Makerspaces and Opportunities for Learning Literacy

In 2011, a faculty member wanted to bring in a summer school program for some of our gifted and talented students. Called “Camp Invention”, students spent a week taking apart computers and creating new worlds with peers. I had never seen students more engaged in learning than during this experience.

Afterward, something nagged at me: the program was not intentional about incorporating reading and writing into the curriculum. I could understand the rationale. Educators are always trying to stuff literacy into anything students are doing. Yet are these two areas – innovation and literacy – mutually exclusive?

Halverson and Sheridan tease out the complex nature of the maker movement in education (2014). They define it through three lenses: “making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities of participation” (501). In literacy, students are (or at least should be) constantly making. For example, consider the verbs we use to describe writing. We craft an essay, develop a narrative, and build an argument. These actions cross the line between the tinkering, creating and iterating that happens in makerspaces and the drafting, revising and publishing that is synonymous with language arts. Halverson and Sheridan also see the possibilities.

“Learning through making reaches across the divide between formal and informal learning, pushing us to think more expansively about where and how learning happens. In this way we can talk about the who, what, and how of learning without getting hung up on the rules and constraints that govern different settings” (498).

A question that frequently comes up in education circles is, “How do we get started with makerspaces?” Teachers usually follow this up with concerns about time, resources and administrative support. Now in my second district, and having visited several more, I can say that makerspaces are unique from school to school. Some buildings house makerspaces in their libraries, while others have a separate, dedicated space. When it is not a building initiative, makerspaces find space in teacher’s classrooms under the guise of “Genius Hour”.

What they all have in common is they are personalized to the needs of the students. The kids direct the learning. In response, the adults often adjust their roles to that of a coach and guide on the side. The observed result is higher levels of student engagement in school, which tends to spill over into the core academic areas. Gershenfeld has found increased engagement to be true, noting how personalization is “a market of one person”. In makerspaces, students might start creating something of their own interest, but a lack of purpose and audience might propel them to start thinking about how they can make an impact in the broader world.

For instance, 6th grade teacher Chris Craft has led his students in South Carolina to print more than 150 prosthetic human hands for people in need using a 3-D printer (Herold, 2016). This work includes video production and online sharing, all critical literacy skills for the 21st century. This example and others similar show how schools can “decentralize enthusiasm” (Gershenfeld, 57) in the goal of creating engagement in learning through doing real work while applying core competencies. Literacy appears to lend itself way to many of these opportunities.

References

Gershenfeld, N. (2012). How to make almost anything: The digital fabrication revolution. Foreign Aff., 91, 43.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-504.

Herold, B. (2016). What It Takes to Move From ‘Passive’ to ‘Active’ Tech Use in K-12 Schools. Education Week: Technology Counts, 82(2), 33.

Costs and Benefits of Social Media in Education

On more than one occasion I have misplaced my smart phone. My initial response is panic (“What if someone is trying to get a hold of me?”). After this is general acceptance of my disconnectedness. In these opportunities for solitude my mind tends to wander. I cannot check Twitter, Facebook or a Google+ Community, so I seek different forms of cognitive engagement, such as connecting with my family more and attending to the immediate experiences in front of me. With being disconnected, I also find myself reflecting on my experiences and plans for the future. Yes, I miss having the world’s knowledge and diverse communities at my fingertips. But there is a cost to this access.

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This lead presents a counter to the promise of the Internet facilitating powerful connections among people. There is little doubt that social media and engaging in global and diverse conversations has brought many benefits to society at large, especially for our younger generation studied extensively by Ito and colleagues (2008). Adolescents can feel empowered when they engage in online communities around areas of interest. They can participate at their preferred depth and frequency, either as an observer and/or a contributor. There are no age limits; perceived and actual levels of expertise and curiosity determine the authority that is attributed to a participant.

The opportunities provided through social media are not only couched in learning. There are also social and emotional advantages to these new connections, also pointed out by Ito and fellow researchers.

“These processes make social status and friendship more explicit and public, providing a broader set of contexts for observing these informal forms of social evaluation and peer-based learning. In other words, it makes peer negotiations visible in new ways, and it provides opportunities to observe and learn about social norms from their peers” (18-19).

It is tempting to paint a largely rosy picture of a highly connected world. Yet as I pointed out, there are trade-offs to being “always on”. danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014), also finds the benefits that youth reap in “networked publics”, extensions that allows them to “extend the pleasure” (4) of their locally-based friendships. While these online spaces allow for the social interaction that adolescents crave, these digital communities can also create new challenges. For example, students will post something that they believe is temporary, yet can stick around for a long time if the recipient chooses to save it.

“Conversations conducted through social media are far from ephemeral; they endure…Alice’s message doesn’t expire when Bob reads it, and Bob can keep that message for decades” (11).

Also of concern is how Internet-mediated relationships can alter in-person interactions. Social scientist Sherry Turkle found that the mere presence of a smartphone at a dinner table keeps people’s conversations at more surface-level topics (2015). Guest’s attention is “split” between the present dialogue and what might be happening online.

I don’t want to come across as a Luddite when I question the efficacy of learning through social media. My many connections via Facebook, Twitter and blogging have brought formally unattainable knowledge to my work and a richer experience to my world. I just wouldn’t want it to monopolize the life I have in front of me.

References

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, R., Lange, P. & Robinson, L. (2008). Living and learning with new media. MacArthur Foundation. Chicago, IL.

Turkle, S. (2015). Stop Googling. Let’s talk. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/opinion/sunday/stop-googling-lets-talk.html

Virtual Learning: Benefits and Challenges

I find it interesting that for the course I am taking, Technology and School Leadership, I drive two hours round trip once a week to participate in the learning. Technically, we could facilitate the course through the learning management system (Canvas). Online collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Skype could be utilized to work on projects from afar. Yet I don’t mind the drive, as I look forward to engaging in class discussion for the topic of the week based on the offered readings and content available online. Physically attending class has also broadened my personal learning network. The connections I make in person could lead to future collaborations down the road.

My personal example is worth noting as we are starting to see from the research coming available that the results of virtual learning, in which students engage in primarily online- mediated learning experiences, are mixed at best. For example, evidence from the Florida Virtual School program shows students did as well or only nominally better than their peers who did not participate in the virtual learning program (Chingos & Schwerdt, 2014). In fact, when comparing students from less affluent backgrounds with students from more affluent backgrounds, the use of technology for online learning can widen the achievement gap (Toyama, 2015). Some of these results are due to the varied levels of effectiveness that a virtual learning experience might offer. For example, how engaging and effective a virtual learning program can be may be contingent on the learning trajectories/projections developed that anticipate learners’ needs during a unit of study or module (Daro, Mother & Corcoran, 2011)

This topic comes back to a traditional aspect of school: the relationships and discussions that can be facilitated within a physical classroom. One might ask why education would want to replace the rich dialogue that occurs in classrooms with a learning management system, in which every student is looking at a screen instead of looking at and listening to each other? These instructional approaches are traditional in the best sense. Dialogue with others we respect and trust is how people have learned for thousands of year (see Socratic seminar for an example). There is robust evidence to support classroom-mediated conversations and the relationship-building as an outcome. John Hattie, in his seminal resource Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, sifted through fifteen years of research on many instructional practices. The results of his meta-analysis revealed that the effect size of developing teacher-student relationships and facilitating classroom discussions is 0.72 and 0.82, respectively (Hattie, 2012). In other words, teacher impact can be doubled.

There are times in which virtual learning is a necessity. For example, if there are no highly qualified teachers available, or if a brick-and-mortar school did not offer a specific course, then it would make sense to offer online instruction for students. Virtual learning also has promise in the area of self-organized learning environments, or “SOLEs”, developed by Sugata Mitra. Mitra prescribes that learners within a SOLE a) develop a big question, b) conduct research, and c) discuss findings (Mitra, 2016). SOLEs happen collaboratively, both offline and online, or exclusively online. This type of learning, however, is highly student-directed with minimal influence from a teacher or from formal instruction. This leads me to wonder: Is virtual learning as currently conceptualized in education merely old wine in a new bottle? It seems to depend on the purpose for learning.

References

Chingos, M. M., & Schwerdt, G. (2014). Virtual schooling and student learning: Evidence from the Florida Virtual School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved November 7, 2016.

Daro, P., Mosher, F., & Corcoran, T. (2011). Learning trajectories in mathematics: A foundation for standards, curriculum, assessment, and instruction. CPRE Research Report #RR-68. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education. DOI: 10.12698/cpre.2011.rr68

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge.

Mitra, S. (2016). “How to run a SOLE session” School in the Cloud. Website. Available: https://www.theschoolinthecloud.org/library/resources/running-sole-sessions

Toyama, K. (2015). Geek heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. PublicAffairs.

The Thin Line Between Critical Literacy and New Literacies

This is another reaction I wrote to assigned reading for the graduate course I am taking through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Technology and School Leadership. Enjoy!

Critical literacy is an instructional approach that “advocates the adoption of ‘critical’ perspectives toward text. Critical literacy encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages” (Wikipedia). This approach asks readers to investigate why the author wrote what they did, what writing tools they used to convey their ideas and why, as well as to investigate underlying messages within the text.

Also important regarding critical literacy is exploring multiple perspectives by reading various texts to understand what concepts a writer left out of a piece and why they might do that. Critical literacy’s roots are founded in social justice. It “requires imagining others’ intentions, adopting multiple perspectives, and imagining social arrangements that don’t yet exist” (Johnston, 73). People from both affluent and non affluent backgrounds benefit from instruction that helps them take another person’s perspective, as well as to have the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

The question then is, What does critical literacy have to do with new literacies, which “include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass and digital media” (Jenkins, 19)?

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Quite a bit.

First, both new literacies and critical literacy demand a context within the broader society. Because of its foundations in social justice, critical literacy may ask students to closely read multiple pieces of work on a relevant topic in order to understand how some writers might exclude certain perspectives in order to better persuade an audience. Likewise, with the new literacies everyone can be an author who brings a specific perspective. People’s positions and experiences described on websites and blogs matter as much as the accuracy of the information presented. “We might well find that much of the meaning to be made from the content has to do with who we think the blog writer is: what they are like, how they want to think of themselves, and how they want us to think of them” (Lankshear & Knobel, 4).

Second, students in both instructional approaches are expected to be participants in the learning. Whether a dialogue about what is read and what is written happens online or off, learners should have opportunities to engage in dialogue about information. This includes actively listening to someone else’s point of view without immediately disagreeing, and reconsidering one’s beliefs in light of new information presented. Critical literacy applied in this fashion better prepares students to be college and career ready.

New literacies, with their dynamic capabilities, invites a response from an audience. For example, when someone posts on their blog, this published piece is sometimes the start of a conversation rather than finished work. Within the comments and the sharing via social media, followers and connected educators can engage in a dialogue around the ideas initially shared. The participatory nature of online learning helps ensure that those who post have at least some level of reliable rationale to support their positions.

These similarities beg a follow up question: are the new literacies merely critical literacy adapted for a more connected world? Adages such as “Today’s students require tomorrow’s literacy skills” (Forzani, 2) might still apply. Yet the common threads between critical literacy and new literacies are hard to ignore.

References

Critical literacy. (2016, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, October 25, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Critical_literacy&oldid=720298766

Forzani, E. (2013). Teaching Digital Literacies for the Common Core: What Results From New Assessments Tell Us. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). A New Literacies Sampler. New York: Peter Lang.

Personalized Learning: Exploring the What, Why and How

This post is another reaction paper I wrote for the course I am currently taking, Technology and School Leadership, through the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Enjoy!

In a typical teacher’s day, taking the time to learn about digital tools can be a low priority. So many things are thrown their way: assessments, evaluation tasks, submitting lesson plans, building duties, parent communications, and so on. Adding on technology, combined with the way it changes seemingly daily, can be a recipe for frustration.

Still, there is a pull to upgrade our instruction to meet the demands of the 21st century, summarized as the “Four Cs” – critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. The demand is real. “America’s system of education was built for an economy and a society that no longer exists” (National Education Association, n.d.). Memorization, basic skill development and surface-level understanding are no longer enough for our students’ futures.

Striving for deeper, student-centered learning experiences is the promise of personalized learning, which can include “students and teachers co-constructing learning goals and pathways around student interests and learning standards; students engaged in independent and self-organized group learning; and educators engaged in conferences with students on the process of learning as well as discussing goals and improvement data” (Halverson et al, 2015). Yet…students need to know stuff. We live in the information age. The challenge is teaching students how to take these disparate pieces of information and skills, analyze data to make complex decisions, and innovate when a solution is not apparent for a problem.

One approach that may offer that reasonable next step in embedding personalized learning into practice is blended learning. It combines online and face-to-face learning “that uses a variety of tools – digital, artistic, problem-solving, etc. – for the purpose of solving new problems, creating new conversation turns, composing new knowledge artifacts, and of seeing and beginning to inhabit, at least tentatively, new possible worlds beyond those that are current actualized” (Wilhelm, 2014). I prefer this definition over the typically more technical description frequently offered by #edtech evangelists.  The focus is on what might happen when students collaborate and communicate around topics of interest. Scaffolding through station work may be necessary in the beginning stages, as both students and teacher move toward a different and possibly more effective model for instruction. Age levels, discipline and digital access also matter when deciding how to incorporate blended learning in the classroom.

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As a structure is established and the purpose is clear as to why personalized learning is necessary, educators should be evaluating the impact of the technology on the instructional goals and student learning. For example, teachers use software to provide students with opportunities to develop skills in areas for growth. There are adaptive learning systems that use assessment results from one activity and guide students to that next learning activity. Then there are intelligent tutoring systems, or ITSs, in which “students are asked to do exercises and problem sets online; the computer uses their answers during problem solving to model how they are thinking about the topic and provides continuous personalized feedback based on its model of the students’ understanding” (Enydey, 6). To the point, with the student receives feedback within an ITS, it is during the learning itself, not after an activity is complete.

For teachers to incorporate personalized learning in the classroom, there has to be a recognized need, time for professional learning, and clear criteria for evaluating its effectiveness. These elements can ensure students meet their potential.

References

Enyedy, N. (2014). Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning. National Education Policy Center. Available: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/personalized-instruction (Links to an external site.)

Halverson, R., Barnicle, A., Hackett, S., Rawat, T., Rutledge, J., Kallio, J., Mould, C., & Mertes, J. (2015). Personalization in Practice: Observations from the Field. Working Paper. Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Available: http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/publications/workingPapers/papers.php

National Education Association (n.d.). An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs”: Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society. Available: http://www.nea.org/tools/52217.htm (Links to an external site.)

Wilhelm, J. D. (2014). Teacher as Trickster: Navigating Boundaries into Blended Transformational Spaces. Voices from the Middle. 22(2), pgs. 42-44.

Innovating Inside the Box

This is a reaction paper I wrote for a course I am taking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Technology and School Leadership”, facilitated by Dr. Richard Halverson. Enjoy!

Government, philanthropists and investors consistently come up with grand ideas and approaches to fixing education. Standards-based reform, new evaluation systems and 1:1 technology initiatives populate the school landscape. Yet there is very little to show for these efforts in terms of improving student outcomes.

One approach heralded by reformists is the charter school movement and offering school choice for families. The original intent of this movement was to free educators from the constraints of local bureaucracy and accountability measures “so schools and teachers can try things” (Kolderie, 10). Unfortunately, when results showed that charter schools were not seeing better results than traditional schools, the accountability pieces were brought back. Many charters now languish in corporate-run organizations with little personal investment from the higher ups. This is compounded with charters having to deal with poorer public perception. 

So what is the solution? Kolderie suggests bringing charters back with their original intent and positioning them as parallel programs. He refers to this as a “split-screen strategy”. “It is time to run both improvement and innovation simultaneously, side by side” (14). The idea is, while traditional public schools can work on continuous improvement, charter schools can serve as research and development arms of education. Eventually, Kolderie predicts, the traditional schools will adopt the strategies of the chartering organizations.

Innovation is critical for the success of American education, and chartering remains the states’ and the nation’s best strategy for innovation—for introducing, quickly, the new approaches to learning now possible. Innovation is chartering’s comparative advantage (30).

I would agree with Kolderie that innovation is critical for American education. Where I diverge philosophically from him is: why do we need charters to innovate?

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As a school administrator going on ten years, I see few roadblocks in offering parallel programs within one school or district. Certainly, there are test scores to worry about, although if innovation is truly happening, we are building on what we are already doing and making it better. For this to work, school leaders need to support these efforts. Permission alone is not enough.

In addition, these efforts to innovate through the use of pedagogical approaches and technologies should not have to be an either/or proposition. For example, could one school offer two learning pathways in their building, with one option the traditional model and the other a more innovative concept? Families, educators and students (yes, students!) can determine which is best for each child. The innovative concept can start small and then grow as demand grows with it.

To conclude, when we take the approach that schools need to be fixed, and we never question the questioners, it builds on a deficit model. I understand the need to upend some outdated practices, especially when modern resources are so readily available for schools. Instead of “How do we improve schools?”, what if we supported schools and allowed them to improve from within? This is a strengths-based approach that taps into the existing knowledge within an organization. “Research and development should focus on what works for whom, when, and in what contexts” (Dede, 22). We have had a high stakes environment for the entire 21st century. It hasn’t worked. A level of autonomy along with the time and resources might prove to be the better strategy for change.

References

Dede, C. (2014). The Role of Digital Technologies in Deeper Learning. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Kolderie, T. (2014). The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond.

Data-Driven or Data-Informed? Thoughts on trust and evaluation in education

Data-informed or data-driven? This is a question I have wrestled with as a school administrator for some time. What I have found is that the usefulness of student data to inform instruction and accountability rests on the level of trust that exists within the school walls.

First there is trust in the data itself. Are the results of these assessment tools reliable (consistency of results administered over time and students) and valid (accuracy in the results of the assessments to measure student learning)? These are good initial inquiries, but should only be a starting point.

Security of student information should also be a priority when electing to house student data with third parties. One question I have started asking vendors that develop modern assessment tools include “Where do you house our student data?”, “What do you do with this data beyond allowing us to organize and analyze it?”, and “Who owns the student data?”. In a commentary for The New York Times, Julia Angwin highlights situations in which the algorithms used to make “data-driven decisions” regarding probability of recidivism in the criminal justice system were too often biased in their results (2016). Could a similar situation happen in education? Relying merely on the output that a computer program produces leads one to question the validity and reliability of this type of data-driven decision making.

A second issue regarding trust in schools related to data is how student learning results are being used as a tool to evaluate teachers and principals. All educators are rightfully skeptical when accountability systems ask for student learning results to be counted toward their performance ratings and, in some cases, level of pay and future employment with an organization.

This is not to suggest that student assessment data should be off the table when conversations occur regarding the effectiveness of a teacher and his or her impact on their students’ learning. The challenge, though, is ensuring that there is a clear correlation between the teacher’s actions and student learning. One model for data-driven decision making “provides a social and technical system to helps schools link summative achievement test data with the kinds of formative data that helps teachers improve student learning across schools” (Halverson et al, 162). Using a systematic approach like this, in which educators are expected to work together using multiple assessments to make instructional decisions, can simultaneously hold educators collectively accountable while ensuring that students are receiving better teaching.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality in many schools. Administrators too often adhere to the “data-driven” mentality with a literal and absolute mindset. Specifically, if something cannot be quantified, such as teacher observations and noncognitive information, school leaders may dismiss these results as less valuable than what a more quantitative tool might offer. Professional trust can tank in these situations.

That is why it is critical that professional development plans provide educators with training to build assessment literacy with every teacher. A faculty should be well versed in the differences between formative and summative assessments, informal and formal measurements, deciding which data points are more reliable than others, and how to triangulate data in order to analyze results and make a more informed decision regarding student learning.

Since analytics requires data analysis, institutions will need to invest in effective training to produce skilled analytics staff. Obtaining or developing skilled staff may present the largest barrier and the greatest cost to any academic analytics initiative (Baer & Campbell, 2012).

Building this assessment literacy can result in a level of trust in oneself as a professional to make informed instructional decisions on behalf of kids. If a faculty can ensure that the data they are using is a) valid and reliable, b) used to improve student learning and instructional practice, and c) considers multiple forms of data used wisely, then I am all for data-driven decision making as a model for school improvement. Trust will rise and student achievement may follow. If not, an unfortunate outcome might be the data cart coming before the pedagogical horse.

References

Angwin, J. (2016). Make Algorithms Accountable. The New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/make-algorithms-accountable.html?_r=0

Baer, L.L. & Campbell, J. (2012). From Metrics to Analytics, Reporting to Action: Analytics’ Role in Changing the Learning Environment. Educause. Available: https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub72034.pdf

Halverson, R., Gregg, J., Prichett, R., & Thomas, C. (2007). The New Instructional Leadership: Creating Data-Driven Instructional Systems in Schools. Journal of School Leadership. Volume 17, pgs 159-194.

This is a reation paper I wrote for a graduate course I am currently taking (Technology and School Leadership). Feel free to respond in the comments to extend this thinking.