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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Knowledge Management and the Classroom

I’ve been reading about Knowledge Management (KM) lately, and I began to think about its application to education. Systems theorist Russell Ackoff posits that the mind can be classified into 5 categories—data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. The big split comes between information and knowledge. Data and information are inert—they do not cause things to happen.

Traditionally, education has focused on knowledge—the domain in which data and information get committed to memory. Not surprisingly, knowledge level learners can regurgitate the facts. They can take data and information and kick back some of it because some of it stuck in their memory. However, knowledge level teaching and learning is not where the cognitive action is.

Real, deep learning occurs at the understanding and wisdom levels. These are the levels that require students to synthesize information and create. When students synthesize information they take new information and integrate it with prior knowledge. The more a student synthesizes the more a student gets to the why. Likewise, when students work at the wisdom level they create theory.

The question is at what level does student learning terminate? How do we know? The short answer is “ask”.

At a minimum we want students to learn at the level of understanding. We can facilitate deep learning if we relentlessly probe prior knowledge and connect it to new knowledge through writing and peer dialogue. All too often prior knowledge is queried at the beginning of a lesson, only to stay there. However, by explicitly revisiting prior knowledge in light of new knowledge we can help students to create synthesized knowledge. Another key to understanding is the ability to communicate effectively within the discourse. As teachers we can immerse students in the discourse of the subject matter. If we want students to talk in class they need to be taught how to talk in class. This includes building the requisite subject level vocabulary. The key of course is getting students to use this language in peer dialogues. Simply, the student that can integrate the term metaphor into a sophisticated peer dialogue about literature knows metaphor far better than a student that can define the term metaphor on a test.

Knowledge gets you in the game; understanding wins the game; wisdom takes the series.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Selling the Benefit to Students

As a teacher it is critical to sell the benefit of a lesson to students. Students too often fail to realize the benefits of education let alone a lesson. As teachers, we need to ask ourselves what we want students to know and be able to do in relation to what we are teaching and why. The answers to these questions will get us to the point where we can sell the benefit to our students.

These questions have various timeframes and answers. In the immediate future our answer may be that we want students to know and be able to do something so that they can pass the test on Friday. However, when we push the timeframe to a month or a year from now, it forces us to evaluate what we are teaching, what students are learning, and why.

Curriculum maps and the EPAS Standards for Transition help teachers answer these questions. Nevertheless, I found that a more personal sell was in order. With this in mind I aligned the curriculum with a singular focus on improving communication. I told students that their goal was to be understood the first time—in speech, writing, body language, etc. Through group discussion students were able to link improved communication with their college and career aspirations.

A word of caution, never preach the benefit to students; instead, let students discover it for themselves. Use the benefit as a mega-theme for instruction, and steer classroom dialogues in the benefit direction whenever possible. The key here is to meaningfully connect what we are doing in the classroom to the students’ futures.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

PowerPoint Presentations, the Filmstrips of Today

A sure fire way to get kids to put their heads on their desks used to be to say, “Heads down thumbs up. Now it’s time to play 7-Up.” It appears that catch phrase from elementary school has been replaced with “Take out your notebooks, I have a PowerPoint for us today.”

Let’s face it; PowerPoint presentations are the filmstrips of today. Remember filmstrips? The only kid that paid attention was the kid that got to advance the filmstrip. Sadly, PowerPoint presentations have done away with the one kid who did pay attention leaving a classroom full of lethargic zombies drooling on their desks. A typically teacher designed PowerPoint presentation is usually chuck full of bullet points and other “valuable” information.

If we listen we can probably hear the echo of another PowerPoint presentation gone awry: “Is everybody ready? Does everybody have the bullet points down in their notes?” Simply put, this is a lousy way to learn. Just think of how many times you sat through a PowerPoint at professional development sessions. You probably can’t recall much of the information contained on the slides; although, I’m sure, the presenter thought they were important. Yet, we have no problem doing the same thing to our students. In fact, we expect more from them than we do from ourselves. We expect them to LEARN from a PowerPoint presentation.

We need to use PowerPoint to visually enhance instruction not to be the instruction. Visuals are powerful learning tools, and using visuals can help us to “brand” our lessons. Visuals play off the right hemisphere of the brain. Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words. In place of bullet points use pictures. Google Image Search and Flickr are good places to start looking for those visuals. Hopefully, the heads will stop hitting the desks, the next time the projector is turned on.

Find Something You're Passionate About

If you are not passionate about a lesson, students will know it. Students have a nose for negativity; therefore, it'’s important to bring the A-game each and every day. Look, I used to hate teaching grammar. The thought of prepositional phrases numbed me to the bones. My attitude sucked and it was contagious. Since the brain imitates observed behavior it wasn'’t long before the students were recalcitrant.

In an effort to counteract this slide into negativity, I resolved to find something interesting about grammar. Soon I rediscovered sentence diagramming, and got hooked. I even started diagramming sentences in my free time. It was cool, and it became something I could hang grammar and usage instruction on. Soon the class picked up on my passion for sentence diagramming, and the class was transformed.

The key is to find something your passionate about in everything you teach. Make no mistake, students got into grammar instruction when I got passionate about grammar instruction.

Teach to the Duck

Charlie has an extensive rubber duck collection. Blue, pink, and yellow ducks of various sizes fill up the bathtub each night. It should be no surprise that sometimes Charlie talks to his rubber ducks.

It got me to thinking that rubber ducks are underutilized in teacher preparation programs. Like many teachers, I used to go over my lessons in my head on the way to school. I remember being surprised when what I said in class sounded rushed or clunky. Of course, the problem was that there is a difference between thinking the words and actually saying them. So why not go over lessons aloud, with a rubber duck? Before you laugh, think about the importance of verbalizing lessons to students. Talking through a lesson with a prop—like a rubber duck—allows us to better pace our delivery and to avoid clunky sounding words and phrases.

My advice to teachers—start teaching to the duck.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Little Idea: See what the students see.

Early in my teaching career, a fellow teacher said, “Our presentations to students have to be on or they’ll eat us alive.” He was right; in my experience, ineffective teachers were ineffective communicators. Ineffective communication retards student achievement, and can make school boring.

Teachers communicate with students all the time, but very few teachers scrutinize their communications. In my second year of teaching, in order to improve my technique, I videotaped my class. I thought I was a good presenter. I thought I was effective. In a nutshell, I thought a lot about me.

Nothing made me cringe more than watching those tapes. To my chagrin, I discovered that I talked way too much. I nervously rambled, often interrupting the flow of the lesson. I stammered and used gap fillers like “ah” and “um”. On the positive side, I was very enthusiastic, and the students were surprisingly patient with me. My God, there was so much room for improvement.

As a result of the videotape, I started adhering to time frames to bracket my speaking. I found that by cutting down on my “teacher-talk” I was increasing students’ time on task. Suddenly,the class had flow. Ultimately classes became student focused; instead of teacher focused. My advice to teachers is to videotape you classes, get some popcorn, and see what the kids see. It wasn’t easy, but it made me a much better teacher. Since then I've been videotaped countless times, but the viewing experience remains a time for critique.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

BIG IDEA: Teacher Stories and Professional Development

The fact is that water and dirt make mud; however, the story is a whole lot more interesting. Sure it has to do with mud, but it also concerns a little boy with tons of energy, a school project for my nephew in New York, and the absorbent power of corduroy pants. The point is there is a story here, and nothing beats a good story.

Stories are powerful because our minds are wired to understand stories. Whenever I do a presentation, I use stories to connect abstract information to experience. I have found that people are more likely to remember a story then they are a list of facts. Therefore, integrating stories with professional development makes sense.

Unfortunately, in the data driven world of NCLB, administrators often ignore the power of stories. I have heard countless administrators ask what the data “say”. Remember dead men don’t wear plaid, and data don’t tell stories. People tell stories. Getting members of a learning community to share education stories is critical in actualizing the potential of a school.

Here is a simple exercise that can help remind us of the power of story. What are your first three memories that have to do with school? Write down each of these memories. Now ask yourself, how those memories inform your practice in the present?

I’ve used this activity in the teacher lounge, and am always amazed at the richness of the stories. Teachers don’t answer this question with a list of facts or data. They get into their stories, and they want to share them with others. Those that hear the stories often want to tell their own stories. In this way storytelling becomes contagious. An added benefit of the above exercise is how surprised teachers are to learn the extent that the ghosts of their past inform their daily practice as teachers. Engaging in this type of storytelling builds reflective practice, humanizes faculty members, and increases the cohesiveness of a learning community.

Imagine the power of having a professional development day dedicated to teacher storytelling. The focus could be on educational memories or on each teacher’s “hero’s journey”. It sure beats imaging a guest speaker or a PowerPointless presentation.

Monday, April 03, 2006

BIG IDEA: Teachers enroll in classes at their schools

Teachers have long been encouraged to take courses to enhance their classroom practices. Under NCLB, teachers have even been mandated to earn continuing education credits. In response to these mandates, many teachers have enrolled in college courses locally or over the Internet. In general this is a positive development for teaching, but the quality of some of these programs has recently come into question. In fact some teachers have lost their jobs in pay-per-credit schemes.

My suggestion is that teachers should go back to school—they should enroll in a course at the school they teach in. Over the years, many teachers have forgotten what it means to experience school from a student persepective. For example, imagine a high school English teacher enrolled in a biology course. The teacher assumes the role of student. She goes to class, takes notes, participates in assessments, and receives a grade. In the process she learns about teaching and learning from a student’s point of view.

However, it is critical that she move out of her comfort zone. It won’t work if she takes another English class because her content expertise will interfere with her learner stance. The task here is to immerse oneself in the role of student and to learn along with students.

Benefits of this approach are numerous—it breaks through teacher isolation, it focuses on learning, and it may even increase the quality of the instruction for the teachers who teach their class to other teachers. If I were back in high school, I think I’d enroll in physics or calculus or maybe art.