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Making the Switch: Moving from Traditional to Electronic Textbooks Part 5: Getting On the Same Page

This is the fifth part of a multipart series on how the El Paso ISD in El Paso, Texas began the move from traditional paper textbooks to digital open textbooks.

After figuring out the adoption cycle, finding OER and CC resources, teaming up with CK12 Foundation and getting a team in place (See links at bottom of page), the next step in was to get everyone on the same page.

Collaboration was the key to success

Once the team was selected, it became obvious that we were not going to be all meeting at the same time in the same location. Part of our team was teaching summer school, part of the team was away on summer vacation, part of the team was ready to roll, and of course the CK12 team was back in Palo Alto. We would have to figure out a way to work collaboratively not only locally but with the CK12 personnel that were helping us.

We had several factors that were going against us, the major one being time. We were tasked with creating the books but we had a deadline of Oct. 1. It was June 21 before we got everyone in place, trained and running.

We didn’t want to have to train everyone on a collaborative solution that would require extra equipment or extra training time, so we as a group decided to use a Google spreadsheet as the place where we would work online.

I know a spreadsheet may sound unusual as a collaborative space for this type of work, but it worked out surprisingly well. We shared the spreadsheet with anyone on the team that had ANYTHING to do with the process, including the trainers. All were able to edit the sheet.

All the curators had to agree to some basic rules:

1. They would actually USE the spreadsheet as their collaborative document

2. The local writers would have to agree to keep a daily diary on the document of what they accomplished that day

3. Any questions both content related and technical had to be written on the spreadsheet

In order for the collaborative document to work, it could not be a one way conversation. The CK12 team had to be a daily contributor as well. The Ck12 team agreed to:

1. Actually use the spreadsheet as their collaborative document

2. Check the document on a daily basis

3. Leave any answers that they had on the document

The larger spreadsheet had many subsist that went with them:

Sheet 1. General Information:

Contact info, who was writing what, emails, phone numbers. This was for everyone.

Sheet 2-5: These were the daily question sheets:

All questions for the CK12 team, the managers, and the trainers were left here. All answers were given in red so the writers/curators would not have to dig through all the spreadsheet to find the answers. Anyone who left a question or answered had to leave their initials next to the entry so we would know who wrote it.

Sheet 6: Professional Development:

This was a running list of all the topics that anyone thought a new teacher to the electronic textbook would need.

Sheet 7: Daily Agenda:

Each team wrote their daily accomplishment on this sheet. While this may sound inconsequential, it became a running diary of accomplishments. That was good for looking back and seeing how far the team had come in such a short period of time.

Sheet 8: Daily Editor Diary:

When we brought in editors (upcoming entry) they would leave a list of changes that they had made, so the curators could go back and see where changes were made without freaking out about big changes. This became important because the curators could see exactly what the editors were doing so nothing was a surprise and the editors were able to get feedback.

Sheet 9: Resource Links:

Both CK12 and our own curators created a list of resources (mostly online) that would be embedded into the new books.

Sheet 10-12 Cross Check Rubrics:

All of the books and all of the chapters needed to have some non-negotiable components that were common across the books. For instance, all chapters needed to have the standards that were being addressed at the beginning of each chapter. Each chapter had to address vocabulary. This sheet forced all the editors and writers to address missing components or ones that were not formatted properly. Missing components were listed in red until corrected.

Sheet 13-15 Standards Review:

All of the standards for each content area were listed and then the curators checked off where they were addressed in each chapter. This was a great visual for making sure all of the standards were addressed. Missing standards, or ones that needed extra love because of low test scores could be addressed.

Some of you may be thinking that a wiki is a better way to go with this type of work, or even an online group, and you might be correct. However, for our purposes, and with the timelines and personnel we were working with, the collaborative Google Spreadsheet was the way to go. Training is the key to all of this, and that is the topic of the next entry.

Making the Switch: Moving from Traditional to Electronic Textbooks Part 4: Creating a Team

This is the fourth of a multipart series on how the El Paso ISD in El Paso, Texas began the move from traditional paper textbooks to digital open textbooks.

In Part 3 of this series, we looked at how the El Paso Independent School District chose the CK12 Foundation’s Flexbooks as the basis for their new electronic science textbooks. The Flexbooks provided an experience that rivaled the traditional textbooks publishers texts without the publisher’s prices.

The next step was to create a team to work on the district books. Since the books were in essence, already written, the team would be more curators than writers, gathering the already complete material and putting it into the sequence that matched the district’s scope and lesson plans. They also would align the books to the state standards.

Teacher Criteria:

The teachers that we decided to work with had to have several qualities:

They had to be open to new ideas

We were not necessarily looking for “techies.” We were looking for teachers that could look at something new and not immediately dismiss it. This is harder than it sounds: many teachers are stuck in tradition, or have the “We already tried this” mindset. And while that mindset is a defensive one and at times understandable, we needed teachers that were able to get beyond that way of thinking. We also wanted them to work with the OER list that we had originated to use that material and discussed in Part 2 of this series.

They had to be respected by their peers

We knew that the teachers that we chose would have to end up becoming cheerleaders for the project. We needed teachers that had gravitas with their colleagues. This was important because we needed to have teachers (not central office administrators who are often portrayed as the enemy) leading the charge, not the central office. Teachers that were respected by their peers were more likely to be listened to by peers.

They had to be experts in content and standards

We knew that the books we were using from CK12 were good. We had no doubt that the content was okay. We needed teachers that could look at the content and find holes (if there were any) that they could fill with other content. The teachers also had to be experts in the Texas state standards because we needed to have them align the Flexbooks. The teachers also had to be well versed in our scope and sequence so that they could look at the Flexbooks and put them in the order that we wanted.

Using those criteria of openness, respectability and content knowledge, it was time to get the rest of the team in place.

Trainers up first:

Trainers were needed to teach our curators how to navigate through the CK12 Flexbooks. We chose three technology trainers that would train the teachers, in concert with the CK12 staff, on the ins-and-outs of the CK12 system. Although CK12 Flexbooks are relatively easy to navigate, they are not intuitively obvious. Three trainers would be availalble to also troubleshoot minor technical issues should they arise as well.

CK12 Jumps In:

CK12 then provided their support by providing pretty much their entire team to help with the process. We would be able to access them, and one was assigned as the lead. That person was the one that we would filter issues through.

Final Touch:

The final piece of the creation puzzle was a set of editors that were tasked with going through the created books to make sure not only the basics of grammar and spelling were observed but also the look and feel. We wanted to make sure that the books were consistent from one to another, which if we simply kept the original CK12 Flexbooks would not have been an issue. However, because we were adding materials and aligning to our standards, we were changing the basic formats to match our needs. The editors kept the formats the same throughout.

To create a OER textbook, we needed a team. Our team included:

  • Teacher Writers/Curators
  • Trainers
  • CK12 Facilitators
  • Editors

Once the team was in place, we needed to make sure everyone was on the same page. That is the topic of the Part 5: On the Same Page.

Previous Entries in this series:

Making the Switch: Moving from Traditional to Electronic Textbooks Part 3: The CK12 Flexbooks

This is the third of a multipart series on how the El Paso ISD in El Paso, Texas began the move from traditional paper textbooks to digital open textbooks.

In Part 2 of this series, we looked at how gathering a database of OER resources is crucial to starting the conversation and the process of moving to not only e-texts, but free e-texts. You cannot know what you can create if you are not aware of the resources that are available.

I think that many people are hesitant to make a move to Open Education Resources (OER) because they think that Free = Cheap. While that CAN be the case, I also think that paid textbooks are also not always the best they can be. I remember my days teaching and running across spelling errors, incorrect information in general, wrong answers in the teacher’s editions and mislabelled pictures. Expensive does not always equate to quality either.

Looking at some of the free resources that are now available and readily accessible to anyone, I think that many of us would be hard pressed to say that some do not have the quality of traditional texts. And being online, many of these have advantages that paper texts do not have. For instance take a look at the Big History Project, an online course that presents history from the Big Bang to the present. Totally free.

Surely no one will argue that E.O. Wilson’s free iBook “Life On Earth" and the corresponding curricula that is attached to it on the iTunes Books Store is not both at a level found in traditional textbooks but probably at a level that exceeds that created by the major publishers. And it is free.

So now the conversation shifts away from DO we want to use OER materials, to the more interesting WHAT OER materials do we want to use? The embarrassment of riches could cause a district to have a paralysis of choice: Too many choices, so we choose none.

Luckily for EPISD, we had already been familiar with the work of the CK12 Foundation, started by Neeru Khosla and Murugan Pal. The purpose of the foundation was to provide high quality no cost textbooks in the STEM fields to anyone or any organization that needed them.

I had first heard about them at the 2012 TCEA Conference when I made this little video:

CK12 just happened to have the textbooks that matched the core content area that was up for adoption (See Part 1: Understanding the Cycle): High School Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. CK12 offers something called Flexbooks, which are, as the name implies, Flexible textbooks that can be modified by the end user, whether that user is a district, a teacher or even a student.

What makes the Flexbooks “flexible?” A district can become a curator of content from any of the other Flexbooks that are offered and mash up the content into their own book. For instance, if a district has a curricular sequence that does not match the sequence of the book chapters and subchapters can be rearranged to match the district’s sequence. If the district has a scope that includes content not in a particular book, sections and even entire chapters can be copied into the district’s Flexbook. Conversely, if there are topics that are not being addressed, those can be simply cut from the book.

Non-CK12 content can also be added the flex books. For instance, information about a new planet or the topical Ebola Virus can be added into the book, or a new Youtube video can be embedded. None of that could be done with a traditional textbook. And it was free. Best price ever!

After seeing and understanding the possibilities of the Flexbooks offered by CK12, EPISD then contacted the organization in order to find out if other districts had tried what we were attempting to do. Apparently, not too many districts in Texas had attempted to do what we were proposing to do: Dump the traditional publisher-created textbook model and create our own. However , the state of Utah had done exactly that a few years previously. Over a quick series of webinars, Google hangouts and phone calls, the folks at CK12 agreed to help the district create four books: High School Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Integrated Physics and Chemistry.

We had had matched the move to the adoption cycle, we had gathered a database of information and we had now chosen a way to go with the CK12 Foundation and the textbooks.

The next thing we needed to do was gather up a team that could put all of this together.

For more information about CK12, go here.

Previous Entries in this series:

Making the Switch: Moving from Traditional to Electronic Textbooks Part 2: Finding Open Education and Creative Commons Resources

This is the second of a multipart series on how the El Paso ISD in El Paso Texas began the move from traditional paper textbooks to digital open textbooks.

In Part One of this series, we looked at the need to understand the cycle of adoption as basic in any strategy to shift from traditional textbooks to digital textbooks. At least in Texas, an optimal time to make the switch to digital textbooks would be when a major core area of textbooks are being adopted, This is because the maximum amount of funding is being given by the state to purchase instructional materials and it is a natural “break” in the textbook cycle. Decide to stay with paper text now, and you are stuck for the next eight years. Paper texts in 2023? Really? That is where you want your students to be?

After the decision was made to move our science textbooks to science digital books, the hunt began for free or low cost materials that could replace the traditional texts. We knew that there was a lot of material out there, we just didn’t have a place to start looking for it.

Open Education Resources

For the last few years, I had been interested in open education resources (OER). I was first introduced to the idea of PER when I came across a young woman that was at the TCEA 2013 OER is a worldwide informal movement to put the information found traditionally in textbooks up online so anyone can access it. Over the years, I have had a love/hate relationship with the term “open.” I have issues with “open” software that appears to be nothing more than a freely copied look and feel of software that was developed by software companies. (Don’t tell me that GIMP is not a total rip off of Photoshop. It is. And would Moodle even exist if Blackboard wasn’t there first? Doubtful.)

I don’t however, have a problem with open CONTENT. As I said earlier in that post:

The difference in my mind about FOSS and open education resources is that OER is simply, for the most part, general knowledge. There is no copyright on knowledge. For instance, if I write an article about the 8 planets, unless I have some new insight or some unique perspective, the knowledge is general and in the public domain. Biology textbooks in the OER world are, for the most part, simply collections of generally known general information. The ones in CK12.org for instance are written by authors that understand they are simply restating general knowledge. A cell is a cell, whether it is in the US or in Botswana. Knowledge cannot be owned. Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, the human skeletal structure, the quadratic equation, what makes a verb a verb and a noun a noun are all common knowledge that cannot be copyrighted. Now I COULD copyright, if I chose, the delivery method of how I wished to present the Laws of Motion or the skeletal structure. If I had a way cool multimedia way of teaching the human skeleton, then I certainly COULD claim intellectual property and protect it from people or organizations that would want to put it into their products. But I cannot copyright the knowledge of the names of bones, the structure of bones, the layout of the skeleton, etc.

The district had to find some OER resources. We gathered a team of ed tech trainers and created a spreadsheet of all the OER materials we could find on the web. The spreadsheet was a good start, and it demonstrated that there was a lot of material out there to access. (You can see the spreadsheet here, and even add to it if you like.) We opened up the spreadsheet so that anyone could add to it. As of this writing, it had been edited over 200 times!

We learned about quite a few OER resources, public domain resources, and more. I even presented on the topic at a conference:

We also noticed that there was a lot of Creative Commons copyright materials in our list. (For those of you unfamiliar with Creative Commons, check out this website.)

So we had created the need for switching to digital texts. And we had created a large database of possible OER, public domain and creative commons materials that we thought could be the basis of creating our own textbooks.

Now we had to go through the material and see what was acceptable. Luckily, we had noticed that there was one set of links that kept popping up over and over: the textbooks created by the CK12 Foundation.

Up Next: Making the Switch: Moving from Traditional to Electronic Textbooks Part 3: The Ck12 Flexbooks

Making the Switch: Moving from Traditional to Electronic Textbooks Part 1: Understanding the Cycle

This is the first of a multipart series on how the El Paso ISD in El Paso Texas began the move from traditional paper textbooks to digital textbooks.

Understanding the textbook adoption cycle.

In Texas, textbooks for public schools are adopted statewide on a regular cycle. This cycle moves core area texts through schools at a suggested rate of once every eight years. If the state is adopting say, math textbooks this year, they will replace textbooks that have been in the schools for eight years.

The state adoption cycle also includes an inner cycle, where the state will make a “Proclamation” to textbook publishers (telling them what books will be adopted on what year), publishers will submit their books, the state will evaluate the books to see if they meet the standards (this is called “conforming to the standards”). Then a period of public input is allowed, and then the state tells districts which books met the standards and are able to be adopted. Districts then go through an “adoption process” where textbooks are vetted, and voted on, usually by a committee of teachers and administrators.

Districts can choose from the “conforming list” or not (non-conforming list).

A few years ago, district were locked into the walls of choosing only from the conforming list. The state would provide the district with funds and the district would have to purchase books from the state. (Remember the infamous “schoolbook repository” where Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK from? That was the old warehouse where all the state’s textbooks were held before shipping to districts across Texas at the time. How is that for trivia?) Districts were given money called a “textbook allotment” and could purchase textbooks from that allotment. New texts were sent to districts, and old texts were send back.

Then things changed.

In 2011, the state legislature, in an effort to save money, decided that the state would be getting out of the textbook warehousing business. Instead of making districts pay for pre-chosen textbooks, they allowed districts to choose any text they desired, as long as the district could show that it was meeting the state standards. The state also took the old textbook allotment funds and combined them with previously earmarked technology allotment funds to create a new “Instructional Materials Allotment” (IMA) fund, where districts could also choose to purchase technology as well as textbooks. Textbooks no longer had to be “traditional” paper texts. In fact, there was some underlying discussion that the state was actually encouraging electronic textbooks over paper ones for a variety of reasons.

Times change.

Even with the new IMA allotment of funds, districts found themselves with less money to purchase textbooks than in previous cycles. That was because the two previously individual funds of textbooks and technology actually were greater than the combined fund of IMA, and the cost of textbooks was rising not falling. Districts were left with the choice of textbooks or technology, but rarely did thy have the monies for both.

As noted on the TCEA website:

The 82nd Legislature passed SB 6 to create the Instructional Materials Allotment (IMA). This allotment is designed to provide funds for districts to purchase the instructional materials that will be used to support the teaching and learning of the curriculum established by the State Board of Education (SBOE) as outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). As the delivery of information has changed over the last 10 years outside of school, from print to digital, the IMA is designed to give districts the flexibility that is needed to allow them to deliver content digitally as they deem prudent. SB 6 combined the funds that had been set aside for technology in the Technology Allotment, with the funds that had been set aside for textbooks. This requires districts to think strategically when deciding what content they should use instructionally and how technology can support the teaching of the content. In order to make the best use of the allotment, districts will want to include a variety of stakeholders when deciding how to utilize the IMA.

One interesting aside of the SB6 was that districts were now allowed to use open education resources (OER) instead of publisher-created materials if they so desired.

With a knowledge of where the money was coming from (or not coming from) and a knowledge of the textbook adoption cycle, districts could now begin to revisit exactly where they wanted to spend their money, and if the traditional textbook model was in fact the only model to follow.

If a district was contemplating a shift to using OER or self created materials, it would have to be during a time when a major adoption was taking place, in one of the core curricular areas. The reason for that was that the core areas have greater funding associated with them for the IMA because all students are required to take core areas, such as science or math. A district would need to align their shift to OER and digital with the adoption cycle.

Enter Science.

It just so happened that 2014 was the place in the state adoption cycle where the science textbooks were being adopted. That created a natural breaking spot for districts to decide to either go with traditional textbooks, digital publisher textbooks, self created textbooks, or with OER.

In the case of the El Paso Independent School District, a new superintendent , Juan Cabrera, with new ideas was looking for ways to get technology into the hands of students and also save money in a time of lessening enrollment and budget cuts asked a interesting question to the people in charge of the textbooks for the district:

"Why aren’t we just using all the free material that is already out there?"

That question changed the way the district would look at textbooks and textbook adoptions.

Up Next: Making the Switch: Moving from Traditional to Electronic Textbooks Part 2: Open Education Resources

For a nice overview of the Instructional Materials Allotment go here : http://www.tcea.org/advocacy/resources/public-policy-issues/ima

Oct 9
What a great idea! Add a QR Code to the worksheets. And it doesn’t just have to be to help..it can be to extend the learning..put it at the end and flip the class for the next day.

What a great idea! Add a QR Code to the worksheets. And it doesn’t just have to be to help..it can be to extend the learning..put it at the end and flip the class for the next day.

Are we Teaching our Kids to Write Like This?

I was turned on to this article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine “A Game of Shark and Minnow" which describes the story of eight men in the Philippine Navy on an abandoned ship in the South China Sea who stand guard against the Chinese Navy.

While the story is interesting, what really drew my attention was the way that the story was presented. If you just casually scroll through the story, you will see that it is presented in multiple formats:

  • Text
  • Photos
  • Movies
  • Audio
  • Maps

Writing in the 21st century is far more than simply writing text. Writing in the 21st Century involves all of the above.

Check out this video for instance:

How many words would it take to describe what is presented in that short video?

The point is, I think that almost no one would argue that this is a powerful way to present information.

A powerful way to write.

Think about it: You probably, unless you were truly interested int he topic, would have skipped over a text only, on the paper page article about 8 guys on a boat in the South China Sea. But I bet that once you logged onto the article, you started scrolling through it, looking for the videos, looking for the interactivity. You spent a lot more time on the article, I bet, than you would have if it were simply text.

Writing in the 21st century should be inclusive of ALL the ways we now have to easily integrate items into writing:

  • Audio
  • Video
  • Photo
  • Hyperlinks
  • Animations
  • and of course, text.

Look at the list: What are we spending most of our time teaching kids to do? It is text.

The written word. I bet if we graphed out most of our classes, students are spending the vast, vast majority of time communicating in text in one form or another.

Text, text text.

We are supposed to address the learning needs of different students, but we address their communication needs all the same.

Are you a visual learner? Good write in text. Are you an audio learner? Good, write in text. Are you a kinesthetic learner? Good, write in text.

Get the idea?

That is where digital storytelling comes in. Digital storytelling, or digital communication in general, addresses all of those “non-text”

Luckily, there are those out there that have decided to take up the digital storytelling mantle:

Digitales Nice introductory site to digital storytelling. I would like to see more inclusive ideas here, about how DS can be used in various curricular areas.

David Jakes has a site about Digital Storytelling here. Some of the links are broken, but you can find good basic info here as well as link to some tools.

Here is a nice collection on Diigo on digital storytelling tools:

What would happen if a teacher said this:

In your report/paper/lab/thing that you must turn in to me, you must include the following:

  • Photos
  • a short video with audio
  • text
  • a hyperlink

Why should you start incorporating digital storytelling into student writing? According to this article, there are several plusses when students write in a digital storytelling mode:

  • It develops creativity and critical thinking
  • Students who are shy or afraid to talk in class get a chance to speak out their minds
  • It empowers students voice to deliver rich, deep message that is capable of conveying a powerful message.
  • It helps students explore the meaning of their own experience, give value to it, and communicate that experience with others.
  • It promotes the notions of life long learning and independent learning
  • It develops students communicative skills
  • It is a reflective process that helps students reflect upon their learning and find deep connections with the subject matter of a course or with an out-of-class experience.
  • It fosters students sense of individuality
  • It also gives students an opportunity to experiment with self-representation and establish their identity
  • Students creating digital stories develop proficiency with multimedia applications

What is wrong with a goal of having student write and communicate in a fashion that looks like the New York Times Magazine article?

Nothing is wrong with it. In fact, it should be the norm, not the exception.



(Washington, DC) – As 55 million U.S. children in grades K-12 head back to school, Mobile Future today debuted a new infographic—“EdTech + Mobile = Learning” —showcasing the tremendous promise wireless technologies offer both students and educators.

Tech pioneers are investing in wireless technologies that are transforming teaching and learning. With mobile devices and apps now front and center in the American consciousness, our nation’s community of learners has enthusiastically embraced mobile technologies as an on-ramp to untold educational opportunities and enhanced learning environments. To illuminate just how embedded mobile devices have become in our nation’s classrooms, here are some key points spotlighted in this latest “back-to-school” installment of Mobile Future’s infographic series:

43% of all pre-K through 12th grade students use a smartphone.

78% of Algebra 1 students using a tablet scored at least proficient vs. 59% of those using textbooks

6 out of 10 teachers say mobile devices allow them to provide more personalized help to students.

81% of teachers believe mobile devices enrich classroom education.

73% of middle school and high school teachers use cellphones for classroom activities.

Educational apps are the second largest category in Apple’s App Store and the third largest in Android’s Google Play.

E-textbooks can save schools $250-$1,000 per student each year.

“Wireless technologies are offering students, along with their parents, caregivers and the teachers who instruct them, fresh, engaging and constantly evolving ways of learning about, and examining, the world around them,” said Mobile Future Chair Jonathan Spalter. “With continued investment and innovation in wireless, mobile will continue to transform American education and help ensure all of our young people have the tools they need to succeed in today’s and tomorrow’s wireless world.”

Why Girls Tend to Get Better Grades Than Boys Do

Are schools set up to favor the way girls learn and trip up boys? I have been around long enough to remember the complete reverse argument: That schools favored boys over girls. Maybe if we wait around long enough a study will come out that says schools don’t favor anyone.

Anyway, this is a food for thought article that has some interesting information:

"As the new school year ramps up, teachers and parents need to be reminded of a well-kept secret: Across all grade levels and academic subjects, girls earn higher grades than boys. Not just in the United States, but across the globe, in countries as far afield as Norway and Hong Kong.

This finding is reflected in a recent study by psychology professors Daniel and Susan Voyer at the University of New Brunswick. The Voyers based their results on a meta-analysis of 369 studies involving the academic grades of over one million boys and girls from 30 different nations. The findings are unquestionably robust: Girls earn higher grades in every subject, including the science-related fields where boys are thought to surpass them.

Less of a secret is the gender disparity in college enrollment rates. The latest data from the Pew Research Center uses U.S. Census Bureau data to show that in 2012, 71 percent of female high school graduates went on to college, compared to 61 percent of their male counterparts. In 1994 the figures were 63 and 61 percent, respectively. In other words, college enrollment rates for young women are climbing while those of young men remain flat.”

Click on the title to go to the article.

Sep 7

Use Visuals in Teaching: The Must Use Learning Tool

Are you using visuals when you teach? Are you using them correctly? This is a nice graphic and article that explains why you need to incorporate more visuals in your teaching: From the article: HOW VISUALS HELP US LEARN

  • 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual
  • The brain can process 36,000 visual cues in an hour
  • The brain takes about 1/10th of a second to get the idea of a visual scene
  • Almost 50% of your brain is involved in visual processing
  • Black and white images garner your attention for about 2/3 of a second
  • Color images garner your attention for 2+ seconds
  • The average consumer’s attention span is only about 8 seconds
  • The brain processes visual cues 60,000 times faster than text
  • 40% of nerve fibers are linked to the retina
  • The use of visuals improves learning outcomes by about 400%
Click on the title to go to the article.

Tips for Creating Wow-Worthy Learning Spaces

If you have read this blog for any amount of time, you have realized that I am a big fan of the work of Prakash Nair and Peter C. Lippman. This article interests me because it shows how a teacher can make their classrooms more interesting work spaces for students. You don’t have to have the architects remake your building. All you have to do is remake your space.

Here is an example cited in the article, which you can get by clicking on the title above.

Boring is as Boring Does in Class Assignments

I have become interested in the idea that in order to get students engaged, we as educators need to make some kind of interest connection with them. I know, you say, that is what relevance is all about. Yeah yeah, I know. But to me, this idea goes way beyond relevance. It goes more towards how do you make a lesson RELEVANT AND INTERESTING?

To me, relevance and interest are two separate terms, and just because something is relevant, it does not mean it is of interest. And just because something is interesting, does not mean it is relevant. I can have a great interesting lesson that means nothing either to the standards that I need to teach, or to the kids I am teaching. On the other hand, I can have a lesson that kills it when it comes to relevance in my student’s lives but be boring as hell.

This goes back to that idea that there needs to be some kind of emotional attachment to learning, as I wrote about in “Remembering the Kiss.” We don’t have to be recreating the late Robin William’s manic routines in front of them in order to be engaging or to create that connection. I remember in the movie “Teachers” where Richard Mulligan plays a man that has escaped the asylum and was mistaken for a substitute teacher: He actually ended up being more interesting to the students than the regular teacher, reenacting historical theater of the absurd in the classroom:

Boring it certainly was not, but whether the students were actually learning, well, that is left up to the viewer.

We are now blessed with an overabundance of ways of teaching. Indeed, in my 27 or so years as an educator, I cannot recall a time when there ever was such an infusion of knowledge, techniques, sharing, and general just education-related material available as there is today. Online, in class, at home, at the coffee house, listening while riding the bus or driving a car, there is now so many opportunities to learn that really someone must purposely avoid it.

Yet, I wonder if those opportunities are any better than they were before? Are we growing more crops in our larger fields or more weeds like in this picture:

Do we still produce low interest lessons?

We want to create a sweet spot where our lessons are both high in relevance and interest:

I was thinking about flipped classrooms the other day. I know, everyone is hot for flipped classrooms, where you take the lecture (READ THAT: BORING) part of the lesson and “flip it” so that the kids get the boring part of the class at home, and the actual stuff they would have done at home in class. (I have several entries about flipping the classroom here.) So are we flipping the boredom to home instead of in class? Is that such a good thing? I am not sure. Are we not just shifting stuff around instead of making it more engaging and more relevant in many flipped class examples? Afterall, boring is boring, whether it is presented in class or on a computer screen at home. Watching this on a computer screen does not make it more meaningful, relevant or interesting:

Dan Melzer’s book “Assignments across the Curriculum A National Study of College Writing" looked at over 2000 writing assignments in post secondary schools. What he found was not surprising: Boring writing assignments lead to boring writing. As he recently told Inside Higher Ed:

"There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”

Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says. “Based on their discussions of grading criteria, instructors devote as much time to formal correctness as they do talking about content, and often grammatical correctness was a baseline for acceptability” – even when most syllabuses had typos or grammatical errors, Melzer says in the book; one of the “strongest patterns” in his research was the expectation of perfect grammar.

“At a minimum, your writing should be free of spelling errors and grammatical errors,” reads one sample assignment. Another business law professor’s assignment offers very specific guidance about how different grammatical and spelling errors will affect a student’s grade. Then, seemingly as an afterthought, the professor says: “Please offer analysis, also.”

Melzer argues that such an apparent emphasis on surface-level writing sends students “mixed messages” about the value of higher-order writing skills. It would also impede many students’ ability to “let things flow” to build writing fluency, he says.

You can find Melzer’s original paper here.

This HAS to apply at all levels, not just post secondary AND it has to apply to assignments other than just writing. If we create boring ,single disciplinary, low cognitive ability assignments, we will get back from students exactly what we ask them to provide: Low level, low interest papers.

If we assign those types of problems, we should not complain that students cannot “think out of the box” or “lack creativity.” If the assignment is stuck in the box, don’t expect the students to exist anywhere but in that same box.

This certainly makes the case for programs such as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) which has been around for quite a while, but is not used widely. Indeed, Melzer seems to be quite an advocate of WAC:

"The instructors in my research who assign the widest variety of purposes, audiences, and genres, who provide students with interesting and complex rhetorical situations rather than just the traditional lecture/exam format, and who teach writing as a process through peer response or responding to rough drafts are most often teaching in a course connected in some way to a Writing Across the Curriculum program. This may mean a writing-intensive course, a team-taught course with an English department faculty member, a learning community, or a course connected to a writing fellows program. Instructors from writing-intensive courses connected to established WAC programs at institutions such as the University of Missouri, University of Pittsburgh, Cornell, University of Hawaii, Duke, University of Massachusetts, and Stanford assigned the most writing, asked students to write for the greatest variety of audiences in the greatest variety of genres, and adopted common WAC pedagogical tools such as journaling, freewriting, grading rubrics, and peer response."

"Boring is a boring does" to paraphrase Forrest Gump.

Lets Stop Trying to Teach Critical Thinking

Interesting take on something we hear a lot about. Can we actually tach critical thinking if we are not critical thinners to begin with? Here is the reprinted article:

Let’s stop trying to teach students critical thinking

By Dennis Hayes, University of Derby

Socrates, the father of critical thinking. lentina_x, CC BY-NC-SA

Many teachers say they strive to teach their students to be critical thinkers. They even pride themselves on it; after all, who wants children to just take in knowledge passively?

But there is a problem with this widespread belief. The truth is that you can’t teach people to be critical unless you are critical yourself. This involves more than asking young people to “look critically” at something, as if criticism was a mechanical task.

As a teacher, you have to have a critical spirit. This does not mean moaning endlessly about education policies you dislike or telling students what they should think. It means first and foremost that you are capable of engaging in deep conversation. This means debate and discussion based on considerable knowledge – something that is almost entirely absent in the educational world. It also has to take place in public, with parents and others who are not teachers, not just in the classroom or staffroom.

The need for teachers to engage in this kind of deep conversation has been forgotten, because they think that being critical is a skill. But the philosopher John Passmore criticised this idea nearly half a century ago:

If being critical consisted simply in the application of a skill then it could in principle be taught by teachers who never engaged in it except as a game or defensive device, somewhat as a crack rifle shot who happened to be a pacifist might nevertheless be able to teach rifle-shooting to soldiers. But in fact being critical can be taught only by men who can themselves freely partake in critical discussion.

The misuses of ‘criticism’

The misuse of the idea of “criticism” first became clear to me when I gave a talk about critical thinking to a large group of first-year students. One student said that the lecturers she most disliked were the ones who banged on about the importance of being critical. She longed for one of them to assert or say something, so she could learn from them and perhaps challenge what they say.

The idea that critical thinking is a skill is the first of three popular, but false views that all do disservice to the idea of being critical. They also allow many teachers to believe they are critical thinkers when they are the opposite:

  1. “Critical thinking” is a skill. No it is not. At best this view reduces criticism to second-rate or elementary instruction in informal and some formal logic. It is usually second-rate logic and poor philosophy offered in bite-sized nuggets. Seen as a skill, critical thinking can also mean subjection to the conformism of an ideological yoke. If a feminist or Marxist teacher demands a certain perspective be adopted this may seem like it is “criticism” or acquiring a “critical perspective”, but it is actually a training in feminism or Marxism which could be done through tick box techniques. It almost acquires the character of a mental drill.

  2. “Critical thinking” means indoctrination. When teachers talk about the need to be “critical” they often mean instead that students must “conform”. It is often actually teaching students to be “critical” of their unacceptable ideas and adopt the right ones. Having to support multiculturalism and diversity are the most common of the “correct ideas” that everyone has to adopt. Professional programmes in education, nursing, social work and others often promote this sort of “criticism”. It used to be called “indoctrination”.

  3. “Critical theories” are “uncritical theories”. When some theory has the prefix “critical” it requires the uncritical acceptance of a certain political perspective. Critical theory, critical race theory, critical race philosophy, critical realism, critical reflective practice all explicitly have political aims.

What is criticism?

Criticism, according to Victorian cultural critic Matthew Arnold, is a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. We should all be as “bound” by that definition as he was. We need only to teach the best that is known and thought and “criticism” will take care of itself. That is a lesson from 100 years ago that every teacher should learn.

Matthew Arnold knew how to be critical. Elliott & Fry, via Wikimedia Commons

Critical thinking seen as Arnold defined it is more like a character trait – like having “a critical spirit”, or a willingness to engage in the “give and take of critical discussion”. Criticism is always about the world and not about you.

The philosopher most associated with the critical spirit is Socrates. In the 1930s, Australian philosopher John Anderson put the Socratic view of education most clearly when he wrote: “The Socratic education begins … with the awakening of the mind to the need for criticism, to the uncertainty of the principles by which it supposed itself to be guided.”

But when I discuss Socratic criticism with teachers and teacher trainers I miss out Anderson’s mention of the word “uncertainty”. This is because many teachers will assume that this “uncertainty” means questioning those bad ideas you have and conforming to an agreed version of events, or an agreed theory.

Becoming a truly critical thinker is more difficult today because so many people want to be a Socrates. But Socrates only sought knowledge and to be a Socrates today means putting knowledge first.

The Conversation

Dennis Hayes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

If teachers put the boring stuff outside the class in a flipped classroom, isn’t it still boring stuff? -Holt

If teachers put the boring stuff outside the class in a flipped classroom, isn’t it still boring stuff? -Holt

(Source: recitethis.com)

Don’t Believe Every Meme You See

Have you seen this meme going around Facebook? It is quite popular and has a gizillion “Likes.” I saw it on a few of my friends feeds, and it got me wondering if indeed the sentiment was true. Let’s think about it for a second:

The quote is: “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in High School to teaching remedial English in college.” The quote is from a fellow named Joseph Sobran, a well known anti-Semitic conservative columnist who passed away in 2010. I suspect most people that pass these memes on have no idea who the person that made the quotes they agree with were like. They just like the quote and pass it on. No deep thought involved or needed to click “Send” or “Share.” The accompanying picture shows a kid wearing a Dunce hat sitting next to a computer, IMPLYING that computers make you a dunce.

These types of things show up almost on a weekly basis on the internet. Most of us have also seen the meme about the 8th grade test from 1895 or something, that most people today could not pass:

Such questions ask how many rods in an acre, and of course the scientifically inaccurate question asking students to explain why the Atlantic Coast is cooler than the Pacific Coast at a similar latitude (hmm..it isn’t actually, the water temperature is actually cooler on the US Pacific coast due to the way the ocean currents rotate..but I digress. Perhaps that is a trick question.)

The point of both of these memes is to demonstrate how poorly educated students today are compared to their counterparts 100 or so years ago. (I find it highly amusing that the people that are clicking “Like” probably could not pass that test, so what does that say about them?) By God, we are not teaching the Major Epochs in US History anymore! Dammit, my kids don’t know all the Republics of Europe! It is the Common Core’s fault! (Here is a list of them by the way. How many did you know?)

Of course those people that think kids today are just stupid, and that education is far inferior today than it was 100 years ago are totally wrong. Here is why:

Beginning with the Sobran quote, Latin and Greek, for the most part were taught in Prep schools, not your basic one room school house. For proof, look at the 1895 Kansas test and see how many questions ask about Greek or Latin? There are none. Frankly, Greek and Latin were part of a Rich White Male’s college prep education. The vast majority of students in school at the time, if they were even lucky enough to be in school because it was not mandatory, never took Latin, never took Greek, and almost certainly never took both together. If your Daddy was the owner of Standard Oil or your last name was Rockefeller, then you learned Latin and Greek. If your daddy was a dirt farmer, then you probably didn’t go to school at all.

As for remedial English college courses, there is some thought today that these courses are merely cash cows for cash-strapped universities and community colleges that are looking for any way possible to get students to pony up extra dough. Studies are now showing that remedial courses in post secondary schools are not needed in many cases, but still are offered or mandated. Many students in them do not need to be there, so for Sobran to say that remedial courses are bad is really saying that the system to get students enrolled in them is bad, not that the students or their education is lacking.

The people that make these memes are also ignoring basic US history. After WWII, there was a great number of returning vets that all of a sudden were placed back into the education system. Were they there to learn Latin and Greek? Of course not, They came back and wanted an education that would get them a job. As you can easily see from the graph below, the number of post secondary degrees awarded by accredited schools in the US has shot through the roof since the end of the Second World War. Latin and Greek were dropped out of most curricula because they were not needed to understand the jobs being offered, just as today. How many of you have had to pass a Greek test in order to get a job? Latin?

What the folks that decry how poorly our students are prepared ( do we really need to know such trivia as the feminine of Ox or the major rivers of South America?) rarely if ever turn the tables and ask if a student in 1895 Salina Kansas could pass a 2014 Eighth Grade standardized test? Consider the following question, taken off a pretty typical standardized science test:

How do you think those Kansas farm boys in 1895 would be up to answering that question? Probably not. The point is, tests are written for the times that the tests take place, not for 100 years after they were written. The other point is that education is designed to meet the needs of the CURRENT society, not the needs of society 10 decades past.

On a side note, the next time you come across the Kansas Test, you might want to point out that the Kansas Test was probably NOT an 8th grade test but rather a test for someone applying for a job TEACHING in Salina Kansas. There is nothing on the original document that says “Eighth Grade Test” and in fact there are questions about tax rates and school funding, knowledge probably even a 19th century farm kid in 8th grade didn’t need to know, then or now.

Now, if you REALLY want to know the state of education in the US from an historical perspective, you need to read Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Of course, it will take you a little more time than simply hitting the “Share” key on Facebook to actually learn the history of education.