I read somewhere that the only way to become a good writer is to write, and the only way to cure writer’s block is to write, so I think I just need to screw my courage to the sticking point and start churning out posts. Part of the problem, I think, is that I look out there at all the other well-established teaching blogs and it seems as if each one of their posts has something profound to say about education. That’s an illusion, I’m sure, but an intimidating one. In any case, the main purpose of this blog was to let me think out loud about my teaching, not to impress people, so it doesn’t matter if things are a little rough around the edges for now.
I’ve started to outline a rough schedule for my CO335 unit on blogging. Here it is:
|Unit 1: Blogging|
|Creating blogs and posts
Homework: Complete intro survey; write blog post #1
|Intro to CO335; Setting up a blog site
Homework: Lay out blog page; write blog post #2
|Blog do’s & don’ts
Homework: Write blog critique #1 (blog post #3)
|Extra blog features
Homework: Write blog critique #2 (blog post #4)
|Social survey: blogging
Homework: Write RP #1 (blog post #5)
Today was getaway day at ISTE, so there wasn’t as much action as the other two days. After scamming a free hot breakfast from the good folks at Pearson, I headed over to the convention center for the first (and only) panel of the day.
Session 1: The Hero’s Journey: World of Warcraft in the Classroom
This was a very interesting panel put on by Peggy Sheehy, a lady I met at last year’s ISTE conference. She is really big into virtual environments and MMORPGs, and she runs a guild on WoW that I joined shortly after the conference. This panel was about a program she created in collaboration with a school in North Carolina named WoWInSchool. It’s an outreach program for at-risk students that uses World of Warcraft as the backbone for an entire curriculum that teaches math, reading, writing, and other critical thinking skills. The program isn’t really appropriate for my school, but it was fascinating to see how someone could use a game as the centerpiece of a really sound educational pedagogy. My notes: The Hero’s Journey.pdf
After the panel, I spent another hour touring the exposition hall with @auntfun, and then, sadly, it was time for me to close this year’s ISTE conference. It’s a little hard right now to put the whole experience in context — I think that will have to wait a few days until I can look back and reflect on all the panels that I attended. It was really nice to make some new friends early on in the week to have a sense of connection for the rest of the conference.
Overall, I would have to say that today was less insightful and awe-inspiring than yesterday, but there were still some useful nuggets.
Early AM: Expo surfing
I decided to skip the keynote featuring Stephen Covey via pre-recorded video because it didn’t seem like it would be that useful and I figured I could watch the video at my leisure some other time. In the past, ISTE has had some really great speakers, like Malcolm Gladwell and James Surowiecki. This didn’t seem like it would be up to that level, and judging from the comments I heard afterwards, it wasn’t. Instead, I went back to the vendor expo to try to cover some more territory. With only an hour, I was only able to cover about another quarter of the hall. But I did talk to Texas Instruments long enough to determine that they still don’t have a curriculum in place about teaching programming on the nSpire, and talked to the guy at Digipen for long enough to make me wonder what my life would have been like if it had existed 20 years ago.
Session 1: SIGIS Meeting
I’ve attended every annual meeting of SIGIS (the SIG for independent schools) since it formed in 2008 in San Antonio (which, coincidentally, was my first ISTE conference). The group is still in its infancy, and the agenda reflected that. We spent the first half of the meeting just doing meet and greets, and then most of the rest of the meeting hearing a report about what the group had done in the past year since the last conference. I hope that as the group gains momentum, we will turn over more of the time at these meetings to discussion and business. I hope, I hope. No notes to speak of to post here.
My SIGIS meeting was so exciting that I decided to skip the SIGCT meeting and have an excellent lunch with two of my colleagues, @auntfun and @kricekrice. I daresay we spent at least as much time talking about computer teaching at lunch as they did at the meeting.
Session 2: Computational Thinking for Everyone
My original choice, a session on getting faculty to use new technology, got unexpectedly full and closed up on me, so I had to scramble. I decided to fall back on my second choice, a session about computational thinking. Last year I attended another session at ISTE about the same topic, and came away feeling about as befuddled as I was this time. I will probably reserve another whole blog post to talk just about computational thinking, but the short version of my opinion is: they’re not ready. In fairness, I think they realize that. But the CT people still have not really articulated what distinguishes it from the other habits of mind that are already well-established. If their path to mainstream acceptance continues to use the mantra “This is what you’re already doing”, then this movement is will wind up stillborn. Again, no really useful notes to post.
Session 3: Lessons Learned From the Front Lines of 1-1
I called an audible for the last session, since neither of the items I had originally placed in my schedule seemed as interesting as they had in April. I decided to go to another session about 1-1 computing. To be honest, now that I saw the people there, I wonder if I attended the same panel last year. In any case, the ideas seemed fresh to me. And I had a new perspective now after going through the first year of our 1-1 program. I also got the chance to meet the executive director of the Anywhere Anytime Learning Foundation, so that’s a good thing. Most of the panelists’ comments seemed pretty much like common sense, but they had some good answers to my question, which was about how you can increase faculty buy-in to a 1-1 program that is already being implemented. I had a thought that next year we should make 1-1 computing one of the major themes of our faculty technology expo. Here are my notes: Lessons learned from the frontlines of 1-1.pdf
Tomorrow, there will be another few (hopefully) exciting sessions, and then it’s back home to Connecticut!
Monday marked the first real full conference day, and boy, it was full. I attended four separate sessions today, toured the exhibit hall for a while, and had a really great lunch out with some of the colleagues that I had met the previous night. Here’s a recap:
Session 1: Use Your Noodle, Learn Moodle
In this session, one of the vendors gave us a basic overview and introduction to Moodle. This was really useful to me because our school will be reevaluating our Learning Management System next year to determine if we want to move away from Blackboard to something else. Moodle will definitely be a candidate in the discussion, and I had never really seen it in operation. Based on what I saw, it seems like Moodle can do just about anything that Blackboard can, and looks no worse (which was my major concern). Here are the slides from the presentation: Use Your Noodle – Learn Moodle – AETC.pdf
In between the morning sessions, I went up to the exhibit hall to walk around for a while. I only had an hour, which really is barely enough time to scratch the surface, but I did have two nice conversations with the people from Google and Moodle about using those two systems. One of the guys at the Moodle booth tried to badge-mug me (scan my badge without asking first; there’s got to be a better term for that), but I straightened him out.
Session 2: Tools For Teaching Students at the Top of Bloom’s Taxonomy
This was a very good session, albeit somewhat inaccurately named. The title would lead you to believe that it focused on content creation (the actual top of the taxonomy), but really it was a laundry list of tools for use at every level. It was one of those kitchen-sink lectures where every slide had links to 3-5 web-based tools that you could use in your classes. The session was interesting, but will be even better later as a reference tool when I am actually doing more concrete course design. Again, the notes: Tools_Bloom.pdf
(Then, a break — really nice lunch at a Mexican restaurant)
Session 3: Building Learning Communities with Google Apps
Like the Moodle session, this was a fairly basic introduction to using Google Apps as the backbone for a school’s information management platform. Maybe I would have been more content with a little more detail in each session, but the panel was well-delivered and sold the Google suite fairly well. It’s hard to argue with free. One of the interesting things from this presentation was a program at an Iowa school that organized students into a tech support team, which is one of the ideas that we kicked around in our faculty technology training team at Hotchkiss. Here are my notes: Building Learning Communities w Google Apps.pdf
Session 4: Much Ado About Digital Content
This was a late-day change for me, as I decided to attend the panel featuring one of the teachers I met last night and had lunch with today. It was essentially a report on a nationwide survey on the use of technology in schools, as reported by all the responsible agents (students, teachers, administrators, etc.). I have to admit — I was pretty burned out by this time in the day. My notes will reflect that; thank goodness Microsoft Word has built-in audio recording. It was interesting to hear comments from some of the students, and it was also interesting to hear their views on what would make good “online textbooks”. Notes: Much Ado About Digital Content.pdf
And now, I think, some well-deserved rest before we do it all over again tomorrow!
Not much to report from Sunday, since the day doesn’t really officially get started until the evening keynote. This year it was a neurobiologist named John Medina. He talked about some research into how the brain works that has implications about good teaching and good learning. I think the most interesting part was when he talked about “Theory of Mind” — essentially, enhanced empathy — and how useful it would be for teachers. Do I have good “Theory of Mind”? I don’t think so. Is it something that I could work on? I’m not sure about that, but it’s a question I will be ruminating for a while.
Here are my notes from the event. I have the audio recorded as well but I’m not sure if I have the rights to post that:
Afterwards, went to a great social meet-up for the people in SIGIS (SIG Independent Schools). The bar was crowded and loud, but the company was nice at my table. Would be nice to make some connections for hangout early in the conference this year, as opposed to on the very last day like last year.
(+3 nerd points for those of you who get my Star Trek reference)
After watching the scorched earth campaign being conducted by Frank Noschese on his blog and on Twitter against Khan Academy, I thought that I might contribute my own two cents to the conversation, based on what I have seen thus far from the KA website and what I’ve managed to absorb from all the traffic on the web about it.
(Note: this post is not meant as a criticism, or even a direct response, to anything that Frank has been writing in the past few weeks. I’m a huge fan of Frank’s work and if I cared half as much about a particular issue in education as he obviously does about this one, I’d be a better teacher.)
I agree with all those who have said that KA is not really revolutionary in any way. It is evolutionary in the sense that it has managed to pull together several pre-existing online teaching resources (including online lectures, online student practice, and teacher monitoring of student performance) into a very slick package. Some would argue that just that integration alone represents a commendable effort, although I am sure that other sites predated KA that could do essentially the same thing.
We should give credit to KA for what it’s good at — namely, providing a resource for students to practice and master the rote concepts that we would otherwise waste time drilling them on in class. My reintroduction into the world of math teaching this past semester showed me that the biggest problem most math students have is that they’re miserable problem solvers. But you can’t develop a strategy for solving a problem if you don’t have command of the skills you will need to execute your plan. To me, sites like KA provide a useful individualized remediation program for those students who demonstrate skill gaps.
It’s also worth pointing out the benefits of the achievement system that KA is using. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Jane McGonigal’s book that just arrived in our library, but I think there’s something to gamifying this sort of repetitive practice. My kids will do anything for a Starburst, and they’re all ambitious high-school students. I think they would also work harder if they knew that getting another two factoring problems right would get them a virtual badge, as silly as that might sound.
Maybe the lectures are bad. I haven’t watched enough of them to make a qualitative assessment. If they really are that bad, then we as teachers should take it upon ourselves to make better ones. (Or, more likely, just find better ones that are already out there on YouTube.) There’s no reason why you have to accept all of KA as being the absolute best that there is.
I guess in the end, I probably agree with the majority of dissenters out there that argue that we should not hold up KA as a panacea that will teach our students for us in ways that we cannot already do ourselves. I’ve always believed that technology was a catalyst that simply served to accelerate existing work. But lately it seems like the punishment being inflicted on KA doesn’t really fit the crime, either. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, and KA should serve as a useful tool in the box for teachers that find it helpful for their classes.
Now that grades have been turned in and I can start to catch my breath after the year is over, my first major thought turns to my experiment this year with standards-based grading (SBG). Overall, I would have to say that I have been converted and plan to use it again next year. But it was certainly a learning process.
My road to SBG began innocently enough. I was at a local technology conference in a session run by Ben Wildeboer and heard him mention the concept. He had a link in his blogroll to Shawn Cornally’s blog, “Think Thank Thunk”. As I started to read his manifesto about SBG, a lightbulb began to go off in my head.
Let me back up a bit. I began this past year dissatisfied with my grading system. After more than 10 years as a teacher, I felt that I had become much too soft in my grading. If a kid did what I expected them to, wasn’t that a 100%? Kids were getting steered into my classes because they were easy A’s, and I knew that. And increasingly I felt like there was a disconnect between a bunch of abstract numbers in a gradebook and an actual appraisal of a student’s competency.
OK, back to the story. As I read and re-read Shawn’s blog in later sessions that were much less interesting than Ben’s (which, BTW, probably motivated me to create this blog, and also to start getting on Twitter), I had an epiphany. Here was a system that focused exclusively on student competence. More importantly, here was a system that made it OK — nay, made it important — to give underperforming students low scores, with the understanding that they could get reassessed at a later date.
So I did the unthinkable. I came back and totally changed my grading approach, right in the middle of the semester, in my three computer courses. I explained what I was doing to my students and why I was doing it. I showed them the SBGradebook program that Shawn had created to log and display grades. And then I sat back and waited to see what would happen.
That first semester, my approach to SBG was way too disorganized. I set up the standards, true, but then I allowed my students to decide what work to submit under each standard. Basically, I let them present me with a portfolio of best work for each standard. Needless to say, grades did not go down; if anything, they probably went up. Also I got swamped with grading; the students knew they could throw gobs of work in my inbox, because lower scores would not penalize them.
In the second semester, with a whole new set of classes, I knew that things would need to change. I decided to implement a structured system of mandatory assessments — usually a lab project and a quiz each week. This time, I decided which standards would be covered by each assessment. I tried to ensure that every standard got covered at least twice, and also that for each assignment I would go back and revisit at least one earlier standard. There was still the opportunity for reassessment, but this time, every score counted, and I used the “decaying average” model that is standard in Riley Lark’s ActiveGrade program (which even Shawn has switched to).
This time around, I got more pushback from students. Mostly, their questions were variations of, “Why isn’t my grade higher?” In particular, a lot of them had a hard time with the non-cumulative nature of SBG. I tried to explain to them the idea is to have the most accurate picture of a student’s understanding at the end of a semester, not what it was at the beginning. (Teenagers have a funny way of equating “fair” with “good for me” and “unfair” with “bad for me”, but that’s a subject for another post.)
Looking back on it now with a critical eye, I can hash out some of the pros and cons of my SBG experience:
- As one of my students (ironically, one of the least engaged ones) said, “This actually makes me think about what I’m learning.” At least if students complain about their grades, they’re complaining about their score for a standard, not a number on the top of a quiz.
- I don’t feel bad about giving low grades. If a kid bombs a standard in an assignment, I don’t feel bad about giving them a 4/10, like I would in a cumulative system where scores like that could be devastating. I look at the first grades in a given standard almost like opening bids that the students can then negotiate up through reassessment.
- Forced curriculum mapping. SBG forces you to identify the important standards in your course and correlate them with your assessments. It may not be a very good correlation (see below), but at least you have to pick something. For Wiggins disciples like me, this goes hand-in-hand with my course planning.
- It almost creates an individualized learning experience for each student within the context of a communal class. Even though all the students are doing the same assessments, you can break them out into specific standards and get a laser-focus on what each student needs to do to improve.
- Grade-grubbers still grub. I had kids coming up to me a week before the end of the term and saying, “Can I get reassessed on every standard where I have less than a 9?” (To which my answer was usually, “No, unless we sit down and talk about them.”) For some kids, this didn’t engage them in any sort of metacognitive way — it was just another set of numbers.
- Flimsy standard mapping. One of the problems I encountered was that when I would plan out each unit, I would list the 3-4 standards that each assessment would cover. Often when it came time to actually create the assessment, I would have trouble figuring out how to actually include all those standards. I think next year I need to list the new standards in advance and then add the older ones I revisit at the time then I create the assessment.
- High grades. Grades were still high, and I’m not quite sure how to tame that beast. It may be an inevitable part of my personality. I used a 1-10 scale because I thought students would be able to easily map it to the 1-100 scale that is familiar to them. That may have been a tactical error. Maybe next year I should switch to something like Marzano’s 1-4 scale that is less easy for them to misinterpret.
I’m definitely going to use SBG next year — it’s become what I believe, philosophically, grading should be. But I need to tweak the way that I design the grading scheme so that it is accurate but not discouraging, and connects more coherently with the material. Stay tuned!