Tag Archives: Educational Theory

School really SHOULD be all “fun and games!”

How many times have you heard someone working in a school say that the purpose of the organization “isn’t all fun and games?”  How many times have you heard an educator or administrator say something like, “it’s school, it’s not SUPPOSED to be fun!”?

I’ve said it.  You’ve said it.  We have all said it at some point or another.  It’s exciting to know, however, that it wasn’t always so.  Prior to the onset of industrialization in Europe, most cultural transmission took place via stories and games among small groups of people.  People learned what they needed to know in order to live in the environment they were born into (hunting, gathering, agriculture).  Periodically, as there emerged a more skill-based economy, some people were afforded the opportunity to apprentice with a “master” artisan in a particular discipline and would learn a certain set of skills by performing hands-on tasks that would ultimately result in the acolyte becoming a master in his own right.  As parts of the world began to industrialize, workers who could punctually perform repetitive tasks became necessary and schools were established to feed the need of a basically educated workforce.

While this is a gross glossing-over of the history of human psycho-social development, the point is that “School” as we know it is only about 250 years old whereas our predisposition to learn by playing is at least 10, 000 years developed.  As a species, we have spent about 40 times longer learning through play than through any other means.

So why aren’t schools more playful?

Immediately following this statement, I caution myself to mention two things:

  1. Some schools certainly are playful and, on the whole, I applaud the progressive efforts of the ranks of early-childhood and elementary teachers in creating wonderful and engaging programs.
  2. Much playful impetus in secondary schooling is crushed under the perceived weight of assessment standards that can seem to corral instructional creativity.  I don’t think they necessarily have to, but you’ll find I’m optimistic like that.

On the whole, though, as a person comes out of middle school and into secondary education, it seems like all the fun of school somehow gets sucked into the black hole of this grim spectre of “growing up.”  This has, in my experience, always been equated with being kind of stuffy and without room for play.  Happily, science is starting to shine some happy light on all these fun and games!

In the video I share below, Stuart Brown makes just one compelling case for the importance of play in human development.  As an educator of high-risk youth, I am delighted to hear some of the things that this researcher has discovered about play deprivation and it’s ensuing impacts on humans.  It greatly supports years of “hunches” I have had that, basically, we are all children with steadily-increasing vocabularies.  The thinkers I have come to respect in my exploration on the topic all seem to rally behind one thing: “the child’s mind is the enlightened mind.”

It is important to create opportunities for students to tackle prescribed curriculum in such a way that their own playfulness is engaged as an integral part of the learning.  With this in the forefront of my mind, I can’t wait to get started with this new school year of “fun and games.”  I am willing to bet that the more of this we all have, the more satisfied we all will be!

Here is the video:

Also, here are some great links:

The State of Flow

Clayton Christensen – Author of “Disrupting Class.”

Tim Brown – TED talk about Creativity and Play

Case Study: Coallition of the Willing

Coalition Of The Willing from coalitionfilm on Vimeo.

This video is an interesting example of a few different things that I think we’d like to see in our classrooms.  While it’s true that this was produced by a network of some of the best people working in motion graphics, it is still the result of an ethically motivated, thoughtfully engaged, and entrepreneurial group.  It is a product that we can point to as being both a learning experience and an active statement.

We have the technology available for our students to create such videos and networks.  I would say that the vast majority of them are already very capable with the collaborative tools and networks necessary to participate*.  Our job, to paraphrase Mr. Holland’s Opus, is to give them something to collaborate about.

* I should note that I am not just concerned about making videos.  I am interested to see teachers creating opportunities for students to develop skills, knowledge, and values via problems posed by the real world (see Inquiry Method).

G-Portfolios – My Two Cents

I regularly love posts from Will Richardson’s blog Weblogg-ed, but one that George Couros tweeted today is particularly prescient.  Will’s post, called “The G-Portfolio,” is exploratory inasmuch as he is seeking feedback about the subject of online portfolio management for students.  He intends to write an article with the help of the responses he receives via his blog.  The conversation has caught my eye because my school is looking seriously at having all students leave our school with an electronic/Google-able portfolio.  Here are my two cents with regards to the questions posed in the blog:

  • What types of literacies should be displayed in this Web portfolio?

This is hard.  The trick will be to not have a student’s portfolio be a container for everything he or she creates in school; it’s more important to have the students choose their best work based on criteria that are relevant to their career goals*.  Without going on forever, the literacies demonstrated by the portfolio ought to be the ones that are the most relevant to areas of interest or aptitude as selected by the youth and critical advisors (teachers, counselors, parents).  The bottom line is that the portfolio must demonstrate the best examples of a student’s work (and students need to be taught the ability to constructively critique their own work).

  • What role will this play in “reputation management” or the personal brand of the student?

The portfolio doesn’t play a role in this; the portfolio is reputation management.  When a person takes ownership over his or her web presence, that person is making a commitment to cultivate the message sent by all content online that is associated with their names.  It’s a big step but it’s worth noting that a digital footprint will exist for everyone anyway, so you might as well be in control of what yours looks like.

  • What are the challenges and complexities of the process?

The biggest challenge for me is logistical.  There are a million things to do in your senior year.  Unless a student has time set aside to dedicate to cultivating his or her portfolio, it very easily gets shifted to the back burner (don’t roll your eyes…when was the last time you updated YOUR portfolio or CV? :)).  Time needs to be built into peoples’ days or weeks for students to critically consider their content.

  • To what extent should educators have their own “g-portfolios”?

My answer to this is connected to my previous answer.  As lovingly as I speak it, the truth is that educational pros are among the worst out there for saying, “do as I say and not as I do.”  It is difficult to sell the importance of personal brand management when we don’t pursue it actively ourselves.  I would say that regularly examining one’s own portfolio (electronic or otherwise) is as necessary to professional development as flossing is to dental hygiene (when was the last time you did THAT?).

  • What are the best tools, sites, etc. to create and organize these portfolios?

As with all things, the tool is best chosen after you know what you want to do.  But, for my ease of use and flexibility, I would look to WordPress as the glue for this.  It’s just dead easy and free.  It can be connected to a million things and easily display images and video.

* I am writing this with a prejudice towards secondary education.  This is not to say that portfolios aren’t a good idea for younger students.  In fact, a lifelong and “evergreened” portfolio would actually be the best of all results in our web-focused world.

Drinking and Deriving: Passionate Math Teachers Bring the Sexy Back

I am bad at Math.  A lot of people will make this confession wholeheartedly, but I would bet that few of those people have ever had to TEACH Math to people.  I took on such a challenge and found two things:

1) Teaching Math is like teaching anything else: be clear about what the learner must accomplish, demonstrate it, get the learner to do it, assess, repeat.

2) I liked it a lot.

The second thing is more important for me than the first.  It’s important because I was scared to do it.  When I did it, though, I found myself really reaching back into my troubled Math past (the teary-eyed nights of struggling through long division) and my toolbox of real-world situations that I swore would NEVER involve math of any sort (just order too few pizzas one day if you want to see what I mean).

A few things have happened recently that have made me see that my little epiphanies are old news for the seasoned Math pros.  These things have also shown me that there is something going on in Math education that the rest of us (yes…even in the humanities) should be paying attention to.

Thing 1

I recently had a great talk with a new, passionate Math teacher who just can’t wait to get kids pumped about polynomials.  Now, new teachers like Tara (on Twitter at @tleipert ) often are the manifestations of both piss and/or vinegar, but what was great was about the conversation was that I could see her evaluating ways to take Math out of the textbook and into the real world.

Next, as is my tendency, I was looking for an interesting TED video to show to my homeroom class and I stumbled upon this talk by famous Math teacher Dan Meyer (you KNOW you are special when you are a famous Math teacher).  You can see the video for yourself here, but the main thrust is that Math classes and textbooks take STUDENTS out of the equation by giving them all the information they need to solve problems.  He espouses a type of Math study that asks simple questions as a starting point for a conversation about how to solve them.

Finally, I came across Shawn Cornally’s blog about being on a constant quest to be a better teacher.  The things he tries in his classroom are really out of the box thinking for getting his youth excited about exponents.  He awards game-like experience points for successes in his classes.  He then allows the students the opportunity to “win some back” when they make mistakes.  Take a look at this excerpt from his blog about how he allows students to re-try concepts they missed on before:

Cherub: “Mr. Cor nally, I was look ing at my grades, and I see that I don’t really under stand how to draw the graph of a function’s deriv a tive, I have a 5/10.”
Cor nally: “Did you review the con cept with your notes, the book, and or try some by yourself?”
Cherub: “Yes, I tried a few from the book, and I think I get it now. Can I show you?”
Cor nally: “Sure.” The stu dent draws a func tion (sim ple parabola) and then draw its deriv a tive fairly accurately.
Cherub: “Is this correct?”
Cor nally: “Yes, but I need you to show me with a func tion that may not have already been in your head.” Cor nally draws com pli cated func tion. Stu dent draws deriv a tive fairly well. “Ok, you didn’t quite get this part … but you’ve def i nitely shown improve ment on some of the basic ideas behind this stan dard, I will change your score to a 7.5/10, a ‘C.’”
Cherub: “OK, thanks. I’ll be in tomor row morn ing to try again.”
This. Actu ally. Happened.

(Source Cornally’s Blog, Think Thank Thunk)

The point of all of this is not that I want to go teach Math.  I would still generally suck at it.  The point is that the approach of creating relevant, accessible material in an area that has historically been such a huge block for people should be an inspiration to us all.  In short, if Math can do it, why aren’t we all striving to make our classrooms THIS exciting?


S/c *M

3 good reasons to have a “more open” internet policy in your school.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s this website called “YouTube” that has videos on it.  Some of these videos are interesting and so, when available in school, YouTube can offer a distraction to otherwise studious pupils.

Oh great!  Now I have to compete with interesting videos as well as iPods, cell phones, and fashion magazines for a moment of time for my insignificant “teachery” stuff!

Perhaps it is my own hubris, but I have never worried about being less interesting than the din of media.  I have always found that if I use my time respectfully and in a way that “pays off” for everyone’s goals, I don’t have to compete with YouTube; YouTube has to compete with me.  In fact, here are 3 reasons that opening the internet’s flood gates can actually be a benefit to you, your class, and your school.

1)  Teachable moments galore*.  As this Mashable article by Greg Ferenstein demonstrates, banning social media and device use can generally have the opposite of its intended effect.  Not only is the lure of the forbidden too great to resist, student attempts to circumvent the blockage can take more time and energy than actual work.

2) Realistic workplace training.  Fewer and fewer offices block parts of the internet.  It creates an unpleasant workplace culture and is an IT nightmare.  Instead, companies have employees sign an internet use policy and trust them to make appropriate choices with regards to their surfing.  Having such a policy in place in a school allows teachers to guide students toward more responsible surfing choices.

3) Transmedia instruction.  A big buzzword right now, “transmedia” just refers to telling different pieces of a story through different media.  Think “webquest” with a narrative backbone (and reliance on more than just web resources).  A more open policy allows teachers to create immersive units with video, social media, and wiki-based components.

*There is the possibility that numbers 2 and 3 are functions of number 1.  I’m OK with that if you are.



Being a “Fossil” is a good thing.

What is a fossil?  In my elementary science classes, I learned that a long time of sitting still, combined with heat and pressure, made regular bones, trees, and insects into fossils.  I also learned that these once mundane objects and creatures, once set free, held millions of years of valuable information for us.

In somewhat a different context, I was recently asked what I could do to aid “fossils” in the teaching profession.  Although the response I gave at the time was mostly about providing support and encouragement, after some reflection, I think that a better approach would be just like that of the scientist who comes across a petrified gem: set it free and see what it can tell us about life.

Let’s forget for a moment that actual fossils decompose when exposed to the atmosphere after millions of years in isolation.  I have an opinion about that too, but it’s beyond the scope of this entry.  Let’s assume for now that when the “fossil” is set free, the environment supports him or her so that “decomposition” doesn’t take place.

A seasoned professional can do a lot with new tools.  They may, once conversant with those tools, be able to show us all a few things.  The reason this is possible is because they know how to keep their eyes on the prize.  They know their content and they know the nature of learning.  They don’t take new technologies for granted and so they are also sensitive to the needs of students who don’t have up-to-the-minute gear.  In a word, unlike many new professionals, they know that all technologies from chalk to projectors to Google all have their place in the grand scheme of experience.  At the end of the day, that’s what we all want for our students: the experience of success.  One of the best teachers I ever had was a man who, at fifty years of age, was building web sites from scratch.  He certainly didn’t grow up with code.  Instead, he saw a new tool that would serve his purposes of teaching computer science to his students and ran with it.

In the process of thawing from a glacial neglect of technological change, some very cool things can be unearthed.  People can choose to make an enormous change in their practice with very little time spent learning about some new tools.  Three years ago, I didn’t know how to open Photoshop.  At thirty years of age, I was already “fossilized.”  However, with a little time playing and a whole lot of mistakes, I got to where I could actually use the application as a tool for enriching my practice.  Today, I am happy to say that my time spent poking around on the web and the few dollars I have spent on tutorial books have gotten me to a place where I can confidently help others out of their own petrification.

Did learning Photoshop unlock the mysteries of all technology for me?  Not at all.  What it did do for me, however, is show me that I can still learn and that, if I so desire, I can learn new tricks.  Better yet, I learned that I could apply my new tricks to old problems. No one could hope to keep pace with the rate of technological change…so why try?  Instead, the cagey professionals will survey the field and pick what works best for their purposes.

Putting the iCart before the iHorse?

This article by Frederic Lardinois is a brief that describes how at least two universities plans to furnish all new students with an iPad and/or a small Macbook.

I applaud these institutions for their forward thinking, but I hope this move will provide publishers with the impetus for producing content that is actually designed to take advantage of the new tools.   Lardinois points out that publishers would be wise to leverage the interactivity that is possible with a tool like the iPad.  I would like to go further and say that it’s up to educational professionals of all stripes to take action and be creators of content that actually serves the purpose of education.

Books, for the most part, do what they are supposed to do.  As one student surveyed for this article states, the interaction that is possible with a paper book is exactly what he wants in an educational resource.  There is no reason to move to an electronic tool when the hard-copy works so well.  What smart publishers are doing with their educational content is finding where books are lacking (see the video below) and producing content that is interactive in a way that a print resource cannot be.

As educational professionals, we should be looking at ways that our content is working well and ways that it is not.  The only way to do that is to be constantly aware of the objectives we are trying to achieve.  With that always in our minds, it will be clearer where new tools like the Kindle or the iPad are best employed.

For more information, check out Lardinois’ other writings on ReadWriteWeb.