Archive for January, 2010

21st Century Teaching: Interactive Whiteboards?

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

In case you don’t know, interactive whiteboards and “smartboards” are the hot, new classroom technologies. Replacing the old blackboard and chalk, these boards can show PowerPoint lessons, copy what the teacher writes so that kids don’t have to take notes, and enable a variety of Wow! kinds of presentations. Think of those interactive maps now used by TV weather reporters and you’ve got the rough idea.

Writing for Education Week, “Educator Bill Ferriter makes no bones about his distaste for interactive whiteboards, calling them ‘sad examples of careless decision-making and waste that are crippling schools.'” (His article is called “Why I Hate Interactive Whiteboards”):

Seen as the first step towards “21st century teaching and learning,” schools and districts run out and spend thousands of dollars on these gizmos, hanging them on walls and showing them off like proud hens that just laid the golden instructional egg.

I gave mine away last summer. After about a year’s worth of experimenting, I determined that it was basically useless.

Sure, my students thought it was nifty, but it didn’t make teaching my required curriculum any easier. I probably crafted two or three neat lessons with it, but there was nothing unique about those activities. I could have easily put together similar lessons using the computer stations I already have in my room and any number of free online tools.

I share Bill’s feelings. Not all technology is great or helpful or worth the cost.

We need to think first about what we are trying to accomplish educationally and then create the technology to achieve those goals. Instead, we often spend tons of money on cool-looking gadgets with little educational payoff.

The main goal of education needs to be to stimulate students’ brains…to get them to read with understanding and write clearly and research purposefully and problem-solve and think autonomously.

I question whether interactive whiteboards, as well as much educational computer software, does this. I fear that such technology often relies too much on exciting kids eyes and ears and doesn’t do enough to provoke deep thinking. I also wonder about the effects of such technology on attention span and the development of self-control. …

What Should 21st Century Education Look Like?

Friday, January 29th, 2010

In my recent post, Midterm Exams and 21st Century Knowledge, I said that we ought to be focusing more on developing reasoning, problem-solving and researching skills, and de-emphasizing rote memorization of names, dates and formulas. Our sophisticated technology allows us to look up data and procedures easily, freeing up our “head space” for higher level thinking. Yet, every year, students are still required to cram for exams by stuffing lots of facts into their brains.

Here’s one of the replies I received: Yes, what the formula is may be important but as long as we know where to find it,it is much more critical to know why, when and how to USE it. So yes, I agree with you. The next thought is how do we change the system and the teachers entrenched in it?

I think that technology is going to be part of the key to a dramatic change for the better in our educational system. Right now there are experimental programs being piloted, including School of One, a system which uses computers and interactive software programs to deliver individualized, self-paced instruction. Kids learn best when they learn at their own pace, and technology can make this possible in ways large-group classroom instruction simply cannot.

I also believe that once teachers are freed from their roles as classroom lecturers and disciplinarians their energy will flow in productive directions. Once technology takes over the bulk of the lesson-delivery process, teachers will have time to help individual students or pursue special-interest topics with small groups. Teaching will become a very different profession from what it is now.

A few teachers, the ones “entrenched” in their old-fashioned roles, will not welcome the change. But I can’t help believing that most real educators…people who love knowledge and are excited about learning…will be overjoyed to spend their careers actively empowering kids to develop into strong thinkers and communicators.

The Tutoring Technique of Spiral Review, Part Two: It's a Great Tool if it's Individualized

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Many schools use a spiral review approach in their curricula. In the British system, for example, kids get one trimester each of biology, chemistry and physics every year, instead of taking these courses separately over full years.

Math texts always include review of the previous year’s skills before launching into the new work. Homework, summer review packets, mid-terms and finals, are all examples of spiral review.

There are unique challenges when applying a spiral approach to math learning. Math, unlike other subjects, is hierarchical. Concepts build on top of earlier concepts, and if any layer is weak the next layer will be even shakier.

Spiral review in math, therefore, MUST be individualized in order to be effective, and it must dig back to foundational concepts and reinforce these core understandings.

Unfortunately, math curricula which use a spiral approach often befuddle students by touching too lightly on new topics and then flitting away before students can get a handle on them. Students are often left with only vague notions of the new concepts, plus feelings of confusion and distress. No one likes to be taught something new and then left with the feeling that they “didn’t get it.” These kinds of experiences can contribute to math anxiety, disliking of math, and negative self-image.

Here are some ways you can use the spiral review technique to help your student or your own child:

  • Revisit / review material periodically to refine and strengthen cognitive connections
  • Practice regularly, not just right after the lesson or right before the test (think of it as “mental weight-lifting,” building mental muscles through consistent, moderate exercise)
  • Do a few review problems that now seem easy, but used to be soooo hard! Make sure you point out how tough these problems used to be, and how much progress has been made.

Tutoring Technique: Spiral Review, Part One

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

My favorite part in Catcher in the Rye is where Holden Caulfield visits the Museum of Natural History. He finds it reassuring because the exhibits stay the same while he is different every year he returns.

The technique of spiral review is like this. The material is the same and the student revisits it periodically. And with every visit, the student learns more deeply and thoroughly. This is due to two, interrelated mechanisms called “assimilation” and “accommodation.”

Every time a learner revisits material, she reprocesses it; she “rechews” it; she “thinks it through again.” In other words, she assimilates, or “digests,” more than she did on her last pass.

Then, she accommodates, or incorporates, the material into her brain structure, which has already been altered from the last experiences with the material. New neural connections are made and existing connections are strengthened.

So, with every loop of a spiral review, the student is processing the material more thoroughly and then incorporating it into a brain more ready to receive it. The student’s grasp of the material becomes more accurate and more permanent with every revisit.

Sometimes we use the phrases “surface knowledge” and “deep knowledge” to distinguish between things we know in a perfunctory way and things we know inside-and-out. To be an expert on something implies that one has deep knowledge, from long experience with the subject matter in his field. This deep knowledge, this expertise, came from repeated exposure to and use of, the body of knowledge. It came from spiral review.

I see the difference in surface knowledge and deep knowledge all the time in my students. How could I not? They are taught new concepts or procedures and then asked to apply them. This goes fairly well as long as demands remain modest. Most kids can, for example, apply new math procedures to the evening’s homework, so long as the homework sticks closely to the exact lesson they were taught. Where kids run into trouble is with the application of new procedures to novel situations; word problems, SAT problems, etc. What makes these sorts of problems “hard” is that they require kids to take knowledge that they …

Midterm Exams and 21st Century Knowledge

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Here in Connecticut it’s midterm (first-semester final) exam season and I’ve been working extra hard with students who are frantically trying to prepare.

I like the underlying philosophy behind midterms and finals, which is that learners should expect to retain what they were taught. Otherwise the focus is only on remembering information just long enough to regurgitate it for one test and then forget all about it. Cumulative exams force students to revisit material and, hopefully, entrench it more permanently in their heads.

But there’s also a lot of unfairness and counter-productivity in this system. I have one student, for example, who works very, very hard but has trouble remembering details. She does well on individual tests and quizzes but cumulative exams overwhelm her with the sheer load of material to be memorized.

We began studying together for her Algebra II midterm well in advance, and we’ve been working steadily ever since, plus she’s been doing tons of practice on her own. We’ve been using every study skills and memory enhancement technique available, and she’s come so far! I’m so proud of her!

Yet…”I wish I could carry a note card into the exam!” she sighed yesterday. I wish she could, too.  I truly can’t see why students shouldn’t be able to use their notes (isn’t this what note-taking is for?) to help them remember formulas and procedural details. Making students memorize such things can put tremendous stress on mental recall capacity and clutter the brain’s ability to process.

I wish I could spend my instructional time working on concepts, abstract reasoning and problem-solving. I would much rather explore why a formula works, or how the formula was derived or when to use it in real-life applications.  Instead, I spend way too much valuable tutoring time training students on mnemonic techniques.

There is a lot of talk lately on training kids to have “21st-century skills.” Usually this means learning to use and understand computers and other technology.

To my mind, 21st-century skills must include the age-old, basic skills of note-taking, note-using, and fact-seeking. With laptops available to everyone, who needs to memorize facts and figures anymore? Yes, students should be conversant with …

Recognition vs Recall

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Recognition is easier than recall. Multiple-choice tests are generally easier than fill-in-the-blanks tests or essays because it is easier to recognize the correct answer out of a group of possibilities than it is to have to dredge up the answer out of one’s own head.

Still, in order to be able to recognize the correct multiple-choice answer it has to be “somewhere” in one’s brain; otherwise there’s nothing to recognize. Someone with zero knowledge of a topic does no better than random chance on a multiple-choice test because all of the answer choices are equally meaningless to him. And someone with mastery of a topic can fill-in-the-blanks or can write an essay.

Think of your brain like a file cabinet, with tons of information stored in it. When you recognize a piece of information, it’s like the tab on a file folder in your head; the whole file folder now gets pulled up. By writing down anything you know about a problem, getting started in any possible way, you are hopefully going to write something that you then recognize, and your brain is going to pull the tab and bring up the rest of the folder.

Your brain contains over four terabytes of information (which is way too big a number to  imagine), yet your working memory, the part of your brain that consciously works on a problem, can only hold about seven bits at any time. It’s as if your brain is a library, full of knowledge, yet you’re restricted to using a table only as big as a postage stamp.

Think about how impossible it is to multiply big numbers in your head, but how easy it is on paper. Your brain knows how to multiply, but it can’t keep track of all those digits.

This is why writing was invented in the first place. People found themselves with way more knowledge than they could hold and work with in their heads, and so they invented a way to put information “out there;” they scratched it in the dirt or into clay tablets or they inked it onto papyrus or paper.

Once people invented writing they could work with …

Scaffolding as a Tutoring Technique

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Scaffolding is an apt image I keep in mind as I work with my students. In the same way that scaffolding around a building provides shape and support for the construction of the building within, I give my students guidance and support as they build knowledge.

It’s important to remember that I can’t give knowledge, or even help build it, because knowledge must be constructed within each learner’s head. I can’t reach inside anyone’s skull and make those mental connections for him! What I can do is provide a framework of steps that will better lead the learner to making those mental connections for himself.

One form of scaffolding is to provide hints, reminders, brief explanations, or mini-lessons, only as needed, as the learner works. These footholds of recognition temporarily replace some of the recall burden for the student. I always begin by first having the student get as far as he can on the problem without assistance; then I support him as he builds from there. I may give him the next step. I may work a similar problem while he watches.

I may also direct him back to an example in the textbook or his own notes. Or I may ask him a leading question such as “What are you trying to do? What do you know how to do? How is this problem like the last one?” I am trying to encourage what I call “self-scaffolding;” the learner’s ability to drag knowledge out of his own head instead of needing someone else to do it for him.

Often students look at a hard problem and can’t seem to get going on it. They stare and stare and stare. Don’t just stand there, do something! is what I tell them. Do anything! Copy the problem onto your paper…copy down the formulas you just learned and plug some numbers in…make a diagram, or a sketch, or a chart…just put something down on paper. And it’s amazing how often, once a kid puts marks on paper, the next step seems to emerge, and the next, and the next.

Step Two: Provide Lots of Support

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

I’ve been using my experiences with a painful pinched nerve in my shoulder as a metaphor to talk about tutoring as well as relationship dynamics in general.

By the time I arrived in Dr. Joe’s office my right arm was so painful I didn’t believe I could move it at all. He encouraged me to try lifting it just a bit, in various positions. All the while he supported the weight of my arm in his hands, taking off the pressure, allowing for as much mobility as possible.

Not only did Dr. Joe take the actual weight off my arm by holding it up for me, he also took away a lot of my fear.  Dr. Joe provided support so that I could dare to try to move my arm, and it turned out I was capable of more movement than I knew.

Providing support and easing fear is also a huge part of my job as a tutor.

The psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the phrase “scaffolding” to describe what he saw as the essence of effective tutoring. The tutor provides support and structure so that the learner can do more than what she can accomplish on her own. (Vygotsky called the gap between what a learner can do independently and what she can do with assistance the Zone of Proximal Development).

Reading instruction is an obvious example of scaffolding; the beginning reader moves through the text, receiving help from the expert reader only when necessary. In this way, the novice can handle harder texts than she could by herself, and she’ll soon grow into her next independent reading level.

Tutoring is an ancient technique grounded in the master-apprentice relationship which for most of human history was the primary way people learned new skills. It’s not surprising that classroom instruction often needs to be augmented by one-on-one teaching. Every student is different and will sometimes need educational support that is tailored just for her.

Sometimes parents and teachers are afraid of spoiling kids with too much positive attention, but I’m not advocating empty praise or any lowering of expectations. Effective scaffolding helps kids identify and use their strengths while supporting them as …

Step One: Lessen the Pain

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Last time I told the story of a pinched nerve in my right shoulder. Several minor injuries and stresses over years finally mounted up into this crazy pain and numbness all through my right arm and hand. I was agonized, frightened and confused! Fortunately, I found the right doctor, whose advice was:

Step One, Lessen the Pain

Therapeutic massage, a sling, and lots of Advil and ice packs took the edge off my pain, and within 24 hours I was able to move my arm again.

If I hadn’t gotten the pain under control, I wouldn’t have been able to do the stretching and mobility exercises I needed to do in order to address the underlying problem: traumatized muscles which had clenched down and were now pulling on each other and causing ever greater pain and numbness.

This experience seems a good metaphor for something I see in my students all the time. By the time I meet a new student, I’m confronting a kid who is not only struggling in his schoolwork, but who has built up negative emotions. Chances are he’s immobilized his mind in certain ways as an effort to avoid the pain of further learning experiences.

Step One is to lessen that pain.  I do this by being supportive  and enthusiastic…by pointing out the student’s strengths so he can regain perspective and feel better about himself…and by focusing, especially the first few tutoring sessions, on material with which he can feel success.

Step One: Lessen the Pain also applies in our personal relationships. How many relationships implode because the partners struggle against each other in exhausting, repetitive, non-productive ways? How often do attempts to communicate result in both people clenching-down on their emotions and positions? Thoughts and feelings become ever more extreme, more defensive, more distorted. After a while the pain is intense, random, crazy!

Often what a troubled relationship needs first is relief from pain and intensity. The treatment I give my new students applies here, too:  support, positive messages, the selection of experiences where success will happen.

Once the pain is lessened, then learning and progress can begin.

Where Is the Pain Coming From?

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

My family went skiing over Christmas vacation. We all had a great time and no one came home in a cast.

But a few days after our return, my right arm began hurting. At first it was a barely-there ache in my upper arm, which then became a soreness in my shoulder. It soon became uncomfortable to raise my arm, and then my fingers went tingly.

After a few more days I was in such pain I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t hold a glass or a pencil and my daughter had to help me pull on a shirt.

We found a great chiropractor/muscle therapist on-line. By the time I got to his office, my arm was unmovable and almost untouchable. During his examination, Dr. Joe raised my arm a bit too high and the pain that shot through it felt like a lightning bolt. I burst into shocked tears.

Turns out I had a pinched nerve in my shoulder. Why? There was no obvious explanation. I hadn’t fallen on my arm while skiing, but I had certainly used many muscles I didn’t ordinarily put stress on. I had also done a great deal of violent tugging on ice-skate laces. And I recalled a fall down the basement stairs, ten years ago; I had landed on my right arm and it hadn’t been quite the same since.

Somehow, these seemingly minor and obscure factors must have compounded into this intense pain and immobility. Unless, of course, there were other causes  I couldn’t even think of!

Dr. Joe applied massage…then ultrasound…then some other form of electric vibration through what looked like mini-defibrillator paddles…and after over an hour of treatments my arm felt only slightly better. I was so discouraged! I had hoped to walk out of his office with my pain gone and my problem solved.

Dr. Joe recommended a sling and lots of ice packs and Advil. The key, he said, was to lessen the pain. When the nerve got pinched, muscles around the nerve had tightened to protect it. But they clenched so hard they pulled on other muscles, which tightened in response…and so on. What I had now was this Domino …



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