Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Embracing the Cliche of the 21st Century Learner

image by CollegeDegrees360

I recently did a post about buzzwords, and I think one of the worst of these is the phrase "the twenty first century learner." This has become a catch-all phrase to describe students with a short attention span, a technology addiction, and a complete inability to learn in "traditional" manners.

But... there may be some truth to the buzzword, the cliche, what have you. And it may not be a bad thing.

It's hard for adults in general and teachers in particular to accept the dramatic changes we're undergoing, but I think we don't have much of a choice. Here are some very specific things that I think we, as teachers, need to consider in moving forward with the twenty first century students in our classrooms.

1. The value of the topics taking up our time

More and more, we are doing project driven learning: Google time, individual projects, flex time. There is less and less emphasis on whole class instruction, and classroom time is now, more than ever, at a premium. With that in mind, I'm about to say something controversial (but not original): why are we teaching them cursive handwriting at the expense of, say, keyboarding skills? I think when someone suggests getting rid of handwriting, we have an ingrained response (or at least, I do) to respond: "We need it! It teaches valuable skills! We can't just let that ability vanish."

But... can't we? Why not? I'm trying to think of what exactly cursive writing does for a kid, and I can't come up with anything that couldn't be taught in a more engaging and cross curricular way. Is it such a bad thing if, in the end, cursive writing dies out? Was there once a similar outcry against not teaching Latin?

2. Technology really is ubiquitous

We are past the days of telling kids to put their phones away. They have a wealth of information at their fingertips. Let them use it! Sure, kids will text in class. They pass notes in class, too. It doesn't matter if it's high or low tech; kids will find ways to break the rules. That shouldn't stop us from using powerful educational devices anymore than note passing should stop us from using pencils and paper.

3. We need to be open to using technology in unexpected ways

Today I was sitting at a table with a student explaining how to divide by ten mentally when a number ends in zero, and how that skill can be used to mentally find percentages. I was jotting notes on a whiteboard as we talked, and at the end of our time, she said to me, "I understand it now, but I'll probably forget it when I get home. Will you take a picture of that whiteboard and email it to me?"

Such a simple idea, but it had never occurred to me to say to a kid, "Take a picture of that example." Obviously I did as she asked, and mentioned it to the rest of the class as an option, too.

4. Learning will never look like it did when we were kids

We can stress rote memorization of math facts all we want, but kids just don't learn that way anymore. They've been raised in a world where information is immediately accessible, where they carry computers so powerful NASA would have been using them thirty years ago in their back pockets, where they are never more than five seconds from a calculator, a phone, or a text message. You can't expect learning to look like it did when those things didn't exist.

5. Organization is going to look different, too

Many teachers still use paper agendas... for their students. Not many of them use them for ourselves. It's something else to carry, and I have a device in my back pocket that does all of that for me. When I say I use Edmodo instead of agendas, a lot of teachers respond that they don't want all of the responsibility on THEM -- students should organize themselves.

I say, what's the difference between me writing it on a board and expecting students to copy it down, or me writing it on a website and expecting students to check it? Either way, the responsibility for maintaining awareness of dates and assignments falls on students. As their teacher, I give them a helping hand. In my case, it looks like a website. Expecting kids to check paper agendas doesn't fit in with the rest of their lives, where half of them probably don't even have a paper calendar at home.

Question of the Day:
What technology can we use to reach 21st century learners?

Obviously, for me the key is interaction. Games. Edmodo's interactive calendar. Google docs and cloud storage. If kids can use it, I think they will.

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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Five Ways Video Games are Ideal for Learning

Image by Gamesingear
What is it about video games that makes them so useful for learning? I know some people would disagree with that premise, but the research has proven, over and over again, that games DO encourage people to learn, and that video games are adaptive, creative vehicles for acquiring and using knowledge. Will everyone who plays a game learn? No, anymore than everyone who reads a book or attends a lecture. But the fact remains that games do an incredible job of capturing and holding people's attention and communicating a wide variety of information in a way that seems to stick.

So what is it that makes games work for learners? I think there are a number of things:

1. They have broad appeal

Everyone likes games. Not everyone loves video games, but there are very few people, and especially children, who don't like to play. And even people who say they don't like video games tend to back peddle when you change your definition to include casual games, like Words with Friends or Candy Crush. Like these games or hate them, they are still games, and they appeal to a huge variety of people.

2. They are experiential

There's a reason we take kids on field trips: when you experience something, you create memories around it, and you're much more likely to remember the information than if you passively encountered it. Video games do a great job (or at least, GOOD games do) of presenting information in an experiential context and then making you use it. My students have even seen problems on math tests and called out, "I remember one just like this in Professor Layton!" (Remembering good, shouting at me during math tests maybe not so much so?). 

3. They have built-in buy in

Go into any room and say, "We're going to do a worksheet today!" Even the most dedicated professionals will probably slump a little lower in their seats. On the other hand, hand out some iPads and announce, "We're going to play a game," and people perk up and pay attention. And any teacher can tell you, it's much easier to teach to kids who are engaged and interested than to those falling asleep in their chairs.

4. The learning has a purpose

One of the questions I remember people demanding in high school trigonometry was, "When am I going to use this in real life?" For some reason, people don't ask that about video games. I've spent hours mastering skills that have no practical application anywhere else -- such as how to perfectly time a button press in that horrible QTE knife battle in Resident Evil 4 -- without resenting it (too much). People are willing to learn the rules and intricacies of a game for their own sake. If those happen to coincide with things they need to learn for school, then so much the better. 

5. They are based on research about how people learn

There's a reason no one touches game instruction manuals anymore. Games do a fantastic job of providing the information you need when you  need it. James Paul Gee has commented that reading a video game manual is like reading a science textbook, whereas playing a game is like working through a science experiment. In the one, you get an influx of information you may or may not remember; in the other, you receive information as you go through a process, and you use it as soon as you get it. In the latter case, you are far more likely to remember.

Question of the Day:
What is your favorite video game, and what did you learn from it?

I'm unoriginal in that my favorite game is Portal. From Portal, I learned that if a computer suspiciously resembles a bound woman, it's best not to trust it. In seriousness, though, I actually learned principles of physics ("In layman's terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out"), problem solving skills, and persistence in the face of defeat.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

What Video Games Can Teach Educators

Image by Grant Potter
No one denies that video games are popular. How popular? Well, the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board, the organization responsible for video games' parental ratings) has a great infographic to answer that question:
Video Game Industry Statistics

It's particularly interesting that almost 50% of gamers are between the ages of 18 and 49. These statistics demonstrate a couple of things:

-video games are not just or even primarily children's entertainment, but with so many adult gamers, kids are even more likely than they would be otherwise to find themselves drawn to the world go gaming. In other words, if you don't like video games, you'd better settle in for the long haul, because they're not going anywhere. 

-40% of gamers are women, which should put lie to the idea that games based learning will appeal to boys and alienate girls

-gaming is almost ubiquitous in our culture. Even kids whose parents don't want them having "screen time" will probably find that their kids are exposed to games at other people's houses. You can limit, but you can't really avoid it. 

So ok, games are popular. WHY - and what does that have to do with learning?

I think two things account for video game popularity:

1. Games offer people the chance to try on other roles, to become someone different. Great movies and books do the same thing, but games are even more so. They're specifically designed to put you, the player, in control of a character who, more often than not, embodies some characteristic you've wanted to try but never been able to take on. 

2. Games hit the sweet spot for rewarding our brains. They have (at least, they do if they're any good) the perfect balance of challenge and reward, of difficulty and success. There's always a way out, unlike in real life where some problems are just unsolvable. And they scaffold you perfectly, introducing information at the precise rate you need it, usually only as it becomes necessary to solve a problem. 

So what does this mean for education? I would argue that game designers understand teaching better than many educational professionals. How often do teachers find themselves forced to teach topics in isolation, or move on before a student is ready, because the curriculum demands it? How many of us really feel like we hit that sweet balance of challenge and success with all, or at least the majority, of our students on a regular basis?

This is not to blame teachers -- we do our best, and you have to keep in mind that game designers spend years carefully designing and testing each game to make sure it achieves exactly this goal. But it seems that the education industry in general has some important lessons to learn from game designers.

Question of the Day:
How do you feel about video games for kids?

My opinion is pretty obvious: I think games have a lot to teach us. I do, however, believe in moderation for everything. Any kind of sit-and-get time should be balanced with the basics of a healthy lifestyle, both in terms of physical activity, human interaction, etc. I don't think, though, that video games are the demons they're made out to be.

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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Grit: All It's Cracked Up to Be?

Image by Ruhrfisch

I read an interesting article about Grit last week, and it got me thinking about buzz words in education -- buzz words in general.

The article, for those interested in such things, is from Forbes, and it includes a number of really important reflections on the dangers of buzz words. A few of these that really caught my attention:

-Standardized tests show the exact opposite of the message we are trying to achieve

“Kids don’t see where they were right or wrong, it’s just a score–the ultimate measure of success and failure in the current system is the single score.” Grit and perseverance without contextualized feedback is the equivalent of banging your head against the wall until something breaks. This is hardly an admirable quality. Instead of celebrating the Grit, value the ability to figure out what to do after each failure.

-Entrepreneurship -- one of the qualities Alberta Ed had identified as critical to our emerging curriculum, alongside engagement and ethics -- is, by it's very nature, a business term, even if we say we are valuing the quality separately from business connotations. And in some ways, it contradicts the idea of ethical citizens.

Kaplan immediately observes that Wagner is “catering to businesses.” He questions, “Is that the view of education that we want?” Is education about creating workers, or creating reflective citizens? Either way, do entrepreneurs really make good employees? Do entrepreneurs make good citizens? ...Ingenuity, trickiness, and a willingness to break the rules all go with entrepreneurship. The entrepreneur is manic, boundaryless, and inconsistent; and that’s okay, because she gets results. In the end, it all comes down to the bottom line, the final score.

-Many of the skills we are identifying for 21st century learners are not skills at all, but values. And while (I believe) values education certainly comes under the heading of "things schools should teach," there are dangers inherent in calling values skills.

The trouble with 21st century skills is that they are not skills at all. They are subjective values that, when located within individuals and assessed like skills, become moralistic accountabilities.

What's Wrong With Buzzwords?

One of my coworkers told me the other day that she doesn't like the word inspired because it's turned into a buzzword. And the thing with buzzwords is, they devalue language. I've talked before about how C. S. Lewis illustrated this with the word gentleman -- a word that used to mean "a man who owns land" before someone decided that the important thing wasn't that he owned land, but how a man who owned land should behave. Then the word became a synonym for "a nice, polite man." And as Lewis points out, we already had words that meant that. We ruined the word for its original use.

Buzzwords do the same. Ironically, BuzzFEED is the worst for this. There are only so many times a headline can promise to "blow your mind" with facts such as "canola oil used to be called rapeseed oil" before you get jaded and stop believing them.

I worry that when we talk about any concept, be it ethical citizenship, grit, or engagement, we run the risk of turning these words into meaningless concepts -- buzzing in the background. Obviously we DO need a common vocabulary to communicate, but there has to be  way around this problem, a way to converse without turning words into background noise.

And when we come down to it, is grit really all it's cracked up to be -- even when you remove the buzzword factor? As you know, I am ALL FOR the idea that when you fail, you pick yourself up and try again -- video games taught me that a long time ago (yes, Ni No Kuni, I'm looking at you, because I didn't spend the requisite hours grinding and levelling up before tackling certain areas).  But if we aren't going to really and truly redesign our educational system along those lines, we're just giving the idea mouth service.

Question of the Day:
Are buzzwords useful in creating a common vocabulary, or do they erode communication?

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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Teacher Freebie: Using Sim City to Teach Local Government

Sim City is a fantastic way to teach the idea of local government. No matter how much we lecture about local services and the complexity of balancing budgets, these concepts are pretty abstract to sixth grade students. When they actually participate in it themselves, though, things take on a whole new meaning.

I use Sim City for the Nintendo DS and for the iPads. I'm fully aware that Sim City EDU exists, and I think it's probably an awesome option if your school a, has computers capable of running it and b, is capable of buying and installing it. Failing that, the old fashioned ways work just as well!

Sim City really is exactly what you want kids to learn from a unit on local government. It covers...

  • The need to keep taxes at a reasonable level -- one where your city will have enough money to supply services, but not so high that the population revolts
  • The need to keep the population reasonably happy (people will move if you make them too mad, thus reducing your tax base), but ignore them when necessary or when you know you're doing what's right for the city
  • The need to provide adequate services with appropriate funding
  • The need to make hard financial decisions
  • The need to balance zoning 
  • The need to prioritize different services based on population needs
When my students finish playing Sim City, I have them fill in a short retrospective where they explain what they learned. Here are a few responses:

This game taught us that planning a city may seem like all you have to do is build a couple buildings and roads but it is really much harder. You would have to manage your money and make sure you keep the money for the services equal or maybe spend a little more on certain things. One of the most important things is that you make sure at the beginning you don’t spend all your money because if you do your money will drop below zero and after that it will be really hard to boost your money up. City officials really have to think about having fair taxes and they also have to make sure the people are satisfied and happy so that others would see that your city was the place to move. In your city things like stores and schools need to be close [to] homes and far away from the industrial area. This is some information you need when running a city.

This game taught us that we can’t spend money on every little thing, next time we will try to spend money on the big things. We need to try and buy things we need. For example we need a hospital not three police stations. We also put tons of power lines. I think next time we could put  little less.

Sim City taught us about how to manage taxes and [expenditures]. We put lots of money into education and the police department so people could be safe. We built our city with lots of resedencial zones for people to move into. We planed our city to have a safe and clean invironment. Sim City has helped us learn more about local government and how citys need the right taxes to keep people in a city and not move away and have enough for services.

All in all, I was happy and impressed with the learning that occurred. 

Want to give it a try? Go here to download the worksheet I use with students (for free). The worksheet is designed with the DS version of the game in mind, but you can adapt it as you see fit.

Question of the Day:
Do you use simulation games in your classroom? Which ones?

Sim City remains my favorite simulation game, but there are some other great ones. Civilization, of course, and has some great ones (I wish someone would make a similar website for Canadian politics). 

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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

How to Talk to Non-Gamers About Games in Education

Image by Patrick Brosset
I've talked to a lot of people over the last few years who aren't sure about what I do with games, and video games in particular, in my classroom. Over this time, I've come up with some strategies and answers for people, and I thought they might be worth sharing. 

One thing to watch out for: I think gamers have a natural tendency to get defensive. It does often seem like video games are blamed for a lot of ills in society, even though there's no real evidence to back that up. (I particularly like the quote in that article that points out that, statistically, it would be more surprising if youth who perpetrate violence did NOT play violent video games, as almost all young people in that age bracket do). Regardless, it's easy to get frustrated and defensive when something you enjoy is vilified, but if you want to carry on a conversation, you need to keep your cool and try to resist that temptation.

With that in mind, here are some FAQs about games based learning, things I've heard on several occasions and how I've responded.

Q: Video games are fine, but when is my child going to get to the "real learning?"

This question usually comes from parents who are trying to understand what you are doing with video games, but are concerned that their kids aren't learning what they would from a traditional curriculum. The solution here is simple: do your homework. You  need to be able to demonstrate to these parents what their kids are learning, how they're learning it, and why this is an effective method of instruction. These people are the easiest to talk to, because they're open and willing to listen.

Q: Why are you encouraging kids to play video games when they should be outside/getting exercise?

If you're keeping kids in at recess to play video games or skipping PE class to play games (discounting of course active games like Just Dance ), then this is a valid criticism. But if you're using video games in class, I would point out that it's no less active to play a game than it is to read a book. It's just an alternative method of instruction or learning, and should in no way take the place of outdoors or physically active interactions.

Q: Shouldn't the kids focus on improving their reading, memorizing math facts, and other important basic skills before they spend time playing games?

So many games do exactly these things, even games that aren't designed to be educational. Look at the volumes of fanfiction teenagers write after becoming immersed in World of Warcraft or other MMOs, for example. It might not be the best writing, but they are writing, voluntarily, and enjoying it. There are also heaps of games that involve a lot of reading, writing, and math at their core -- and again, this encompasses even games that aren't specifically designed to be educational. Just because they are practicing these tasks in a nontraditional setting doesn't mean they aren't practicing them!

Q: I don't like my child to play video games at home, so why are you encouraging them at school?

It is 100% a parent's choice whether or not to allow video games in their home. However, if you are using games as an integral part of your curriculum, you should be able to demonstrate to the parent how and why. It's just like some parents choose not to have a television in their homes, but most would allow their child to view educational videos and the like at school. If you use this analogy and clearly demonstrate exactly how and why games come into play, most parents will be willing to let their kids participate in these school based activities.

Q: We are supposed to be increasing collaborative learning and creativity. Don't video games contradict both of those objectives?

Quite the opposite. Many video games are by their nature collaborative, especially MMOs (and we've reached the point where it's becoming socially acceptable to put something like "World of Warcraft Guild Leader" on your resume, because it demonstrates that you can negotiate, manage people, and work in groups. Okay, it's SLOWLY becoming socially acceptable. We're getting there).  But even games that aren't collaborative in nature often become so in practice. When I play Professor Layton with my students, they run from group to group seeking help on problems. And like many teachers, I don't have the tech for each kid to have their own system, so they're always in partners or groups.

Creativity is another area where video games often excel. People who haven't played a lot of games often don't realize that games are essentially one long exercise in creative problem solving: tackle a problem, and if it doesn't work, reassess your strategy, think of new ideas, and try again. If you can demonstrate this to people, many of them will be quite surprised, and even impressed.

Of course, there will always be some people who just don't like games, and in those cases, sometimes you just have to listen, be sympathetic, and then explain yourself clearly. Most people are reasonable, and if they feel like you have heard their concerns and responded to them appropriately and professionally, it works out just fine.

Question of the Day:
Why do you use games to teach?

I use games for many reasons. Primarily, I use them for motivation -- games are more fun than answering questions from a book, and the information students gather tends to stick much more strongly. They are also more engaged, which means more of those little brain cells are focused on the task at hand!

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Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Five Characteristics of Good Educational Games

There are a lot of educational games out there. If you don't believe me, just type educational into an app search, and hold your head at the results.

But perhaps it's more accurate to say there are a lot of so-called educational so-called games, because chances are at least half of those apps you pulled up are garbage. Bad educational games tend to fall into three categories:

-Games that don't actually contain much in the way of educational content

-Games that are basically glorified worksheets

-Games with no replay value that hold your attention for about five minutes

That said, there ARE some very good educational games out there. In my opinion, these are some of the traits a game needs to have to be really useful in terms of education. 

1. Embedded content

A game that makes you answer math questions for five minutes before giving you a "game break" is not an educational game. You could accomplish the same thing with a deck of flash cards and a Monopoly board. 

Really good games have the content embedded as part of the game itself. For example, if you have to solve mathematical puzzles to advance in a game, and the puzzles are related to the game's story, you have embedded content. This is both more engaging and more memorable than the "chocolate covered broccoli" approach. 

2. Long term engagement

I introduced Prodigy to my class about three months ago. Prodigy straddles the line between embedded content and not (you have to answer math questions correctly to land spells in combat), but after three months, my students are still going strong. When I log onto Edmodo in the evening, it's not uncommon to see a couple messages asking "who wants to battle in Prodigy?", and they still clamor for it during math centres. 

Prodigy has enough going on, enough depth and playability, to hold the kids' attention for an extended period. And while quick review games have their place, the best games of any type are those that draw you in and won't let go. 

3. Playability

This basically means: is the game any good? It can do a fantastic job of teaching concepts, but if it's boring or not fun to play, why on earth would kids come back to it? Or why would teachers use it over a traditional lecture, or simply asking kids to view a video? Sometimes creators of educational games get so caught up in the education, they forget the game. I think that the game should actually come first -- if you're embedding content, you'll be focusing on education and gameplay simultaneously, and that's even better.

4. Multiplayer functionality

Kids are immersed in social media, and they not only want but expect to be able to socialize with their friends in games. Not every good educational game has a multiplayer component, but as we increasingly focus on collaboration, more and more of the best ones do. As I said, my kids love Prodigy for its single player mode, but what they REALLY enjoy is challenging one another in the arena. The very best games aren't just competitive like this. I would love to see Prodigy add a mode where kids could quest together.

5. Adaptability

The same level does not work for every kid. Really good learning games don't just throw some learning objectives at you and sit back to watch the education happen. Instead, the game itself adapts itself to a player's ability. Otherwise, the game quickly becomes stale as the player masters all of the content. Or alternatively, some kids may quit early on because the game is hard enough to be at their frustration levels. The best learning games take what a player does and use it to adapt the game to his or her changing ability.

There are good learning games with only a few of these traits, but in my opinion the very best would have them all.

Question of the Day:
What are some of the best learning/educational games you use?

As I mentioned, I'm really enjoying Prodigy. I just recently learned about Quest Atlantis, which I haven't checked out in its entirety but which looks like it has amazing potential. Before Prodigy, I was using Sokikom on a fairly regular basis. I love games like Professor Layton and the Curious Village or Scribblenauts , which are not educational games per se but have huge educational impact. And I also like board games that have educational value, and there are literally hundreds of those.

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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Teaching Math With Centers andGames

Image by ArjanDice
It's taken me a while, but I've finally got my math class fleshed out the way I want it to look. I'm using a huge variety of materials, most of them heavily adapted from their source material, but in explaining what I'm doing, I'll try to give credit where it's due!

So if you're looking for ideas on teaching math in a less traditional way, you'll literally find dozens of programs competing for your attention. Almost every one of them will tell you that it's the only way to go -- alter it, or try to combine it with other programs, and it won't work. But in my experience, that's not the case. I've found that teaching math depends a lot on your students, and on you. What works for one kid won't always work for the kid beside her. And teachers have to take their own comfort zone into account, too.

That said, there are lots of great math programs out there, so go through them and find what works for you. For what it's worth, here's what I'm doing. 

1. Curriculum and Exams

I was first exposed to the idea  of  teaching all strands of mathematics simultaneously through Tanya Braybrook's Math Profile Assessment. This approach made SO MUCH sense to me, as I've always thought it was dumb to teach a unit on fractions in September and expect kids to remember it in June. Put simply, Braybrook's math profile assessment assigns a learning outcome to each question on a test (for example, number one will always be place value). All objectives are taught simultaneously. After each test, students graph their achievements. This allows you to shift focus from "how many did I get right?" to "what areas am I doing well in?" I don't even put a score on the tests -- I've told students that I really don't care how many they get right; I care about finding the areas where they excel and where they need work.

I don't use Braybrook's tests because we had the old version, and because I wanted different learning objectives associated with them. I have made my own tests, but the basic format is true to Braybrook's, and hers is  very much worth checking out if you're interested in an easy way to assess learning objectives.

2. Flipped Lessons

Earlier this year, I became interested in flipped classrooms, and started using Knowmia Teach to flip some math lessons. I generally like Knowmia, but it does have its quirks (such as the very serious problem of DELETING or CORRUPTING lessons when you export them for cloud storage. I have lost over ten lessons this way to date, and the only alternative is to store them on my iPad and suck up all my memory). The basic idea behind a flipped lesson is that students watch an instructional video at home, eliminating lecture time from the classroom. I include  a short (2-3 question) review at the end of each lesson, and students need to show me they have completed it at the beginning of each math class.

My lessons are simple -- some teachers are awesome at creating flipped classroom videos with all the bells and whistles, but I was more concerned with just getting going. Here's an example of what my kids watch. I try to limit the videos to no more than ten minutes. 

The tests run in two week units, so students watch a video lesson on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of one week, and only Monday and Tuesday of the next week (test week). That's because there is an assignment due on Thursday, and a test on Friday, so I leave Wednesday and Thursday nights free. I don't assign videos on the weekend.

3. In Class Activities and Centers

So what do the kids do when we get to class? We quickly go over the review question, and I check to see if anyone has questions from the previous night's lesson. We then move on to centers. Students attend centers in groups of two (and one group of three due to an odd number). They go to two centers per day, and will attend each by the end of the two week unit. We have centers Monday - Thursday of the first week and Monday-Wednesday of the second week. Some of the centers stay the same, and some shift. They are as follows:

1. Mountain Math (see the next section -- students attend this center four times in the two weeks)
2. Worksheet (a worksheet relevant to the current learning objectives -- students attend this center once or twice, depending on the week. Half of the worksheet is always a mental math strategy)
3. Prodigy (an online math game. Students attend this center twice in two weeks).
4. Professor Layton (usually -- sometimes I will change this one up)
5. Teacher Time (students meet with me to go over guided math strategies)
6. Game 1 - a game related to the concepts we are studying
7. Game 2 - ditto
8 and 9 - Alternative activities. Some of these have included finding the perimeter and area of your hand, creating posters about math concepts, conducting surveys, etc.

4. Mountain Math

I posted earlier  this year about Mountain Math and how I intended to use it. If you're curious, you should go read that, because it's pretty much what I'm doing. Initially I had the Mountain Math due the same day as the test. This turned out to be a mistake because a, it  made for a heckuva lot of marking, and b, I would discover kids were confused about something while they were writing a test on that concept. Mountain Math is now due Thursday. We review it as a class in lieu of centers that day, and students have the chance to check in with me about anything  they don't understand.

5. Assessments

We do bi-weekly tests on Fridays, just like I explained above.

So far, I'm very  happy with this system, and the kids seem engaged and enthusiastic about math (although one did tell me he "doesn't like doing math this way because the old way, if something was hard, you just had to write one test about it and then you could forget it.").

Question of the Day:
What math programs work for you?

I've tried many: the aforementioned  Mountain Math and Math Profile Assessmentt, Power of Ten, JUMP Math, Singapore Math, and a number of resources recommended by the Alberta government. But I've always found that a wide variety of strategies and programs working in conjunction is the best approach.

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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Why We Should Listen To Educators, Not Journalists, About Education

Recently, Edmonton Journal writer David Staples wrote a blog entry on the state of education in Alberta. In this article, he made a number of assertions, and I had a good discussion with him and other concerned teachers on Twitter about the topic. However, by its very nature, Twitter does not allow elaboration on issues, and I think it's important to take a few minutes to really think about what Staples is saying, because he seems to write quite a lot on the topic of education. He frequently mentions talking to business people and parents, but rarely teachers and educators, so it's essential that people interested in education receive a balanced viewpoint on this topic.

As an educator, I'd like to specifically address a few of the claims he makes, both in his articles and in our discussion on Twitter.

1. High stakes standardized testing is essential (indeed, one of the only useful expenditures the government makes when it comes to education) because it provides accountability and a window into how students and schools are doing.

There's a critical distinction here that I have made, and Staples does not: high stakes standardized testing. As he pointed out, correctly, on Twitter, all teachers use standardized tests, because by definition, any test that is the same for all students is standardized.

Now, even that is an issue of some contention, because although the test itself may be standardized, conditions often are not. I will give different levels of assistance to different students on an exam, or may even rewrite the exam entirely for students who need that level of support. But let's leave that aside and look at the difference between a regular standardized exam and a high stakes standardized exam.

A regular exam is one piece of a complicated puzzle teachers use to assess students. We are very aware that an exam measures more than how a student is doing. A student can be having a bad day, be sick, or just get careless with one exam. Given that, we look at far more than one test when we assign marks. Depending on the situation, we may also return to a student and say, "Listen, I know you can do better than this. Look over your notes tonight, and let's try a similar exam tomorrow."

In a high stakes exam, it's a one shot deal. So your parents had a big fight last night and you were up all night worrying about it? Too bad -- write this exam worth 50% of your final grade. No exceptions, no rewrites, no personal situations allowed. This is the critical difference between a normal standardized test and the type administered by the province on an annual basis. As I said on Twitter, when eight year olds' parents tell me they threw up out of stress over exams, there is a serious problem occurring. Nothing should be that high stakes in the third grade. And this is in spite of my best attempts to de-emphasize the importance of these tests: kids are perceptive, and they understand when something is considered a big deal even if they're told not to worry about it.

2. If we want a successful educational system, we should study what made Alberta near the top of the world's educational systems in the early 2000s.

Recently, my dog's inner eyelid became inflamed. I looked this up on the internet and learned that until a few years ago, vets would say not to worry about this condition. However, in recent years, vets have realized the importance the third eyelid plays in a dog's eye health, and they now recommend treating this condition promptly. If I went to a vet and explained the situation and he said, "Well, you know, a few years ago veterinary medicine in this country was at the top of the world's systems, so I've chosen not to look at any new research since then," I would find a new vet in a hurry.

Let's think about the early 2000s. I graduated from high school in 1997 and did my first year of university in 1998. I realize that's a few years earlier, but let's just think about what education looked like at that time. In my first two years of university:

  • I handwrote my essays, as I lived at home and my family did not own a personal computer
  • None of my fellow students had cell phones
  • I had a mix tape in my car's cassette deck
  • The iPod was just being invented. Tablets, iPads, and smartphones did not exist.
  • I had a Playstation with no online capability
  • Virtually all of my contact with my teachers and students was face to face
By the time I returned to do my MA in English, all of that had changed dramatically. The first question I was asked was how I planned to finance a laptop computer. When I TA'd for undergrad courses, every single student had a laptop to take notes on. I ran seminars via email and online correspondence as well as by holding office hours. Today, my husband and I have four computers between us, not counting the iPad and laptop I have at school assigned to my primary use or our smartphones, which are essentially computers. We play games online via Xbox Live, and I wouldn't dream of handwriting any professional correspondence. 

Our world has changed dramatically in less than twenty years. Everything is different, and whether you like it or not, technology is ubiquitous. Looking at a system that worked fifteen years ago is not going to cut it now.

3. Parents and taxpayers approve of high stakes provincial testing, and will fight to keep it.

This generalization blows me out of the water for a number of reasons. First of all, many teachers are both taxpayers and parents, and almost all educators are against high stakes provincial testing -- not, as some seem to believe, because we want no accountability. I am all for accountability. If the province wants to hire auditors to come into my classroom, examine my curriculum, and talk to my students, then bring it on. No good teacher wants to hide their work -- that's why so many of us are on Twitter, and have blogs, and share our endeavors. We are not trying to work in a vacuum. But standardized testing of the type the province employs is not useful, and many studies have demonstrated this fact. We need a new system of accountability.

To generalize and say that no taxpayers or parents want to get rid of standardized testing is unfair and, in my experience, untrue. And worst of all, it makes an assumption that educators only want to get rid of standardized tests because we have something to hide, rather than because they are ineffective forms of assessment that place undue stress on our students. 

Now, I'm not saying that everything Mr Staples has to say about education is wrong. He makes some good points about the discovery math curriculum, which many teachers as well as parents have questioned, and he has some research to support his claims about how students learn. And education is different from many professions in that what parents say matters immensely -- teachers do NOT work in a vacuum, but (hopefully) in partnership and collaboration with their students' parents, who are their primary educators and advocates. It would be foolish to say that the government should listen to educators and ignore parents, because parents should have an equal amount of input into their children's education.

But by completely ignoring educators, he tunes out the people who have spent years studying and experiencing the educational system from the inside. It's like trying to write about hockey but refusing to speak to players or coaches, only listening to fans, or insisting that standards of journalism need to change because readers say they do without getting any perspective from journalists themselves.

If we're going to have balanced, intelligent conversations about education, we need to understand all perspectives, look at the research on both sides of controversial issues, and be willing to change and adapt with society. And THAT'S what I didn't have room to say on Twitter!

Question of the Day:
What is your perspective on high stakes standardized assessment?

As I said, I'm in favor of accountability, and sometimes standardized testing is necessary. But high stakes standardized tests are rarely effective, and even less so in areas such as creative writing where standardization is virtually impossible. 

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Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Edmodo is Great for Noobs (and other thoughts)

I lack the ability to write a coherent post at the moment, so you get three mini posts on things that are on my mind this week. 

1. Edmodo is awesome for new students

I had a new student start school this week. Now, I was the new kid often enough to know that it sucks. And starting in mid-February, in grade six, in a K-6 school? That sucks all the more. 

However, since I had that student's email address (or rather, her parents), it occurred to me to get her signed up for our class Edmodo page the week before she came. The results were awesome. For a week, my students were able to chat back and forth with her. Those who did shared tidbits of information with those who didn't. The end result was that by the time my new student arrived Monday morning, she was on a friendly basis with 3 or 4 kids, had seen everyone's names, and the other kids were excited to meet her. If I'd been able to do that as a kid, I think it would have made a huge difference. 

TL;DR: Edmodo is awesome for noobs :)

2. I don't really like the Olympics. 

This is a REALLY unpopular opinion in Canada, by the way. Not liking the Winter Olympics is like not liking bacon... which I'm not really a fan of, either. But I think the Olympics is a generally corrupt system, that we spend way too much money on them that could be dedicated to much more important causes, and that our society over-idolizes athletes anyway. Just look at some of the articles written by individuals whose bodies have been utterly destroyed by the expectations of professional sports, and you'll see what I mean. 

Then of course, there's the fact that our bandwidth keeps getting eaten up by people streaming The Olympics, there's the political situation in Russia, and also the horrifying stories of people being displaced and animals slaughtered in Sochi... I'm not finding much to get excited about. 

3. I'm writing again

Just for the one person who used to follow me when I blogged about writing :) I've started work on a new YA dystopian novel! and I'll let you know how it goes. But for what it's worth, my eleven year olds' utterly unbiased opinion is that it's brilliant. 

Question of the Day:
Are the Olympics an opportunity for international cooperation or are they wasteful?

If you're on the fence, this is a really interesting and important article about the whole #sochiproblems phenomenon. 

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