Monday, October 6, 2014

Would You Openly Critique Your Colleagues Work?

Could we in the United States create school cultures in which instructing colleagues on how they might improve performance is not a rare and emotion-laden event, but rather an accepted and valued mechanism in the development of desirable professional practice?

In an eSchool News editorial I contrast the atmosphere of collegial review in the Singaporean education system and in the United States. I recount the experience of participating in a constructive but pointed critique of a young Singaporean teacher and thinking that "if this were an American school I’d be hesitant to critique a colleagues’ work out of fear that they would take the criticism personally."  
As I relate in the piece, I sat on my old school's faculty evaluation committee and critiqued colleagues' teaching practices in face-to-face reviews and reports. Throughout this period, I was concerned that a critical review might damage my working and personal relationship with a colleague and create an awkward situation for years to come. At times I tried to be obtuse in leveling criticism at a teacher’s practices and spent most of the time lavishing praise on the teacher’s pedagogical strengths.
In my Singaporean experience, the air was totally different. The committee did not retreat from pointed criticism of the young teacher. At the end, the teacher even appeared genuinely appreciative and I learned that formal, face-to-face discussions of teacher pedagogical practices are the norm in the Singaporean system. 
Doesn't it make sense that to better the teaching craft we should review teacher practices regularly? How can we create a positive, non-threatening culture of collegial review?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Want Teachers to Incorporate Technology? Enlist "Bob"

Classroom practices are most profoundly changed by peer-to-peer interactions -- not by top-down directives. 

One of the most frequent questions I get from school administrators is: "How can I get my teachers to use technology?" (Interestingly, I often hear from classroom teachers who ask: "How can I get my administrators to use technology?")

The issue is complicated and has more to do with tech attitude, than tech aptitude. Educators wear many "faces of fear" when it comes to technology. For some, it's discomfort with the technology itself. For others, it's the unease that technology elicits. Many wear both faces and more. Factor in that schools are highly conservative institutions and it's no surprise that changing educator practices is daunting. 

In an eSchool News editorial I write that classroom practices are most acutely and profoundly changed by peer-to-peer interactions over a sustained period. It's those informal exchanges between educators during the day, and formal peer-to-peer instruction during the year, that can prompt real and lasting instructional change.  Top-down administrative directives simply don’t change beliefs, often provoke resentment, and rarely change teacher practice. Once the door shuts, it's a teacher's classroom and they'll teach how they see fit.   

So, administrators need to identify and enlist respected members of the faculty who can influence their peers. Educators like "Bob." Bob is a veteran member of the faculty and not necessarily tech-savvy. But Bob is not intransigent, either. He is not opposed to using technology, but is skeptical and has reservations and anxieties.

Enlist Bobs and you can influence an entire faculty. Like Bob, most teachers are somewhere in the middle of the tech-integration spectrum. They're not completely opposed to technology, but they're not tech evangelists either. They need to go in steps and be reassured. Put a tech-loving-twenty-something colleague in front of these teachers and you'll see anxiety and apprehension in their eyes. But, put Bob in front of them and you'll get reactions like, "Well, if Bob is willing/can do it, then maybe I will/can." Enlist a few Bobs and you have stepping stones that lead teachers to new insights, burgeoning confidence and the eventual realization of a tech-infused project.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Multimedia Decoding: "Observe-Reflect-Question"

Video is the fastest growing medium on the Internet and increasingly young people are consuming cultural content. The 30-minute documentary Kony 2012 became a worldwide trending topic on the Internet and in less than a week more than 80 million people had viewed it. The video vividly depicted atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) over the past two decades. It called for students to immediately join a movement—by sharing the video, signing online petitions, and “Liking” on Facebook—with the ultimate goal of pressuring world leaders to capture Joseph Kony by the end of 2012.

Emotions ran high because of the vivid images in the video and many teenagers came to school asking their social studies teachers to address the issues.  Yet, as teachers soon realized, many of their students were ill-equipped to critically analyze the content: not just the video itself, but also the ways in which the video had become enmeshed in a Web-based campaign and broader social networks.

As many teachers abruptly came to realize, critical inquiry of video -- increasingly the norm for consuming information -- needs to become part of the primer for teaching 21st century literacy.  Teaching students how to decode video is foundational to the development of effective global citizens in our networked world. 

Fortunately, The Library of Congress “Teaching with Primary Sources” series located at  provides an excellent “Observe-Reflect-Question” framework for video analysis. The questions below from TPS-Barat Primary Source Nexus are adopted from the Library of Congress list of video analysis questions: 

OBSERVE: Identify and note details

  • What type of video recording is this (documentary, entertainment broadcast, animation, advertisement, speech, interview, press conference, testimony, etc.)?
  • What is this video recording about? What is the main topic or theme?
  • What is the title of this video? Is there any other text? If so, what information does it provide
  • What is/are the main setting(s) of this video recording?
  • Is there live action? Are there special effects or animation? If so, provide a brief description of what you see.
  • Who helped to make (perform, produce, or broadcast) this video recording?
  • Are there details that suggest the time period this video recording relates to? Is the creation date listed in the bibliographic record? If the creation date is listed, was this video created at or around the same time period the content relates to?
  • What other details do you notice?

A distinguishing aspect of video is that it can be seen multiple times in different ways. Students can rewind to review any part, or the entirety, of the video or slow the video down to focus on a particular element. In addition, students can watch a video without listening to sound to help focus on particular aspects of interest. Students might then be able to better understand how music is often integrated to create an emotion or reaction and even manipulate a viewer into action.  

As students move to critical analysis, they should be prepared to reflect more carefully on what they have observed and start to draw conclusions: 

REFLECT: Generate and test hypotheses
What tools and materials might have been used to create this video recording?
Why do you think this video recording was created? What might have been the purpose of making this video? What evidence supports your theory?
What tone does the video recording have? Why do you think this tone was used? How does the tone affect the feeling or mood of the video?
If special effects or animation are present, how do they affect the feeling or mood of the video?
Who do you think was the audience for this video recording?
What do you think the creator might have wanted the audience to think or feel?
How do you feel during and after watching this video recording?
Does the video recording show bias through words or images? If so, towards what or whom? What evidence supports your conclusion?
What was happening during the time period this video recording represents? If someone created this video today, what would be different/the same?
What did you learn from listening to this video recording? Does any new information you learned contradict or support your prior knowledge about the topic of this video?

Finally, students should ponder the questions hardest to answer and consider how they might find more information to help them answer these questions:

QUESTION: What didn’t you learn that you would like to know about? What questions does this video recording raise? What do you wonder about . . .

Also, teachers should encourage encourage transmedia navigation so that students not analyze online video in isolation. Students must learn that they should consider multiple sources of information on the topic as it may provide a more balanced perspective. Is there an independent news article on the topic? Are bloggers offering varied viewpoints? What are their rationales and motivations? Are visitors being encouraged to “like” a video or post or perhaps join a Facebook group? Why? Who is behind it? What does the makeup of the group tell you about their interests and motivation? Are you being encouraged to act in a certain way, such as supporting a campaign? Who benefits if you do? As such, students should consider viewpoints, data and information found in posts, images, charts, graphs, interviews, reports, and surveys. A good rule of thumb is to teach students to study at least three separate source elements and three points of view. 

Unless students learn to decode and analyze video, they will be at a disadvantage to deal with varied communication challenges in both their professional and personal endeavors and may fail to become discerning information literate citizens in a global age.  The implications for individual development and for fostering a productive democratic society are enormous. Teaching video decoding and analytical skills must become a priority. The most successful and forward-thinking schools are already in the process of examining their curricula and their instructional approaches to determine what steps need to be taken to provide teachers with training, if necessary, so that every student is prepared with multimodal literacies.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Six Characteristics of Great Workshops (& Great Classrooms)

[This is an excerpt from an editorial to appear in the June edition of eSchool News]

As much as possible, Justin Reich and I have designed EdTechTeacher professional development workshops to embody the characteristics of great classrooms. If we want teachers to integrate exemplary practices and lead and inspire the next generation, then we must prepare them in exemplary learning environments.

To this end, we deliberately construct a workshop environment which embodies the following:

1. Constructivist
EdTechTeacher workshops are marked by experimental learning. Participants are actively discovering the features, properties, and potential of an app and a device. They are being challenged to make sense of tools for themselves. By not controlling how learners receive and process the information, we do not position ourselves as the sole expert in the room. Instead, knowledge comes from everyone. (To quote Harvard’s David Weinberger: “The smartest person in the room is the room.”)

In EdTechTeacher workshops we want teachers to fail early and to fail often. We want them to encounter stumbling blocks and obstacles, and start developing the persistence and creativity to work through these challenges.

2. Collaborative
We want teachers to work collaboratively to uncover solutions to the challenges we provide. We want them to work independently of us and thereby gain some measure all of confidence that they can solve future problems. We do not want to be the sole experts in the room. We do not want to control the knowledge. In the instructor-driven model, problems are often averted.  In the collaborative model, educators are working together, collaboratively, to make meaning and to help each other.

3. Differentiated
By providing both beginner and advanced challenges, participants work at their own pace, allowing us to model strategies for differentiated learning.  Furthermore, we introduce apps that provide multiple pathways to learning. By providing access varied tools we attempt to give diverse learners very ways to understanding and presentation of content we are helping ensure that we meet the needs of all learners. We also provide for differentiation as different individuals present educational content in different forms. Some create virtual tours, others tutorials. Some are primarily visual, some primarily auditory, some mostly text-based.

4. Personalized
As instructors we circulate the room, providing just-in-time assistance and encouragement. We work as facilitators and not principally as experts, and try to foster a proper balance between self-exploration and direction.

Additionally, the singular access to devices allows a more individualized educational experience. Instead, while students are working individually or in pods, the teacher is now free to move about the room and engage students on a more individual and personal level, providing guidance and support. In this sense, the learning becomes less teacher and more student centered.

5. Mobile
A mobile device adds a unique element to professional learning, because it removes the limitations of a classroom. No longer is the teacher the purveyor of information. Rather, students have a wealth, even a glut, of information available at their fingertips. They can now take that device (with its access, content, and materials) with them out of the classroom—on field trips, bus rides to sporting events, the library, a park, home, and more.

Our Explain Everything challenge simulates a mobile learning experience for workshop participants. We hope it’s also a catalyst for teachers to devise mobile learning experiences for their students.

6. Goal Oriented
In a challenge-based technology learning environment we attempt to simulate the types of learning spaces we hope that teachers will emulate in their classroom. In all, there is a marked emphasis on student directed learning. It is in the constructive learning environment where the learners are making sense of the tools and technological environment.

Improving Tech PD: A Challenge-Based Model

Very early on in the development of EdTechTeacher, Justin Reich and I realized that standing in front of the room for long stretches conducting “click-here-with-me” lectures was boring. Some teachers raced ahead and got lost. Some teachers fell behind and got confused. Progress was slow, and learning often dull.

So we developed a “challenge-based” model of teacher development. For us, a “challenge” is a set of ordered tasks, ideally leading towards a meaningful product, where the tasks are arranged to increase slowly in complexity. We don’t explain step-by-step how to do everything; we usually just create a list of things to do in an order that makes developmental sense.

For example, when I begin an introductory iPad workshop, I put a “warm-up challenge” on the screen. In short, I ask participants to complete some fundamental tasks to ensure they know some basic (and intermediate) iPad features.  Instead of me “teaching” iPad features, I instead ask participant to learn them on their own in 20 minutes.

I try to make participants understand that the goal is for them to learn through active exploration rather than through passive imitation. This can be hard for folks who are more accustomed to learning through direct instruction ("Can you give me a handout?") so we try to create an environment where people feel supported. Participants are placed in groups of 3-4 people to help each other. (But, I ask them not to touch their colleagues iPad.)  If groups get stuck, they should ask other groups for help. If groups finish early, I have additional challenges for them. Or I ask them to help others. If everyone seems to get stuck in the same place, we pause and I'll do a mini-lesson on a particular topic.

One of the benefits of challenge-based professional learning is that it averts contributing to a culture of dependency where teachers immediately turn to technology "experts" to "show-me-how-to-do-it." By completing even small challenges on their own, teachers gain a measure of confidence in their ability to tackle future challenges. 

Throughout this challenge and others, we expect the participants to make mistakes and fail. During a day workshop will make A LOT of mistakes. In many ways, learning technology is a messy adventure.  They (and we) cannot anticipate every problem that might occur when using technology. Yet, in the end, we expect everyone to succeed. Every participant-group is able to solve problems and surmount obstacles to learn, create, present.

It’s tempting to simply show teachers a whole lot about what they might do with an iPad or apps. ( I find that urge hard to resist.) Naturally, we provide teachers with examples of what other teachers are doing with iPads. Yet, at the same time, we are trying to nurture instructional creativity and not advance mimicry. Too often when we show examples of what teachers can do with an app, they often mimic exactly what we showed them. So, it’s a matter of finding a balance between showing teachers what’s possible and having them discover what’s possible.   

"How Do I Grade It?" - Separating User & Device

"How do I grade it?" 

Teachers who integrate technology into student activities and projects often ask this question. How do we answer it?

Fundamentally, assessing multimedia activities and projects is no different than assessing traditional ones, such as written essays. The primary differences between them are the unique features and possibilities associated with a specific medium. A blog, for instance, has a unique set of possibilities vastly different than those of a notebook, as does a mapping app when compared to a paper map of the world. 

The first thing to realize is that you cannot separate the user from the device. iPads, Chromebooks, and tech tools don’t demonstrate great learning - students do. It’s about what students do with the technology that matters. The technology is simply neutral. Consider: Would a teacher grade the pen a student used to write an essay? Of course not. They would grade what the student wrote. It’s what students create with the tool that is the heart of assessment. 

The next step is to be clear about what you want to assess. If you’re attempting to evaluate “21st century skills” such as creativity and collaboration, these competencies cannot be measured on a bubble-test. If students are creating and collaborating, they are performing. So, instead of thinking of the assessment itself as the measurement, we need to concentrate on students’ performances of understanding. 

Performance is most often analyzed through formative and summative assessment. Formative assessment is ongoing and provides information needed to adjust teaching and learning. It not only helps to monitor student progress throughout an activity, but can also gauge student understanding and readiness to proceed to further tasks. Summative assessment focuses on a particular point in time-- often at the conclusion of an activity. 

Regardless whether the immediate assessment is formative or summative, a teacher needs to be able to distinguish between the capabilities of the tool and the students’ performance using the tool. To illustrate, any student can produce a visually stunning and captivating video presentation using iMovie since it has built-in, easy-to-use professional effects. So, to assess the movie presentation effectively, the teacher needs evidence of the thinking that went into the creation of the movie. In this example, as with many student multimedia projects, it’s crucial that the teacher collect evidence demonstrating student decision-making and student actions that went into the creation of the movie. 

As History teacher Shawn McCusker explains: “Creating check-ins and opportunities for peer and teacher review can keep the learning objective in view as well as support the development of skills. Watching a student construct meaning, formulate how to express it to an audience, and THEN create a presentation, offers more opportunity to foster growth than just collecting an assignment ever will.” In other words, the process that students go through when thinking, deciding, and acting upon their multimedia presentation is a valuable learning exercise and provides crucial information to help teachers assess multimedia projects. Therefore, the formative process of creating a multimedia presentation (which often happens with pen and paper) is at least as important as the summative, final presentation. So, any effective evaluation of a multimedia activity or project includes assessment of evidence of “visible thinking.”