Archive for May, 2010

Is There a Need for Cross Platform Teachers and Teaching?

May 30, 2010

I tweeted a question yesterday that is one I have been kicking around since before my student teaching days:

“Are kids better prepared for life if they use multiple computer platforms in school? Who out there is cross platform?”

My first interaction with a computer was in 1980.  Mom and dad were at Sears and saw a TI-99/4 on sale for $99, they didn’t know quite what my brother would do with it but it was a 90% markdown and they figured computers were going to be important some day.  They bought the computer and brought it home for my older brother.  He unpacked it all, hooked it up, spent about an hour on it and then said, “Here, it’s yours.”  I taught myself how to write basic programs and dabbled with entering my baseball cards in to a database.  I could write data to my cassette tapes consistently, but I couldn’t always retrieve the data I had written. 

When I went to high school, there were a handful of DOS computers in the administrative offices and the Apple IIe had found its way in to the department offices.  I used to help teachers when they asked.  I got caught in the math department office once, trying to figure out if Apple had solved the problem of retrieving your data.  That’s when I found out about the 5.25″ floppy disks.  As a freshman in college, I had a friend who was taking Basic, so I was able to use her login information to let myself in to the school network.  Computers were still not used by teachers in class, but they were in use behind the scenes or for programming classes. 

By the time I finished my student teaching, I had used a Mac Plus with a mouse, Apple IIe/IIc, VT-100 terminals to access a VAX mainframe and write programs in FORTRAN, AT&T 6300 running DOS,a terminal to access the Basic server, and my brother’s TI-99/4. 

As a first year teacher, my school (a new alternative school designed in part by @pammoran) was outfitted with an Apple IIGS in each classroom.  We also received one of the first computer labs in the school district during our first year – a bunch of IBM 8086 computers attached via a twisted pair network.  When I left the classroom 6 years later to become an “Instructional Technology Specialist”, I had a Mac LC II, 6 of the IBMs, the Apple IIGS, and a few other computers I had managed to collect from other places.  My students knew which programs and peripherals worked on each machine and together we supported them ourselves.  I did have to have a math co-processor installed on my LC II in order to run a copy of Mathematica I won as a door prize!

When I see a computer, I have some level of confidence that I can make it do whatever I want it to do if given enough time to figure it out.  I am not married to a platform or a brand, I am able to focus on what the desired outcome is and to match the best tool to that outcome.  I liken it to being able to use a pencil or a pen and to even recognize sometimes a felt-tip pin is a better choice than a ballpoint one.

So, “Are kids better prepared for life if they use multiple computer platforms in school?”  I think so.  My twitterverse does, too, but it seems schools can’t seem to be able to afford “both platforms.” I actually pushed with the fact that there are more than two platforms. 

While my school district is “cross platform”, we’re not very strategic about it.  It’s more about personal preference (which isn’t bad as long as people remained informed and open-minded) and cool factors than matching needs to functionality.  I recently watched my 18 year old niece get her first Android-based phone and it became pretty clear to me that she has limited understanding of what an operating system is and does.  She appreciated me translating for her and I worked hard to stay at the conceptual level and not interject with “do this” kinds of statements.

What if allowed situations where students could use multiple platforms of devices every day?  The support folks are cringing, I am sure, but what if we also taught students and teachers how to better support their own devices?  Would we be wasting time and money or creating better prepared workers and learners?  What would a classroom look like if everyone were bringing their own devices in to the room and the district had a clear plan for how to connect them all?  How would this shift teaching and learning?  Are teachers who are “open” to multiple platforms for their electronics more open to different approaches to teaching?  How far does the notion of flexibility go?  Is there a need for cross platform teachers AND teaching?


What MUST we DO to transform schools into places of authentic, democratic learning?

May 21, 2010

A few days ago, @paulawhite asked me the title question and then furiously typed as I spoke off the top of my head from the bottom of my heart.

“1. Stop using low level state tests as excuses for not teaching authentically and not taking the time to run a democratic classroom.

2. Work diligently to prove authentic assessments have validity and reliability and can, in fact, be used to demonstrate skills and mastery, replacing those multiple-choice, low level tests.

3. Abandon practices that sort, select and compare kids to one another.”

You can read her post about this topic at

Since Paula’s question and her posting my thoughts (with permission), I have had a few encounters at work where I have been able to bring up these three “must do” statements and actually see the looks on people’s faces as they grapple with them.

#1 seems to bring out the head nods and the “that’s what I have been saying” kind of comments.  Why then do kids say the fundamental difference between elementary, middle, and high school is the thickness of the worksheet packets they receive?

#2 seems to uncover gross misinformation around key concepts of assessment.  99% of the educators I encounter on Twitter and through work think “standardized test” means machine scored, multiple choice test.  Wikipedia knows better (see

#3 Virginia’s Standards of Learning should be call “Virginia’s State-wide Objectives” or “Virginia’s State-wide Expectations” and we should reserve the use of the term “standards” to mean measures of quality.  When we set standards or criteria for success, we should provide detailed and timely feedback so kids know where they stand with respect to the criteria and not each other.  There is no reason every kid can’t be successful when measured against criteria for success given enough time and the right support, but if we measure kids against each other there will always be winners and losers. 

We cannot sort some kids in to the “fast to learn” or “easy to teach” pile and think of other kids as being “behind.” A big challenge for educators is to develop clearly articulated standards without forcing standardization.  Perhaps the “what” is fixed or “standard” but the “how” flexes based on the student.  Carol Tomlinson speaks of flexing content, process, product, and learning environment based on readiness, interest, and learner profile.  To do this successfully, we really have to know our stuff and our kids!

An educational hero of mine, the late Dr. John English, described mastery learning as a structure in which learning is the constant while time is the variable.  My first year of teaching, I had the pleasure of working with folks like John and @pammoran to sense make and cross walk theories and realities.  I talked about the art and science of teaching and learning and I struggled to become an educational fundamentalist – always demanding a reconcilation between my idealistic speech and my daily actions in the classroom.

What happens to tracking, grouping, and course leveling in a truly mastery oriented learning organization?  Why are elementary parents vying to get their kids in the “high” math group?  What is the variance in the quality of experience across the spectrum of levels or groups at any given grade level, across any given set of schools?  What is our minimum commitment to each and every one of our young people?  What must we do?


Don’t Block Social Networking, Teach Social Skills

May 1, 2010

Social networking used to happen in neighborhoods and classrooms, and at pools and playgrounds.  Now, it is happening at stoplights and bedrooms and basements.  While the platforms for social networking have changed since I was a kid, many of the “rules of engagement” or social skills plus contexts have not.  Have they?

“Don’t talk to strangers” only applied in certain situations when I was growing up.  If there was a new kid in class, I was expected to talk to him or her.  If I wanted to join in to a Marco Polo game with kids I didn’t know at the lake, I had to figure out how to insert myself into it.  If my beachball rolled over your beach blanket, I was expected to retrieve it and apologize no matter how strange you were.  If a strange adult approached me in the grocery store, I was supposed to find mom or someone who worked at the store. “Don’t talk to strangers” was all about context and my understanding of this was largely shaped by my parents and them guiding me through multiple life experiences over time.  As a kid, I figured out how to read situations and adapt my application of the “don’t talk to strangers” rule of thumb. 

“If you can’t say something nice, keep your mouth shut” was to be universally applied in my house as I was growing up.  I knew I had crossed this line when I heard my mother take a sharp tone and use my formal name, “Rebecca Jane, what are you saying?”  Once again, constant feedback from my parents helped shape my understanding.  Sometimes as I slip up with this one as an adult, I hear my mother’s voice and clean up my act quickly.

“Always treat others as you would like them to treat you” is another rule of my family.  If someone needs something that you have, don’t wait for them to ask for it – offer it.  I was taught to share, to be considerate of others, and to take turns.  I was taught that rules some times change with “time and place” and that a campfire conversation is different from a dinner table one.

One of the most interesting things I experienced my first year of teaching is that not every child is explicitly taught these things before they come to school.  I remember making my first “group assignment” and watching it go no where.  I talked with one of my many mentor teachers and he asked if I had ever heard of cooperative learning.  I had not, so he pulled a copy of “Circles of Learning” off of his desk and handed it to me and said, “Let’s put our classes together tomorrow.  We’ll do a cooperative activity.”  He didn’t even ask me what math skill or concept I was trying to teach, but he was willing to take my class.  The next day, I was an assistant to a master, handing out papers and moving chairs.  And, watching a master at work.  He taught the two classes of kids how to make a shared decision and he taught me about cooperation.

Cooperative Learning (see requires that we teach kids social skills.  So does social networking – old school or media-based. Learning with others is an engaging quality of design according to Phil Schlechty, but kids can’t do that without being able to work together.  Working together and treating each other decently must make their way in to our “core curriculum” if kids are going to be positioned to thrive in this globally connected world.  We have to take the time to address the skillsets and dispositions necessary to keep yourself safe and be collectively productive.  Schools should “teach” social networking by working with kids to build multiple personal learning networks over time.