Logan Smalley, one of the students in my course at Harvard has been making the rounds on the daytime talk show circuit. A contingent of fellow masters students raised signs saying “Harvard Loves Darius” on the street outside the studio of The Today Show, and Ellen Degeneres embraced Logan and his crew on the Ellen Show. Why has the 25-year old Logan become such a media magnet?
Logan directed an incredible documentary film called Darius Goes West that tells the story of Darius, a 15-year old young man from Athens, GA with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, who travels cross-country to LA in the hope of getting his wheelchair pimped on MTV’s Pimp My Ride. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is an incurable affliction that typically takes the lives of its victims by the time they reach their early 20s. Logan was a friend of Darius’ older brother who, before succumbing to the disease himself, asked Logan to take care of his younger sibling. To raise awareness of this disease Logan and his friends plotted this trip with Darius. The younger generation, they realized, knows nothing of Jerry Lewis and his annual efforts to raise money for muscular dystrophy. But this generation does know Pimp My Ride!
Raising money with a door-to-door bar-b-q sale and by selling movie credits for $10 and up (possibly the longest credit list in movie history), Logan and his crew rented an RV and took Darius on the trip of a lifetime, his first out of the county. The documented story is wonderful, funny, and heartwarming. It’s also won more than two dozen film awards and got mentioned in The Wall Street Journal as one of the notable documentaries to qualify for the Oscars. And Logan has developed materials to support the educational use of the film. He has hundreds of interested schools who want to share the lessons of the story. Keep your eye out for Logan and Darius; they are worth seeing.
I’ve always loved board games, and I’m happy to see new research demonstrating their educational value. The new study (Siegler & Ramani, 2007) looked specifically at the impact of playing a simple numerical (versus color-coded) board game on the number understanding of low-income children. Earlier studies (notably Case & Griffin, 1990) found that the number knowledge of low-income pre-schoolers significantly lagged that of their middle- and high-income peers. The difference most likely comes from the informal mathematical experiences kids receive at home. Just as exposure to books and vocabulary helps prepare a pre-school child for more formal reading instruction in school, so too do informal mathematical tasks like counting place settings, measuring ingredients, and playing board games get a child ready for learning math in the classroom.
From simple games like Chutes & Ladders to more complex ones like Monopoly, these fun activities contain lots of math lessons. Rolling dice reinforces sets and addition. Moving a playing piece along the ten squares on each side of a Monopoly board highlights number quantity relationships and a make-ten strategy (how many spaces to land on Free Parking?). The new research suggests that playing these games can significantly close the number knowledge gap among pre-schoolers. That’s a cheap (and fun) way to make a difference.
And then there’s all the social benefit that comes from playing board games. Children learn about turn-taking, following the rules, and self-handicapping (to keep things competitive among unevenly matched players). Players have to monitor each other for mistakes and cheating. Disagreements must be resolved and fairness maintained. That’s all really good stuff!
Sadly, technology can put many of these lessons at risk. Putting the games on the computer typically means robbing children of the opportunity to calculate the dice or count spaces on the playing board as the software does it for them. I felt robbed of these chances myself when I went bowling over the Thanksgiving holiday. I hadn’t been bowling (big ball, not candlepin for my New England friends) in over 20 years. I stunk, but that’s beside the point. Horrible low-tech graphics on LCD displays hung over each alley, and a computer counted the pins and did all the scoring automatically. The families with young children on either side of our “older” group missed out on some valuable educational moments. Sometimes technology can make things easier without making them better.
Debates in education often remind me of the old Saturday Night Live skit: "It's a floor wax." "No, it's a dessert topping." "It's both!" (I'm sure you can find the routine on YouTube.)
Unfortunately, the arguments in the education world often fail to get to the punchline. Whole language OR phonics. Conceptual math OR skills and procedures. Direct instruction OR constructivism. Hey folks, it's both!!!
In the educational software design course I teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I restrain my students from thinking about the technology until they have a solid understanding from the research about what problem they are addressing and what success looks and sounds like.
There is no one instructional approach that works for building fluency, acquiring deep conceptual understanding, and prompting behavioral change. Only when they know what they want to accomplish, with whom, and in what context (classroom, home, museum, etc.) can my student designers bring their creative energies to the task of figuring out if and how technology can help.
There's nothing cookie cutter about this approach. So it's not surprising that a project focusing on vocabulary acquisition will look very different from one targeting improved student engagement in a civic society that's different in another way from one building deep conceptual knowledge of negative numbers. And technology can take a supportive, but very different, role in each of those instructional endeavors.
I had the honor recently of attending a Summit on UDL (Universal Design for Learning), hosted by CAST and The Tremaine Foundation. The main tenets of this approach to reaching all students reflect a significant shift in the way we think about instruction. Traditionally, we have considered the curriculum and the means to deliver it (textbooks, filmstrips, worksheets, and the like) as fixed. The students we teach though are not. Some are better readers than others; some don't come to school speaking English; some have hearing or vision problems; some come well-prepared by their parents; some are drilled in the multiplication table by their parents; and so on. All those fixed curriculum materials may not provide accessible pathways (physically or pedagogically) for this incredible range of student backgrounds and abilities So, historically, students who suffered from either learning disabilities or learning difficulties have had to learn to cope, catch-up, and accommodate the materials.
UDL, in the words of David Rose, co-founder of CAST, hopes to co-locate the disability between both the student and the curriculum. What can we do in the design of the instructional materials and lessons to carry some of the load? How can we create materials that adjust to the student as well? UDL proposes three main design principles to guide this effort:
* Multiple representations of the content and instruction.
* Multiple means for the student to express his or her learning.
* Multiple pathways to engage students.
Technology, of course, makes it much easier to incorporate these principles into instruction, and we've worked to infuse them into our software products. The concept of UDL is incredibly appealing and a straightforward way to think about differentiating instruction. To learn more about it, visit the CAST website at: http://www.cast.org/.
I’ve spent my entire life in the field of education in one way or another. I went through the public school system in Rock Island, Il before heading to Yale, where I studied history and received my certification as a social studies teacher. I volunteered and did my practice teaching in the New Haven, CT schools in the late ‘70s. It was quite an experience. After Yale, I taught for a few years in suburban Connecticut. I loved the teaching, but I needed a change of venue and in 1982 entered the doctoral program in what was then called Teaching, Curriculum, and Learning Environments at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).
I had dabbled with technology a bit as a teacher. A housemate taught me how to write a grading program in BASIC on his TRS-80 Radio Shack computer. The homemade software was a real timesaver, but I was less than thrilled with what the publishers were offering to support instruction. Drill and practice software on the states and capitals just didn’t seem worth the heavy investment the school was looking make in computer hardware. I was barely making $10,000 a year. I thought paying me more would be wiser than buying computers. It didn’t happen. So I entered Harvard with a heavy dose of skepticism and maybe even a bit of resentment about educational technology.
My opinion shifted dramatically after a college friend introduced me to Tom Snyder, a revered teacher at Shady Hill Academy, a highly-regarded private school just down the street from Harvard. I visited a lot of classrooms using technology during my first year at Harvard, but Tom’s stood well apart from the rest. He used one computer to engage students in wonderful group activities. His classroom -- with students focused, talking, thinking, and learning -- mirrored the one I always wanted for myself. And the computer was helping him do it.
I was hooked. Tom and his partner, Rick Abrams, had started a little company on the 2nd floor of a 3 family house in Cambridge. I joined as an intern and within a year was pretty much working fulltime while still pushing my way through the Harvard program. The work slowed the doctoral progress, but I remained productive, churning out a dozen or more educational software programs for home and schools. My doctoral research focused on historical efforts to integrate technology into schools. I looked at everything from chalkboards to overhead projectors, from film projectors to televisions, to better understand the process of change that is supposed to accompany technological revolution but often doesn’t. I finished the doctorate in 1988, long before the educational technology revolution was complete (I think we’re still waiting).
Although I guide product development as the Chief Academic Officer at Tom Snyder Productions, I retain a healthy skepticism about the use of technology for technology sake. I share that skepticism in the design course I teach within the Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) program at HGSE. And I respected the balance between technology’s promise and the daily demands of life in the classroom during my nine years on my town’s school committee. I have the best jobs. I get to work with passionate people and curious students in the pursuit of making a difference in the lives of children in school. That’s pretty good.