Monday, June 27, 2016

Inspiring Students: Bringing Awe Back to Learning

 Awe might seem like just another three-letter word, but it is so much more.  A recent New York Times article detailed how humans can get goose bumps when we experience awe, that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world. It is a catalyst that can motivate people to do more good. The article also highlighted the research of Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner who found that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities.

Think back to the last time you experienced awe and think about how this impacted you.  I would wager that many specific experiences come to mind, which is not very surprising at all.  Descriptors such as awesome, jaw dropping, satisfying, and rapturous probably come to mind. The power of awe cannot be overstated. It is a huge component of life—it’s hardwired in our brains. When we experience the sensation of awe, we are consumed by wonder, relevancy, emotion, engagement, inspiration, and real-world connections. Jason Silva considers awe to be a pivotal ingredient in making ideas resonate. Check out his Shots of Awe YouTube series and you will see exactly what I am talking about. Below is the one video of his that got me hooked. Excuse the pun, but you will be “awed” while watching it. 

The more I read about awe, the more convinced I become about how important it is in our lives. In an article published in The Atlantic titled Making Time for Awe, various research studies support the many benefits of having our minds blown. Researchers from Stanford and the University of Minnesota found the following in a recent study:
"Participants "who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available, were less impatient, were more willing to volunteer their time to help others, and more strongly preferred experiences over material goods."  Awe is an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with its incomprehensibility."
Applying this concept to education is both exciting and depressing.  Awe is a driving force for learning that will not just benefit our students now, but also well into their future. However, traditional views and functions of school deprive many students from experiencing the joy and power of awe as a catalyst for meaningful learning. Current policies in many (not all) schools focus on control, compliance, conformity, and rules that don’t awe our learners. Data from a recent Gallop Poll shared and analyzed by Dr. Scott McLeod shows what many of us know - students are disengaged, bored, and disempowered.  Systemic change is needed even in schools where there are isolated pockets of excellence, as all students should be exposed to the power of awe.
"Don't prepare kids for something. Prepare them for anything."
We have a responsibility to awe and students need us to bring this element into their daily learning experiences, such as those aligned to Quad D of the Rigor Relevance Framework. To do this we must innovate our practice. In my definition innovation is creating, implementing, and sustaining transformative ideas that instill awe to improve learning. Increases in our willingness to innovate can result in disruptive changes to learning. 

Disruption in a way that facilitates improved learning opportunities that engage and empower students through awe should be the goal. In order to drive innovation there has to be a focus on changing learner needs, evolving technologies, changing the learning environment, and bold ideas. 

Schools and educators can advantage of inherent stimuli in these drivers to create better, more meaningful learning experiences for students that leverage the power of awe. Building off a sound pedagogical foundation rooted in rigor, relevance, and relationships, the drivers of innovation can bring awe back into learning. Let’s look quickly at these drivers in a bit more detail:

  • Evolving Technologies – Technology continues to change at a rapid pace, which presents education with some exciting opportunities to awe learners. Some examples include augmented reality, virtual reality, open education resources (OER), adaptive tools, coding, drones/robotics, and gamification. With all the excitement and possibilities it is important to remember that pedagogy trumps technology if the goal is meaningful student learning.
  • Changing Learning Environment – You can have all the best technology and digital pedagogical techniques, but if the learning environment remains unchanged the results that we yearn for might never materialize. Learner designed spaces emphasize comfort, flexibility, choice, and the use of authentic tools. They are reflective of the real world, leverage the outdoors, and capitalize on mobile technology.
  • Changing Learner Needs – Learners crave a greater purpose and sense of relevance in their learning. We must seize on the gift that access to the real-time web provides to foster student learning anytime, anywhere, and with anyone. Awe can be cultivated in both personal and personalized learning opportunities where the main motivation comes from student agency. This all culminates in a shift from consumption to creation and curating as a means for students to awe us in their learning experiences.
  • Bold Ideas – There needs to be a shift from business as usual to business as unusual.  Ideas that are bold work to counteract the status quo and current education reform policies. We must work to elevate the profession, integrate more play in the school day, embrace failure throughout the system, redefine success and learning, and provide meaningful professional learning with accountability.
To inspire students we must make a concerted effort to bring the awe back into learning. This is not an easy journey, but one that is well worth the potential hardship. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding the Right Tools

For technology to have an effective impact on student learning a solid pedagogical foundation needs to be in place. In my mind, pedagogy trumps technology and the importance of instructional design cannot be overstated. With this foundation in place the possibilities to empower students to take ownership over their learning and demonstrate conceptual mastery are limitless. Even if you are not a fan of technology it is hard to ignore the many benefits. As Donald Norman stated, “I'm not a fan of technology. I'm a fan of pedagogy, of understanding how people learn and the most effective learning methods. But technology enables some exciting changes.”  

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Whether you are a technology fan or not, the key to success lies in our ability to integrate technology to support or enhance learning while providing students with skills that will prepare them for their future.  This can be a seamless process like reviewing prior learning, checking for understanding, closure, or formative assessment.  It can also be more elaborate where students select the right tool for the right task to construct new knowledge or authentically apply what they have learned. Either way technology provides an improved method to do both.

Once there is a clear vision and plan for integrating technology in the classroom, the next challenge for many educators and students alike is finding appropriate tools the align to the content, age group of the students, platform, standards, and budget. The good news here is that there are many go-to resources right at your fingertips to either help you in your classroom or to make recommendations to teachers if you are an administrator. Here are my three favorites:
  1. Edshelf – The motto here is simple, yet powerful. Find the right educational tools for your needs. Edshelf represents a socially curated discovery engine of websites, mobile apps, desktop programs, and electronic products for teaching and learning. Click on search for the perfect tool and begin to narrow down your search by price, platform, subject, age, and category.
  2. Graphite by Common Sense Media – A free platform that saves you time by making it easy to discover the best apps, games, and websites for the classroom. It contains thousands of edtech tool reviews and also allows you to browse by subject and standard. There is also an option to search teacher-created lesson plans.
  3. Tech Tools by Subject and Skills – A fantastic resource created by EdTechTeacher that has curated resources by academic subject, topics, and learning activity. It is pretty straight forward and to the point, which is something that I think all can appreciate. 
Just knowing about all the latest tools and apps doesn't cut it. Technology will not transform education. Educators and students who utilize technology effectively will.  Focus on the why and then the how with the right tool for the right task. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mistakes Make Us Human

Recently I was able to enjoy some time home with my family after what had been a brutal stretch on the road speaking and presenting. My wonderful wife had been holding the fort down in my absence so I was ready and willing to help her out in any way that I could. Thus, she asked if I could take our daughter to cheer practice the entire week and I immediately obliged. Now, being a cheer dad is serious business and those of you reading this who are in a similar position know what I am talking about. 

My wife laid out specific instructions repeatedly as to what I had to do during the Thursday practice as my daughter had a flyer and tumbling class back to back. For the flyer class she needed these special stretch bands that were in the glove compartment of the car. Not only did I have to remember to get them out of the glove compartment, but I also had to remind my daughter to give them back to me after the practice because apparently she has a tendency herself to leave them around the gym. This should be a piece of cake.

A few days later my wife asked me if I had gotten the elastic bands back from my daughter after the practice. I immediately looked perplexed.  I knew that she used them during practice as I distinctly remembered taking them out of the glove compartment of the car and my daughter and I proceeded to shoot them at each other like rubber bands. The problem though was that that was the last I saw of them. After conferring with my daughter later that day, I did in fact forget to remind her to give them to me after practice. My wife just shook her head with a smirk and nicely reminded me how many times I was told what to do.  Alas, I made yet another mistake.

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I make mistakes all the time and have since birth. To be honest, I have made so many mistakes during my lifetime and will continue to do so. Everyone makes them. This does not make me, or virtually anyone else on this planet, a bad person as we all succumb to this. Many mistakes we make both professionally and personally are not part of some larger agenda. Sometimes it is because we don’t listen or fully process what we heard. At other times there is a lapse of judgment or lack of understanding, context, or the entire story. Many times mistakes just happen with no rhyme or reason. This is all a part of being human. Admitting, learning from, and moving on after a mistake is made is all that matters. Some of the best learning experiences I have carried with me for years have occurred after a mistake was made. Own your mistakes, but don't let them own you!

Being human and making mistakes is not a reason to attack, berate, chastise, ignore, give up, or treat other adults or students differently.  It perplexes me to this day how anyone can hold a grudge against someone who makes a mistake. Chances are that very same person has made his or her share of them. This is hypocritical to say the least. Students deserve the most slack when a mistake is made. How one reacts could very well determine their willingness to learn in the future. When it comes to adults, take the time to make the other person aware of his/her mistake and provide practical advice on how to overcome and learn from it. Most importantly, if the mistake is significant provide the needed support and be there. Ultimately this speaks volumes about one’s character. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ideas and Tools to Give Everyone a Voice

Whether during a class, meeting, presentation, or workshop it can be at times extremely difficult to give everyone a voice.  I remember as a teacher many years ago asking my students to raise their hands to respond to a question and even during Jeopardy-style review games had groups collaborate on their response. Undoubtedly this left many students out of the formative process. Later in my career, I was able to get my hands on a class set of dry erase whiteboards so that each student had a chance to respond. While this was definitely an improvement, issues still remained as to the depth of responses each student could provide as well as actively engaging the shyest students in the class.  Even as I moved to a leadership position the same challenge persisted during faculty meetings. Giving everyone a voice seemed like an insurmountable challenge.

As I have transitioned to a major role as a presenter, I initially experienced the same struggles listed above. Never could I have imagined giving twenty different educators a voice during a presentation let alone thousands. Well, technology has changed all that and regardless of your specific role you too can increase authentic engagement with your audience.  The best part is the variety of tools out there that are easy to use, allow for a diversity of answers, and are free (most that is). These collaborative tools can be used to:
  • Make thinking and learning visible
  • Check for understanding
  • Review prior learning
  • Close lessons
  • Provide the means for others to pose questions 
  • Allow large masses to openly respond and interact with each other
  • Craft multimedia responses
  • Collect perception data
  • Backchannel a class or event
  • Openly reflect and discuss
  • Extend learning
  • Brainstorm
In my opinion, the most beneficial aspects of available web-based technology are allowing anyone to improve formative assessment, feedback, and active engagement. There is really no excuse not to honor the voice of your respective audience, whether they are students or adults.  Even in situations where technology might be tight, cooperative groups can be utilized to reflect and then share out.  Below is a list of some of my favorite free tools (unless noted) that I integrate during my presentations along with a short description:
  • Yo Teach! – Create your own room where people can respond to a question or reflect in 140 characters. This is a great tool to use for a backchannel.
  • AnswerGarden – My new favorite tool! Use it for real-time audience participation, online brainstorming, and classroom feedback.  Responses can only be 20 or 40 characters.
  • Mentimeter – Move over Poll Everywhere. Mentimeter is a great tool that allows you to poll your audience in a variety of ways. You can even create a presentation that has multiple polls.
  • Padlet – A long time favorite of mine, which allows participants to respond using virtual Post-It notes. The beauty of this tool is that within each board responses can be text, video, images, or attached documents.
  • Lino – An online web sticky note service that can be used to post memos, to-do lists, ideas, and photos anywhere on an online web canvas that is similar to Padlet
  • Kahoot – A fan favorite of educators around the world. It is a free game-based learning platform that not only gives everyone a voice but also provides a fun way to do it.
  • FlipGrid – Create grids of questions or topics using text or video and share your questions with whomever you like. Your audience then responds with recorded videos.
The ten tools listed above will allow you to empower your respective audience by giving them a voice and sometimes a choice as to how they want to respond. There are so many other tools out there that can be used in powerful ways to enhance learning and gather meaningful feedback.  Let’s use the power of social media to crowdsource even more examples. Please feel free to list other tools with a short description in the comments section below.