Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Constructivism in Practice

The more that I can integrate technology into my lessons, the more my students enjoy it. Of course, I also enjoy them more! Working with math concepts can become tedious at times. Imagine being given a set of data and told to calculate mean, median, and mode. Once those are done, you must create a graph that fits certain requirements. The majority of work involved is just There isn't much thought or analysis involved. The data sets involved tend to be smaller since the students would otherwise become frustrated. Now, imagine being given a slightly different set of data, for which you must do the same calculations and then analyze the differences between the two data sets. Put middle school students in this situation and it will result in moans and groans, along with whining and complaining.

Now imagine that you have an interactive online tool that lets you manipulate data at will. You can add or delete outliers, change the scale or intervals of a graph, or even switch to a different type of graphical representation at the click of a mouse. The tedious tasks are gone and you can immediately see the results of any change in the data. You can now concentrate on what happens when data is added, deleted, or modified. You can see the difference that changes in scale and interval make in the appearance, and perhaps interpretation, of the graph.

Which option is more appealing to you? The same one that is more appealing to our students. When students are allowed to use technology to investigate data and create an artifact depicting what they have learned, they are more engaged in the process. More engagement leads to a deeper understanding of the concept. Instead of spending all of their time on the individual calculations, the students can spend their time manipulating data and analyzing how that changes the result.

Today's students have grown up with technology. The tools that are available in the classroom have the potential to give students more time to explore higher-order thinking and analytical problem-solving. To deprive them of these skills is to fail to prepare them for a 21st century world.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cognitive Tools and Enhanced Learning

There is no doubt that educational technology can enhance learning for students. Cognitive tools serve several purposes in the instructional process. Information seeking tools such as Internet search engines and online databases allow students to access more information in a shorter amount of time. As they find the answers to their original questions, many times they also find extended information that deepens their understanding of the material. Presentation tools such as Word and PowerPoint allow the students to display their creative ideas through unique multimedia projects. Technologies such as spreadsheets and notebook tools aid the students in organizing information and defining relationships. Knowledge integration is enhanced using mapping tools and simulations. These technologies allow students to connect their prior knowledge with the newly acquired information (Orey, 2001).

Study skills such as summarizing and note taking can be demonstrated using some of these cognitive tools. Simply using the mark-up feature in Word is a very effective way for the teacher to model summarizing. Students’ note-taking skills improve when they are taught to use graphic organizers. For class discussions or small group projects, these notes can be shared online through the use of wikis and blogs (Pitler, 2007).

Concept mapping and virtual field trips are cognitive tools that are new to me, but I can definitely see the value of these tools. Class trips across the country or around the world are not feasible. With virtual field trips, any student can visit our nation’s capitol, go on a safari, or explore the rainforests. As school budgets tighten even more, these virtual field trips may be all that we can afford. Concept mapping tools can be used to enhance the student’s ability to organize information and define relationships. Even so, we must be sure that our students “work with computer technology, instead of being controlled by it” (Orey, 2001).

Orey, M. (Ed.). (2001). Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from
Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Reward and Punishment

There is no doubt that operant conditioning is still widely used in our schools. There are many professionals who will debate the value of intrinsic motivation over extrinisic motivation. In theory, students should find satisfaction in a job well done or in a goal achieved. In reality, these same students may not have their basic needs met. There is a consensus among our middle school teachers that punishments such as lunch and after-school detention, or in-school and out-of-school suspension do not have the desired effect. This is based on the observation that the same students receive these consequences time after time. If a negative reinforcement does not deter the undesirable behavior, then it has no value.

On the other hand, middle school students respond readily to rewards. I often tease my students that I am going to give them t-shirts printed with the phrase, "Will work for food". At their ages, they are very self-absorbed. If success is rewarded by fulfilling a personal desire, then they will give their best effort. The reward could be something edible, or it might be a chance to have class outside. The reward might be an opportunity to play computer games or just put together a jigsaw puzzle. As long as the reward is something that they value, they will stay focused until the assignment is completed.

Although many modern professionals may not label themselves as behaviorists, the idea of reward and punishment is still a major part of classroom procedure. The extent to which strategies such as reinforcing effort or homework and practice actually increase students' understanding of the course material depends on how the strategies are applied. Regardless of the instructional strategy or educational theory used in the classroom, the content must be real and relevant to the student. Without a student's "buy-in", even the best laid plans will fail.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Test Time!

It's that time of year again. The 'official' state testing of our students begins this week. One test...on one day...for each subject...will be used to determine how well we have taught our students the grade-level standards this year. Of course, we don't get the results until late summer, which does absolutely nothing to help this year's students. Money and jobs are dependent on good test scores. It's a system that makes absolutely no sense to me. My personal feeling is that if I have helped my students develop a love for learning and a desire to make a positive impact on the world around them, then I don't care what they score on a standardized multiple-choice test. Life does not present its problems with potential answers labelled A, B, C, or D. Life presents problems which require independent thinking, creative problem-solving techniques, and no single right answer. If one of my students becomes an auto mechanic and someone brings in a car that is not operating properly, there will be no printout which states: A) the PCV valve is defective, B) the fuel filter may be clogged, C) possible vacuum leak, or D) faulty sensor.

I have not heard or read a single reason that supports the heavy emphasis that is placed on mandated testing. Imagine what would happen if any of the highly-compensated professional athletes had their future contracts determined by a single performance at the end of the season. What if they were told that it doesn't matter what they did all year...that because they failed to excel during a single game, they would not have a job the following season. What an uproar that would cause! It would be the leading story for every news venue. Yet, that is what we are telling our students and our teachers. This one test...on this one an accurate measure of the success of the entire school year. How can anyone continue to support this type of testing?