The Parent Challenge

Laundry and Learning in a Home Environment

So much has changed for the  2020-2021 school year. Online learning at home represents a genuine parent challenge. Their role is new in the age of distance learning at home. Parents are in charge of creating and managing the home learning environment. No longer are you simply mother, father or grandparent, but you are also now a co-teacher. Sometimes you hug your children; sometimes you scold them. You do the laundry and then make dinner. Then help them brush their teeth followed by reading stories at bedtime. You watch favorite shows together, yet you have to enforce study rules. So many different parental roles

tired parent challenge newborn
stressed mother while working from home and babysitting her children
overcoming distraction with kids
Tired father with his two kids during quarantine. Stay at home concept. Online working and household at the same time while quarantine. Exhausted parents with children.

Every grade is different and every household is unique, so the experience will be different for different families. Many households also have children at multiple grade levels. Coordinating it all can be a genuine challenge. The evolving role of the parent is critical here.

Parent challenge: Build a classroom within your home

parent challenge create a study space
Father with kid trying to work from home during quarantine. Stay at home, work from home concept during coronavirus pandemic

First, you have to set up a study space, that is, a classroom within your home. It should have set hours with learning supplies readily available. That includes a desktop, laptop, Chromebook or iPad – whatever in required to get kids comfortable with distance learning. 

There is no one best space. The reality is that you may not have any separate area for learning. It may be place at the kitchen table. In that case, how you structure lesson time expectations is critical.

Zoom and other video chat programs are become the dominant mode of direct instruction. Some parts of each lesson may be in the form of prerecorded lessons. Other parts my be live via Zoom, Google Meet or some other video platform. Google Classroom is an extremely popular learning management system used by schools. Every student has a protected, private email. They can see and submit assignments online. 

Schools also  use attendance and grading apps like Aeries or PowerSchool that provide parent access. Check out this Parent’s Guide to Google Classroom.

A very popular interactive method in distance learning is to use  “apps” like SeesawFlipgridPadlet, etc. The student completes and shares assignments with the teacher through the app. They foster creativity and support engaged learning. Finally, there is always reading a story or book as well as drawing with paper, crayon and pencils. Never underestimate the power of hands-on learning. It is the original method.

kids competing for parent attention
Tired young mother sitting on sofa and working with laptop and documents while little kids having fun and making noise

What does all this parent challenge mean for home schooling?

  1. Be organized. Have a schedule for when your students – that is, your children – sit down to learn. This will help avoid conflict.
  2. Allow regular breaks. No one can sit down at the computer or tablet all day long without a break.
  3. Help younger children when they ask for help or appear to be struggling. Even if you don’t know the answer to a problem, collaborate. You are both learners.
  4. Mix it up, and keep learning interesting. The school’s teacher designs the curriculum and lesson, but you as the parent have to implement it.
  5. Allow stretching. Do home P.E. or yoga. Use apps like Go Noodle for breaks. It emphasizes movement and mindfulness.
  6. Set high standards, but be gentle on yourself and your kids. Frustration never helps.
  7. Find alternate ways to be social in the time of COVID. Students are going to miss their friends. Use Facetime and phone calls. Kids may need to get out for a socially distant trip to a park.

Remember that you, the parent, have a life too. How you navigate all of this may be tricky between work, different children at different levels, laundry, cooking cleaning and showering. This is a family affair. Everyone has to have chores and pitch in.

Parent challenge: Pedagogy, or the art and science of teaching

There are do’s and don’ts for online teaching just as there are for in-person instruction. There are certainly effective and less effective ways of designing lessons, and there are many ways to build understanding.

parent challenge active learning in math
teacher and three preschoolers playing with wooden blocks

For example. Use this tried-and-true sequence for teaching any new concept or procedure:

  1. I do (teacher or parent demonstrates)
  2. We do (teacher and student go through the process together; normally this is a whole class activity )  
  3. You do (independence; student practices on their own)

Parent challenge: Build understanding organically. Lessons are often divided into these three parts, each one building understanding for the next level:

  1. Into – Getting ready. Getting kids engaged. Tell a story; build context; ask questions. Then have Student asks their own questions about what they are going to learn. It gets then ready to become an active learner. “I want to know more.”
  2. Through – Go through the lesson itself. At appropriate points, tie the discussion back into questions the student asked. In other words, make it about what they wanted to learn.
  3. Beyond – After the lesson has been taught, apply what was learned to a new situation. Or read a story that has something in common with the subject, extend learning.

Online learning challenge: Teach in context. Build meaning and connections between ideas. Make learning active. Here are some examples:

  1. If you are teaching vocabulary, go beyond definitions. Use words in whole sentences.
  2. Use pictures, videos and examples to enrich any idea.
  3. Connect content in one lesson to what has been learned in other lessons. Enrich and extend learning.
  4. Ask questions, and have your students learn to ask questions. Learning is an active process.

Construct knowledge. Have students collaborate with each other. Use think-pair-share:

  1. Think: Ask a question. Each student thinks privately.
  2. Pair: Each students works with a learning partner (face to face or virtually).
  3. Share: Student 1 listens to student 2 give an answer. Student 2 actively listens and reports back what he/she heard. Then flip the process.
onnecting ideas to reality


Stay connected. Avoid excessive “teacher talk.” This is a real parent challenge. That is, let students talk, write or create for a majority of the lesson time. Connect, check in often, create a space where they can be social and collaborate with other classmates, even if it is online. Finally, mix it up. Don’t solely rely on one type of activity. That will keep “school” more interesting.


Do formative assessment. Generally, this is the job of the school teacher. It means the periodic and regular process of seeing whether students are “getting it.” This process is intentional, yet informal. Check for understanding frequently, and give timely feedback. Note that teachers are not the only source of feedback. Other students can and should critique each other, share with each other. There are many new apps for sharing: from collaboratively developed Google Slides, to Seesaw, to Flipgrid, and more.

Infrastructure and Support at Home

Do you have separate space for study? Is it quiet and free of distraction? How fast and reliable is your wireless Internet connection? Does your student have a dedicated device such as a laptop, Chromebook or iPad? Does everyone know how to use Zoom and the multiple apps your school uses in distance learning?

Many of these questions probably evoke laughter. You likely don’t have an I.T. Department in your house, but you still need someone to help answer technical questions. As long as you can connect to the Internet, you have a fair chance at making this work. Most teachers use something like Google Classroom in combination with Zoom to make this all work.


Online learning is partnership between students, teacher and parent. Parents are the actual person who implements home schooling. Stay organized. Keep a regular school schedule. Avoid frustration. Keep learning interesting. Remember that this is difficult work, but it is also a special opportunity to connect and get to know your kids in ways that most parents don’t get to. 

Quick Resource Links

  1. Caught in the Middle
  2. Resources that support Distance Learning
    by California Dept of Education
  3. Best Tools for Virtual and Distance Learning
    by Common Sense Education
  4. Common Sense Education – Resources for families
  5. Smart Start for 2020

Caught in the Middle

Life in the Quarantine Zone for Middle School Students

Online learning is a solution to a new problem facing America’s schools. COVID-19 has caused most schools to close down in order to stop the spread of the virus. Students, teachers and parents have all been forced to shift how they socialize, and how they conduct the business of teaching and learning, especially with online learning.

School is a developmental process. Although every grade is different, middle schoolers are unique in terms of the social challenges they face as they go through puberty into adolescence. The rapid wholesale adoption of online learning has created numerous new hurdles for them as they try to adapt. Yet adapt they must.

Distance Learning represents a FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT in how we educate students and how we support their academic and social development

Collected thoughts: What teachers know

What do we know about middle schoolers?

Middle school students are social in nature. Friendships are essential to their identity, and to how well they learn.

Middle school students like to hang out together
Middle school students like to hang out together.
Middle school students help each other learn while developing socially.
Middle school students help each other learn while developing socially.

Food for thought – Research findings

“Humans are an exquisitely social species. We are constantly reading each other’s actions, gestures and faces in terms of underlying mental states and emotions, in an attempt to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling, and what they are about to do next.”

“Adolescence is characterized by psychological changes in terms of identity, self-consciousness and relationships with others. Compared with children, adolescents are more sociable, form more complex and hierarchical peer relationships, and are more sensitive to acceptance and rejection by peers.”

Source: “Development of the social brain in adolescence”, Journal of the Royal Society  of Medicine, 105(3), pp 111-116.

Middle school students learn from each other, and share in each other’s discovery. They become engaged and retain what they learn when they share.

STEM in pairs
STEM in pairs: Middle school students reinforce each other’s learning

Food for thought about Online Learning – Insights from Research

“There’s an evolutionary reason for this social learning: Figuring out how to get along with others is key to flourishing in life.” 

“Schools can help by providing real-time instruction online, opportunities for teacher-student interaction, and efforts to help students feel part of a group, even when they are working at home. But studies show that many students aren’t being engaged in this way.” 

“Teachers say they can see the toll social isolation is taking on their students.”

Source: The Hechinger Report, June 19, 2020.  “Middle School Is Often Difficult” by Steven Yoder 

Middle school students learn best when they can collaborate. It strengthens their social bonds. They give each other both reason and reinforcement to show up, learn and perform. This applies to online learning as well as in-person learning.

Group Of Middle School Students Collaborating On Project In Classroom


When you engage middle school students, they are much more likely to be healthy and to learn. That means connect with them, check in often, create a space where they can be social and collaborate with classmates, even if it is online learning.

Quick Links

Related articles by Rick’s Blog


The question I always ask myself is: How do I engage and connect with my students? They are a tricky audience. Each one is unique in their background, personality, interests and academic skills. The question is even more pressing as online learning plays a major role in education.
Read the full article: Connect with your students (Opens in a new browser tab)

Reviewing, communicating and feedback

When learning is the goal of any project, then teachers and students enter a constant feedback loop. How – and how often – that feedback is structured is essential to success. Educators refer to the importance of formative assessments that provide mid-course corrections rather than relying on final assessments. How mid-course feedback occurs determines whether students actually understand where they are in the learning process. Regular feedback is absolutely essential in the world governed by online learning

What is Good Feedback?

  • It is targeted. That is, it is linked to learning objectives.
  • It provides specific guidance to students.
  • It is timely.

Read the full article: The Classroom Feedback Loop (Opens in a new browser tab)

Education of the Whole Child

Social-emotional learning for the whole child

Over the past decade we have demanded that students become more focused on academics. Yet we may have forgotten about social emotional learning. As a result we have bypassed the important aspect of schooling: the education of the whole child.

Kindergarten used to focus on creative play and thematic activities. It now emphasizes preparation for first grade reading, writing and math. As the demands on students have increased, the place for play and self-directed learning has decreased. It has affected learning from elementary through high school.

Do kids get depressed?

THE WHOLE CHILD: Different teens; different emotions; different learning

Some modern researchers have blamed student isolation on increased screen time by students. Other negative effects are cited as well. Cyber-bullying has also become a serious concern. Whatever the causal link, social isolation among preteens and teens is real.

Trauma-sensitive schooling and health of the whole child

Preteens and teens feel emotionally overwhelmed at increasing rates. Rates for depression and attempted suicide doubled from 2007 through 2015.

Schools and teachers can do only so much although most work to create safe, healthy learning spaces. Safety is a reflection of the larger culture. Current research suggests that many students experience trauma, and it affects their performance in school.

Nearly half of all U.S. children have been exposed to at least one traumatic event, according to the latest federal data, and more than 1 in 5 have been exposed to several. There are things schools can do.

Nobody Learns It in a Day

Although many teachers and other experts focus on barriers to learning, there are problems that a school could help solve.

For example, in a poor, violent neighborhood, children tend to miss more school. They may have anxiety or stress-related illness, … or they may lack safe, reliable transportation.

A number of other approaches have been effective. That includes creating safe spaces and mindfulness practices. They allow students a place to vent, to relieve pressure, and to re-center. It can help reduce in-house suspensions and referrals. However, the most important idea is that trauma-sensitive schooling is a process, not a program.

Exploring wholeness. Students practicing meditation and mindfulness

Parents are stressed. It takes a village to raise a whole child

Raising children has become unceasingly demanding, both economically and socially. Childcare has become prohibitively expensive. A sick child can force a parent to make difficult choice for taking off from work and losing pay. Active school shooter drills emphasize that the world is a dangerous place for children.

Many times an older sibling is forced to take over the parenting role. When I taught high school, a number of my students would confide in me that they had to stay home to watch a younger sick sibling while their parents were at work. Many families cannot afford to miss a day of work. Stress is not just on the parents, but it includes other family members.

Importance of the family unit in the health of the whole child

What is childhood? What does it mean to be a whole child?

Have we ruined childhood, as Kim Brooks suggests? Does it have too much structure and too little play? The trends are concerning, but the world has changed. We face new challenges. One of those challenges is how to bring social-emotional learning – and that includes play – back into a dominant position in our hierarchy of importance.

When we think of the whole child, we have to think holistically. We need to include family, school-wide culture, the neighborhood, and a whole range of attributes that constitute well-being.

Education of the whole child addresses well-being in all its aspects

The joy of eating paste, and other kindergarten experiences

When my eldest daughter entered kindergarten, my wife and I had to rearrange our whole life. It certainly wasn’t the only time we had to accommodate change since we had a total of four children over the years. It is easy to forget that children like my daughter experienced eating paste in kindergarten. She also built things, painted, acted and danced in kindergarten. Paste was not the most nutritious part of her diet, but it was a reality of the times. She survived, and she learned not to eat paste.

Other activities outside of school – like dance and sports – helped build a well-rounded whole child. We provided a wealth of experiences for her and for our other children who came after. They engaged in critical and reflective thinking. We taught them how to be independent thinkers.

Field Trips: Extending learning into the community

In my first few years of elementary teaching, I was fortunate enough to have funds for buses so that we could explore the world outside the school building. Our first field trip was to a local weather monitoring station, and the kids loved it. Over the years I have taken students to parks, to zoos, to aquariums, to local marshes and more.

We went to Marine World where we had a machinery room tour to find out how roller coasters worked, tying it into middle school physical science curriculum. In some cases I had to write grants to pay for buses, but I was blessed with plenty of parents to chaperone. We had adult experts come into the classroom to give talks and share experiences about their jobs, and/or their expertise. All of that coincidentally strengthened our classroom culture. It helped counter isolation. It was education for the whole child, and it helped build a stronger, healthier community.

In search of the whole child: What to do and why to do it

Making connections between emotions and behavior is not an easy thing. In schools that do provide discussion in class, a smaller number of students often do the heavy lifting in the class. Others go along for the ride. Furthermore, many teachers feel overwhelmed by the demands of incorporating social-emotional learning into the academic curriculum.

SEL Core Competencies Wheel: Looking at education of the whole child

In the Gates Foundation Primary Sources 2012 report, over 60% of teachers say that student behavioral issues interfere with their ability to teach. 69% of teachers say that in-school behavioral support from therapists and psychologists has a strong or very strong impact on student achievement. A classroom meltdown by a high school student can really make teaching and learning disruptive for everyone. Having alternatives for these students – instead of suspension – is critical.

Relationships and Wholeness

In the classroom, relationships are paramount. As much as I believe in the beauty of pure intellectual endeavors, I have realized that the feeling and connection that underlies it that makes learning real for students. It becomes an experience for the whole child.

When I reached out to my students as individuals, they responded. If I focused on who they were and what they needed, then they blossomed. My experience as a teacher and their experience as students flourished and became more whole.


Becoming Human: Why social-emotional learning is important

Empathy is the social-emotional foundation for learning

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch reminds his daughter Scout of the importance of empathy. He is trying to teach Scout an essential life skill.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee,
To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 3

The role of schooling is to educate. Although we study subjects in school, we also study people. We learn to read, write and calculate. We learn facts, but we also learn how to think. To do this, we connect previously unconnected facts to each other. We empathize, and we weave knowledge. One might call this deep learning. To put it another way, we develop context as we discover that nothing is ever truly isolated.

Empathy is a social-emotional skill. In other words, it helps us understand other people. It helps us understand the context in which events occur. This is critical in a world in which social media plays a dominant role in communicating. As a result, teachers must incorporate empathy and social values into content knowledge.

Dr. Brené Brown reminds us of how to create a genuine empathic connection with someone else in this beautiful animation.

Social Skills in School

I would like to see a mandate for social learning absolutely mandated in every state

Goldie Hawn

Kindergartners with good social skills turn into successful adults. Research shows a strong relationship between social competence in kindergarten and future wellness. Wellness includes improved academic skills and employment opportunity. It also means less criminal activity, better mental health.

Any parent or teacher knows that social skills are essential for success. That leads us to ask: How do you define them? How do you measure them? How do you teach them? As a result, positive classroom environment is essential for social-emotional learning.

Researchers found that kindergarteners’ social skills, like cooperation, listening to others and helping classmates, provided strong predictors of how those children would fare two decades later. Judy Woodruff speaks to Damon Jones of Pennsylvania State University about the findings.

Teaching and parenting resources

Focusing attention

Separating what is important from what is not

Attention is the currency of human existence, our social selves. It is how we bond with our environment and each other. At times we want to escape its control. At other times we desperately need to be held in its embrace. Give me a hug, please. Or yell when I act out. It’s my way of demanding that you truly acknowledge me.

“Pay attention!”
When is the last time you heard that command – or plea?

Teachers and parents know that garnering attention is the secret to success in communicating with children or teens. Without focus, no amount of logic or reasoning gets through to them. Our voice becomes a continual hum of “blah, blah, blah.” Sound without meaning. So what is the secret?

Engagement is the way we focus the mind

Think of the foreground of an image versus the background. It is called the figure-ground relationship by psychologists. All of the information is present in the image, but the foreground stands out.

Parents begin developing attention with their children by pointing. Babies learn to connect pointing with importance. Eye-hand coordination is an early example of how we connect perception to objects.

Scaffolding instruction

Scaffolding and ladder of education

Engagement is like a staircase. It is built step by step.

Passive versus Active Processes

This fascinating new study raises questions about the efficacy of video and animation versus static images in learning. In many cases, a less cluttered field and less movement make retention and learning easier. The questions Cris Castro raises in the research are well framed and worth thinking about.

pay attentionNeed some concrete teaching ideas?
Keep students engaged and focused with these discussion strategies for increased student engagement.

How long can we concentrate/

Is it really only 8 seconds? This article by Pattie Shank debunks the research behind the myth of declining attention span. She explains the multi-step model originally developed by Sohlberg & Mateer:

  1. Focused attention (easiest level)
  2. Sustained
  3. Selective
  4. Alternating
  5. Divided attention (most difficult level)

Attention and curiosity

Let’s think deeply for a minute and ask: Does learning require curiosity?

Curiosity is as much the parent of attention, as attention is of memory.
Richard Whately

Curiosity is essential to the teaching and learning process. Therefore, we need to keep our conversations and instruction engaging and genuine. We need to encourage discovery. It is at the heart of motivation and strong, positive relationships.

Connect with your students

How to Connect Conundrum

The question I always ask myself is: How do I engage and connect with my students? They are a tricky audience. Each one is unique in their background, personality, interests and academic skills.

On the flip side I also explore my connection woes: Failures to establish relationships. Having favorites. Failure to listen. So many problems could be solved by just listening.

Ultimately, success in teaching is based in learning how to connect with students. Perhaps that is the secret to all things. Here are some tips to improve connections:

  • Say hello by name
  • Attention is the currency of interpersonal relationships
  • Attention for bad behavior is functionally the same as attention for good behavior
  • Make a point to spread the wealth (attention): recognize all students
  • Ask open ended questions, that is, questions that have multiple right answers
  • Emphasize the value and practice of sharing ideas
  • Listen, and restate what you hear
  • Have students listen, and restate what they hear
  • Ask students. Find out what students are interested in

Here is a question:
How often should a teacher connect with each student? And what does each connection look like?

  • If you are an elementary teacher with 32 students?
  • If you are a high school teacher with 180 students?
  • If you are an administrator responsible for a whole school?

Connectedness is a state of mind and a set of behaviors. Underlying it is the idea that diversity exists within our organizational self, our group, our relationships. However, our connectedness needs to be reinforced on a regular basis.

I remember when I was a first year teacher in Ithaca, New York. I often looked to my mentor teacher, Irma. She was  master of her trade, full of warmth and wisdom. If I had had a child in second grade, I could have thought of no better teacher.

One day I was plying her with questions about classroom management. After each idea, I replied, “That is great.” After several of these exchanges, she looked me squarely in the eye and said, “You know, if both of us think exactly the same, then one of us isn’t necessary.” I clearly knew who was expendable in that scenario.

In my first year of teaching I had 25 unique children in my third grade class. To know each one was a challenge. Years later, when I was a high school teacher, connecting with 180 odd students was an even greater challenge. I always started with their names. Then their interests. I always tried to vary my interactions.

Years later I became a high school English teacher. We had to teach specific core novels. One of them was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved reading and re-reading it each year. In the novel Atticus Finch explains to his daughter Scout that one ought not to judge others, as she had been doing:

To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus explains to young Scout how we never really know people until we walk around in their skin.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it

I have never forgotten that quote. It still resonates with me. In this particular case, it really speaks to the importance of empathy, of how we connect to other people, and ultimately of our ability to think critically. Each year in 10th grade English class we would explore that concept with what seemed to be hundreds of variations by students. Students tied it into their own lives.

Adapting to the unexpected

Lesson planning is essential, but there are always times when things don’t go as expected. Effective teaching requires the ability to hear what students are saying, whether verbally or non-verbally. In other words, sometimes a lesson tanks.

Responding to the unanticipated requires flexibility, lack of ego, but also a connection to one’s students. The lack of ego is critical. We can never take lesson failure personally. If we do, then we miss a learning opportunity for our students. That is what teaching is about: learning.

Sharing ideas to make them better

I was particularly inspired recently with a drawing by teacher and artist Sylvia Duckworth. It is called “The Anatomy of an Idea” (see below). I found it on Twitter since I follow her – which by the way is a method I recommend to developing personal learning networks.

Share and connect an idea

Empathy: What is it?

The importance and nature of empathy is explored in three videos embedded below. For those who want to know more, check out the Edutopia article by Keyana Stevens from January 2016.

Enjoy the animation on empathy by Brené Brown. It could be used with professional development and it could also be used with students to stimulate discussion. It is deceptive in its simplicity. It illustrates empathy, and what it is not.

Then explore this video interview, What is Empathy? with students at varying ages. It goes well beyond how to spell empathy (which the interviewer apparently asks). Children and teens offers deep insights into how we connect with each other on a deep level.

Are we the only species to experience empathy? Some jaded folks might say not all humans experience it. Some scientists say that empathy is a human concept even though there is ample evidence on how animals comfort each other. I leave it to you for your consideration in the following video, Do Animals Have Empathy?

Connect: Crucial skill for all ages

The World Economic Forum presented an article entitled, The one crucial skill our education system is missing. It focuses on the worrying decline of empathy:

young people are becoming less empathic than ever; American College students showed a 48% decrease in empathic concern and a 34% drop in their ability to see other people’s perspectives

The study makes a pointed observation that our students are disengaging. Distraction may be a part of the cause. For example, 87% of millennials admit to missing out on conversations because they were distracted by their phones. The effect on the ability to focus can be significant.

Ironically, in a world that is increasingly connected, we as individuals, as families, as a society, are becoming less connected.


Teaching and learning is about more than skills. Academic development – including critical thinking – should include social-emotional awareness. That means that developing empathy is a core trait to be nurtured and developed. It is the core of our connectedness. It is our anchor with what is humanly important.

Literacy: The Difference a Digital Engine Makes

Digital Literacy and the Difference Engine

Literacy is evolving. The Internet is an information engine of astounding force. Information is widely available today that in another era would have taken substantial amounts of time and effort to obtain. However, trying to read from the Internet is like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. It therefore requires literacy of a new order.

literacy of digital connections

Smartphones allow us to be connected 24X7

Just what is the value of digital literacy?

I recently came upon this assessment in a World Economic Forum article on digital life skills. It made me think of how core skills evolve over time.

A generation ago, IT and digital media were niche skills. Today, they are a core competency necessary to succeed in most careers.

As with employment and career development, digital literacy makes a difference in areas as diverse as citizenship, financial management, parenting and student achievement. It is a core competency. It leads us to ask these underlying questions:

  • What is digital literacy?
  • Is it one thing or many things?
  • Is it glorified tech hype, or an actual paradigm shift in thinking?

Digital Literacy

According to the American Library Association, a digitally literate person evidences a variety of skills, both technical and cognitive. One cannot separate specific skills from the thought process used in evaluating them:

Digital Literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.

Edweek, in an article about the changing face of literacy, makes the point that the definition of Digital Literacy has evolved:

While the word “literacy” alone generally refers to reading and writing skills, when you tack on the word “digital” before it, the term encompasses much, much more.

One question we might ask is, Is the definition too broad? Hiller Spires and Melissa Bartlett of North Carolina State University view digital literacy as having three distinct categories:

  • Finding and consuming information
  • Creating digital content
  • Communicating or sharing content

Spires and Bartlett make the argument that we should refer to the concept as a multi-faceted, plural one, that is, as digital literacies. For an in-depth exploration of the topic, check out Digital Literacies and Learning: Designing a Path Forward. It is a worthwhile research paper.

The role of activism and pursuit of truth

One intriguing perspective on sharing content has been put forth by Renee Hobbs of University of Rhode Island. She argues that digital authorship is “a form of social power.” It certainly is accurate, but this leads one to ask: Is activism a form of literacy?

Creating digital content is undoubtedly both a creative and collaborative process, but how do we separate one’s persuasive argument or political agenda from the objective pursuit of truth?

How do we separate one’s persuasive argument or political agenda from the objective pursuit of truth? Does student voice equate to student truth?

The above quote is mine. It reflects the trends toward hyper-partisanship as part of our cultural landscape. There is often a blurred line between subjective and objective states of affairs. The louder voice is not necessarily the one proclaiming truth nor the best way forward.

Critical thinking and search for objective truths

OK guys, here it is, a parable: The journey of Truth as it set sail through the sea of information, and navigated the reefs of fake news, confirmation bias and ad hominem attacks. It was a treacherous journey. The captain of the ship consulted the charts of the area, but only found the admonition by Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

Just how does one tell the difference? John Diaz, the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, explored the dilemma in Seeking real solutions to fake news. I cite the article here because he discusses efforts by Google and Facebook to fact check for fake news. He then posits that the solution may require the process of critical thinking:

Then there is the option of making Americans more media-savvy.

He discusses the possibility of making media literacy a part of California curriculum. The article contains references to pending California legislation, the goal of which is to make students more media-savvy. Whether such a legislative approach can be effective in refining human judgment remains to be seen, but the discussion is worthwhile. The paradigm shift in the journey to find truth is a cognitive one. It is an age-old quest.


Perspective on Learning

2016-06-27 12.03.50

Daisy waits for me to throw the ball to her

Life is a matter of perspective. The other day it started with a ball. I was walking on the beach playing with my Golden Retriever. She loves to chase balls and, when possible, go swimming. However, the tide was at it lowest point. The beach was separated from the Bay by an enormous mud flat. I though about that: It was low tide. In another five hours or so it would be high tide. Then low tide again. A continual rhythm. It seemed to exist in a parallel reality with the rhythm of me throwing the ball; Daisy retrieving it; me throwing it again.

Insight typically arrives as a guest of the moment

Two things occurred to me:

  • Play is learning. It also has a restorative function.
  • Perspective broadens if one allows one’s mind stretch. Some call this meditation.

On Play

I love playing with my dog. I also love playing with my young grandchildren. They (my grandchildren) are boy and girl twins who recently turned two years old. I love to observe as they play and grow. The other day they pulled out the pieces of Mr. Potato Head from their toy box. The body is one big, separate piece, and all of the body parts are smaller, separate pieces.

I watched as they took each piece and tried to insert it into every other toy in the box: Will this eye fit in my Thomas the Tank Engine? Will the mouth fit in the singing alphabet centipede? Will the ear fit in my cup water cup bottle? They generated endless variations of the same behavior while exploring. Eventually they moved on to another activity.

I thought: This is why algorithms will never substitute for human discovery. Learning and play is too random. It is often goal seeking, but not necessarily. Through play we learn what things are, and what they are not.

Play is its own reward. It also restores the mind and spirit.

On Perspective

Back on the beach with my dog, I stared out toward the area beyond the mud flats. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine where the water level would be at high tide as defined by the ring of damp sand. I could see the flats and rocks being covered by the Bay. I knew that this was just a snapshot in time. My perspective was incomplete. Daisy and I were part of a larger rhythm: the tides.


When I got home later, I checked the tide chart online. Above you see a chart for San Francisco Bay. It is in table form. Low tide was at 11:20 am. I was there about an hour later.

While on the beach, I continued to think about cycles and waves. I thought: I am watching a sine wave. So when I got home, after the tide table, I checked out the graphing calculator, Desmos (free, highly recommended, works on multiple devices). I guess that math really does describe the real world.

sine_wavesEbb and flow are terms that are typically applied to tides, but they are metaphors for many more things. How many other things in life are matters of perspective, snapshots in time, like bouncing balls on the ground? We view so many things in limited ways.

I started this blog with a ball. So why not end with one? Perspective can be spiral.earthrise

Lessons for the classroom

Sometimes our reasoning can take many lateral or spiral jaunts if we allow ourselves. We can enrich and enlarge our experience, expand our learning and develop core concepts. How do you imagine what comes before and after? What ideas are related? How does this apply to teaching and learning in the classroom? Integrated repetition is how we learn.

Allow students to explore connections and play with ideas.

Hitting the Learning Wall

Barriers to Learning

Have you ever hit a learning wall with a student? Perhaps more than one? Learning is a complex, interactive process. One cannot simply open up an individual’s head and pour in knowledge. All learners must integrate new knowledge into their existing schema and experiences. To do that, they must be engaged. They must be able to see or glean a connection between whatever new concept is being taught and what they already know. In other words, they must construct knowledge.

Obstacles to learning may manifest differently with different students. Teachers have to navigate thoughtfully in order to guide students toward achievement.

The practical question is: What does a teacher have to do to overcome such barriers?

  • Part of the answer lies in student engagement. Without it, any lesson becomes dust in the wind.
  • Part can be controlled by determining how, what and why we assess.
  • Part lies in the strategy of instructional scaffolding, that is, designing accessible learning activities.

Learning wallNever take student reluctance to learn as a personal affront. Rather, it is a learning challenge to be met and sometimes re-thought.

Teaching the strategy of “not yet”

Mindsets are the habits-of-mind and the frames-of-reference we carry within ourselves. This is as true for adults as it is for students. The most popular beginning point in exploring mindsets is to understand the difference between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University helped conceptualize the role of mindsets in learning. One of the key concepts she promoted was the art of not yet: When a student struggles for mastery, but underachieves it, it is not a failure. Rather, they have not yet mastered it. Getting students to internalize that message is an essential part of scaffolding instruction and improving student achievement. They employ a growth mindset. Students who can persist, or show grit, make better lifelong learners and problem solvers.

The following animation offers an engaging introduction to growth mindsets.


Building classroom engagement requires freshness and novelty, but not necessarily in the way one might think. Just as an actor practices his or her lines before going onstage or in front of a camera, so must the teacher build a lesson plan before starting getting in front of students. Preparation allows engagement to flourish.

Student voice and choice

One barrier to learning engagement may result from lack of student voice and choice. Just what do voice and choice for students mean? This Edutopia article gives a great overview, and it links to seven short films that explore the theme.

How do we remove barriers to learning

Teachers only have indirect control over student learning. They do, however, have control over what they assess, how they teach, and classroom activities. I discovered the animation below when I was reading an article called Barriers to Learning created by Brandy Antonio. I was struck by the common sense approach to having a teacher focus on what is going on in multiple factors we often forget to assess or take into account.


Assessment drives learning in that it focuses our attention on what students need to learn, and what to teach. Although the curriculum often sculpts our lessons, it is essential to know our students: what they know and what they do not know. We also need to understand their interests because that helps determine engagement. Check out these student interest inventories for some useful ideas.

Overcoming barriers to learning is never a simple process, but it is feasible. It requires a growth mindset. The power of not-yet applies to teachers as well as to students.

Surviving Big Data in Education

How Important is Data in Education?

The speed of change in the world of data is astounding. It can be overwhelming. In education, new apps and methods proliferate. Test data abound. Even if one were to disregard the sheer quantity of information added each day, our psychological ability to integrate all the data diminishes as the quantity of information increases. It is an inverse relationship that can slowly erode our sense of agency and control.

Big data in education

Juggling big data in education

Big Data hopes to ride into the rescue by providing analysis of the vast troves of assessment and demographic data available on student learning.

The educational data tools can be extremely useful in unearthing patterns, but only if (1) we ask the right questions about student learning, and (2) we then follow it up with effective instruction.

The ultimate goal of data tools in education is to provide a superior learning experience. To that end it is critical to understand that data analysis is only as good as the validity of its underlying constructs. One such construct is: student achievement = learning.

The underlying premise is that learning can be adequately assessed through various tests. The sum total of these performance measures are labeled “achievement.” This is where it gets sticky because of the desire to make tests objective. As a result, they are reductive. They test the lowest common denominator of recalled knowledge, typically with multiple choice questions that have one right answer.

If one asks the broader question – “Can the student apply what he or she knows?” – then the assessment of learning can yield a significantly different answer. This is the fundamental thinking that underlies inquiry into any taxonomy of knowledge. The most well known is Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. The revised Bloom’s Taxonomy looks something like this:

Bloom's taxonomy in education

Algorithms have a human starting point

Who provides the data concepts that underlie the algorithm? Where does educational purpose originate, and as teaching professionals, do we have the right to challenge the relevance or importance of those concepts?

When we look at the sources for these data algorithms, we find multiple categories:

  • Standards (whether Common Core or specific State standard)
  • Curriculum (typically determined by State and aligned to a textbook)
  • Assessment (instruments and tools determined by what can be measured)

Here is the fundamental questions teachers should ask:

  • Who are the students? 
  • What do they know?
  • How do we teach them to master what they need to know?

I wonder if we are giving up our decision making to others too readily. In other words – vis a vis Bloom’s Taxonomy – we are failing to analyze because we are so busy remembering, understanding and applying an overwhelming amount of information, objectives and directives.

Go deep

The key to understanding (and perhaps to survival) is to organize what we know into meaningful chunks of information. It also helps solves the problem of information overload by lessening the number of facts we have to juggle. All of this aligns with the common core shift toward deep learning and close reading. Never forget that we are at the helm of our ship, and we determine direction.