January

We read often about the teacher-centered and teacher-controlled classroom, how that teacher exerts power in the classroom. As Fiske in his social relational models theory notes, power is not the same as legitimate authority. Power is an asocial relationship while authority is social, because authority is agreed to by those involved.

Alhtough authority may be granted in most areas, it can be challenged in others. ESL students with expertise have been known to challenge teacher corrections of content. In my own class, a student once challenged the course focus on argumentation, suggesting that the course should work on all English skills, including conversation.

More interestingly, authority may operate among students in some cultures. In my classes, I have noticed that Chinese students generally defer to the eldest among them, whether male or female, and usually, in whole-class discussions, the eldest would be the one who might speak. Apparently, the eldest in a Chinese group, holds a position of authority, and with respect to those outside the group, acts as a representative or spokesperson for the group.

Most teachers try to have all the students participate equally in a class, but should we when such participation goes against cultural expectations of social relationships? Is there a balance that needs to be recognized?

Shari Wilson (The Surprising Process of Writing, Inside Higher Ed) asserts that students write better by hand than by computer. She cites work by Daniel Chandler, The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand, and claims that writing by hand directs students to the process of writing rather than assignment mechanics and physically brings them closer to their text than a computer does.

There's no question that the tool of writing influences how one writes. Haas, 17 years ago, showed that writers who use only word processing, in comparison with those who use only pen and paper, plan less overall, conceptually, and during prewriting, but do more local and sequential planning—whether expert writer or novice.

There is a question, however, whether these differences cause writing to deteriorate. In my own writing, the ability to revise without re-penning every word has led to greater clarity due to better organizing of my thoughts. Still, it seems likely that a certain threshold of revising must be reached to make up for the lesser amount of planning and conceptualizing in word processing. As it's unlikely that students will revise as many times as I do, it is possible that writing by hand may lead to better writing in their case.

Thus, another question is whether the amount of revising that students actually do will lead to better writing in the long run. That is, does the act of writing a lot lead to better writing more than the act of thinking a lot? Then again, we probably don't want to pit writing against thinking. Perhaps we should redesign our pedagogy to facilitate better conceptual planning while using a word processor.

The Times Online reports that a study shows that children are becoming less intelligent.

Far from getting cleverer, our 11-year-olds are, in fact, less “intelligent” than their counterparts of 30 years ago. Or so say a team who are among Britain’s most respected education researchers.

After studying 25,000 children across both state and private schools Philip Adey, a professor of education at King’s College London confidently declares: “The intelligence of 11-year-olds has fallen by three years’ worth in the past two decades.”

Apparently, this dumbing down is due to over-testing and under-challenging youngsters:

“By stressing the basics — reading and writing — and testing like crazy you reduce the level of cognitive stimulation. Children have the facts but they are not thinking very well,” says Adey. “And they are not getting hands-on physical experience of the way materials behave.”

I wonder if those in favor of NCLB are reading this report. Even if yes, it wouldn't matter, as research has shown that people disregard facts that contradict their positions.

New web tools are just popping up all the time, with many of them free or offering free versions.

News Alloy is an online news reader (still beta) that may, according to Michael Arrington at TechCrunch, become a "cult favorite."

Learner Blogs offers free blogs for K-12 students.

Stikipad is a new browser run wiki service (via Educational Weblogs).

Nuvvo, an LMS, receives a fairly favorable review from Jason Plunkett.

LiveScience reports on a study, "Both Democrats and Republicans Adept at Ignoring Facts." A study found that, whether Democrat or Republican, those who have strong beliefs do not listen to facts that contradict their position.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

Also,

The brain imaging revealed a consistent pattern. Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate but detected contradictions in the opposing candidate.

"The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data," Westen said.

These findings are likely true not only of politics but of any emotionally charged subject or simply of any subject that one takes for granted. These findings also explain why it is so difficult for students in composition courses to tackle topics, such as abortion or religion, if they hold strong opinions about them. I wonder how students (or anyone) can be led to use reason in emotionally charged topics. Should we just avoid such topics? Or find ways to de-emotionalize them and re-reasonize them?

The Ruminate blog compares briefly blogs and discussion boards, noting that although each has its uses, blogs promote obligation and responsibility; ownership; thinking, responding, and contemplating; and postive practice. About the last one, Ruminate writes,

Learning to reflect on what is being taught, to express questions— even of the unanswerable kind, to examine one’s own learning process, to think critically about new knowledge and the way it is acquired… these are the essential stuff of learning how to learn and then learning effectively. Blogs present an opportunity for practice (in both the traditional and the Zen senses) in a form that many students, particularly the emerging digital native, intuitively understand.

Jeffrey Selingo (The NY Times via Kairos News) sums up nicely how podcasts can be used in the K-12 classroom. One of his sources says,

"A podcast is like few other devices that a teacher can use in advancing a student's development," said Daniel J. Schmit, an instructional technology specialist in the college of education at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the author of "KidCast: Podcasting in the Classroom." "It teaches them to do research, to communicate in print, to speak effectively and grab attention with sound."

One reason podcasting is effective in the classroom, Mr. Schmit says, is that it can be used in every subject. Indeed, "Coulee Kids" is like a weekly variety show, running 7 to 14 minutes, with introductory music. The Nov. 18 podcast included discussions of photosynthesis, the difference between angiosperms and gymnosperms and a segment on adding integers. The Jan. 6 episode featured student interviews about bullying, a follow-up to a report on "20/20."

Will Richardson comments on Steve Dembo's comments on absenteeism in classes that podcast their lectures online. Steve asks a good question,

When the lecture, presentation slides and notes can all be shared online, what SHOULD a higher education class look like?

Will ties this into the need to reinvent ourselves and teaching, ending with,

To be honest, I have a secret wish that when my kids get old enough for college (in about 10 years), that they'll have consumed all of the necessary consumables and just be showing up to classes that focus on actually taking an active role in the learning. What a concept...

That's part of the key, that students are prepared to take an active role in their learning. Many, perhaps most, students have been trained to be spoon-fed and find it frustrating to be asked to become active learners and even resent it. Actually, this is not just students. Time is so important to me that I often prefer the spoon-feeding for areas that I'm not familiar with. And that's part of the key, too: not overloading students with a massive memory overload so they opt for the easy way out.

Barbara Ganning jumps in on this topic, too, mentioning possibilities for classroom activities. She ends on,

Ah, the possibilities are limited only by our imaginations and by our grasp of the goals of formal education and our specific course objectives ( of course we are often hampered by state mandates and standards). As Maxine Greene has said repeatedly, "Scholarship is intensely creative." Shouldn't teaching be so, too?

Aaron Campbell (via Aaron Nelson) says in teaching ESL, start with students' passions. He begins,

Learning happens naturally as the human being grows. Fueled by curiosity, it is a process directed toward that which the learner desires most. As educators, we should trust this natural process while cultivating a nurturing environment in which the learner can grow best. In P2P approaches, we encourage students to call upon the authority within and take charge of the direction that their own learning takes. For example, when using weblogs with second language learners, it is important to give them the opportunity to decide the topics about which they are to write. To repeatedly ask students to write on weekly topics of the teacher’s choice is to direct their intellects toward subjects that have no connection to their own hearts. It becomes yet another exercise in the discipline of academic study, which bores a lot of people. If we want our students to be excited about learning, let us begin with their passions.

It's hard to disagree with this point. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder how those who teach the sciences engage their students. Do students in introductory chemistry get to study the chemicals that excite them? Of course, chemistry is not the same as learning a language. And if we can engage the student more, why not?

There are differences in the type of learning institutions and in the level of the students. For beginning language learners, it should be easy to build a course around their interests. Or, if the students are beginners in a workplace, it should not be a problem to orient the class around the English used at work. As students advance in their language proficiency, as much as possible, certainly incorporate students' majors into their writing.

But incorporating interests and passions are not quite the same. I doubt that many students are passionate either about their majors or about learning a language. At least ,I don't remember being "passionate" about learning. I do remember being "interested" in learning. Aaron's main point, of course, is that the more interested the students are in the topics they write about, the more students will engage in the activities and so learn more. But expecting passion, well, that seems to be an exaggeration.

The BBC now has a site called The Feed Factory that has their RSS feeds arranged by category, and it introduces readers to RSS technology (via Tim Lauer).

This site — the Feed Factory — is an introduction to the RSS feeds that are available from bbc.co.uk. You can use the Feed Finder on the left of this page to find some of our recommended feeds from across the bbc.co.uk site. When you are browsing around bbc.co.uk, if there's a feed available, you will see the RSS logo (below) somewhere on the page.

This site has considerable potential in bringing topics of interest to students.

I've been trying to keep up two blogs, one for practical applications and one for more theoretical explorations, but the time investment has been too great, so I've decided to combine them into one at this location.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm learning to use Flint, a new weblog assistant based on Tinderbox. It's as difficult as learning another language and certainly requires considerable time. It's such a flexible program, however, it is worth it. It's just a matter of time and effort.

Tim Frederick (via Bud and Nancy) are discussing the "lies" teachers tell their students, one of which seems to be saying "this is an important book." They make some good points, which I'll come back to, but first I want to look at some of the assumptions being made.

According to Tim, this is called a lie because: "How did we become so arrogant as to think we had the right to say which books were important to read and which aren't? "

I'm not sure we should consider arrogance as a form of lying, and I'm not sure that it's rights that are the issue. Shouldn't it be responsibility? That is, teachers have the responsibility (and are accountable to parents and society) for selecting those books that will best enable students to learn. Actually, depending on the grade level and subject, school administrators often do the choosing of books for the school's curricula, books that must meet a state's criteria, as determined by state departments of education.

Tim adds:

What disturbs me most is that when we say this, we take a little power away from students AND hurt their critical thinking. Shouldn't they decide what's important and why? That can be empowering, as well as exercise the critical thinking muscle of evaluating. They would have to be able to justify their reasons for thinking a book is important and we can share how other people define "important". Students can further evaluate others' criteria for "importance". How many perfectly good lessons surrounding this are thrown away when we decide what's important?

Part of this argument is a value judgment of "empowering" students, of appealing to egalitarian values. In the classroom, however, such an appeal should be secondary to principles of learning. No research on learning is cited in these claims, nor is any evidence given to support that "empowering" students will help them learn better. To be fair, Bud just wrote a few paragraphs, not an academic essay. However, with such strong claims, I'd like to see a little evidence.

Another assumption without evidence is that saying "This is an important book" somehow "hurt[s] their crtical thinking." Actually, this assumption is a shift from the perspective of teachers wanting students to read "good" books to a position on the value of "critical thinking," as if these positions were exclusive. Of course, I can imagine teachers who pontificate without inviting students into the discussion, but that's not at issue here.

There is no getting away from the teacher's responsibility. Consider Bud's last sentence, "How many perfectly good lessons surrounding this are thrown away when we decide what's important?" Who decides what are "perfectly good lessons"? If we carry this perspective to its conclusion, then we should have the children evaluating the criteria for "perfectly good lessons" and the criteria for good teaching. In fact, we should listen to the commplace saying that one learns best by teaching, and we should just have the children do the teaching, too. Then what would the teachers do?

Now looking at the positives of Bud's argument, It does make sense that students need to learn and evaluate "how other people define 'important'" and also develop critical thinking. The issue is how to do this. Perhaps we can draw from ACT-R learning theory. Anderson and Schunn (2000) write,

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.

...

Thus, ACT-R's theory of procedural learning claims that procedural skills are acquired by making references to past problem solutions while actively trying to solve new problems. Thus, it is both a theory of learning by doing and a theory of learning by example.

Simply providing the learner with examples is not sufficient to guarantee learning in the ACT-R theory. The sufficiency of the production rules acquired depends on the understanding of the example.

Anderson and Schunn add, "For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor." That is, learners must practice a lot, whether critical thinking or other skills. The problem is one can practice the wrong skills, in which case "practice makes imperfect." In other words, learners need feedback and at times explicit guidance to make their practice effective. Of course, they can get that when they choose their own books. And now we're back where we started: How does the teacher choosing a book hurt students?

Reference:

Anderson, John R., & Schunn, Christian D. (2000). The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 5). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

The Blog Herald previews a forthcoming PBS blog called MediaShift, and it sounds quite interesting.

PBS has announced the launch on Jan 18 of a a new blog called MediaShift, which will explore how new forms of digital media are dramatically changing American society and culture.

In a particularly good signing, and the main reason we are even mentioning this blog at all, the new blog will be written by Mark Glaser, probably best know more recently in the blogosphere for his excellent writing for the USC Annenberg School for Communication’s Online Journalism Review.

MediaShift will offer a continuing look at how digital media such as blogs, RSS, podcasts, citizen journalism, wikis, news aggregators and video repositories are altering the way we live, play and work. The site is said to provide a window into this world for the average user while offering enough details to satisfy the more technically savvy, and will offer ongoing opportunities for active public participation and feedback.

I've switched templates for my blog to Flint, a new Tinderbox weblog assistant. I'll move last year's posts to "Explorations in Learning 2005." Because it's still beta, it needs some fine tuning. Right now, for instance, the blogroll isn't working. And I need to tweak the 2005 files so the links work correctly.

All the entries before this one belong to Mark Bernstein, the creator of Flint and Tinderbox. Both are great tools, so I've included Mark's ad for Flint:

This is Flint, the new Tinderbox Weblog Assistant. Flint sets up weblogs to your specifications, and gives you lots of options for color, layout, and style.

More than simply a template set or theme, Flint is a tool kit of Tinderbox techniques for integrating styles and Web services into your site.

We're constantly extending and revising Flint. When you purchase Flint, you'll get a year of free updates!

Let me add that Flint is an assistant, meaning you also need the Tinderbox software, a great tool for notetaking, brainstorming, simply managing information and knowledge.