Taking Flight

I have worked in public education for well over a decade. During this time, I have come to feel strongly that providing students with a variety of opportunities is the backbone of the public education system. It is imperative that we as educators continue to introduce students to different and new ideas and activities in hopes that they will positively impact their future. The problem is, the world is changing faster than it ever has, making it all the more imperative that we continue to provide students with opportunities that are relevant  in this technology-rich world. New technology is quickly altering how we live and the types of careers our students will likely venture into once they graduate. While traditional careers like dental hygienist and occupational therapist are still included in top ten jobs lists, newer occupations like data scientist, software engineer, and biomedical engineer are now included as well. In fact, eight of the top ten jobs included in CareerCast’s Top 200 Jobs of 2015 are in STEM-related fields. Many of these jobs require that employees be able to work collaboratively on teams and use critical thinking skills to analyze large amounts of information quickly. Besides these STEM-related occupations, new software and devices seem to appear daily, making it difficult for schools to keep up with the rapid changes that are occurring. It is important that schools give students opportunities to explore cutting-edge technology without waiting for that technology to become a part of a curriculum’s unit of study. The reality is that things can move so fast that by the time new technology becomes part of a traditional course, it can very quickly become old technology. A makerspace can help bridge this divide by quickly bringing students into contact with new technology and ideas in a low-risk, collaborative environment.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 1.58.39 PMAs I’ve chronicled on this blog, we have worked since September to create a makerspace–called STEAMWORKS–here at our high school. The name “STEAMWORKS” incorporates the acronym STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) with the word “works” to symbolize that students will work and explore new technologies as they relate to STEAM. Once the STEAMWORKS Makerspace is completed, it will be filled with things like programmable legos, droids, a 3-D printer, electronic circuits, and just about anything else you can build with. We’ll even have a station where students can take apart IMG_0399technology like old computers to learn how those machines work. Today, the newest addition to our developing makerspace was delivered: a DJI Phantom 3 drone. So, of course a few of us had to brave the cold and go outside to play with it. Here is a video from our first flight (please watch!). The Phantom 3 is incredible. Watching the video footage really makes you feel like you’re flying.

We are hoping for a late winter or early spring opening of the STEAMWORKS Makerspace here at the high school. Continue reading for a snapshot of what the makerspace will have.

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STEAMWORKS Plan

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We worked hard over the past few months trying to determine the best way to implement this makerspace. We surveyed almost 1,000 students and hundreds of teachers to determine interests and current trends, took site visits to other makerspaces in New Jersey, and conducted research to determine everything from the types of technology to offer students to what kinds of tables should be used. Throughout the planning phase, a number of themes were identified as being marks of successful makerspaces and will be included in STEAMWORKS:

  • Openness
  • Hands-on activities
  • Faculty-student interaction
  • Community involvement
  • Collaborative work stations
  • Unique technology
  • Effective signage (sounds silly but turns out is actually important)

As material and technology start to get delivered, we can see our hard work paying off as our makerspace begins to take flight. The best part about opening a makerspace is that sometimes you get to play with the toys. That’s how a few of us found ourselves braving twenty-degree weather to fly our makerspace’s amazing new drone.

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Blended

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Something was wrong this morning. I couldn’t get my tie right. On my first try, the knot was too small. One the second try the tie was too short. I just couldn’t get it right. I’ve never understood why they haven’t standardized ties. Some are too long while some are too skinny. So many things in our life are standardized. Why not ties? They should all be the same size.

The problem with my tie was that I couldn’t get the knot right. I’ve always tied my ties like my father showed me about thirty years ago. In tie parlance the knot he taught me is called “the four in hand” and is likely the most popular knot out there–slender and simple. However, this morning it just wasn’t cutting it. The problem with the four in hand is that the tie loosens and slips down throughout the day. I always have to adjust it. On my drive this morning, I decided that it was time to try something new. So, I got to school a little early and was determined to give a new knot–the Windsor–a try. Like most days when I want to learn something new, I checked out YouTube and found this video:

Since the video was shot from the point of view of the person tying the tie, it was easy to follow the video instructions. In less than three minutes I was sporting a new Windsor knot. The thing is, if I didn’t understand it, I could have replayed the video as many times as I needed to. I could learn at my own pace. Here’s what I can’t get over: I had always wanted to know how to tie a Windsor but never tried. For thirty years I’ve used the four in hand my father taught me. Not any more! Thanks to YouTube, I nailed the Windsor in only a few minutes. Best of all, my tie didn’t need to be adjusted the entire day.

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For anyone interested in blended learning, this book is the place to start.

So, what’s the point? As adults we learn using the Internet as it suits our needs. The same holds true for our students. They no longer learn only sitting in a classroom; the Internet has changed that. The model that marries the traditional with the virtual is called blended learning. Whether it’s a video on YouTube or Lynda.com, online tutorials and classes are part of how we learn now. Whenever I want to learn something new, I watch a video. If we are all learning online now, why are the classes we teach not?

I’ve become more focused on this dichotomy as I realize that we should be supporting traditional instruction with online instruction. A powerful learning management system like Blackboard, Canvas, or Schoology makes doing it rather simple. At the least, instructional videos can be posted to YouTube with ease. We just have to commit to move in the online direction. No more waiting. The book on the right is pretty much the gold standard in terms of laying out a philosophy about blended instruction. My copy was just delivered today. Over the next few weeks I’ll read and reflect here about blended learning. The term might be new to some but the concept is not. Personalizing learning by adopting an online component so students can learn at their own pace needs to happen. Why not start today?

 

What Does The Future Hold for Schools?

The New Media Consortium (NMC), a community of hundreds of leading universities, colleges, museums, and research centers, has issued an important report called the Horizon Report: 2015. The report examines emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in teaching, learning, and creative inquiry in schools (access the report here). The driving question for the report is “What is on the five-year horizon for K-12 schools worldwide?” A team of experts engaged with the report agreed on two long-term trends: “rethinking how schools work in order to bolster student engagement and drive more innovation, as well as shifting to deeper learning approaches, such as project- and challenge-based learning.” The report is a must read for any school district personnel looking to map out the next five years in terms of where they see technology and instruction heading.

Makerspace education also has the potential to empower young people to become agents of change in their communities. (The Horizon Report)

I’m still working my way through the study, but one part that caught my eye was the analysis of the future role makerspaces will play in schools. A makerspace is a place where anyone interested in learning something new can come together to design, create, and build projects of their choosing. In short, makerspaces are where learners can explore their curiosity in a low-risk environment. “Makerspaces are places where anyone, regardless of age or experience, can exercise their ingenuity to construct tangible products,” write the authors in their report. “Schools are turning to makerspaces to facilitate activities that inspire confidence in young learners, and help them acquire entrepreneurial skills that are immediately applicable in the real world.” The report shares a number of makerspace success stories from around the world that are particularly inspiring and also provides a host of links to examples of makerspaces currently in use in K-12 education.

The growing global makerspace movement has influenced our district to begin the creation of makerspace areas in our schools. We have spent a fair amount of time visiting other makerspaces in the area, researching best practices, and creating implementation plans. It’s clear that makerspaces are going to be a vital component of a modern learning environment. “The turn of the 21st century has signaled a shift in the types of skillsets that have real, applicable value in a rapidly advancing world,” asserts the authors of the Horizon Report. “In this landscape, creativity, design, and engineering are making their way to the forefront of educational considerations, as tools such as robotics, 3D printers, and web-based 3D modeling applications become accessible to more people.” A makerspace can bring these tools to students while encouraging the use of skills they will need to compete in the 21st century. The Horizon Report is packed with anecdotes from case studies and external links to additional resources. It’s a must read for any educator wondering what the future holds for their students.

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A graphic representing the challenges and developments facing K-12 education. Source: The Horizon Report

 

Fail Fast

The engineers and venture capitalists of Silicon Valley have embraced the mantra “fail fast” in their relentless pursuit of the next big thing. Failure, which for so long has been something schools did not advocate, is becoming more and more popular in the tech world. To fail fast means that people should fail early and often on their way to a great idea. Failure is now something cool. And it should be. The reality is, we all learn from failure as it’s an essential component in trial and error.

But while the Web has made it easier and cheaper to start up and succeed, it has also made it easier and cheaper to fail.

–Eric Markowitz in “Why Silicon Valley Loves Failures”

Dave McClure is a venture capitalist in a startup incubator in Silicon Valley called 500 Startups. It’s more commonly known by its alternate name: the fail factory. “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,'” explains McClure in Fast Company. “We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn. Getting used to that, bouncing back from that, being able to figure out what people hate and turn that into what people love…if you’re not willing to take the risk of failing and not experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.” The reality is, failure has not traditionally been embraced, but this is starting to change. Eric Markowitz of Inc.com hypothesizes that many factors have led people to embrace failure today. “The first, and most obvious answer, is that failure has become inexpensive,” Markowitz writes. “Decades ago, starting a business typically entailed borrowing capital from a bank, friends, or family. Opening a physical storefront required lots of capital. Today, the Web has democratized the process for starting up–building a website and hosting its data, even for e-commerce, are relatively inexpensive.” For these reasons–at least in the the technology world–failure is embraced as it is a necessary part of the learning process. In fact, there is now a global conference series dedicated to studying and celebrating failure called FailCon.

For a long stretch in the twentieth century, learning theory was dominated by the work of Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner–a man many consider to be the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. Skinner advocated a theory called “errorless
learning.” In Skinner’s model, learners were spoonfed new material in small bites and immediately quizzed on it while it remained in short-term memory. As the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning point out, students in Skinner’s model had virtually no chance of making an error. As the two renowned psychologist-authors of Make It Stick reinforce throughout the book, errors are an integral part of the learning process–especially with new material. “Yet in our Western culture, where achievement is seen as anlogo indicator of ability, many learners view errors as failure and do what they can to avoid committing them,” the authors write. “The aversion to failure may be reinforced by instructors who labor under the belief that when learners are allowed to make errors it’s the errors that they will learn.” We know today that this belief is misguided. Freedom from “errorless learning” has so empowered people that a group from Finland has created the Day for Failure taking place next week. It’s a chance for people to lose their fear of messing up. People can participate by tweeting their failures to #dayforfailure.

Fail fast, manufacturing fail, fail factory, FailCon are terms that help capture the mood of the technology and venture capital world today. However, the idea of celebrating failure is not likely something you see embraced in daily life. One way schools can embrace failure and teach perseverance is by encouraging self-directed learning (and yes, failure) by giving students a place to invent and learn from their experiences. This is why we are beginning the process of putting makerspaces in our schools. A makerspace is a place where students come together with expert faculty to design, create, and build projects using material and technology they might not come in contact with during the regular school day. Exploration in a makerspace is student driven. Makers are limited only by their imagination.

A makerspace is a place to tinker and explore. It’s a place where you can build with legos, print in 3-D, or even learn how to fly a drone. In a makerspace, failure is expected as is learning from mistakes. The reality is, as you explore new ideas and technology, you will always make mistakes. On this blog, I’ll chronicle our makerspace journey as we move from concept to reality. Besides, don’t you want to learn how to fly one of these?

Let’s Get Students Moving

The educator Eric Jensen has spent the majority of his professional life researching how students learn. His list of published works are impressive, advocating for the need to get students up out of seats during class as a way to stimulate learning. Jensen estimates thatScreen Shot 2015-09-07 at 7.53.53 PM for students in high school, the maximum amount of time most of them have to process new information via direct instruction is about fifteen minutes. For students in primary grades, that number is reduced to twelve minutes. “Most learners will tell you they’d rather be active than passive,” Jensen writes. “Unfortunately, many students have been conditioned to be passive for so many years that by the time they’re in secondary school or college, active learning can feel strange” (37, 54). The onus then is on the teacher to make active learning a reality for students.

There was a recent essay in ASCD’s August Education Update that got me thinking about Jensen and how we can create opportunities for teachers to get students moving in their classes. Called “Learning from the Feet Up,” it stressed the need to get students up out of their seats during a class period (subscription needed to view the article). I thought the Unknownarticle made many valid points about the importance of movement. “Because the brain responds to novelty and active learning,” writes the article’s author Kathy Checkley, “the brain can ‘stay connected’ for longer periods of time when instruction includes movement” (2). The reality is that many students struggle through a traditional class period because they are not equipped with the cognitive ability to pay attention for long stretches of time. By “traditional class period” I am referring to a class where students sit during the class while the teacher instructs them. With short attention spans, it is essential that students become active participants in the learning process through active learning.

There are many different strategies teachers can employ to get students moving in a classroom. One simple activity is to have students stand and find a partner to turn and talk, with each partner taking a turn summarizing recent learning objectives. An activity such as this not only improves memory but also has the added benefit of improving focus. For Jensen, “Physical movement such as standing, stretching, walking, or marching can increase brain amine levels, which can help improve attentional focus” (51). Jensen even goes so far as to encourage drowsy students to stand at the back of the room for up to two minutes and stretch. The simple act of crossing a right arm or leg to the left side and vice versa (cross-lateral movements) can help activate contralateral blood flow in both hemispheres of the brain (51). Oxygen is essential for brain function, so getting students out of their seats for even a brief moment can enhance blood flow that, in turn, increases the amount of oxygen transported to the brain (62).

Another quick way to get students active in a class is to throw a small beach ball around the room and whoever catches it has to ask another student a question. Teachers can even get creative by writing things on the beach ball like vocabulary words or concepts learned in class that students have to answer if their hands are touching the word or concept when they catch the ball. The act of standing and catching will increase oxygen to the brain. “Strong evidence supports the connection between movement and learning,” writes Jensen. “Evidence from imaging sources, anatomical studies, and clinical data shows that moderate exercise enhances cognitive processing” (67). The act of tossing a beach ball to standing students can meet this goal while also enhancing teacher-student interaction by helping to create a vibrant learning environment.

For Checkley and Jensen, simple classroom modifications like stretching or changing seats can be followed by more complex lessons like a gallery walk to help turn static lessons into more interactive experiences for students by compelling them to move. “Decades of studies have shown,” Checkley writes, “that moderate exercise can enhance learning–and that any kind of movement is beneficial” (2). The simple fact is that all learners–no matter the age–appreciate the chance to stretch their legs and talk to someone else when they tackle a problem or learn something new.

Sources

Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. 2nd ed. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.

Checkley, Kathy. “Learning from the Feet Up.” ASCD Education Update 57.8 (2015): 2-3, 6.

Infographics made using Piktochart

Invent Anything

As someone who has spent a lifetime in education, I’m always on the lookout for free or cheap ways to do cool stuff in classrooms. Whenever a new idea comes out, I always try to find ways to lower costs or to get the latest fad for free. I obviously don’t mind spending money on quality products (hello, Apple and WordPress), but I have to be wowed before I can be convinced to splurge on something that costs money. I’m fearful of not spending wisely or spending money on something that could be irrelevant in a year or two. It seems that technology improves so fast that it can be difficult to commit to anything because you fear your purchase might be obsolete in a few months. As David Pogue wrote in Scientific American, “It’s human to fear new technology.” However, you can’t let fear of making a bad decision paralyze progress. You need to take chances and try your hardest to give students all the tools they will need to be competitive in an ever-evolving workplace.

In an edcamp raffle last week, I won a Little Bits Base Kit that comes with everything youbaseBoxAngled need to get started creating amazing inventions. Little Bits says their mission is to “democratize hardware” but I think they have done more than that. They have created a way to bring the spirit of innovation to students by introducing them to circuits, hardware, basic technology, and encouraging them to experiment. I set out to test Little Bits with my seven-year-old son and am blown away by the product. I think a series of Vines will tell our Little Bits story better than words, so here it is:

We opened the box and made a buzzer (you need sound):

We used the dimmer (you need sound):

We made a tickle machine (this is cool and it works):

We made a windmill (I’m most proud of this!):

Watch the founder of the company, Ayah Bdeir talk about why she wanted to democratize hardware. After watching her talk and playing with Little Bits, you’ll realize why they should probably be a cornerstone of every classroom makerspace.

What am I doing here?

It seems obvious that students might find it helpful to know what they are going to be learning, and yet, consistently sharing learning intensions with students is a relatively recent phenomenon in most classrooms. –Dylan Wiliam

After a post last week about articulating learning goals, a question was e-mailed to me by an educator who wanted to know if learning goals need to be written on the board for every lesson. Sometimes the objective of a lesson, the educator rightly asserted, is to have students discover answers on their own without direction from a teacher.  A classic example of this is a SOLE lesson, where student inquiry is guided by a single question and Za learning objective is not present. Students are encouraged to discover meaning during their pursuit of an answer. Whether or not teachers should make learning objectives present for students during a SOLE lesson or other inquiry-based activity is a great question as it addresses a fundamental principle of lesson design and classroom management. Namely, how much information do we need to give students so they can answer this question: What am I doing here? Luckily, Dylan Wiliam writes about this dilemma in his recent book, Embedded Formative Assessment, so we can turn to him for an answer. Wiliam and his book are amazing, by the way.

Wiliam calls the sometimes mandated approach of having teachers post a learning objective before each class “wallpaper objective.” Clearly, with a term like this, Wiliam is not in favor of this approach. Wiliam believes that “sometimes it’s not even a good idea to tell the students what the lesson is about” (56). A SOLE lesson is a classic example of this. The point of a SOLE lesson is for students to discover meaning behind a question by working together to make connections between relevant material. Therefore, for Wiliam, it is not necessary to post a learning objective during each class. “Sometimes we can be very specific, such as when we require laboratory reports to be structured in a particular way–diagrams are to be drawn in pencil and labeled, and so on,” explains Wiliam. “At other times, it may be that the best we can do is help the students develop what Guy Claxton calls a ‘nose for quality'” (58). Rubrics can play a part in this process as long as they are shared with students who are given time to think through, in discussion with others, what the rubrics mean.

Wiliam believes that sometimes it is appropriate for the teacher to present learning intentions and success criteria to students at the beginning of a lesson. He shares that teachers of younger students find the acronyms WALT (We are learning to) and WILF (What I’m looking for) to be helpful at informing students of a lesson’s intent. “Unfortunately,” Wiliam writes, “in many districts, the pendulum has swung too far the other way: a lesson is regarded as a bad lesson if the teacher fails to post a learning objective at the start” (69). Wiliam does include in his book some ways learning goals can be reinforced without resorting to “wallpaper.”

Wiliam’s Non-Wallpaper Techniques for Clarifying Goals

  1. Have students look and analyze samples of other students’ work
  2. Peer review where students discuss the quality of their work
  3. Have students design test items with correct answers about what they have been learning

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if a teacher were to post an objective with every lesson. However, like Wiliam, I don’t think it’s essential for classroom success. If I saw a successful lesson, I would never find fault with a teacher for not writing a learning objective on the board–especially when the point of the lesson might be to have students find their own question-mark-452707_640connections. What makes a genuine difference in a classroom is when a teacher works to ensure that the questions they are asking students are of a high level, that all students get to participate in the learning process, that the problems students try and solve are written clearly and are relevant to learners, and norms have been established in a classroom so students can be given freedom to explore material while staying on task. Oftentimes lessons are not as successful as they can be because one or more of these things are missing. We should always strive to make our lessons and meetings as specific as possible for participants, and agendas, clearly defined learning objectives, and rubrics are a big part of this. “Like everything else in teaching,” Wiliam summarizes, “there are no simple rules, and it is up to the teacher to exercise professional judgement in how best to communicate learning intentions and success criteria to students” (69). It’s important to note that the less students have to wonder “what am I doing here?” the more time they will have to think about a task.