Friday, January 22, 2010

A Standing Ovation for "Tweeps"

You’ve probably seen the commercial. Two exasperated teens telling their parents that all this social media use has got to stop. The parents are invading worlds formerly considered havens of youth-only interaction. Partway through the role reversal, the father sends out a “tweet” that says something like, “I am sitting on the patio right now.”

If that’s your only exposure to tools like Twitter, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s all a ridiculous waste of time. But this morning, I’m thankful that such frivolous tools exist. More importantly, I’m thankful for the individuals who make these frivolous tools incredibly valuable.

I don’t remember why I first got on Twitter. It probably resulted from frequent mentions on National Public Radio or something similar. I learned quickly about tools that would help me follow conversations on topics I had an interest in, and soon was “following” several other educators. These “tweeps” were mostly individuals I’d never met, but we had common interests and this provided a basis for conversation.

Yesterday, I held in my hands a copy of a book I’d written—a first for me, and I was overwhelmed by the experience. No, it’s not like holding your firstborn child, I realize, but I was nearly struck dumb by it anyway. (In fact, the printer interpreted my silence as dissatisfaction with the result. Nothing could be further from the truth!) I opened the book almost immediately to the Acknowledgments. There they were—individuals from my life who invested in me and had made this moment possible. I hope they understand the depth of my gratitude for what they gave and see the book as a product of the grace that flowed through them as they contributed to my life.

But a critical group is missing, and this morning I want them to know how much I value them. My “tweeps,” “Personal Learning Network,” or whatever you want to call the group of individuals with whom I interact on Twitter, deserve a standing ovation. Why?

Because they expanded your world. It’s easy to find people to validate your thinking as long as you remain in your confined world. But on Twitter, I found colleagues who would challenge my thinking, expand my thinking, and force me to consider perspectives and scenarios I had not previously. This fosters my own growth and forces me to find support for my ideas. An opinion is a fine thing, but if you want it considered seriously by others, you need to offer honest and valid support for it. My colleagues on Twitter exhort me to find such support, offer ideas of their own, and refine, strengthen, and sometimes redirect my conclusions.

Because they cheer you on. My wife often talks about the “graciousness” of the Twitter “community.” I’ve certainly had support from individuals I see on a regular basis, but my Twitter colleagues have been there almost daily. Even if they disagree with me on occasion, they support me as I take chances. I know from experience that 140 characters can be just enough to encourage a person to persevere.

Because they share their thinking. I’m astounded at the brilliance of the individuals I follow on Twitter. Their thinking about education is not trite. It’s far deeper than the conversations I typically have in faculty lounges, and I’m exhilarated by the quality of the ideas and their expression. Want to find individuals who can change education for the better? Follow the people I do on Twitter. Every aspect of education gets a full examination and the recommended diagnoses and treatment plans are almost always worth serious consideration.

I could go on. More than half of the pre-publication endorsements of my book are from individuals I “met” on Twitter. I refer to many of the people I follow as friends. In fact, if you heard me talk about them without knowing my connection to them, you’d think they were people I’d met in the “real world.” I get excited for them as they encounter life-changing events. I feel frustration when they struggle. They’ve become more than a community of colleagues connected via technology.

So, I want to acknowledge this amazing group. Thank you for running along side me as I traveled the journey to publication. Thank you for expanding my world, cheering me on, and sharing your potentially world-changing thinking. Let’s continue running together. Who knows, maybe they’ll use us in a future commercial to show the world the real value that can be found in seemingly frivolous tools. It’s not the tool itself that lifts it from the ridiculous to the remarkable. It’s the quality of the individuals who choose to join the community it creates. Please join me in a standing ovation for such individuals.

Image: 'Prelude To A Successful Career In Cultural+Production'

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Teacher's Lessons from Writing, Part 2

My cell phone rang when we were deciding which package of paper towels to buy.

“Kevin, this is John Paine. Do you have a few moments to talk?”

I had both anticipated and dreaded this call, and the paper goods lane of Publix was not my ideal setting for the conversation. My wife, sensing it was the call I’d been waiting for, dug through her purse to find a beat-up memo pad, found a page with about an inch of clean space, and thrust it into my hands along with a pen. I think she waved as she headed for the frozen foods section.

“Um, sure Mr. Paine, this is fine.” I found some clearance between a package of paper towels and the shelf above it. Voila! an impromptu desk.

“I’ve read your manuscript in its entirety and will send you specifics, but I wanted to discuss a few general things with you by phone first.”

“Okay.” (Note the high intelligence of my response. I was a bundle of nerves.)

I found Mr. Paine, no lie, via an internet search, and I never expected him to take on my manuscript. A professional editor, he’d worked on books I recognized by authors I recognized. He’s on the speed dial of several major publishers and is called for emergencies, such as a book still needing editing on the eve of its print run. When he requested the rest of my manuscript after reading the first hundred pages, I thought it might be so he could have a non-example to share with colleagues for a few profession-related laughs.

“I think you’ve don a good job to this point,” he said. “In fact, I wish my teachers had taught this way.” Even though it was my writing he was editing, his comment on teaching caught my ear.

“Really?” I asked. (Again, note the deep intellect represented in my response.)

“Yes, I would have learned much more and it all would have seemed far more interesting and relevant.”

This was a gift. Even if he then said that the writing should never accost a reader’s eyes, I would have floated out of the paper goods aisle.

“There are some things you can do that I think will make your message even clearer,” he continued. “One thing that editors help writers do is see a manuscript from a reader’s perspective. That’s my job, so here are a few general suggestions.”

Like a good paper towel, I absorbed all I could from Mr. Paine’s comments. I won’t bore you with the details, but this conversation launched one of the greatest periods of learning I’ve experienced. I needed to step away from my investment in the project and view it from a different perspective. As I worked with Mr. Paine through the following weeks, I grew in my understanding of seeing from a reader’s perspective. I needed more examples. I needed to use fewer technical terms. I was at my best when I allowed my examples to become short stories that entertained and informed. I was at my worst when my writing failed to touch the ground, when its theory remained theory without practical applications. I needed an editor, a teacher, someone to say, “I know your intent. Here’s a better way to communicate it.”

As a teacher, I know that letting others see our work in the classroom can be intimidating. Many of us have experienced the administrator and clipboard fly-by described by Alan Sitomer, which was most likely followed by a brief discussion in the administrator’s office with the ceremonial placement of the evaluation in our personnel files. But, as I learned, there is value in having someone else redirect our perspective—not with a clipboard and brief observation. Instead, we need “editors,” coaches who come along side us and help us do what we do better, perhaps with more of the learner’s perspective in mind. We need professional relationships like those described by Derek Keenan in his excellent blog post.

Though I’ve written about coaching before, the value of such a relationship became clearer to me through my experience with a professional editor. This, I thought, is what I need in my teaching. Someone who respects my work, who sees its value, and yet sees how I could make it even better, how I could make it more effective. Someone who can guide me to see and think like my learners, not check a box or circle a number on a form. Someone who wants my work to be its best because of its potential influence, not someone who’s crossing a task off of their to-do list.

I need a professional editor for my teaching.

Image: 'Happy Buggy Wednesday'

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Teacher's Lessons from Writing, Part 1

I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. My first book is about to be published, but the printing/binding process is taking longer than I’d like. (Don’t worry, this isn’t really about the book.) This period between final revisions and publication has given me time to reflect on the journey, and, as usual, my thoughts have been exploring connections to teaching. Surprisingly, many principles seem relevant, such as…

Audience matters. Yes, I know this seems obvious, but it wasn’t at first. I started writing shortly after my last stint in graduate school, and I could out APA style the APA itself. I adhered to the style boundaries with such fealty that I was surprised not to be appointed to the committee determining proper citation forms for tweets and wall postings.

So, I anticipated great responses when I distributed early copies of the initial chapters to colleagues. With as much kindness as one can express such sentiment, they basically suggested that unless I intended to submit the work to the Journal of Sky-High Instructional Theory, I had work to do. Constantly reading “the teacher,” who never became a real person with a name, and frequently being interrupted by date and page number citations made reading my early writing laborious.

When it became clear that I was hunting in the wrong forest, I changed from writing to reading. I became a voracious gatherer of books about writing. I’ll save the extensive influence of this self-education for a later post. For now, I’ll just point out that I was of two minds in my writing. I wanted to write for teachers, my colleagues. Publishers would suggest I wanted to write for a “general audience.” However, my actual writing targeted university professors—the individuals who had been my audience and had held my fate in their hands for the past several years. How could I change direction? Several books offered suggestions that are nicely summarized in this passage from Mark Tredinnick:

Good writing is not mannered and stilted—it’s not inflected with overanxious politeness, nor false with bonhomie, nor false with confidence, nor anything faux or excessive…Good writing is calm and cool, and it remembers its manners. Everyone likes to be treated with a relaxed mix of dignity, grace, and respect by someone who knows what he’s talking about but isn’t trying to show it off. That’s the kind of attitude writers want toward their readers.1
After I somewhat ironically checked a dictionary for bonhomie (cheerful friendliness), I realized I needed to find my voice—a way of writing that sounded like me in real-life, not me as a grad student.

This prompted me to reflect on the writing I required of my students. Did I ever allow them to explore and find their voices? Was I offering them only an audience of one—me, their teacher—that would so stilt their writing that it would be of no interest to a “general audience”? If so, was I truly preparing them to influence their world?

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to lead a course called “Writer’s Stylus” for teachers. The five days of professional development provide a metamorphic experience. Teachers from all disciplines start the week writing like students—that is, they write with “overanxious politeness” and false “bonhomie.” As the week progresses, they begin to find their voices and write with such dignity and grace that they deserve to be read, many for the first time in their lives. If you write regularly, this may not seem that transformational, but trust me, it literally changes lives. While I get excited about what these teachers will do instructionally, I grow even more excited by their personal growth. Finding your voice can truly change an individual’s outlook, confidence, and, yes, life.

So what am I doing with my students? Sure, you can argue that they need to learn to write for the academic world, and I’ll agree. But if that’s all I emphasize, have I equipped them to write for the larger world? Have I enabled them to make history more than a dry recounting of facts? Have I encouraged them to take readers to a volcanic eruption and care about the people affected by it? Have I empowered them to present the structure of mathematics as a dynamic window on the world? Have I helped them write literature and not just write about it?

Audience matters, but it is the writer who must change, must grow, must discover how to communicate as himself. Authenticity is what draws an audience.

Did I master this aspect? I’d never claim that I did. I have hope, but more than that, I have a renewed focus in my teaching: help learners find their voices and equip them to “speak” with “calm and cool,” with “dignity, grace, and respect,” not to show-off, but to confidently impact their world.

1. Tredinnick, M., Writing Well: The Essential Guide (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008), 184.

Image: 'in Concert'

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Life-Changing Dance

I'm currently working on a revision of the Architecture of Learning Basic Course. In an apparently analogy-minded moment, I wrote the following Introduction to the Course Book:
Why is effective teaching such a challenge?

On its surface, teaching seems like a simple activity. The teacher teaches, explaining or demonstrating some new concept or skill, and the student learns, absorbing and remembering the new material.

Watch what happens when we apply that same perspective to a different profession. On its surface, performing surgery seems like a simple activity. The surgeon operates, opening a human body and repairing or removing some internal malady, and the patient cooperates, showing up in the operating room and healing nicely when all is said and done.

Reduced to this level anything appears deceptively simple. However, every surgeon knows that operating is far more complex than this description suggests. Likewise, every teacher knows that fostering learning requires more than an explanation or demonstration provides.

Why? Because the human brain is not a computer; input≠output. On its way to becoming a recallable memory, new data passes through an embodied brain—a world of dazzling networks and constant activity. This world provides the setting for learning’s dance. The ballet begins, and dancers enter and exit as concepts blend and patterns emerge. Past experiences come out of storage to mingle with new data entering the stage via the senses. If the dance continues, the new data transforms into meaningful memories that can be called out of storage for future performances. This improvisational movement is learning. The teacher’s task is to provide the music that sparks this neuronal dance.

Now teaching does not seem so simple, does it?

In addition to the complexity of students’ inner worlds, external elements further complicate our work. Technology offers us an immense and ever-growing collection of tools—many of which feature enough bells and whistles to qualify as computerized cacophony if not used effectively. How do we design teaching that uses the best tools at optimal points in learning’s unplanned choreography?

Kevin Kelly, a writer and observer of “cyberculture,” offers a helpful insight: “Complexity that works is built up out of modules that work perfectly, layered one over the other.” This quote works well as an explanation of Architecture of Learning. Strands that possess an inner consistency are layered according to focus. As the focus shifts from one “layer” to another, students engage in the mental activities that compose learning’s dance. The Architecture of Learning Blueprints help the teacher select and sequence “music” that awakens students’ neurons.

You are invited to join learning’s dance. As you move through this course, think deeply about the ideas you encounter. Have the courage to try new approaches. Permit yourself to become a learner—a student—as you enrich your professional capacity to design instruction.

Then return to teaching, recognizing the challenge, but eager to invite your students to the life-changing dance that is learning.

Hoping you've invited your students to the dance today!

Photo credit:

Monday, January 4, 2010

Learning? Diving Required!

If you’ve ever swum in a hotel swimming pool, you’ve likely seen the sign: “No diving! Water depth is too shallow.” The pool is not deep enough to allow safe diving, and the fear, of course, is that the hotel will be sued if swimmers injure themselves by diving head-first into the pool.

It is probably a good policy for hotels, but not for constructing lasting learning. According to memory researchers, depth of processing increases retention. Why? Because deep processing “allows a richer and more elaborate code, which in turn becomes more readily available.”1 This idea is not a new one. In 1890, William James wrote:
“The one who thinks over his experiences most, and weaves them into systematic relations with each other will be the one with the best memory.”2

The message: to make learning memorable, engage students in deep thinking about new material. But what constitutes deep thinking in new learning? Research suggests two mental activities, comprehension and elaboration.

Comprehension involves organizing new data. “During comprehension, the brain sorts, labels, and organizes the raw sensory data.”3 As teachers, we often organize material as we prepare to present it to students. However, the research claims that the students must label and sort new material themselves to increase the likelihood of retaining it. Even if students replicate the teacher’s organization of the material, the act of sorting and labeling the data themselves contributes to learning. Learning is somewhat like medicine. If the teacher takes the medicine, it does the student little good. But when the student takes the medicine, when the student thinks deeply about new material, the medicine can work as intended.

So, what does comprehension look like in the classroom? Students manipulating representations of ideas into structured schemes, such as tables, sequences, hierarchies, or even stories. For example, after explaining and modeling the steps involved in eliminating unneeded or ineffective modifiers from writing, a teacher may have the students develop flow charts to illustrate and sequence the steps. Naturally, the teacher presents and models the steps in their correct order, but having the students sequence the steps engages them in one aspect of the deep processing that promotes retention and recall.

This is also true of deep thinking’s second mental activity, elaboration. Elaboration “involves linking the material being rehearsed to other material in memory.”4 The term conceptual blending aptly describes elaboration. “The brain receives and sorts sensory data causing patterns to emerge. The patterns direct the brain to search its long-term memory stores for previous experiences that illustrate similar patterns…Once recalled, the previous experience provides a reference point for further thinking about the newly received data.”5 Understanding develops as a student recognizes relevant connections between the reference point and the new data, and “blends” these ideas.

What does elaboration look like in the classroom? “Increasing the variety of ways the brain processes information (e.g., both verbal and nonverbal) increases connections between new and known information.6 Learners deepen their understanding of new information by representing it in varied forms.” Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences offers a way to vary the ways students interact with material. For example, during an earth science unit, a teacher may challenge students to find or create music that illustrates volcanic eruption or create personified accounts in which a volcano shares its goals, fears, and strengths as it prepares to erupt. “Note what such tasks require of the learner. Significant connections between the new material [e.g., volcanic eruption] and a nonverbal reference point [e.g., music] must be explored.” Such exploration engages learners in deep processing of the new material. “The resulting connections, which stem from the student’s life experience, create a conceptual network that gives him greater flexibility in thinking.”7

Unlike a shallow swimming pool, when it comes to learning, diving deep is good for one’s head!
  1. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M.W., & Anderson, M.C., Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009) 102.
  2. Ibid. quoted on p. 102.
  3. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010) 8.
  4. Baddeley, 103.
  5. Washburn, 14.
  6. deWinstanley, P. A., & Bjork, R. A., “Successful Lecturing: Presenting Information in Ways that Engage Effective Processing,” in Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (Eds.), Applying the Science of Learning to University and Beyond, vol. 89 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).
  7. Washburn, 21.
photo credit: englishpianobloke (