These TED-Talkers Know What They’re Talking About So Why Aren’t We Listening And Implementing?

Now, if you’re not convinced after reading all my posts that our current education system is broken or at least faulty, watch this:

And, if you’re still not convinced, watch this (the graphics are amazing and Sir Ken Robinson is hilarious):

Finally, if you have twenty more minutes, watch this (it’s a little less interesting visually, but she’s saying is spot-on):

What impresses me most about all of these speakers is that they are not only decrying the broken (and sometimes corrupt) system of public education as it now stands—they are offering viable alternatives to the system. Not only that, they are actively working in their own fields to change the educational experience that their students are receiving at the schools and universities they work at. Unlike many these days (and I’m mainly thinking about politicians and political activists here), these three people aren’t just focusing on what doesn’t work and criticizing it. They’re offering something else that does work and they’re open-minded to new ideas, ever willing to try something different.

So yeah, try something different. If you’re teacher, try out a new lesson plan, or a new piece of technology, or a new form of assessment (hint: tests are not necessarily the most effective way to measure learning; try something like a paper, or a project, or a portfolio—get your students involved in the community). If you’re a student, try a new studying tactic or go out on a limb with a paper or project (hint: don’t just do the bare minimum to get by; also, don’t procrastinate—you will limit yourself if you do). If you’re an administrator, overhaul your entire curriculum and try something that Chris Lehmann and Liz Coleman are suggesting and doing (hint: read Raja T. Nasr’s Whole Education or John Dewey’s Experience and Education for more ideas—remember, all of these people are experts in their field; experts, I tell you). And finally, if you’re a parent, and the school your child goes to is not meeting his or her needs, pull them out. Homeschool them, send them to a private or charter school, or an arts school, or a technology school. Enroll them in a cyber school or have them take college courses online. Better yet, have them take some classes at the local community college. Or, if all of these ideas seem too drastic, spend more time with your children and teenagers, either helping them learn or interacting with them in positive and meaningful ways. Recent brain research has shown that the single most important factor in brain development is emotional stability. More on that later.


The Flipped Classroom

I’m very excited about this new trend in education, the flipped classroom, because it can completely revamp traditional classroom teaching (which, in my opinion, needs some serious revamping—read any one of my previous posts, if you want to know more). For those of you who don’t know what the flipped classroom is, go here to view a graphic explanation, or read the quote below by Jonathan Martin, or watch this video:

“Flip your instruction so that students watch and listen to your lectures… for homework, and then use your precious class-time for what previously, often, was done in homework: tackling difficult problems, working in groups, researching, collaborating, crafting and creating. Classrooms become laboratories or studios, and yet content delivery is preserved.” Jonathan Martin

“Classrooms becoming laboratories and studios…” That’s practically poetry right there. What I love most about the flipped classroom is that it focuses class time on individual and interactive learning. First, it gives students the independence to learn anything and everything that they can potentially learn on their own on their own (yet another reason to hate in-class techniques that can be done more effectively at home like… cough… sustained silent reading… cough, cough—someday I really will write something positive about it). Second, the flipped classroom allows students to work with classmates and teachers during class to learn even more. Like the various universities that are now recording and posting entire lectures and courses on the internet, the flipped classroom allows teachers to record their lectures and post their presentations online, which then makes them more accessible to students and the community at large. This allows students to view and review the content as many times as necessary on their own, which then leaves more time for teachers to work with students one-on-one or in small groups. Instead of presenting new information each class, the teacher can spend time answering questions about content that the students are already somewhat familiar with.

The flipped classroom is also an excellent way to involve parents in their children’s learning. For example, if students are having a difficult time understanding some of the material in a particular class, they can sit down with their parents, watch a podcast or two with them, and then have their parents re-explain difficult concepts in a way that they can better understand.  Because most parents know their children better than most teachers know their students (at least they should), they are the ones who are most capable of adapting content to their children’s specifics needs and interests. One of the greatest tragedies and downsides of public education, in my opinion, is how easy it is for parents to be completely uninvolved in their children’s education. Because I was homeschooled, I was able to receive direct one-on-one attention from my father who has a PhD in education and who now works full-time as a professional tutor. One could argue that sometimes he was too involved in my education, but I’d rather have it be on this side of the pendulum than the other.

Another great thing about the flipped classroom and podcasts is that teachers can use these kind of technologies for formal assessments. One of the middle -school teachers I observed had his students videotape themselves quoting a passage of poetry. It was an easy way to evaluate their oral and memorization skills without taking up precious class time.

Below is my first attempt at a podcast for a flipped lesson. It’s not perfect, but I think it demonstrates how a teacher can try to make content concise, interesting, and visually stimulating through sharing a brief story engage attention, using diagrams and graphs to explain general concepts, and employing visual aides to complement spoken word. I didn’t mess with music, but that’s definitely something that I want to try next time. Basically, I think the ideal podcast would be a mini-movie or video, kind of like TED-talks or a short documentary. It could even be a film adaptation of a piece of literature or a visual representation of a short-story. Below is also an example of a digital story my classmates and I made for class. Obviously, if I want my flipped classrooms as a future teacher to be successful, I’ll have to seriously improve my skills with various movie and image editing technology.


Collaborative Learning (Done Effectively)

So, in my last post, I talked about cooperative learning and its ineffective implementation in the typical high school classroom (at least, in most of the ones I’ve observed as part of my graduate program in Northern Virginia). I also discussed how cooperative learning, even when it’s done correctly, isn’t always the most effective way to learn when it comes to more introverted students.

My hope in this blog post is to discuss effective ways to learn collaboratively that cater both to the needs of introverted and extroverted students. However, let me qualify this by saying that I have never studied nor taught in the traditional classroom before, and therefore, my experience with and knowledge of collaborative learning in such an environment is somewhat limited.

Thanks to an educational program that my dad ran for seven years when I was growing up, my experience with collaborative learning outside the traditional classroom is not so limited. The program was called Live and Learn, and it was based on John Dewey’s idea that experience and education are one and the same (read John Dewey’s Experience and Education to learn more). As a result, the goals and objectives of Live and Learn were focused on creating meaningful learning experiences and were thus more project-based and less academic in nature. It was the students, and not the teachers/mentors, who decided what to do every semester, albeit, there were two requirements for the projects chosen: they had to be worthwhile and they had to be done as a team. We did everything from building go-carts, to planting gardens, to doing service projects, to producing newsletters, to performing plays, to forming hand-bell choirs, to discussing stories, and (even!) to playing team sports. The wonderful thing about all these projects and activities was that there was enough variety and flexibility within each one that all participants were able to find something they felt comfortable with and were interested in. We did a lot of math, reading, and writing, as every project required, but what I found most valuable (and certainly most enjoyable) was our involvement in the community.

I realize that this sort of program can’t necessarily happen in the regular classroom, nor, I guess, should it. At some point, you really do need to sit down and study various subjects on your own. I’m thoroughly convinced, though, that high school juniors and seniors could use their time way more effectively if they were required to do more community service and were allowed to get all their unpaid internships out of the way before college (i.e. stay out of the traditional classroom as much as possible). Furthermore, I think that all students would benefit from a more integrated, relevant, and applied curriculum (see Raja T. Nasr’s Whole Education for more information). I actually designed my own curriculum during my high school years after my dad’s program closed down, and it was great because I was able to tailor it to my own interests and needs. However, what I liked about my dad’s program (and couldn’t replicate on my own) was the collaborative learning that happened naturally. It wasn’t something that was contrived by the teacher, which was how it was in college.

There are very few Standards of Learning that I like, but one from Virginia’s Communication, Speaking, Listening, and Media Literacy for 10th graders is fantastic: “Collaborate with others to exchange ideas, develop new understandings, make decisions, and solve problems.” I wonder, though, how this can actually happen in the classroom the way it naturally did in my dad’s program.

Bridging English (the best English textbook of all time!) offers a variety of ways to use technology and literature to improve communication and increase collaboration. Ideas range from having students record themselves reciting a poem or literary passage, to having them perform a play or produce a film, to having them go out to a local rest home and collect stories from the residents living there. I love all of these ideas for three reasons. Fist, all of the suggestions are easily adaptable and can be done individually or as a group. Second, they combine or integrate a variety of skills and subject areas, which allows all students to find something of interest or meaning to them. Third and finally, they’re all project-based, which allows the students to create or produce something in the end that is worthwhile to them and the community as a whole. The idea to interview residents of a rest home, for example, helps students naturally develop skills in listening, talking, interviewing, recording, transcribing, summarizing, writing, and editing; it increases content knowledge in language arts and social studies (and, depending on the interviewee, math, science, politics, construction, architecture, technology, art, music, etc.); and it requires students to step outside of themselves (and their classrooms, schools, and cyber-worlds) and use technology to bring people together.

I find it interesting that the only times I’ve observed collaborative learning being done effectively was at the elementary and middle school levels. Of all the teachers I observed, there were two teachers (one in elementary and the other in middle) that actually incorporated collaborative learning activities in their classrooms in effective ways. All of the high school teachers I observed stuck with very traditional tactics. (Or what I’d call lame tactics, if we’re talking about Sustained Silent Reading. This “research-based” method basically involves the teacher forcing students to read silently in class for twenty to forty minutes while he/she checks his/her email or finishes grading homework. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that teachers are overworked and underpaid and that students have way too much homework to do, but the idea behind Sustained Silent Reading—that students don’t/won’t read at home and should be forced to do so at school—bugs me. Of course the research supports it! Students are reading more than ever before and improving as a result! My only question is what’s the point of going to school now? Why don’t’ we just all stay home and read? Oh wait, that’s what I did as a homeschooler—voluntarily.)

All this now brings me to Shelley Wright, who is doing collaborative learning effectively at the high school level, and whose work needs to be applauded. After teaching a unit on the Holocaust five times Shelley finally decided to do something different the sixth time around. She realized that “because [she] was responsible for distilling the information, [she] learned much more than [her students] did” and decided to have her students create and curate a Holocaust museum instead. The end result was a successful collaborative project that the students prepared for and presented all on their own! For an entire unit of learning on a subject that is as difficult as it is meaningful, Shelley was definitely a “guide on the side” letting her students take control and be responsible for their own learning. Bravo, Shelley. Everyone needs to read her blog and then like/post it on their Facebook or something.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the perks and non-perks of the Flipped Classroom, a tactic that I think is much more effective than Sustained Silent Reading, especially when it comes to collaborative learning. I guess I will also discuss the perks of Sustained Silent Reading as well, for Susan Cain’s sake and for my own, since I was so biased about it in this post. Stay tuned! Or blogged (this is a blog, not a radio)?

Including Introverted Students

I recently read Susan Cain’s life-changing book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. At least for me it was life-changing. In it, Cain talks about how our 21st-century American society with its history of salesmanship and make-money-fast-philosophies cultivates a bias in favor of extroverts. Such a bias results in an under-appreciation for contributions introverts make simply because they tend to be less gregarious and smooth/fast-talking. This happens not only in the corporate and social worlds, but also in the world of education, particularly in a classroom of ten or more students (i.e. every classroom).

One of Cain’s main points is that quietness and solitude are prerequisites for creativity. This means that Cain really isn’t a fan of things like open work space at the office or cooperative learning in the classroom. Of course, I’m not the biggest fan of cooperative learning either, especially when it’s actually dumb-downed group work in disguise. I once had to write a ten-page paper with three of my classmates for a freshman religion class in college. When one of my classmates failed to write his three-page section of the paper, I went to the professor and asked him what to do since my classmate’s section would affect 1/3 of the entire paper’s grade. He responded with the question, “What would Jesus do?” As I had absolutely nothing to say to that, I went home, wrote the whole paper myself, and successfully passed it off as my classmate’s work. We all got an A (of course). While I believe that Jesus always does more work than we do, I don’t necessarily believe that he makes it possible for us all to cheat the way I did…

So much for my experiences with cooperative learning and cheating as an undergraduate student. I wish that I could say that my experiences with cooperative learning as a teacher-in-training in graduate school have vastly improved since then, but unfortunately, that is simply not the case. There definitely seems to be a push for more cooperative learning in the field of education with numerous studies indicating that it leads to more academic success and improved social skills. However, in all the observations I’ve done for my M.Ed. program at MU, I have yet to see cooperative learning work in what I feel is a successful manner.

Why is this the case? If all learning is ultimately social (and I will argue that it is  in a moment), why isn’t cooperative learning happening naturally all the time? Are teachers failing to grasp what cooperative learning actually is and therefore forcing all their students to do mere group work instead? (For those of you who would like a formal definition of cooperative learning, check out good old Wikipedia.) Or, does cooperative learning discriminate against more introverted students (said to be 1/3 to 1/2 of the population by Cain and other sociology researchers) and therefore fail in its implementation in the classroom?

According to Cain, some things like math, writing, music, and programming require exorbitant amounts of time alone to practice, and therefore, it is completely ineffective to try and learn them as a collaborative team. Of course, with each of these subjects, some basic concepts and skills need to be taught first, but proficiency, and certainly mastery, only come after long and focused hours of practice.

Is all learning social then? Don’t we learn and create more when we spend more time in solitude and quietness as Cain suggests? Well, despite her advocacy for quietness and introversion, Cain actually isn’t against teamwork or collaboration at all (nor is Jesus, for that matter). In fact, she’s completely for it, but only after sufficient time and space has been allotted for students to work and think independently. However, as I said earlier, I also think that it’s vital to have some sort of social interaction between a teacher and a student or a student and a fellow-student before any independent practice occurs so that such practice will be truly effective. I’m thinking about all the long hours of music lessons I had growing up and how I was able to interact with my teacher one-on-one once a week before going home and spending more hours practicing alone. Interacting with my teacher was crucial to my performance on my own. I was able to get direct and specific feedback,  see and hear how it was supposed to be, and do some guided practice under my teacher’s tutelage.

Of course, this was how my entire pre-college education worked. I was homeschooled and was consequently tutored one-on-one by my father who has a PhD in Education and now works full-time as a private tutor. Thanks to his amazing teaching and mentoring, I got to learn everything, from math to writing, the way I got to learn music.

Can this kind of individualized instruction happen for all students? I think that it’s starting to happen for students in special education, but can it also happen for everyone else?

My technology in the classroom professor Steve Knight said that technology is the natural differentiator, and maybe he’s right. In “Giving Reluctant Students a Voice,” Reynold Redekopp and Elizabeth Bourbonniere discuss how technology can be used to encourage more “reluctant” or introverted students to participate in class discussions by having them do so anonymously online.  This is something that Cain also suggests in her “Tips for Educators” at the end of Quiet, pointing out that “once they’ve participated online, they’re more likely to participate in class as well.” She also notes that the most effective collaborative work that is done in the real world is done online (e.g. Apple, Google, Wikipedia, etc).

As I understand it, cooperative learning is about students learning from each other, and not just from listening to the teacher or studying on their own. The moments when cooperative learning has actually worked for me have been when I’ve casually talked with a roommate or friend about a book I’m reading or an idea I’m researching. I recently joined a book-club, which, for me, is one of the best ways to learn collaboratively. However, online discussions really may be the best way to accomplish, or at least initiate, this formally in the traditional classroom, that is, if the student-teacher ratio can’t be lowered. As Cain suggests, online discussions may be a stepping-stone to helping students collaborate in the classroom. I mean, it’s certainly better than writing an entire paper as a threesome. But then again, so is just about anything.

Excellent and Personalized Education That Is Open To All—C’est Possible?

My biggest dilemma in life is what I call the “incredible complex.” Those of you who have seen Disney Pixar’s The Incredibles will know what I’m talking about. The complex is verbally expressed by a superhero’s son, Dash, and his frustrated conclusion that “if everyone is special, then no one is.”

Or, in the words, of The Incredibles’ villian, “when everyone is super, then no one will be.”

What about, when everyone is educated, or talented, or artistic, or whatever, then nobody is? This ongoing conflict between excellence and accessibility has repeated itself over and over throughout history, from the invention of the printing press to the expansion of youtube and the blogosphere. (Please understand that such inventions are beautiful things and have allowed many to express ideas in meaningful and profound ways—it’s just that they have also allowed a lot of less excellent things to flourish as well. This video is probably a good example of this.)

It seems, then, that no matter how excellent something is, the minute it is made more accessible, its excellence, or at least its “specialness” or novelty, goes down.

This happens the most, I fear, with education, even in the United States. I find it ironic that a country proclaiming equality for all chooses to fund its schools with property taxes, thereby linking the quality of education with socioeconomic status. And when there have been efforts to redistribute the wealth, the upper classes have always protested or resisted such changes. It happened during the civil rights movement and it happens now, as evidenced by the gross inequalities that still persist between suburban and inner-city schools. My little sister, who went to a high school in an affluent area just outside of Philadelphia, did a photography project documenting the walk from her newly remodeled school to a run-down school in the city that was less than two miles away. The contrast was most evident when crossing City Line Avenue, the road that divides Philadelphia (the city) from the Main Line (the suburb).

Of course, many have tried to come up with solutions to this problem of inequality in education. One article I recently read discusses the idea of using the internet to make meaningful learning more accessible. However, as its title indicates—“In Breaking Down Walls, Does Online Education Sacrifice Quality?”—the blogpost raises some valid concerns about virtual learning. It mainly talks about how different colleges and universities are starting to offer online classes, programs, and even degrees. However, it made the interesting point that most of the so-called elite schools are not offering online degrees, but rather, entire courses online for free. This is something that I find extremely fascinating. While many mid-ranked and state schools are making lots of money off of online degree programs, more exclusive or elite schools  are choosing to make lectures and courses available to the general public online for free instead. Many of these schools do not offer any degree programs at all. Is this the answer to the “incredible complex?” Are these universities making knowledge and learning more accessible while still maintaining excellence and prestige?

Now, we’re slowly inching into an overly complicated discussion about the definition of excellence, which can quickly become problematic. Does exclusivity define excellence? I’m not entirely sure. When I want to host an excellent or successful dinner party, for example, I have to limit the number of guests I invite; otherwise, the whole evening will be a miserable experience for everyone. Only so many people will fit into my two-room basement apartment, and I only have so much money budgeted out for such entertaining (I’m in grad school, after all). I think the same is true in the field of education. If there are too many students, then the teacher will not be able to fully address individual needs or interests, and the experience will mirror the typically impersonal 500+ student lecture hall where the professor is the sage on the stage. Thanks to the generosity of various universities and the internet, though, these experiences are now being made even more accessible online. I personally think that these online courses featuring recordings of some of the best professors in the nation could replace a lot of general education courses that are usually experienced in massive lecture halls. However, I’m not sure if I think that the entire college experience should become virtual. What about the other life skills you learn when you leave home and go to college for the first time? What about the opportunities many students have to work with professors one-on-one as research and teaching assistants? What about all the awesome 20-student-sized honors classes I got to take at BYU?

The article “In Breaking Down Walls, Does Online Education Sacrifice Quality?” also notes that more students drop out of online courses and suggests that online learning doesn’t necessarily have the same impact as face-to-face teaching and learning. I did my undergraduate honors thesis on Emmanuel Levinas and his ethical philosophy on face-to-face interaction, so I could probably go on and on about this. Suffice it to say, I wholeheartedly support face-to-face contact!!! As great as the internet is, along with its various versions of social media, the most meaningful social interactions I have ever had have been in person on a more individual basis. But, that is probably because I’m a bit of an introvert, something that I’ll discuss more in the next post. What I’m most interested in now is how online learning can improve both the quality and accessibility of education. I suspect that online learning offers a plethora of opportunities to accomplish this, which have yet to be considered, and that should hence, be explored. Any ideas about this are welcome.