Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Technology, or ELSE!

I was present at a lecture given by Dr. Wilson Gum this week. Dr. Gum has worked as an industrial chemist for over forty years, including acting as R&D director for Dow Chemicals polyurethane division. At one point, Dr. Gum was sent to evaluate a recently acquired factory in the, then, recently independent country of Estonia. While touring the plant, which manufactured benzoic acid, he discovered that every piece of equipment was duplicated. The entire factory was like Noah’s Ark: two of everything. He asked why so much inefficiency was tolerated. The plant’s engineers told him that under communism efficiency for profit’s sake was never much of a motivator, but that engineers were regularly executed or sent to Siberian gulags when their processes failed, or when production broke down. A fear of technological failure, and its consequences, shaped the manner in which technology was both designed and employed in that environment.

Throughout this semester, I have wrestled with the dichotomy between theoretical assertions, backed with data, and educational practices. I have taken the time to ask my colleagues about educational technology, and to listen carefully when conversation drifted to that topic on its own. Teachers, it seems, are inherently pessimistic about technology; new technologies often have bugs, networks crash, the copier jams. In the end, most teachers view technology as magical or adversarial, or a combination of the two. The few teachers that possess any comfort or facility with technology are seen as exceptional by their peers.

Technology will fail. Teachers must strive to become experts in the technologies that are incorporated into their pedagogies, as they are to become expert in their content (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, 1999). Teachers are able to adapt to new students and new learning situations, but are often incapable of transferring their own skills both to and between technologies. Too often, technology is employed as a patina on top of more traditional pedagogical methods. Web quests are used for enrichment. Publishing programs are used as an alternative to nearly identical paper and pencil tasks. Teachers are rarely able to be flexible with technology, because their knowledge is that of a novice.

Teachers don’t have to worry about banishment if their technological attempts fail, but there are considerable pressures bearing on classroom decisions. Primarily among these pressures is that of time. If technology breaks down, or if a project is ineffective- time has been lost. Time is in short supply as teachers attempt to meet increasing standards of accountability and to cover prescribed content. Consequently, teachers will play it safe. They will use technology they can count on. They will design projects which can be easily converted into a less technology-reliant version. In short, teachers will design around education as long as it remains a mode of thinking in which they are not fluent. Teachers must become expert in the theory and use of technology in order to effectively bring research findings into the classroom.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Teachers as partners

If research of best practices for applying technology to learning states that teachers should be partners in innovative techniques (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999) my school district clearly does not consider such research when making decisions. As teachers, we are required to attend monthly technology sessions in which we are meant to receive training in practical application of technology to our classrooms. We have recently been asking our technology staff about firewalls prohibiting YouTube from being used on the district network. The firewalls have been up and down throughout the year, and we have been told, with finality, that both teachers and students will not be able to access YouTube for the foreseeable future.

While the pedagogical merits of YouTube may be debatable, the context in which this decision was made seems to be in stark contrast to the principle of teachers as partner s in innovation. We were told that the main concern our administrators had with YouTube was the likelihood of tying up bandwidth due to overuse. We were directed to use subscription-based video services which have been approved by the district. When asked how the bandwidth requirements of these subscription-based services differed from YouTube we were told that they did not, except that they have found use of these services to be less frequent.

The subscription services we have been directed to use contain severely outdated materials. The staff of professional educators in our district universally mock and revile these videos and simply do not use the service. When given the opportunity to use another resource our teachers have voted with their feet. By our technology department’s own admission use of YouTube is frequent throughout the district when it is available. Yet, the decision has been made restrict use of this popular site.

Administrators are challenged to make a number of decisions which they feel are best for their districts. They are restricted by finances and their overall vision of district priorities and goals. However, it seems to be the height of professional disrespect to have clear evidence that their faculty have preference for a particular resource and to then restrict its use. Increasingly, teachers are limited in their roles as partners and professionals with teaching expertise by top-down decision making which posits that teachers are either a) wrong b) uninformed or c) lacking the judgment to use such resources effectively and responsibly. If administrators are unwilling or unable to give their teachers a role in decision making their will never be a place for teachers as partners in innovative use of technology.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Teaching Teachers

Teachers are often resistant to incorporating theoretical practices in their classrooms. Training for teachers is often carried out antithetically to the pedagogy teachers are supposed to practice (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999). However, it is my contention that the greatest barrier to teachers accepting and implementing new pedagogies is the interplay between the need for immediate problem solving and the lack of time for reflection on current practices.

Typically, teachers are asked to do a lot in a day: grading, attendance, IEP monitoring, communicating with parents, counselors, and administrators, cleaning, watching the halls, administrative duties, planning, copying, mentoring, coaching, organizing field trips, administering standardized tests, and usually- teaching. Teachers must adopt time management strategies to keep from being overwhelmed. Strategies involve prioritizing problems, and often solving them “just in time.” Teacher survival strategies often result in myopia that prohibits the reflection and thoughtfulness necessary to absorb and implement new techniques.

During in-services, and even in some courses in degree programs, teachers may be seen grading or filling out paperwork; trying to stay abreast of the continuous tidal flow of requirements from day to day. Teachers do not want to hear about innovative practices. Teachers are decidedly uncurious about what is going on in academia or even in colleagues’ classrooms. If Maslow’s hierarchy of needs were applied to teachers, it would be apparent that most are mired in safety or psychological survival, at least in a professional sense.

In order to bridge the gap between theory and practice, new pedagogies must be made meaningful to teachers in an immediate sense. In the same manner that constructivist theory dictates that students develop personal ways of acquiring information based upon the fulfillment of their own needs, teachers should be presented with information on an as needed basis; or at least taught new pedagogies in application to specific students and classes. Teachers can work cooperatively during in-services, grouping themselves by department or clusters of students. Cooperating teaching groups can determine their own priorities and search for solutions in the academic literature, or find knowledgeable individuals to train them in useful applications of theory.

I have been at too many in-service trainings and workshops where speakers lecture to a room full of teachers who are bored, tuned-out, or hostile to the presentation. The needs of teachers must be of paramount importance in addressing effective teacher training. Unfortunately, political agendas and budget restrictions will always keep teachers from working in an ideal classroom. There will always be too many students, too much administrative work, and too many requirements of accountability to allow teachers the luxury of reflection and creative thought that appreciation of academic theory requires. Theoreticians must bring new pedagogies to teachers in a meaningful, immediately relevant form if new research-based practices are to implemented.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learning Environments

Science, as a subject, can be understood in two ways; either as a set of facts about the natural world and how it works, or as a way of acquiring knowledge and looking at events in the world. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) present evidence of learning environments that successfully engender conceptual understanding of problem solving in physics and environmental science. These same environments, however, seem to lack the balance of conceptual understanding with factual acquisition. Having, at least, some basic factual knowledge about the world allows for a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of many aspects of daily life that are simply lost on individuals without such knowledge.

Due to increased technical specialization and the vast amounts of scientific claims in modern life it is essential that scientific literacy is maintained and developed as a goal of education. Every citizen in a democracy must have some ability to evaluate claims made by technocrats and other authorities which may impact his life. To effectively develop scientific literacy, educators must help their students develop an understanding of the manner in which scientists work and develop theories, as well as build a foundation content knowledge which will allow for fluency in scientific discussions.

The model learning environments presented by Bransford, et al (1999) focus almost exclusively on the understanding of scientific process skills, while allowing students to confuse details and facts. The Haitian students profiled in their study of water quality confused the characteristics of good drinking water with the characteristics of a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Their methodology may have been sound, but this is exactly the kind of half-understanding that allows people to be misled by unscrupulous individuals such as advertisers, politicians, and pundits. Regular claims about the dietary benefits or pitfalls of various foods are made tenuously based on a target audiences’ limited understanding of the scientific facts behind those claims. As another example, debates about global warming are thoroughly confounded by the colloquial dismissal of “global warming” on any unseasonably cold day.

It is not enough to build abstract logic skills in a vacuum without reference to the natural world they represent. Further, descriptive science can be fulfilling in its own right. I remember learning about trees and insects and seeing the world around me as a much richer place to be in. When I walk outside, I notice the leaves and bark around me and begin to catalog the insects that fly and craw about. Based on my knowledge and experience a narrative of the environment opens up to me. I’m more aware of the world around me, and more thoughtful of it. By having a vocabulary to look at the world I conceptualize claims about the environment in a more personal manner. Hearing statistics about the diversity in an acre of Amazon rainforest has my thoughts rushing to large insect collections I have seen or afternoons I have spent by creeks and ponds, patiently collecting specimens of my own. While I have never been to the Amazon I have a frame of reference which allows me to make abstractions more concrete.

If science is to be an effective tool for understanding of the world it must couple this intimate, factual knowledge with the conceptual framework of scientific methods at every step. Science education cannot treat facts and methods as separate subjects which can be taught successively or individually. Students must practice science as scientists do, by using the methods of science to test and refine the ideas and preconceptions, the facts, they acquire.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Its only a theory, but I don't think we can speak intelligently about science.

In consideration of the design of effective learner-centered environments I find myself reflecting on my own experiences as a science teacher. Science teachers often encounter misconceptions of small and large magnitude. Diagnostic teaching hopes to use preconceptions as a point of departure for learning in which teachers can address and challenge the ideas students bring with them (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). In science, however, misconceptions can cause a serious impediment to acquiring new knowledge.

A few typical examples of student misunderstandings in science include inaccurate use of the word, “theory,” and an inaccurate grasp of how scientific consensus is reached. These are skills which I consider to be a basic component of scientific literacy and are essential for citizens to understand and evaluate scientific claims they may encounter throughout their lives. The word theory is used synonymously with “guess” in casual conversation, and by scientists as they are depicted in movies and television. Equating theory with guess is detrimental in that it undermines the predictive power of a theory, as assessed by copious data. A theory is a strong scientific statement and represents widely accepted knowledge among experts in the field. Consensus in scientific fields is developed by a system of peer review and evaluation of new procedures and conclusions proposed by researchers. Scientists seek to push a hypothesis to determine its validity, possibly to elevate it to the status of theory. Peer-reviewed science has been criticized for being undemocratic, and in truth, it is. Scientific ideas are not judged by the number of people who like or support an idea. One carefully conducted experiment can discredit years (or even millennia) of dearly held beliefs, if it is found to be well-conducted and logical in its conclusions.

While the misconceptions listed above may seem philosophically complex to those without scientific training, it is for this very reason that I advocate a comprehensive K-12 science curriculum which builds a knowledge base of the process of science. A comprehensive science curriculum would allow secondary students to bring the prior knowledge required to assemble a logical philosophy of science for themselves.

In my first classroom experience, I was a substitute teacher in Brooklyn. I was called to a magnet school for math and science in my neighborhood and told that I would fill-in for the one science teacher in the building that day. I was not given plans, or activities, or even worksheets. I was told which rooms to be in at any given time and that was it. My first interaction with fourth graders became an exercise in Socratic teaching. I asked, “What have you been learning with your science teacher?” I was told: “I’m a scientist!” “Science is fun!” and “Everybody can be a scientist!” among other things. I discovered that the science curriculum at a science magnet school was apparently designed to reduce anxiety about science, rather than to promote understanding of science. I also discovered that fourth graders are curious about a lot of things. They bubbled over with questions about earthquakes, where electricity comes from, why clouds don’t fall out of the sky, and the nature of Spiderman’s powers. I resolved to become a science teacher that day.

Children posses innate curiosity about their world. Science offers satisfying and exciting answers to many questions which begin with the word, “why.” This curiosity should be harnessed in a comprehensive curriculum, taught by primary teachers, properly trained, which promotes the development of scientific skills and literacy which can be transferred to later grades and be used as a basis for a deep, meaningful understanding of the nature of science.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gym class for everybody!

Rene Descartes posited that the mind is a separate entity from the brain. However, recent research cited by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) may refute Cartesian dualism, and provide an opportunity to develop new pedagogical methods which take advantage of the links between the body and the mind. Rats were experimentally manipulated to observe the effects on brain anatomy of exercise and learning. Rats which engaged in exercise were shown to have increased density of blood vessels associated with neurons in the brain; while rats which exercised little, but engaged in learning, developed increased neural synapses. Rather than demonstrating a schism between mind and body, this suggests that both physical and mental exercise have positive effects on the brain.

Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641, consequently, the philosophy of mind body dualism has had a profound effect on the western perspective on thought and intelligence since the Age of Enlightenment. Scholars are stereotypically thought to be pale and pasty, while athletes are thought to be uninterested in intellectual matters. While there are many exceptions to these typical attitudes, the cultural dominance of these types is pervasive enough to merit serious consideration. Academic ally, physical education only became part of public school curricula following the First World War, as the military exercised its influence to better prepare future soldiers. Presently, physical education is languishing as one of the most ignored or maligned parts of public school curricula. While students the majority of the school day in “academic” classes, serving the development o their minds, their bodies are, at best, given a few hours a week for physical education.

If the development of rat brains cited above correlates to human development, it can be argued that physical education is a necessary component in maximizing the education of young minds. Physical exercise leads to increased blood vessel density, which transports increased amounts of oxygen to the brain, removes wastes and transports neural transmitter chemicals more efficiently. In effect, increased blood vessel density promotes a healthier, more efficient brain. Rat learners develop more synapses per nerve cell, which is a likely consequence of learning and memory, in general. It seems likely that learners who engage in vigorous, regular physical activity will develop superior mental capacity.

While it is tempting to argue that students are provided with ample opportunities for physical exercise in the form of recess in the elementary grades, and competitive sports in the middle and high school; it must be acknowledged that most students do not participate in these activities, and funding for sports is declining in school districts most in need of support for their students learning. Nothing short of comprehensive curriculum overhaul will provide a level of physical activity commensurate with the needs of students’ mental development. Students should be provided with a variety of options for physical engagement, whether they take the form of team sports, or outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, and biking, or less formal setting such as hacky sack or Frisbee. Students which engage in physical activity during every school day will benefit from a healthier body and more productive mind.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Towards a Unified Theory of Learning?

Very young children, once thought to be blank slates who develop mentally through interactions with their environment, possess innate abilities and predilections for certain knowledge, according to research summarized by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999). Innate abilities include limited number sense, some grasp of causation, and understanding of rudimentary physical properties. Analysis of infant learning may lead to early intervention strategies or development of pedagogies sensitive to the intrinsic characteristics of human learning.

An area of infant learning with specific application to the manner in which adult learners function may be research conducted on infant behavior during violations of expectation. According to research conducted by Walden, Kim, McCoy, and Karrass (2007) infants are more attentive to events that are unexpected. When witnessing events that violate their expectations, children will look at such events longer than those which behave according to their expectations. When possible, confused children as young as three months will engage in “social looking;” or looking to adults for reference on how to react to unexpected events. Attention to novelty and a natural inclination to look to social partners for behavioral models in unusual situations may be innate human characteristics which carry on into adulthood.

In fact, Kuhn, Amlani, and Rensink (2008) argue that human attention to novelty and social modeling are the medium which stage magicians use to create illusions. Magician’s tricks include using an audience’s inclination to follow the line of a performer’s sight and novel gestures and props to misdirect attention when creating illusions. Witnessing magic is, itself, in defiance of an audience’s expectations, and responsible for the success of magical entertainment across gender, age, and cultural groups. Kuhn, Amlani, and Rensink advocate a scientific study of the methods of science and application to human learning and communication.

Many animals are born precocious; able to fend for themselves, and in most ways act as adults from birth. Humans are altricial, unable to survive without paternal aid. Because humans are born in such a physically helpless state it has been assumed that we are born mentally unformed. Current evidence refutes this assertion and posits that humans have innate mental capacities that can serve as a foundation for entertainment, such as magic, or the development of sophisticated forms of communication and pedagogy. By considering the commonalities of infant learning and magic, researchers may be able to examine the characteristics of learning which are least influenced by environment and culture; providing an opportunity to teach in a manner able to communicate effectively with all learners.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Kuhn, G., Amlani, A. A., & Rensink, R. A. (2008). Towards a science of magic. Trends in Cognitive Science, 349-354.

Walden, T., Kim, G., McCoy, C., & Karrass, J. (2007). Do You Believe in Magic? Infants' social looking during violations of expectations. Developmental Science , 654-653.