Sunday, August 28, 2016

Scores and Scholarships are our Products, But What Business are We In?

Recently I overheard the founder of Starbucks say, “Coffee is the product we make, but it is not the business we are in.” These profound words rang in my ear long after hearing it. The words made me think; what about education, are we focused on the right things? And, if we shift our focus, how does that affect our product?

I would argue, that grades, scholarships, and scores are the products we create, but uncovering students’ passions and purpose, developing their critical skills, and creating a generation of informed citizens is the business we are in. You see, in secondary education, we must begin to see our “why” differently. We have to start connecting college and career with everything we do because in four years or less our students will enter the workforce or the college classroom whether they are prepared or not. And the truth of matter is that an exclusive drive for the product will never uncover a student’s real potential.

Our fix and our approach to our “why” is through Career Academies. Our students no longer take random electives, but rather select from a narrowed list of classes that directly relate to their career or college pathway. These electives then, allow for the student to find a purpose, explore the skill necessary for that field and become more informed about life after school.

Recently I heard an amazing story of this transformation. As a parent approached the podium at a recent civic organization meeting, the parent began with “My child hates school.” She goes further to describe a child that never wanted to go to school, would come home depressed, and said that her child could not find a reason for school. However, recently something changed, she said. Suddenly her child began waking up before everyone. She became excited about school. The only thing that changed was that she had become a career pathway student. She found a purpose. She no longer viewed school as a random collection of mathematical theorems for passing a test, but rather a series of constructed skills that can open the door for her chosen career.

Again, I ask what is your “why?” Is your “why” to create standardize test scores? If it is, I don’t blame you, after all that is how our schools are measured. But how is that helping students for their future? And if we are only focused on test scores, then isn’t that actually selfish on our part? To me, that is kind of like hearing a business owner say, “I just want to be rich.” You see a business leader without a why is erroneously directed. When a school’s focus is only on scores, then students lose focus, lack interest, and all motivation dissolves. However, when the purpose is added, and passions are uncovered, students can become a better version of themselves.

I will finish with this, our goal as educators should be to balance student career and college development with how the school is measured–test scores and scholarships. A singularized aim on either initiative would perpetuate a wrong focus. If schools begin to concentrate on the business of student preparation then the school’s product, I believe, will take care of itself.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hacking Traditional Learning with VR Technology

Wait! Which is cooler, reading words on a black and white page, or visiting the earth at all four corners to experience the visuals and culture of the content? Thanks to a new technology, students have the ability to see what they otherwise would never have seen before. Think about it, if I ask you to recall a personal memory and recant a story, you would probably provide me with a very engaging rendition. However, if I told you to remember textbook information, you would probably only deliver facts. Which is more appealing, and which offers the richer educational experience, the answer is obvious. This technology is called VR or virtual reality.

Virtual reality technology can connect learners with the content like never before. Students located in our rural county can now experience the Cuban missile crisis, World War II battlefields, and the battlefields in the middle east to experience the high cost of war. Students in science classes will be able to explore anatomy and physiology, the interworking of abstract textbook knowledge like cells and genetics, and sail the Beagle with Darwin as he explores the Galapagos. Don’t you get it? Learning for the first time can become real, not just an article out a book that is connected to questions.

First, I must admit I am an educational technology junky. I believe it allows the educator to explore content and learning in a new avenue that previous generations did not experience. As a learner in primary and secondary school, I was very unmotivated. Classrooms were full of short stories with no relevance, textbooks with no connections, and test that assessed memorization that would never be used again. In a nutshell, I hated school. Now, I am a restless learner, a lifelong learner, and professional in the educational world who is determined to connect today’s students to a new learning experience. I refuse to give learners in my schools the same experiences I labored through. I am convinced that we must hack education and engage 21st-century learners with 21st-century technologies.

Follow me for a moment. Imagine if you will be sitting in anatomy and physiology class. The teacher provides you with fifteen anatomy parts to memorize. You write definitions, make flash cards, study, and pass the test. How much real world knowledge did you gain? Now imagine you take a virtual tour of those same 15 anatomy parts. You see blood vessels pumping hemoglobin’s which filter out carbon dioxide, that returns to your heart, and you begin to see how everything is interconnected. More interesting? Then, as before, you research the parts. Now you have background knowledge that allows you to form images in your mind as you study and you develop workable knowledge of the systems like never before.

Another example. When I was a first-year teacher, I was asked to teach Botany. Quick caveat, I had no, maybe zero knowledge, of this topic. I quickly read every book I could find. I knew every type of plant cell, parts of plants, classifications of plants, and origins of plants; but you know what I don’t know? Any real world plant information. I had never experienced dogwoods blooming in the spring time, a fact I learn from my fellow science teacher. I had no idea what different plants look like outside of a textbook, nor did I have any workable knowledge about how to reproduce a plant. You see, I had no practical knowledge to dispense to my students. As a matter of fact, my students may have left that class just as well off on the topic of plants as there were before the class.

Aside from history and science classes, VR devices have been seen in foreign language courses, English Language Arts lessons, Mathematics, and various elective courses. Imagine if you will the power behind learning a new language and visiting that country to experience. Now, obviously we could never financially support such a visit; but through VR technology our students could experience it. The power is endless. ELA teachers can place students in the contextual settings of their literature while Math teachers can provide students with an experience to generate a project based learning.

This is where VR comes in. For once, students will be able to read and experience plants, wars, and cultures. Students who were previously unengaged will now build background knowledge before recording random definitions. Boys and nontraditional learners can now experience a love for learning that will spark new career and skill exploration.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

How Technology is Transforming Teaching and Learning

Technology is everywhere, and at times, it can become overwhelming. Recently, we amended our district policies to allow for a BYOD type of learning environment. After years of archaic bans of mobile and laptop devices, we now welcome it. In fact, we believe that it may have the power to transform the educational environment. The ubiquitous effect technology has on the world around us is finally present in our classrooms.

To jump start this implementation process we did three things, we upgraded our infrastructure, provided the teachers with a  vision of educational technology, and offered professional development of various instructional technologies. In our vision, we drew a picture of technology as an instructional aid, not the main speaker. We offered an instructional design method that centered standards, not a technology tool. Afterward, we provided the teachers with nine tools taught in mini-session by our staff. This was a huge success. Teachers were giving practical applications to solve the technology integration process.

So, with all that being said, how exactly do we believe technology will transform the classroom? What do expect to see, and how does this create authentic high levels of learning? To answer that question, I believe technology has five main effects on the classroom. Bellow I have chronicled each with a description of the uses and effects.

The extension of classroom walls. Today, learning does not have to be contained within the walls of the classroom. Students in today’s classrooms are performing Mystery Skypes with students in other states or countries. Students call each other asking only questions to identify the others location. Google maps and VR (virtual reality) is now transforming how learners visualize content. Using Google Maps, students can perform geographical scavenger hunts while VR classroom experiences allow the student to walk in the shoes of the class content.

Teachers now have the ability to connect with other educators across the country. Teachers of today can find lessons, materials, and assessments from all over the country. Schools enrolled in Google Apps for Education have PLN (professional learning networks) that allow subject or grade level teachers to connect from all over.

Learning is more, not less, collaborative. One key component of effective technology integration is the efficient use of technology to facilitate interaction between students and teacher. Have you ever assigned a group project in which one student did all the work? Or added a rubric that resulted in one grade for the whole group no matter the contributors? Now, in Google Docs students can contribute simultaneously in a single live document. What is best is that the teacher can track student contributions with just the click of a button.
Student-teacher interaction has been transformed as well. Students and educators can collaborate over homework with Google Hangout or Skype. Using Hangout, teachers can have question and answer times either face to face or through written questions.

The role of teacher-student has shifted. I vividly remember the sit and get education I received. Today’s classrooms present a much different picture. Teachers in today’s classrooms have become the facilitator, not the disseminator of knowledge. Years ago when teachers were the barriers of information, this teacher-centered show was the best approach. However, now the internet and other mediums have any bit of information student could ever imagine. The teacher's new job is to facilitate the student exploration through this information by organizing and assessing learning progress.

Personalized learning. Can you remember a day when educators presented the class with the same worksheet for everyone? Then, took that worksheet up at the end of class, only to return it graded for completion two days later. I can, and I was guilty as a teacher. First, we know that students learn differently (auditory, visual, or other). Secondly, we are aware that student learns at different rates (fast, slow, or just not getting it yet). What educational technology allows us to do is provide the learner with multiple ways to uncover the material, and some cases give the student choice and ownership of this learning. As to the second point, learners can now perform a reviewing exercise either individually or collaboratively, and receive instant feedback. In either case, the material can easily be tailored to mold to the learner more efficiently.

The extinction of the textbook. Each year we spend thousands of dollars on used textbooks, some as old as ten years. This dated material is often yesterdays news. Further, if you look at the mission statement of the district, you will notice that we are trying to make tomorrow's citizens with yesterday’s information. Something just does not match. Now, with resources like Ditch that Textbook, by Matt Miller, federally sponsored open resource textbooks, or the use of hyperlinked documents in Google, teachers can now explore content using up-to-date, relevant material. Is the textbooks a thing of the past? You bet they are.