ISTE Reflections- Semantic versus Linear Learning

Jul 1, 2011 by

I attended the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference this week, and I came away feeling enriched, overwhelmed, and oddly comforted that for everyone that seems to feel overwhelmed by the tech tools available, the teaching and personal connections between student and teacher are still the most important ones we can make.

One of the things that has stayed with me from a presentation by Heidi Hayes Jacobs of Curriculum 21 was that the major difference between my education and that of my children is that we were taught in a very step-wise linear way, and their world is much more semantic in nature.  For example, searches online need not follow a list- you can search for just the piece of information you think you need, and what you find there may take you down very different paths.  But your search depends on your ability to precisely articulate what you want online and you get that, and only that, unless you decide to reformulate and change up your search.  Traditional searches for source material, in a library, lead you to a book you thought you wanted, but you may find that its neighbors or the things on the next shelf down are actually more to the point.  You get directed more to a neighborhood of ideas in a library than an exact destination online.  This  sort of “fuzzy logic” in both cases may lead you to material you didn’t really know you wanted, teaching you about a subject in the process, but in very different ways, based on how we interact with the tool at hand.

Keeping this in mind, when we look at differentiating instruction for kids, we have to think about the issue in a more semantic or web based way, rather than a linear, step by step, recipe process.  Learning, by the nature of humans and the way our brain works, is a semantic process.  School has largely been designed on a linear, step by step process, with each thing leading to the next  class or unit or grade level like an assembly line.  We’ve tried to do self-paced study, but we have yet to design a school that seems to allow kids to explore and learn in a more semantic way, and instead, making them stop and focus on what we think they need to learn now.

Changing school to reflect a more semantic learning style is going to be a challenge, and its going to be hard.  Heidi suggests you decide just to upgrade your curriculum, choosing one thing to work on, do well, and master, concentrating on quality blog posts, for example, over quantity.  Once you have mastered this skill, moving on to another one works.  Sequential upgrades keeps the panic and paralysis in check.

Part of learning to differentiate instruction is starting to understand the fact that linear learning is not always natural or a good fit, especially in an outside world that rewards semantic learning more and more.  I know I’ll be thinking about this, and how this different way of approaching learning and skill development can be implemented in the classroom.


What are your thoughts?

How would you develop a more semantic-based lesson or learning plan into your unit or curriculum?  Can it be done, and would it meet the needs of more learners who can learn by developing their own pathways to the end goal?


Share your comments below, and consider joining our group on Differentiated Instruction and Personalized learning over on Edutopia!

Human Centered Education

May 25, 2011 by

I attended a great education “unconference” this past week- Educamp Philly.  EduCamp was attended primarily by teachers and administrators, and most sessions discussed challenges facing education, both philosophically as well as integration of technology into the classroom. I gave a session asking the question “How can we bring differentiated instruction to professional development?” in order to try and gauge whether forming individualized education plans and project based learning principals for teachers seemed to be a logical and reasonable approach.  I’m becoming more and more convinced that the basic good teaching and learning concepts we all know and love are equally applicable to adults as to children, but somehow, we seem to forget that these principals are true when it comes to professional development.

For example, in every school, the teachers will fall along a normalized curve regarding their tech skills and comfort with computers.  There will be those who are gadget and gear heads, always exploring the outer boundaries of what’s possible, those who are willing to try new things if they know they’re there, those who only want to give it a whirl if they can ensure success before they start, and those who are a bit phobic and doubt the usefulness of all these new toys as another fad or  false promise, because they’ve seen so many trends come and go in the past.  If you think about this, this may mirror the distribution of kids in any classroom- a few geeks and gifted students who will always need more challenge; the high achievers motivated by grades and performance; the middle kids who try hard and learn, but aren’t the gunners; and the kids who are hard to reach or don’t seem to care, or need special help to make sure they can pass.

Therefore, if we know that in order to meet the needs of the kids in the classroom, we should consider adopting differentiated instruction and personalized learning for kids tomeet their own learning styles and needs, why would the same thing not hold true for the adults?

Should we consider rethinking professional development?

Paying consultants and speakers to come in and tell us about the proverbial school on the hill can be inspiring, but often this shining example is met with resistance because no one ever sees that they have the ability, if they pull together, to achieve similar results. However, if we move to a model of professional development based on teachers setting up a learning plan based on what they need and want to achieve, professional development can adopt a project-based learning model where teachers can have firm goals of what they want to achieve over the course of a school year, and a plan on how to achieve it.  By checking in every other month or so, teachers and administration can gauge progress and offer help in areas where a teacher may be stuck or need to re-evaluate and adjust goals.  This method of professional development, if supported by administration and other teachers would go a long way to help achieve the supportive personal learning communities we all talk about.  It will be a demonstrable experiment on whether differentiated instruction and project based learning works, helping teachers to gain the confidence needed to integrate this approach into the classroom for their own students.  More importantly, in the end, teachers will have something tangible to point to, indicating what they have learned and how they have potentially increased their student’s learning and achievement in the classroom in the process.

Just like the marketplace in the “real world” becoming more customer-centric, education for adults and for students needs to adapt and become more learner-centered and focused. Project based learning, personalized learning, and individualized education and professional development plans may be one way to achieve this.

I’m dying to hear what you think, including any and all obstacles to making this a reality.  how would this play out in your school?  What barriers are there to acceptance?  What would have to happen to make sure your professional development was not one-size fits all and seemed more meaningful and engaging?  Share your thoughts below!

Bonus Web Material!

May 18, 2011 by

This week, Jenifer Fox and I have finished the edits on The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists, our book with Jossey-Bass Teacher that comes out August 1, 2011. There was so much Jenifer and I wanted to include in the book, but since books still deal with traditional things like “paper” and “ink”, we needed to cut a section or two and a few lists to make sure we didn’t go over our page limit. We decided we’d release this extra material here, providing you additional resources and links that just wouldn’t fit into the printed version.

For example, when the book comes out, we’ll have an additional bonus chapter here all about Differentiated Instruction and Neurological Constructs. These lists help teachers understand more about the neurological basis of learning styles, and how differentiating instruction can help students who have strengths and weaknesses with these underlying learning building blocks. The lists in this section include:

  • Definitions of Eight Neurological Constructs
  • Attention, First Understand, Then Apply These Recommendations
  • Understanding Memory
  • Tips and Strategies to Differentiate Using Memory Techniques
  • Advice on Increasing Executive Functions
  • Ten Strategies for Spatial Ordering
  • Ten Strategies for Developing Higher Order Thinking

These lists are “deep diving”- they go more in depth about how to figure out what a particular student may be thinking, and where they may be having trouble in the classroom.  It helps teachers understand more about the process of learning, including how a student’s executive functions, which includes skills like organization and self-monitoring, both change over time, and where they can be supported in the classroom.

Another bonus chapter we’re including on the web will be on Common Questions And Answers, including lists on:

  • What Can I Do Tomorrow?
  • How Will I Know if it’s Working?
  • Does Whole Class Instruction Still Work?
  • Take Home Points

We’ll also include more in depth links, suggested resources and recommended tools, to make your experience with the DI Book of Lists more interactive.

As always, please leave us comments and let us know what you’d most like to know about Differentiated Instruction, and we’ll be sure to make this website and articles responsive to your requests!

The Learning Curve and Technology

Apr 29, 2011 by

Yesterday, I was at a meeting where a typical “mexican stand-off” began to take place. One group wanted a group of teachers to receive professional development for a technology only a small portion of them had access to, and were insisting the PD had to take place first; in the mean time, the teacher-learners were saying, quite reasonably, that they weren’t eager to take a course for something they wouldn’t have an opportunity to implement, and if it was eventually implemented, the knowledge they acquired in the PD would be long enough ago to make it useless and it would need to be redone.

These sorts of arguments take place all the time. Each side has it’s points that are perfectly reasonable on the face. However, in education, we seem not to want to spend money or adopt a technology until we can be 100% assured of its eager acceptance, use and return on investment. What drives me insane is that teachers and educators, out of everyone else in society all together, have first hand knowledge of something called the learning curve.

The learning curve, as you all know, is the process of trying and experimenting with learning new skills and acquiring information. It may take many repetitions, experimentation and tweeks before people feel masterful with any new piece of information. We have yet to develop a pill or two hour course that can guarantee to make a kid read- the process of learning to walk, read, ride a bike, etc. all takes a number of trials, making mistakes, and eventually reaching mastery.

Yet it seems like some adults forget this completely when it comes to expecting instant results from adding things like computers, tablets or smart boards in the classroom. In even the best of circumstances with flawless and epic professional development, teachers will still have to adapt any new tool- a textbook, a worksheet or a computer, ELMO or Smart Board into their lesson plan and curriculum. Heck, every year they have to adapt their current lesson plans to a whole new group of students who come in, not as widgets down an assembly line, but as a whole new group and community that needs to be transformed into a community of learners. Those lessons and plans will need to be tweeked along the way as the teacher gets to know the students- and no amount of prior knowledge makes that problem go away. Experience does make the process faster, as a seasoned teacher can spot patterns they’ve seen before and may have more tools readily available to pull out when needed. But regardless, in September, there is annually an adjustment period for everyone, teacher and student alike, as each learn about the other on a standard learning curve.

No one can reasonably and 100% guarantee that any new technology or curriculum or ANYTHING at all will be 100% successful in the classroom in advance. We can say that others have had good experiences, and that support can be provided, but that in the end, teachers will have to learn about the new tools by using and experimenting with them to find out what works best for them.

If we want to solve these sorts of issues, I think it’s time to consider whether we need to equally apply the principals of Differentiating Instruction, Personalized and Project based learning to professional development.

Maybe teachers have to devise, along with other teachers in their school or grade, true professional learning communities. Not everyone will have the same level of experience and expertise, but they can help each other. What is a group decided to set a few goals in the beginning of the year- a project- such as adapting 3 or 4 units in order to incorporate new technology tools ranging from smart boards to wikis and blogs? What if they set a goal to make sure every classroom at a certain grade level had its own web page for communicating information with students and parents? This would be a tangible, useful goal to set, making sure not only that teachers had something to show for their PD at the end, but that they also got more direct experience implementing tools in a real life setting, which helps consolidate learning, just as we recommend for kids. This makes the classroom much more of a laboratory and exploration of learning, which has the useful side effect of injecting a little more joy and risk into the equation, making it more enjoyable for teachers and students alike.

Whether we call these things Individualized Learning Plans for teachers, Professional development milestones, Project based learning for educators- it doesn’t really matter. What matters in the end is that the emphasis will be in trusting teachers to set and meet their personal and professional goals. This is probably a much better measure of teacher engagement and professional development and evaluation than looking at student test scores. What got accomplished and what did not? What additional supports are needed? What could we do to take this to the next level next year? This analysis will do more to improve teacher morale and student learning than any of the current crime and punishment like measures that are in place today.

There will always be the 16% technological laggards that still wonder what was wrong with slates and McGuffey’s Readers, and the twenty percent of people who hate anything new regardless of what it might be. In fact, every teacher knows this, because there are always one or two kids in a class who are more difficult to teach and more resistant, but we don’t refuse to teach the rest of the students because these kids aren’t on board- that would be silly. We wouldn’t stop teaching if one kid was absent. So why is this an issue for adults?

We simply can no longer afford to wait for 100% compliance or 100% agreement to move forward. If we waited for everyone to be on board before doing something, we never would have gotten out of the plains in Africa, and would still be wondering whether this new found “fire” thing was really advised or was simply too dangerous to be reasonably contained and adopted as a fuel source. (Ok, that was a little snarky, sorry.) Seriously though, we have to start taking chances as professionals and be willing to learn and experiment, the same way we expect students to do every day. Unless we adopt this attitude of going forward and be willing to work things out, we’ll never make the progress teachers and students both deserve.

A Simple Video to Explain Project Based Learning

Feb 10, 2011 by

A great part of differentiated instruction is project based learning- things that help kids integrate knowledge and think creatively. The folks at Common Craft have a great way of making complex subjects easier to understand, and this video on project based learning is a great example: