Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Definition of Traditional Teaching

Traditional teaching is the expectation that students will learn because we tell them to. 

If I were to create a spectrum of teaching practices from traditional to non-traditional, I think I would use the above as my criteria.  Moving away from traditional educational practices has less to do with technology (1:1, iPads, etc) or technique (PBL, PrBL, Challenge based, etc) and more to do with context and motivation.  Whenever I assume that the person I am working with will learn because I am telling them, the more traditional I am being.  

It isn't so much that "kids learn differently these days" or even that there are boundless opportunities for learning and discovery in our technology-rich world - though both are true and part of the push.  

We need to continue moving this direction because learning out of compliance has always yielded superficial understanding for the majority of people and limited the highest levels of achievement to those individuals who were able to find personal meaning and intrinsic motivations despite the system in which they were learning.  This is why so many ideas of progressive education don't sound all that new to people who have been teaching for a long time. They aren't.

In working with teachers on making shifts towards PBL and other practices that require students to solve problems and encounter new information in meaningful contexts, I often have teachers note apologetically that they had to be "more traditional" in one setting or another.  I worry sometimes that the overly simple distinction we make between PBL and Traditional Teaching is that in PBL the students do on their own and in traditional the teacher does it (or that the traditional teacher lectures about it) rather than focusing on the students' understanding of why they are doing what they are doing.  What we don't realize is that going "more traditional" really means simply force-feeding students information when they have no identified use for it other than compliance.   This is often our response, even when we know it doesn't work.

This misunderstanding may be part of the reason why teachers often feel like they "are not allowed to teach" in PBL.  When the distinction is about tools or technique and the ideal is "student learns all by themselves, " many teachers feel like it doesn't allow them to do the very thing that gets them out of bed in the morning and got them into teaching in the first place - helping people understand ideas they care deeply about.  PBL teachers absolutely teach and I might argue that a PBL teachers should expect to "teach" a vast majority of the most important concepts in their discipline.  

Teaching means helping someone know and understand something they don't know and understand.  For me, an ideal learning moment in a PBL classroom would be a teacher responding to sophisticated student questions related to a meaningful concept they were struggling to apply. Now the responses might be a mix of questions and answers, but in that moment, the teacher would absolutely be operating as an expert in their field, leading the students in learning. 

The difference is that in good PBL, we create a context where that expertise is needed, valued, and appreciated.  Back to the above definition, it isn't valued out of respect or compliance - though of course there will be students who do come with this and it is worth cultivating a culture where individuals respect the expertise of others - it is valued because we have respected students enough to help them come to an understanding of the importance of the problems that make our expertise valuable.  And we have helped them come to that understanding BEFORE we have expected them to value our understanding of the answer. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Clearly - a better way to read

I am a huge fan of Evernote as a tool for organizing ideas, work, and research.  I should probably post about that someday.  Today, I want to highlight what has become my favorite tool for making reading online easier: Evernote Clearly.   Clearly is a simple little addition to your browser.   Clearly makes reading on the web just that - clear.  You can see their great little video here.

This is much easier to see than explain.  Here is a fairly typical website:

Nothing unusual - there is the text of the article, but also ads, links, and all sorts of distractions.  Here is that same page after clicking the Clearly button:

Ahhh... so much better.  All of the distractions evaporate and you can focus on the text.

In addition to the streamlined view, Clearly offers:

  • Easy ability to change background color and text size.  Why squint or struggle when the view can match you preferred size and style?
  • The ability to highlight and add comments (see toolbar on the right).  If you come across something useful as you read - highlight it and it is automatically added to your Evernote account This presupposes you use Evernote as a note storage system - which you should consider doing.  As a bonus doing this with students - when a note is clipped, the web address is captured as well - no more "I forgot where I found that information" 
  • Related notes - in the shot above you can see that when I opened the article in the Clearly reading panel, the tool automatically did a search of my existing notes to see if there was anything similar.   This has the potential to be a very powerful tool for helping students make text-to-text connections.
As a tool for students, you will have to convince your district IT people to add the extension and Evernote as a tool.  Worth doing, but potentially a large undertaking.*  If nothing else - give this a test-drive for yourself and I'll bet you won't read the same.

*If you have made a pitch to your districti IT people to add Evernote or Clearly to the general student computer image - please send it to me and I will post it for others to share! 

Check out their video: