From Legos to littleBits

Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach
How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things?  Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way.  I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea.  This broadens the concept of art significantly.  If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process.  Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education.  Diversity is a necessity for artists.  But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness.  I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook.  Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development.  Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level.  If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more.  For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar.  For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.

How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth?  This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy.  Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment.  When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests.  The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve).  When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.

Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking.  The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions.  The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom.  We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged.  In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits.  It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation.  Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.

Arts Teachers Know This Already!

Student ArtistThis is a terrific article written last May for the Washington Post online magazine.  My friend and fellow arts instructor, Jan, sent it to me today.  It reiterates what I have been saying to anyone who will listen: Improved test scores are not an adequate reason to include or exclude a subject area.  Arts have intrinsic value not specifically related and yet foundational to learning in core subject areas.

Middle School Minute(-ish)

Because writing 3X a week was becoming more and more challenging as my school year progressed, a friend suggested instead of blogging, I try vlogging!  Here it is, my first vlog of the new year.  Look for a focus on Middle School and Arts Education!

Developing a Sense of Humor Rather Than a Sense of Outrage: Why Reporting Bullying is only Part of the Answer

A Fledgling Teacher-Led School Trend

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy

My husband found an interesting blog post on the idea of the teacher-led school model.  The idea of a greater presence in the classroom for decision-makers is one which piques my interest.  I am fortunate to work in an educational community where everybody’s involved in student life.  It’s a bit like living in a small town.  Mrs. Crabtree tells your Sunday School teacher what she saw and the milkman noticed something too and we’re all talking to your mom.  But I digress… Enjoy the post:

A Fledgling Teacher-Led School Trend.

Grassroots Education Reform Begins with Us

Barnett Berry Video
I gather that some people have had trouble with the embedded video so I am instead making it a link to the Edutoipia site where you can view his video as well as other resources related to education reform.  Thanks for letting me know!

5 minute Barnett Berry video

Barnett Berry is the president and CEO of the advocacy organization Center for Teaching Quality.  In the preceding video he clarifies for all of us just who is going to reform our current system and outlines ways in which that can be done.  He bases his ideas on what he calls the Four Emergent Realities:

The Four Emergent Realities include:

1. A new learning ecology that provides a “24-7, just-in-time” learning environment with specific assessment tools.

2. Having teachers trained and working both in and out of Cyberspace.

3. Teachers working as teams with a structure to support differentiated teaching careers over time.

4. Teacher-preneurs (we used to refer to these progressive educators as mentors) who teach but are also allowed time, space, geography (connecting in person or online) and reward to spread expertise in and out of Cyberspace.

I think Barnett may be onto something.


			

Fast Track Preschool

Children in Jerusalem.
Image via Wikipedia

This New York Times story of preschool madness elicits an obvious response: “Are these parents crazy?”  There are more subtle forms of directed learning that may thwart rather than propel children. We all know that an over-scheduled child can become a stressed-out child.  It would take a month’s worth of blogs to identify negatives associated with stress. For this post I’ll stick to the theme of directed learning.  I should call it over-directed learning.

I have seen teachers and parents (including me) pulling their hair in frustration because a child won’t go along with our learning structure.  I am a fan of giving a certain amount of structure to kids. This includes a few rules, a reliable schedule and logical consequences. That structure allows kids freedom to create within a psychologically safe environment. But here is where I differ from those who push their children to earn their place among the learning superstars before they enter middle school. A child who plays with Lego’s by destroying and rebuilding or spins around in the backyard until he falls down, stands up, looks around, and spins again is learning. We label this kind of learning “play” and by doing so we reduce its importance in the educational hierarchy. Learning does not only occur at a desk or in an environment where right answers rule the day.

Coercing children into directed learning environments such as the one described in the New York Times article or even placing your baby near the stereo to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony has only a short-term effect on spatial-temporal reasoning and no discernible increase in intelligence. Why, then, do we continue down these competitive paths? Sometimes we  favor organizational skills and following directions over experiment and exploration. Imposing adult standards on children for things like order, neatness and organization has more to do with convenience and less to do with allowing children to learn and grow. Failure Freedom is missing in these environments.

The freedom to fail boldly is what allows for quantum leaps in learning. By encouraging our children to be afraid of failure and push harder to please the adults in their lives we have siphoned the gas from our educational engine. It took me three kids and many years in the classroom to learn this lesson. But my failures (and not the copious books I have read) have been my greatest learning tool.

Why Are Creative Kids So Easily Bored in School?

Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Pueblo pe...
Image via Wikipedia

Dr. Robert Sternberg, is an American psychologist and psychometrician and Provost at Oklahoma State University. He was formerly President of the American Psychological Association. Although Dr. Sternberg developed assessments for creativity and practicality (problem solving) he is not a fan of the current model of educational testing.  He asserts that rather than focus on what has been learned, he is interested in assessing a student’s ability to learn.  In his talk at a recent Creativity Summit at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he answered his own questions, “What do you mean by creativity?” and  “Why isn’t everyone creative?” He restated an idea he promotes in much of his work: “There are people who buy low and sell high in the world of ideas.”  This is shorthand for Sternberg’s Investment Theory of Creativity developed with Dr. Todd Lubart.  My short version of the theory goes something like this: Creative people come up with novel ideas.  The mere novelty of the idea causes it to be rejected by the majority of people.  This rejection is not just a rejection but an acceptance of the status quo.  This is the “buy low” portion of the theory.  The innovator invests effort into convincing others that the idea is not only workable but superior to the status quo. This precedes the “sell high” portion of the argument.  When an idea’s value is finally recognized, the creator ‘sells’ the idea to others to develop while the innovator moves on to other projects. As Sternberg notes, “If you think about it, that’s what creativity is about.”

Sternberg has been quoted as saying, “Creativity is a decision.” He cites 7 Key Decisions in creativity:

1: Decide if you have a problem that seems unsolvable.  Then ask, “Can I redefine the problem?”

2: When you have a creative idea, ask yourself three questions: a) What’s the best that can happen? b) What’s the worst that can happen? and, c) What’s likely to happen?  This helps an innovator analyze potential outcomes.

3. Look for entrenchment.  “Where there’s vested interest, it’s hard to sell creative ideas.”

4. Realize that knowledge is a double-edged sword when it comes to creativity.  Knowledge means less repetition but it can also cause entrenchment.  When knowledge of past outcomes is the lens through which a person creates, “many experts are less creative… [because] they can’t see through other lenses.”

5. Be willing to take sensible risks.

6. Persevere in the face of obstacles.

7. Find what you love to do. “With your kids and with your students, what’s important is not what you want them to do but what they want to do.”

Dr. Sternberg is an authentic and innovative thinker.  Despite expertise that could cause entrenchment in a less playful personality, Dr. Sternberg is the perfect person to explore the educational landscape of assessments and creativity.  Although the entrenchment many of us face in the world of teaching makes innovation challenging, it will help to remember Dr. Sternberg’s 6th Key Decision.  Keeping the creativity conversation alive may cause enough of a shift to allow innovative thinkers a seat at the table when assessments are discussed.

Born Creative

This is the video I made for a recent Creativity Summit in my city. The question was a prompt designed to encourage discussion and creative response.

 

Grammar’s Not Your Gramma

Cover of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Ze...
Cover via Amazon

I remember the videos on TV in the 70’s under the title Grammar Rock.  I really loved these videos.  Grammar seemed like a fun concept when I was a kid.  Lately, though, we seem to have lost some of our enthusiasm for excellent grammar.  Back when Grammar Rock was playing on Saturday morning television I had a junior high teacher named Mrs. Wallace.  She taught me how to diagram a sentence.  It was a game to figure out where prepositional phrases fit and what could be done to repair a dangling participle.   I believe this activity is now limited to college linguistics classes.

Since the 70’s I have been a grammar champion.  I know the difference between lie and lay (thanks to my Aunt Gwen) as well as how to use  objective and nominative pronouns.  A few years ago, my eldest daughter asked for a book titled Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a hilarious take on the misuse and correct use of English grammar.  We referred to her as the Grammar Nazi all through high school though she was not allowed to use the moniker online as it contained the dreaded ‘n’ word.  She corrected spirit signs in the hallways of her school with a little red Sharpie.  She later took to calling herself the Grammar Bandit.  Very few people knew who was defacing their grammatically impotent signs but still she found satisfaction in the act.  It’s not a crime to break the rules.  It’s limiting, though, if you don’t even know what the rules are.  My other daughter is a writer who knows the rules and chooses to break them regularly.

It seems to me there are more and more journalists and other types of writers graduating without a solid foundation for their writing.  Grammar is important for linguistic continuity and as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) point out in a position statement on the teaching of grammar in American schools, “knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.

I thought playing the grammar game in junior high was a lot of fun.  I really enjoyed diagramming sentences and I work hard not to end a sentence a preposition with.  This is, sadly, something many radio and TV journalists have forgotten.  Many times, I hear them say things such as, “where the economy is headed to” or “here’s where we’re at” and I cringe.  I know the preposition they are adding is superfluous but, clearly, it seems necessary in an age where words seem cheap.  But words are not cheap.  It’s how we use them that cheapens them.

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