Just part of the air we breathe, teacher

heart rhythmLast Saturday my wife, Danielle, and I sat with my cousin Jim in the intensive care unit as he neared the end of his life. Not only did we accept that his vital signs would be monitored by several machines in the room and displayed in vivid colors with large font displays, over the several hours of our vigil, those numbers, sounds and traces became part of our collective experience, together with our dying cousin. Through medical technology, he was including us in his transition, sharing the data that has become commonplace in today’s hospitals, something unknown to humans a couple generations ago. Before, families watching a quiet bedridden relative would look for signs of breathing, listen for hints that life remained or had passed, but it was only through the stethoscope of the doctor (who may or may not be present) that they would eventually know for certain. Today, we have real-time data. We know, and it informs our way of thinking and perceiving.

Sitting under our plastic gowns, we could see that Jim was nearing the end of his illness, and his life. The nurse stepped over to Jim’s bedside, approached the monitor, switched off the display, and returned to her electronic charting. Danielle and I turned to each other with a look of “Wha?!” I looked at Jim, and instantly felt a broken connection, the frustration of information denied rising inside me. I turned to the nurse and said as politely as I could muster, “I assume you turned off the monitor because of all the alarms that will be going off shortly?” She looked mildly surprised, and said, “Oh, you want them on? Some families do, some don’t.” She restarted the monitor, and for another half hour or so we followed our cousin to his last breath and final heartbeat. It was intimate and precious and utterly unmediated by a third-person stethoscope, all thanks to the telemetry. I would not have given that up for anything.

It is important to this post that I cop to taking all that medical technology completely for granted. It felt familiar and necessary, and it is a comfortable part of my 21st Century experience. If I had walked into his hospital and had not seen evidence of data collection and display, not only would I have been disappointed, I would have demanded my cousin be moved to a decent hospital.

This is precisely the experience of our students when we, by force of law, pull them from their data-infused world and into school that often does not meaningfully follow their common access to data. We persist in demanding they break their connections, and most teachers want to be the stethoscope in the room to tell their students whether the heart of the world is still beating, or if it has a heart at all. And like our nurse, we are surprised when students are confused that we want them to disconnect from their data stream. They know their life is richer because of it. Can’t we see that?

Yes, instructional change is tough, but it begins with an awareness that humans’ relationship to technology has changed the culture of living and learning, in school and out. When students turn to us with a look of “Wha?!” in their eyes, it is simply incomprehension as they power-down, not insolence. Find what you can do to make your teaching and their learning as vital and meaningful, as intimate and precious as they know it can be.

Interactive White Boards: Tool or Toy?

Yesterday brought a blog post by the Skunk, What makes an interactive white board interactive?, prompting my reply below.  I am a huge proponent of IWBs, though the financial and physical implementation of them is merely the beginning of what is required to make them an effective tool for 21st century instruction.

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I’ve always seen IWBs as the critical bridge between a generation of digital natives and their teachers, who remain largely comprised of digital immigrants. New teachers who are also digital natives are much more attuned to the value of interactive, project-based learning environments, though their employers rarely give them the opportunity to practice teaching that way.

Internet-connected IWBs provide the training wheels to bring teachers into a much more interactive mode of “instruction,” providing a rich digital resource that can be shared as a class. The key to knowing whether IWBs are being used effectively is imbedded in the term “shared.” If a teacher manages the technology such that students are regularly creating meaning using the IWB (and/or related response systems for checking for understanding), then it is being used effectively. If the IWB is a jazzed up presentation tool used exclusively by the teacher, the teacher will realize a certain bump in their students’ level of engagement in the short term, but they will not be using the full power of the tool.

Effective IWB professional development focuses on guiding teachers through these stages of understanding the meaning of “learning through interaction.” It is not about students seeing or holding technological “things,” but having human interaction in a learning environment made more dynamic and rich with the aid of digital tools. In 1:1 classroom computing environments, facilitated by a teacher who understands 21st century learning dynamics, the IWB is completely unnecessary, because the interaction and consequent learning is happening between students with access to 21st century tools.

Dissection and Schooling – through the looking glass

[This article was previously published in virtually the form you find here, and is reprinted on this blog with permission. I specifically address the use of animals in science education, an issue now forever married to current capabilities in computer-based simulations which have supplemented or entirely replaced animal dissection in many K-16 institutions, as well as postgraduate veterinary education.  Find additional resources on the UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine Center for Animal Alternatives website, and in the excellent book, Why Dissection, by Lynette Hart, Ph.D. ]

tree frog on branchYou, an enthusiastic medical student in London in 1815, late at night to attend your class in anatomy, your professor turns to request you meet a cart just now arriving at the school’s stable door.  You open the heavy, wooden double door and your nose is met by the combined smells of lathered horse, fresh earth, and perhaps just the hint of decay.  You witness two of your classmates lugging a heavy, six-foot-long, limp object wrapped in canvas from the cart bed and into the shadows of the school surgical theatre.  Their black overcoats, boots and gloved hands are covered in fresh, moist earth, faces radiant, voices animated.  Your learning will proceed, thanks to the activities of these body snatchers, or “resurrection men” as they were fondly known; illegal, but acknowledged as a necessary evil in the burgeoning medical school business of 19th century London.

Your 21st century sensibilities may not help you share the sense of wonder and excitement of those medical students, though they were part of our own modern age of enlightened science, and the for-bearers of life science educators everywhere.  While the events and forces bringing change in our current sense of ethical conduct are beyond the scope of this article, it is useful to reflect on the journey, that our current ethical construct is but one point on a continuum of change.  We have some sense of where we have been, but where are we going as a culture, and what is our place as educators?  Do we respond begrudgingly to change, or should we be leading it like that professor in the medical school?  Where and what is our place on the cutting edge, so to speak?

Like all children in all times, our 21st students have been lapping up the culture provided by their parents’ generation, including those aspects of culture we think of as “education reform” and technological progress.  The past thirty years have produced massive changes in both realms, and to expect students to arrive in our secondary science classrooms in a state related to our own experience as students would be the social equivalent of us being handed the fruits of a body snatcher.

Most science education professionals have arrived at a personal code of conduct related to the sacrifice of living animals for education purposes, or at least have questions or concerns about it.  If you are younger than age thirty-five or so, it’s also quite possible you are, in fact, a product of social trends and curricular reforms that brought life science values to you as a child.  Whether by living through the experiences of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy on Sesame Street or by being a first-hand witness to the life cycle of a silk moth in kindergarten, understanding oneself as but one part of a complex web of life on our rather smallish planet is no longer unusual among young people.

Today’s children have had no less a life-centric experience.  A majority of your students have not only had these life-affirming experiences, they have also ingested an unprecedented level of desensitizing violence through gaming and other entertainment media.  Students coming into classrooms today are less homogeneous than ever in human history, and with the breakneck pace of media and life experience diversification, this trend will not reverse any time in the foreseeable future.  There is no single, unifying experience of childhood any longer, making the entire notion of teaching a “class” increasingly anachronistic.  Here are some safe generalizations, though:

  • Many students are entering secondary life science classes with a highly developed sense of responsibility to their world and its inhabitants, thanks to early science education and a society-wide call for greater ecological accountability for all.  Consequently, many do not accept dissection as morally acceptable.
  • There will be great diversity among any group of students regarding any expectation to dissect or not dissect, and students are can be very sophisticated regarding their rights in the classroom, but they are also keenly aware of tradition.
  • Students bring a significant degree of confusion into your classroom around nature, violence, and personal identity.

In very dramatic contrast to this wide diversity of individual experience and expectations, though, are the young digital nativists’ connections to their peers through social media and an abiding reliance on their personal network.  My twenty-year-old son has honored me with Friend status on Facebook, giving me permission to “stalk” him and his friends as they move together into life (and no, I do not participate there).  I have observed his personal network growing in numbers and complexity, moving from high school into college.  When I went to college, my high school friends were mostly displaced by my college friends, and each major life transition thereafter resulted in a new set of nearly-exclusive contacts.  Modern social networking means that my son’s support system, with roots in preadolescence, persists in an evolving form with physical distance and changing venues presenting no threat, a form of interpersonal stability unknown to my generation.

I admit to being envious of this continuity of relationships my son and his peers are able to enjoy, but it forces me to consider the implications for teaching in our standards-based, resource-constrained world.  The model of successfully teaching a “class,” an entity that consistently responds in a predictably homogeneous fashion, may be a place that only exists in the mind of a teacher who came of age there.  Is it any wonder teachers, particularly urban ones, increasingly find themselves the lone invader in a foreign land?  You can’t speak their language and you can’t find their leader.  With national dropout rates persisting at nearly 20% for some ethnic subgroups and continuing calls for better higher education and workforce preparation, it may be time to retool our practice and relationship to the “classroom.”

During a recent professional development session in which life science teachers were being asked to consider alternatives to traditional dissection practices, one teacher became rather animated and insisted that “My students must understand what is real in their world!”  This teacher, no doubt, was trying to make the case for his dissection habit, that a hands-on-animal-tissues practice is the only viable experience for authentic life science learning.  The teacher was also inadvertently making the case for requiring his students to relive his own personal learning path, drawing on sensibilities and values formed three to four decades earlier.  There was nothing wrong with that teacher’s learning path, and it is one I happily shared, but each day of life can bring us new information and greater awareness, and paths diverge leading to new, unanticipated destinations.

The rich social networks inhabited by our digital natives work for one simple reason.  Because there is far less broad-based homogeneity of life experience among them, the binding force is a deeply human, heart-felt and compassionate connection to peers and friends.  The teachable moment, the access point for teaching this highly networked group is not access to their networks, so don’t even begin to think you can be part of it.  It is, however, gaining access to that aspect of your students that makes their networks tick: recognition and deep appreciation for the experience and values of each separate student.  To expect uniform responses from a collection of unique and diverse individuals is to consciously opt for failure for many of those students you serve.

So what, exactly, is this going to look like in the context of thirty or more hormonal and unique students?  There are standards to address, lessons to teach, exams to grade, and professional stakes to manage.  Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • All students value honesty in adults who hold power over them, perhaps above all other qualities we bring to the classroom.  To share with students your personal ethical constructs as you make instructional decisions about the use of animal tissues in the classroom, describing how you intend to manage your teaching task as informed by your ethics, is a powerful way to communicate to them your own struggle with a complex world.  They will get it.
  • As you do your planning for lab experiences, assume a need for a diversity of experiences.  The law in most states requires an “alternative” to dissection be offered to students who object.  Use of the word “alternative” here communicates dissection as the normative, approved experience, that non-dissection experiences are inferior.  Addressing young people who may not wish to dissect by using this unintentionally demeaning term can be stigmatizing, in the same way characterizing a student who wishes to dissect as being filled with blood-lust would be.
  • Communicate not only your acceptance of the diversity before you, but a true valuing of the many points of view, still in development, represented in your students.  There are future paramedics and orthopedists in your classroom whose hands will someday touch real flesh, as well as surgeons who will someday heal using robotic systems.  Diversity of need calls for diversity in approaches and learning experiences.  Having those diverse experiences (whether models, simulations, text, etc.) prepared in advance will give students options, ones they may even choose to explore multi-modally.

With the many resources available to us for instruction in the technological age, by caring for each student and the unique gifts they bring we will be in the best position to prepare them for a world in need of highly developed talents in professions we cannot today imagine.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

I’m freshly back from a conversation with a site principal who shared her frustration with a teacher who currently refuses to use our student information system-based marks reporting system for generating report cards.cigarette advertisement showing a doctor smoking

We are in the second year of implementing this new SIS, and for nearly all of our 450 teachers, the new system has meant an improvement in their work life.  The time required for preparing report cards has decreased, and the ability of staff to access electronic grade records in a longitudinal fashion has provided the means to much more robust tracking of individual student performance, and the opportunity for children to slip through the cracks has greatly diminished.

So what exactly is the problem here?  For that tiny minority of teachers who cannot align their practice to a changing professional environment, it seems any shift in their work landscape is a threat to their personal and professional integrity.  I would like to go out on a limb here and question this kind of “integrity,” not to mention this particular version of “professionalism.”

As an ed tech guy, I have wrapped my professional life around the idea of a changing professional landscape.  Change is good for me and what I do each day.  I have also had to balance my affection for change with advice from my internal counsel: classrooms full of children or adolescents are not places that work well with constant change.  That said, over the long haul the kids in those classrooms have exhibited dramatic change, so we have a professional responsibility to adapt to the clients we serve.

While meeting with this principal, it occurred to me that sixty years ago, doctors were recommending their patients smoke cigarettes, the commercial below from 1949 made even as the latest research from the previous ten years indicated smoking is a health disaster.

Are we at a point in the teaching profession of just such a collision between the reality our students are living and a minority teacher culture demanding we cling to a destructive perception of the classroom?

Pedagogy… am I boring you?

bored baby

One of the Necessary Thinkers I attend to, Steve Taffee of the Blogg-Ed Indetermination blog , published a provocative post today entitled “School Bored: Is Boredom Bad?”  It’s a thoughtful piece that teased up the response growing in me since I entered the education field, and I copy my response to his post below.


In my experience, any educator’s demand that students accept boredom as part of their educational experience is a kind of self-absolution for mediocre pedagogy.

Sure, academically we can ask students to reflect on their own perceptions and attitudes toward learning (the sex ed scene from Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life” comes to mind), but whenever I hear the expectation of boredom-acceptance uttered in the classroom, it sets off alarms for me.

Students can memorize in an non-stimulating classroom context, but I think you’d get some hefty argument regarding whether this represents learning.

As our students increasingly come to us digitally fluent and highly networked, we need to stretch ourselves into different pedagogical shapes to accommodate this complex of perceptual/processing skills that are admittedly quite foreign to us.

In the early 80’s medical science was confronted by a new epidemic we now call AIDS, and the field had to scramble with everything they knew to wrap their minds around a very new challenge, and they remain in a process of discovery today.  Educators are faced with a very similar challenge: never before have children changed so much from their parents’ generation in so little time, and we need to pay attention to our own biases and expectations bound by our own experience as students. We are babies in this, and we’d better pay attention.

Citizen Science Projects for the New Year

science friday logoNo sooner did I post on Thursday about everyday folks (particularly the teachers among us and the instructional import) did Ira Flatow do a story on that very topic the next day.  My wife tells me it was a killer show, featuring roadkill…  http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201101072

However, click on Ira’s picture here for more resources, including The Milky Way Project, FoldIt (proteins), and several others.  Plus, the link to Friday’s show Podcast is there.  Awesome stuff.

A tip of the hat to you Ira, but remember who beat you to the scoop!

Random & Significant Collaborations

On my way to work yesterday I passed no fewer than 2 dead barn owls, a barn owl roadkillmangled coyote and a very dead skunk, all in the space of less than a quarter mile, all the victim of the technological age we cohabit.

This finds space here because of what I’ve found to do with this experience.  Still the science educator, still the biologist, I’ve joined the California Roadkill Observation System as an observer of roadkill.  Using a combination of technology tools, including iPhone with voice memos and GPS, those four animals became more than the latest carnage.  They joined the thousands of animals per year logged by 500-some observers throughout the state, part of a study conducted by a team of ecologists at UC Davis to paint an accurate picture of our roadway relationship to wildlife in our state.

This isn’t a recruitment effort, but simply an observation of how networked individuals interested in making a difference can utilize our tools for making meaning.  The educational opportunities here abound, as the observational data is fully available in list and graphic formats to anyone visiting their website.  But primarily it is an effective and very satisfying  collaboration of like-minded people.

search for extraterrestrial intelligence logoOther examples of Random and Significant Collaborations include the SETI@Home project where you can be part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence from the comfort of your computer.  seismology mapNASA’s Climate@Home project utilizes the same “virtual supercomputer” infrastructure to study climate change.  The Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, or IRIS, brings networked school seismographs online through their very rich hardware, software and training offerings.

To bring to students the power of collaboration by participating in an effort that directly brings meaning to your life is powerful modeling.  It is also very satisfying to be doing something about issues that are simply too big for a single person to tackle.