Art and Science of Teaching

The Art and Science of Teaching

I was intrigued by an article I read recently in The Atlantic. It was called The Future of College? by Graeme Wood (Aug 13, 2014). The Minerva Project has opened a new college in San Francisco. Or at least that is where its offices are located. It is hard to know if Minerva is actually anywhere in space.

It is a proprietary online model that leverages lessons learned from Skype, Khan Academy and Coursera. It is actually a for-profit accredited university. The CEO is youngish Ben Nelson whose goal is either to reform or to disrupt the liberal arts college model. Perhaps he simply wants to substitute online learning for face-to-face instruction.

Education in the modern world: What questions do we need to ask?

Some claim education is an art and a science. Nelson, the CEO of Minerva, has disputed this: “It’s a science and a science.” What do you think?

Pablo Picasso created a unique perspective of the world through “cubism,” his unique style of art. He once said of the modern technology, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” What does that imply?

Is teaching art or science?Art or Science: What is the upshot?

Teaching is an ART in important ways:

  • It is humanistic, organic and inherently indeterminate.
  • Art is creative and often expressive. Material is organized in novel, artistic ways so that it stays fresh.
  • It is an interactive process of engagement between teacher and learner, or between person and subject.
  • Teachers relinquish creative control to students so that they can fulfill their own artistic side.
  • Art and Play live together in the same cognitive home.

Teaching is a SCIENCE in important ways:

  • It is predicated on scientific method.
  • It is based on the use of evidence.
  • One can test whether a lesson was successful.
  • It can be improved through research-based best practices.
  • It has elements that must be included in the formula for success such as planning, standards alignment, student feedback, and assessment.

Alternate Minds for an Evolving World

Our students are not ingredients in a stew recipe. Why do we need an educated public anyway?

“The Mind Is Not a Vessel That Needs Filling, But Wood That Needs Igniting”

Whether we attribute the above quote to Plutarch, Socrates or Yeats is immaterial. Teaching is the search for inspiration. It is a desire to invite students to take responsibility for their own learning, and to make that learning both more meaningful and more effective.

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Problem and Solution

Problems with Solutions

Many times we are faced with what is clearly a problem, but we fail to find solutions. It often results from a failure to ask the right questions. As often happens, we confuse the metric with the causes of the problem.

The Nation’s Report Card

The United States annually administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is nicknamed the nation’s report card. It assesses what students know and can do in critical subject areas. The Christian Science Monitor recently released the results and analysis for the 2013 NAEP report card. Below are two selected quotes:

A full 25 percent of 12th-graders in 2013 scored below basic, compared with 20 percent in 1992, and just 37 percent scored at or above proficient, compared with 40 percent in 1992. Those scoring at the proficient level could answer questions requiring them to recognize the paraphrase of an idea from a historical speech and the interpretation of a paragraph in such a speech.

Scoring well on NAEP was strongly correlated with students who reported that reading isenjoyable,” said they “learn a lot” when they read, and said they regularly discuss what they read in class. [emphasis added]

The first paragraph clearly represents an educational problem. The second paragraph indicates a possible path to a solution. It is natural to ask, what are the root cause? What is going on here in these classrooms with these students? It might be the underlying instructional practice, it might be educational funding, it might be too much television and media consumption at the expense of reading, or it might be the result of shifting cultural-economic patterns in society. I am sure other options could be hypothesized as well.


Let’s concentrate on one problem reported in the findings: students have difficulty recognizing the paraphrase of an idea from a longer text. Instead of “paraphrase” we could easily substitute other words such as summary, main idea or gist. The natural question to ask is, what is the cause of this inability to synthesize knowledge into a paraphrase?

Then we can ask, how do we fix it? What is the solution? The key may lie in the second quote: scores of proficient and above were associated with enjoyment and value placed by students on reading. Just as importantly, they regularly discuss what they read in class. Teachers often do not have the luxury of extended analysis; Monday is around the corner.


On the road from problem to solution, there are some pitfalls.

  • Blame game:
    Unfortunately, once we think we have found or named a cause, we often look for someone to blame. This type of “accountability” finds much of its strength in sanctions and punitive responses. It finds it strength in fear. Blame is so unproductive, and it rarely leads to a solution.
  • Paralysis by analysis:
    Ok. Let’s think about this. Then let’s think some more. Too much analysis can lead to a failure to try to solve the problem. Sometimes empiricism is the best method for exploring solutions to complex problems: hypothesize, try something, observe results and then evaluate. Repeat.
  • Someday/ Monday:
    Teachers often do not have the luxury of extended analysis: someday someone will find an answer. However, on Monday all those students will show up in your classroom. The Someday/Monday dichotomy captures one of the core challenges in teacher professional development around education technology, but it also applies to general instructional strategies as well.


In first looking at the Nation’s Report Card summary, I must admit that it is easy to get overwhelmed. I decided to focus more on reading since it is a core skill. I have been a Reading Specialist and a high school English teacher during my career, so I have a natural interest in language and reading. In the elementary grades I found that teaching main idea was extremely challenging. It was no less so in high school. Why? I have learned that it does not exist as a discrete skill, but it is a set of thinking skills that are highly influenced by context.

The light went on for me as I thought about this. Main idea – or summary – was an analogue to Noam Chomsky’s theory of transformational grammar. (Don’t run! Let me explain – briefly!) I read Chomsky in my studies as a reading specialist. He was a linguist who posited that there was a deep structure to all grammatical structures within our brains. It reflected it self in multiple ways as part of the surface grammar – which always seemed to be in flux. That is why trying to teach grammar has been such a bear of a task.

When I taught English Language Learners in what were then called ESL classes, I learned that students acquired language. Through multiple variations in context and comprehensible input, they started to master the underlying grammar. In the same way, students learn to summarize or grasp the gist of passages through discussions of what the gist is. You might call this collaborative summarizing. In educational psychology one might call it the social construction of knowledge.

I had the opportunity to film some instructional practices in the classroom that offer instructional strategies that target the ability to summarize. It is not an innate ability. Rather it is a learned set of skills that require clear instruction, time and repeated practice. I learned a great deal as I filmed collaborative summarizing – in a third grade classroom and in a 7th grade classroom. The methods could easily be applied to high school. They are posted on YouTube; see below.

Comments on Coal Miners and Teachers

Many are familiar with the story of the canary and the coal mine. It is derived from actual historical practice. Coal mining has always been a dangerous trade. Early on the miners learned that a canary could be used as an early warning system, as a way to warn of deadly gases that had no smell. If the miners found that the canary in the cage had died, they then knew the air was bad, and it was time to get out or put on respirators.

The coal miners were practical people. They knew that some unseen thing existed below the surface that might kill them. They probably did not know that it was carbon monoxide. They used an empirical method that worked and saved lives. If a canary died, they did not blame the canary for not being strong enough. I taught for 25 years, and I believe that teachers are like coal miners: They show up everyday, mining minds, looking for practical methods that work. Like the miners, they make connections based on their observations.

When I reviewed the Nation’s Report Card, I connected the findings to the video work I had done as well as to my own teaching experiences. Collaborative summarizing works because students are social, and they want to learn and share. However, they need an instructional strategy to guide them. That is what good teaching is about. It is complex. It is empirical. It is a solution to the problem.

Education at the Crossroads of Humanity and Technology

Learning Redefined

Robert Gardner of Harvard has written extensively about multiple intelligences, a theory he developed in 1983. There is not just one way to be smart. There are many. The same might be said about learning. Is there one best way, or multiple ways? How is it that we define and measure it? The answers to those questions profoundly affect how we approach teaching and learning.

In what has been called The Second Machine Age, innovation has exploded exponentially. Globalization has continued to proliferate, and the world has become flatter. Robots do more and more of the work we once did. Big data has dramatically increased in its scope and dominance while privacy has been marginalized. As a result, the calculus of how we create, manufacture and implement has evolved. We find ourselves at a crossroads between technology and our humanity.

The modern classroom has become ground-zero for many of these changes. Before children ever even think of entering the work force, they enter our schools. Our teachers have been tasked with making sense of it all while managing the daily life of classroom activity. It is somewhat like the challenge of building an airplane while flying in it. Yet teachers persevere.

The students, of course, are the native inhabitants of the present. The future they face is partly the result of what we continually create for them in the classroom. Pedagogy has now become a proxy for social policy as we write the script for tomorrow.

We need the right questions

Pablo Picasso once said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” He had an unusual way to looking at the world. He inspired “Cubism,” an art movement that put a premium on subjective expression. He could portray the horror of war in Guernica or the tender bond between Mother and Child. Both paintings (shown below) might be asking deep questions that start with “Why?” Why is there war? How strong is the bond between mother and child? Why is it that both can live side by side in the same world?

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Mother and Child (1921)

Mother and Child by Pablo Picasso (1921)

Learning is not just finding the answer. It is essential for students to learn how to ask and for teachers to learn how to guide them. Inquiry is both a skill-set and a mind-set. That often means that we challenge conventional wisdom. One of the goals of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), now adopted by 46 states, is to shift thinking. KQED’s Mind/Shift also provides a scaffold of ideas and research for transforming our thinking about learning.

Just what can machines teach us?

David Brooks wrote a fascinating article in the N. Y. Times, What Machines Can’t Do. He cites the changes in technology that appear to be propelling us into massive societal change – whether we want it or not. Yet he transforms that analysis into the often unasked question: What is it that we humans can do that machines cannot? The answers to the question yield significant consequences for educational practice.

What humans can do is pose questions. Perhaps the act of inquiry and choice is a necessary expression of our humanity. It was Socrates who once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  If we adapt that reasoning to the modern classroom, then we might derive these corollaries:

  • To know without doing is not understanding.
  • Higher order thinking without the “higher” is just a “lot” of lower order thinking.
  • To become a lifelong learner requires personal responsibility and internal motivation.
  • To pose relevant questions can be taught and learned.
  • There is no such thing as a foregone conclusion.
  • True inquiry must always admit to more than one right answer.

To think is to be.

It is the foundation of all knowledge. It is a paraphrase of what Descartes concluded when he said, “Cogito ergo sum.” It literally means, “I think. Therefore, I am.”

Learning by Inquiry: What is it to be human?

Let’s postulate for a minute that modern education should be driven by inquiry. We might additionally posit that “projects” are one of the most efficient methods for integrating raw knowledge into true understanding. We could then pose a series of “essential” or “driving” questions built around a scaffold of core questions relevant to a particular discipline. The questions could be a substitute for the traditional textbook “units.” We might then ask the essential question: “What is it to be human?”

An “essential question” is the foundation for a project-based learning (PBL) unit. It is important to understand that PBL has a great deal of specific content. Questions help organize the mind, and information that is unorganized quickly flees its home in “working memory” into the vast wasteland of something once memorized for a test. Inquiry based learning integrates perfectly into Common Core State Standards. (To learn more about PBL, visit Edutopia and Buck Institute.)

Let’s assume that we wanted to be somewhat practical in terms of adapting K-12 education to our changing world. Technology and the rise of digital materials are clearly impacting the modern classroom. The Second Machine Age (2014) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT delivers an intriguing hypothesis regarding this digital revolution. If the first machine age (that is, the “industrial revolution”) began with the steam engine, then the second machine age has begun with the computer, cheap digital goods and globalization. We are at the cusp or “inflection point” – a period of exponential change – in our economy and society.

Implications for education

1. Implications for learning

It is clear that that the digital revolution has reached the classroom. One of the historical trends that The Second Machine Age describes is that of “lag.” After any new technology – whether electricity or computers – we have a period of time during which new “complements” or processes get developed. In this case, teachers have LCD projectors, students have tablets, and the schools have the Internet, digital textbooks and learning management systems. Learning is becoming more individually differentiated simply because it can become more differentiated.

Secondly, higher-order thinking (including the ability to innovate or be creative) have taken on increased importance. Project-inquiry and problem-solving are part of the trend. Because of the shift to analysis and inquiry – and the requirement that students defend their reasoning (cite from text or orally explain logic and connections) – students are often reaching different conclusions. That is because they often begin with different open-ended questions. This is the world of multiple right answers.

The increased use of collaboration by students has helped create a more “divergent thinking” model of teaching and learning. Believe it or not, the introduction of Common Core State Standards has provided a superior scaffold for inquiry and divergence because it focuses on standards rather than prescribing how things should be taught. As students collaborate, they share perspectives and broaden their own horizons. With modern technology it is even possible to easily collaborate across broad geographic boundaries. Indeed, collaboration and globalization is the current economic trend.

2. Implications for teaching

Schools now have the Internet, digital textbooks and learning management systems. They and their students increasingly store documents, resources and student work in the “cloud.” As personalized learning becomes more of a de facto reality, teachers have to shift to using technology as a matter of survival. Educational technology provides a set of tools necessary to master large amounts of content in their disciplines. It also allows teachers to manage learning, assignments and assessment in a way that was inconceivable before the current revolution

Having been in education for more than 25 years, my experience is that teachers deeply care about the children and adolescents in their class. If they don’t, then they generally find themselves in a different profession. However, it creates a dilemma when they see many children struggle. They can be caught between being a social worker and an instructor; between the art and science of pedagogy. Humanity meets policy in the classroom.

3. The implications for standardization and assessment

Taken together, the insights of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) and Picasso (“computers … can only give you answers”) offer a philosophical foundation of inquiry-based learning. To question is an essential expression of our humanity. What does it mean to be educated?

How we answer it has profound implications for our schools. It is important to note that a case of cognitive dissonance occurs. The question, “What should schools teach?” does not always correspond to the previous one, “What does it means to be educated?” Therefore, we need to ask, “Why not?”

The answer may partially lie in the convoluted and complex relationship between various stakeholders in K-12 education: teachers, parents and students as well as government and community. The incredibly passionate battle over Common Core State Standards (CCSS) may provide a living case history in the making. 45 states have adopted CCSS, and the battles in those states are far from over.  It is partly a battle over the role of assessment. Some refer to it as the runaway dominance of testing in controlling what happens in the classroom.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch railed against the over-emphasis on testing in Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010). (Check out her current blog about the difficulties in the New York rollout of CCSS.) The newest assessments for CCSS are computerized. That then spirals back to the questions: What will be the role of machines in our education? Where do we humans and our penchant for creativity fit in? Does everything need to be standardized?

Bill and Melinda Gates take the view of many in the business community about Common Core. That is, as a country we need to get our students ready to compete on the world stage. They say there are three myths that confuse the debate over America’s schools. Here they are:

  • Myth 1: parents haven’t been involved.
  • Myth 2: students need to take even more high stakes tests.
  • Myth 3: Common Core will limit teachers’ creativity and flexibility.

At the risk of having the reader believe the myths are facts, you may want to read the article. What is the final answer? Well, it depends on your question.

Do we belong to the whole?

American education has stood apart from society as a separate institution, often insulated from the outside world. Forces such as politics, the economy and “progress” have crashed at the sea walls of the schools, ebbing and flowing like tidal changes. Institutional change in school has lagged, but it has been steadily growing. The new machine age – our technological and economic revolution – is inevitably sweeping us all into its metaphoric bosom.

There is an implied “social contract” between educational institutions and society. The youth of today are tomorrow’s adults, business leaders, scientists and politicians. They are the fabric that will bind us. Yes, we belong to the whole. Like every generation before us, we need to do cherish what makes us unique. How we educate our youth today will define how humanity manifests itself tomorrow.

The Role of Thinking in Education

What is Thinking?

Teachers Ask Questions

When we think of our educational experiences, we often to questions that teachers have asked us. Memorable questions. Not, “What is your name?” Hopefully, something more insightful. Deeper. Engaging. Something requiring thinking work. Is the role of the teacher to impart information? Give answers? Or stimulate inquiry?

Much is written about “scaffolding” and “modeling” when we teach. These are instructional strategies. Experienced teachers provide frameworks for understanding by using concept maps like those in Inspiration, presenting information as an advanced organizer, or eliciting prior experience through quick-writes, or using an engaging entry event for a project based learning unit. There are many ways. However, what marks the great teacher is the ability to ask questions; to follow lines of student thinking; to engage in conversations of inquiry.

Students Ask Questions

Students also have their memorable moments in the classroom – experiences that resulted in an “Ah ha!” Students may seek answers, but it is at that moment of putting together the disparate pieces of the puzzle that the spirit of the philosopher is born.

Making Connections

I watched Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square today. It had a fascinating discussion about the relationship of neuroscience to public policy. In this case, the focus was Iran. One of the participants said that the human brain was consistent across all cultures even though behavior might be different. It made me think about making connections.

Are networks really analogies?

Good question. The Atlantic article about David Hostaedter, The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think, states that thinking is about analogies. Some might call the author one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence. My concern, of course, is human intelligence. What is higher order thinking?

Rick’s Dimensions of Thinking: the HOT Chart

The following chart indicates the relationship between levels of analysis (often thought of as a hierarchy) and levels of connectedness (analogies, interrelationships, etc.).

  • Analysis
    • create or synthesize
    • evaluate
    • analyze
    • apply
    • understand
    • remember
  • Connectedness
    • created
    • connected
    • isolated
    • contrary



Dimensions of Thinking

Dimensions of Thinking

Thinking and Education

Few might argue that education has nothing to do with thinking. Yet the definition of thinking is still up for grabs in the minds of the average person. For many who are not in the school system, thinking becomes recollection, memory or focus to the task at hand – perhaps solving a problem. In general usage it is often a synonym for acquired skills. It is probably more likely to have to do with opinion than analysis. “Oh, I thought you meant ….”

Thinking burns calories. It is work. Teachers often prod their students with the command “Think!” when it is apparent that they have not. Bosses and sports coaches often do the same. Sometimes parents. When I was younger, my mother used to scold me: “I swear, if your head weren’t attached to your body, you’d forget it.” Now when I remember those earlier years, I realize that sometimes I just did not think things through.

As both a parent and a teacher, I learned that so much of thinking was developmental. As a teacher I learned that classroom activities had to be “developmentally appropriate.” When I read Piaget, I began to understand the developmental nature of our own psychology. What can be understood tomorrow may not be able to be grasped today.

The modern dilemma of education is that it is too often divorced from possibility of achieving mastery; too often ensnared in the emotional experience and trivia of everyday life.


The Role of Collaboration in Thinking

School is many things. It is more than bricks and mortar. It is a societal institution and a place of learning. Many will debate its goals and objectives, and many philosophers and researchers have pondered the intertwined relationship of teaching to learning. From my perspective, school is primarily about student learning.

Learning is not one-dimensional. Learning in school is social, emotional, physical and cognitive. School is also a developmental phenomenon. A six year old child is fundamentally different – perceives, reasons and acts differently – than a 13 year old teenager.

Let’s consider cognitive development: the development of the mind. Student learning has to be active to be effective. Active learning implies both inquiry and construction of knowledge. And it never occurs in isolation. In other words, learning occurs in a social context. That is how we learn point-of-view; it is how we learn to evaluate truth or falsehood.

Is evolution real? Which metaphor best applies to our age?

  • The widening gyre. Can we find the “eye” of the storm [the recursive gyre]. Relates to “flat” world.
  • The ladder. The upward mobility or evolutionary model. How does evolution work? Is it survival of the fittest?
  • The democratization of information and education (also applies to flat world). Does Occam’s Razor apply here, or its opposite, the explosion of many like resources; the “long tail” of education?
  • The Cambrian Explosion [source 2] of the Internet and its many “app” creatures. Somewhere about 530-580 million years ago a rapid, enormous jump in the number of new species occurred. It was called the Cambrian Explosion. Sometimes I look to science to help provide insight. We now have a large number of “apps” that might collectively called a “clade” [2]: all descended from a common ancestor, the Internet that was born in 1969.
  • Thinking – Does it evolve? What is its relation to language? Include a reference to The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicolas Carr (2011). [Listen to the NPR podcast.]

The Sub-Topics of this blog:

  • Bring [evolve] your pencil – It has now evolved and become the wireless tablet or a smartphone. Have students take notes; never listen passively.
  • Interaction – this includes both standard roll-overs and deeper interactivity that involves choice
  • Choice and flexibility – personal learning networks and the increased role of choice outside a locked-down curriculum. New tech has moved outside the Maginot Line (1) (2) of the redoubts of fixed-in-place learning resources.
  • Higher order thinking – All of the preceding lead to students (and teachers) increased moving up the ladder.
  • Active construction of knowledge – PBL is only one aspect. Learning is doing, and modern media allow greater ease in doing (clarify)
  • Feedback – Now with Google Drive; walled social networks like Edmodo; LMSs like Blackboard or Schoology; and a host of interactive apps like Evernote, Explain Everything, etc. – we are able to communicate in real time.

How Does One Integrate Social Media with Education?

With a multiplicity of tech tools at our disposal, we can embed inquiry in project based learning.  Students use technology tools, but the tools are a means to an end. The focus is the thinking that underlies inquiry and then the creation of final products that demonstrate learning while communicating in an authentic fahion.

Start with a broad open-ended “essential question” to focus the project. Such as question cannot have a single answer. “Fill in the bubble” is not allowed here! Perhaps we can ask something like, “What is the essence of democracy?”  Or “Does democracy require oversight?” You can ask, “Is privacy a right?” “What is a healthy ecosystem?” Or “When is too much enough?”

Require that students provide evidence for their thinking so that the argument or research can be evaluated. Require that the answer use the targeted tech tools; and the findings be “published.” Next, require interaction. Specifically, require that other students – collaborators – respond through comments or threaded discussion. I personally love Wikis as a way to build a portfolio of responses. Finally, build in assessment. Have students submit an individual written reflection to you of what they learned.  Include what worked, what didn’t work, and why.

Inspiration and Reflection

Web 2.0, or is it the Second Coming? Inspiration from from William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Source: The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats, Poem of the Week

Research on Identity and Imagination for Digital Natives

Here are some key works:

  • Impact of technology on the psyche of digital natives: The App Generation: Identity, Intimacy and Imagination (2013) by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. Concepts (per YouTube lecture): discrete tasks; structured; icons are like “brands.” Life is a series of ‘apps’ culminating in a ‘super-app.’ Gardner noticed that today’s “app” kids have never gotten lost. Interesting finding.
    • Identity: Polished, packaged and risk-averse.
    • Intimacy: a few strong ties with many weak ties. Young people today are always connected; reluctant to be vulnerable; difficulty with eye contact. Are they “empathy-challenged?”
    • Imagination: looked at teen publications over 20 year period at 354 works. Graphic works:  Later works more fully rendered (significant). In written works: later works had less genre play; more mundane plots; more linear; language less formal.
    • Conclusions: We are becoming “app dependent.”
    • Continue YouTube at 32:53
  • Sociological Framework: The Lonely Crowd (1950) by David Riesman. Concepts of “inner directed” vs. “outer directed.”
  • Psychoanalytic framework: Childhood and Society (1950) by Erik Erikson. Concepts of identity and “role diffusion.”

Chicken or egg? The Relationship of Work and Education

Re-imagining education in the 21st century may require re-imagining work. Dave Coplin suggests that the social paradigm of collaboration has shifted. In the classical production era (call it when you will, but the entire latter half of the 20th century would qualify), workers would work in private, and they would then collaborate in limited ways. Now in the more open era, the concept of privacy has shifted. We work in public (in the cloud), and we then decide whom to block.


The Economist magazine, which I read, had an interesting article on “Private Parts,” The chart includes how different countries – and cultures – view privacy.

Public opinions on privacy



Collaboration at the Crossroads

An Explosion of Change

It is not about the tools.
Rather, it is about the evolution of thinking.

perspective put on new glasses

It’s a matter of perspective

Because technology in education moves at such a fast, fractious pace, it is sometimes hard to find the center. Temptations to try new tools and tricks abound, and it is easy to become distracted.

What is the big picture in education? When confused, I always return my focus to “student learning.”


A Collaborative Perspective

As much as the institution of schools may attempt to stand apart from the world around it, change is inevitable. School is more than bricks and mortar. It is a societal institution, a locus of learning. Indeed, with the rise of distance and blended learning models, one can see that school is gradually becoming less defined as a place with four walls and more defined as a collaborative space for building knowledge.

It is not just the technology that has evolved over the past decade, but the culture and social structure in which it is embedded has also developed. We are living in the midst of a major shift in access to information, knowledge creation, and communication. Perhaps it is something analogous to the Cambrian explosion , a period in earth evolution in which new life forms exploded onto the scene. Yes, students still come to class; we take attendance; we structure learning; we assess knowledge and needs. But new forms of life  – let’s call them “apps” – are emerging at an ever rapid pace.

In the world of apps, collaboration has evolved to become a more distributed function. Sound too abstract? It’s not. It just means that we are as likely to meaningfully connect with someone across the country as with someone at the desk next to us. The ubiquity of smartphones and tools like Twitter and Facebook abound as connection media. The use of newer platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat with teens is moving at the speed of fashion. What is a teacher or parent to do?

The Family that Tweets Together Stays Together.

“Retweeted by Mom? Teenagers might say they’d die of embarrassment. But teenagers who are connected with their parents via Twitter and other social media have better relationships with them, and fewer behavioral problems.” That is what a new study finds about families who embrace new forms of collaborating.

What about teachers? If students “speak in tech,” then shouldn’t teachers communicate or collaborate with them using that language as well? After all, modern kids live in this connected world. We need to teach them to think. We also need to help embed their reality in the context of genuine human relationships. That is both the heart and the art of teaching.

Does the classroom that tweets together also learn better together?

Think of tweeting as a metaphor of all social networking. Where you land on this question generally reflects your perspective on the role and impact of social networking on who we are. Nicholas Carr offered a very thoughtful exploration of this question in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010; 2011). The book has some excellent research. It is a quick read, but it raises many important questions. The New York Times Book Review accurately portrays the anxiety – and ambiguity – that Carr feels. One thing is clear: thinking itself has changed. Prefer a summary in cartoon format?

More In Depth

The following blog explores both the pros and cons of using social networking tools in the classroom. The non-profit ProCon.Org explores both sides of the broader debate, Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?

For further exploration of the Someday/Monday phenomenon and role of technology in learning, check out KQED’s Mind/Shift blog.


Time to Dive In

Many teachers and administrators are ready to embrace technology now. Like many of those same educators, I don’t plan to give up my authority as a mentor to a program that someone else wrote. I don’t do that with textbooks. Why do it with anonymous content creators? However, I do plan to embrace its reality. More than anything else, teachers are pragmatists. They teach the students they have.

When Monday arrives, and the students are in their seats, it is time to teach – ready or not. Check out the Teq blog, 11 Things We Learned About Social Media in the Classroom. Here are some quick tips:

  • Share and collaborate online with teachers as well as students.
  • Provide access to resources.
  • Use Twitter as an Exit Slip.
  • Gather content with Pinterest.
  • Create a scavenger hunt with Instagram.

New Rules for Engagement

What is the answer to the shifting world of technology? Do we resist it or embrace it? Many educators, philosophers and researchers have pondered the intertwined relationship of teaching to learning. From my perspective, school is primarily defined by student learning, and learning is driven by inquiry. For learning to become knowledge, it requires active participants who are engaged. It all needs to be embedded in the real world.

In order to maintain engagement and higher level thinking, it is essential to build in collaboration at all levels: between students and students; between students and teachers; and between teachers and teachers.  It is how we learn point-of-view. It is how we learn to evaluate truth or falsehood. It is how we create knowledge.

Our Media Selves in Education

In my last blog, I spoke about the importance of developing and cultivating relationships with students. I referred to Sherry Turkle and her groundbreaking book, Alone Together. It explored the effects of modern social media on our habits of being. She maintained that technology does not just change what we do, it changes who we are: our media self.

Alone Together?

One of my favorite books is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2011).

If you are more visual, then check out her TED video from 2012, Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

Alone together

Is it Tragedy, Comedy, or Simply Perceptive?

I just recently read an article on the New York Times Bits blog: Disruptions: More Connected, Yet More Alone by Nick Bilton (Sept. 1, 2013). In it he explores a YouTube comedy video that has since gone viral: I Forgot My Phone by Charlene deGuzman.

To be honest, it is “funny” in the same way that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal was funny. Swift proposed cannibalism as a solution to the Irish dilemma of his time (way back in 1729 – yes, they had irony then). DeGuzman’s 2-minute film may not be as outrageous a proposal, but it is exceptional satire. I would call it poignant. Perhaps author Nick Bilton might agree.

The Case for Dystopia

I would make the case that we have done more than fall in love with our dystopias. We have become them. It is the literature genre that has become on-screen blockbuster.

Have you read or seen The Hunger Games? Katniss Everdeen has become a modern hero of mythic proportions. She represents the triumph of indomitable human will over the grinding of the machine. Few would argue that we really want a series of games that end in death matches, but then again, few might argue that it would be a hit reality series if it aired on cable or the web.

We have a strong history of dystopias in our literature and filmmaking. We have classic novels such as George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. We have movies like I, Robot (a concatenation of the robot books by Isaac Asimov), and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (made into the movie Blade Runner). We rarely see utopian myths produced except in cartoon versions. If they were to be written, then they would likely be dismissed as naïve. Have those dystopian societies become the cool lifestyle choice?

The Modern Classroom: Is It Cool to Be Smart?

Let’s look at the modern urban classroom. Young Black boys in America achieve at markedly lower rates than their counterparts in other races. Why? Rather than focus on race or poverty – both legitimate contributors – I would rather focus this blog on the stories we tell ourselves including our hero myths. For too many urban children, it is just not cool to be smart. Peer pressure can reveal itself as an ugly beast in this context. In my opinion, that is why many charter academies are well positioned to combat peer pressure. They create a new environment for status as well as learning. It is cool to be an achiever.

Madyun (2011) connected Social Disorganization Theory to educational outcomes for Black youth. What occurred to me was that the classroom was a type of community setting – a local extended family in situ. All the teacher has control of is how children interact. Lectures rarely work in this regard. However, the teacher can structure the collaborative norms so that students work with each other in learning activities and learn respect for each other.

The only thing to combat social disorganization is social organization. The only thing that can combat negative relationships are positive relationships. That is the instructional approach I advocate. Build a learning platform and a “story” for collaborative success.

Media Provides a Context for Understanding Ourselves

Stories – and that includes movies and YouTube – create a literary context to explore our current social dilemmas and the deeper questions that concern us. Satire is built on the belief that certain absurdities can be recognized as such is presented in the right way.  I Forgot My Phone is modern satire. It suggests an increasing awareness of self and others, of how we interact. It is instructive that people interviewed in Bilton’s blog referred to the video as “sad.”

How we communicate is part of who we are. Because we have changed many of the foundations of how we communicate, we have changed who we are. The very nature of the social flux that welds us together has changed in composition. Perhaps the new alloy will be stronger. One thing is certain: the social syntax is different.

Escapism or Paradox?

Of course, escapism does not necessarily equate with the desire to become. One can watch the Vampire Diaries or True Blood without wanting to become a blood sucker. It is important to differentiate our love affair with the darker side of human nature from our need to explain it. I am not a gamer, but I recently saw a review of the recently released video game called Grand Theft Auto 5. I wondered just how the myth of this hero plays out if extended to community.

Human nature is complicated. Perhaps – to quote Winston Churchill from a different era – it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Yet we teachers are left to fathom it all. Our media selves.

How it relates to teaching and learning

This is now the essential question: How does dystopia and being alone together figure in the modern classroom? What are its implications for the modern teacher? When I first started writing this, I found myself going down a dark path, perhaps trapped by a device of my own making. I realize that one can not make a judgment about the new language except that it is occurring right now. In other words, we as teachers need to create a new Utopia for our students. As I went further down the path, I realized that the power of collaboration was malleable. It could be molded.

What? Doesn’t sound like a realistic plan? Of course it is! Teachers create a classroom environment everyday. I am reminded of a scene from an old movie favorite of mine, The Emerald Forest. It takes place in a South American rain forest. An engineer (Powers Booth) is searching for his son who has been abducted. He comes across a helpful tribe.  The engineer asks the chief why he doesn’t just order his tribe to do something they otherwise would never do. The chief responds, “If I told them to do things they do not want to do, I would not be chief for long.” That line always resonated with me.

Perhaps classroom management is similar. We need to be in tune with our students, speak some of the same language, and connect with them. Don’t confuse this with abdicating responsibility. Rather it is modeling, scaffolding and the social construction of an effective learning environment.


It’s About Relationships

The Truth About Teaching

Some think teaching is about conveying information. Some argue that it is about developing critical thinking. Others frame it is a means of fostering lifelong learning and a spirit of inquiry. Is there a best model? Teaching is about all of the above, but more importantly, it is about forging and maintaining relationships. It is what one might call the art and science of teaching.

Every morning a teacher looks out into the classroom. A few students wait expectantly. Some are talking with friends. Many are likely checking their smartphone, updating their status on Facebook, or jotting off a quick text – one of 3,000 that month. Student conversation is as likely to be electronic and face-to-face with what Zachary Taylor calls the last backpack generation.

In the modern classroom the push is for bell-to-bell instruction and active engagement. The teacher begins with a sponge activity, communicates the objective for that lesson, or starts with a quick-write. Class is in session. This is a generation of “connected” kids, we are told. Yet the first time one watches students work in collaborative groups, the critical teacher may begin to wonder, “Are they connecting to each other in the way that is best for learning? What exactly do I need to teach them to do?”

To answer that question, let’s look at two related frameworks for 21st century student competencies. The P21 framework complements and sometimes parallels the ISTE NETS Standards for Students.

rainbow_081110 The P21 Framework presents a holistic view of 21st century teaching and learning that combines a discrete focus on 21st century student outcomes with innovative support systems.The P21 Partnership talks about the 4 Cs of the 21st century classroom:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity and innovation

Now let’s look at the ISTE NETS Standards for Students. The National Educational Technology Standards are often called NETS. ISTE  has created student as well as teacher and administrator standards.

isteNETS_s-indicator A look at ISTE’s NETS Standards for Students, a different model.NETS are “The standards for evaluating the skills and knowledge students need to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly global and digital world.”The following six areas in NETS form the foundation of required skills for students:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Research and Information
  • Technology operation
  • Digital Citizenship

In this blog, I want to focus on communication and collaboration.  ISTE joins them together as a single linked construct. What is the role C&C plays in education? How does one understand good teaching in the context of effective and caring relationships?

Cooperative Learning Under the Microscope

Let’s look at some of the key assumptions of cooperative learning:

  • Personal and social relationships are critical to the learning process.
  • Working in cooperative groups improves learning outcomes.
  • Verbal communication shifts between teacher initiated talk and student initiated talk.
  • The roles of teachers and learners are complementary.

Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, has been a widely known advocate of  social construction of learning model. As the name implies, his is a constructivist model of learning in which the individuals build knowledge with the scaffolding of the social group. The focus is on experiential or environmental factors in learning. What Bruner showed was that is was not just peer pressure that affected performance of the individual in the classroom, but communication with peers affected how concepts developed.

Nowadays one has to consider that the “group” of peers in which an individual students functions is not just those around him or her. It includes those with whom he or she is connected virtually in their social networks. Take away a smartphone from a teenager, and they may feel as if a vital appendage has been removed.

To be a good teacher

My thesis is that teachers need to embrace social technology. It does not mean that you, the teacher, have to have students follow you on Twitter, but you need to understand how central it is to their reality and cognitive process. I have come to think of technology as a “language” with its own syntax and transformative grammar.

These days teaching involves both understanding how cooperative groups work as well as how technology works in the learning and communication process.

Alone Together?

One of my favorite books is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2011).

If you are more visual, then check out her TED video from 2012, Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

Technology does not just change what we do, it changes who we are.


Vygotsky is the psychologist who popularized the concept called “zone of proximal development” or ZPD. The more common term “scaffolding” is often applied in classroom teaching and learning. The effective teachers scaffolds new concepts – makes them accessible – so that students can master them. Underlying this is the essential role of social learning in cognitive development. Stated another way, students construct meaning and develop competency more readily in social or cooperative learning groups. Those groups can be real-time, face-to-face or mediated in one of the social media venues.

In other words, teaching requires cultivating relationships both with students and between students. Cooperative learning is an extremely important tool in the teacher’s toolbox. How one cultivates these relationships – especially in the context of cooperative learning and modern electronic media – will be the content of the next blog.


Teaching is about relationships as much as mastery of knowledge and skills. Students will respond to those with whom they have a relationship more readily than one in which they feel no connection. There is art as well as science to teaching.

In the mind of the teacher is the world of his or her students. The teacher can never forget to ask, “Do I know who you are?” Not knowing, one must begin questing for the answer. In the journey lies the answer.

Teach flat, teach well.

♦ Visit edtune at

Is the world really flat?

Project Based Learning

Inquiry in the Classroom

With the advent of Common Core State Standards as well as the explosion of the flipped learning model, project based learning (PBL) has is becoming more of  a staple in modern classroom. It marries inquiry learning to to the ubiquity of modern electronic learning resources. What is inquiry learning? Is it different than the Socratic method employed for thousands of years? Does it abandon standards and fly in the face of No Child Left Behind?

One might say that inquiry is at the heart of all learning. The question for many teachers is just how to achieve that goal. Two instructional methods have grown over the past few decades: project based learning (an inquiry process starting with an open ended question) and problem based learning (more of a problem-solution model). In this blog I will lump them together.

How does one implement a PBL in the classroom?

The first step is to cut up or organize your school year into one or two “essential questions,” that is, high level, open ended, integrative questions. This term was originally popularized by Intel Teach to the Future, a program we ran in our district for several years when we first started to implement PBL. An example of an essential question for geography might be, “What is a healthy planet?” Or, “How does where one lives affect one’s quality of life?” Find good resource tools from Intel Education’s Tools for Student Centered Learning.

Then sub-divide the essential question or semester into driving questions. Look at Buck Institute of Education (BIE) Do It Yourself site for lots of resources. Or check out their free Tools. The term “driving question” was popularized by BIE. They must be open ended (no right or wrong answer), linked to academic standard(s), relatively high level (requiring critical thinking), and not be something that can simply be Googled. An example in geography might be, “How are the resources in developing countries different than non-developed countries?” Or “How does access to water affect the wealth of nations?” You might ask a challenge questions such as, “Should habitats be protected?” As PBL evolves in your classroom, and student internalize the rubric, you can give your students more and more choice in selecting the driving questions. It depends on your philosophy.

When you implement inquiry based learning or PBL, think large and inclusive, but also think measurable and manageable. Remember to construct an “entry event,” as BIE likes to call it. How will you introduce each PBL unit? I know you want to dive all in, but it is and often desirable to implement a hybrid PBL program in which you have one PBL unit per grading period in the first year, and use other types of teaching-learning activities in between. Then expand to more PBL units in the second year. You know your own tolerance.

Collaboration is a HUGE piece of PBL. Just be aware that students need to learn how to collaborate meaningfully and fairly. Avoid having one student do all of the work for a group. The mainstays for me in implementing PBL are:

  1. Some type of collaboration software: I recommend Google Drive as the foundation. It is the modern workplace collaboration and “sharing” tool that they need to learn to use. Students are required to have GMail accounts. Wikis are great for protected threaded discussions. PBWorks or Wikispaces provide free sites. You can also collaborate through Edmodo.
  2. Second, a learning management system such as Edmodo or Schoology (although Edmodo claims it is not really an LMS) is necessary to hold your assignments and shared resources. Creating YouTube playlist for your videos is good so students access from home. As you gather web based learning resources, you will find they proliferate. Keeping track can be a challenge. I finally decided to create my own website to organize them:
  3. One thing I learned in implementing PBL was the importance of the role of assessment. This is the hidden beast. Students need weekly “formative” feedback on their progress. Helping them divide the larger PBL unit into meaningful and measurable chunks is important. Learning in PBL is as much about the process as the product. Many teachers I have worked with also designed rubrics around social and collaboration skills as well as content.

I have been using Camtasia Studio for my screen casts. It will get easier and easier. Most of my screencasts so far have been in the area of PD. I will be expanding, but right now the focus has been on the ed1stop portal.

Teach flat, teach well.

Part 2: How Does One Keep It Manageable?

The key to timely feedback is the “timely” part. Keep each piece of weekly feedback discrete, targeted and – most importantly – manageable. In other words, don’t try to include everything in your weekly feedback or assessments. If you can feel overwhelmed, then so can the student.  To keep it simple, decide on a regular day, no more than once per week, when you will provide feedback. It can be bi-weekly. Provide a “grade” or points. If you have time, provide comments. Comment can be written or oral in conference. In the case of student conferences, you can rotate these because they are time consuming. In my experience, it is better to provide multiple but short grades to students rather than one extensive summative assessment when all is done. Grades can also be simple “did it and submitted it on Edmodo” or “didn’t do it.” You can do simple “tickets out” and assign points. Peer reviews can also count for credit. More in-depth assessment should be done by mid-project.

The key to keeping assessment manageable is in what I like to call “chunking.” Remember that for many students, PBL or “inquiry learning” is a brand new way of doing things. They are juggling the process as well as the content. When you require that they work on their projects collaboratively, that is an additional “process” ball to juggle. You will have to teach them the process and allow for fumbling along the way. Think of each project as a multi-course meal. Feed each PBL unit to the students in a piece by piece fashion, allowing them time to digest one course before moving on to the next.

Here is an organizational framework for planning PBL

Always have your “driving question” at the top of the hierarchy. Then clarify what the final student “product” might look like. Then organize the PBL unit by assessments. In the various graduate education classes I taught, I used to say, “Assessment drives instruction.” This is simply another way of conceptualizing “backwards design.” You design you project entry events and periodic assessments with the end in mind. These assessments act as benchmarks.

“Summative assessments” are for final project grades. “Formative assessments” go hand in hand with checking for understanding from the teacher’s point of view, and they answer the student question, “Am I doing this right?” In PBL a teacher is like a music conductor who keeps the orchestra playing together. It can be easy to forget that one key role of “formative” assessment is to provide information for mid-course correction. When I think of the broader meaning of “authentic,” I ask myself, “Is this working as it is, or do we have to tinker with it to make it work?”

Here is a summary. Students need to know what is expected of them, how it will be evaluated or graded, and when it is due. “Rubrics” are part of managing assessments, but you can also include quizzes, essays and other standard approaches. Peer evaluation can be included as long as it is moderated. Each formative assessment or piece of feedback ought to accomplish multiple purposes:

  1. Tell the student if he or she is “on topic,” that is, answering the driving question. Sometimes this is a process of successive approximations.
  2. Evaluate quality of work to date, but in a limited or targeted way. Do not try to evaluate every component every week. Authentic does not mean comprehensive, but it does means personal and genuine. When each step of work is completed, students get credit for it. This can be simple. Don’t try to make it to complex.
  3. Provide pacing feedback. Tell the student if he or she is on target to complete the project in the time allowed. If you have established and articulated “benchmarks,” then give students points when they complete that benchmark.

Rick’s Blog

A funny thing happened on my way to retirement in June 2012. My mind wouldn’t shut down. Not that such a thing was desirable. I had taught for 25 years. Being a teacher and administrator ingrains in oneself a sense of public service. Maybe it is more accurate to say that a deep sense of service motivates most who go into teaching.

My mind kept whirring, gears turning upon the possibility of new mechanisms, a clockwork of evolving dimensions. I had not always been a teacher, but it did seem to be part of my DNA. In my in-between life as a general contractor and small businessman, I learned what it was like to be independent. I had the freedom to create and build. I had the freedom to hire whom I chose. I could work or not work, if I chose. The money was good, but I missed teaching. So I returned to the classroom. It invigorated me. I spent hours upon hours planning. My mood swung upon the success or failure of the most simple lessons, a look of insight, or a smile upon a struggling reader’s face as he “got it.”

Teaching evolved for me. A natural progression is from classroom to administration, and that happened to me too. But perhaps one of the best things that ever happened was going back to the classroom for a year. Times were lean. (You remember, don’t you?) I continued as Coordinator of Educational Technology while I taught Multimedia to high school students. I would find myself regularly staying up until 11:00 PM lesson planning. It doesn’t matter how many years one has taught, a new subject is like being in a first year classroom all over again. Perhaps the classroom management is familiar, but everything else is a spiral between excitement, due dates and occasional panic. The following year the budget improved, and I returned to full time administration. However, I had grown during that year. inspired by the students in my classes.

Time moved on. As I approached the possibility of retirement, I started thinking about the things I wanted to create. A website was one of them, and obviously it was going to be geared to education. Teaching is about human relationships, not just about conveying content or using specific strategies. How would I convey that in my website?

That is the subject of this blog. I hope it will evolve as I grow. Old teachers never die, they just teach a new grade level or subject. It keeps them fresh.