Sunday, December 16, 2018

Making is in Our DNA

I have such fond memories of the time I had with both my grandfathers, albeit much too short as one of them was taken from us too soon.  Each of them had such a great fondness for the outdoors, which influenced my decision to pursue degrees in marine environmental science and biology.  William Sheninger, or “Pappy” as we called him, was always outside fixing things and my brothers and I would often hover around to see what he was doing.  Robert Lewis, otherwise known as “Grandpop”, lived on the Jersey Shore and loved to fish in the surf.  Each morning when we visited, he would be out there like clockwork.  My brothers and I loved when he would catch sand sharks and place them in a nearby gully for us to observe. 

Besides the outdoors, both of my grandfathers had an interest in making things in a world that had yet to experience the types of disruptive changes that we are now seeing thanks to the exponential evolution of technology.  It was the late 1970’s and 1980’s after all.  At the time I only viewed these activities as hobbies, but now see that the time they both invested was much more.  Their passion manifested itself into unique creations that involved skill, knowledge, and patience to learn through doing.  Much of what they were doing didn’t make sense as it was the complete opposite of what I was doing in school. 

Pappy was the ultimate engineer as his day job was that of a master mechanic this comes as no surprise. He could take any broken tractor and either fix it entirely or design a whole new contraption.  I remember him re-engineering one tractor so that we could use it to ride through trails we had created in the acres of forest behind our house. It was amazing how he could get almost anything to work no matter what condition it was in.  His hands were always dirty.  Beyond mechanical devices, he was still willing to put his knowledge and skills to help out my brothers and me.  When my twin and I became fascinated with camping, he said let’s make a campsite.  Pappy helped us raise and then level a site in the woods out back.  He also helped us build a fire pit with old scrap metal to ensure that the hot coals wouldn’t spark any nearby debris.  Even though he did not have a college degree, Pappy was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known.

Grandpop also made things with his hands, but his creations were much different than that of my other grandfather.  During the day he was a certified life insurance underwriter for New York Life and had years of higher education beyond a bachelor’s degree. On evenings and weekends, he engaged in another job, but not one to make money.  In the guest room of his house was a workstation where he made jewelry.  One of the favorite stones he loved to work with was the Australian white/light opal. He also worked with amethyst since my grandmother loved the color purple.  They had purple carpet for crying out loud. Grandpop would make necklaces, rings, and pendants all of which he would give to my grandmother and other family members.  He was also fond of Cape May diamonds, which he collected on the beach in Ocean City, NJ. I remember scouring the beach with my brothers to locate these stones for him, after which we would use them to make some incredible jewelry.



With all the hoopla in regards to maker education and makerspaces I wanted to take a minute to share that this is not a new concept. Has it evolved – definitely! The process of making has been in our DNA since the dawn of human civilization to create tools for hunting and survival.  For many of us who grew up before the Internet, we spent countless hours playing with popular toys such as LEGO’s, Lincoln Logs, Construx, and Erector Sets.  It has also been the livelihood for many people and a focus on hobbies or passion projects.  Now we have 3D printers, Arduino’s, Raspberry Pi’s, Little Bits, Makey-Makey’s and an array of other innovative technologies to unleash the maker in all kids.  Regardless of the tool, the process is rooted in constructionism, which can be traced back to constructivism. Jonan Donaldson sums it up nicely:
Terms such as collaborative learning, project-based learning, metacognition, inquiry-based learning, and so on, might be new to some audiences, but they have a relatively long and well-documented history for many educators. The most widely-known and promising pedagogical approach is constructivism grounded on the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. Constructionism brings creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation to the forefront of the learning process.
It was Seymore Papert who developed the theory of constructionism.  Donaldson goes on to write:
Constructionism, a theory developed by Seymour Papert, articulates a theoretical foundation for learning based on creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation. Papert had previously worked with Jean Piaget but felt that Piaget’s constructivism placed too much emphasis on the internal mental processes of learners. He insisted that learning occurs not only through learners constructing meaning but also through constructing real-world inventions which can be shared with others. He argues that the construction that takes place ‘in the head’ often happens especially felicitously when it is supported by construction of a more public sort ‘in the world’—a sand castle or a cake, a Lego house or a corporation, a computer program, a poem, or a theory of the universe. Part of what is meant by ‘in the world’ is that the product can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired. It is out there.
The connections above to the maker movement are indiscernible.  He goes on to share the following synopsis of constructionism penned by Kafai, Peppler, & Chapman (2009).
Constructionism is based on two types of construction. First, it asserts that learning is an active process, in which people actively construct knowledge from their experience in the world. People don’t get ideas; they make them. This aspect of construction comes from the constructivist theory of knowledge development by Jean Piaget. To Piaget’s concept, Papert added another type of construction, arguing that people construct new knowledge with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in constructing personally meaningful products.
When it is all said and done, the process of making is a powerful catalyst for meaningful learning.  In some cases, it can be the identification of a problem followed by the development of a workable solution.  How Pappy approached making is an excellent example of this. On the other hand, it can be the creation of meaningful products that are personal in nature, like what Grandpop created or how many kids have used building toys listed previously. Age is irrelevant.  Making is and has been, in our DNA forever.  Sure, the tools have changed, but the will to tinker, create, and invent hasn’t. The role of educators and schools is to seize on the opportunity inherent in this type of learning to unlock the potential in all of our kids not for grades, but instead the gratification of creating something that has meaning to the creator. There is no finer beauty in learning than making something that matters. 

For more ideas, strategies, and resources related to maker education check out this Pinterest board

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Skinny on Hashtags

Upon getting on Twitter in 2009, I was not only baffled about how to use the social media site but also about all the symbols associated with it.  There was no apparent rhyme or reason to using these in any messages whether long or short. One of them was the hashtag (#). Before Twitter I referred to this as the “pound sign” on the telephone and only used it as such.  I’d say that this is still one of the least understood elements of social media that either scares people off from using this tool or annoys the heck out of others resulting in a lack of embracement. Developing an understanding of the immense value that hashtags provide regarding communications, public relations, and branding can go a long way to facilitating great conversations about the great work happening in education and schools across the globe.

Let’s start by defining what a hashtag (#) is in the sense of social media. A simple search reveals this:
(on social media sites such as Twitter) a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify categorized messages on a specific topic.
Back in 2013 Mashable provided the following description that adds more context as well as some great tips:
The pound sign (or hash) turns any word or group of words that directly follow it into a searchable link. This allows you to organize content and track discussion topics based on those keywords. Click on a hashtag to see all the posts that mention the subject in real time. 
Spaces are an absolute no-no. Even if your hashtag contains multiple words, group them all together. If you want to differentiate between words, use capitals instead (#BlueJasmine). Uppercase letters will not alter your search results. Create a brand-new hashtag by merely putting the hash (#) before a series of words. Beyond simply organizing your tweets, Twitter hashtags can help you craft your voice while joining in a broader discussion. You can use multiple hashtags in one tweet, but don’t go overboard.

Once only specific to Twitter, hashtags can now be used on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and even Google+ for the few of us that are still active there. The key to success with hashtags is to know when to use them, the best examples to add to social media messages, how they can amplify work, and knowing which ones to follow. To begin check out the resource page curated by Jerry Blumengarten, otherwise known as Cybrary Man.  He has some great lists that can help get you started.  Following the simple advice above, my list of strategies to help you get the most out of hashtags is below.

  • Get more eyeballs on your ideas and work by using a mainstream hashtag (i.e., #education, #edtech, #pedagogy, #teaching).
  • Search hot topics and trends that are categorized by educators thought and leaders.
  • Lurk on or join an established chat (see some examples HERE).
  • Create a unique hashtag for your classroom, school, district, or organization to communicate information and share your story. Consistently add it to all messages to build a powerful brandED presence. For some great examples check out #ExploreWells and #gocrickets.
  • Engage in an online book study or start your own. 
  • Educate your stakeholders on the why, how, and what, as it relates to hashtags. Don’t assume that they know what these are or how to use them.
  • Follow conferences and events from afar. When at an event add the designated # to your messages that share not only the thoughts and ideas of presenters but also ones unique to you.
  • Use your hashtag or those that you most engage with, across a diverse array of social networks. Don’t just put your eggs in the Twitter basket. 
  • Know that hashtags have a different impact depending on the social media site. One that is popular on Twitter might not have the same impact on say Facebook or Instagram.

I am sure there are many more thoughts out there on this topic, and I encourage you to share them in the comments below. Hashtags can occur anywhere in a message. Just don’t get crazy and add too many. 


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Unleashing the True Potential of Video for Learning

The best job on the planet is that of a parent.  I can’t begin to explain how awesome it has been over the years watching my kids grow up and being actively engaged in their lives.  Sure, there are some lows along the way, but the highs are what bring so much joy and purpose into our own lives.  If you are a parent, you know exactly what I am talking about.  I had always envisioned the types of activities my kids would participate in with sports being one of them. However, I never thought that parenthood would bestow the official role of “cheer dad” upon me in the case of my daughter, but I am so glad that it did.

For starters, I never realized the sheer athleticism that is needed to excel in competitive cheerleading.  My daughter does all of these elaborate flips and stunts, often referred to as tumbling in the cheerleading world, that leave me in a state of awe every time I watch her.  I know for a fact that if I attempted any of these moves, I would severely hurt myself.  Equally as impressive are the team aspects of cheer. In a short period, she progressed numerous levels regarding the specific skills she could perform thanks to the dedication on her part and some phenomenal coaches. The coordination, agility, and strength that it takes to perform difficult routines that combine stunts, flips and dance are incredible.  Loud and annoying music aside, competitive cheerleading has to be one of the most difficult and demanding sports out there.

My wife and I try to support our daughter the best we can as she loves this sport with a passion.  One day when I was traveling, my wife purchased a contraption called an air track. It is a tumbling mat that simulates a bouncing floor similar to what the girls cheer on at the gym and competitions. We have it in a shed outside where my daughter and her friends can set it up and practice anytime they want.  Here is where the learning aspect comes into play.  Routinely my daughter will set up her iPhone on the fence to record herself as she tumbles away. She then watches the video to self-critique her form and reflect on what can be done to improve.  The best part is that she is doing this all on her own thanks to intrinsic motivation.  On many occasions, she will then take the video clips to her coach for feedback.



As impressed as I am with my daughter on her use of video in support of learning and mastering cheer skills, I am equally impressed with her coach.  During private lessons, he will use his iPad to video and then review my daughter’s technique and what she has to do to improve.  At the end of the lesson, he will then come up to me and go through various video clips showing where she started during the session and where she eventually ended up focusing on growth.  He does the same during team practice.  Video, captured either through a smartphone or tablet, has become an essential coaching tool to assist the girls with learning their routine.  

The above story lays out how video can effectively be utilized to support learning.  Various research studies have revealed how video can serve as a highly effective learning tool (Allen & Smith, 2012; Kay, 2012; Lloyd & Robertson, 2012; Rackaway, 2012; Hsin & Cigas, 2013). Cynthia Brame from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching looked at these and many other studies as they worked to outline the following elements to consider to ensure effective implementation. 
  1. Cognitive load
  2. Non-cognitive factors that impact engagement
  3. Features that promote active learning
For more details on the three elements listed above, please check out the entire article.  I want to focus on number three, as the goal of video shouldn’t just be consumption and knowledge acquisition, but transfer and application through active learning.  Cynthia Brame shares this:
"To help students get the most out of an educational video, it’s essential to provide tools to help them process the information and to monitor their understanding. There are multiple ways to do this effectively such as guiding questions, using interactive features that give students control, and integrating questions into the video. The critical thing to keep in mind is that watching a video can be a passive experience, much as reading can be. To make the most of video, we need to help students do the processing and self-evaluation that will lead to the learning we want to see."
I couldn’t agree more with the synopsis above, which is also supported by a comprehensive research review conducted by the University of Queensland.  Just showing a video in class doesn’t cut it and is dismissive of the potential it can have as an educational tool. For video to really impact learning and outcomes, active use should be the goal. What is even more important is how learners are empowered to use their own devices to capture video as a means to showcase what they have learned (see an example here from one of my former students), reflect, and set actionable goals for growth.  When aligned with knowledge taxonomy ask yourself how video is being used by kids to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.  


In the case of my daughter, I can say without a doubt that she uses it to support her learning and growth in cheer.  Imagine then the possibilities for learners in our classrooms. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Chase Growth, Not Perfection

Perfection is something many people chase after. Educators are no different, but more on this later. In sports, there are only defined scenarios when perfection can be achieved. A pitcher can deliver a perfect game if he or she gives up no hits or walks and the fielders commit no errors. In bowling, a 300-game consisting of all strikes is also a sign of perfection.  Outside of sports, it becomes even harder to meet stringent criteria to achieve this.  For those of us that are married, we all strive to provide our spouse with a “perfect” diamond. The closest you can get to this designation is a “D” color, which is often referred to as a flawless and has no visible imperfections at 10X magnification.  As great as our intentions might be this can prove to way out of our budgets.  

For the most part, perfection is a fallacy. It is based more on set opinions and perception as opposed to established criteria such as the examples I provided at the beginning of this post. The fact of the matter is in the context of education there is no perfect lesson, teacher, administrator, school, program, curriculum, district, or organization. If we constantly chase or strive for perfection, then more often than not disappointment will follow. This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to be our best for those who we serve, most notably our learners. However, trying to accomplish the impossible day in and day out is not only unrealistic but also not a wise use of time and resources. 



You can be good or great, but both of these distinctions are really in the eye of the beholder. A mindset shift is in order that requires us all to reevaluate how we approach professional practice. It is as simple as it is effective. Chase growth, not perfection. By consistently reflecting on where we are steps can be made to grow in an effort to get to where we want, and our learners need us to be. Chasing growth is attainable and leads to daily rewards that are more intrinsically motivated than extrinsic.  The fact of the matter is that there is and always be room for improvement no matter your role in education or how well your school achieves.  

Don’t put immense pressure on yourself to be perfect. You don't have to be. Instead, we should continuously strive to be the best iteration of ourselves.