Monday, April 28, 2008

Student Centered Pedagogies - Part 4

-Continued from part 3

Step 4 - Building a Launchpad

Now that you have determined what performance objectives the state, your school, you, and your students all feel are important to meet and eliminated the ones they have already mastered through curriculum compacting it is time to lay the foundation for designing projects for the students to do to meet the remaining objectives, goals, and targets.

I have seen and used many different approaches for this. In fact, it is necessary to apply varying approaches because not every approach will work best with all students. I see two broad categories for projects: Externally motivated and internally motivated. Externally motivated projects rely on events that happen or have happened recently outside the classroom. We can broadly think of these as current events that inform the curricular topics still needed to be addressed. These external sources of motivation are useful because they make apparent the why of learning anything new. An example of this would be students writing letters to the editor about a current event for an English composition class instead of doing grammar exercises. Internally motivated projects are those that are driven by student personal interest. With these projects students also immediately see the purpose for learning but what one student does might not interest other students to the same degree. An example of this would be a student in a math class who is interested in dirt bikes using data obtained about dirt bikes to make predictions, design a better bike, or determine the laws of math and physics that are at work with biking.

Another way to categorize projects is by level of collaboration. There at least six different levels of collaboration: individual, partner or small group, full class, partner with online or distant partner, small group with online small group or distant partner, or participation in a global project (ex. Wikipedia). Some students will be motivated strongly to work independently and show a strong ability to manage projects by themselves.

The individual project model (either internally motivated or externally motivated) will work well for them. For these students it is useful to conference with them before and after a project checking in with them only from time to time to see how they are doing and guide their self paced learning by making suggestions. For these students it is important that they know and feel that they are in control of their own learning and understand the expectations in terms of performance objectives.

For students who do not work well independently or who find they work best when there is a more social element to the learning environment either small group or full class projects are best for them. Using a democratic classroom the students can still feel they are in control of their own learning. However, these two models (especially full class) are much more teacher directed than an independent model. Project development will be nearly identical in a small group or full class as it is with individual projects but in most cases will take longer because you are adding the democratic element. The old saying, "If you want to go quickly go alone, if you want to go far go together," applies here. In a group or class project you will have the added resource of multiple talents, personalities, and abilities but you will also have problems not present with independent work.

The biggest problem with group or full class projects is making sure every student does their fair share of the work. This can be addressed in the planning stage. If each student is assigned a role or task they will each have their own contribution but they will also each have their own separate set of assessment criteria. It should be stressed in these cases that what the teacher will assess will not be the group's final product but rather the individual contributions of each member of the group. In a way, this turns group projects into many individual projects connected through a common theme. With this model there is often an additional motivator: peer pressure. If one student is depending on data from another student to complete their role they will likely put pressure on that student to make sure they get their stuff done. As long as you have sufficient momentum with your project so the group feeling doesn't swing the way of apathy this will work to your advantage.

Step 5 - Assessment

With project-based learning assessment is the perhaps the most important duty of the teacher. It is important for students to know before they start work on a project how they will be assessed. Rubrics and checklists help with this but when each student is required to do something different this can be daunting if not impossible. First, it is good to anticipate project tasks that will be common and have rubrics ready to go. For example, an essay writing rubric, a poster rubric, a presentation rubric, etc. For more specific tasks it is important to work assessment planning into project planning. Work with the student(s) to articulate how you will assess whether they learned or achieved desired learning objectives or if they have met the standards. Then, as students are working on projects constantly refer to these rubrics to guide their research, discoveries, and work. Using a tool like Rubistar helps a lot with this stage of the PBL process.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Student Centered Pedagogies - Part 3

See Part 2

Project Based Learning:

I was first formally introduced to project-based learning as an approach to curriculum and instruction three years ago though as an art teacher what I have done my entire career has been related to this concept. At that time I started teaching at an alternative school where the staff had decided to invest heavily in the project-based model. Our school district was in the process of being approved as an IB school and as part of that had adopted Understanding by Design as the curriculum framework district wide. This was a massive undertaking by the district as the next few years were marked by something that looked like mandated reflective practice, many training sessions, and lots of curriculum alignment. What we saw occurring in the other "normal" schools was what I have concluded was a massive misinterpretation of the backwards design model. Rather than stripping learning down to its essentials and examining what it is that really needs to be taught and determining exactly how learning is really done, regardless of our previously held beliefs, teachers for the most part approached UbD as something they could mold over their previous programs and not a fundamental structure change. What resulted were slight improvements but massive confusion on the student part as to why teachers were doing some of the things they did.

At the ALC we took a different approach. We eliminated most of our classes and replaced them with a semi structured time we called Inquiry. Inquiry was about project-based learning and we used the UbD framework to structure this time from the ground up. The idea was that students would not take specific classes during Inquiry but could work on projects they develop with the guidance of the teaching staff that could satisfy part or all of the credit needed for course completion in any of the subject areas. Inquiry was not without its flaws and we did have massive growing pains as we all adjusted to this new system of instruction. We had to overcome curriculum issues, behavior issues, time management issues, and issues related to differentiated instruction. However, we were all on the same page with this. Very few of us had experience doing anything like this and we all learned from each other and made changes in our program as we saw fit and when we saw them needed. When our Inquiry program reached its maturity we had a system where students owned their own learning, collaborated with each other, and achieved learning objectives by doing rather than rote memorization. Students were able to complete their high school credits engaged in topics that interested them. Because it was driven by student interest and personal aptitudes students were more engaged in the learning process.

Step 1 - Start from scratch:

The Inquiry model as I have described it does not fit well in a traditional school setting. Especially not one where students are only in a class for 40-50 minutes each day. However, there are elements that could be pulled from this experience and applied within the traditional school classroom. First, if we remove all of our old baggage and prior beliefs about how learning occurs or how a classroom is supposed to be managed we have a chance at actually finding a better model of instruction. So, put aside everything you have done in the past and every way you were ever taught (don't toss it out, we may reference it later).

Step 2 - Identify limitations, resources, and boundaries:

What are our limitations? I am presuming, based on my prior experiences in "normal" high schools, that teacher's classrooms are treated like islands and what you do in your class has little transfer to other classrooms (obviously not always the case but often true). In the case you are doing this alone or only with a single department and not as a building-wide initiative you will be limited by the Pavlonian bell schedule. You will most likely also be limited by the mandate to report assessment outcomes in the form of grades. Likewise, you will be limited to reporting credits as the class you have been assigned to teach that hour, unless you can partner with teachers in other classes. Since you probably have neighbors in your building who have their own thing going on and don't want their classes interrupted you will most likely be limited by the physical boundaries of your classroom and places on or near the school grounds where your presence will not be misconstrued as a disruptive presence.

What are our resources? I am assuming that your classroom has at least one computer and an internet connection. I am also assuming that you have a modest budget for supplies, capital, and curriculum. You most likely also have about 30 desks and chairs or tables and chairs. I am sure there are community members who you can count as resources as well as places of interest within reach of your school. If you have a webcam and microphone you can connect both visually and audibly to people in distant locals as well. If this is not something you already have it is something even the most modest budget can make room for. Pretty much anything out there that is open source or public domain is available. We could probably list all your resources for a very long time but for sake of getting on with things lets just keep that list in our heads for now.

What are our boundaries? It is also important to consider what our boundaries are. What can we do and where can we go. Is the internet filtered at your school? If so what sites are limited? Of course there are legal boundaries that limit what we can do but there are most likely also boundaries created by school regulations. We need to make sure we respect those because if you want something to happen in your classroom that does not follow the traditional method of instruction you do not want to be viewed simply as a disruptive influence in your school. Are there limitations created by the expectations of administrators? These are important to note if you want to keep your job.

Step 3 - Identify Learning Objectives

No matter what learning theory you subscribe to or what teaching method you choose to use it is important to identify learning objectives. The problem I often see, and something I was guilty of when I was a new teacher, is that many teachers confuse learning objective with learning activity. Another thing that bothers me, and one of the issues I take with the UbD model, is the practice of deriving learning objectives from content standards. The problem with this is with most content areas the standards are pretty basic and represent what our most under performing students should be able to do and know at the most basic level. The standards are not a good starting point if you want to engage or teach to the level of the majority of the students in your classroom.

Now, once you have determined what key ideas students should know when they complete your course then you can check them against the standards to make sure you did not forget anything. Now is time for curriculum compacting. How are you going to assess which of these objectives don't need to be met? How are you going to develop a pretest or preassessment that will accurately determine which students already know some of these key objective? I am also a firm believer that your own objectives are not nearly as important as those of the learners. How are you going to find out what students want to learn. The ideal curriculum is one that blends the objectives the teacher has for their students with the learning goals of the individual learners and doesn't waste time trying to meet objectives that have already been met. This means that no class you teach will ever be the same. You can't teach one year 30 times. If you have three sections of the same class there is no reason each of those classes have to be the same nor should they. This also means that you can't plan activities in June for a class that doesn't start until September.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Student Centered Pedagogies - Part 2

see part 1

The Underlying Problem: Overcoming personal bias:

For the first three years of my career as a teacher I was perfectly happy to do things status quo. I had an idea of what good teaching was based on how I was taught and thought my job was to emulate those who came before. The truth is I didn't care all that much about students. What attracted me to teaching was the content. Being an art teacher meant I could support myself while engaging in the field of study I loved. I expected that there would be a certain percentage of students that would fall through the cracks because I believed the system of school was designed in a way to weed out those who could not "play the game." Because I was successful in school I had a personal bias toward the style of learning that suited me. Since the methods my own teachers used suited me I felt these were probably best. And, since I was successful in this system I saw those who were not successful as somehow inferior and believed that the system sorted people out to either prepare them for future success or show them where their place in the world should be. It wasn't until I became aware of my own bias and saw my own world view from the perspective I just described that I began to change how I viewed the "system" and more so, how I viewed my own classroom.

The status quo works and is allowed to survive in environments where sufficient numbers of students do at least moderately well and a select few excel. Status quo views all learners as having the same learning style and says what is best for the middle child is best for all. This is how NCLB has been interpreted by most schools. However, if you take a situation where no student fits the status quo model you are forced to do some analysis. For me this was when I took a job at an alternative high school. For the first time I was placed in a classroom where all my students were like my prior low performing students. All students were students who did not learn well with established pedagogies. Each child had an extremely different way of seeing the world and processing information. Each child had something about their personality or background that did not make the status quo school a good place for them.

What I discovered was that while some of these students were low functioning, most were extremely bright. However, teaching them using the same methods I used in the status quo high school got me nowhere. If these students are this bright, why should the system return results placing them at the bottom of the ladder? This is how I came to the realization, a position realized by many before, that the problem was my teaching methods and the pedagogical exemplars I had. I had to unlearn what I knew about teaching and reconstruct my understanding of learning. Suddenly I was more concerned with my students than the content. Suddenly I felt more compassion in the classroom. Gradually I saw improvements.

Community Building:

In my time in alternative ed I found I got the greatest bang for my pedagogical buck by investing heavily in community building. It is far more important to establish relationships with students than get through the curriculum. Every time I had a discipline problem, an attendance problem, or a problem with comprehension it could be traced back to the student-teacher relationship. Those students I made an effort to know always were eager to do well and invest their attention in what I had to say. Those who for one reason or another I did not get to know very well were always the ones where I saw problems.

I would make room for this. First, I would not even approach my curriculum for the first 3-5 days of a term. I would take this week to also do some metacognitive reflection.

Metacognitive Reflection:

All of my students in the ALC were there because their learning styles conflicted with the pedagogies at the status quo high school. Much of the reason these students have been unsuccessful was due to either being unaware of their own learning styles or their teachers unaware of their learning styles. We would take this week to talk about times in their life when they felt they learned a lot (school or non school). We would brainstorm what qualities were present in those environemnts that contributed positively to them finding it effective for learning. We also discussed classes they have taken in the past where they did not feel they learned anything and tried to figure out why. From these two lists we established a blueprint for how learning was to occur in the classroom.

Curriculum Compacting:

Every teacher has standards they have to "cover" in a given course. What I see a lot in status quo high is teachers rushing through things to make sure they hit every point. What effect does this have if the student doesn't digest it? One trick I have seen and used effectively is curriculum compacting.

In a traditional classroom the teacher goes over the information, the students read the chapter and do their worksheets, then at the end of the week they take a quiz on it. With curriculum compacting you reverse this order. First quiz the students on what you want to "cover" that week. Some stuff the students will already know...why spend time on it? This is where online survey tools are useful. This diagnosis can be done quickly and results shown immediately. Results can be aggregated to show immediately which questions all students missed and which ones they all got right. This will drive the week's activities. In most cases this method will allow the teacher to go beyond the standards.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Student Centered Pedagogies - Part 1

It has come to my attention that while I have (through this blog, district workshops, informal discussions, and conference presentations) done well at identifying a need for a more student driven approach to teaching, an approach I have long felt is met through constructivist and connectivist teaching methods. I have also done well at describing and introducing the tools that make these kinds of learning environments effective with technology. However, what has been lacking is concrete examples or an explicit explanation of what these two pedagogical approaches really mean. I plan on devoting the next few blogposts to exploring this topic and attempt to provide concrete examples of how these theories can be applied in a classroom.

I have and will continue to argue that our traditional school systems are not adequately set up for ideal student-centered learning. This goes beyond teaching methods and plays itself out in nearly all aspects of how we have organized schools. The bell schedule segments learning into time slots that are not necessarily optimized for learning and fail to recognize that the topic of the class goes on 24/7. Our system of reporting progress through grades and standardized test scores and our use of those final marks as a commodity to be traded for future advancement, success, or acclaim reduce what is naturally intrinsically motivating and forces it to become an extrinsic chore. Students no longer learn because they want to know things, they learn because they have to. More so, grades and test scores tend to put a lid on things telling students that the learning has stopped, that the issue is over, that there is no need to revisit topics. The calendar crams learning into nine months without much break causing fatigue for both teachers and students in the late winter and loss of practice in the summer months.

I feel this video illustrates why there is a need to look at learner-centered approaches to teaching:

I could argue these points for many pages but I would prefer these next few blogposts have a much more local effect. In those posts I will attempt to show how learning theories that support the student-centered approach can be utilized in the structured schedule, calendar, and grade reporting structure of a traditional school setting.

The following videos and web resources describe/explain the learning theories I will be building on in the next few blog posts:


Links to sites on constructivism

Project Based Learning (PBL):

Challenge 2000: Project Based Learning & Multimedia Website
PBL Research Summary: Studies Validate Project-Based Learning
The Mindset of Project-Based Learning

Understanding By Design (Backwards Design):

ASCD: Understanding by Design Resources
Understanding by Design
Wiggins & McTighe: A Brief Introduction

Maintaining Classroom Discipline by using Democratic Methods:


Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation
By George Siemens

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Virtual Words WebQuests - Free Download

A couple weeks ago I uploaded my capstone from the MA Ed program I just completed to to make it available for others who are interested. Problem is, to have the book printed is a bit expensive. I decided it might be a good idea to make it available as a free download for the next 7 days (or first 100 downloads) using If you are interested in a free copy of my paper you can download it by clicking the download button below. As a courtesy, I would appreciate it if you left me a comment on this post if you do download a copy. Please explain what interests you in this topic and/or your experience with virtual worlds.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Grammar/Mechaniscs Interactive Online Software

I am looking for a program or subscription service that teaches grammar/mechanics in an interactive and individualized environment. I just thought I would put this feeler out there into the bloggosphere to see if the network can return any better results than Google.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

21st Century Pedagogy

Personal Learning Environments

I love this video. The message is right on, the visuals are excellent, and the form is something to admire. This film raises a many questions though:
  1. If we as a society ever move away from the formal institution of learning into a model such as this, how are we to measure credentials?
  2. Will schools exist as ala cart centers for learning where students choose to take classes if they feel they need them?
  3. Will governments reallocate education dollars to content development that is public domain?
  4. What role will teachers play in this world?

Progressive Education: Isn't It Amazing We Are Still Having This Debate

I stumbled upon this little vintage gem today. It is amazing how relevant the message of this film is to the state of our schools today. How many classrooms in our "normal" schools today still look and feel like the classroom in the beginning of this film? How has modern technology reframed this debate?

Friday, April 4, 2008

Wii Can Play

I got a bit of great news today. One of our physical education teachers received a grant to start the Wii Can Play program in our school from CVS Pharmacy.

What is Wii Can Play?

Last fall I blogged a short article about webcams in the classroom. That post, and the playing around with the technology I did surrounding it, led to our elementary physical education and adaptive phy ed teacher using Game Star software with her adaptive phy ed students. Wii Can Play sort of evolved as an idea from there. We have spent a lot of time this year investigating how interactive video games and game platforms like Game Star, Dance Dance Revolution, and the Nintendo Wii can be used to promote wellness and keep students physically active.

Wii Can Play is a program we conceived that integrates the Nintendo Wii into various school functions. First and foremost it is meant to help include students with limited mobility and physical impairments in mainstream physical education classes. Second, it fits into our district wellness initiative by providing physical activity for students of all ages during their lunch hour. Third, Wii Can Play will be implemented in Community Ed. by offering video game mediated physical activities for seniors.

The grant money is just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things but it is enough to get our idea off the ground. We will continue to look for further support as this program grows. I will also make sure to blog about our progress in implementing this project.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Free Software

Our school district is likely to make the shift to Linux next fall. Right now I do not know if this is going to be an all out shift or if we will still keep some Windows machines (right now the only Macs we have are dinosaurs). While I love open source and have written before about how the right combination of open source, online apps, and web 2.0 tools can create an ideal technology setup for school settings I still see a need not to totally sever the cord with Microsoft. If only because we still have some software that will not work on any other machine. However, by fall this might not be so true when you look at the rapid growth in the open source sector.

Since the beginning of the school year I have wanted to create a feature on our website where teachers, students, and community members could go and find free software they can trust. With our almost certain shift in operating system I anticipate a small learning curve come September. The biggest confusion will be what software to use or which programs roughly equate to what we used before. I think we can kill two birds with one stone if this downloads page on our website is presented as both a resource and instructive. I have spent the better part of today putting this together. If you have seen our digital backpack you will recognize the style since I hijacked the code to make this.

I am looking for feedback.
  • What programs should I include that are missing?
  • Are there better alternatives to the programs I included?
  • What would you include in a resource like this that I have missed?
  • What download links are faulty (I don't have a Mac to test the Mac downloads)?

P.S. I am still looking for feedback on the digital backpack.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

New Tutorials Blog Locked!

What is going on? I am wondering if anyone else has had trouble with Google's bot that is supposed to detect spam farms on blogger? I created a new blog yesterday to use as a place to share tutorials with the staff I work with. Today I tried to edit it and I got this message:

I have requested it be reviewed for a false positive. I don't know how this happened. Lets see how long it takes Google to get around to letting me back on my new blog.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I have been frustrated lately. Part of my contract states that I will offer weekly morning technology mini workshop sessions for teachers in our district. I have been planning these and offering them every Thursday morning all year long. Unfortunately I am lucky if I get just one or two people in attendance. I know it is not that teachers don't want or feel they need this training, it is a time issue. If you are strapped for time you are going to cut out everything that is not essential. Attending an optional training session is usually viewed as something that can be cut out if there is no time unless what is being offered is crucial to what is happening in your classroom today. I find my position is far more effective as an on demand resource that teachers can call in when they need something NOW or if they have specific projects they want to work on and need advice.

I am going to try a new approach. Instead of always planning a session, showing up, and having all that planning time and energy wasted I am going to make these sessions available in small snippits that can be viewed when teachers have time or when they are at home. Hopefully this will help. For this I am going to use a combination of Screencast-o-matic and Ustreamtv. I have set up a training blog that I will post these to for our district teachers.

I believe this approach to professional development is in keeping with what we are trying to accomplish with these new 21st century tools and is a step toward developing a new 21st century pedagogy. If teachers are going to alter their teaching methods they need to experience alternatives from the learner's perspective. Hopefully this method of content delivery will be more effective, reach more of our staff, and in turn have an effect on how these tools are utilized in the classroom.