Thursday, September 19, 2013

How Many Ways Can you Use a Straw?

Excuse me if this post is a little late, but I had a busy summer

The end of the school year is always an interesting time. Teachers have to deal with goofy schedules, extra assemblies, high temperatures, and myriad other factors. With this reality in mind, it can be hard to start or finish projects/lessons and there tend to be a lot of "free days". It was during one of these days I had a tremendous amount of fun with my fourth grade science class. I was also schooled in divergent thinking and witnessed unbelievable creativity first-hand. 

I planned to harness my inner Arvind Gupta by having the students make musical instruments from straws. I had the video cued up and ready to rock when my Ipad ran out of battery. I pulled an audible and grabbed my computer. Crap! I forgot the adapter. A tad flustered, I changed the play once more. I gave each pod of students six or seven straws and told them to create something this simple and good. 

Here are a few of their creations. It shows just how creative students can be.... and how little we give them a chance to show it.

Caterpillar Bridge
Steve was our class caterpillar. A group of students hypothesized Steve would cross a gap of desks if he had a bridge. The straws just so happened to be a perfect bridge. The students came up with a science experiment with little impetus from the teacher. Heck, I don't think I am creative enough to construct an experiment like that. 

A sword
Why not cut one straw to create a handle for another? The end result being a straw. Amazing what happens when kids are looking for objects to play with.

Geometric Shapes
Pretty gnarly triangle, right? Why don't we have kids play with their imaginations like this in math class?

I am still trying to figure out how the students bent the straws like this.

Perhaps inspired by Zelda?

Scissor Guard
Probably my favorite. A simple straw is a perfect guard for small scissors. Know a kindergarten teacher looking to keep the class safe? Pretty easy solution.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flipping? I Don't Think So!

I have many reservations with the phenomenon called "flipping". In fact, I am giving a talk at the second Hack the Classroom event September 28 at LMU called Flipping the Classroom: Bad Pedagogy in New Clothes. The talk description highlights some of my objections to the practice. 

Many people have embraced the flipped classroom as the next "big" idea in education and educational technology. The idea of "exciting" homework, increased efficiency of class time, seamless integration of technology, and student engagement go hand in hand with "flipping". Let's stop and talk about this. This sounds like more homework, more lecture, and less student choice to me. If we are making the switch in order to advocate for more engaging class time, shouldn't all material be engaging? This talk will be a conversation about how flipping may present some problems and how it may be used effectively. 

A new study from Stanford confirms some of my concerns. Research suggests that students learn best when they can explore and play with an idea before formalized instruction. Think of this as the "explore first" model. This is in contrast to the standard method of reading specific text or assigned videos to prepare students for incoming lessons. 

A new study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education flips upside down the notion that students learn best by first independently reading texts or watching online videos before coming to class to engage in hands-on projects. Studying a particular lesson, the Stanford researchers showed that when the order was reversed, students' performances improved substantially. ( PLOTNIKOFF

Check out the article to review the research and methodology. It confirms the obvious to me, "flipping" is nothing more than a fad with little empirical evidence. Also check out he post, The Flip: End of Love Affair by Shelley Wright for a candid look at "flipping".  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Do They Know They Are Creators?

There is a major question replaying in my head lately--do my students know and understand they are creators and inventors?

In Spring of this year, I took an online class from MIT's Media Lab called Learning Creative Learning. It was an absolutely enthralling experience and changed some of my core assumptions about learning. One of my major takeaways was the learning theory called constructionism.

Constructionism, a concept originally offered by Seymour Papert, builds upon Piaget's constructivist learning theory. Where constructivist theory asserts that learners build (or construct) mental models to make sense of the world, constructionism holds that people learn most effectively if they build physical models to understand the world. Why not actually construct, in a physical way, our understanding of the world?

We could teach fractions in the same stale way using workbooks, but is this how students learn? Instead, we could have students build blocks or fractional models to experience the learning. Is there a better way to understand fractions than by shaping and cutting wood to make a table? Going with this idea, students could design a Scratch video or game that calls for an intimate knowledge of fractions to appropriately design a proportional playing surface.

How about scavengers and decomposition? Show a video to "teach" them compost, or have them build a living, functional compost pile? I hope you get the idea. Make them experts in the designing, the building, and the constructing, in a literal sense, of their knowledge.

This idea blew my mind.

Starting last spring, I changed my teaching style so it was based on this concept. My students built Toys from Trash, used Minecraft in math class, shot videos, designed water filters, played with Scratch, and used the Makey-Makey. This year, eighth grade science students are building marble madness machines to understand force, friction, acceleration, etc. Inspired by the maker movement, I want my students to make and design the world. I want them to be little innovators and creators. I want them to tinker, to play, and ultimately learn more than I could teach.

You see, when children play Minecraft, they can actually create a new world. They craft building materials, try out ways to use them, and construct a whole reality. Think about that for a second. That is an almost magical act. Minecraft is not the only way kids are doing things like this.

Think of a photo app like Instagram. Via cell phones, many young people have access to great cameras in their hands. They can experiment with lighting, setting, and timing to construct the perfect picture. They can fail and try again for free. They can throw on a filter and change the total way a picture is viewed. Using photography they are sharing their built world. These are amazing times.

My worry is kids and other young people don't understand just how creative they actually are. They don't see themselves as designers, creators, and inventors. Is Minecraft a way to pass the time or is it an exercise in active learning and creativity? Do students need to be aware of their design prowess? Do students need to see designing a Scratch video game as tangible construction? Basically, do they have metacognition of their creative activity? Is this type of metacognition necessary?

The reason I feel this question is important is because I want my students to see their design and construction projects as preparation. In any way I can I want to prepare them to change the world around us. I want them to understand they can create, invent, and build the world we live in. They can use construction and creativity to build their lives. I want the resiliency and innovation displayed in Scratch creations to be a building blocks for later breakthroughs. I want them to use the trial and error skills honed when building marble run and catch systems as foundation to later inventive projects that will make the world a better place.

Are these skills and traits gleaned in the process of construction? Absolutely! But without metacognition will the skills and learning be repeatable? Will they transform themselves from consumers to producers? Do they understand they are creating to make sense of the world around them?

All of these are profound questions and make me think very deeply.  Maybe I think too much. If kids are having fun learning and building, steps are surely being made. And just maybe I don't give young people enough credit. Perhaps they do see themselves as creators. Last year, a fifth grade student cut out a Time Magazine article on Minecraft and gave it to me. Not only did he read the article, he understood it, and saw himself in the piece.

They subtitle of the article read: Their game (Minecraft) teaches kids to create, not destroy.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I Believe...

I wrote my "syllabus" a few days ago and suddenly my core educational beliefs appeared in the middle. I wasn't planning on posting them, and didn't think through the language or verbiage. The words wrote themselves and when I read it to my students, I was stoked to have the succinct list. The words may change on any given day, but the overarching framework remains.

 If you had three beliefs, what would they be?

-I believe students learn by constructing knowledge, ideas, passion and physical creations.

-I believe students work best when they are motivated by intrinsic rewards rather than external punishment and reward.

-I believe I have an awesome job and enjoy learning with my students.

Monday, September 2, 2013


I want to thank colleague and friend Shannon Tabaldo by featuring my recent post about Minecraft on her blog. Shannon has a great blog on technology in the classroom. Check them both out!

Link to guest post

Tabaldo on Tech Blog