Using Digital Tools to Enhance Learning

Feb 4, 2013 by

This past weekend, I spoke at a great event at the Joyner Library at Eastern Carolina University to school librarians and media directors about creating a digital toolbox.  Librarians and media directors need to be a bit like Home Depot or Lowe’s- a place where you can get just the right tool at the right time to help make your project successful.

I think we often think of librarians as something out of time- a bookish sort of person, with glasses and a stern demeanor, who is more interested in quiet than anything else.  The group of librarians I met were anything but- they are dynamic people, aching to help the teachers in their school, and eager to share the love of reading and learning with any child that crosses their path.

That being said, there are a gazillion new web tools and apps that are available, and it’s often difficult to figure out which ones are good and easy to use, and which ones might bring an extra added dimension to any classroom lesson or project.  With a hat tip to Brandon Lutz and his great 60 in 60 Presentations, I culled through my personal favorite web apps, sites I learned about from other educators at Educon, and some of Brandon’s favorites, to create a list of about 90 resources that are pretty easy to use.

Every tool, like every tool in the hardware store, has basic and advanced uses.  Wordle, for example, can be a way just to make great pictures, or it can be used as a way to analyze word frequency in a text, which might bring deeper understanding to students about anything from the repeating of a phrase for rhetorical purposes in a political speech, or help them better understand their own reliance on catch phrases.  With each of these tools, I suggest you try a few, play with them, and become familiar with them, and then attempt to incorporate them into lessons where they help deepen meaning rather than just become a digital way of doing yet another diorama or poster.

Finding and Using Tools to Develop Higher Order Thinking Skills

With evaluating any tool (and that goes for paper and pencil as well as computer or tech stuff) we need to look past the bells and whistles and think about:

-What’s the end goal of the project or assignment? (Backwards Design)

-What’s the best way for the student to demonstrate the learning or mastery of the subject matter?

-Is there a way we can use a digital tool to enhance the demonstration of outcomes?  Does using a digital tool make the project easier to accomplish, more interesting, engaging, or allow multiple modes of expression?

-Does the tool help differentiate the learning for different learning styles that might be difficult in a pen & paper task?

-Can the tool enhance accountability for the student and teacher? (Nothing gets lost in the cloud.)

-Can we shift some learning of independent tasks from classroom time to at home time?  (Flipping the classroom)

In the end, tools should, by their nature, make a job easier or faster.  If it doesn’t, why use it?  If we use the excuse “Well, kids have to learn all this computer stuff, so let me just bolt on some technology here…” we tend to teach them to use a tool poorly, and many may not (ever) see the point.  For example, when one teacher, about 6 years ago, asked one of my kids to do a power point presentation, making sure to use a minimum of 5-6 sentences per slide, I got pretty upset.  That’s a task that should really be an outline, or note cards.  A Power point or any slide presentation, should be there to enhance the understanding and meaning of what is being said, and act, perhaps, as visual cue cards for the presenter to stay on track.   After all, who wants to go to a lecture and watch someone read their slides?


If you use these resources, please let me know what you think in the comments!

You can download the handouts for my presentation here: Digital Toolbox for Educators

The slides are also available on Slideshare, or you can see them below:

Understanding Motivation

Oct 24, 2012 by

I think one of the most important questions in education is how to motivate kids to learn and perform in school.  We spend a lot of time complaining about kid’s lack of motivation to do what we want, and a lot of money trying to find schemes, games or other things to induce or woo them into learning.  However, if you understand more about motivation and motivational theory, this problem becomes much easier to crack.

I am a huge fan of Rick LaVoie’s book, “The Motivation Breakthrough, 6 secrets to turning on the tuned out child”, and it’s helped me reframe how I look at students and understand how to help them engage in tasks, or how to set tasks that work with them, rather than against their base level interests.

Likewise, I urge you to take a look at the video below.  It’s an RSA Animate. The RSA, a British group very much like TED, dedicated to encouraging Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce- takes talks by fantastic speakers- this one is by Daniel Pink- and add drawing “animations/illustrations” to help highlight aspects of the talk.  The process of illustrating a talk is fascinating in and of itself, and always gives me ideas on how to illustrate points I’m making in presentations.  This talk about motivation is fascinating, and well worth your time- I urge you to give it a look.

Differentiation becomes Personal

Apr 11, 2012 by

Like most things in life, many things sound great in theory, but when it becomes personal, it takes on new dimensions.

As most of you know, I have two kids, currently a high school junior and an eighth grader.  Both kids have very different educational needs, and would likely fall into the “twice exceptional category”, being bright but also having (relatively) minor learning disabilities.  Most of the time, the IEP’s and 504 plans are there as ground rules, which helps everyone get to know my kids and rarely requires what I would call monitoring or enforcement of the provisions.

This past month, we’ve had an issue with my older son writing a formal term paper, essentially for the first time.  The teacher set a very detailed rubric, where many of the items such as using 3 x 5 cards to organize the material, is simply a disaster waiting to happen for my son.  The cards are required to be hand written, and his handwriting is really illegible to even himself, which is why he types notes in class.  He opted to use a flash-card app on his iPad, but ran into problems with the teacher being largely unwilling to review the work unless it was in printed form, and the app does not allow printing.    The first version of the paper was a disaster, regardless, and we’re going back and redoing the process from scratch.

What I’m learning is that many of the things we advocate in the Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists are good practice for kids at every level of learning, and can help avoid those moments in school that would otherwise be classified disastrous for everyone involved.  Instead of a kid spending time doing research but not effectively pinning down a central thesis, and a teacher resistant to review information in anything other than prescribed form, a simple adaptation of organizing information to a format that’s most effective for the student solves the problem.  While I understand trying to teach a student a new way of approaching a complex and layered project, I’m not sure 3 x 5 cards are the only way to get there, especially for kids challenged with material management and organization to begin with.

It’s amazing what a little time and compassion can do for both a kid and a teacher.  Some teachers approach flexibility as giving up control or inviting a free for all.  However, simply giving kids, say, three choices for turning in notes and an outline would let students choose what works best for them, and after all, if the carry-over message is to prepare them for college and writing reports for work, finding the best way to work with their strengths provides them a much more effective template than the one way the teacher likes best.

Differentiation is about helping kids capitalize on their strengths and learn the most they can in any classroom.  It promotes taking responsibility for themselves as learners, and expressing the depth of their understanding as best they can.  The more we encourage kids to think deeper, make connections and go beyond surface thinking, the better.  Unfortunately, most of the testing I see tends to be focused on “filling in the bubble” and having just enough knowledge to recognize the right answer.  That’s probably not very intellectually satisfying to the teacher or the student.  Instead, finding ways that students can meet the end objective but take their own path there, (with supervision along the way and appropriate scaffolding, Of course) will give students more carry-over skills by understanding their own learning strengths better as well as the content of the assignment.

I often think we don’t do enough in schools, as currently designed, to help our students understand and explore themselves as students and scholars.  We may provide templates for doing projects, but we don’t explain that these templates can carry over into other subject matter or even into real life.  We don’t instill a sense of the process being as important as the outcome, and part of the process is not the pathway, but how you construct the pathway itself.   It’s like forging a path through the woods rather than travelling down pre-made trails.  And it’s only by, in a more formal way, helping our kids understand the learning process alongside content that they’ll grow to understand the interconnectedness of both.

In isolation, many of the tasks teachers set students can look pointless and dull.  I get this response when I talk to small businesses and encourage all of them to go through the formal process or writing or re-writing a business plan.  This exercise is not only useful to give to a bank or investors; it’s a process that’s incredibly useful to have you think through your business in a very systematic way, and will help you spot problems, weaknesses, strengths, and make connections you may never have done otherwise.  Likewise, having kids work through a rubric or prescribed plan of attack for a large project, like a term paper, may help them see strengths and weaknesses in their project and develop a stronger point of view as well as depth of understanding.  By explaining this to them, there’s going to be a lot more willingness to take the time to work through suggested methods, but also the ability to adapt, say, handwriting for digital tools, or seek out additional resources to clarify your subject.  You may think you want to write about pollination, for example, but end up writing more specifically about bees and colony collapse syndrome.  These things are in the same neighborhood, but they’re very different subjects in terms of the depth of knowledge and connections required to pull it off.

I hope by the end of this process, my son becomes a better writer.  I know he’s learning a lot about his subject area, and a lot about himself as a learner through the process.  The end product will be much more engaging and interesting for everyone, but most importantly, himself.  And that’s the end goal of differentiation.  We hope to help teachers walk students meaningfully through the process of learning, no matter what the subject area, and be able to engage with the material and extract the most meaningful knowledge out of it.

Memorizing facts, while still useful in math, is less useful in the age of the internet.  Knowing what to do with the information at hand, and transforming it into true knowledge and wisdom- that requires developing what we call 21st century skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaborating and communicating.  In reality, we know that these skills have always been what separates out most students- those that are content with surface knowledge and those that dig deep and really immerse themselves in learning.  Now that teachers and schools are no loner the sole gateway for information and education, the value add required is not just parsing out factoids, but it’s making kids care about the task at hand and making it meaningful in a way we didn’t worry about so much when the jobs at the other end were factory based.  We need people able to take the wealth of information at hand and transform it into new ideas, by knowing how to engage deeply with a topic and solve problems.  And that’s the end goal with differentiation and understanding by design.  It’s about making learning count.

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ASCD Conference Appearance

Mar 16, 2012 by

Both Jenifer Fox and I will be at this year’s ASCD conference in Philadelphia.  Jenifer will be speaking, and we’ll both be signing copies of The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists at the Jossey Bass Booth, so please stop by and say hi!

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Video review of The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists

Sep 27, 2011 by

I’m an education geek, so when friends have looked at my book, I don’t exactly expect them to be as excited about it as they might be over a novel that would appeal to a wider audience. When my friend, Diane Brogan, got a copy, I was flattered, but just like she said, I didn’t expect that it would be bedtime or pleasure reading. So when she called me up very excited and then showed me this video she did, I was thrilled!

Likewise, Chris Penn saw a copy this past weekend, and said we should put it out with a new name: Simply – “How to Teach Kids”. He thought it looked like a perfect teaching guide for the homeschooling families and parents as well as teachers. Of course, that’s what Jenifer and I hoped when writing it, but it’s much more powerful coming from others. Diane says it all 🙂

Making Homework Matter- Differentiate The Homework

Sep 11, 2011 by

In our book, Jenifer and I knew we’d have to address homework.  It’s one of the issues that constantly puts teachers, students and parents at odds.  The real issue with homework is that kids often don’t see the point and it seems like busy work, rather than something that seems to have value.  Can you blame kids? I can’t begin to tell you how many times my kids have said things like “She never checks the homework, so really, why should I do it?”  It’s not that they don’t understand the value of practice, but they do look at it as the teacher assigns homework, but seems not to care or be invested in whether the work is actually done or not.  Is it any wonder why they see no real reason to complete it and stop caring as well?

The New York Times wrote about the topic, in a great opinion piece entitled “The Trouble with Homework.”  One great quote is the following:

In a 2008 survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair or poor, and 4 in 10 said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was busywork. A new study, coming in the Economics of Education Review, reports that homework in science, English and history has “little to no impact” on student test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect for math homework.) Enriching children’s classroom learning requires making homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.

In the first chapter of our book, Jenifer and I came up with many ways teachers can differentiate the homework, making it more personally relevant for each child in the classroom.  In the best of circumstances, homework should be work that should be done individually, whether it’s practice, reflective work, or other work that frankly doesn’t require the audience and collaboration of the classroom itself.  By using homework to prepare for class discussions the next day, to make sure that students have critical pieces of projects dine and ready for group work and the like, makes it more likely that the homework will get done, and that it has meaning.

Making homework meaningful also means making class time more meaningful.  If you are together with thirty other students, shouldn’t this be a time to share ideas and collaborate?  To learn from and with each other?  If kids are spending class time doing things like sustained silent reading, this is in some ways wasting the purpose of spending time together in the class, unless the purpose of the exercise is learning to read in a library or public setting.

Assessments can also be part of homework,  Instead of looking at assessments as tests taken during the day, how about trying to give kids open ended questions or novel problems where they have to take what they’ve been learning and apply it to solve a bigger problem?  This gives kids more time to really display what they know, and show mastery (or lack thereof) on assignments in a way that  a multiple choice test in class never will.

We also encourage teachers to try to make homework interactive.  Sometimes this can be reading an article and commenting on it on a classroom blog or wiki.  It could be assembling artifacts about a topic on their own wiki, or with a group.  It could be participating in a discussion through Skype.  Any of these assignments give kids an opportunity to express themselves as well as serving as a jumping off point for classroom discussions the next day.

Homework shouldn’t be a punishment.  If a teacher adds extra homework when the kids are bad, kids will naturally start to associate any form of homework as a form of punishment, not just “discipline”, which in its most authentic form means To Teach.  Homework should  be an opportunity to extend learning, to make connections with the outside world, and start to see how the classroom learning connects with their larger lives.

Now I know full well that some kids need more practice than others, or may memorize things faster than others.  In which case, why do all kids need to do 35 math problems when some have mastered the concept in the first 5 or 6?  The rest of those problems, for those students, is mere repetition and sheer tedium, teaching them nothing new.  Teachers need to help figure out which students need more practice, or perhaps even a different kid of practice than blindly assuming repeating the same procedure over and over will make a kid smarter.  In fact, it seems to me Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same task over and over again yet expecting different results.  Maybe there’s room here to start thinking about homework, and what we want kids to get out of it.

Let’s not forget one of the options all teachers have is to ask their students not only how they feel about homework, but why.  If they say it’s stupid and boring, then you need to ask the next question- Why?  What about it is stupid and boring?  How could we make it better?  If you were in charge, how would you change the homework?  Most teachers will be surprised that the majority of kids will give you thoughtful and insightful answers to these questions, and will take them seriously.

I think both teachers and students (not to mention parents) deserve to have more thought and purpose put into homework, and for homework to become a more collaborative process for everyone.


What do you think?

Could you differentiate the homework in your classroom?  Why or Why Not?

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