Talking Tech and Gaining Perspective

Developing a mindful approach on tech integration in the classroom is currently something that is of keen interest to me. However, from the perspective of a student teacher, there is still a lot of foundational knowledge for me to develop on. As a result, I decided to make this blog post more of an effort in seeking out some advice from those around me who carry a wealth of knowledge from their vast experiences.

A role model to many, including myself, I decided to approach Dr. Tyseer Aboulnasr, former professor and dean at the Faculty of Engineering at uOttawa, to gain her perspective on tech integration based on her experiences and observations/interactions with her students. I also took this opportunity to gain some initial learning about coding/programming.

The following are some of questions/answers shared in what turned out to be an “email interview,” due to time-zone differences. At the end, I also provide some of my own reflections on the valuable insights I gained from this perspective.

Q1: Integrating technology into the learning process —is it essential in today’s teaching practices? Would it be a disservice to students if it wasn’t incorporated?

A: My whole argument on the issue of technology is that technology was developed as a tool to provide solutions to problems we have and to improve our quality of life; we should always differentiate goals from tools.

Technology is a tool and should never end up being the goal.

You cannot enjoy the advancements of technology and keep aiming for more advanced technology. You should always stop and ask; why was I doing this?  what do I need it for? and not just focus on, how do I do it?

This is my general rule, so when it comes to education, you as teachers need to decide on the skill sets you need to impart onto your students and then see how technology can help you to get them to acquire those skills.

A secondary goal is that students will have to deal with technology all the time, so you need to get them to be comfortable with it and not scared of it by getting them used to it being part of their life. Sort of like what you do with diversity; they have to live with it in society, so you teach them about it and how it can add richness to their lives.

So yes, bring it in the classroom so they’re comfortable with the “tool” and prepared to use it later on as they need to. And when you incorporate it in your learning plan, use it to support your educational tools and do not make learning it the goal.

It would be a disservice if it is not included, but it is also a disservice if it is included at the expense of the basic skills of critical thinking, learning to learn, problem solving etc.

Q2: What is coding/programming and what kind of computational thinking is involved in this process?

A: Programming is simply a list of basic specific instructions that solve a problem. Think of a robot you have who cannot think. You need the robot to go to aisle 6 in the store, pick-up the red package on shelf #5 and bring it back.  You taught the robot (like you teach a dog) a certain set of orders. So you use the basic set of orders the robot knows and then give them out in a sequence.

Take 10 steps right
Turn 90 degrees
Three steps left
(whatever algorithm that gets it to aisle 6)
Move up 5 shelves
Check package colour
If colour is not red, go to next package
If colour is red, pick it up
Take 2 steps back

In other words, you need to know exactly what needs to be done and then write the program or code which is basically the steps you as a person needs to do, articulated in the language the computer understands.

Different computers have different “hardware capacities” that can for example get him to check the colour of the package very fast. Also the “vocabulary” the computer understands can be rudimentary (one step right, turn 890 degrees, then two steps left) or (keep moving until you find a left turn) or …

You cannot program a solution if you cannot solve it yourself. The computer is just implementing your steps, faster, more accurately, but they are still your steps. You need to learn problem solving to be able to actually solve the problem and structure the solution in the most elegant way that is matched to the computer’s capacity to understand (or its set of instructions).

 Q3: I heard you make mention before that it’s not about the technology itself, because by the time students graduate, the technology will have changed. From that perspective, what kind of transferable knowledge/skills should I be focusing on when integrating coding in the classroom?

A: I believe if technology is learnt as a tool, certainly, there is so much transferrable. In reality, most are fascinated by it and they focus more on the technology and not on the thinking behind using it.

You are 100% right, I learned vacuum tubes and a few years down, there were no vacuum tubes. Technology is now changing faster than education. You need to teach students to be comfortable with technology and to learn how to learn using it and what to do with what they learn, all while ensuring you maintain the concept of this is just a tool.

The best are the ones that learn how to program a lego kit for example and then tomorrow, they sit and learn a different language on their own because they understood that all languages are simply a set of instructions. You need to know what instructions are available, then look at what you want to do, and how do you break it up into a sequence of instructions from within this set.

Q4: What would a poor integration of coding into the classroom look like to you?

Poor integration is something where students are learning to program a game but did not focus on the problem solving process that they needed to write the code. Rather, on writing the code itself and playing the game.

Q5: What qualities distinguished your most innovative students? 

The best are the ones that have enough confidence to try something new on their own and when they fail, it motivates them more to try again. It bothers them to not know how something works.

Reflection:

There are two key takeaways that stood out to me in the reflection process; technology as a thinking tool and technology for inclusion.

Technology as a Thinking Tool:

One of my math professors likes to use the term “thinking-tools” when referring to math manipulatives because they help provide learners with ‘aha-moments’ when working out a problem or trying to understand a concept. They allow students to interact with the learning and further stimulate the thinking processes involved. By the same token, Dr. Tyseer refers to technology in the same sense, continually reiterating that it is indeed just a tool; a thinking tool that we should be introducing to students or incorporating into our learning for the purpose of eliciting and stimulating that thought-process.

Technology is not the goal and nor is it just about the engagement level that it helps to create in the classroom; when integrated meaningfully, it can also help me add a new dimension to the thought-processes involved in trying to reach my learning goal(s) with students.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be anything fancy, and still requires strategic planning and support from the teacher to be able to capitalize on it well. Take for example using Pear Deck in a math class to try and engage students in a discussion. As a teacher, I know that some of my students are always hesitant at first to share their thoughts, so I make use of Pear Deck to anonymize their responses and create that safe environment for them. Students are then able to see everyone’s response on the screen without knowing who said what. The focus in the classroom now is strictly on the responses and ideas shared by my students. Added to that, of course, is my back-pocket cheat-sheet full of teacher prompts/questions to help me navigate the discussion, along with other strategies I planned out for this portion of the lesson.

In this sense, the integration of Pear Deck allowed students the space and time to be able to tap into their own thoughts and equally engage with the lesson. The strategies I planned out helped me to capitalize on the support that this technology provided.

This is a very basic example, but the main idea for me here is asking myself: how is this technology I’m bringing into the classroom supporting or “manipulating” my students’ thought-processes somehow?

Whether I’m integrating simple technology to help engage students in a discussion or using it as a more complex tool to learn about coding, the big idea is the same — the focus is on the thinking involved as students are making use out of this tool.

Technology viewed as a ‘thinking tool’ also reminded me about a recent post I came across by Nick Shackleton-Jones where he talks about tech integration in terms of “content-dumping” vs. “performance-support” in three short videos here. While the videos are aimed more for e-learning in organizations, they are still relevant to the classroom. The big idea mentioned here is to basically package technology in terms of a resource that can improve performance rather than a tool used to re-create a micro course or content online.

The following example and image are taken from the original post here:

micro

Resource vs content

Technology for Inclusion:

Technology for inclusion is often thought of in terms of an ‘assistive device’ to support learners with special needs. However, upon mentioning the idea of bringing technology in the classroom so that students can be comfortable with it and ready to use it later on in life as they need to, brought-up the question of: how inclusive are classrooms if technology is not incorporated? If the term ‘inclusive’ means meeting the needs of all my students equally and technology is currently a tool they’re using outside of the classroom to try and support their learning, then by excluding it from my classroom, am I really meeting their current and future needs?

Educators who are still hesitant to incorporate technology in the classroom are often not comfortable with using it themselves. But by not incorporating it, even though it is indeed a big part of our lives now, then we’re passing on that ‘fear of technology.’

As mentioned by Dr. Tyseer, we educate students about diversity in the classroom and how it can add richness to their lives because it’s a characteristic that defines our society and something that we have to live with. By the same token, technology is now also a defining characteristic of how we interact/learn in society and thus would be a benefit to students when educated on how to make proper use of it.

Waiting for that ‘someday’

Ten years from now, guaranteed I’ll be a great teacher. My lessons will unfold exactly as I hope, no more mistakes, classroom management will never present me with any new challenges, and I will be an expert at designing truly authentic learning experiences and orchestrating deep—very deep—discussions that truly capture and elicit my students’ curiosity.

Of course, that’s a lie. But a lie that as a beginning teacher you tend to believe is true. That today is about making mistakes and tomorrow—that someday—is about becoming an expert teacher. But then, as you begin to emerge yourself in the practice, this image starts to fade away. Bit-by-bit you start to realize that that ‘someday’ doesn’t even exist and this image is serving more as a justification for making mistakes. As if somewhere down the line mistakes will no longer be valid or acceptable. As if teaching, the art of tapping into another human’s brain, influencing the shape of neural pathways and continually trying to make learning relevant to the changing world around us is something that is finite.

How could I have believed that this is true while holding on to the idea that teachers are researchers? When does research ever stop? When does the learning ever stop?

I had five goals written out before walking into my final practicum and it was time to reflect on them. Did I meet my goals? Can I place a checkmark now beside all these areas?

No, I didn’t meet all my goals. I didn’t even know what the criteria for that even means. Sure, I developed in some areas, but in others, I barely touched the surface. In fact, the more I reflected and the more reading I was doing online to find out what other great teachers are doing in these areas, the more I realized how much more learning lies ahead of me. I could only think of this quote in that moment:

knowledge-quote

But I was perfectly satisfied with that and instead of feeling disappointed, I continued to read with a smile on my face. I was exactly where I wanted to be because as Dan Meyer once placed it, “I need a job that has me learning everyday.”  Not to say that learning only occurs in the field of teaching, but rather, it’s the type of knowledge seeking that excites your neurons, whether it be about education, arts, sports, fashion –whatever makes you curious to learn more.

Today, my fixed mindset image about ‘someday’ mastering the art of teaching no longer exists. Instead, it’s reflected more in a truly authentic yet unfinished painting with only one purpose —to keep you curious.

In a previous post, I made a sketchnote reflection about my top 10 What Went Well during practicum with the intention of following up with an Even Better If one, but the list was simply too long. I ended up writing this instead, but as a final Even Better If statement: aim to be an expert in the content of your subject, but know that the art of transferring that knowledge will always be a work in progress –enjoy the painting more!

Flipping Bottles

Today, for our intermediate level math course at uOttawa, Cassandra Mclean and I took our first shot at designing/presenting an activity station. Ok, it’s not really our first shot, we kind of did it last year as well for another course, but I think building off from previous experiences, it definitely felt a bit more developed this time.

The activity itself targeted Grade 9 linear relations. We had our ideas down but then two days before our presentation we came across Dan Meyer‘s  #BottleFlipping lesson and Jon Orr‘s successful implementation of it via Twitter and decided to scrap our original plans.

We modelled our (15-20 minute) activity around Jon Orr’s lesson design.

Set-up the table with an instruction sheet, “contest” sheet, an iPad to watch a quick video, some devices for Desmos, and of course …the water bottles!

Each group started off with watching this quick video, then they logged onto Desmos for the first part of our activity. Here’s a sample from some of their responses:

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-8-06-52-pmscreen-shot-2016-10-11-at-8-07-20-pm

Next, was the actual contest:

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-8-24-17-pmscreen-shot-2016-10-11-at-8-23-19-pmbe6c9a7e-6dcc-4c63-acbf-0d0df48dbf74-1

Some groups got a little bit more competitive than others and started to have conversations about slight differences in the bottle design 🙂

Our timing was a little off because most of the groups didn’t get around to the final step (which is kind of important) and we also had to change it into only 2-3 one-minute trials. But, overall, I think it went pretty good and we even got some nice feedback.

Full credit goes to Jon Orr and Dan Meyer.

Planning for a 15-20 minute activity station was definitely a nice experience, kind of allows you to regroup your thoughts around lesson planning and your strategy for picking out main ideas/activities. It was nice to participate in them as well, felt like a mini in-class PD session on lesson ideas .

My final thought –if only all my lessons went this smooth 🙂  

Technology in the Classroom: Defining its Purpose

Technology use in the classroom largely depends on how teachers choose to incorporate it, but that’s not all.  One of the biggest takeaways from my first two weeks of practicum was reflecting on the purpose behind integrating technology in the classroom. On thought, I came to ask myself, why is it possible that one could walk into two different classrooms using the same tech tools, but see different results in terms of student engagement?

Having the fortunate opportunity to be able to observe how an experienced teacher capitalizes on their benefits allowed me to highlight the difference and dig deeper into thought about what makes their success vary from one classroom to the other.

From my personal observation and reflection, the key factor that stood out for me was the reason behind choosing to integrate technology –the one beyond learning that “special” skill. It’s first and foremost about taking the time to define the purpose I want it to serve in my classroom. Asking myself as a designer/facilitator the most important question when lesson planning—why? Why is this important for my students? Is it just about being tech-savvy, or can I further define its purpose and allow it to help me create a more meaningful and enjoyable learning experience? If my goal is to improve student engagement in the learning process, then how will they be able to engage in conversations with their peers, showcase their thoughts, share different strategies, and collectively engage in group discussions as they use this technology?

Walking into my placement two weeks ago, I was already curious to learn how technology can be integrated into a Grade 10 Math class. From previous experiences, I still had the idea in my head that when it came to technology vs. group-based activities, student engagement wouldn’t be as high.

Having that expectation and the imbedded image of students sitting on separate devices totally disengaged from the environment around them (only talking to their peers or teacher when they have a question or answer) definitely paved the way for one of my favourite experiences so far. For the first time I had the chance to experience what it truly felt like to be a facilitator/designer in the classroom. Albeit I was just an observer and active participant, but having that opportunity to experience the deep meaning of the former mentioned terms was truly inspiring.

For the entire 75-minutes students were leaders of their own learning. From the design of different activities that triggered curiosity, to the use of Visibly Random Groups (VRGs) and Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS), and the idea of showcasing and extending the learning with Pear Deck and Desmos, students were engaged and stimulated throughout the entire process. What struck me the most was that at no point was the technology isolated from the hands-on activities students were working on. They both served the purpose of complimenting each other. More specifically, the tools selected:

  • Created a safe space for students to communicate their individual thoughts, collectively;
  • Provided an extension to the hands-on learning with the added feature of personal/group reflection;
  • Provided students with a platform to analyze and present their own learning;
  • Offered room for feedback vs. direct teaching
    • Instead of highlighting key ideas by writing them on the board or reading them off a slide developed by the teacher, key concepts were conveyed through feedback on student work/thoughts projected through Pear Deck or displayed across the room (VNPS). The content of the “teaching” material was derived directly from student work.

Overall, more than just a tool to help students learn a new skill, technology served a much bigger purpose of creating an interactive community of thoughts.

It’s The Thought That Counts -Literally!

Imagine handing out a math test to your students with the following instructions:

Communicate in writing or in drawing:

  1. The process you will use to find the answer;
  2. Reason(s) to support your choice.

Please note: marks will be deducted if you write down the actual answer 🙂

This is the idea I got while scribing for a student during a standardized math test. Listening to him think aloud and watching him contemplate on ideas of how to go about in solving the questions was truly an exciting experience—one that would interest me, as a teacher, so much more than looking at the final answer.

The feeling of excitement was almost the same as that of reading a good book where you’re eager to flip through the pages to find out what happens next, but at the same time don’t want to skip over or miss any of the important details.

manipulativesI could tell that the student was enjoying the process of entertaining his thoughts and deciphering the puzzle (question) as well. Watching him jump from one thought to the other, as he experimented with his manipulatives, was like watching a detective trying to solve a crime scene. But suddenly the climax fell to an end. It was interrupted by his own voice as he shouted “The answer is …”

It fell to an end because instead of taking the time to follow through on his own thoughts that were heading in the right direction, he rushed himself to a different path as he was more interested in the final answer and whether it was right or wrong.

But it’s the journey in piecing together the puzzle that makes looking at the final piece all the more enjoyable—not just for a teacher interested in understanding the students’ thought process, but for the student as well.

By nature, the brain likes to play detective. It becomes bored when things get too predictable. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that:

“Neurons really exist to process information. That’s what neurons do. If you want to anthropomorphize neurons, you can say that they are happiest when they are processing information.”

Figuring out the solution or reaching a goal in general is definitely rewarding, but from my perspective, not as rewarding as the journey, memories, and adventures created during that process. After all, your brain will always be left asking, “what’s next?”

Focusing on the thought-process and understanding how students think was not only an enjoyable experience overall, but I believe it can actually help me become a better teacher by allowing me to pinpoint where the focus needs to be. I definitely  look forward to implementing this experience in my future classroom.