What Can Be Gained When We Lose Our Connection With Technology

One of the most pervasive myths about the benefits of technology in education, and learning in general, is the need for digital tools to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Learn anytime, anywhere” is proudly proclaimed when educators effuse all the benefits of learning via online courses and through social media such as Twitter. Time is the only constraint while connected in the 21st century, apparently.

William Powers, in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, describes this phenomena as taking a “maximalist” approach with our digital tools. The basic idea is the more connected we are, the better. I’m as susceptible as anyone. Even though I have turned off the notifications on certain apps and have silenced my ringtone, I still find myself checking my phone many times throughout the day.

I needed a break. That’s why I left my devices at home during a recent family vacation.

This separation from our digital tools and connections is sometimes referred to as “tech sabbaticals”, encouraged by Tiffany Shlain and other forward-minded thinkers. Our family headed out to the Pocono Mountains to meet my brothers, parents, and cousins for a weeklong vacation. What came with me: The essentials (clothes, toiletries, etc.), lots of books, notebooks and pens for writing, and…that’s about it. What didn’t make the cut: My laptop, my smartphone, and anything school-related. I guess I needed a break from my job as an elementary school principal as much as from digital tools.

The two pieces of technology I did bring with me were my wife’s old Kindle and an iPad. The Kindle is really convenient. I can house a lot of books in one small location. Before we left, I loaded it up with a bunch of eBooks from our public library via Overdrive for my son, daughter, and myself. I don’t consider this technology as being connected (which kind of says something about the short cycle of these devices going mainstream). As for the iPad, we brought it largely so the kids could watch a movie we had downloaded on it. The wireless at our location was a paid service, which I knew I wouldn’t take advantage of during our vacation.

My time away could be observed at varied levels. Geography-wise, I felt right at home in the woods of Northeastern Pennsylvania, which largely resembled my current residence in Central Wisconsin. Beyond the obvious, I believe my social and emotional well-being benefitted from this sabbatical from technology. I was more present for people’s conversations, the kids’ activities, and just life in general. As familiar as Pennsylvania seemed to be to me, there were also certain differences. For example, the rolling hills of PA reminded me that this land was largely untouched by glaciers, unlike Wisconsin.

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Maybe the most important benefit gained during my technology sabbatical was relational. It is one thing to constantly check your social media feeds and email accounts. It is quite another when other people, especially those you have just met or rarely see, observe your habits. The message I believe that is portrayed is, “Whatever is happening online is more important to me than anything you might have to say or offer.” What is conveyed here is largely indirect, but it nonetheless exists.

I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to checking my social media feeds and email messages a couple times while on the trip. My wife’s smartphone was the connection source. There were a few instances during our vacation where there was a lull in the action, which I felt was an opportunity to engage in online interactions.

Also, and to be fair, my wife took this excellent picture of my son while on a hike in the Pocono Mountains.

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She posted it on Facebook. I have to admit, if my wife had not brought her iPhone 6 with her on this trip, I never would have seen this image. I was not on the hike, and instead golfing with my brothers and cousins. The digital camera we had at our vacation site was too unwieldy to bring on a hike. So there are certainly sacrifices one must make when we choose to disconnect. However, would life be any different had I not had this photo? Sure, by looking at the experience my wife captured with her smartphone, I felt a little bit more a part of it. But at the same time, there was also this twinge of guilt of choosing golf with my brothers and other family members over a hike with my wife and kids.

This isn’t how being connected is supposed to work, right? By posting and conversing online, we create a smaller world and bring people closer together. Yet it often has the opposite effect. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle cites examples where being connected online leaves people feeling inadequate in their lack of availability. “In a tethered world, too much is possible, yet few can resist measuring success against a metric of what they could accomplish if they were always available.” (164). How sad that our self-assessment as a person could be determined from the impossible task of being in two places at one time.

Technology is not to blame, but it is also not absolved from all wrongdoing. Smartphones and their ilk are distractible by design. App developers and digital device providers want us to use their products. A lot. The more times we visit their sites and click on their links, the more money those companies make, and the more we view these tools as indispensable for our everyday lives.

On this last note, I beg to differ. Life was fine not just ten years ago, before smartphones were the norm rather than an anomaly. That is why, after reflecting on my most recent “digital deprivation”, I am committing to the following:

  • Checking email only a couple times a day.
  • Not carrying my smartphone everywhere I go.
  • If someone is speaking to me, put my digital device out of sight.
  • Determining what social media is truly necessary on my phone.
  • Finding future opportunities to leave all technology at home.

I’ll do my best to adhere to these commitments and reflect on the experience in the future.

What questions should we be asking ourselves before assigning digital work to students?

This is a brief post, for a couple of reasons. First, I am writing it on an iPad Air because I am tired of typing on my laptop. I just finished updating my manuscript for an upcoming ACSD Arias book regarding myths about technology. Second, during my research for the book I created a graphic regarding the question that serves as the title for this post. It didn’t make the final cut, but I still think it is worth pondering. Here it is:

  
Hopefully the brevity of this post will allow for more comments and room for thinking. The topics of homework, adolescence, ubiquitous technology, and the kind of work we are asking students to do in today’s always-connected world weigh on my mind. 

Where do you weigh in?

Rethinking Rubrics

In our Google+ Community on digital portfolios for students, we have been discussing the pros and cons of rubrics. Yes, they spell out what is expected regarding a summative assessment for a unit of study. Differentiating between levels of understanding can help teachers more efficiently assess assigned performance tasks of student learning. For teachers who are now evaluated within the Danielson Framework for Instruction, the focus is on a rubric.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what’s the problem? Clear expectations and easy-to-apply assessment tools can make the learning lives of students and teachers more manageable.

This may be exactly why there is a problem. Assessment is not an easy practice to apply. Expectations for what excellence looks like for student learning can become more confusing when we parse out an understanding of mastery in the name of efficiency. Plus, there is the debate about defining poor performance. How much attention should a “1” really be given? Why is a “1” (see: failure) even an option offered to our students?

In this post, I propose three alternatives to rubrics when designing units of study. I am not anti-rubric; rather, we should consider the possibilities when designing instruction for deep student understanding and strong skill development.

Possibility #1: Analyzing Exemplary Pieces of Student Work

This approach works really well with skill-focused learning, such as writing. Showing students what is expected to achieve excellence with examples from past learners can have a better impact.

Below is an example: A mastery wall of student writing, compiled by grade level teams as a mid-year informative writing check.

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How might sharing and analyzing exemplary student work be an improvement over rubrics?

Possibility #2: Standards of Excellence

I don’t know if you have noticed, but the Common Core State Standards, especially the literacy anchor standards, read like a rubric. Each phrase within the standard addresses a specific understanding or skill. Standards of excellence are paragraph-length descriptions of what a student should know and be able to do after a progression of learning activities. What is described is what is expected. Anything less is scored below a “4”, largely at the discretion of the student + teacher discussing the work.

Here is an example I created for a unit of study on narrative writing:

As an author, craft an original story, real or imagined, that has a beginning, middle, and end. This story shall have an attention-grabbing lead, rising action that keeps the reader going, and a satisfying conclusion. It shall be free of confusing language and grammatical errors. In addition, your story shall be both entertaining and informative.

How might crafting a standard of excellence be an improvement over rubrics?

Possibility #3: Novice vs. Expert Understanding

If the concept of a rubric is hard to depart from, consider this alternative. It comes from the Understanding by Design framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The teacher determine what is a basic understanding derived from a unit of study, and contrasts that with a deep understanding which warrants a high level of recognition. Here is an example from a 4th grade unit on state history and geography:

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Both effort and skill development are recognized within this assessment.

How might differentiating between novice and expert understanding be an improvement over rubrics?

What are your thoughts on this topic of rubrics and alternative assessments? Please share your thinking in the comments.

Update from readingbyexample.com: An article, a post, an opportunity, and a reading celebration

Having trouble navigating Twitter? Check out an article I wrote for EdTech K-12, on how to use this social media tool for better professional learning:

How Twitter Can Power Your Professional Learning

Continue reading

Recommended Chapter Book Series for Early Readers (by our two kids)

Freddie Fernortner: Fearless First Grader by Johnathan Rand (Audio Craft Pr Inc)

I like this series because it’s mostly fiction, but kind of realistic. In the first book, The Fantastic Flying Bicycle, has wooden wings attached to it with fabric. A fan in the back pushes the away from the rider. If you paddled really hard, it might happen.

– Our 8 year old son

Greetings from Somewhere by Harper Paris (Simon & Schuster)

This is about two kids who are going on a trip around the world to see different places. At almost everywhere they go, there is a mystery to solve.

– Our 6 year old daughter

Magic Animals Friends by Daisy Meadows (Scholastic)

It’s about two girls named Jess and Lily. There’s this cat named Goldie who always visits them, in case they are in trouble. The evil witch name Grizelda who tries to stop their fun.

– Daughter

My Weird School by Dan Gutman (HarperCollins)

These books are some of my favorites from 2nd grade. When you first read one book, you can’t stop reading the whole series. Each one is about a specific teacher and how they are weird. There are sequels to this series. Mr. Jack is a Maniac is one of my favorites. The school gets a wrestling teacher who is chased away by a bear. The two main characters, A.J. and Andrea, have to use what they learning from Mr. Jack to be beat the bear off.

– Son

Looniverse by David Lubar (Scholastic)

This series is about a kid who is walking home from school, but accidently lands on the curb. He finds a coin with the letter “S” on both sides with “Strange, Stranger, Strangest” on both sides. Strange things start to happen to his friends, such as drinking two sodas and becoming a human floatie.

– Son

Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter (Knopf)

It’s about a girl how has a fairy tree in her front yard. That means that she puts stuff in it, and the next day, she gets something in return from the fairies. Piper put a strawberry in it, and she got an earring.

– Daughter

The Critter Club by Callie Barkley (Little Simon)

The Critter Club is about four girls who run an animal shelter. They help hurt animals, and sometimes the animals stay there a long time. I want to read this next book, #11.

– Daughter

Horrible Harry by Suzy Kline (Puffin)

This kid likes all sorts of horrible things, such as slime and bugs. He has a crush on this girl in class named Song Lee. My favorite is Horrible Harry On the Ropes. In gym class, he makes a bunch of excuses not to climb the rope because he is afraid of heights.

– Son

What are some of your favorite chapter book series? Please share in the comments.

Joint Finance Committee Launches Assault on Wisconsin Retirement System #wiedu

Update (7/7/15, 12:00 P.M.): The Wisconsin Retirement System change was taken out of today’s vote on the Wisconsin budget.


According to an email sent this morning from Kathleen Marsh of MoveOn.org,

The Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee has inserted an anonymous #999 stealth provision (27a p. 9) into the Wisconsin State Budget that drastically changes the way in which our Wisconsin Retirement System is governed.

Below is a screenshot of the specific provision. Highlighted is the main concern.

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What this means: Instead of having representation from both parties on this committee that oversees our retirement system, whoever is in power at the state level, Republicans or Democrats, will have total control over how the system is run. This is not good.

Kathleen Marsh states that Wisconsin public employees have one of the best pension systems in the world. This is true. According to Pew Research, the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) is fully funded to meet all of their obligations (Source: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/0001/01/01/the-widening-gap-update). No other state has this level of success; many are facing budget problems. In fact, Governor Walker touted this success as an accomplishment back in 2013 (Source: http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2013/jan/06/scott-walker/walker-says-wisconsins-pension-system-only-one-cou/).

Why is this happening?

That is the big question. Find out by calling your local legislators today (I’ve already started). Click here to find their contact information. According to Kathleen Marsh, they plan on voting on this as early as tomorrow. Also, share this post with other Wisconsinites who would be affected by this unnecessary change.

O.W.N. – A Mnemonic Device When Having Coaching Conversations, Online or Otherwise

In a previous post, I shared some of the main points from an excellent resource for school coaches and leaders, Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda G. Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly (Corwin, 2010).

In this post, I want to expand on part of that text – the conversation itself – and show how I have applied this knowledge to online spaces.

Source: Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash

Source: Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash

Here is the passage itself that I am referring to:

In coaching conversations, instead of giving advice, the school leader supports her staff by paraphrasing what is said and asking powerful, open-ended questions that lead to deeper thinking. (p 57)

Instead of trying to commit this quote to memory and then recalling it when I am engaging in discussion with a colleague online, I created this mnemonic device to help me remember this process.

O.W.N. = Observe, Wonder, Next Steps

Each attribute connects with a part of the previous quote. When I make an observation of what someone else says, I am paraphrasing that which was shared. Wondering is synonymous with “asking powerful, open-ended questions”. If I have done the first two steps really well, then it should naturally lead to deeper thinking and next steps in the learning process.

Here is an example, from a book study I am currently facilitated within a Google+ Community, on the topic of digital portfolios for students.

1. I posted a question for everyone to respond to at their leisure (our conversations are asynchronous).

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2. One of the participants responded to this line of questions.

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3. After others in the community “+1’d” her response, and deservedly so, I responded in the comments of her post using the O.W.N. framework.

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Looking back, do you see where I paraphrase what she said (observe) and asked open-ended questions (wonder) to promote deeper thinking (next steps)? Below is an annotated image that breaks down this process.

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My observations took up the majority of my response. I think it is important to recognize all the positives we see in objective ways before guiding the learner toward other possibilities. First, any advice I might give may be wrong! Second, this open-ended language gives others in the community the opportunity to chime in and be the expert on the topic, Third and most importantly, the person on the other end of this coaching conversation (Shireen, in this case) is much more likely to be responsive to new ideas. I am not telling her what to do. I am provoking thinking (“When you frame your questions, how do you ensure…”) and offering a new perspective (“…and avoid deterring creative thinking?”).

I feel like this conversation went pretty well, based on her response.

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I responded with a brief affirmation, which concluded our conversation.

This is a decent example of a coaching conversation, which could have occurred online or in person. To be honest, I could provide many more examples of what not to do! Sometimes I give advice without asking first (the job of a mentor, not a coach). Other times, my question is too leading to where I think that person should go. This is an additional benefit of the mnemonic device O.W.N. – the acronym itself is a visual reminder that the person on the other end of the conversation should be the one constructing the knowledge and “owning” their learning.

One final advantage of structuring our coaching responses in this way in online spaces is that others in the community start to emulate your language in their own responses. It doesn’t even have to be explicitly stated. People see how you connect with others as the facilitator/coach, how the recipients respond, and then they often follow suite. I encourage you to try this method out in your interactions. Let us know how it goes.