How Google has made me smarter.

There has been a lot of attention to the potential downside to Googling. It promotes surface exposure. It makes us lazy about remembering things. It devalues deep thinking. But, it also presents a great opportunity.

I have found myself more than ever this year rethinking the way I frame classes and ask questions. In part, I was being a little lazy; I did not want to have to worry that my students had access to the Internet on their computers while doing in-class assessments. To avoid policing the screens, I simply changed what I was asking them to do. I allowed them to use Google and stopped asking the questions they could find answers to by typing them into Google. My questions have become more evaluative, comparative, open-ended and speculative while still requiring concrete evidence to support a point of view. In short, I am giving them the Internet but in turn raising the bar.

For class activities, I am doing more than asking questions for information. Looking at a timeline of the early Cold War events today, I had students select what they thought the “game-changers” were. They listed those events on the board and we began to discuss why they were more important. They need to know more than what the events are but have to evaluate the implications of each event. As always, I seemed to run out of time; I get another crack at this on Monday with another section, and I think I may be able to develop this even more and time it a little better.

Google has made me a better teacher and helped me promote deeper more critical thinking in my students. If I can let Google take care of the basics then we are free to explore the more weighty, interesting questions. With Google as a given, I can look at my students and say, “Yes, and…”


Value Added or How I Learned to Stop Reinventing the Wheel

Disclaimer: I know there is value in having students start something and build it from the ground up. There are times when I still do this, but I want to focus on an increasingly important skill set – the ability to take advantage of work already done. We have always done this to some extent, but I think it is getting even more important, given the range of materials available through the Internet.

In the midst of guiding our sophomores through a project where they focus on a specific commodity as a lens through which to view history, a colleague showed me blogs created by students in another school doing what appeared to be pretty much the same project. It was actually a student who found it and showed it to him. After the initial surprise (we really should not have been surprised but that is for another post) that someone else had the same idea and published the student work, we discussed how to handle the situation. Should we share with students so they know we know about it, lest our students see it as enabling them to cut corners? Should we ignore and hope more did not discover “the answers”? Should we encourage them to use it but go beyond? We realize that this is bound to happen more often as teachers share student work publicly on the Internet. In fact, we plan to publish our student projects.

I think we need to be open with students about the resources available, including other student work. They can and should learn from it. They should evaluate it like any other source for reliability and utility. Beyond evaluating the sources, I want them figure out how they can build on or off of what has been done already. They should be able to add value. It is important not to discount student work on the Internet, since that sends the message to our students that their work is somehow less valuable just by virtue of being done by them. Teaching students to take what they have and extend it to something deeper, more nuanced, or even tangential is incredibly important in today’s world. It is more important that they learn what they can do with wheels than how to make them.

The conversation with my colleague was in the back of my mind when I went to EdCampMetroDc on Saturday. The first session I attended was led by Joe Phelan who shared the wealth of resources on the EDSITEment website. I have used it before to craft lessons, but on Saturday I saw new possibilities for using the site. I have often adapted the lessons to suit my timeframe and particular curricular objectives, and the depth of the lessons allows me to do that without having to resort to Google. I am not reinventing the wheel, but I am building the vehicle I need.

As we begin to look at the Cold War in US history, instead of selecting the lessons and adapting them, I will have my students do it.  They will choose a lesson from EDSITEment that fits the unit and read through all parts of the lesson, including the questions, resources and plans. Then, they will adapt the lesson for their classmates and lead it. I will become one of the students in the room while they teach. By giving them the wheel, they can then craft the means of conveyance. By giving them everything they need, they can spend their time thinking critically about how to use it. In another sense, they will actually be taking the wheel, too, and driving the class.

My goal is that we all gain more insight into teaching and learning, as well some knowledge of the Cold War era.


Where do I stand? Aside, Beside or in Front?

I am a teacher – that is what I tell people who ask me about my job. That is also what my students and colleagues would say. But lately, I have been struggling to think about my role in the classroom. Sometimes the term “teacher” makes me uncomfortable because it brings back memories of my schooling where my teachers “taught” me stuff and I did my best to learn it. I am sure that I had opportunities to think and stretch my intellect, but the classrooms were centered around my teachers.

Some days I feel like a teacher. But those are the days I find the least satisfying. I have been trying to turn over more of the class to my students. But, there are days, usually when I have not really inspired the students to engage with the lesson, that I find myself talking at the class more than I would like. While the students may be listening and even thinking, they have no real investment.

Some days are entirely student-centered. I am not completely comfortable in that situation either. I am not always sure what I should be doing. I listen to the conversations. I walk around the room. I field questions when they arise. I feel great when the students are so engaged in what I have asked them to do that they do not need me to keep them on task, but I struggle to stay connected without interfering. I experienced that today when I asked my seniors to craft a peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once they got over the initial surprise that I was asking them to do something they have come to believe impossible, they set to work enthusiastically. I told them I wanted them to imagine the future can be different, and they did.

The third model for class, and the one that I truly love is one where I participate along with students in the learning. Today I had my US History class watch clips from Triumph of the Will and Frank Capra’s Why We Fight. I set up a chat room on TodaysMeet. I entered comments and posed questions along with the students. We built a discussion that was not hierarchical, where all ideas and insights blended into a single transcript. I loved participating and not leading that discussion. I need to find ways to make that the norm in class discussion, not just in the backchannel.

My goal is not for students to think I am a great teacher, but for students to think my class is a great class. I do not want them to think about the things I taught them, but rather think about how much they learned in my classroom.

My ideal model is really a hybrid – sometimes I stand aside, and sometimes I stand beside. The less I stand in front, the better.

Dangers of Overprescriptive Teaching

Students need structure, especially students who struggle. Students need very clear expectations from their teachers so they know what to do. The more clarity and specificity in the directions the better. Rubrics and models show students what to strive for.

These are all familiar mantras, but I am not sure I believe them. I have always been uncomfortable with rubrics but that is another post – in fact, I wrote it last year. I have been thinking a lot about learning and life. We say we want to create life-long learners, but great achievements are not the result of following directions. There is no rubric for an Oscar winning film or a great novel. There is no single formula to make someone a successful teacher. There is not even a reliable process that scientists always use to approach a problem. In fact, this article about the limitations of the scientific method started me thinking about this today.

When we provide paths that become check lists, we are essentially giving kids Lego kits instead of boxes of random Legos. We will get the product we ask for, and if not, we will likely know how to judge what we get based on how close it comes to the image, but we will never get more. Each year, in Modern World History we do a group project where students trace a commodity through history. This year, we shifted the requirements for the bibliography from specifying how many book and scholarly sources to saying simply “Find the best sources” including books, articles, databases, etc. I still worry that we have done too much dictation of process and product in this project, but this is a start. I would rather talk to students about what makes a great collection of sources than have them match a formula.

Do we want students who can follow directions? Sometimes. Do we want students who can tackle a challenge from multiple angles? Always. Can we have a conversation with students asking them what they think the best qualities of a successful product or experiment are? Absolutely. Should we stand back and let them find their own path to the end? Yes. Should we be there to consult and provide suggestions and feedback along the way. Of course.

I think that in the end too much structure limits learning. If it really is about the process, that is where I want the most learning to happen. To learn, students need to think for themselves.