Patrick Higgins, Jr.

Archive for the ‘education’ Category

SearchSmarter

In education, research, students on March 8, 2011 at 10:32 am

Yesterday, one of my staff invited me in to talk to her junior Honors United States History II students about how to be more efficient and effective with their internet searching, and with their time in front of a computer screen in general. To begin the discussion, I showed them this quick clip:

I wanted to help them see that there are other options than Google and Wikipedia, but also how to work within those two frequent web destinations for students. Among the alternates to Google I showed them was something called Sweet Search. This site uses a system of web guides around various topics to help students narrow the web to the areas they need instead of searching the entire web. They have guides on everything from Family Travel to High School Geometry. Additionally, we looked at some history specific sites like George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, the State Department’s Background Notes, University of Houston’s Digital History, and news aggregators like 10×10.

Googling

However, as great as some of the students thought these sites were, the techniques we use to find information once there, and then determine the credibility of that information are most important. We discussed some basic tips on how to streamline and focus your search so that the likelihood that relevant results appear is increased. We used these two guides:

By using limiters like putting search phrases in “quotes,” or limiting results only to .edu sites (site:edu “search term”) students began to see that the results they got were of high quality than just regular searching.

Wikipedia

We also showed them some of the guiding principles behind Wikipedia. As a resource, Wikipedia has often been vilified by educators at both the university and high school level because of the supposed unreliability of the information. Because of how search engines work, the links into and out of a Wikipedia entry cause it to be at or near the top of a typical Google search. What I tried to stress with the students was the value of Wikipedia stems from the basic rule of editing an entry: you have to validate your information with credible sources, and then list those sources at the bottom of the entry. By beginning with the “works cited” list in a Wikipedia entry, you gain access to a pre-made bibliography to begin your research on a particular topic. Don’t end your research with Wikipedia, start there.

Evaluating Research

While we didn’t have time to dive deeply into how to interrogate the web to figure out if information is credible, we did explore a few sites that help decipher which media outlet is telling the truth. Factcheck.org, and Politifact.org offer some compelling research into what Congress, the mainstream media, and even some celebrity pundits claim. By checking in on those sites and attempting verify claims, students can begin to build a better radar when it comes to the verity of a source.

Eliminating Distractions

One element that students often claim gets in their way is the amount of distractions they have in their lives in the way of social media–things like Facebook, Twitter, SMS, or BBM. Even adults are beginning to see how distracted these elements of our lives can cause us to be. To combat it, I showed the students how to use browser plug-ins like Readability to strip the extra content like ads and videos from a page they are reading on the internet. We also looked at things like quietube and Turn the Lights Out to eliminate distractions while they watch video on their computers. I also referenced this article, which has helped me reclaim my attention span.

The Nerd Knack.

In education on September 14, 2010 at 8:16 am

I’ve talked about it before here, this idea of withitness that is truly hard to quantify when it comes to teaching, but I think it coincides nicely with the idea below.  Both Dr. Cleeves and “Frank” would be traditionally characterized as “nerds” both by physical appearance and society’s intellectual qualifications.  Kids react one of two ways to teachers of this ilk: embrace or terrorize.

Dr. Cleeves was wicked smart.  So smart, in fact, that he held several patents that he created during his time in the pharmaceutical industry, a bit of information he shared with us on the first day of microbiology in my Junior year of high school.

“Frank” was wicked smart too.  His collection of jarred specimens in formaldehyde gave his room a distinct Shelley-esque feeling as I sat raptured in both his Biology class as a sophomore, and Anatomy class as a senior.  That coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of tissues, organs and systems clearly matched the degrees that hung on the wall of his office.

Both men had obvious intelligence, and the paperwork to prove it.  One was a great teacher and had to fight off students trying to get a moment of his time during his prep periods.  The other didn’t make it past November before a student lit up a cigarette with her Bunsen burner.

What separated the two clearly knowledgeable men?  Simple.

The Nerd Knack.

Dr. Cleeves provided us with a wealth of content knowledge about the inner working so single-celled and simple life forms and showed us proper procedures for working in a lab; however, we never knew him.  We never saw him as someone who was in it for us.  He loved science, he loved figuring things out, but he lacked the capacity to share that passion with us.  Soon enough, once the initial politeness of being in the presence of a learned person wore off, students were figuring out ways to disrupt his thought process away from nucleotides and towards the nonsense happening between the aisles.

“Frank,” played it entirely differently.  From the moment you walked in, your name changed to something associated with either what you did outside of school, a sibling that had gone through the school, or something he noticed about you.  How did he find this stuff out?  Because he cared to know who you were and where you came from.  Whereas Dr. Cleeves was literal in his definitions, “Frank” was descriptive and hyperbolic, often taking the time to find obscure images of things such as filarial worms, or onchocerciasis (all really, really nasty things that leave lasting impressions on adolescent minds).

One taught science, the other taught kids.  And we understood the difference right away.

Cover Letter to Everyone

In change, education, leadership on March 19, 2010 at 12:03 am

If you haven’t discovered 750Words, you should.  It’s unbelievably liberating.

This is a recent rant that I think may make a decent cover letter.  I’ve been wrong in the past. Please tell me if I am so here.

I am a change agent. I will not apologize for this, nor make exceptions about or alter the course of this. There is a need within all organizations, especially within education, to remain relevant to their constituents. I go to find the steps between the pending irrelevance of the current system and the innovation necessary to continue the vital role that education plays in the development of productive citizens in the United States and beyond.

It has been said, by wiser minds than mine, that we live in exponential times. The information landscape that our current teaching staff evolved with is no longer a relevant model, but the skills they carried through that process are. How do we, then, take those critical analysis skills, those precise tools of skepticism, and apply them to the current, and ever-evolving flow of data that overwhelms our student populace of today?

I am a change agent. The paradigm is shifting in education and information ownership. It’s only the institutions of learning that are failing to realize this very simple fact.

“When Gutenberg invented the printing press, we didn’t have Europe plus books. Instead we had a whole new Europe.” (Postman)

There is no hubris in echoing the same sentiment today. We don’t live an a world where there is unfettered access to information and the existing institutions of higher learning. Rather, we live in a world where there are information-consumers and information-prosumers: those that can access information and those that can make information work for them.

Time is the one commodity that technology has traditionally promised to save. Every single invention created for the sake of time salvage has only done the opposite: we have increased our ability to work more meaningfully through the automation of tasks. Why would information gathering and displaying be any different? It is my distinct feeling that we as students, teachers, and administrators waste far too much time seeking information, when we should be aware of and acutely accessing systems that force information to flow towards us. RSS, social networks geared towards educational professionals, and the creation of personal learning networks should be a pre-requisite for any educational professional entering the field, or migrating one’s practice from one year to the next.

Data is omnipresent in our society. We have more meta-analysis about what works in education than we ever have before. We know that the most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the educator in the room. We know that there are elements of instruction that each teacher can incorporate into their practice that are proven to increase student achievement.

Yet we struggle to incorporate those strategies into our practice as educators in a way that meaningfully leverages the social and cooperative nature of computer technology. This is not to say that our students have to be connected every minute of every day. To the contrary, we are seeking wisdom, not ubiquitous connection, but the restriction of learning to the moments we spend in the classroom with our students is disrespectful of our students time. Why should we set parameters on their willingness to engage in learning? We can provide everything we would have done to “deliver” content digitally and customized for each student we have and according to their needs, thereby reserving class time to that which is most important: discussion and engagement. Along with our detailed research on how children and adults learn, we know that we learn best in cooperative structures where we have the opportunity to learn socially with a mixed ability group whereby each member has a stake in both the contribution and distribution of knowledge.

Our current teaching staff exists various levels of technological dexterity, much as they exist at varying levels of pedagogical proficiency; we have teachers at all levels of expertise in all areas of professional domains. It is not practical to assume that if a teacher is not incorporating technology into the daily practice in their classroom that they are a poor teacher, much as it not practical to assume that a teacher who is incorporating video, social networking, or social media into their daily practice is an excellent teacher. What we have to engage our staff in is a bigger discussion:

What does it mean to be well-educated in today’s society?

Once we have an answer to that question that our whole staff and student body can live with, our journey to understanding what effective teaching is will take on its own life.

Accidental Theme Day

In change, education, school 2.0 on January 15, 2010 at 9:19 am

I heard the phrase “disruptive innovation” 23 times today. For a good portion of the day it was all I talked about. It took a raucous, yet fresh perspective on our use of technology in schools by Gary Stager to counterbalance it.

Not that I minded the term’s dominance, rather, I thought it was about time that more influential people are ringing that bell. Tools are great when placed in meaningful context and supported by educators who know how and when to leverage them, and at conferences like FETC, the tools tend to dominate the subject matter of the sessions. Whether it’s a teacher that is proud to show off the methodology he or she has created around that tool, or it’s a vendor marketing that tool to new audiences, the majority do not appeal to me. Those sessions that did dealt with school change. Throughout the course of the day, I was able to learn from Curtis Johnson, one of the co-authors of Disrupting ClassDr. Chris DedeIan Jukes, and Stager in sessions aimed squarely at the very meaning of what we do in school.

Curtis explained to his crowd that we would be hard-pressed to find an “industry” or model more ripe for disruptive innovation than the educational system is right now. He pointed to several factors that made this so, and used them in opposition:

Old Assumptions Emerging Realities
Knowledge is scarce, hard to access
knowledge readily available
subjects-courses-sequence
multi-dimensional learning
improvement by command
crucial role of motivation
students learn same way/same time
kids more different than ever
Standardization-batch processing
radical personalization

My first thoughts, and I dropped them into our group notes, were of customization. Available to us now are the tools to really customize learning for large numbers of students. What we are lacking is the thought and the vision to realize it. I am speaking of my immediate situation when I say this; there are numerous conversations I have had with others, and some I have initiated, around this idea that our students need choice in what they are learning, yet, what steps have I taken to make sure they get it? My thoughts as I go forward this year are directed at trying to find ways to scale this for the students we need to serve better.

Chris Dede made me want to be a better presenter. His content was impeccable, as was his demeanor in front of a room of nearly two-hundred people. He was calm, witty, and extremely gracious with his time. His story, which wound itself around the theme of disruptive innovation throughout, dealt with some more of the pressing issues that we deal with in public education, namely those of engagement and accountability. Dede spoke about the need for their to be quantifiable data for our teachers to analyze if they are to assess students progress according to the standards they are held to. When looking at the MUVE he showed calledEcoMUVE which he and a team of scientists are designing for the Cambridge Public Schools, he remarked about how because the servers store student activity as events, there is so much information about what the students are doing, and in many cases that data is in the form of snapshots taken, notes written, and questions asked and answered.

Working with teachers as often as I do, I see the assessment piece as one that will be a tough nut to crack if we are going to bring customized education to each of our students. We need to rethink the notion that assessment is an end product. Dede showed us that while the students immerse themselves in the pond in EcoMUVE (literally and figuratively), they may disengage on occasion. The game, much like other games on the market today, contains an Easter Egg of sorts. On a given date, the students return to the pond and find that all of the fish have died. The task than becomes somewhat of a CSI:Pond. Since the server catches everything they do within the environment, teachers can choose a variety of ways to assess their progress in the task: notes they enter as they investigate, snapshots of plant and animal life and its possible link to the dying fish.

In light of the current discord in New Jersey regarding our governor and his stance on the public education teachers union, theNJEA, a few things from the day stood out rather clearly.  I asked Curtis Johnson what he thought of the situation in New Jersey whereby unions are being blamed for the slow pace of change in education.  His thoughts were fantastic.  What if unions, he asked, decided to come out in support of these changes and made their own models for how it could happen?  What if, instead of being blamed for the problems in education, they presented their own disruptive innovations?

Food for thought.

Next: Jukes to Stager in one afternoon.

The Thesis is Dead. Long Live the Thesis.

In education, leadership, pedagogy on October 17, 2008 at 5:48 am

I have learned a great deal from my monthly meetings with the English department: how to lead, how not to lead, how to completely miss the mark on what teachers need, and how to recover beautifully from missing said mark.  However, one of the simplest things, I have found, you can do for teachers to aid them in their professional development, is to listen carefully and then deliver on what you hear.

On Wednesday, all of the above situations played out.  We have often discussed having an expert voice come speak to us to help us drill deeper into an element of our craft.  A while back, I  came across an article by a Duke University professor, Dr. Bradley Hammer (who is how at UNC), that dealt with the shifts that were taking place in student writing in the “academy.”  The title of the article spoke volumes: “A New Type of University Writing.” Now, my English department already thinks I have a massive case of technophilia, and inviting this professor who believed that college writing, long believed to be the epitome of thesis driven argumentative writing, was now transforming into another piece of the digital landscape, was a risky move.  But, after talking to him on the phone in September, I knew he would make some waves of the good kind.  And did he ever.

The teachers were very interested in hearing about trends he saw in student writing, in essence asking for feedback on what he thought of Freshman entering the program.  Dr. Hammer didn’t disappoint in his response.  Most of his work, he stated, is deconstructing what the students come in with.  For example, he stated that 15 years ago, it was common for students to arrive at the college campus with very poor argumentative skills: weak ability to write strong theses, very little support for arguments in their writing.  Now, they all arrive knowing how to “do the essay.”  Formulaic, straightforward positions, support at all the appropriate turns, and of course, an adherence to the five-paragraph format.  His work is to get them away from “doing the essay,” to caring about the essay.

His work is about teaching students to deconstruct their own biases in their writing so that when confronted with a traditional topic (he used abortion in our our conversation as an example) the students would begin to generate questions about the factors that define the topic rather than automatically deciding which side of the argument to sit on.  For the students in his writing class, it’s not about whether or not you can convince someone of something, but rather that you get an understanding of yourself through an issue presented to you. His greatest line, by far for me, was this:

High schools train students how to argue–they need to learn how to ask questions and interrogate ideas first.

As soon as he said it, I immediately began running thumbing through my mental Rolodex to try to remember how many times I have heard that in my reading over the last two years.  It just rings.  Whether it’s been caused by federal mandates or by our poorly thought out responses to them, we’ve underestimated our students ability to be meta-cognitive about the writing process.  It’s more about the process rather than the product, when we truly break it down to it’s smaller parts.  Is it really imperative that little Suzy write her essay in five standard paragraphs with a neat little thesis hook at the end of her first paragraph?  Or would we rather see her wrestle something down to it’s bits in the pre-writing and research stages and produce something in three paragraphs?  I’ll take the scrapping any day.

What was great for me, aside from the fact that it was a meeting where I did very little direct talking, was the dialog that sprung up after our call ended.  Some of those in the room were in agreement with Hammer; we should be focusing more on the meta-cognitive processes of writing.  Others asked if the reasons Hammer and his colleagues are able to do the deconstruction with students and push them in the direction they do is because of the argumentative underpinnings that high school English teachers provided them with?  Can they get to B without having gone through A?  Others asked if there was a way we could see products of the freshman Hammer worked with; we wanted to see what inquiry-driven writing looked like in the end.

The most challenging element about working with the four departments I do is trying to find something for each of them to sink their teeth into, and this did it for the English teachers.  My own personal belief about what compositional writing should like look at any level is very simple: writing should demonstrate your ability to think, and your ability to convey those thoughts succinctly.  My answer to the departmental question about whether or not we should be doing the things that Dr. Hammer does in our classrooms is undeniably yes.  But, like anything, let’s allow the students to determine the level to which they can successfully do it.  Just because they are 16 doesn’t necessary preclude them from inquiry, and the same can be said in reverse for some students.  Push where needed, pull back when necessary.

All in all, a great meeting.

Image Credit: “Me & teh thesis” from doryexmachina’s Photostream

Embedded Reporting

In change, education, leadership, teaching on October 3, 2008 at 9:26 pm

I am banking on one very important thing this year: that the use of publicity will continue to raise the tide of change and lift more boats.

For the last two years, I have managed a district technology blog called Tech Dossier.  This year, I have reconstituted it thanks to a few posts by Miguel, but changed it slightly.  First, the name: from Tech Dossier, to The Dossier.  I truly want to move away from the inclusion of the word technology in any of the titles I use.  Through several conversations with people like Barry Bachenheimer and Patrick Chodkiewicz, I’ve come to realize that semantics matter, especially to teachers.  It’s not about how to use technology when you teach, but rather it’s about how you can teach, period. Second, to match the semantic shift in the title, the focus of the articles has now broadened to include topics that are not solely technologically based, but rather a highlight of some of the innovative practices our teachers are using.  We have teachers in all of our buildings who constantly push their thinking and their students thinking.  I’d like to get there and find them; the rest of the district, and the world at large should be seeing what they are doing.

I’ve enlisted several people to write over the two years, and this year we’ve added a second-grade teacher from one of the elementary schools to the list of authors.  We’ve got three administrators, two high school teachers, a middle school teacher, a tech coordinator, and now an elementary teacher writing and looking out in their buildings for ingenious ideas.  Also, being no stranger to shameless promotion, I send out a bi-weekly email highlighting all of the posts that have appeared.  I am trying to get a feed service to send it to our global address book, but somehow I think that may either get flagged as spam, or individual teachers would not recognize it as an important message and just delete it.

The idea of doing some reporting, let’s even call it micro-reporting due to the short nature of the posts, on what is going on instructionally within you building is a gold mine.  While our commenting has been limited so far, our stats are through the roof, so I know people are going to the page.  At this point that’s all I want: people to know that others are out there looking for them, trying to catch them being competent and taking risks.

Head on over to The Dossier, and check out what our teachers have been up to.

Image Credit: “Reporter’s Notebook, U.S. Version,” from niclas’ photostream

Is this the Academia I am Sending my Children to?

In 21st Century, education, teaching on September 20, 2008 at 7:17 am

From the my own personal Neo-Luddite collection (I found this one in the Philadelphia Inquirer):

“Now that we’re aware ChaCha exists, I can assure you that we will begin
discussion of a formal policy to prohibit cell phone use in classes,”
said Gerard O’Sullivan, vice president for academic affairs at Neumann
College in Delaware County, Pa. He said most professors already
prohibited cell phone use in class.

Let’s rule out something before it is examined.  Sounds highly anti-academic to me.

What I Liked About Back to School Night

In education, teaching on September 19, 2008 at 12:45 pm

My son is in preschool,  I’ll lead with that.

My wife and I went to his back to school night last week anxious to see his school and meet his teachers.  For us, it was like reconnaissance: my wife is also a teacher and her back to school night was coming up and we needed ideas.  Plus, our son is close-lipped about school, always answering our questions with “I don’t know.”  As we sat there, cross-legged at “circle time,” I took some mental notes, and I also started recalling the back-to-school nights I had lived through in the classroom.  What I remember, and what became apparent to us as the blood rushed from our feet under the weight of our adult bodies, was that the more time I spent on rules and regulations, the less everyone was engaged, including me.

What do we want to know when we enter our child’s classroom?  Do we need to know that the penalty for chewing gum is a wearing it on his nose?  I think we have to take a page from good presentation skills here: if they need to know my rules, I can provide them on a handout.  What we wanted to know as we entered his classroom was what he did when he wasn’t with us.

His teacher did a masterful job of this.  We sat like preschoolers and followed their mini-schedule.  She moved as if we were the kids, showing us the actions she makes as she instructs; every action is mirrored by the words used to describe it.  We got to know her and who she is.  We spent time imagining our son working and interacting with the same things we were.

We are in the midst of back to school night time for most of us here in New Jersey.  Our district is going through them this week.  When you plan for our back to school nights, I hope you all think about what you would want as a parent.  For my wife and I, we wanted to be able to see how he would interact in that environment, and we wanted to know that he was in a supportive environment.

These are the things I would want to see as a parent in my child’s classroom:

  • Be Genuine.  Be who you are with the parents of your students.  They want to know that there child is learning, is challenged, and is supported.  By showing them your true self, it helps them see those things.
  • Don’t give us your resume.  If you are standing there in front of the room, we’ll assume you are qualified.  If parents ask about your credentials, you might have bigger problems on the horizon.
  • Show samples.  Student work on the walls, of course, but also show us examples of lessons they are doing currently or will do in the future.  What I liked most about our preschool visit the other night was that I now know what is on the horizon and what I can expect him to be doing in a class period on a given day.
  • Be Gracious.  You have big class sizes.  You have 130 students over the course of the day.  They have one child in one room at one time.  Understand that they are singular in focus, as you would be too.

Anyone have any other suggestions?

Literacy Response

In 21st Century, education, pedagogy, sparta on August 20, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Before I left for vacation, I posted a link to Motoko Rich’s article from the New York Times titled Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? to the high school’s English Department Google Group. I’ll do this occasionally with interesting articles that I’d like to share with my colleagues in the various departments I work with. This one really struck a chord with the teachers, and several of them responded passionately. Here is my response to some of their comments.

What a great dialogue. I was away for a while and came back to read
all of your responses. Many of the thoughts you all expressed echoed
my own, and I pulled some of the quotes that resonated with me from
your responses to comment on.

Brooke wrote:

“It takes time to immerse oneself in a novel and once done
effectively, the reader isn’t even reading anymore. They are seeing
and interacting with the novel on a completely different level of
consciousness. That, one of the most compelling reasons readers read,
is lost on the Internet reader who doesn’t have the opportunity to go
through whatever cognitive process allows it to happen. The novel has
the opportunity to move students through vicarious experience and
changes who they actually are the way experience does.”

Brooke’sdescription shows the nearly spiritual side of reading that we hope our
students can learn to go through. We introduce them to great works of
literature, often types they would never encounter through their own
volition, and then teach, discuss, analyze, oppose, share, empathize
and hope that they emerge on the other side of that novel changed in
some way. The very nature of reading on the internet, as it appears to
me (as someone who does the majority of their reading on the internet)
is cursory. I read much more than ever before, but my choice of to
read longer articles or books is more rare than in the past. Reading
newspapers from around the world, reading magazine articles from
hundreds of magazines a day, or reading blogs written by people in the
education and design field, can be done with much more ease than if I
had to go out to a newsstand and buy them, not to mention the cost
associated with all of my daily reading is zero.

I don’t think our students read online for the reasons they would read a
good book; as Brooke stated in her post, it’s a different animal.
Carol’s respons to Brooke took my thinking in another direction
entirely, however.

“grazing on the Internet is a very different set of skills that our students are now automatically
acquiring on their own. Although we do need to help them hone those
skills, it still remains our primary job as English teachers to expose
them to the rigors, the complexity, the challenge, and, yes, the
beauty of literature–to the “best that has been thought or said in
the world” (to quote Matthew Arnold)– where they will develop and
exercise their powers of analysis, critical thinking, and empathy.”

The ideas she brings out here, those of analysis, critical thinking and
empathy are crucial to the success of our students in their college
years and beyond. One of the books on my summer reading list was “A
Whole New Mind,” by Daniel Pink
, which I recommend to all of you (I
have a copy if you would like to borrow it). The premise of the book
is that the abilities that dominated the Information Age, which were
primarily those of left-brained thinkers, will not be enough for our
children. They need to become able to recognize patterns, find deeper
meaning, see complexity and manage it, have a sense of design and
flow–all skills that we strive to foster in the study of literature.
With those skills, we often find it necessary to push students “To rise to the challenge, to work for something, to feel achievement in
the accomplishment, and to work that brain to figure it out,” as
Carol said. To which I say there may not be a more important set of
things we show our students than these three. And I love how she ended
the paragraph:

“If we aren’t going to guide them through this in the English class room, where will
they encounter it? Internet Age or not, these are not skills that we
can allow to leach out of our common psyche!”

We are not “teachers of technology,” but rather can use tools that
transform the ways in which we allow our students to meet challenges,
think critically, empathize, and connect with ideas larger than
themselves. Our desire to lead them through the processes of critical
thinking and analysis of literature need to be connected to something
within themselves. What is their connection to it? What motivates
them to access these skills?

Andrew expressed a sentiment in his reply about students and the technologies they use:

“Technology, with all its pros and cons, has emerged alright, so why do we have to go out of our way to expose our students to it. They get it just fine, especially for
them.”

This raises the question of literacy in general, the definition of which has
expanded greatly over the last twenty years. Our students, and
ourselves, for that matter, are inundated with information whenever
they open their computers. The ability to sift credible information
from sources they read, view, or listen to is essential. While they
may “get” technology in the sense that they understand how to entertain
themselves, they often struggle with its ability to make their academic
life richer and more simplified. That is where we come in. Just as we
helped them navigate the world of the Dewey Decimal System,
peer-reviewed journals, and the like, we must now do the same for the
systems that are making information accessible from everywhere they
are. We need to teach them how to ask the right questions, find
things, evaluate them, and synthesize them into a credible whole. That
part hasn’t changed. The tools that get the job done most efficiently
have.

Image Credit: “”we love to read” mosaic @ HMCRA” via ehoyer’s photostream

The Pre-Beta Release

In curriculum, education, school 2.0 on August 7, 2008 at 8:27 am

Before I begin this brief description of the fledgling process I have cobbled together from various sources and methods, I wanted to send out a few thank yous to all of those that have contributed to my resource collection: Carolyn Foote, Tom Haskins, Barry Bachenheimer, Lisa Huff, Dana Huff, Nick Senger and the rest of the folks at Literacy Lighthouse, Diane Cordell, and Karen Janowski. Aside from feeling like I just won an Oscar after listing all of those names, I can’t think of a better research team than the network that exists around me. When I need things, they appear from everywhere.

The idea that our research process needed looking at came about during the middle of this past school year when the construction schedule for our new high school was released and it became clear to us that the Media Center as we knew it (read: one that contained books) would cease to exist. Our research process relied heavily on the use of database and print resources, as well as some internet sources depending on their validity. However, our ability to bring a class of students to the Media Center would not be there this year, so a lot of the processes we had used over the years would no longer be applicable. This led me to dig a little deeper: what was it that we wanted to teach the students about research? What are the essential skills that students should leave our high school with? Do processes like note cards have a place in an increasingly digital world? What about how we determine validity? Looking at these questions tore the roof off of the process, because now I was getting what really mattered about doing research. Tying this into what we’ve been throwing around with the 4 R’s of Rigor, Relevance, Relationship, and Results, I put some questions out to the network: And, in a moment of frustration: By the end of last week I was ready to start assembling the various parts I had gleaned from my own research and the links, as evidenced in tweets like this one in response to Carolyn Foote’s suggestion to check out Carol Kuhlthau’s research on how students engage in research processes and the emotional range they go through in doing it. That led me to the work of Jamie McKenzie. His Research Cycle uses a lot of the elements I had taken and co-opted for my own purposes here. I realized that we needed a framework in which to teach the essential skills of research in this day and age, and we needed one that relied heavily on inquiry and student-driven research. Within that framework, we could create all sorts of projects and learning outcomes. Here is the diagram for the final outcome, which takes into account McKenzie’s work, coupled with some other modes to work within:

This chart shows how the process centers on six essential skills, which in their final form, will represent the essential questions of the research process for students: Use of Inquiry and Questioning (throughout the process as idea generator, and as idea refiner), Information Retrieval Skills, Evaluation of Sources for Reliability and Validity, Synthesis of Information from Multiple Sources and Multiple Media, Attribution of Sources, Publishing for a Larger Audience. Throughout the course of their four years of high school, four modes with which to instruct students in McKenzie’s Research Cycle will be offered: Controlled, Guided, Modeled, and Free.  It is very easy to lump those categories into grade levels where Freshman conduct controlled research, Sophomores do guided, etc.  However, I designed this with the idea that the mode that a student does his or her research in can be differentiated by readiness level.  If a Freshman demonstrates the requisite skill necessary to carry out higher-level research, let them do a modeled or free research project, and it works conversely so as well.

It’s early in the process, and our teachers haven’t convened to review this, and I desperately need them to see where I believe we should be moving.  In my haste to eschew the old methods, I asked questions of the network, as I stated earlier.  One of the most eye-opening responses I got was from Lisa Huff.  I had asked whether or not we needed to be teaching the use of note cards in student research:

make them aware that there are multiple ways to attribute sources: the most appropriate may depend on the genre and context. For example, are there times when hyperlinked sources (throughout a published piece or at the end) are more appropriate than a formal MLA or APA works cited page? As for bib cards and note cards, I think, again, our focus should be on helping our students understand the process and available strategies for identifying important information from sources and selecting an organizational strategy to synthesize that information. If we show them multiple strategies and tools–underlining, highlighting, note cards, Furl, Digg, del.icio.us, online bib makers–I think we come closer to preparing them for the real information literacy demands they’ll face in their futures.

Although the highlight is my own, when I read this, that immediately stood out to me as an important thing we do for students: prepare them for the demands their futures will present them with.  Additionally, just as we focus so intently on the tech tools that we like to use, what is truly meaningful behind them is the utility that they bring to our lives.  If a tool doesn’t suit the job, discard it.  That comment, coupled with a response from Tom Haskins on a previous post regarding research:

The issue of “how to do research” has come up every time I’ve taught college seniors. I have a low tolerance for the voice in academic research papers. They read as “dry and boring” to me, just as they do to the students who write them. I tell them that a small minority of the “knowledge workers in the world” ever use their school experience of writing research papers again. The few that do are either college professors, research scientists or members of think tanks. Most everyone else is doing write-ups of field research. That includes journalists, authors, screenwriters, management consultants, counselors, social workers, law enforcement officers, anthropologists, an every kind of manager (product, HR, team, market, team, etc). The data is gathered from informal conversations, casual observations, formal interviews, photographic records, background reading, and comparisons with colleagues’ similar research.

When we ask students to do research, are we concerned with voice?  Tom spoke of that as being of paramount importance, and lacking from the majority of research work that high school and college students do, yet such a small percentage of people actually ever do that type of research when they leave college.  There is a point there; let’s prepare them for their futures by equipping them with the research skills, including both digital and traditional (if they are still relevant), that will make their lives in college and beyond much more rewarding.

And, above all, let’s make it mean something to them.

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