29 January 2012

constructivism or instructivism?

Who Am I as A Teacher?
When I was teaching physics, I used both the instructivist and constructivist models in my classroom. I did (and still do in my current classes) a significant amount of lecture and guided questioning; however, we also spent (spend) a significant amount of time with students doing their own independent, student-directed learning.Instructivist - When students were learning fundamental principles, there was lecture. However, I was not the only person in the room doing the talking. During lectures, I asked guiding questions, students would answer in small groups and then share their ideas. Usually, the questions drew on personal experience and were designed to expose misconceptions about the guiding principles. This is often referred to as cognitive disequilibrium (although some call it cognitive disequilibration) espoused by Piaget (see equilibration), which clearly falls under the constructivist paradigm. So, even though I was using lecture/guided thought, am I an instructivist?

Constructivist - Once students began to master those foundational principles of physics, one day a week, I turned students loose with a computer and my own version of a problem based learning project. They knew the components that were to be included in their artifact, but they were able to do everything else, from picking a topic to designing an experiment/demonstration. This kind of explicit instruction is clearly instructivist in nature.

I use my examples (the links) above to show that in practice, at least for me, the line between constructivism and instructivism is quite blurry. Everything I can think of that I have done/currently do in my classes have components of each theory.

In every class I teach, I start the semester/year with two of my favorite Nature of Science activities: The Checks Lab and The Polar Bear Game. In both activities, students come to understand some of the components of science, i.e. evidence, inference, interpretation, etc. One of the the key concepts I focus on is that we all bring a different viewpoint to the “game of science.” We look at the evidence in different ways. Our experiences change the way we view the world, clearly a constructivist viewpoint. However, I guide students to that realization through questioning, which is instructivist.

Who Am I as A Learner?
When I was a Master’s student, many of my peers were very uncomfortable when the explicit guidelines were not given for a particular project/artifact. They wanted to know exactly what was expected. I found that I learned best when I was not limited by the written expectations of a project. So that indicates to me that I am a constructivist learner, or at least I can function in the role of one. Often, I felt as though I was running a bit “rough-shod” through assignments. Without clear guidance, I felt uncertain as to what I should be doing. However, when I look back on what I learned and how I was influenced by that experience, I feel that my learning was enriched because of the lack of guidance. While I do not have any evidence to support a qualitative claim as to which type of learning/instruction is best, I have my own anecdotal evidence to show what works for me.

So Which Theory is Best?
I hate to be a fence-sitter, but I really think the answer to the question of “Which cognitive theory is best?” is “It depends!” Students of today need to learn some foundational principles of a discipline, but they also need to be able to have enough freedom to explore the ideas and concepts with which they most closely associate relevancy. I have found that with some guidance (instructivist), students can find that relevance in any topic of a discipline (constructivist). That said, the teacher must be receptive enough to his or her students to be able to know when instructivism is needed and flexible enough to give students what I like to call “learning room.”

In the hotly debated Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) article, the authors use a constructivist model to make their point. I find it ironic (not just coincidental) that the authors use their own experiences to influence their knowledge base. They came up with a question, designed an experiment and/or used other’s experiments, and interpreted the results to make a claim. They even cite their own research as evidence in favor of their claims (Sweller is referenced no less than 21 times). Does anyone else see the irony there? I do not mean to imply that this is poor practice, but when you are trying to make a point and your practice supports the opposing viewpoint, it is, to say the least, amusing.

While not explicitly stated, I supposed the mention of “novice learner” by both Downes and Kirschner, et al  indicates that everyone can agree that activities in learning need to be age-appropriate. For instance, it would not be appropriate to turn lower-elementary aged students loose on the Internet, although Dr. Sugata Mitra would likely disagree. However, if I take some high school students to a play ground with a curved slide and a merry-go-round and ask them to determine some of the basic principles of rotational motion, they might actually be able to “discover” some of them.

No doubt this debate may never be settled. It could be a bit like quantum mechanics. One of the basic concepts is that one cannot know both the position and speed of a given particle, if you know one, you change the other. This is known as the Uncertainty Principle (Heisenberg, 1927).
It is also entirely possible that we may never know whether constructivism is more correct than instructivism; or whether it is the other way around. Another idea in quantum mechanics that a particle can be in two places at once as shown in The Double Slit Experiment (Young, 1803). It may be that constructivism and instructivism are both right and wrong (depending on the circumstance). This is the more likely scenario.

18 January 2012

The Demonization of Wikipedia

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="269" caption="Wikipedia isn't quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be."][/caption]

No doubt you have been on Wikipedia or at least seen it at the top of your search results. As a teacher, I did not allow students to use Wikipedia as a primary source, but I did encourage them to use the site. There are many uses and contrary to what most teachers say, it does not need to be avoided. Wikipedia has been demonized in education. Whether or not that has a good reason is open for debate, but the mindset needs to be changed.

Two years ago, I spent about six weeks working with a couple of physics researchers at Oklahoma State. When Dr. Rizatdinova wanted me to learn something, she always pulled up Wikipedia first. Was this ignorance? Or does she recognize that Wikipedia is, on average, more accurate than print sources? I suspect it is the latter. She has a PhD in High Energy Physics from Moscow University, so I can only imagine she has a pretty clear understanding of how to find correct information on the internet.

Back in 2009, I had a realization: Putnam City High School did not have a Wikipedia page. I thought to myself, "How can this be?" At that point, I realized I had two choices, I could continue to be a consumer of knowledge (and allow my students to do so) or I could model for my students what being a producer of knowledge looks like. I chose the latter. I did a minimal amount of research about the history of Putnam City High School and started a Wikipedia page. This was one of only two edits I made to the page. I only mention that because it has some (not a lot) of information on it, most of which was put there by others. There are actually people who enjoy building pages and some of them found our page! My second edit was to correct the mascot. I could have noticed the error and pointed it out to others, further casting the site in a bad light. However, I decided it would be better to make the page better.

A couple of weeks after I created the page, I went back to the page and there was a note at the top saying, "This page does not meet Wikipedia's quality standards, you can help by adding citations and information." What? They have "quality standards"? They actually want you to add citations? To show where your information comes from? That sounds a lot like the kind of thing we teach students when writing papers. I suspect Wikipedia could be used as a tool to teach writing, instead of being talked about like the plague.

Over the last two weeks, I have talked (probably too much) about Wikipedia over the course of some professional development I have done about technology. One was at Deer Creek Schools and the other at Yukon Public Schools. I spent some time talking about how students should no longer look at the web as a place to simply get information. They should also look at it as a place to construct their own knowledge base and add to the overall knowledge about a topic. This is (at least part of) the purpose of Wikipedia.

Oklahoma recently adopted the English/Language Arts and Mathematics Common Core State Standards. These standards mandate that students should "Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate..." Wikipedia would be a fantastic place to do that. By the way, this was cut and pasted from the grade 3-5 standards.

Imagine starting a Wikipedia page for your school (neither Yukon nor Deer Creek have pages for any of their schools at the time of this writing). You could have students develop interview questions, contact members of the community, video the interviews, post them to the school district's webpage, and then link to the video interviews as primary sources for your Wikipedia article(s). Would students think differently about their writing if they had that kind of ownership? Would they write differently with that kind of audience?

I recognize that Wikipedia can be used incorrectly. As teachers, should we continue letting students use it incorrectly? Or should we be proactive in our approach? I hope you will reconsider how you present Wikipedia to your students. Like most things on the web, it can be used to learn something.

I challenged the teachers from both Yukon and Deer Creed to build Wikipedia pages for their schools. I'll be interested to see if they pick up the gauntlet. What about you? Does your district have a page? Does your school? Is there some other way to integrate Wikipedia into your teaching? I would love to hear your ideas.

**I posted this today because Wikipedia is blacked out to protest the US Government's efforts to censor information on the internet through SOPA and PIPA. Both of these bills (like most) have a good intent. The controversy comes in from the way in which they are doing the "policing".**

12 January 2012

Here we go again

I have no idea if anyone actually gets anything out of what I'm writing, but it's time to start learning again, which means writing/reflection. I've taken about 6 months off from school, but I'm back in class taking it to the next level. This time it's Trends and Issues in Educational Technology.

For class, I've been reading The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences (R. Keith Sawyer, Ed. 2005). I've just started, but the first part of the book is fantastic!

It begins with a bit of educational history, starting with the early years of Public Education in America and the concept of instructionism. While I write this, my computer says that instuctionism is not a word, but you are all familiar with the concept because it's how you were taught in school. There was a lot of wrote memorization and factual learning, but not a lot of critical thinking or application. It did a good job of preparing students for the "industrialized economy of the early 20th century" (Sawyer, 2005). However, in today's knowledge economy, this won't work any longer. Students cannot continue to be taught fact after fact. They cannot continue to be taught the same way they were 100 years ago, because the world is not the same place as it was 100 years ago.  We have to teach students how to think. Thinking is a skill. In order to teach it, students must be put in the position of practicing that skill. The only way they will get better is to practice.

Before picking up this book (on my new Kindle), I'd never heard of the Learning Sciences. I guess I had a vague understanding of what they were/are, but didn't know them by that name. However, beginning in the 1970's and ending in the 1990's, scientists and researchers began to word towards a consensus on the way in which students need to learn to be successful in today's society. Those are:

  • It is important for students to gain a deep conceptual understanding. Many of you can probably recite Newton's 2nd law of Motion, but could you apply it to a situation?

  • In addition to teaching better, some focus needs to be on students learning better. Great teachers are so important, but if the student (or teacher) doesn't have some grasp on how they learn, it may not do much good. Passive learning is no longer acceptable. Students must take control of their learning and begin to construct their own body of knowledge. (I know, Piaget has been saying this since the 60's!)

  • Schools must create an environment where learning can occur. Facts are okay, but teachers and schools need to put students in situations that encourage thinking deeply about concepts and there must be some real world application.

  • Successful learning comes as a result of building on the learner's prior knowledge.  Again, no passive learning. Students come in with prior understanding (or misunderstanding) and often only learn enough to pass a test, but their learning in no way affects the way in which they interact with their world.

  • Reflection is important. That's why I write here. It's not so anyone can read. It's so I can process. This blog is a place for me to actively analyze my state of knowledge. What did I know before and what do I know now? How are those different? How will what I've learned impact me? Will it? If not, why not?

**bold sections: The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences, (R. Keith Sawyer, Ed. 2005).

Next week, I'm doing my "final" professional development session with public school teachers. I say final only because it's the last commitment I made while a State Dept. of Ed. employee. I'm supposed to talk about Problem-Based Learning. The early part of this book, while not explicitly so, talks about Problem-Based Learning.

Students need to engage in inquiry, beginning with a driving question and proposing a hypothesis/solution. They need to use complex representations to communicate and collaborate. They also need to use models, represented in some visual format. That's basically what my presentation is, in 3 sentences. If you are a Yukon Public School teacher, don't bother coming to listen. You just got the nutshell version!

Finally, there is a situativity perspective. This means that knowledge is not static. Knowledge is a process. I think of it as a sieve. When you interact with the information, you change what is there and it changes you, as well. It goes beyond simple knowledge acquisition and moves into a fundamental change in the way in which learners collaborate. This change comes as a result of the collaboration.

Bring it on. This is going to be a great class.

In case you are wondering what's going on here, here's a little intro video I made of myself for class.

09 January 2012

Social Media in the Classroom

Today is the second of what I hope will be many days of work at SNU. Friday was the official first day, but that was time spent in Human Resources with a little bit of running around and meeting with the Director of Online Learning. She got me a broad overview of the grant and it's purpose; so at least I have a vague idea of the direction we are moving.

I'll be spending some time today in faculty workshop. I'm going to be doing some PD with faculty about using Social Media in the classroom. Seems like pretty standard fare if you've been reading my blog for very long. However, it occurred to me that the powers that be want me to teach the faculty something new. These are the people who were my teachers, mentors, & professors (and continue to be so). It just struck me as odd.

I'm going to organize my thoughts here a little bit.

A few of the biggest things I like about Social Media in the classroom is that it can bring new perspectives in (through non-class members sharing), it expands the boundaries of the classroom (again, engaging people outside the classroom in conversation), and it can extend the amount of time students spend learning your content (by continuing the conversation outside the 50 minutes see your face each day). I'll spend a bit of time talking about a few of the tools available and how to integrate those.

As I write this, I'm thinking specifically about faculty who are late adopters (or non-adopters) and I can see them looking at me with skepticism. What in the world is that about? These people know me. Many (dare I say most) of them, I have a pretty good relationship. In fact, that was what I stressed in my interview. I already have significant amounts of currency in my relationship accounts with many of these folks. So what am I worried about? I know there are going to be some who don't "buy it" who are not (and maybe never will) drink the technology Kool-Aid.

Facebook - It's a great way to extend the time you can interact with students. According to TechCrunch, 85% of them are using the site already. That statistic is from 2005, so I would imagine the number is much higher. You can create a group for each class. You could post materials and put reminders there about assignments, due dates, or even just a word of encouragement. The great thing about it is that you don't have to friend your students. As the teacher (or the student) you post on the group wall and it shows up in the news feed of everyone else. It's like seeing all of your students outside of class and talking to them about class.

Twitter - Twitter could function similar to Facebook in that it uses status updates to carry on a conversation about class/content. However, there are no groups. But there are hashtags. If you create hashtag for your class and have your students tweet using that hashtag. For instance, if you wanted to see what conversation is happening right now about Education, you could look here. If you are on twitter, the "Discover" button at the top is a hashtag search. If you have never heard of a hashtag, it is analogous to a keyword search. If you have ever searched for an article in a database using a keyword, you already understand how to use hashtags. They are simply searches for keywords in the conversation that is happening on twitter. It's simply a way for you to focus on what a particular subject of conversation. If you aren't sure what a hashtag might look like for your classes, I teach an Earth's Natural Disasters Class. It starts next week, so it's a winter class. My hashtag could be #ENDwint12. I could then have students use that hashtag everytime they tweeted anything related to class and I could easily search for it.

This strategy is especially useful for things like reminders, changes, canellations, etc. You can also use it as what is called a "backchannel". This idea is akin to passing notes in class, but you are able to see it. It gives students the option to ask questions, make comments, etc. without interrupting what's going on. These are very useful during formal presentations, but could also be utilized in the classroom.

Twitter has a 140 character limit. Imagine asking students to synthesize an entire semester's worth of learning in your class into a single tweet? You might be surprised at the results.

Google+ - I could probably share for an entire hour about each of these tools, but Google+ probably has the most functionality. It has components of both Facebook and Twitter. The great thing about this one, is that since SNU is a Google Campus, all students and faculty are already on Google+. They need only click their name at the top right hand corner of the page (when logged into email) and then click "Join Google+" and set up their profile.

In Google+, you have what are called "circles". This would be very similar to a group on Facebook. You add people to circles. They have no idea how you have your circles arranged. They only see that you have said something. You simply choose which circles you send your update to. If I had a Physical Geography circle, I could add students. When I write an update on Google+, I simply choose my Physical Geography circle as the group to with which the update is shared. Like all update services, you can share links, photos, or places.

One other really great thing about Google+ is the Hangouts function. You create a hangout and it becomes a virtual space for you to interact via webcam and voice with people who come to your hangout. Think of it as office hours without students having to actually walk into your office. This is fantastic for you if you teach online. You can still interact with students even without them being at your physical location.

This is my starting point for what I'm going to talk about this afternoon. What have you been doing with Social Media in your classroom? I'm certainly open to ideas to share!