Saturday, March 31, 2012

Learning Designed for Students

Thinking back to when I was a student I’m not so sure the learning was designed for me or for students in general.  From what I remember, we were all moved through content and skills in lock-step.  The teachers were on a mission to get us to the next grade by covering what was on their list.  Now this was back in the day when content didn’t change much and the skills that we needed were tried and true.  That model isn’t really fit for today or the future.

imageAn elementary school in our District has adopted an educational model called Universal Design for Learning or UDL.  Although UDL is not about technology, implementers have found that technology makes it possible to use the approach efficiently.  Our elementary school has embraced the use of special software, laptops, and SMART Boards to support this approach to teaching and learning.  I share some quotes with you that the principal shared with me for how the UDL approach makes a difference in the lives of kids…

“increase ‘access’ to general curriculum materials and, at the same time, provide support for the learner’s particular challenges”

“‘text-to-speech’ technology can be a powerful tool for visually and processing speed impaired students to keep pace and comprehend what they are reading”

“technology is used to ‘even the playing field’ and allow the child independent access to the curriculum”

You can see from these quotes that this approach and use of technology has a real assistive / adaptive feel to it.  Certainly we’ve found it to be a positive model for specially challenged learners.  However what surprised the Principal and teachers was how well the approach and tools improved learning for all their students.  They’ve demonstrated this through the data they’ve collected and how the data clearly show increased success for all children.

I want you to meet Chloie and Madison, two grade 5 students from our UDL school.  I visited with them a few months ago and they shared with me how a particular suite of tools called Solo6, helped them with their writing.  Please enjoy their videos posted below where their specific learning activity was to develop and write a speech.  Perhaps you will leave a comment for them on their videos.

Chloie shows how she develops her speech

Madison shows her approach to writing a speech

Earlier this past week I received an email from the teacher that arranged my visit with Chloie and Madison.  She said the girls were asking when I was coming back to show them their videos!  How cool is that.  I’m visiting with them next Monday to share their videos with them.  I haven’t used the videos in any presentations yet so this blog post will serve as their début.

I’m no expert on using or implementing UDL but as an outside observer, I see it as a model or framework worth considering as schools move toward a more personalized approach to learning.  Although technology isn’t the end, it is certainly an important means to achieving this aim.  As technology matures in its capability we will see significant advances in how it will transform learning for all kids.  For a glimpse into the near future in how technology may evolve to support not only education but our lives, check out the latest from Corning Glass.

The future is near…

What examples might you have where technology plays a key role in the learning success of students?  If you have UDL experience, perhaps you could share some UDL stories here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Personal Vision to the Future

I wonder how many of us wander through life somewhat aimlessly?  We finish high school and maybe go to university, trade school, travel for a while, get a job, do charity work, or even ‘do nothing’.  Eventually most people land in a career or a job that sustains them.  Many will marry, have kids, and ‘live life’.  Some people seem then, to go through life without any particular goals.  Some seem to wander along with a cloud over their heads.  You know, the people that when they are in your presence or enter a room, suck the air and energy out of the room.  I wonder if they just never got around to creating a Brianeaglepersonal vision?  On a personal note, I really enjoy the outdoors, and was pretty focused on downhill mountain biking (have switched for safety reasons to XC).  The picture shown here is of me a few years back living life to the fullest in the woods on my bike :-)  A quick a-side, I read this article by Michael Hyatt yesterday that you might enjoy on how to become a happy person people want to be around.  It truly is a choice as to what state of mind we wish to carry around with us and project onto others.  Negativity and Positivity are both infectious, which do you want to project?  You need a personal vision to get to a preferred future!

“To be highly knowledgeable and capable in leading and supporting the people I work with and to influence and lead others in powerful and effective uses of technology.”

I have been thinking lately (like I never do that) about my personal goals, my career goals, and my vision for the future.  Subject to more thinking… the statement above is what I’ve come up with so far with respect to career.  I learned from a wise person once that it’s useful to think of these types of statements as '”elevator statements”.  Boil it down to something you could share on an elevator with someone while traveling between floors.  Note that for a more personal vision, not developed yet, I see more investment in charitable activities in my future…

While spending time deep thinking about who I am, I decided to do a SWOT to help organize my thoughts.  A SWOT is a common technique for quickly analyzing a situation an idea, a project, etc.  You have to be very honest and transparent if it’s to be meaningful. 


Notice the weaknesses I list for myself.  Being ever aware of these helps me to mitigate their potential damage.  For example I have surrounded myself with others to overcome these, to fill the holes the weaknesses can create.  I also have to consciously self-regulate to dial back some of my natural tendencies.  Fortunately, I have two quality managers who support me and bring balance to this context.  I think leaders need people different then themselves to round out the available leadership capacity.  I really appreciate DC and BL and the work they do that enables me to do what I need to do: focusing on the Strengths, Opportunities, and Threats, and knowing the Weaknesses are being addressed.

I also spent some time thinking about specific goals.  I have developed one candidate goal so far but need to work on a few more.  Notice I’m using the SMART goal approach here which forces you to be concrete.  That’s a good thing for me as I prefer to live in an abstract philosophical intellectual world :-)


This goal fits really well with my passion for learning in general but also to help me be more capable of holding authentic conversations with professional educators about their world.  I’ve worked very hard the past five years to fill in my knowledge in this area through reading books, blogs, and many conversations with teachers and principals. I’ve been referred to as an educator many times. I may not be trained and practiced professionally as an educator but I think intellectually I “get it”.  It helps that I have a strong orientation to being a learner.  I’ve found that being in classrooms gives me a first hand view and ability to talk more practically with teachers and students clarifies my understanding.

This year I’ve focused on trying to expand and develop awareness and understanding for my staff of our educational context, coming changes with information technologies, tools, efficiencies, learning needs, etc.  You might be interested in what I wrote about for one of our meetings in Considering the Future.  Our fourth and last meeting for the year is in June.  I’m planning to facilitate work on personal SWOT’s, SMART goals, and personal career vision.  I am hoping this iStock_000010797682XSmallhelps us set the stage for a very intentional year for 2012-13 in being individually and collectively moving forward to be well positioned to deal with the future in our role in the “business” of education.  I am impressed with my staff having survived the deep thinking they’ve endured this year in our meetings.  I know it’s difficult for some of them to step out of their purely IT roles into this type of thinking about their work and our future together.

I wonder what you would write as your personal vision?  Maybe you would like to comment on that here…

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Designed to Change

There is something seriously wrong with the way some things are imagedesigned.  My wife and I were away yesterday and I get a text from one of my kids saying “the fridge isn’t working”.  Sure enough when we get home later, it’s dead!  This is our second fridge in just over 10 years (our first was relatively expensive, the second inexpensive – didn’t seem to matter).  When I mention this to others most often people suggest that 5 years is pretty normal for a fridge.  I think fridges are designed to fail.  So, after I write this blog post we’re off hunting for a new fridge, oh joy…  I probably shouldn’t be writing this post right now in my less-than-happy-about-my-fridge state of mind.

However, as you know this is not limited to fridges and not just to products that stop working.  Think about the consumer electronics business.  Cell phones, for example, seem to be designed to be disposed of within 3 years.  Actually, even 3 years is a long time now when you look at the amount of change that occurs in 12-18 months.  Apple,  Android, and Windows phone manufacturers are certainly doing their part to drive the disposal smartphone market.  I just read an article on Zite yesterday suggesting the new iPhone 5, when available, will cause yet another massive disruption and may well be Apples (or anyone's) fastest selling phone.  Many of those who move up to that phone will be disposing of 1 and 2 year old perfectly functioning phones, many of which are recent iPhones.  We all experience this with electronics – new stuff comes out and suddenly what we just bought is no longer good enough.  I wonder how many iPad 2 owners are clamoring to purchase the iPad 3 now even though there’s relatively little “functional” difference.  What has happened to our society that we think it’s okay for so many products to be disposable?  And if you think I’m immune to this, I’m not.  I too get caught up in wanting the newest products although our TV, all 27 inches of retro CRT, still seems to serve us well with our rabbit ear antenna and digital to analogue converter…

How is it that our “environmentally conscious” society accepts the designed to change (or fail) mentality of manufacturers and marketers?  Our broken fridge is essentially not repairable and will be disposed of (not exactly sure what happens to it). What about all those cell phones, computers, TVs, etc.?  Why can’t our products be designed to last?  Not only is this model hard on our environment, it’s hard on our pocket books.

I was having a conversation with my eldest son the other day (he’s 24) about business (he runs his own) and fair wages (he’s hired two people recently).  I think it’s awesome that he is thinking this iStock_000017128753XSmallthrough.  He wants to pay his employees fairly for the type of work he needs them to do.  Anyway, the conversation moved over to talking about the impact of our lifestyle expectations on others.  For example, how often do we think about all the people “slaving” to produce, ever faster, our electronics, our relatively inexpensive clothing, food, shoes, etc.?  People in poorer countries are essentially working like slaves to supporting our disposable lifestyle.  I realize that what they may be paid sustains their families and without it, they may be worse off.  But, it doesn’t quite feel right does it…

We seem to be wired to expect that stuff is designed to change.  We expect the next tablet, smartphone, or car to have more features, be faster, cooler, whatever.  We’re pleased that companies are so innovative and capable of producing all these wonderful products for us.  But, isn’t it interesting that when we buy our new product we are quite pleased with our purchase, we’re happy, satisfied, etc., UNTIL, the next version or model is announced.  Suddenly, what was just bought (could be a month ago) isn’t quite as “shiny” and exciting.  I wonder what path this type of thinking will eventually lead us down.  It’s amazing how in tough economic times people have found so much disposable income to stay on this track of iStock_000019171659XSmallbuy and replace a year or two later…  I don’t have any worthy answers to my questions and wonderings but I think we need to raise our consciousness around this designed to change problem and perhaps adapt the model and scale back our expectations to be more about needs and less about wants.  We need to chart a new direction.  Easy? Doubtful. Important to our future? Absolutely.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Complex Classrooms

I have the pleasure of regularly going out to visit with teachers and students in classrooms.  This past Thursday I visited two classrooms: a Kindergarten and a Grade 1 class.  In the Kindergarten class I was video recording a learning documentation process the teacher uses iStock_000016027894XSmallto support her students story writing.  The students came up one by one to share their pictures and in some cases, also written stories.  They were very motivated and proud to be able to do this.  The teacher used her iPod Touch to record each student explaining and/or reading their story.  The teacher then plays back the students reflections in the quiet of her home and provides written feedback in each students journal.  The kids loved that I was recording them telling their stories!

While this was going on, one of her students had a bit of a melt down.  This particular student is designated as having certain special needs and a special education assistant (SEA) was present.  This student caused quite a bit of disruption to the class, not something I see very often in my visits.  In talking to the teacher, she described another 4 or 5 students in her class who have various special needs and the complexity of managing and personalizing learning in this classroom.  I was impressed with this teacher’s calm demeanor and her fearlessness in using technology to document students learning in a noisy, challenging, and disruptive learning environment.

My second visit last Thursday took me to a Grade 1 class where the teacher took the class down memory lane back to September.  She had taught the kids about bridges, bridge design, building materials, and documented the journey through pictures and textual descriptors.  She stored her documentation in SMARTboard notebooks.  I video recorded her taking the class back in time while the kids’ memories were activated.  They started with pictures (from the Internet) of real bridges from around the world then into a File:London Bridge Illuminated.jpgsequence showing each kid drawing plans for their own bridges.  As a students’ picture of them and their plan was displayed, they would talk about their design and the relative strength their bridge may have using triangles versus other shapes.  They discussed building materials that could enable curved structures, etc.  The journey ended with pictures of the kids showing their completed bridges built from various materials and using marshmallows as the connecting “glue”.  At the end of the class the teacher asked the kids who wanted to show Mr. Kuhn their bridges and every hand went up!  I was then taken on the grand tour of their elaborate bridge structures.

In this class there were students with special needs and one SEA.  But, the complexity I want to highlight for this class though, is the learning.  I was impressed with how much the students had learned about and could elaborate on bridge design and construction.  I wondered, how would the teacher capture this journey if it weren’t for her digital camera (iPod Touch).  Pictures really are a thousand words aren’t they.  But think about this extra layer of complexity for the teacher.  She has to be always on the lookout for learning to document with pictures.  Later, she has to transfer the pictures to her computer and organize them in a digital notebook with annotations, weave the use of this documentation into reflections with students, reporting to parents, and informing her own feedback to her students.  This is a complex process to add to her teaching practice and she’s done a fabulous job of it.  Listen to her talk about starting out as a documenter:

Documenting Learning

I think that the learning environment in which teachers practice, has become quite complex.  We technologists expect and encourage teachers to adopt a variety of technology to assist and transform their teaching and student learning.  We need to remember that the context in classrooms is already complex with each student having diverse learning and special needs.  Two things are radically different today then they were when I went to school: integration of all students in classrooms and the increasing presence of technology.  It really is encouraging to see increasing examples of teachers fearlessly experimenting and adopting new practices using technology.  Especially with complex student needs, there are so many ways technology is being found to assist them.  I think in the long run, complex classrooms will increasing be transformed through the careful and thoughtful use of technology.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Self Regulation in an Always On World

The need for people to be effective at self regulation has always flickr - langwitches - Learning then and Nowbeen important.  However, I believe its importance is greater today and increasing given the “always on world” we now live in.  When I was a kid, self regulation involved behaving properly, using proper table manners, putting my hand up in school, and being home for dinner on time.  I think things have become a little more complicated in these technology transformed times.

“Self control should increase with age due to the development of the sensory system. As the sensory system develops, people's perceptual abilities expand. For instance, children do not have a concept of time, and in this sense, they live in the present. However, as children age and develop into adults, they gradually gain the ability to comprehend the future consequences of their actions.”, Self-control. Wikipedia March 4, 2012.

Self-regulation (aka self-control) needs to be learned early on and it’s encouraging that this is something that, I understand, receives quite a bit of attention in our early learning (K-3) classrooms.  What I worry about though is what happens as young children grow up in a technology rich and highly distracting world.  Also, it’s shocking how young people and adults alike fail to self-regulate when they use amplifying social media technologies like Twitter and Facebook.  These tools too often bring the worst out in people.  When I see name calling, emotionally charged tweets from who I know to be iStock_000013270409XSmallgood, intelligent people, I see a failure to self-regulate.  A lack of self-regulation when using social media can at best embarrass and at worse get someone fired or sued for defamation of character.  What we say online is who people will believe we are and it never goes away, you can’t take it back, and it’s completely and globally public!  Even if you think you’re right or it’s true, it doesn’t make it appropriate to broadcast your thoughts online.  Maybe we can’t “save” adults from themselves but our school systems certainly aught to weave self-regulation learning in, K through 12 so as to raise up a generation of thoughtful people who easily and naturally self-regulate. 

Another area where self-regulation is crucial is in managing our focus, attention, and time in a world where our technology relentlessly beckons us.  I now use a laptop, an iPad, and a Windows 7 Phone.  I recall the days when all I had access to was a desktop computer at work and the same at home.  To check e-mail at home required a “trip” downstairs to the computer and it took forever to logon to get email.  Email reading/responding was an infrequent event ‘cause it was inconvenient.  My wife, kids, and I took turns accessing the computer then where as today I think there are about Play Blocks With Letters10 Internet connected devices in my home at any given time!  We now have über convenient access to email, social media, websites, ebooks, online games, online music, TV, and movies, etc.  It’s crazy how things have changed in 20 years or even the past 10.  The level of distraction today is unprecedented.  I know I struggle to leave my phone and iPad alone.  They are always present and available.   It is a significant struggle to not check if there’s a new email, tweet, or some other piece of information just waiting for me to consume and respond to.  It’s easy to cross a line and be disrespectful to those with whom you’re present by connecting to those who are not.  I think parents of young children have a seriously important job in understanding how and why their kids use technology today and guide and teach them to self-regulate their use. Reduced TV use but significantly increased handheld or online gaming is not a fair trade for kids!

Students and schools wrestle with the use of cell, smart phones, handhelds, tablets, and laptops in class.  Most teachers today see these tools as distractors not supporters of learning.  Or, think about school or District staff meetings and people with their laptops and smart phones doing email, using Twitter, or just off-task reading something else while the meeting is underway.  How can these tools possibly be useful when all they do is take us off to other places rather than remaining present and in the moment?  But hold on, this isn’t any different than passing notes in class or meetings 20 years ago, right?  Or perhaps before technology, people day dreamed more…

Although I understand the challenge teachers and meeting facilitators face, it does bother me when people blame the tools for poor behavior, being off task, etc. and ask participants to shut them off.  How can that possibly be the right answer when the tools bring so iStock_000016878193XSmallmuch power to your fingertips?  Tools are neither good or bad, they’re agnostic.  Behaviors though, are learned and can be modified.  In this always on world shouldn’t we be figuring out how to transform how classrooms are managed, lessons are taught and learned, and information is disseminated and transmitted?  I think so.  We should be redesigning how learning, teaching, and meeting works to maximize the beneficial use of the technology at our disposal or at least neutralize the distraction.  Otherwise, how will students and adults learn self-regulation and positive behaviors with the technology?    Howard Gardner states that “educational efforts are dedicated toward the acquisition of the appropriate disciplinary knowledge, habits of minds, and patterns of behavior” (Five Minds for the Future, Kindle 421).  Our schools are key partners with parents in instilling the discipline of self-regulation in students.

Our technology is increasing in quantity, power, convenience, accessibility and is not going away.  We had better get a handle on how we self-regulate our use of it, before it completely masters us.  We need to be masters of our technology, not the other way around.  Used effectively, technology is an enriching experience, opens doors previously closed, amplifies learning and communication, and stimulates imagination and creativity.  Embrace it and be a self-regulator.