Saturday, August 11, 2007

Appropriate Tools

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." ~ Albert Einstein

I'm preparing for a series of workshops at a Maine school next week. On Monday I'm scheduled to teach Dreamweaver. On Tuesday we'll be doing iPhoto, and on Wednesday and Thursday I'll be working with teachers on collaborative projects for their classrooms. I'm looking forward to Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday - but, by no means, Monday.

Let me first of all admit that I very reluctantly agreed to do the Dreamweaver session. Reluctant for a couple of reasons: First of all because I'll admit I'm not as fluent in it as I should be, not using it regularly; and second, because I think it is the wrong tool for the job. While Dreamweaver is a powerful and polished professional web editor, it is too complex for beginners and, in most cases, completely unnecssary for creating functional classroom web sites. It is like learning to fly using a 747 rather than a small airplane. There are just too many buttons/options to confuse the beginner.

I guess I'm of the school that would start neophytes with a hand saw before they moved up to a power saw. I would have them hand mixing the batter before I introduced the power mixer.

I've just completed my 2-year training with the wonderful eMINTS people at the University of Missouri. I've been very impressed with their organization, their resources, and their conceptual framework. Terrific educators . . .they have it together! But . . . Dreamweaver was their required editor, and it was one of the few things with which I disagreed.

A better web editor for the job would be one similar to Nvu, a free download that covers the basics in an understandable way while still allowing for very effective websites. Who could ask for anything more? :) My view is that there is a need to match the appropriate tool to the context in which we are working, so I'm struggling on how to meet my commitment and, at the same time, do what I know is right in terms of keeping the focus on the learning rather than the specific tool.

I would like to start with Nvu in order for beginners to have a better understanding of the pure basics, but on the other hand, presenting two menu schemes in such a short period of time could simply add to the confusion. So what I'll probably do is simply work with a pure white canvas using Dreamweaver, and eliminate as many extra windows as possible. I'll show the templates later. Anyhow . . . a good part of the session will be on planning pages, evaluating pages others have done, and discussing reasons for having a web page in the first place. In other words, what can a web page bring to the classroom?

Let me admit that I also have concerns about tools that are being promoted in other areas, such as online classroom environments. Is the tool easy to use? Will its design enourage implementation? What is it really needed for? Will it be used?

"The Simplicity Paradox refers to the fact that one always want a powerfully functional object which by nature of its very potential belies a complexity of operation. To make something simpler, often means to make something less powerful. How do you make something powerful, but simple to operate at the same time? This is the challenge."
~ The MIT Simplicity Consortium Challenge

The Beauty of Simplicity
The Laws of Simplicity
Simplicity Consortium
Simplicity Blog
The MIT Press: The Laws of Simplicity

That brings me to the essential question:

How do we decide what the best tool for the job is?

Friday, August 10, 2007


"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." ~Lord Acton

Maine Learning Results Guiding Principle:
A responsible and involved citizen who:

• Participates positively in the community and designs creative solutions to meet human needs and wants;
• Accepts responsibility for personal decisions and actions;
• Demonstrates ethical behavior and the moral courage to sustain it;
• Understands and respects diversity;
• Displays global awareness and economic and civic literacy; and
• Demonstrates awareness of personal and community health and wellness;

Citizenship Resources
Micro-society Resources
Rights & Responsibilities Resources
Diversity Resources

OLPC machine

Matthew Hockenberry of demonstrates the one laptop per child's fourth production prototype of the 'hundred-dollar laptop' at siggraph 2007 - video by Leonardo Bonanni of

Math Wars

Check out the varying perspectives of videos on math education on the sidebar. What are your thoughts?

NCTM Standards
The Objectivist Point of View
MISTM Math Portal
Math Resources
Online Interactive Resources
Math Games
Problem Solving Resources in Math

Thursday, August 9, 2007


What do you think? Should all students take Algebra in high school?

Algebra Resources


“It may take forever to win men's minds by persuasion, but that's quicker than you can do it by force”

How do we sell our ideas? How do others sell their ideas to us? How do we remain respectful of others who have different ideas and perspectives than our own? To me, this is a much more important topic than many of the other subjects that are expected to be taught in our schools.

For several years I moderated a conference on a FirstClass BBS in a Maine school district. The conference was called Speak-Out. Topics were offered by mostly high school students but also by a few interested teachers, and then replies were made. In the heat of the argument, how easy it was for students to regress to subtle and not so subtle namecalling,put-downs, baiting and innuendo. Now I ran quite a tight ship for the space for blatant trangressions of the AUP, but sometimes it was obvious that students just didn't know any other way of expressing themselves. And who could blame them as there is a constant flow of rudeness everywhere around them . . . from radio talk shows to T.V. sitcoms and reality shows to discussion list on the Internet . . . to our national leaders.

I found that as long as I was present (meaning checking in regularly), discourse was civil. (Perhaps because I had the power to discontinue their accounts :) but I really think there was more to it than that.) If, however, the conference was left unattended by adult supervision for a long period of time, discussion would tend to head for the lowest common denominator.

Last year, although I was no longer the moderator of the conference, I reluctantly stepped in with this:

"I certainly agree that namecalling and personal attacks have no place in this conference . . . and certainly violate the user agreement that all have signed who are on the BBS. Sure it is okay to have positive or negative opinions on an issue, BUT that does not include character assassination of people who disagree with us. Loss of BBS privileges for infractions seems very appropriate to me.

In reading the posts in speak-out, I sense that for some it seems to be simply a game to annoy others in an attempt to feel more self-important. This is commonly referred to as baiting. There is an arrogance here that ultimately is self-defeating and hurtful not only to others but to the initiator as well. We use this tactic when feeling inadequate in making legitimate persuasive comments. In other words, when we don't have anything to back up our view or have anything else to say, we lower ourselves by attacking the person with whom we disagree. Not good . . . but all too prevalent in our culture at large as well. We need to be both intelligent in what we say and caring for those we are saying it to . . . even those with whom we disagree. As my grandmothers use to say, "If you can't say something good about somebody, say nothing at all."

For other people, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what civil discourse includes and what bogus argument is. Using "I" statements are much better than "They" and "You" statements. "I believe" or " I think" work much better than "You are . . . they are" constructs. Below find some resources that will help you understand this a bit better. Writing like this takes a bit of practice and experience to understand the spirit of it. Give it a try.

There are times when all of us will cross over the line in life. I know I have . . . and still do on occasion. We all make mistakes, but we have an obligation to ourselves and others to point ourselves in the right direction and do our best in making rational discourse an important means of making a better world.

So . . . what is the next issue to discuss?"

Someone somewhere is going to have to start modeling civility and perhaps focus more on empowering our young ones with the art of respectful dialogue.

Who is it going to be? What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Some pertinent links:

Logical Fallacy Resources

Propaganda & Advertising
Persuasive Writing Resources
Citizenship Resources

Idea Generators

Don't know where to start? Looking for ideas?

Idea Generators
Writing Prompts

Any others to add to the list?

Constancy and Change

I think educational leaders should approach rapid change from the inner strength that comes from their "universal bones." For instance, those who think change should drive a new understanding of ethics or democracy should instead, let their understanding of ethics and democracy drive their approach to new technologies. I can think of no better example than the confrontation between Elliot Schrage, of Google, and a group of congressmen over his defense of Google's practice of helping China to oppress its people.
Schrage is a "Corporate ethicist," a lawyer and consultant with a huge resume (and real achievements) on issues where human rights and global commerce meet. With a very agile mind, he attempts to defend Google's actions as working toward the greater good in a complex world. The congressmen had a simpler understanding, and typically expressed outrage at what Google was doing. They were informed not by the "new technological landscape," but by their own sense of democracy and right and wrong. I am saying they were right, and Schrage, in this case, was wrong. No matter what the "greater good," it was wrong to participate in oppressing China's people. Period. I think as teachers we are stronger when we rely on an armature of truths about democracy, morality, human rights, etc., and I am not comfortable with the relativism so many seem to be expressing. Rapid technological change is here, yes. It needs educational leaders with backbone and purpose!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Narrowing the Search

A couple of interesting sites that help find topic-specific resources on the web easily:

K12 Station is free (has ads).

netTrekker is commercial search engine which has a free trial for Maine this month. Check it out to see what you think. This is a good opportunity to zero in on specific resources that you might use in your lessons and bookmark for the future.

Check with your school ACTEM List reader for the ID & Password.

Hopes & Dreams

"When your heart is in your dreams, no request is too extreme."
~Jiminy Cricket

Little did I know that when I lifted my youngest daughter, Melissa, on a pony when she was age 4 that I had unleashed a life-long passion with horses. Lissa never looked back! Though many obstacles got in her way, including her father's sometimes luke-warm attitude, she persevered. She dutifully and successfully did her stint in the local school system and was involved in high school basketball and field hockey, but in the end, these were just distractions from her real love. She went on to UMass to get her B.S. in equine sciences, though her father rather dismissively called it horse-ology. She presently works for a large stable that raises Dutch Warmbloods just outside Amish country in Pennsylvania . . . and Lissa absolutely loves her work!

My daughter, though I'm sure she doesn't realize it (Do you think I should tell her?), has taught me a great deal about the power of having hopes and dreams. Sadly, I never knew where I was going, just sort of floating wherever the wind took me. Because she had a dream . . . a vision, if you will, she was able to doggedly persevere, to be persistent in her efforts. Her dad is proud.

All of which is an attempt to lead into a topic that I think is too often overlooked in our schools: The issues of student outlook/attitude/point-of-view, social class, and behavior management. It seems to me that there is an incredible effort to adjust the curriculum, reorganize schedules, and to measure what has been learned, which at times seems like just reshuffling the chairs on the Titanic.

Perhaps more effort could be put into looking into our culture, and the effect that income disparity has on learning in schools.


• What can our schools do to put hope for a better future in student lives?
• How are dreams that motivate created?
• What are the most productive methods of dealing with behavior that gets in the way of student learning and that just might open up some limited horizons?

To such end, I highly recommend Mike Muir's presentation on poverty and discipline. . Mike has a wealth of information at the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning.

Also recommended: The 8 Conditions that Make a Difference
Other related resources:

Behavior Management Resources
Process Skills Resources

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


Change. Is there anyone who will deny that it is becoming exponential? I've lifted this topic from Jim Moulton's Edutopia Spiral Notebook Post with a new twist because I find it so intriguing. Vernor Venge has spoken of the Singularity, a time in the not too distance future when all bets are off, where there is a take-off point that changes everything. Ray Kurzweil has a site where he gathers information on the implications of the change that is taking place.

Some questions:

How well do you / we adapt to change?
Are we thinking about the implications?
Do we even have any control of how it plays out?
What would your preferred future be?
Who will the winners and losers be?
What is important?

A number of years ago I did a simple graveside service for an older fellow named Steve (not related, age 87) who I was looking after. In writing the eulogy, it occurred to me just how much change he had been through in his lifetime. He grew up in a small farming valley north of Rumford. Reading through his grandfather's diaries, it struck me how much of his early life had been similar to generations before him. Travel even short distances was quite infrequent and there was a close connection to agriculture. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, no phone. And yet as he reached and went through adulthood he saw industrialization in the form of the huge paper mill built at Rumford, experienced the coming of what we consider essentials today. He experienced the transformation of the landscape and culture by automobiles, radio, television, and on and on.

My question then was this: How did he maintain his sanity with such rapid change? Salvador Dali's art suddenly had some meaning to me.

But, in hindsight, that change in his life was relatively small compared to what futurist say is coming. Are we ready for it?

Online Classroom Environments

"Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Economy, 1854

Online places to collaborate and set up virtual learning spaces are proliferating. Here in Maine we have the Maine Virtual Learning Project (Moodle), Studywiz, and a neat kind of hybrid called Noteshare. There are also a variety of spaces on the Web that provide varying degrees of digital interaction. Add to that a number of blog and wiki sites, and it's an interesting dilemma on the best choice to fit a particular teacher's needs.

Beside ease-of-use and a respect for a teacher's limited time and varying needs, questions of accessibility and security abound. How open can we keep our spaces and still provide appropriate decorum and insure student safety?

Thoughts? Recommendations? Wisdom?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Constructivism vs. Instructivism

"The two principles, freedom and discipline, are not antagonists, but should be so adjusted in the child’s life that they correspond to a natural sway, to and fro, of the developing personality."

~Alfred North Whitehead

Our whole American culture seems to be in two separate camps over so many issues, amplified by the instantaneous national news media. In the education field, there is the instructivist/constructivist divide, each side totally sure that they possess the final truth. Statistics are skewed to whatever a particular group wants to represent. Examples are cherry-picked in order to prove a point. Rather than discuss and collaborate, there is finger-pointing and one-sided presentations.

Statement: Sanctimonious, self-righteous behavior is part of the problem. There is a need for real and well-thought-out conversations with those with whom we disagree.

We have to be careful with sound bites. Let's take one that's close to home and has had a long run: "It's all about the learning." I sense that the slogan has been very valuable in pointing out the emphasis on engaging student learning, but the problem - as I see it - is that the slogan has not been examined completely. I suspect there just might be some confusion. What does it actually mean? Slogans will only take us so far. It is time for clarity.

Of course, we all know that technology is not just hardware and software. It is also human ideas and inventions of all sorts. It is a structure or form which allows us to create and construct. Sometimes there is confusion in distinguishing the difference between didactic teaching and directed teaching. Teaching applications is seen by some as didactic teaching in a traditional "sage-on-the-stage" manner. A very narrow view, in my humble opinion.

To me, the idea that it is an either/or decision is incorrect. It is a completely false dichotomy. Instructivism and constructivism need each other. The issue is whether a tool is taught with application to real problems . . . or not. Basic skills need to be learned somehow, whether that be "just-in-case" or "just-in-time". My personal preference is "just-in-time" but I don't question that the skills are necessary.

If I have a music teacher who teaches me only notes and scales on my clarinet and never allows me the opportunity to create and perform, then that is not a good use of "technology." But if am able to make use of the skills, drills, and wisdom that the teacher gave me. . . to strut my stuff, then we have success.

On the other hand, suppose the football coach doesn't teach me the tools and disciplines necessary to play good football. Do you suppose we will have a chance of winning the game?

If we have a computer lab where the teacher only teaches computer parts and programs, etc., with no connection to solving real problems, then we have a problem. If, however, the teacher teaches the tools and at the same time engages the kids with possibilities and has them create products that relate to their lives, then we have good stuff happening.

Teaching tools opens up opportunities to create. Instructivism and constructivism can co-exist . . . in fact must both be part of a good pedagogy. Creation without form leads to chaos. Form without freedom leads to boredom and apathy.

Final assertion: Good teachers use some combination of both. Better that we disagree on the best combination and the relative placement in the lesson plan and/or curriculum than the actual need for both.

Here are some links:

Constructivism Resources

Instructivism Resources

Constructivism, Instructivism, and Related Sites

Grappling's Technology & Learning Spectrum

Agree? Disagree? Your thoughts? :)

Essential Questions & Other Questions

"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes."
~Albert Einstein

Good essential questions can help to engage students and guide instruction, but exactly what makes a question an "essential" question?

One definition:

• a question which requires the student to develop a plan or course of action.
• a question that requires the student to make a decision.

See the following links for further information:

Essential Questions Resources

Questioning Resources

Enduring Understandings Resources

What are some of your essential questions?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Working Together

Maine teachers certainly know that for the past few years NCLB has brought us an emphasis on assessment. This has meant an inordinate amount of teacher time focused on testing and creating ways of testing students. While accountability and testing have their place, in most cases there has been very little time and energy left to spend on looking for ways of actually improving instruction.

Some of the questions are: How do we better engage students in the excitement of learning? What models of instruction are out there that might make a difference. What do other educators in the State have to offer us? How might technology help us with teaching the skills that are necessary in the 21st Century?

Finding answers to these questions and others requires time to explore as teaching communities. The buzzwords that are being used are PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) and Capacity Building.

For additional information in understanding these ideas, find the following links in the resource list:

Professional Learning Communities

Capacity Building and Michael Fullan

What do you think?