Category Archives: Course 1

Be. Less. Helpful.

I was going to address the findings of the Horizon Report, but then I watched Dan Myers’ Ted Talk and thought that his take on the state of education had a more fundamental importance and relevance to my practice.

Myers worries that today’s education (and specifically textbooks) have a “Two and a Half Men” approach to problem-solving: they create the expectation that problems should be neatly packaged and the solution readily apparent if given steps are following. In other words, there is too much scaffolding: we are “paving a smooth straight path… and congratulating our students for how well they can step over the small cracks on the way…We don’t involve [students] in the formulation of the problem.” Myers’ solution:

  1. Use multimedia.
  2. Encourage student intuition.
  3. Ask the shortest question you can.
  4. Let students build the problem.
  5. Be less helpful. 

In history class, the kind of reasoning we want to do revolves around constructing a logical arguments supported by appropriate historical evidence. For example:

  • “Why did Chinese dynasties last for so long?” (from World History I)
  • “Compared to other civilizations, could Muslim civilization be considered the greatest?” (from World History I)
  • “The Chinese and Russian Revolutions were neither short nor sweet: they were both long and messy ordeals.” How accurately does this statement describe these two revolutions? (from World History II)

When we construct questions like this, we try to make them evaluative. This is why I’m a big fan of the phrase, “To what extent…” I’ve found that these questions are quite difficult for my 9th and 10th grade students, who seem to arrive in my class at one of four stages of readiness:

  1. Able to make sweeping generalizations that are largely accurate (“They had an organized government and religious tolerance.”) but unsubstantiated with any specific evidence.
  2. Able to make relevant lists of specific evidence that are fairly organized in a five-paragraph format, but without explanation that ties that evidence to the question.
  3. Able to synthesize specific evidence and explanation/analysis into a format that directly answers the question. (This step describes my expectation for my students, and my B+ and A students can do this)
  4. Able to do step #3, but with extensive discussion of that evidence that shows a sense of chronology and historical context. (for 9th and 10th graders, this would exceed my expectation – my unquestioned A students – perhaps 3 in 40 – can do this)

Given stage #4, I find it relevant to quote from Niall Ferguson’s latest work:

“For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose. In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett posed a ‘trilemma’: should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty, or just ‘one fucking thing after another’?”

I scaffold such essay questions in class in a number of ways, as evidenced by this nonexhaustive list:

  1. Providing essay outline worksheets, asking students to brainstorm evidence, then make claims, then a thesis.
  2. Using scored discussions in class that differentiate between arguments that are unsupported opinions, ones that are logical but unsupported, and ones that use specific historical evidence.
  3. Brainstorming evidence in groups, and then individually writing short answer responses that are then evaluated by the class with the aid of my Elmo document camera
  4. Using think-pair-share questions that break up my lectures and ask students to consider historical significance (“If you were a German, would you have felt optimistic in 1919? In 1928?”)

Myers has made me wonder whether I do too much handholding, though. For example, I recall several times where my colleagues and I have made short answers questions MORE specific to clue students in on what evidence to include. In preparation for the Muslim civilization question above, I gave students 6 possible comparisons they could make with other civilizations and asked them to choose two of them with which to write two practice body paragraphs – in other words, I was teasing out the steps to the problem rather than having them do it. In the future, then, I might have students generate a list of possible comparisons (individually, in groups, or as a class, depending on the nature of the particular students). I suppose I’m grappling with the “meaning of life” question in my teaching:


Seeing as how I’m not going to answer this in 800 words, I’ll conclude by throwing out a question to those grade 9/10 teachers reading this: Do your students fall into one of the four categories above? Are my expectations for what they can do appropriate, or lower/higher than what you see? To what extent is their ability to move between steps a function of their mental development rather than my teaching?

Random thought as to how wikis can be applied: it would be AWESOME to have a bank of short answer questions and essay questions – divided by topic and, in the case of the short answer questions, by points. Such questions are the essence of history class (yeah, yeah, all classes, UbD, essential questions, blah blah blah) but we teachers spend an inordinate amount of time duplicating others’ work. If there were a wiki out there that teachers could contribute to, I think it would be rapidly growing and evolving resource that would NOT necessarily lead to a homogenization of the course, since the flexible and editable nature of the wiki would be able to accomodate diverse perspectives.

Technology: Helping This Old Dog Do New Tricks

I read some of Prensky’s previous work as part of the lit review for my masters project on technology integration in history, so I wasn’t surprised to see “Shaping Tech for the Classroom” show up in the course readings. Prensky discusses a model for technology adoption in schools:

  1. Dabbling
  2. Doing old things in old ways.
  3. Doing old things in new ways.
  4. Doing new things in new ways.

In the spirit of reflection and to help document how this program is changing my practice, I thought it would be useful exercise to apply this model to my own teaching. While I consider myself a “techie” individual, I do not necessarily consider myself a techie teacher. But let’s see if this self-assessment holds up once I enumerate my teaching practices.

Continue reading Technology: Helping This Old Dog Do New Tricks

“Geeking Out” Authentically in the Classroom: A Response to “Living and Learning with New Media”

“Geeking out” is defined as “learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise. It is a mode of learning that is peer-driven, but focused on gaining deep knowledge and expertise in specific areas of interest” (28). It gives participants “peer-based sharing and feedback” (31) and “recognition and reputation as well as an audience for creative work” (32).

I’ll paraphrase and modify today’s essential question to consider this issue: How can we effectively, practically and authentically take advantage of the phenomenon of Geeking Out within our curricular areas?

Continue reading “Geeking Out” Authentically in the Classroom: A Response to “Living and Learning with New Media”

The Changing Goals of Learning: A Response to Siemens’ “Connectivism”


The NETs goal for this week asks us to “develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities.” Our Week 2 reading article by George Siemens advances one way to do this: by teaching students to adapt to new situations and changing conditions, a task identified in the article’s title as the new skill of connectivism. 

Connectivism Mind Map

Briefly put, Siemens makes the following points:

  • Knowing how and what (skills and content) is still important, but today’s students must also knowwhere – in other words, they must be able to “plug into sources” when knowledge is needed but not known.
  • Students must adapt to “pattern shifts,” or new situations and changing conditions, more than in the past
  • We must create our own patterns by connecting disparate sources of information, because the “ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.” 
  • The core rationale for connectivism is that in today’s world, “Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions,” so connectivism is needed to access and process this diversity.

For those of us trying to empower our students (and what teacher would admit to consciously NOT wanting to do this?), Siemens’ ideas provide ample food for thought. His assertion that a vital task is creating our own patterns by connecting various sources of information is supported by hot trends in “Web 2.0:”

Siemens puts connectivism forward as a new skill to be learned, and the question many teachers will have is: “is this yet ANOTHER thing I have to incorporate? Where will I make room?”

Luckily, a shift to connectivism won’t mean simply tacking new skills onto an existing curriculum. Knowing where to find information in order to adapt to patterns shifts is just techno-speak for having students research and then apply their knowledge to new situations: skill goals that most teachers find valuable. Extra time will certainly be required, but this will be on the front-end of things: ensuring that there are enough computing resources for students to work independently, on demand; vetting sources and scaffolding the connection process; and constructing student-centered activities that help them see that “learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.” My reading of Siemens is that connectivism skills might simply upgrade and extend the skills that we already teach.

I’ve just reoriented my 9/10 history curriculum around a similar principal: I’m making research, especially online research, a great focus in my classes. The reasons for this are manifold. First, using the textbook as a primary resource tends to blunt the intrinsically interesting nature of the content. It’s only when students dig deep into history to find the stories that history comes alive; the textbook is great at giving breadth but not depth. Secondly, helping students “see connections between fields, ideas and concepts” in history is more than a skill: it’s a way to prove the relevance of a course that can seem staid and far removed from their everyday experiences. I’d like to give students the skillset they need to identify and evaluate the patterns of civilization and society. 

What prevents me from moving further ahead? The main thing, I think, is access to resources. To make connectivism a central goal, I’m assuming – and correct me if I’m wrong – that constant, individual access to connective resources (i.e. the Internet) is essential. We simply don’t have the facilities at school to make this a requirement – neither the bandwidth nor a 1:1 program. While I could require students to do connectivism-inspired work at home where all of them do have Internet, I still face the task of being able to model effectively and provide timely feedback.

I’m interested to hear from educators in schools with a relatively limited infrastructure, then: how do work around technology access constraints?

New models of learning? A response to Richardson

As a new teacher, I frequently reflect on what my role in the classroom should be – especially at a time when human civilization is changing at a more rapid pace than at any time in history. Consequently, I feel that Richardson’s vision of education’s future deserves a thorough examination.
Richardson makes several assumptions about how the Internet is changing the need for and goal of education. He says that it is connecting us to 1/7 of the world’s population, meaning that “experts are at our fingertips…if we know how to find and connect to them.” In other words, we have vast opportunities to find information. The Internet has also had an effect on the creation and dissemination of knowledge: “Paper is not the best way to share our work, facts and truths are constantly changing, and working together is becoming the norm, not the exception.” Our purpose is now “about solving problems together and sharing the knowledge we’ve gained with wide audiences.”
These assertions are backed with conviction but few examples. “Facts and truths are constantly changing?” As a history teacher, I must evaluate these claims within the context of my academic discipline, and I find that for Ancient and Modern World History, at least, “facts” and “truths” are not changing at all. Are there more interpretations of history? Perhaps – our textbook takes pains to discuss the role of women in each civilization, however perfunctory its treatment of the subject might be. But the divergence and profileration of competing interpretations is as much a function of changing social attitudes as it is of evolving technology. The facts themselves remain static – 305,000 soldiers died at the Battle of the Somme, whether we are learning about it in 1964 or 2004. It would be more accurate to say that for today’s history teachers, the Internet has made the facts more vivid – we can explore topics in much greater depth because sites like the Modern History Sourcebook and Google Images’ Life Magazine archive expose us to so much more than textbooks can.

Richardson further claims that “working together is becoming the norm, not the exception.” For a niche of motivated and wordly individuals, this is certainly the case. Wikipedia is the perfect example of asynchronous, anonymous collaboration – tens of thousands of volunteers working together to synthesize and evaluate what “facts and truths” are. Look at the discussion tab of any Wikipedia entry and you can see the spirited, sometimes-combative-sometimes-collaborative exchanges that underly each entry. Yet “working together” is hardly something that has been an EXCEPTION throughout history. Most significant achievements and advancements have been the product of group efforts: the space program, the Manhattan Project, the assembly line, the union, representative government… the list goes on. Working together is being made easier by the Internet and technology – and therefore more common – but I’m not convinced by the suggestion that collaboration is somehow a new phenomenon.

The assertion that collaboration is becoming the “norm” also implies some equality of contribution between all parties involved. Extant paradigms of both real-world interactions and the anonymous, distributed Internet do not support such an implication. On the Internet, the number of commenters is but a fraction of the readers of a given blog post. The number of “seeders” of a torrent is about a quarter of the number of “leechers.” And the number of students in a mixed-ability group who contribute actively and meaningfully to a group project is rarely 100%.

I don’t write this critically to suggest that the impact of the Internet is inconsequential. It is indisputably changing how humans produce, consume, and interact with information. It is responsible for the downfall of governments (in Egypt), the obsolescence of business models (in the case of record labels), and the demise of retail/brick-and-mortar stores (in the case of Blockbuster, Borders, local music stores, and Best Buy). However, we teachers should not subscribe to some soft-focus vision of a utopian, communitarian vision of learning without examining the skills that students and teachers need to successfully leverage the technology. We must also be conscious of the fact that these predictions about collaboration and information-sharing are predicated on an active, critical population.
Richardson does address some of these concerns. He sees the new role of teachers as “connectors first and content experts second.” This is presumably because the Internet has replaced the teacher as the best source of content. Richardson anticipates the objections of librarians everywhere who argue that the Internet has enabled as many crackpots as it has experts by exhorting us to model “editorial skills” that will help our students to “think critically about the deluge of information now being produced by millions of amateur authors.” My recognition of this need has led me to orient my 9th- and 10th- grade classes more around information literacy and research – and, of course, influenced me to enroll in this program. My students’ dogged trust in sources like “” and the veracity of numerous sites detailing the insidious influence of the Illuminati convinced me of the need for editorial skills long before I read Richardson’s work. But I feel that “editorial skills” are merely skepticism and criticism applied to a new medium. After all, the world was hardly short of charlatans (Hitler, Mao, Stalin, the Confederacy, Manifest Destiny, any number of religious leaders who aren’t recognized by your own religion) before the Internet. The web has merely given them a bigger megaphone through which to speak.
If you’ve read this far, then I congratulate you for two reasons. One, because contemporary research has raised the concern many times that the advent of instant gratificaiton has shortened peoples’ attention spans – this is something I certainly worry about with my students. Two, I have neglected to adhere to the rubric’s stipulation that my blog post include multimedia enhancement, which might in this case have taken the form of citations to research backing up my claims. I’m going to blame my iPad for this shortcoming – it’s great for reading books, listening to music, and watching movies, but woefully inadequate for any real productivity. But this, I suspect, is a conversation topic for a future date.