I have been trying to teach my students how to search the internet more efficiently for quite a while now, with limited success. I used to spend a lot of time on keywords and understanding boolean logic and trying to find the magic query that would return the most relevant results. I told them not to type in the question, and got frustrated when typing in the question actually got them to what they were looking for.
The truth is that Google is very good at ‘almost’ reading our minds and returning useful answers to our day to day questions. The trouble is that using search in school to find information for analysis and synthesis is very different from how students use search in their day to day lives, but if we don’t make this distincton for them they will try to apply their day to day search skills to the more sophisticated questions posed in school. To me this is an important reason why we need to figure out how to break down search into component skills that we can teach to students; the only way for us to make students take more advanced search techniques seriously is if we can get them to realise that it is not a skill that they already have, but one they need to learn. The rest of this post is my attempt to figure out what skills we need to scaffold and teach students so they can be good at search.
As I pondered how to teach search I had my first ‘aha’ moment when I tried to take the Google Power Search course last summer and realised that Google looks on search as a process, not a product. My realisation was that I had been trying to teach my students the magic formula for sifting through the internet in one fell swoop, when I should have been teaching them how to get started on their search journey and how to make good decisions along the way. The trouble is that often we ignore this process (for lots of reasons) and assume that students know what they are doing. In my head it looks a little like this:
The image above is a slide from a presentation I recently gave on internet search with Google. Hopefully it is obvious the the black box is the process of searching and the question mark represents the skills and attitudes students need to successfully navigate this process; skills and attitudes that for the most part are not really taught in schools. I can think of 3 reasons why this is the case:
Teacher are not sure how to DO this part.
Teachers are not sure how to TEACH this part.
Teachers don’t think it is their responsibility to TEACH this part.
For a long time I have been #2, and my conference presentation was my attempt to address #1 and as for #3, well, in this day and age I think all teachers need to see search literacy as one of their responsibilities. What I think we need to do is try and break this black box up into a framework and set of competencies that we can teach and assess (nor for marks, but in order to give feedback and make decisions about what to teach next). Here is what I see as a workable framework:
Students need both technical knowledge of how to navigate a search engine AND the habits of mind that help them interpret the results they get and make decisions based on these results. It is at the intersection of these skills and habits that successful search happens. To get started identifying competencies I tried to think of all the scenarios where my students struggle with search. Here are the ones I came up with:
They expect Google to do the thinking for them. Carl Sagan once said the ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and I think sometimes that there is a little of this happening with the Google Search algorithm. It is so advanced and seems so prescient that sometimes we assume it can read out minds. To counteract this tendency I think it is really important our students understand what is going on in the background whe they do a search. This video is a good place to start, as are many of the resources on the Google Search Education page.
They don’t know how to speak the language of Google. Typing in the question works great for simple questions, but gets students in trouble once they start trying to answer more complex questions. Once they understand how Google works I have found it quite effective to explain to them that if they type in a question the top hits will be question and answer sites which are not very reliable. The next step is to replace typing the question with something more effective. Google suggests a 4 step process called Parsing the question to turn it into a Query. I like that this is new language to my students, as it seems to make them sit up and take notice.
They don’t know what to do with search results. This is a very important part of the search process. When I used to teach search I used to look at a set of search results as an end product. The goal was to have my answer in the top few hits. Now I try to teach my students that they search results are a step in the right direction, and now they have to go looking through the search results for clues to inform their next search. Some of the things they need to know how to do include:
understanding the parts of a search results page
know how to use filters and operators to narrow down the search
know how to search within web results before clicking on a link (in my experience once students click on a link they can get lost in the web page they get taken to).
They don’t know how to efficiently read and markup a webpage. Simple tricks like using ctrl-F to find key terms on a page can make a big difference to students struggling to start accessing a web page full of text. Similarly markup tools like Diigo can make the process of note taking much easier and give teachers a way to assess how well each student is at finding the relevant information on a web page.
Once we have established a framework and competencies that students need to search the internet effectively we need to assess their progress and give them feedback to help them improve. Too often with skills like internet search we default to teaching them but not assessing them. Instead we assess the things we do with the information the students find, but we forget about the black box that the students had to navigate to get their information. I think that if all the skills mentioned in this blog post were assessed then students would take them more seriously and possible start applying them more regularly.
I am a bit of a frustrated learner these days. There are so many great learning opportunities available in the areas that interest me and I just don’t have the time to take advantage of them. I wish I could participate in all the amazing #ETMOOC sessions or read the articles available through MIT’s Learning Creative Learning course, but that is just not my reality. This blog post is not meant to be a complaint however, instead I have been fascinated by how the themes of these courses are still having an impact on my thinking and learning despite my not really participating. A couple stories to get things started:
Have you ever felt like it’s impossible to have an original thought? I have been thinking that lately. After months of struggling with an idea, watching things happen in my classroom and school and reflecting, I finally think I have figured something out. I might even blog about it. Then I will be in the grocery store lineup reading something written my Marshall McLuhan or Seymour Papert 30 years ago that articulates what I have just figured out in much greater detail and eloquence. When this happens I find myself thinking, “I just need to find the time to sit down and read all this stuff written by these great thinkers. Then I could save myself a lot of effort”
A friend of mine recently explained to me why it took her so long to do 5 math problems for a course she was taking. “I could just plug numbers into the formula” she explained “but then I wouldn’t really understand it.”. Instead she solved each problem by going back to first principles and working out the formulas herself. I found myself thinking “Wow, she really understands how to learn and she’s not even a teacher”.
These stories have got me thinking about the difference between learning someTHING and really understanding it (more on that in a bit); for now I want to reflect on the MOOCs. Despite not having time to do the readings for these courses I have been following the conversations on Google+ and have been aware of the themes. I am fascinated by how the themes have helped me focus my thinking. When the #ETMOOC theme was connected learning I really enjoyed exploring the Nature Path metaphor with a few other teachers; when it was Storytelling I found myself using thinking a lot about storytelling while revamping my gr 6-8 SCRATCH unit plans; when it was DIgital Literacy I found myself reflecting back on posts I had written much earlier on the topic. The point is (I think) that it was really useful to have a broad framework to help guide my thinking and doing, even when I wasn’t awash in the information available to me in the course.
So where am I going with all this? Well, certainly nowhere original, but maybe somewhere that moves my thinking a bit further forwards. What I am finding is that after messing around on my own with some of these themes and topics, when I read something written by someone else that describes the understanding I am moving towards, I feel like I get it at a deeper level. To really understand a THING it is necessary to first mess about with it and place it in a personal context in order to understand it. It doesn’t matter that that THING was already discovered years ago, until I am ready to understand it it is really just a bunch of words. But when I do understand it those undertandings can be connected, and a bigger picture can emerge. This is what it looks like in my head:
Of course I am well aware that there are already lots of fancy terms like constructivism that describe this understanding, but I like that I feel closer to my own understanding of this process. Of course, once I drew this graphic I started to think about what traditional curriculums packed with content look like. Here is what I came up with:
Lots of THINGS to learn, and no room to develop a personal understanding or make connections. Seems sort of pointless, doesn’t it.
My brain loves to make connections. As a result of #etmooc conversations, #ceetopen, #isabcpd13, and a variety of other online stimulli it is currently in overdrive, and the connections are happening fast and furious. In this blog post I am going to try and share some of the connections I am making and hopefully in the process stop them bouncing around my brain.
Event #1: While casually exploring all the blog posts streaming through the ETMOOC Blog Hub I discovered a vlog by Scott Hazeu where he used the metaphor of the Nature Trail to explore the concept of open learning. His metaphor resonated with the outdoor educator in me and I decided to try something new and respond using video. The ensuing conversation between Scott, Ben Wilcoff and myself was really fun and helped me shape some ideas. The big piece that I took from this conversation was that learning is social, and that it depends very much on the people you are learning with.
Event #2: Fast forward to the ISABC Collaborative Pro-d day last Friday. The keynote speaker for this event was David Helfand, the president of Quest University. His keynote was really thought provoking, full of stories and anecdotes that revealed some of the uncomfortable truths of education. One of his quotes that made for a popular tweet was:
What I assume he was referring to was the industrial model of schooling that we are stuck with these days. At the scale that we are educating students it is very difficult to focus on the conversations and the relationships (see event #1) that make learning meaningful and make it stick.
Event #3: The New Media Consortium was looking for ambassadors. Applicants needed to include a 2 minute presentation reflecting on: significant changes are happening in their classroom; how the NMC Horizon Report series influences their practices; and the concepts that guide their teaching philosophy and pedagogy. I didn’t manage to put a video together, but I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I have spent quite a bit of time with the NMC’s Horizon Project, and have used it in a number of my classes. This potential opportunity got me thinking about how a knowledge of new and emerging technologies was/is/could have an impact on my classes. Somehow this thinking overlapped with David Helfand’s quote and my conversations with Scott and Ben and I realised something that is not a new idea to me, but one that I somehow seem to understand more deeply. Maybe that means I learned something.
“It’s not that today’s technologies allow us to do new things; it is that they allow us to do old things in new ways. They allow us to overcome the limitations imposed by an industrial model of schooling and go back to an approach to teaching based on inquiry, conversation and mentoring.”
Another #etmooc vlog response to Scott Haseu’s latest post. Upon reflection this one is more about questions than answers and I forgot to comment on Scott’s point regarding how we could be using recognition to encourage learning in our classrooms. I think that this is a place where technology can be really powerful. I have seen math classes where students record their thinking using flip cameras and share it later at the front of the class; MathTrain is another example of the power of technology to recognise and celebrate learning. I am still waiting to get an iPad with the Educreations app in my classroom. I think it could be an excellent way for students to demonstrate learning and be recognised for it.
In the vlog I posted below I finish by stating that I think we can’t just forget about content and the value of content expertise, we need to figure out what role it plays in a connected learning environment. I plan on posting the following question to the #ETMOOC Google plus group soon, but wanted to try and flush out a few ideas here first.
What is the value of content expertise (especially in Math and Science) in a connected learning model?
My response to this question is very much influenced by the book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You‘ by Cal Newport. I recently wrote a blog post about some of the ideas in this book because I found them quite compelling. One idea that I liked was the notion of building ‘career capital’ that can then be leveraged to pursue passions and live a happy, fulfilling life. I see ‘career capital’ as being a bit like ‘content’; it is not always fun to learn, and takes dedication and hard work to get good at.
So, if learning is really about conversations, then maybe content is the key to being engaged in deeper and more meaningful conversations. In a connected environment anyone can join in a conversation, but to be truly engaged and feel like you are contributing you need to have put in some time learning about the content on which the conversation is based.
I have enjoyed poking around on the margins of the #ETMOOC course currently underway. A couple vlogs by Ben Wilkoff and Scott Hazeu have made me think and I decided to try and put some of my ideas into a vlog of my own.
I wasn't going to join this MOOC. I didn't know how I could possibly carve any extra time out of my day to participate. This year has been very much about my face to face relationships and putting energy into the people around me. As a result my online efforts have diminished.
But then I started looking at a few Tweets. I recognised quite a few of the names as people I had learned from in the past. Eventually I decided to have a look at the website and got as far as reading the Orientation post. I still wasn't sold, but I was fascinated by the Blog Hub and how it was being used to aggregate posts. I want to know how you do that!
Then I started reading a comment stream (which, of course I can't find again), and I could feel the neurons firing up. I started thinking about learning and my own journey and how learning is not something done to someone, it is something they choose to do to themselves. Which seems to be what MOOCs are all about.
Then I made the mistake of adding the #ETMOOC hashtag to my Hootesuite dashboard and immediately saved three blog posts to read later. The one that caught my eye was on Connectivism and Knowledge Construction. I like the term connectivism. It's the reason I am going to try and participate in this course. I'm here for the conversations (which I know are going to be great) and the connections (to passionate educators who will support me and challenge me).
I did try a MOOC of sorts this summer. I signed up for the Google Power Searching MOOC. I didn't finish it. The funny thing is that I should have finished it, but I was too busy being a passive learner. The Google course was VERY different from #ETMOOC. Very content and assessment based. Every unit involved watching a video and then answering quiz questions. So I watched videos, and answered questions … and ran out of time. In hindsight I was not taking control of the learning. Every video had a written transcript that I could read much quicker than watching the video took, and if I had just opened up each transcript in one window and done the quiz in a different window I would have been done.
That said, as a result of the power searching course I came across Google's excellent lesson plans for teaching search and have used them in my classes this term, and am even presenting a search skills for teachers workshop at an upcoming conference. So really, despite officially NOT being a course graduate, I gained a lot by participating and it really doesn't matter whether I got the piece of paper or not.
Which brings me back to #ETMOOC. I am fascinated by the way this course is structured. Many platforms connected via RSS and Hashtags. It is all about the learning and the connections. There are no grades, it is not pass fail, it is what I make of it.
For the first time in many years my family got on a plane and flew somewhere else for Christmas. As a result I managed to read a book from cover to cover while flying to and from our destination, something I never get to do in my regular hectic life. The book I chose was ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You‘ by Cal Newport. I first heard about this book from Steve Hargadon’s Future Of Education podcast series, and was fascinated by the premise that encouraging people to follow their passion is bad advice. In a nutshell the book argues that:
Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.
I found the book fascinating because it not only rejected the passion hypothesis, but replaced it with a set of very distinct, actionable ideas that could be used to inform my classroom practice.
Over the holidays I mentioned this book to anyone that cared to listen and almost everyone had a knee jerk, ‘that can’t be right’, reaction. It seems that the idea of following your passion is so ingrained in all of us that we find it hard to let go. So I thought I would spend a few minutes trying to unpack this idea. The book argues that passion ‘as a noun’ can be dangerous because not everyone has a passion that can be turned into a career. This does not mean that passion is not important, only that it shouldn’t get center stage. Instead, Cal argues, everyone should approach whatever they choose to do passionately (an adverb), but what we choose to do isn’t as important as how we choose to do it. In other words,
Working right trumps finding the right work.
Cal argues that the key to a a happy work life is to build what he calls ‘career capital’, and the way to do this is to approach your occupation with a craftsman mindset. To illustrate this mindset he tells the tale of a guitar player who is constantly pushing his abilites and practicing at the boundary of what he is capable of, and by doing this he is well on his way to being a master of his craft. This focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback is what Cal calls the craftsman mindset and it is different from the passion mindset because:
The craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.
The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.
This argument really makes sense to me, and has certainly played out in my own life. By investing time and energy into becoming good at something you then build ‘career capital’ that you can leverage to take more control of your own working life. Of course it makes sense to focus your energies in a direction that has interest to you and that you have some talent for, but if the case studies in the book are to be believed, this is less important than approaching every task with a passionate craftsman like attitude.
It helps to think about skill acquisition like a freight train: Getting it started requires a huge application of effort, but changing its track once it’s moving is easy.
In the examples in the book ‘it is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence’. And if one of the roles of schools is to inspire excellence and prepare our students to have happy working lives, then maybe we need to be doing more to promote the craftsman frame of mind. The problem is that:
Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”
This has got me wondering how we can structure school so it does a better job encouraging the craftsman frame of mind (given that the process is not inherently enjoyable). Here are a few thoughts:
Assessment and reporting has to change. Students are not going to want to focus on the process of getting better if they are continually judged and compared on where they are in this process. A reporting system that celebrates the process of improving has a better chance of supporting the development of a craftsman like attitude.
It is unreasonable to expect students to approach everything they do in school with this sort of attitude. Maybe schools should expect all students to pick one or two things that they are interested in becoming really good at, so they can develop the habits of mind necessary for ‘working right’. The Inquiry Hub is an interesting model that seems to be doing something similar to this.
Schools can do a better job supporting students with the Approaches to Learning needed to deliberately practice something and work through the unenjoyable parts.
We need to be careful about trying to make all of school fun, if it comes at the expense of rigor and an understanding of the effort and application needed to truly become good at something.
I’m waiting for the tire place to finish putting new snow tires on my car. My belly is full and I am well caffeinated, and I feel like writing. The past two weeks have been really satisfying and a lot of really good stuff has happened at my school. After lot of hard work we have rolled our new revised report card formats from K to 6. My involvement has been with the grade 6 report which we started re-thinking last spring.
‘You value what you measure’ is the thought that has been bouncing around my brain for the past 6 months. We initially set out to re-design our grade 6 report card so that our reporting was more in line with our IB assessment procedures. When we first started the process my main aim was to include more information about the criteria and descriptors that we use in the classroom to assess learning. What I learned is that when you start to change what you measure, you open the proverbial ‘can of worms’.
We started the process by looking at other school’s IB report card formats and eventually settled on one that we liked. Once we created our own draft version and tried filling it out we started having other conversations. We realised that we could do better than a 5 point effort scale. Using the IB’s excellent Approaches to Learning articulation as a guide we parsed ‘effort’ into three more specific and measurable attributes: approach to learning, organisation (self and time management) and engagement in learning activities. With that done we realised that we needed words to describe student progress in these areas that emphasized progress and room for growth, not the impression of a static judgement. We borrowed the words extending, applying, developing and emerging from our school’s IB Primary Years Program.
Next we revisited our descriptors for each of the Approaches to Learning. I was amazed at how many iterations of this process it took to really drill down to useful descriptors that could be used to give students and parents useful information to act on. I am quite proud of what we produced, but also know that as we start to use it in the classroom it will end up undergoing more modifications. Which is as it should be.
Probably the most important and exciting part of our new report card is that we are moving away from an emphasis on cruching all the nuanced complexity of learning down into a single letter or number. Instead each teacher is reporting out on student’s progress as measured against the variety of IB criteria that we use in our classrooms. Initially my enthusiasm for this initiative was all about getting away from our student’s obsession with the magical cut off mark that defines them as either an A or B student. As we progressed with our report redesign however, I started to realise something more magical. By reporting using criteria and descriptors we were shifting the report card from a box that we were putting our students into, towards being a tool for describing the process of their learning; a guide to help them (and their parents) understand where they are now, and where they need to go next with their learning.
Changing what we are measuring is also changing the conversations we are having. The conversations are now about the criteria and indicators that we are using to describe learning. Are they clear? Do they describe what we want them to describe? Do the students understand them? How do we collect good evidence to use for making judgements about student learning? How can we craft learning experiences that allow students to demonstrate sophisticated levels of understanding?
So we now have an exciting new report and a very useful set of modified criteria to inform our student’s learning and our conversations with parents. But more importantly, we are having all the difficult, challenging and exciting conversations that we need to have to meet the needs of our students in this constantly changing and evolving time that we live in.