Are you irrelevant?

(attention to my international friends: This post is very much targeted at an American audience)

I hope the words in that question terrify you. It does me.

This terrified me

This terrified me

I want to take a moment to bring your attention to something which is crucial for us, as leaders and educators and administrators and parents to understand.

I have one real fear in my professional career. It is not fear of failure while in front of a classroom of students. It happens sometimes. It is not fear of something out of my control happening in my class. On a daily basis things happen at school that affect my classes-but over which I have no control. It is not that students will shy away from a class they want to take-even though it is time consuming and demanding—in fact we are seeing our numbers rise. It is not that I may submit a proposal to a conference and get rejected. That happens. It is not that students are going to strongly react to a really challenging project or test. They do. It is not that I am going to get a surprise visit from my boss to observe my class. The door is always open. It is not that I might try a project or explore new technology that fails miserably. It can. It is not that I might have an off-day and lead a bad class. Last semester I had one of the worst classes ever! (and it was my fault). It is not that a planned speaker cancels at the last second. They could. It is not that I might miss an opportunity to recruit an awesome kid into my program. I do miss those on occasion (and I still kick myself)

Nope, none of those. Everything I just described above happens, and has happened, to all of us(hopefully)

My fear is of a different magnitude.

Students might be angry at me

Students might be angry at me

Here is what I do NOT mind: If a student is angry (at me?) because a project or test was so tough that (s)he was not able to complete it in the way in which (s)he hoped. A student might take my class and not appreciate or like the way I lead a project-based student-centric class. A student might want to take another class instead of mine. A student may not be willing to put in the work necessary to earn a spot in our program. A person might have been offended by something I said or did in class. A student may have heard that the class was too time intensive and chose not to apply to be in our program. A student may not relate to my personality. A student may quite simply not like me. All of those I can handle.

The fear that I have is that one day I might be irrelevant.

And that terrifies me. Because what that means is that what I am doing, what I am offering, the time and energy I put into my classes is not even noticed, not even on the radar of those around me. It’s not that they don’t like it, but that they don’t even have an opinion about it because they don’t notice it.

Yes some of that might be because of factors out of my control.

But there are some things we can control.

One way in which we become irrelevant to students is to be so out of touch with the current life of a student that they simply tune you out. I am not talking about a student after lunch who dozes off during class, or the day before spring break your kids are dreaming of beach volleyball. I am talking about something much bigger–I am talking about students who don’t even consider your class, or you as a teacher. I am talking about fellow teachers who do not even ask your opinion because your response is not valued. I am talking about not even being part of the conversation.

And that is WORSE that being a mean teacher. It is worse than being a bad teacher. It is worse than having a colossal failure in class. It is worse than having colleagues perturbed with you. It is worse than having your boss call you into the office because of something you did or did not do.

In computer science, we have a word for this….it is called “null”. It is not negative or positive. It is not 0. It is not infinity. It is not true or false. It is not right or wrong.

It is just “nothing”

And there are lots of reasons it might happen. I’d like to talk about one.

One of the key elements of this in our schools today is technology. Not any technology but the technologies that are important to our kids. Smart phones, tablets, laptops, iPads, Smart watches. We, the current “middle-agers” all remember a time when we did NOT have them, and so we still appreciate them in ways that others cannot. I am one of those. I remember dad and I getting Compute Magazine and entering in pages of pure hexadecimal code in order to play a game or run a program. It took hours, even days. I remember starting to “load” Jumpman from a cassette player into my Commodore 64—that would take a couple hours, so by the time I can home from school, I could play it.

But kids of today, students of today, do not want to hear about the days where we did not have that. In the same way you can’t relate to your parents going to the picture show for a nickel. In the same way you cannot relate to even seeing a silent movie. It is such a difference in experience that not only can we not relate to it….they cannot even really imagine it, much less appreciate it. They don’t want to hear about the card catalog in the library or the Encyclopedia series in the shelves. And don’t show them your slide collection. Don’t say things like

I am not good with technology.

….because for them there is no “good or bad with technology”….it is just something that is part of you, like your wallet. I don’t hear people talking about having difficulty with their wallet(although I do get frustrated when someone cannot figure out the debit card machine at Wal-mart) When your mouse acts up, don’t freak out and give up the entire lesson. When the projector does not work, don’t act like when your car does not start. When the sound is off, unmute or plug in the speaker wire. Right? Just fix it in the same way you would plug in the lamp next your chair at home. In fact, the kids might even enjoy helping you troubleshoot. Technology of today can be troubleshot. If your car does not start, there is not a bunch you can do, but if your laptop acts up, there are many things you can do. Teachers doing things the old way “because I don’t get technology” or “I tried it once and it did not work”–those days have to end. awesome tools in the classroom, one of which is technology itself If you need to get a book and read it to learn—DO IT. If you need to take a class -DO IT. If you need to spend the summer practicing–DO IT. Get to a point where the technology is one of the tool you use as a regular part of your class, like markers, homework, erasers, , projects, textbooks, light switches, discussions, desks, chairs, presentations, and whiteboards. Let it help you bring to life your content in ways the other tools cannot–and that is why you are using it. Get to a point where the technology itself is not amazing, but what it does for your class, FOR THEIR LEARNING….that is what is amazing.

We are still having conferences and discussions about whether or not to integrate technology. WHAT?! People, we are past that. We are passed the day where Facebook was evil. We are passed the point where you cannot get email on your phone. In fact, FB for many students is yesterdays news. We are passed the day about whether or not we will. WE WILL. WE ARE. WE HAVE BEEN. It is not a fad or a trend. It is here to stay. I am not suggesting that EVERY technology be part of a class. I use my car to get work, but I do not have my students sit in my car during class. I have several tools in my garage that I do not bring to class every day(although I imagine Kael Martin does). Find the tools that allow you to do WHAT YOU DO BETTER. Think about the lessons, or chapters, or content areas where the kids always struggle the most (or you struggle)…is there technology-based idea or device that might be able to enhance the learning?

Imagine your facilities manager doing a presentation about whether or not to, or how we might, incorporate electricity into our classroom. Gosh the things we could do in our classroom if there were power! Then the human resource director is going to do a presentation about the value of using our cars as tools to get to and from work. Then the English dept is going to do a short presentation on the value of using paper and pencil to record ideas, opinions, and statements in permanent form on this “paper” thingy. And we’ve got an entrepreneur businessman coming in to talk about this new technology called radio where you can hear voices from people located in different locations as you. Ridiculous right? That is what some of the conversation schools have sound like to students. We are becoming irrelevant.

I went for advice on health insurance and there were 2 people there. One was savvy with new vocabulary of the industry, could get around their website with ease and control, and could pull up anything you needed quickly and effectively, and spoke in language that made sense in relation to the current climate (Obamacare, HMO, HSA, major medical, etc). That was not the guy I got. I got the guy who had been trained in the old school way, was using expressions that were not really part of the discussion today, using statements and vocabulary that was just not relevant. He did not seem up to date on current offering. He could not use the “new technology (called a web-page). He even struggled to get the mouse to work correctly. We were not able to find the information we needed. In the end, he leaned over and asked the other guy for some information, which was the most valuable information I received that day. A complete waste of my time….and his. That man, that experience, was irrelevant to what I needed. The “other” guy was not even a particularly likeable man, but he was effective and in command. I wish I had gone to him instead.

Administrators: Have your students said this about classes your school offers?

Recently. I asked my students to do a daily 2-3 sentence summary of progress they made each day during their capstone project. I really wanted to them to do it on a piece of paper so I could collect them and staple them together and read them all at once—-and flip through as quickly and as needed. They begged to do it digitally. One students said he would even print them out for me, staple them as I wanted. I was blown away. Something so simple to me, yet so important to them. So, I created a blog page for them to enter, as we had done before. They thanked me several times. They wanted the ability to edit on their phone, their laptop, wherever they are. they did not want to be tied to a single sheet of paper. I did not get that but they did. But, I heard them and learned my lesson. And I did not let an anthill become a mountain. I understood what they meant–and now they were connected with my assignment. All of that happened in less than 5 minutes.

Question. if psychologists and scientists did a study that said using red pencils had some huge type of effect on students such that they were in tune with their learning better, or helped them write better? The stores would be sold out of red pencil. We would have closets full of red pencils. Every student would have one.

blog, chat, discuss, evaluate, share, collaborate

blog, chat, discuss, evaluate, share, collaborate

Well, the red pencil of today is internet, cell phones, tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices. Every kids has 1, many have several. Heck, they sleep out in the BestBuy parking lot to get one. The option we have now is to figure out a way of reconsidering how we look at these devices. Students do not even consider the device in their hand a phone. It is the way in which they connect with the world around them, their friends, school, sports teams, clubs, hobbies, and family. And much of what they interact with is images. Can we not take advantage of that? They love video and images and commenting on each others comments. Your students may already Tumblr BLOG? Gosh, is there some hidden value in texting? They love responding to someone else s thoughts. They love the instant communication. They love images of faces. Is there not someone out there that can look at all of that and design some learning environments where that is PART of it, instead of exact opposite. For example, have your students pretend to be a historical figure, or author and send out Instagrams and Snapchats about their life. Have them have an online discussion on FB between two historical figures discussing their decisions and issues. Have them post their essays or short stories to a common area and each kid responds, not to the whole thing, but to parts of it. And then other students respond to those responses. Those examples were far from innovative but it is what I came up with as I was typing without thinking much about it. Imagine what an entire department, and hey ask your kids to help design something, might come up with. Do your students lead online discussions? Do they evaluate each others work. Do they post their work for the world to see. Do they accept criticism or suggestions?

I think there was a time when the only option for content delivery, in a typical classroom was one-directional lecture. When there was no internet, no smartboards, no cell phone cameras, no Powerpoints, no email. There was only 1 way to get across ideas and connections. Then as modern technology started to offer some alternatives, we suddenly had other options. Those options were very different than we experienced when we were in school, and so for those who were going to take the leap, it required learning an entirely new paradigm, pedagogy, and learning experience. And if they embraced that and took advantage of the technologies, then it also allowed for a different experience for the students. It allowed them to be more active, they could “find”, discover, and interact with the content instead of just receive it. Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park said, “You can’t suppress a million years of evolution…..TRex does not want to be fed, he wants to hunt”. The same can be said for students. They don’t mind working for it if the reward is there. And yes, understanding and accomplishment can be rewards–in fact HUGE rewards. The human spirit thrives on curiosity. It is what drives us, sometimes even gets us into trouble. How do we know this? the moment you tell a teenager not to do something, the first thing they do is THAT THING. Not because they are rule breakers, but because you have sparked their curiosity. And they do not want to be told, they want to experience it, even at the risk of a negative consequence. Can we not do better at tapping into that energy. We can set up our learning environments such that their are lots of opportunities for that discovery?

I fear that if we do not, our schools—our teachers–our classes-our educational system—becomes irrelevant.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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Questions

This is my second “Questions” post. The first was so well received that it warranted another. (and by well received I mean I definitively got some passionate responses coming from all sides) The following questions are specifically asked here because the “cliché” expected responses which we tend to hear is exactly what I want us to consider.

I’ll ask you to think about what you might expect people to say, then really think about what I am asking—-I think you’ll find that there are some different responses that we might consider if we dig deeper

READERS BEWARE: Be very careful reading past this point. These questions might challenge decades old paradigms and educational philosophies in our society. By asking these questions, we have to be willing to look beyond the cliche answers, we have to be ready to really hear the responses we get. That it might be time to make some changes—-is not a bad thing. Our society has changed dramatically in so many ways….perhaps there are new ways of looking at our education system and making improvements where they make sense

There is no right or wrong when having these discussions. The discussion itself is the goal.

RSVP if there are some huge questions left unasked

Ok, let’s just dive in head first…..here we go….

  • Consider our current A-F grading system. If a student starts slow in the class, but by the end of the class has mastered the skills of that area, shouldn’t that student have the highest grade possible?
  • Grades: Is a grade a reflective measure of how much content was learned in the class? or a measure of how that knowledge can be used or demonstrated? or a measure of how hard the student worked? or a measure of how well the student followed directions? or an arbitrary measure?
  • Are there effective evaluation tools other than quizzes and tests?
  • ….speaking of which, what exactly are we trying to evaluate anyway?
  • What are we trying to accomplish through nightly homework?
    ** Consider your response to this question. What do you think is the “cliche” response from the schools? from society? Do we actually accomplish that goal?

  • Why have we learned to associate rigor with amount of homework?
  • …and what is rigor anyway?
  • Do departments and schools ever discuss homework, the value of homework, the expectations of homework, the amount of homework, the evaluation of homework?
  • Is the value that we think is there for semester/year ending exams really there?
  • Have we considered how many hours of time are spent by schools preparing for, administering, and grading exams?
    ** Consider your response to this question. What do you think is the “cliche” response from the schools? from society? How does what we say we are trying to accomplish compare with what we actually accomplish with exams?

  • Is a long summer break the best scheduling option for schools/teachers?
  • Is a long summer break the best scheduling option for students/learning?
  • Is a long summer break the best scheduling option for families?
  • Is the daily schedule going from class to class to class over the course of 7-8 hours the most efficient use of our time?
  • What if there was a different daily schedule in the fall, spring, and winter?
  • Is there any value to offering classes during the evening? weekend? holidays? What if students could choose to take classes during that time? What if teachers could elect to offer classes during those non-traditional times
  • Is there value in capstone-like, large, multi-week projects at the end of a semester?
  • Why are AP exams offered 1 month before the end of school?
  • Why do we offer AP exams? Is the reason students take AP classes the same reason why we offer those classes?
  • Why is it a given that students will incur debt as a natural consequence of going to college?
  • Is the price of college/university worth it?
  • Is the process by which students apply and are admitted to college an effective system?
  • Is there value in standardized college entrance examinations such as ACT and SAT? Is any of that value supported by the test itself?
  • What is the goal of elementary (Lower) school?
  • What is the goal of middle(jr. high) school?
  • What is the goal of high school?
  • Consider your responses to the previous 3 questions. What do you think is the “cliche” response from the schools? from society? Do we actually accomplish those goals?
  • woah…this is gonna sting….has school becomes irrelevant? Has school gotten in the way of education?
  • Consider the traditional “core” classes as determined by your state curriculum committees. What subject areas are included as core classes? Do these reflect the values and needs of your community? Do these support the goals of our school system? Do these reflect what is valued and needed by business in order to innovate and lead in the upcoming decade?
  • Do you as a parent, through your comments, actions, and behaviors, support the expectations of the school your children attend?
  • Do you, as an administrator, take time to ask these types of questions…or do you primarily focus on the day to day issues of running a school?

I look forward to the discussions these questions might spark.

If you liked the style of questions posed here, consider reading my previous Questions (part 1) post.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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Girls in Computer Science: NCWIT

Congratulations to hundreds of girls around the country who have just been recognized by NCWIT( National Council for Women in Technology) at the national and state level for their accomplishments and participation in Computer Science. In my state of South Carolina, 5 of the 12 awards were our Porter-Gaud girls! We are very proud!

I am so honored to be part of a Computer Science program that values having females as integral members. In my first year teaching at Porter-Gaud there were exactly ZERO females in my advanced classes. I think one reason why females have not been attracted to Computer Science is because it is oftentimes seen as an all-boys club. What girl wants to be the only one on the class? I can see that. And traditionally, for whatever reason, the public face for Computer Science has been seen as predominantly male. Although if we dive deeper, we find that females have played a significant part in getting us to where we are today—they just don’t get much credit (i.e. to name a few: Radia Perlman, Fran Bilas, Helen Greiner, Lixia Zhang, Christina Amon, Anita Borg, Ada Lovelace, and Mary Lou Jepsen.) The teachers of Computer Science have tended to be male, the textbook authors tended to be male, and the curriculum tended to be written by men and driven towards the male student. All examples, sample code, projects, and stories tended to be targeted towards males. Even game design classes, hoping to attract non-techies tended to be games that were blowing things up, loud noises, fast action, and other boyish traits. And in the infancy of the “personal computer age” where Computer Science has actually become accessible to people, this is the environment we had set up for ourselves. In my days as a student at Clemson University, there were only 1 or 2 women in any of my classes. In some Computer Science programs today, that is still the case. And that bothers me. Why has this not changed?

I am so proud of the girls who have been through the Computer Science program over the course of their four years in our high school. Those girls have helped us not only develop curriculum, but also to help us breakdown stereotypes. We are excited that we are now seeing about 25-35% (at each grade level) females apply each year to be in our program. That’s great progress, but we know we still have work to do. If you look in one of our classes, you might confuse it with a typical liberal arts history or English class…it will have boys and girls of all races, interests and backgrounds—not the stereotypical make-up one might expect in Computer Science. One semester, one of the leading programmers was also the varsity cheerleader captain Carter. She was always competing with Trey, the star football running back, for “best project” honors. In another year we had Mallory, a National NCWIT Award winner, who was also our school’s poet laureate. Last year, two recognized leaders of our service program Merritt and Courtney were also two of our best Computer Science thinkers. This year, one of our top entrepreneur minds Tanner is also one of our top Computer Science minds. Not too long ago, Elizabeth was accepted into one of the top Computer Science programs in the country. Last semester in our “Shark Tank” final presentations, Amanda raised more than $10,000—the most of any student in the class. Our program has been growing each year and each year we are seeing better projects from our kids and students pushing the envelope further and further…but it is truly our girls that are making some serious noise and breaking new ground.

What are some of the things we’ve done to attract and retain female students? Well, I am not sure any one thing made the difference; I think it has to be the entire philosophical approach—you have to believe that having females in of your program is crucial. I do. First and foremost I make sure that I have a lot of guest speakers in my classes– men and (especially)women who are successful in business and technology related fields. I make sure when I talk in class that I use “she” as often as I use “he”. When I give examples using real life job titles, I make sure to use males and females equally in those roles. When we do projects, I make sure to give room for creative expression, so students can choose aspects of their projects that line up with things they value, not just things I value. I make sure my walls are full of colorful images of boys and (especially) girls, men and (especially) women of various races and from various cultures and nationalities…all doing Computer Science things. I make sure females get as much attention in class as the boys, and also that they get recognition for doing awesome things. Last year, I had a “girl corner” in class; I told them I did not necessarily like the idea of have “all-girl corner”, but they told me it would be the place in the class that got the most done. And it was! That corner became the “go-to” place when others in the class needed help. It was very cool. Nikki and Maxeen made sure that group was rock solid with their skills. Throughout the semester, we(as a class) read articles, watched news broadcasts, looked at surveys, and discussed the role of females in the future of technology globally, both as users and creators. Each week, students lead online discussions about technologies they find interesting. As a result we get to see and read about various opinions, observations, and interests of the girls in the class. Those discussions have given me incredible insight into the minds of my students.

Some of our girls were already destined to be Computer related majors in college, even without our program; and others were just wanting a powerful and unique set of skills to help distinguish them in their chosen fields and on college applications. I joke that programs like ours gives them sentences to write on their college essays that no one else in the United States can write. For example, Amanda can say, “…in my 11th grade project I wrote a couple thousand lines of code to interpret my own body’s motion in real time and have that motion reflected through my 3D avatar on-screen as I moved in front of the camera …” She was the first in our program to use the 3D avatar in her project. I was very proud!

Over the years we’ve had winners at the every level of recognition that NCWIT offers, including a national award winner, several national award runners-up, many state award winners, and many state runners-up. One of our girls missed three days of class this past fall to attend the annual Grace Hopper Conference. That’s what I’m talkin’ about! And as icing on the cake a couple years ago, I was honored to receive NCWIT’s Educator Award for our efforts encouraging females.

So, it’s working. I am not sure exactly why or how….but it is. These girls are as excited to be in our program as we are to have them. And the world needs more females in fields in which females have been underrepresented for far too long. Not really sure if it is a nurture or nature thing, but regardless, we NEED females to be leaders in the world of digital creation. The software, hardware, tools, devices, and gadgets that come on the market need some fresh and different thought processes behind them. Thank goodness for the different viewpoints, interpretations, and priorities the female mind brings to class. I know our girls are better for the experience…but I’ll also argue that our boys are better off as well—and in the end—our technology is better off.

One of the biggest problems I’ve faced in recent years is preparing students for a Computer-related major experience at the college level. Our classes are designed to recruit students into this field. It is hands-on, project-based, and does not have me in front of the class lecturing very often—it is extremely student driven. I call my classes guided “discovery-learning” environments where students are in charge of their own learning; I believe the experience they have is a deeper and more personal one—and one that might be part of their decision to continue their studies in this area. Sure we get our hard-core techy kids, but we really focus on the next group—-the ones that may never have considered Computer Science as something that was part of their plan. We work hard to set up environments that let the students find their own reasons to engage with Computer Science. We work hard to appeal to a balanced population of students, so we attract students who are equally passionate about history, music, math, English, basketball, and track & field. The problem arises when students get to the college level, they are still seeing very stereotypical Cmp Sci classrooms–not the balanced population they are used to having in our program. Part of the problem is that too many colleges are still focusing on recruiting only the top stereotypical Computer Science kids in the country—the ones who live and breathe Computer Science and always have…and I get that…but what that means is that is all they get…they miss a huge number of students who have passions in other areas such as biology, medicine, and history…but who also would love to let Computer Science be an equally exciting option for them. And it is in those fields where we need more people who think like Computer Scientists. Colleges must start to work on reaching the non-traditional student for their Computer Science programs. Too often we find students who have an engaging, hands-on, project-based experience at the high school level are NOT finding that at the college level. Traditional lecture-theory classes have to be balanced with hands-on experiences that students are attracted to and used to having. Just sitting there absorbing information as it is spoken is not going to inspire our young people to do great things. That passive experience is exactly opposite of what they experience outside of class. So, we lose those awesome kids to the other majors. I realize the mission of high school is different than the mission of college, on one hand, but on the other…I’ll argue those missions are NOT different.

We are just in the infancy of a technological digital age. We barely know where we are, much less where we are going. At our current rates, we already know that there will NOT be anywhere close to enough students of ANY gender, especially females, to fill the many roles needed in this area for the United States to be a leader.

That’s why we have to start early and let our girls experience Computer Science as part of their education earlier and not something extra-curricular. I am proud that Porter-Gaud teacher Bob Irving has every one of our middle school students learning to build and interact with robots, and creating their own interactive games/activities as they explore Compute Science topics, and learn to actually code. Even in our 5th grade classes, Julie Sessions has our kids doing Computer Science as part of her science labs.

Research indicates that around the 8th grade is where we see dramatic drop-offs in girls being part of the sciences, especially Computer Science. It is crucial that girls get a good dose of Computer Science BEFORE THEN, so they can actively choose to make it a part of their education as they move through school.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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The Changing of the Nerd

Finally being a nerd is cool. Being a nerd is marketable, profitable, and even sexy. It’s also finally realistic and advantageous and certainly needed by society.

oldcomputerThere was a time where access to electronic and digital tools was non-existent for “regular” folk; using electronic tools to collect and analyze information was not something you or I could reasonably do; the cost of gadgets and digital equipment was so high that only elite scientists, hard core engineers, prestigious universities, government agencies, and large corporations could even afford it, much less use it. Being part of the world of science, research, and discovery was just not possible for the layman.

But over the last few decades, our world had changed. You can send in a swab and get a DNA analysis in 2 weeks. Most people have more electronic gadgetry in their houses than the US Government had total in 1945. My phone can analyze my brainwaves while I sleep. Your wristwatch has more capacity than the computers that helped get us to the moon in the 1960s. We’ve gotten better at manufacturing, which means the quality and quantity of instruments, toys, tools, and gadgets are better, cheaper, and easier to find. So more and more people suddenly have access to a world they never did before. So we’ve seen what used to be only found in university research labs now available at Best Buy and Walmart.

tech gadgetsAs I look around my house as I write this, I see a 32” LCD TV, an Apple TV, a computerized telescope that can pinpoint a galaxy 200,000,000 light-years away, and my son playing FIFA soccer on his smartphone on a screen that is clearer than his eye can actually interpret. I see a cable modem which connects my house to a network that goes across the entire globe called the World Wide Web (that still amazes me!). I see a device which lets me change the channel or volume of my TV without any physical wiring. I see a camera which records 4 hours of live video as I run my obstacle-course races. I see 3 laptops that can each hold over 1 TB of data which, by the way, is more than the entire internet in 1991. In just 15 years the internet has gone from a single webpage to hundreds of millions of websites today. My 11-year old daughter commands her own digital device with more confidence than her 2 grandparents.

My point? Science and technology is main stream. Anyone can see it, afford it, buy it, make something with it, design/redesign with it, sell it, and use it to learn and discover. And because of this–everyone does! It’s normal to have the same gadgets which, in another time, would qualify you to be king/queen of the nerds but now it just makes you cool…I mean normal.

Think about it. Kids all over the world woke up Christmas morning and screamed with joy when they opened up their new smartphones under the tree. Dad smiled enthusiastically at his new 10” tablet with an accelerometer. Mom loved her new GPS unit for her electric car, and grandparents took hundreds of pictures with their new wireless digital cameras which posted automatically to their Facebook account. It’s cool to be excited about nerd toys.

interMy son Cade and I went to go see a movie, Interstellar, built around the idea of time dilation due to gravity near a black hole. He says it was the best movie he’s seen in 5 years. (If you also loved that, read THIS best selling book.) Most people don’t even know who Alan Turing is, yet there is a top movie The Imitation Game made about his life. Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most talented scientists in history, has a movie made about his life. He did not invent the car or airplane or some other item which we can all relate to–he studies black hole event horizons and theoretical physics. And who did not either read the biography of or see the movie about Steve Jobs, CEO of a big software hardware company we all know as Apple? Bill Gates might be more popular than the most famous professional athlete. Mark Zuckerberg broke out of the nerd shell by being the focus of a blockbuster “The Social Network” which was seen mostly by non-nerds. Barnes and Nobles has an entire section in the magazine area dedicated to gadgets and devices. girls with technology(comons wikipedia) I know several of my non-techy-friends’ kids got Lego Robotics kits to explore and they were on cloud 9 (get it? Heehee). My daughter loved spending some of her Christmas money on the professional version of Minecraft for her iPhone, so she could design interactive 3D worlds on her iPhone to share with her friends. Uhm…hello…did I just say a socially minded 6th grade girl spent her money on an app that she used to design interactive 3D worlds? Yes I did. That’s my girl. minecraft-v2My department’s middle school teacher, Bob Irving, is bringing Minecraft programming into his 7th and 8th grade curriculum this spring. In fact, his Minecraft club is the largest club in the middle school and they are currently designing our entire school campus in Minecraft. Over 90,000,000 people in 180+ countries joined the Hour of Code movement and wrote their first computer program.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are there. The world is officially different. Kids of today for the first time ever are truly living in a world that is fundamentally unlike the world in which we grew up. What used to be the world of the nerds is now called life of a typical person.

Why is that important? Because it means that we are now going to have a wide variety of people entering the world of science and discovery who may not have before. The gadgets we have had over the last several decades were created by one type of stereotypical person, but now we are seeing people of all colors, religions, races, and genders enter this world thinking differently. They will find things we have not yet found. They will look at problems with a new twist. They will create and design with different goals. They will bring into the world that which has not yet been brought simply because they CAN.

In the beginnings of the digital age, we saw the world of users of technology. Now, we enter into a new world of creators. If you thought that the world had changed dramatically in your own lifetime—get ready…we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

The world of the nerds has just become the normal everyday world that we are all part of it. Our schools are finally starting to embrace this instead of fighting it. STEM education is becoming something that is not just extracurricular, but a core component of education. Parents are starting to demand that schools have this as a fundamental part of their child’s education. Computer Science is finding its way into classrooms in every country, at every grade level. Students are signing up for classes and entering degree programs in engineering, technology, and science fields unlike any other time in history.

Yep. We have arrived. And as a Computer Science teacher in high school and at the leading edge of the charge, I am loving every second of it.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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Hour of Code and National Computer Science Week

(December 8 – 14)

Do we really need to dedicate an entire week dedicated to bringing attention to our discipline?

Uhm YES

Do we really need to try engage an entire planet in just trying out our “discipline” for an hour?

hmm Yeah.

Are we really at that point? In a world where most people probably have several digital devices near them at any time…how can we possible not even know what Computer Science is

90% of the school in the USA DO NOT teach Computer Science.

Watch This(it’s awesome):

Well, first I’ll argue that Computer Science is not a traditional discipline in the same way that History is. It’s a way of thinking, and a set of skills with a blend of creativity and building, and a set of tools that are “behind” not only every other discipline, but behind virtually every aspect of life. And you can like that or not like it but you cannot deny that. In the same way that language is part of what we do all day, every day, wherever we are, whatever industry we are in, whatever grade we are in, or economic status we live in.

So National Computer Science week is a nationally designated week that was created to give schools and communities a chance to focus on and plan learning events and teaching opportunities centered around Computer Science…especially in schools, or cities, or even countries that don’t necessarily know what Computer Science is, nor it’s value to their own business and economy.

..the perception of Computer Science in the 1980s..

..the perception of Computer Science in the 1980s..

One of the biggest problems is quite simply that we have a ton of 1960-1980 “baggage” we are digitally dragging behind us. There was a time where you had to be a top engineer/mathematician/research scientist in order to have any chance of interacting with a computer and putting it to work for you. The world still has this image in their mind when they hear Computer Science. It was truly an elite group of people , super-smart, nerdy, and typically social loners.

Additionally (and sadly) , we still have schools teaching keyboarding and Microsoft Word, and calling that Computer Science. They are truly draining the digital life out of their students. Their students come to them eager to explore, create, and learn—they LOVE the technologies that are in their hands and on their desks. They don’t want to type letters and insert clip art pictures.

Initiatives such as Hour of Code encourage, allow, and enable people (who are willing) to explore Computer Science “along with” their students. We don’t need(nor want) 1980 nerds; we don’t need Computer Science experts, we don’t need you to already know how to program. We just need you to want to try something new. But we warn you–your kids are gonna love it. You yourself may actually find that it is addicting. Yes, it’s hard…but not hard like memorizing a complex Physics formula or BC calculus equation, but hard like “oh man… I really want to make my program function like this, my game go “like this”, my app do that…..and there are so many ways to do it…I just have to figure out which way is best” kind of hard. I joke with my parents of our students, “Your child will learn integral calculus or advanced gravitational equations in order to have their alien bounce across the screen and shoot a green laser blaster.”

So, what exactly is the Hour of Code?

Well, it was started by CODE.ORG (if CODE.ORG was a for-profit start-up, everyone there would probably be millionaires) and they have taken the lead on providing resources and advertising and mass marketing —with a very simple goal: To help the world understand what Computer Science is and help bring it into our educational system. One of the ways they do this is by simply trying to help introduce what it is to as many people as we can—even if just for one hour.

HOW?

CODE.ORG Hour of Code

CODE.ORG Hour of Code

There are numerous self-paced, interactive, fun and engaging, “no need for a Computer Science teacher” online tutorials for EVERY grade level. All that is needed is for a school, a parent, or a teacher, to be willing to take small chance and “let go”. Let the learning happen by actively doing, instead of passively receiving. Difficult concepts are actually introduced, communicated, and reinforced, through the activities themselves. Maybe you learn how to build an app, a small program, or even a small game. Especially with research leaders such as Jane McGonigal leading the way, we know that games and gaming are huge attractors and motivators for people (not just students), so we tap into the built-in energy that exists around games, and we use that to let a first Computer Science experience be an engaging one, full of interaction, creativity, accomplishment, and understanding…. and a desire to know more.

Any Computer Science teacher will tell you that we don’t even pretend to be only expert in the room when there is Computer Science happening . There are far too many languages, technologies, gadgets, and tools to be in command of all of them. On any given day, I learn 5 new things from my students and through my continued exploration. In my school, our projects in class are advanced and complex, I have to work just as hard to help students with their project as they work doing their project.

At our K-12 school, we have Computer Science , real Computer Science, happening as early as 5th grade…and we hit it harder starting in 7th and 8th, and then we just open it up full volume in 9th-12th. So, our kids are getting hundreds of “Hours of Code” each school year, so our “Hour of Code” actually focuses on our parents. They are the community leaders, business owners, politicians, and outspoken citizens who can be of huge help in trying to get the word out.

I mean…WORDS

What words?

• What Computer Science really is.
• That Computer Science is needed.
• That Computer Science is not for the academic elite.
• That Computer Science does not require tube socks and pocket protectors
• That Computer Science is as much ART as it is Science
• That Computer Science is fun
• That Computer Science gives you tools that allow you to express ideas
• That Computer Science can enable you be better and stronger and more productive in whatever industry you desire–and wherever your passions lie.

Because most school don’t have Computer Science, or don’t even offer it except as a 12th grade elective, it has not become part of the academic journey for our best students. By the time they get exposed to it, it’s almost too late.

“….So, are you suggesting that because a kid spent one hour going through a tutorial for how to make Angry Birds and (s)he can have a bird flap around on the screen, that they have had a Computer Science experience?…”

Hmmmmm…

Uhm…

Yes

Are they qualified to work in the industry designing software? Of course not. But, did they find themselves understanding the basics of how to build something using commands, seeing how to manipulate the technology in front of them, and explore the different ways of breaking down a problem into step action steps, and being willing to “try this” and “try that”. In order to have Angry Birds hurl across the screen into Pigs, they will explore concepts and constructs such as conditional statements, looping, variables, data storage, and graphical display—all of which are part of Computer Science. Those exact same techniques and skills are used in every industry in almost every programming language in order to help design software for banks, small businesses, factories, websites, restaurants, engineers, real estate firms, tax returns, and schools.

Perhaps because of an unexpected & engaging one-hour experience a student might decide to take a class, explore a club, read a book, or even try an entire online tutorial and see if it is something they can engage with. They might open their eyes to an entirely new world—-one that has been right in front of them their whole life that they just did not see.

Is it even working? well, if you consider over 47,000,000 have tried an “Hour of Code” so far, then YES

Yep the demand is there.

That’s why I say “Yes, making that Angry Bird game was not only worthwhile, but critical for our future”

Keep an eye out for schools in your community who might be offering events centered around the “Hour of Code”

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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Welcome Back: A letter to parents from a teacher

Dear Parents

Welcome to the new school year! We are so excited to have your child in our school, and I am even more excited to have your child in my class. I get a chance to lead your child through a wonderful and fascinating experience over the next few months. I hope to share with your child my deep love and passion for this area with hopes that your child will learn to share in that passion.

I wanted to tell you a bit about class and school so you can best know how to help your child succeed. That success will be based on much more than the grade. My students will work really hard on everything we do. There will be bumps along the way. There will be some incredible victories and some efforts which do not go as well. Emotions will run high sometimes; there will be distractions; and there will even be some very low points. They may love and hate class all in the same sentence. And all of this is part of the learning experience. In fact, there is some research which suggests that emotions are critical to deep learning.

OK, get ready…I am about to suggest some things which may make you (and your child) a bit uncomfortable:

in order for your entire family to have the best experiences related to this class, your child must take an active part in his/her own education.

What does that mean?

Students won’t be able to stand on the sidelines and passively make their way through class. Your child will need to be on top of every project, assignment, activity, and effort that we do. There will always be something your child can be doing for this class, so if she tells you that she has nothing to do in here, she may be missing something. At those times, we do not want you to take over. We don’t want you to call the teacher to find out what the assignment is/was. We don’t want you to go on the webpage to write down all the assignments. We don’t want you to take away soccer or video games to get their attention. (In fact, there is research which suggests that games have tremendous value in our lives). We want you to support your child as she does what is necessary to figure out what is going on, what’s due, what the expectations are, and what’s on the horizon. You will not be able to solve this problem for your child. You will not be able to plan the next week for your child. But, you can certainly help them lead themselves through that, so they come to a good plan “on their own”. And of course we can help with that as well. So, stay involved but in a supportive role. If you do not, your kids are not prepared in college to take care of themselves. If you do not, your kids are not developing the skills they need to solve problems, learn to communicate, and figure out how they can best make progress. Give them some room to explore their own judgment, but knowing that they may fail.

FAIL?!! WHAT?! Let them fail.

Ask questions...not necessarily more...but better questions

Does that mean stand by quietly and let them get a 45 as the course grade and say I told you so? Of course not… of course not…it means you keep an eye on what they are doing. How? Ask lots of questions and ask better questions. Questions like “How was school?” are useless. If you ask those types of questions, you are going to get nothin’ back. Ask specific questions, “Hey Tom, I know you were a bit worried about that first History quiz, do you feel like you prepared well for that?”, “Good night buddy. Hey, don’t you have that Computer Science project due Friday. I know you were struggling to get the sort routine working, were you able to make progress on that? Are you on target to get that done like you hoped?”, “Ok, Suzanne, I’ll pick you up at 3:30 today. Are you sure you don’t want me to come at 4:00 to give you some extra time in the library for the math test you said was going to be so hard?”, “That project sounds pretty cool…you said it’s due in 3 weeks, right? I’ll tell you what, why don’t you finish that list you are working on for stuff needed and if you need me to, I am happy to go with you to Wal-Mart in an hour and get some supplies, ok?” So, what I am talking about is being fully aware about the academics of your child, but not doing everything for them.

Grades……ahh grades…hmmmmmm. Necessary evil, but potentially valuable if used appropriately…but they are not as accurate or thorough as you might think. Be careful dangling grade-related carrots–it might backfire for all the wrong reasons.

Grades are a dangerous slope to go down if that is all you focus on. While they are at least one way to measure performance of some aspects of a class, they are far from accurate for the total picture. As teachers, we always strive to have students fall in love with (and develop an intense curiosity about ) our subject area…whether it’s language, art, math, economics, or Computer Science. Some classes are hard for some students; other classes come easier. There are so many factors that go into how a student connects with a class: personality of the teacher, delivery of content, amount of and type of homework, style of evaluation, variation of evaluations, time of day of class, class as part of the entire schedule(i.e. a hard & time demanding class by itself might be something students can bite their teeth into, but with 2 or 3 other similar classes, students may not connect as much), number of and type of other students in the class, the life of the teacher at that time(are they going through any major issues in their own life that might detract their passion and attention) ,age of student(a certain maturity might be needed to connect with some material or delivery methods or methodologies), division principal administration turnover or policies,boyfriend and girlfriend problems, social issues, etc. Most likely the priorities you have for them are somewhat different than theirs. So, my point is that there are so many factors that go into how a class is perceived by a student. So, you as a parent simply demanding that they get an A is probably not your best way forward. What parent doesn’t want to have a student who is a life-long learner who studies because she loves it and dives into a class with all her body and mind? So, don’t interact with your student about that class in ways which go against that. He wants to tell you about why he loves that math class…and it is not because he got a 96 on the last quiz. For a student to be asked simply what grade he/she has in a class is like a tennis player going 7-6,6-7,7-6,6-7,22-20 in the finals of a tennis match and all you ask is “Did you win”. Ask better questions. And also realize that your child is not going to hit a home run on every test or project in every class. It may be that the 82 he got on the last quiz was 10 points more than he expected. She was so proud of the 89 on the group project (especially since she did all the work as part of a slacker group), so you asking why she didn’t get an A is a slap in the face. Some grades are not about measuring knowledge, so the definition of what an A is changes in each class and also depending on the type of assignment. (See my BLOG post on the meaning of GRADES)

...great discussions can take place in surprising places....

Is the relationship between you and your child one that can be used to help them work their way through the rough spots? For example, do you have the courage to let your child fail on his own? And don’t forget, the definition of failure in this case is simply not getting what they are used to or expecting. And if they do fail, how do you handle it? Do you take the cell phone away? No going to the movie Saturday night? Instead or in addition to, have you considered having a discussion with your child about the entire experience, letting them work their way through what happened, places where they might have acted/reacted differently, and even how they themselves handled the low grade. Perhaps it was not a failure in their eyes and they would love the chance to explain what that means. In years past (in my classes) I’ve had students fail a quiz just to spite me. I’ve had students fail a project because they were so focused on another part of their life that my project just was not on the radar screen. I’ve had students not prepare for a test just to get under the skin of an overbearing parent. So, especially when the motivations of your child are not necessarily obvious, if all you do is focus on that low grade, you may be missing the entire message. Your desire for them to go to your alma mater Ivy League may or may not be their goal at this point in their life. And considering how little your high schooler lets you into their life, you’ve got to listen better. While they may have earned an F on that evaluation, your child may have earned an A+ on getting someone’s attention. What you have been focusing on may not be what they are focusing on. One last note in this area: there may be a time where your child studies or works really hard on an assignment, and does put in enough time, energy, and mental energy to earn an awesome grade, but simply just had a bad day, or worse, the teacher had a bad day–meaning your child misread the question on the test, or perhaps the teacher focused the test on an area he did not really focus so much this year (but in years past had). And there are times where the project or test was just one of the hardest things your child has experienced so far, and so whatever grade they earned is accurate. And that is where grades are best–giving a non-biased, accurate, precise, and helpful reflection of what was done or what was learned compared with what was expected. It may be that your child’s understanding of and ability to demonstrate some material was about 79% of what was expected, so the 79 he got on the test may very well have been exactly what he should have gotten. And do you as a parent have the courage to celebrate that? Lose the battle to win the war. Lose the round to win the whole fight. Let the emotions associated with the experience sink in naturally. You may be surprised that your teen, because you HAVE BEEN DOING A GOOD JOB RAISING HIM/HER, will learn from this experience in the ways you value.

And if there are other questions to be asked, or conversations to be had that do involve the teacher, encourage your child to initiate and have those discussions. Don’t rob your child the experience of thinking about, planning and following through on that critical part of active learning. Don’t do that FOR THEM. You might be surprised to find that your teacher has been looking forward to that interaction to happen. I am on your side; I want your child to succeed, but in ways that are in addition to the ways you might solely be focusing on. I see your child every day. I see the good days and the bad days. I see the successes and the failures. And as a professional educator, I also see different aspects of the whole child that all interact together to give us what we see. I see the light bulb turn on, and I learn the facial expressions and body mannerisms that your child uses to communicate when in a class full of peers. And those expressions, mannerism, and even way-of-talking are probably different than what you experience at home. It may be that while this minor quiz grade was not up to par, perhaps something else we’ve been working on was more successful. And it may be that even your child was not aware of that because he was only focusing on the grade as well, because that is what you were focusing on.

The expectation you have set for your child may not be the the same as the expectations they have set for themselves. That does not mean they have a lower standard, it may mean they have a different standard. Your expectations may reflect your own experience, not their experience. It is crucial that your child be given the support to develop their own expectations and motivations. And that is hard and it takes time. And I think you’ll find that if you put your faith in your child, give them your support, and spend the time developing a relationship like I’ve discussed here, that your child will far exceed your expectations—and even better than that—they will exceed the expectations they set for themselves.

Let me end with a story that brings all this together. A student of mine I’ll call “Sachiko” really wanted to be in my senior level AP class(Oh God, I cannot believe I am using an AP class as an example to prove my point. I hate AP. I am sure I’ve written a BLOG post about that) She probably did not really qualify to be in there if I based it on previous grades and performance alone, but she really wanted to challenge herself and was so genuinely interested to being part of class that it made complete sense for me to let her into the class. All semester she worked hard, turned in all projects, and was an active part of class. She consistently submitted work at a mid B grade level. The final exam in that class was a really hard exam that would push them far out of their comfort zone, but if they relied on what they knew and could do, they should be able to figure out the challenges on the exam. (Ok, for those of you who know that I have very serious opinions of EXAMS, this was before I saw the light)

Our school policy is that we are not allowed to share exam grades with students during exam week for fear that a great or poor performance on one exam will have dramatic impact on other exam performances (whether good or bad). But, I was so excited for “Sachiko”. I graded her exam and she got a B+. Wow! Nice! Awesome! I could not wait to see her face when she found that out. She thought she had done really poorly. I ran into her that afternoon in the parking lot and yelled across for her to come to my car. She ran over, with a very concerned look on her face. “Sachiko, I am so proud of you! You got a B+! Congratulations!” What happened next to this day I will never forget. She burst into tears and said, “My mother is going to kill me ‘cause I didn’t get an A.”

That experience went from incredible success to incredible failure…but I ask….whose failure was it?

I am truly looking forward to getting you know your child this semester. I look forward to the challenge of figuring out what makes him tick, and also what it will take for your child to deeply connect with my class and my subject area.

-Sincerely

Your child’s teacher

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better.

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DO vs. DO NOT: The new Digital Divide

crossroadsWe are at a crossroads. We’ve been here for years, and just seem to be parked here, not moving or at best… going in circles. Other cars are zooming by honking at us from all sides, but we just keep our blinders on and look straight ahead. We seem lost (but do not admit or accept it), and if we would just look left or right or up or down (or any direction other than “the status quo road ahead”) we would see the sign that has the directions to anywhere all around us. And all are places we want and need to go.

What is the issue?

So during the “first digital wave”, the Digital Divide was between those that had access to technology and those that did not. Some of this digital divide was by choice, some by economics, some by lack of understanding, and some by luck. It was a recognition that not only was it a good idea to use some of the digital tools available, it was crucial. And so we saw that first wave jettison us into the 21st Century.

So, here we are in the beginning of the second digital wave.

And it is here and now that we see two types of people. Both are crucial to success in an economy. The first: USERS of technology. These are the people that are tech savvy and use their digital devices commandingly to help solve the problems in their job or industry. They understand how the software and hardware work and can use it as it was supposed to be used. They are excellent at what they do and effective at using what digital solutions are available to manage business, promote ideas, and address problems. This group of people is also becoming the sought after norm, that if you are not part of this group today, you are probably not able to succeed in business and school. This group of people is very important.

However, this group is also completely dependent upon a new type of person.

Now we introduce the nuts and bolts of new Digital Divide: Those that DO, and those that DO not. Those that GET IT and those that DO NOT get it. Those that CREATE, and those that DO NOT create.

This new second type of person is a CREATOR of technology. They are the ones who create new devices, new software, new apps, new technologies, new ways to program or reprogram existing devices to do more, new solutions, even new tools. They are the ones who take their own ideas, needs, and wants and turn them into something real that be used to solve some problem. There was a time where this group of people was only highly specialized and trained PhD research scientists who took years to develop something, engineers who spent months in the back of a lab tweaking and tinkering until it was ready. And yes, this traditional style of CREATOR still exists in some industries and in some technologies where extreme breakthroughs require that type of commitment. Actually, I might argue the today’s CREATORS are even dependent upon this traditional CREATOR for what they do. But, for many industries, that is not the case. Today’s CREATORS are simply good people, who GET IT, and who are in command of today’s technology. They are the ones who are not afraid to open up a device to troubleshoot, upgrade, replace, reprogram, or fix. There are not afraid to explore “inside” to make something do more than it was intended. They are not afraid of failure because in Computer Science, failure is actually crucial for success. They are not afraid to say “what if…” and “how can I…” and “let’s try this…” They are people in industries and jobs that were chosen because of their passions, but they had the additional forethought to let Computer Science be part of their world as well. They are the real estate agents who are not satisfied with the software that is available to them. They want to do things differently—better– and so they write some software that gives them the tools to do things better than their competition. carbon analysis appThey are the biologists who are studying dolphin DNA, but cannot get the software analysis tools to access the data like they want it. They have new ways of looking at the data, so they make an app on their tablet that does allow them to access that data in those new ways, thus distinguishing themselves in their industry, and perhaps making new discoveries. They are the small business owners who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to invest in branding and marketing for their website. They design their own webpages, transaction databases, inventory slide shows, product demonstrations, and online payment buttons. They are ones who look at their smartphone, which they carry everywhere (and so do their customers), and decide to make an app that addresses the needs of their customers. They are a local bow-tie business who designs an app that lets their customers “try on” a bow-tie to see how it looks, without being in their store. The CREATORS are a new breed of student, parents, business owner, leader. They are not saying “we cannot”, they are saying “I just did”. They are not giving reasons why not, they are saying “how do I get started”. They are not saying “it is not possible”, they are saying “look at what is possible.”

So, the new Digital Divide is about schools developing CREATORS vs. USERS, and unfortunately in far too many schools…ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh….neither.

WHAT?!!!

Few schools are developing CREATORS. We are barely developing USERS. We are still asking ridiculous questions like, “should we use technology in the classroom?” Our internet filters still block more than they do not block. Think of how that looks and sounds to our students. They have always had smartphones, laptops, tablets, digital toys, and access to information right at their fingertips. To NOT have those is almost funny to them. When we way things like, “this new technology….”, they are looking at us with cock-eyed stares because this technology is NOT new. We are past the days where we adults can still use that excuse. Digital technology like we know it today has been around for 10-20 years. We have got to stop looking at it like it is new. It’s like us saying to our kids in the morning, “I am still deciding whether or not to use this new “car” device to help take us to school and work.” Or, “…these new time pieces that fit around our wrist which automatically tell us the time during the day without using the sun, may be distracting in the classroom with kids always looking down instead of at the teacher…students will not be able to learn to manage their own time…” “This idea that electricity can flow into my house and automatically power some of our devices is something I think will take advantage of, but it may affect the way we live…” When we say things like we are not sure how to integrate technology into the classroom, our students and parents lose faith in our educational system. They are looking to the schools for leadership in WHAT should be taught, and HOW it should be taught. And they are not looking for outdated and thoughtless ideas and solutions. They are not looking for schools to work like they did when they were kids. They assume our schools are keeping up, and even leading, with the world around them.

When we do not lead in regards to technology….for them it is no different than hearing that we’re not sure how to integrate pencil and paper into the curriculum.

Enter Computer Science. This is how we give our students the tools to be CREATORS.

This discipline has a terrible image problem. And a vocabulary problem. Most people do not know what it is, and is not. Yet, we use the term as if we do.

We have schools who are still teaching (ouch……it hurts me to write this) keyboarding, in name of Computer Science, to middle schoolers. We have schools which still teach word processing to high schoolers—in the Computer Science class! Computer Science is NOT word processing, spreadsheets, photo editing, desktop publishing, video editing, and internet searching. So many schools interpret those skills as the ones that should be taught.

And…….give me a second to explain…they should—but NOT in the Computer Science classroom.

No problem if the Foreign Language teacher is having the students make newsletter travel brochures in the native language as a tool to help teach their content. No problem for the math teacher to use spreadsheets to do budgets, statistics, and graphing. In fact, that is exactly what they SHOULD be doing already. Those are both excellent uses of technology to learn and enhance a lesson with real world application. No problem for the art teacher to edit photos in class to study different types of visual art styles. No problem for the Physical Education department to use video editing to studying throwing and jumping mechanics of their kids.

All of those examples excellent uses of USING technology.

But, those projects should NOT be considered Computer Science, and they should NOT be done in the Computer Science classroom. Applications are excellent tools of all subject areas. In those areas, set the expectations of the faculty that technology will be one of the integral components of their educational experience. Students and parents not only want it, they expect it. And when we don’t ever use it as part of the classroom learning experience, THAT gets noticed. Why would we not use it? How could we not use it? As teachers we lose credibility with an inability, or worse a resistance to , the commanding use of technology in the classroom. For so many reasons, this is crucial. Teachers in all subject areas, at all grade levels, must use technology in a variety of ways, in transparent ways, throughout the day, throughout the year.

When this happens, it finally allows us to provide time and place for Computer Science education. What has traditionally been a Computer Science “responsibility” is finally handled elsewhere (and hence enhancing the development of USERS)—and that allows us to direct our efforts on building CREATORS.

Ahhh…..yes…..then we can commit to offering Computer Science as a required course as important in your curriculum as a math or science or language course. Define what Computer Science looks like at your school. Offer it. Require it. Encourage it.

But do not have students choose to do this in place of something else.

In fact, that is opposite of what we need. We need those students who love history to also think like Computer Scientists, so they can go into the world with a passion for History, but also with a new set of tools which let them develop new tools. So, yes, it is time we add a CORE discipline to the standard set of CORE classes that have defined our educational system for decades. Yes, we will have to make room for it. Yes, education is going to have to change. Yes it is also time to look at the daily schedule. Yes, it is also time to look at graduation requirements. Yes, it is time to look at what we are teaching. Yes, it is also time to look at 2 ½ month summer breaks. Yes, it is also time to look at the standard 8:00-3:00 schedule. Yes, it is time to look at what we are evaluating. Yes, it is time to look at how we are evaluating. Yes, it is time to look at how/why we use standardized tests.

Yes, it is time. Yes, it is time. Yes, it is time.

And perhaps those same technologies which have been at the center of so many issues can also be the tools through which we can solve these problems. Maybe there is even a Computer Science solution to how we do this? I imagine there is. Perhaps students who have been through a new type of school will be the one who help use change our educational world.

Logo Design by FlamingText.com

Logo Design by FlamingText.com
Computer Science, as a tool of CREATION, is crucial to society, to economy, to innovation, and to business. But, it is different than other disciplines. Much like math is fundamental to other disciplines and language is part the backbone of other disciplines, so is Computer Science. Recognize that. What industry is not overwhelmingly dependent upon digital hardware and software?! Just as nails and hammers and wood are fundamental building blocks for construction, Computer Science is a building block for “digital construction”. But the Computer Science discipline differs from others in that it is constantly changing. New technologies, even completely new breakthroughs, develop frequently which force us to reconsider how we approach our thinking in this area. Whereas a French class has only 1 language to teach and those constructs and grammar are relatively constant, Computer Science has literally hundreds of languages and development environments that are all important in different scenarios. Some languages will appeal to a specific industry or type of problem or project because of the nature of the language itself. There is no way to say that one language or environment is “better” than another, in same way that we cannot say that one novel is “better” than another. But, just as in English class we study many novel s and types of writing to give students a broad exposure to the type of writing that is possible, Computer Science does the same thing. For the school that is inspired to bring Computer Science into their curriculum, that is encouraging because it allows the passions of your faculty to lead the way. If game design is what you want to focus on, excellent. Love robots? Lots of choices there are well. Love the engineering approach? Arduino is there for you! Need something small and cheap? Raspberry Pi to the rescue. Love iPhones and iPads? Develop software and apps. Love to tinker? Taking apart and rebuilding old computers is a blast and a great way to learn about “under the hood”. Android users can develop apps for their tablets and phones. Even Blackberry phones users can develop apps. Web surfer? Lots of tools to develop for websites and web apps.

I have not even given you the coup d’état……
most of the tools for Computer Science are FREE, tons of free tutorials online, tons of resources, tons of groups to join for collaboration. Almost seems like it does not make sense, huh?! A discipline which is direly needed in our schools. Materials, resources, people, software, even some hardware—all free. And people wanting to help. Companies like Microsoft and Google even offer their employees to come into schools to help get them started. Why are we not doing this?

But, I’ll also add a twist to this way of thinking….I suggest that the world is better suited if we develop a new breed of graduate: students who have a broad range of educational experiences in a variety of subjects, who do specialize in an area of their passion, but who have a Computer Science minor behind it. That gives them access to a set of tools, a way of thinking, that allow them to develop new types of solutions, new design ideas, new types of solutions in whatever industry they choose.

Colleges and Universities can require minors, or emphasis tracks that gives those students an experience in a variety of technologies, languages, and with a variety of hardware devices , so that they can know what is possible. It is crucial that they have a variety of experiences in programming in a variety of languages, taking apart different types of devices, creating apps, developing desktop software, writing web-based scripts, and programming device specific software, such as a robot or Arduino or Raspberry-Pi.

High schools can prepare students to know what Computer Science really is. And instead of giving it an elective status (communicating that is not required), let it be one of the requirements for graduation. And I do not mean one class during the spring of their senior year. I mean in the 9th grade, Computer Science is required. Then follow that up in the next 3 years with more Computer Science. This can be done on the shoulders of a Computer Science education starting in elementary school and continuing through the middle school.

The new Digital Divide is something which is starting to get the attention of leaders across the United States. This year’s Hour of Code was embraced by millions of people across the country, and was even endorsed by our president. Organizations such as Code.org are bringing Computer Science(or rather lack of Computer Science) to the forefront of the educational discussion. The traditional Digital Divide was focused on having vs. not having technology; the new Digital Divide boils down to whether we know Computer Science or not.

It’s an important question and an even better discussion. One that we cannot wait to have. Other countries are having the discussion and changing the way they do business. Did you ever stop to think why some companies have to go overseas for customer support ? We all assume it is to save money….but perhaps it is in part because they cannot find enough qualified people in our own country. What is at stake for any country that does not embrace Computer Science is losing the edge in innovation, research, and business………..and ultimately respect.

There are new ways forward in education. If something I said resonates with you, we should connect.

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250 * 4 = ? (or Microsoft in Education Global Forum Barcelona)

Subtitle: Microsoft in Education Global Forum

What happens when you put 250 educators from around the world in one place for 4 days?

My team had members from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Mauritius, Malaysia, Finland, and the United States

My team(#49 yes we rocked!) had members from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Mauritius, Malaysia, Finland, and the United States

Borders break down, politics don’t matter, despite the Law of the Conservation of Energy,–energy is in fact created, differences are embraced, cultural differences are cherished and discovered—and even sought out. Ideas are shared. Collaboration happens. Friendships are made. Relationships are built. Connections are made. You can see the bar rising. You can feel education literally getting better right in front of your eyes. The world became both a bigger and smaller place all at the same time.

What was the Microsoft in Education Global Forum?

Each teacher was excited to present about their own  project

Each teacher was excited to present about their own project

For 2 days, teachers present their project to fellow educators, judges, friends, political leaders, and educational leaders. I gave my “3 minute pitch” on the airplane, in the airport, in the hotel, in line at the store, in the conference center, at lunch and dinner, and of course to my judges. I think I gave it a couple times in the hotel lobby as well, and probably on the elevator. You see, the people there were passionate about what they did, excited and qualified to be there, and take every chance to make a connection and share an idea- to get to know a fellow educator.

What an incredible time connecting with people from all of the world

What an incredible time connecting with people from all of the world

Ever been in a crowd where you really wanted to meet someone? Now, imagine that room is full of people who all think like you, believe what you believe, and have the same vision as you. We had the best first line. “Hi I am Doug from the United States. I’d love to hear about what you are doing”. And any person there was so excited to be able to give you their pitch. And I equally as excite to hear it, and figure out how I can bring some of their energy and ideas back with me . I remember we were right in the middle of breaking down our tables, judging was over, people were leaving to get ready for dinner, and I was still “presenting” to people who came by my table. I think eventually, they kicked us out because they were closing the room. I noticed that there was a large number of people who also were doing the same thing as I was. Sorry, we just couldn’t stop. No apology was necessary.

Michael Braun "selling it"

Michael Braun “selling it”

But, it’s just another conference right?

Wrong.

First, it was a tremendous honor to be there. Only 250 educators were selected out of over 22000 applications. I am not saying that to boast, but more so to qualify the people who were there. This group of people is the inaugural Expert Educators Class of 2014. What that means is that you are meeting some of the most innovative teachers from around the world. Each of us spending 10-20 hours on our applications and making it through a rigorous judging process just to be here. One of my friends, David Renton, was the only representative from Scotland; he WAS Team Scotland. What a tremendous honor for him! And a pleasure to meet him and see the great things happen there!

U.S. Team member Kelli Etheredge holds her award with pride

U.S. Team member Kelli Etheredge holds her award with pride

Yes there was an element of winning, but what is interesting, there was not necessarily an element of losing, at least in the group I was with. And that is rare. Because I met so many people from all over, all doing amazing things with their students in the classroom, it was very likely that someone you knew would be recognized with some type of award. And when you heard any name that you knew, you rushed over for a photo and a high five because you wanted to share that joy with your new friends- and they wanted to share that with their new friends. While I did not win an award, I still won.

We had 2 days to share our ideas, explore other ideas, talk, and meet new people. Most conferences, such as ISTE, while there are some great people there, are centered on the idea of 1 directional presentations. Those conferences do have value, and I do enjoy them, but they are a different type of experience. You are more likely to get some good resources, rather than make real connections.

So, what exactly is this “conference”? Well, the idea of getting innovative global educators together in a forum such as this has been something that Microsoft has been doing for many years. They don’t advertise this; they don’t get much credit in the media for doing it; yet they do it anyway. Each year, the location is different: South Africa, Washington DC, Barcelona, Prague. In some years, there were similar events held at regional events (i.e. just for Europe or Middle East-Africa and these award winners from those events would be invited to the international forum). But each year, hundreds of educators and school leaders from around the world are invited to come to the forum, sponsored by Microsoft Education.

When most people think about Microsoft, they think “Word”, “PowerPoint”, “Windows”, “SQL”, “Xbox” and certainly those are great tools and products, but that is not the side of Microsoft that puts together this event; welcome to Microsoft Education: Partners in Learning, an arm of Microsoft dedicated to providing resources, software, networking, and partnerships to any and all schools and educators around the world. I am sure in the back of some minds, there is a hope that by supporting and sponsoring and leading events like this, there will be recognition for Microsoft, which indirectly can affect their commercial side, but in truth…this side of Microsoft is spending more than it makes. Events like this, put on in a world class fashion, bringing together people from over 90 countries costs money, (wo)man-power, energy, effort, attention, time, and commitment. Last year, Microsoft announced it was infusing 750 million dollars into promoting efforts such as this. Why would they do that? To support and promote innovative teaching and teachers; to show the world that there is another way to “do” education; that those innovative ways are not only working—they are changing the educational landscape as we know it. And it is not just going to take a village—it is going to take the whole world to change the world.

School systems around the world must be embraced/owned/led by the people, not government. It is important that the people of the world take ownership of bringing education into the 21st Century. The days of rote lectures, random note taking, multiple choice tests, doing the questions at the end of the chapter, and standardized tests must start to become the old ways, outdated in pedagogy. The students of today, in order to be problem solvers and leaders for the current and future generations, need a different style of learning environment. The world around them is interactive and dynamic, why cannot their learning also be vibrant and alive? With the advances we’ve made in science, understandings and discoveries in history, computations in math, the ability for us to communicate instantly and widely on an international level, and analysis of data like we’ve never been able to before–our education systems have the potential of being as dynamic as that world outside of school campus–yet many of our schools remain stuck in 1950-style of content delivery with students passively sitting in chairs, missing most of what comes at them. Is that the best we can do? Hence the need for this conference. People now are able to write their own software, build their own devices, and command those devices to solve problems–we can literally design our own tools to solve the problems that we do not even know exist yet. Think about it, how many digital devices do you have in your own life right now? 10 ? 20?

Technology is an integral part of life. Those who command it will be the leaders of the next generation.

Technology is an integral part of life. Those who command it will be the leaders of the next generation.

The world around us is different than it was even 20 years ago. No longer is life one directional. Life has become interactive. We are longer able to sit on the sidelines and watch the world go by. We can communicate, problem solve, play, learn, read, study, participate interactively—and not just with those we know, with anyone in the world who wants the same thing. It is because of that world, that it is crucial that the people of the world change the way we educate. All across the world, our governments have grown so large and the world has become so complex, that it is no longer practical that our governments lead the way in education. Top down policies and laws that helped us find our way over the last 50 years do not make as much sense anymore. The role of our governmental leaders, still incredibly valuable, will transform into support roles helping cities, states, and countries accomplish the goals that are being defined by the people in the schools.
This is what our classrooms must start to look like.  In all grades. In all grade levels.

This is what our classrooms must start to look like. In all grades. In all grade levels.

The only way for “education” to work is if it is from the ground up. Teachers, schools, districts, parents, and students must take ownership. The companies that are going to hire these students must communicate the qualities that they need. School is preparation for life that we are going into. We have to be careful that schools are not preparing students for life as it once was. If our students are going through school memorizing vocabulary, formulas, and dates…and then regurgitating that back to us every 2 weeks on a content-heavy test, and then taking a 3 hours scantron exam at the end of the class, then we are failing at our jobs.

That is why conferences such as this one are not only valuable, but crucial. We cannot wait for our political leaders to raise the bar of education…it’s not their job…that is the responsibility of the people..us…you and me…and him…and her…and that guy…and this lady…and that school…and that district…..

It was great to meet Ismail from Jordan.

It was great to meet Ismail from Jordan.

There is a different way forward in education. If something I said makes sense to you…we should connect. Find me.

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Innovators and Explorers Sandbox

Introducing a style of classroom experience that’s extremely different than what you are used to reading about.
Warning: What you are about to read is different, out-of-the-box, 100% student-centered, innovative, creative, and does not have any reference to multiple choice testing….continue on at your own risk but I warn you…you may just find yourself wanting more of this style of learning in our educational systems.

Phil Zaubi (our IT Director and fellow teacher) and I have been sharing the responsibility of teaching our 12th grade Computer Science course. These are students who are in the 4th year of our 4-year program, so this is their last year with us. The year has been a combination of capstone experiences, projects, and real world experiences. Over the last 3 or 4 years of teaching the class, while it has been a good experience for our kids, we always felt like something was missing. Well, I think we found it.

Thanks to a working lunch at a Mexican restaurant where the stars aligned and the brainstorming came together, Phil and I put something together called “The Innovators and Explorers Sandbox”.

andersonThroughout our program, at the end of each semester, students complete a rather lengthy and thorough evaluation of all the projects, assignments, and overall experience of the class. Sometimes that is in video format, audio format, or just text based. But, the one thing that seemed to always come to the surface was that students craved the experience of working on a project without all the requirements and “rules” of a graded project. But I was not able to figure out how to implement that into a hard core Computer Science curriculum and yet maintain the rigor of an honors or dual-credit level class. Until now.

After spending the entire first semester learning Object Oriented Programming with Java, they had a culminating project which took about 7 weeks: the complete game of Monopoly. The project included 5 java classes and was massive: Every possible Computer Science concept and skill is required to complete the project. It may have been the most challenging thing we’ve done in 4 years: hence, there was a need to open it up some and let them spread their wings.

Enter the Sandbox: We listed every technology, language, and programming/design environment that we had access to (or had in the closet), plus some that we knew existed “out there”. Then we asked students to consider their dream challenge. They are going to choose any technology they want, plan how they are going to learn that, propose how they will be evaluated, and not have any fear of failure. No homework assignments to distract. No pop quizzes. No tests. “…WHAT? Are you serious? You gave the kids the freedom to just explore on their own? Are you crazy? No one does that! They have to be evaluated with a quiz or reading check! Do it now! This will NEVER work. Please stop this nonsense. This can never succeed. Students will never be able to learn like that, much less at the level you are expecting. You have finally gone too far out of the box. What about the even problems at the back of the chapter? How will we evaluate this with a bubble on a standardized test?….”

Right?

Wrong.

joe leapLet me start by saying, for me as a teacher, it has been one of the most enjoyable, satisfying risks I’ve done in a while. Expectations of class are still high. Rigor is still there. Passion is still high. Student learning is still central to class. And every student is making progress.
Let me start by sharing with you some of the technologies that they are working with:face
o Face Recognition with Kinect sensor
o Multiple Skeleton recognition using Kinect Sensor
o NeuroSky Mindwave brain wave detector using C++
o IOS Programming using XCode using Objective C
o Unity 3D environment creation and scripting using C#
o HTML5 and CSS
o Android App Development using mobile Java
o Drone helicopter control using Node.JS
o Gesture interpretation using LEAP sensor
o Skeletal and Voice Recognition using Kinect Sensor
o Maya 3D modeling and avatar skeletal and joint rigging
o AutoDesk and ShipConstructor ship modeling and design
o Oculus Rift and Unity integration
o Arduino breadboard with Processing
o Fusion & Kinect Sensor to scan and model real life 3D objects
o Network server , client, and switch configuration

shipHow did we set it up the project? Well, we started with a fictitious, yet real scenario that these kids will face at some point in their educational or work career. They go into office and your boss says, hey (you) …we just found out that we were selected to complete this project and it is crucial that we do it right. We’ve never seen this technology or software, so we are not sure how it works. Figure it out. Use whatever resources you need to. No excuses. Deadline is in 7 weeks. Go.

We felt strongly that we communicated that as they choose their project, we made it CLEAR that: as long as they are working hard, trying, and making conceptual and skill progress, there is no way to fail. In other words, take a risk to try something crazy and out of the box without the fear of the grade. Work hard every day in class, research as needed, experiment, explore, ask questions, work with peers, and use your resources. Hmmmm…those also seem to be the skills that would help someone be successful in the real world outside of school. Interesting.

Students spent 3 days researching their technology and also the resources available to help them learn this. This would be a project where the learning itself, and even finding the medium through which they would learn, even the evaluation, falls 100% on the shoulders of the student. Then they submit a formal proposal to the teacher for approval.
droneHere is what each student submitted to the teacher for approval:
• Describe what technology you will explore. What is it? Where/how is it used?
• Why did you pick this and what is your connection with this? Why learn this technology?
• What is your goal of learning this technology in the next 7 weeks?
• Briefly discuss the long term value for learning this type of technology. What field,major, industry would have value for the skills learned in learning this technology?
• How will you learn about this technology/language? Identify at least 2 specific ways. No generalities–be specific with book titles, url links, blog url, people names, etc
• What software needs to be installed? What is the URL to get it? Have you already downloaded it?
• What hardware needs to be bought? What is the URL for where it can be bought? Have you already arranged to have it ordered?
• Describe if you are thinking you will do a major project, series of small projects, demonstration of skill, etc for your “final project” you are working towards.
• This project will involve a great deal of thought/energy/frustration/willingness to explore/effort. Are you willing to put forth what is needed to really learn this technology/language/environment at the level expected?

kinectparabolaOk, this sounds nice, but there has be some type of accountability, right? Of course there is. In a project like this, the final outcome is the learning itself, not what is produced with the project. So, it is crucial that if they identify what is important—then that is what we evaluate. So, each week, the students complete a BLOG post 200-300 words where they communicate the new concepts and skills that they have learned since the last week. They specifically identify the progress that they made since last week. They reflect on the challenges, successes, and the failures—the ones that they conquered as well as the ones they are still struggling with.

About 3 times throughout the project, each student sits with the teacher for about 10 minutes for a “project review” where they show us the progress, we ask them specifics about what they have been learning, and they communicate their progress. That is how they earn their “grade”. Some students have decided to work on a specific project, while others are simply taking advantage of the time just to learn the technology.

What was the experience like for the students? What were they actually able to accomplish and learn? Well, certainly we have had every part of the spectrum. Some students have gone far past even our highest expectations. Some of the students learning IOS, LEAP, website design, Unity and Maya 3D modeling had early successes as their strategies for learning proved to be very effective! We have seen tremendous learning, as well as tremendous progress in advancing into much higher skillsets. For others choosing more risky and leading edge technologies, there have been challenges from the get-go. It took the students using the Mindwave brainwave detector a couple weeks to actually be able to pull data from the sensors…but…YES!!! Finally!… they did it and are working on interpreting, displaying, and analyzing that data using code. The Face recognition and Drone folks have had most difficult time just trying to connect and communicate with their technology. We have seen numerous mini-successes, but have made our progress by failing, learning from those failures, finding new sources of knowledge and learning, and making small , but crucial steps, forward. I am so excited for the Face Recognition students because they have just identified some code which should allow them to see their efforts come to life. Literally, they found a couple lines of C# that have eluded them for 3 weeks. And Michael is making great strides with the drone helicopter. Very exciting

We also felt strongly that there be a “research” component (similar to the IB program, but not at long or complex) where students explore their technology in the real world. What colleges offer degrees related to it, what jobs are available involving it, what are some possible future uses for it, what industries might develop uses for it, and even to describe the “dream” job that involves the technology: Where would they be, what problems would they be solving? Who would benefit from solution developed using the technology? The medium for this part is the creation of a video where they speak freely, but use the guiding questions to steer their thoughts

This “Sandbox” project is a 7 week project and will conclude with 2 1/2 days of Pecha-Kucha style of presentations to the class. Each student will be given 10 slides, each slide is on the screen for 20 seconds and automatically advances. They will briefly describe each slide, but are very limited in their words. The presentation itself, as well as the content and preparation, will be evaluated. All presentations are recorded. There is a peer evaluation rubric that each student submits for each presentation as well as rubric for the teachers to evaluate during the presentations.(We’ve got about 2 weeks left and we’ll be doing the presentations after that, so I’ll have to re-post this with afterthoughts of the final presentations.)

Things I have learned about the project: While there is value in students finding their own best learning tools, they also will not have a way to evaluate until they actually get into it. I might suggest 1 video tutorial, 1 text based screenshot tutorial, a couple developer websites, and even 1 book that each kid submits in the initial proposal. How long are you willing to let students fail before stepping in to help? Some students are extremely resourceful, some not as much. How much help will you give? How much will you be involved is software installation and hardware purchase? How much outside of class work will you expect. Students must be vested in the project and engaged in the class; they have to want to learn. This is about as different of an educational experience as the students have probably had, so you may have to help them learn like this…with their own interest and natural curiousity guiding the way. In fact, you have to keep on them. That rigor will be there if the expectation is there and they know that. Overall , we’ve had no major issues with motivation; sure you have an occasional Friday afternoon class that may not quite be as focused as you hoped, but all-in-all because we did the legwork to set it up, we’ve seen exactly what we hoped for—and YES…this is something that we will be making an integral part of our 12th grade year from now on.

Most importantly, you have to be able to step back and let learning happen, even through failure and struggle. I know our natural teacher impulse in to ride in and help (and even I admit I did on occasion), but we have to willing to just let learning happen. And it will.

There is a different way to approach education.If something I said, you read, you saw, or heard make sense to you, we should connect.

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Anti-Exams: A different approach to final exams

(Please note, this idea was also the idea that I submitted for my application to the Microsoft Expert Educator Program for which I was selected. Here is the video I submitted as part of that application. I’ll be presenting about this topic in Barcelona, Spain in March.)

Ahhhhhhhh, it’s that time of year, and if you’ve read my BLOG posts over the years you know I am not big on standardized tests and exams, but instead of dreading the upcoming exam “season”, I am so excited because it’s one of my favorite times of the year.

WHAT?! Better let me explain

I do have exams in my classes, but they are different than you are imagining.

Students present and demonstrate their expertise in robotics, game design, and hardware.

In my 9th grade classes, students pair up and put on a demonstration/presentation table for two of the topics that we studied this semester in class. They prepare an entire table display area as well as an engaging hands-on presentations to show-describe-present about-explain-teach what they’ve learned. They dress professionally and for an hour one evening, we invite all the parents in as our guests. So, we’ll have 40+ parents and 20+ students in our library with sounds of robots, sound effects from programmed games, and various clankings of computer components being put together and taken apart as parents build computers piece by piece. Lots of proud moms and dads who are charged by us to ask lots of questions and find out “why” as often as “what”, but also to enjoy their own hands-on experience with their children as teachers. Parents wander around and interact with other students, parents, board members, and other teachers. Truly a wonderful night! What a great chance to finally find out the real answer to the dinner-time question, “What did you do in school today?,” “nothin”. Uhm, I beg to differ. And, you know what the hidden secret here is: They spend so many more hours preparing for this evening than they ever would studying for a normal exam. And I’ll argue that most students forget within hours what they crammed in their head for exams….yet my students will remember their presentation for years(and for some a lifetime).

Finally, students really do know more than their parents

In my 10th grade class, students will again have their parents involved in their final exam, but this time the students will actually be leading their parents through an learning workshop. Each student will choose to lead their parent(s) through the entire process of either 1) building a small XBox game , or 2) building a small website with SQL database and data entry form. Students are not allowed to touch the mouse or keyboard, so pressure is on them to explain and teach well, so that parents can not only design it, but understand how they did it. As any teacher will vouch, it’s one thing to do something; it’s an entirely different thing to teach someone else to do it. In preparation for the event, students spend the week before designing the entire project and practice “teaching” the entire project to a fellow student–that way when mom and dad get there, it’s not their first time. When students start to realize that they have to lead their parents without any notes or cheat sheets, they start to dig in! And because they are all “in this together”, the collaboration that occurs during that week before is amazing. As in the previous year, students spend so much more time preparing for this than they ever would for a paper exam. The look on the faces of mom and dad when they complete the project is worth all the time and energy that goes into this. Now, when dad asks, “What did you do in Computer Science today”, he gets a dramatically different answer. That’s what I’m talking ‘about. This year, I added a small component which I really liked: students are allowed to bring in a TweetCheat: 140 characters of anything they want to have at their fingertips during the workshop…otherwise they have to lead the entire project from their head. Some use it to list steps, others to jot down hard to remember code samples, some use it for notes.

A student demonstrates her Kinect interactive simulation: a CSI crime scene investigation where you collect evidence, extract DNA, process the DNA and use that data to determine the culprit.

In the 11th grade classes, students present yet again, but this time it is to a panel of expert Venture Capitalist judges who will hear their presentations, run the projects themselves, and evaluate each student’s performance, code, and project. Students spend an entire semester working on one project (a game, activity, or simulation for the Xbox game system using Kinect, Dancepad, and/or hand controller) In a science fair-like scenario, judges tour the room spending time with each student, where students can present however they see fit depending on who the judge is. The presentation they give to a successful entrepreneur business executive is very different than the one they give to the Marketing Director of a company and even more different than the one they would give to a professional game designer. At the end of the evening, our “Venture Capitalist” judges panel will be investing money into the projects in which they saw potential. Each judge gets $5000 that they can distribute as they like. (The panel consists of one high school senior, one alumni from our Computer Science program, one professional game designer, one game design firm marketing director, one Computer Science teacher, one math teacher, one Microsoft executive, 1 professional from the IT industry, and two successful entrepreneurs from the community. Throughout the semester, we also discuss about the business side of Computer Science as well, so students think about marketing, promotion, target audience, demo and phsycho-graphics, and elevator pitches as it relates to their own project. Because each judge is looking for something different, students have to determine the best way to present and demonstrate. The Computer Science teacher wants to hear about the challenges they faced in order to figure out how to overcome programming problems, the game designer wants to hear about the sound effects, and graphics of the game, the marketing director wants to hear about the storyline of the project, the gamer wants to experience the “flow” of the game, the college student wants to hear how they programmed their game, etc. At the end of the evening, just for fun, we announce how much venture capital investment money each project received. What we see is that an average project with a great presentation can be effective…and in the same sense a really great project with a mediocre presentation can be ineffective. We try to help students have well-done, unique projects and that they determine the best way to present to each judge.

Some of the most amazing projects we’ve had over the year are:

  • 3D Flight Simulator using the human body as the wing control device, and the DancePAd for the flap controls.
  • Track and Field simulation with the player actually running down the track as they answer questions about history.
  • DNA Crime Science CSI investigation where you collect samples, extract and analyze DNA with your hands.
  • SAT Vocabulary Practice using the Dancepad.
  • A discus throwing motion analysis program complete with demonstration videos.
  • A bow and arrow hunting game where you are hunting math problems as they fly across the sky.
  • A air piano style of music maker where you use your hands in the space around your body to play music

But, were these really exams?

Well, if we define exam as a culminating experience that requires students to bring in what they’ve learned and apply that to use it in new ways; if we define exams as a rigorous experience which really “tests” to see if students have learned the material and requires them to demonstrate that understanding; if we define exams as a chance to synthesize a large quantity of information….if the allow ourselves to let the exam itself be a learning experience which is actually something students look forward to and enjoy and take great pride in….

Then I’ll argue our exam not only meets all those criterion, but exceeds them. Students will spend 2-3 times longer preparing for this kind of effort than they would “studying” for a traditional exam. And because they cannot cram for this; because they can’t fake it; because we are not asking them to regurgitate a bunch of words but use them as a vocabulary to demonstrate , teach, and explain; because they are forced to create an entire presentation , it allows us to bring creativity, expression, visual, presentation, written, motion, language arts, fine arts, and Computer Science together in true cross curricular nature

The exam itself is a learning experience on its own.

Imagine if every exam they took was like that? I imagine the impression people have of exams would be very different than what most people have.

I’m getting a few hundred hits per day on this BLOG, so I know there are people from around the country (or world) reading this right now steaming with disagreement and anger, full of reasons why their objective multiple choice exam is better than this…still grasping onto the coat-tails of a long since outdated & shredded & broken & ineffective exam process. And this in-your-face BLOG post like this is not going to persuade them.

But, do I believe there are teachers, administrators, political leaders, community members,……even students out there who think there is a different way to look at education.

If something you read here makes sense, we should connect.

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