers, journals, etc. This was the prior knowledge I brought to the process. Increasingly, today's students do not have that prior knowledge. To some extent, it is a result of family literacy practices--if a family watches CNN instead of reading the newspaper, then that is what children learn. Or what if a family doesn't pay attention to the news at all? Certainly this has always been true. But today, there's another issue--what if the family only gets its information online? How then does a student learn to distinguish between sources? And if a family only practices on-line literacy, will students be inclined to pick up a magazine in the library anyway?

Many "experts" are now discussing the slow death of print media such as newspapers. With online sources exploding, is the death of print magazines far behind? If such is the case, the distinctions that we make for bibliographic formats will certainly have to evolve.