Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Making Sense vs Understanding

Recently, Grace Chen wrote a very provocative post called, Making Sense of Understanding. I was reminded of this yesterday as I attended an ArtPrize Sneak Peak at the University of Michigan's School of Art & Design and SiTE:LAB. As I watched the the movement of the piece in the movie below, it became clearer the distinction between making sense and understanding.


When I first saw it moving, I thought that it was a mobile and that the wave motion was the result of the wind. That didn't make sense, however, as we were indoors and there wasn't that much air movement. My wife, Kathy, thought that it might be moving to the music. But when the music stopped, it kept undulating. Then I looked up and saw that levers were moving up and down which resulted in the wave-like motion. Mystery solved - the piece moved in some preprogramed way. This "made sense" to me and so I moved on to look at more of the art.

Before I got to far, Kathy exclaimed, "Cool!" I turned back to see her reading a description of the piece near by. "It's the motion of the ocean," she continued.

Huh? That didn't make sense. But then I read the description too:

Because it might be difficult to read, here is what it says:
The installation draws information from the intensity and movement of the water in a remote location. Wave data is being collected and updated from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data buoy station 51003. This station was originally moored 206 nautical miles Southwest of Honolulu in the Pacific Ocean. It went adrift and the last report from its moored position was around 04/25/2011. It is still transmitting valid observation data but its exact location is unknown. The wave intensity and frequency collected from the buoy is scaled and transferred to the mechanical grid structure resulting in a simulation of the physical effects caused by the movement of water from this distant unknown location.
Now I understand. And understanding did make the piece even cooler.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Playing to Learn

"The work will teach you how to do it." 
Estonian Proverb

New Teacher (just hired for first job - teaching gifted children): "What do I do?"
School Administrator: "What do you want to do?"

John Hunter was that new teacher, back in 1978, and that administrator's response "set the template for the entire career [he] was to have after that." It provided him space to explore - space that he decided to pass along to his learners as they tried to create meaning of the world. To that end, he created an activity, The World Peace Game, intended to help players "explore the connectedness of the global community..." This has been documented in the film World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements by Chris Farina and in the following TED Talk:

What would happen if all teachers were offered the opportunity to answer the question: "What do you want to do?" Can you imagine what people might learn?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Comparing/Contrasting Students & Learners, Part III

The final video in the Council on 21st Century Learning series, Student vs Learner, introduces a new character - the teacher. On the Student-to-Learner continuum, it seems clear that this teacher is on the side of the Learner. Watch and see what you think:

Do you think that this teacher's approach will help the Student to become more like the Learner?

Friday, May 6, 2011

When you have interest, then you have education

The title of this exhibit comes from a quote by Arthur C. Clarke found in the following TED Talk by Suata Mitra:

Recently, my wife and I played host for an evening to three homeless families staying at our place of worship for a week. This is part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network which helps "low-income families achieve lasting independence." We spent most of the evening interacting with the nine kids ranging from an infant to a teenager.

During this four hour span, my heart alternatively broke and was lifted up. I thought about the hardship these kids faced and wondered how they could concentrate on school given their situation. And then I would watch them interact with each other and with us and recognize that learning finds a way even in the most dire of circumstances. It was during these moments that I was reminded of Sugata Mitra's research.

I watched as a nearly three-year-old boy watched intensely as two older boys recited and then wrote down the words to a rap they were working on. All three had their heads together as they shared a pencil and a piece of paper. Later, the little boy mimicked the moves and the words as they performed for us. He was clearly learning from these knowledgeable others. "Children can teach themselves and each other, if they're motivated by curiosity and peer interest."

Around the same time, another boy, the oldest of the group, decided to join us. He had been maintaining his distance, checking us out. I guess he decided we were harmless, so he began to show off a skill he had learned earlier in the week from another host - juggling. I can juggle a bit myself but I resisted the urge to teach. Instead, I took Dr. Mitra's advice and implemented the "Method of the grandmother." I watched, admired, and asked questions.

Okay, I could not resist my teacher instinct for long. When it seemed he was comfortable with three tennis balls, I suggested that he try three different objects (ball, beanbag, and shoe) as a challenge. Without hesitation, he went off to practice - making sure that I was watching and calling for my attention when I was distracted by another child.

These experiences are important reminders that learning is a natural state for us. As a teacher, I often muck it up by trying too hard to control learners and the learning. When what is actually required is for me to open the door to experience and get out of the way.

Oh, and accept and admire them as they go; this is extremely important!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Comparing/Contrasting Students & Learners, Part II

In the first exhibit of the Learning Museum, we were introduced to a student and a learner. Here is the second in a series of three videos available from C21L that attempts to get at the differences between these two types of people.

As I watch this video, I notice that:

  1. Students are survivors who are stressed-out about standardized-tests.
  2. Learners are living life and leaving a legacy.

What do you notice?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cambourne's Conditions of Learning

I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.
Albert Einstein

In this exhibit, we explore the learning theory developed by Brian Cambourne from his research on language acquisition in natural settings. His book, The Whole Story: Natural Learning and the Acquisition of Literacy, first introduced the idea that certain conditions were necessary in order for us to learn language. These conditions were further explored in the articleToward an educationally relevant theory of literacy learning: Twenty years of inquiry. In both the book and the article, Cambourne describes the eight Conditions of Learning in detail. Below is a figure from the article representing the relationships that exist between the Conditions.

From Toward an educationally relevant theory of literacy learning
Cambourne's work focused on applying these Conditions to literacy instructions. Others, have sought to consider their application in other learning environments. Edmunds and Stoessiger wrote a book and article about their efforts to apply the Conditions to mathematics. Jan Turbill's doctoral research examined the use of the Conditions in teacher inservice. ReLeah Cosset Lent wrote Engaging Adolescent Learners: A Guide for Content-Area Learners using the Conditions as a framework.
From Engaging Adolescent Learners
And I wrote a guess blog post on how I used the Condition to learn to Tweet.
How do the Conditions of Learning fit into your practice?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tale of Two Teachers (Part II)

In this exhibit, Brian Cambourne relates two very different stories about his own learning. (These can be found in the paper, The Teaching-Learning-Language Connection: How Learning In the Real World and Learning In the Content Areas Are Related.) This is a brain-on exhibit that asks you to identify conditions that support and inhibit learning.

The first story describes how Cambourne learned to iron (see it here).

This story describes Cambourne's attempt to understand a high school topic.
Recently I had cause to call a colleague who teaches Maths Education at the University where I work. I needed some help with the binomial theorem so that I could help with my daughter's homework. Here is a verbatim account of the telephone conversation I had.

B.C. Hello Grahame. I need to help my daughter understand the binomial theorem, (a+b)^2=a^2 +2ab +b^2. I vaguely remember it from my high school days, but I can't remember much about it. Can you explain it in language?

G.W. That's easy. It means: If you want to raise the sum of any two numbers to the power of two then....

B.C. Hang on! You've lost me. What do you mean, 'If I want to'? Do I have a choice. Why any two numbers? What does raise to the power of two mean?

G.W. Uh oh. I'll have to go back a level with you won't I? Try this: If you want to square any two numbers...No wait a minute, That type of 'If' language bugs you doesn't it. Try this: When you want to square the sum of any two numbers then you....(long pause)

B.C. What's wrong?

G.W. I don't like saying it that way. It changes the meaning slightly and will only lead to confusion later.

B.C. What do you mean?

G.W. Well let's say you want to go beyond 'squared' and 'cubed' and you want to raise the sum of any two numbers to the power of 'n' we have no words beyond 'squared' and 'cubed'.

B.C. I'm getting more confused and lost. What do you mean 'When I want to?' When would I want to raise the sum of any two numbers to any power? What's a power? Why the sum of any two numbers? Mightn't I want to do it with any three or four numbers?
Although I'm not sure why or when I'd ever want to do that. And I'm not too sure about 'squared' and 'cubed' or 'n'. And all that conditional language. Why do mathematicians talk like that?

G.W. I'll go back another layer. Let me see: Let's suppose that you needed to add two numbers together and then multiply the result by itself... Uh oh that's even more confusing isn't it? And what's more it doesn't mean what I intended... it's imprecise.. You'll have to call me back later. I need to think about the language I use. I've never reflected like this before.

It is clear in this description that learning was elusive. What made it more difficult for Cambourne to learn the binomial theorem than to iron? Consider current classroom approaches: are they more like mentoring (learning to iron) or the game of telephone (learning the binomial theorem)? Why?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tale of Two Teachers (Part I)

In this exhibit, Brian Cambourne relates two very different stories about his own learning. (These can be found in the paper, The Teaching-Learning-Language Connection: How Learning In the Real World and Learning In the Content Areas Are Related.) This is a brain-on exhibit that asks you to identify conditions that support and inhibit learning.

The first story describes how Cambourne learned to iron.
Firstly there surfaced a need (reason, purpose, motive, desire, intent, commitment) for me to learn how to iron at that particular time in my life. I realised that I had to become a member of the ironers' club.

Secondly when I became conscious of this need I decided to seek help. Usually in situations like this I look for a book or some printed materials that I know will inform me of what I need to know. However this time I found this strategy to be inappropriate. I decided that I needed the opportunity to observe someone who had more expertise than myself. I sought a demonstration. I arranged for a friend to give me a lesson next time she was ironing. We started with a shirt. I stood nearby and observed what she did. She talked as she demonstrated. She explained how she did the sleeves first, then flipped the shirt over, did the front, then flipped it over and did the back, and then the collar. She then told me how she liked to put the area near the shoulder and neck over the rounded end of the ironing board and iron the section where the sleeve joined the the neck and shoulder, She showed me how she did this and flipped it over and did the other sleeve-shoulder area. Then she hung it on a hanger. She explained how to fold shirts in a certain way for travelling purposes. As I reflect on the experience I also realise that she used language in such a way that I could get the general meaning of what she was intending. This meaning was further enhanced by the fact that the demonstrations and the explanations were given simultaneously. She didn't just tell me what to do. She used phrases like, 'I find it easiest to start with the sleeves' and so on. I realise now that we began to share a set of meanings and ways of using words and phrases to represent them. She then demonstrated and explained how to do a pair of slacks. Again I observed, and mentally rehearsed myself doing it.

Then I tried to apply what I'd been observing. I began with a shirt. I tried to flip it onto the ironing board the way my teacher had. It didn't seem to fall into place the way it did for her. Then I tried to position the sleeve so that I could begin to iron it. When I moved my left hand to flatten out the sleeve and align the seams symmetrically it fell off the ironing board and on to the floor. When this happened my teacher said something like, 'That happens to me sometimes too. Here let me show you again and this time I'll try to explain why I'm doing what I'm doing as I do it, and you ask questions when you don't understand. O.K.?'

My learning from that point was rapid. I had about four more joint sessions like this one. My teacher demonstrated and talked out loud, explaining what needed to be done and why. I found myself attending to and engaging with things I hadn't been aware of before, such as the way one can use the seams in garments to achieve symmetry, or the different functions that the sharp and blunt ends of the iron serve. I asked many questions about why she did what she did. After these initial joint sessions during which I received authentic feedback and praise, I began to practise by myself.

Whilst visiting another friend's house I asked her to show me how she goes about ironing. I found myself observing how she did it and engaged her in a conversation about what she was doing. It was then that I discovered something that I'd never been aware of before, namely that the function of the left hand, the way it held and moved the garment for the iron was absolutely crucial for the whole enterprise. I concluded that the key to effective ironing was the left hand, not the hand which held the iron.

Feeling quite the expert now I decided one morning to impress my daughter. I nonchalantly ironed her school shirt for her. She was obviously impressed. I felt I'd become a member of the ironing club. I was an expert.

Before we go to the second story, make your thinking visible and record what conditions supported Cambourne's efforts to become an expert ironer.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Theory into Practice - Good Readers

Diane Dahl shares the following exhibit from her blog:
I've wanted to come up with a clever way for students to remember their thinking for reading strategies. A list just seems too boring. One thing I've learned in BrainSMART is to connect information to parts of the body to make it more memorable. So I came up with this Good Reader Boy poster? (The original poster is shown to the right.)

The (updated) poster connects like this:

  • Head: Think. Good readers monitor their own thinking while reading.
  • Eyes: Infer. Good readers look for clues to draw conclusions, make predictions, and more.
  • Nose: Importance. Good readers sniff out important details.
  • Mouth: Questions. Good readers ask questions before, during and after reading.
  • Heart: Visualize. Good readers love to make brain-movies while reading.
  • Stomach: Schema. Good readers are hungry to connect their text to things they already know.
  • Waist: Purpose. Good readers don't waste time ... they choose a purpose for reading and pick the best strategy.
  • Hands: Synthesize. Good readers can 'put it all together' to retell and summarize.
  • Knees: Monitor Comprehension. Good readers know they need to understand text, and know what to do when they don't.
  • Feet: Text Structure. Good readers firmly understand the elements of a story and use it to help them understand.

The Good Readers Poster is available in the "Museum Gift Shop"

When and Where Learning Occurs - New Jersey Preschools

This exhibit is a National Public Radio piece on learning happening at New Jersey preschools in low-income districts.
Young Learners at Play
Unfortunately, some do not recognize that this learning is important:
Sen. Michael Doherty, a Republican from Warren... represents a large swath of suburban New Jersey where resentment toward the extra funding of low-income schools runs deep. He is proposing that the preschools for poor kids be cut to half-day, and the $300,000 saved be spent on K-through-12 education in the suburbs.
Such thinking demonstrates the need for a Learning Museum where people can see why learning for all is so important. 

Comparing/Contrasting Students & Learners, Part I

For those of you familiar with my TEDx Talk, it will come as no surprise that the first exhibit in the Learning Museum involves the following video from the Council on 21st Century Learning (C21L). If we want to know what learning looks like, we need to identify some of its key characteristics. This Venn diagram might help us in identifying these characteristics as we consider what learners do compared to what students do in the video.
Here is the first in a series of three videos available from C21L that attempt to get at the differences between students and learners.

How are students and learners alike and how are they different? Here's some of the characteristic identified by teachers in training:

  • Both students and learners produce products;
  • Students seem extrinsically motivated (e.g. Grades); and
  • Learners seem intrinsically motivated.