I received a helpful reminder at TSP’s annual holiday party about what it’s like to be a struggling learner. Our “holiday” party really needs a new name, unless the holidays we’re celebrating are Martin Luther King Day and Valentine’s Day. Each year we seem to edge the date closer to President’s Day. There are plenty of holidays to celebrate, but the traditional Christmas and New Year’s holidays are well-behind us by the time we party. Anyway, for the last couple of years, we’ve had dance instructors at the party. Last year the instructors taught salsa; this year they did swing. You get a sense where this struggling learner story is headed?
One of the party organizers came to me during the party and asked me to help get folks participating in the swing instruction. I long ago learned that you can’t ask people to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself. Fortunately, my wife likes to dance. Unfortunately, she married someone who doesn’t have a lot of natural rhythm or coordination. Nonetheless, we took center stage, and I loudly invited others to join us. The student-to-dance teacher ratio at the outset would have been the envy of even the most well-endowed private school. Gradually, though, we gathered a good-sized crew of dancing students. It was fun, but I clearly struggled. At one point I noticed people looking at me and realized that my lips were moving along with my feet -- 1, 2, 3...5, 6, 7. I’d like to think my awkwardness was endearing, but I felt embarrassed. At the end of the night the dance instructor told me, “Well, not quite, but you have something to work on.” Not exactly the kind of robust praise I prefer to hear.
Without the obligation of recruiting participants, I’m sure I would have abandoned the effort after just a few missteps (and I had many). The experience got me thinking about Carol Dweck’s work on motivation and self-efficacy. Dweck’s research has received a lot of attention and press in the past year, and her book Mindset has been well-received (for more about the book and links to relevant articles go to http://mindsetonline.com/). The basic premise is that those who view intelligence or other abilities as fixed -- I’m good at these things but bad at those -- tend to gravitate toward activities they’re already good at. Those who see intelligence as something malleable -- if I work hard, I can get better -- are more willing to try and stick with things that are initially difficult.
I was living the research during the party. Dancing doesn’t come easily to me. (Neither does skiing. I got the award for most perseverance after a week at ski school in Aspen.) I’ve never stuck with dance lessons for more than an evening. The initial failures to succeed have led me to believe that I just can’t dance. I prefer to avoid it so I don’t look foolish. For me to stick with it, I need to believe that eventually, with effort, I can succeed. And the instruction needs to be structured in a way that gives me a sense of progress, that reinforces my belief that I can get better.
While my story is about dancing, students everyday are experiencing similar senses of “I’m not good at this” in math, reading, history, science, music, physical education, and all the other school subjects. Why, they might think, should they even try if they’re just not good at it.
Recent neuroscience research has revealed that our abilities are not fixed at birth. With focused effort and attention, our brains can change. It’s called neuroplasticity, and we should help our students understand it. We also need to adjust our instruction to reward effort and help students see incremental progress. Adaptive technology that challenges students at the edge of their competence, that isn’t too easy or too difficult, can play an important role.
The morning after the party, I shared with my son that I was caught moving my lips with my feet while learning to swing dance. I told him that I’m not much of a dancer…yet. He said that he wasn’t much of a dancer either. I pointed my finger at him and said, “Yet.”
I’m writing this blog on the flight back from FETC, the Florida Educational Technology Conference. My visit was very brief. I flew down, cruised the exhibit floor, did a session, and flew back. In that day, though, I did feel a much higher energy level than I expected to find. With all the dire news about the economy and ongoing grumblings about NCLB, I anticipated a somewhat depressed sensibility among the conference attendees. Not so, at least around the Tom Snyder Productions booth. It was constantly crowded and full of enthusiasm. Participants were excited, curious, and scrambling to learn more about lots of products. It felt good. But that’s not what this blog is about.
Several of the sessions I breezed in and out of and a number of the informal conversations I had reflected the underlying assumption that today’s kids are different. And I often wonder what that really means. Certainly 21st century children are using tools and interacting with each other in ways that are completely alien to old folks (like yours truly). I can’t imagine as a teenager being willing to share my personal history and preferences for the world to see like my son does on Facebook. I remember in graduate school scoffing at the notion of computers and the Internet threatening the existence of libraries. How could you do research without wandering the stacks and feeling the heft and integrity of the books that contained the knowledge. Wow. What a drag it is now when a journal article isn’t online, and I actually have to open a book. Many kids never had that kind of old-fashioned library experience.
My son and graduate students text each other without a thought and flit from one computer to the next without a care. Their work and identities travel with them or wait patiently in the ether until accessed from whatever machine is at hand. I just didn’t grow up that way. I’ve had to relearn how to do some things, and the pieces of this emerging world that I have embraced don’t look the same as those growing up in it initially. (My son thinks it’s just wrong for me to be on Facebook.) So, yes, it’s clear that today’s kids look and behave in new ways; but didn’t I look strange to my parents?
My parents couldn’t understand how I could spend so much time on the phone. How could I do homework while watching TV? And that music on the stereo…. Yes, every generation is different from the preceding one, but isn’t the pace of technology outpacing our ability to keep up? These 21st century kids REALLY are different. I wonder.
I had a brief conversation with a year ago with the recently deceased Peter Lyman, a cultural anthropologist from Berkeley who had been studying digital youth culture. He gave me some sense that underneath the surface today’s kids are a lot like yesterday’s. They still value status and being part of a group. They still feel anxieties about who they are and will become. The venues for exploring those feelings have dramatically changed, but maybe the core remains familiar. Maybe. It's a good question. I’ll keep looking for the answer.
I recently finished evaluating student projects from the software design class I teach at the Harvard Grad School of Education. With all due respect to my past classes (which were all fabulous, each one better than the others), this year’s group really clicked, and the range of high quality projects was impressive. To complete the projects students work in small teams on a project of their choice. They gather evidence to define an educational problem they are tackling, review relevant research for clues about effective approaches, devise a plan, construct a prototype, and test and revise it. I learn an enormous amount; hopefully they do too.
I had a number of former, current, and prospective teachers in this year’s mix. They helped maintain a grounding in reality that sometimes gets lost when folks start playing with the possibilities technology offers. One group of students, who are in a mid-career teacher transition program, took on negative numbers. They wanted a program to help them with a problem they were encountering in their classrooms. Digging into the research gave them a depth of awareness about a core learning issue that few teachers have the luxury to plumb. They found no easy answers, but I suspect the knowledge and experience they did gain will serve them well down the line.
So too for the group that focused on teaching the physics of sound, the one that hoped to use a program on the Pilgrims to help elementary students see outside themselves to better understand history, and the one with fabulous activities to build reading comprehension skills. The physics group developed a pre-assessment on student conceptions of sound that was incredibly enlightening. The drawings and descriptions revealed a great deal about kids’ thinking and provided a powerful reminder about the importance of respecting the knowledge students bring with them to class. The Pilgrim project worked to push second and third graders developmentally, and the effort uncovered the edges of what young students can comprehend. The reading comprehension project simply radiated a graduate student’s passion about what she teaches in her high school English class in Florida. Her project introduced me to some very intriguing ideas about using comics and graphic novels to teach comprehension. More importantly, it allowed her to focus and deepen her thinking about some very powerful instructional lessons. Wouldn’t it be fantastic for all teachers to be able to take a semester to really grapple with some element of their teaching?
Three projects gave me hope that recently neglected parts of the curriculum may soon recover. One was a project that engaged students in using primary sources scaffolded reading and interpretation and helped turn what is too often a “read and remember” subject into one that is dynamic and alive. History is being made and interpreted everyday; we should teach it! When the “Culture Shock” team presented its project to the class, they started with a National Geographic geography online quiz. While the performance of my graduate students was pretty solid (this is Harvard, after all), the national results were pretty sorry. We are a geographically ignorant nation. That’s sad given how interconnected the world has become. The team’s simulation puts students in the role of manufacturers looking for the best resources and most responsible working conditions from around the globe. That’s real and relevant. Can’t we squeeze a little geography and culture back into the curriculum? The third project dealt with decision-making, civic responsibility, and conflict management. They developed a whole class prototype that had my students engaged in rich conversation and perspective-taking for two hours. Shouldn’t we devote a bit of school time to learning how to see and work with others?
Two groups of students gained experience by working with real clients. One team of international students partnered with a professor at the University of Athens in Greece. They aimed to design an online support environment for a course that’s part of a program training future teachers of English to native Greek speakers. The team that developed a technology-rich program for a media literacy unit in a local urban high school also had to revise and rethink based on the input from the teacher who would ultimately be using the materials. We all relearned the lesson that designing something cool might be different from designing something that will work somewhere real.
And speaking of contextual constraints, one group turned to cell phones as a delivery platform for teaching French to children and adult learners in Ghana. That team had to think through a whole new infrastructure that leverages a number of emerging technologies with solid, proven pedagogy. This mobile learning project, along with one working to incorporate some web 2.0 features into an online vocabulary-building environment, particularly highlighted the promise of new technologies. All of the projects had solid research foundations, but they each took creative paths to applying that research with the aid of technology to meet important educational needs.
I think I covered all the projects from this fall’s course. I hope I didn’t embarrass any of my students or leave anyone out. I just wanted to brag about their efforts a bit and tease out some of the general lessons that are easy to overlook in the details of each project. Nice work!