I was walking through an elementary school recently, and I heard this kid in the hall turn to another kid and say, “Math was really fun today. “ He went on to talk about all the things that they ‘got’ to do. That is what he said. Stuff we “got” to do. So, I asked around. I found out who his math teacher was. And I paid her a visit. I explained that I was interested in what she does in her class. You know, what is it that makes a kid say, “Hey. Math is fun.” She let me snoop around, even watch and visit with her kids…
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In the year 1989, I was just a kid, and Batman was practically a god. This was largely due to the fact that the movie directed by Tim Burton—starring Michael Keaton as the Caped-Crusader and Jack Nicholson as the menacing Joker—was in the theater of our smallish Texas town for nearly four months. At the time, this was practically unheard of, even for a superhero blockbuster. If my thirty-something memory still serves me, Burton’s action-packed flick debuted in the summer time, but was still around in the theater at Halloween. Batman hats, shirts, and anything else with the Dark Knight’s logo could be seen everywhere, not to mention the fact that every kid on my block seemed to be dressed up that October like Batman or the Joker as we went door to door, ritually begging for our annual allotment of free candy.
The success of that Batman movie over twenty years ago put a spotlight on geek culture. You see, up until that point, Batman, Robin, Superman, and other comic heroes were for nerds. But in 1989, they became an integral part of mainstream America. It seemed that for the first time, my friends and everyone else in Junior High agreed on something—we all knew…really knew…that Batman was cooler than Madonna, Depeche Mode, and all 5 of the New Kids on the Block combined. At the time, I thought that a new page had been turned in the comic book world and that the future of superheroes was bright, even for a character as ‘dark’ as Batman. I was certain that Batman was only the beginning…and that a new generation of awesome and innumerable superhero movies was soon to follow.
That’s why what happened next was so sad. Despite 1989’s promise of an updated, cooler Caped-Crusader, in subsequent years, the image and fame of Batman devolved. Personally, I blame a series of lackluster movies with predictable plots in which Batman, Robin, and Catwoman squared off with unimpressive villains such as Mister Freeze, the Penguin, and Poison Ivy. The next generation of Batman failed to impress the masses…leaving the public bored and us hopeful nerds no better off than we were before.
Perhaps it is the ‘Batman trauma’ of my youth that has left me feeling so tentative about the emerging hype that beginning to surround the next generation of assessments that are the focus of much of the educational conversation across the nation. When I got in to education over a decade ago, it seemed that assessment was already enjoying its moment of stardom under The No Child Left Behind Act (2001). At the time, policy seemed to be aimed at supporting standards-based education reform by establishing measurable goals, and of course…by seeking to improve student achievement on the assessments used to evaluate them. In other words, our nation hoped to improve education in the form of annual testing, academic progress, report cards, teacher qualifications, and funding changes.
But over the years that followed, the country’s initial sense of urgency seem to fizzle out, much like America’s obsession with Batman did back in the eighties. Education reformists and assessment nerds ended up no better off than any of us comic book geeks. Despite our country’s initial fervor and effort to improve education, after a few years, all that was left seemed to be sub-par annual tests sprinkled and a few lingering conversations about transparency and accountability. While all of these are necessary components of education, so far they have failed to spur any significant and lasting improvements. But in the next few years, that is likely to change.
Initially, conversations around the Common Core standards overshadowed the other elephant in the room—assessment. Specifically, how can we ensure that each state isn’t just testing students, but rather is measuring learning in ways that are deeper, higher, and clearer than what we have done in the past? Across the U.S., educators and policy makers have acknowledged that the state-developed assessments we have relied upon just aren’t suited for the task. As a result, they have gone ‘shopping’ and many schools and state departments of education are now moving as quickly as they can to adapt Smarter Balanced tests that claim to be the “next-generation assessments to more accurately measure student progress toward college and career readiness” ( SBAC, 2013). While both the assessments and each state’s work to implement them both seem to be largely under construction, Smarter Balanced practice tests are already available to anyone with internet access for practice and training purposes, professional development activities, and for discussions with parents, policymakers, and other interested stakeholders—like you and I.
While everyone I have talked to lately seems to have something to say about what the new tests should look like, it has been difficult to find someone who actually knows…and who was willing to give me an official statement for the record. After several phone calls, I did, however, find two individuals at my own state’s Deparment of Education who seemed open, even excited about the assessments that they are working on. In the continuing spirit of Batman (and just because I think it is fun to hide the identity of people from time to time), I will refer to two individuals that I interviewed as Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent.
Commissioner Gordon explained that unlike what we have used in the past, “these new tests aren’t static, but rather are designed to better engage students in the assessment process. They are created to be a better reflection of the learning that is actually taking place in the classroom. Our hope is that over the next few years the test will be better, adaptive, and more accurately gauge the achievement of our students.”
The Commissioner also explained that we could think of the the old assessments “like a large V-8 engine that required a whole lot of oil, tended to lose compression, and while it had a lot of power, was really not as efficient as we would like. The new assessments that we are moving towards, however, will be a totally different kind of machine—more efficient, better gas mileage, and have a much smaller carbon footprint than the old ones.”
Harvey Dent, another state representative added that, “We are hoping to use technology and good assessment practices to find ways for students to create a product, rather than just answer questions. We want them to think and to apply knowledge rather than just regurgitate it. The old assessments were easy to score because they often only tested content knowledge. But the next generation of tests will no longer focus on checking to see if we have good students. Instead, we want to ensure that we are creating learners who know how to think.”
Both Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent were quick to point out that new assessments are ‘in flux,’ and that it will take a few years (at least) to make all this happen. But, they also insisted that this year is a step in the right direction. Immediately, schools will see that the tests will be enhanced by interactive technology and include more varied question types. And while no performance items will likely be used in this first round of assessments, they are just around the corner.
In all honesty, hearing these big-wigs talk about the next generation of assessments got me all excited and hopeful…almost like I was back in 1989 when superhero action movies seemed to be on the verge of greatness. Everyone might finally be on the same page this time when it comes to improving how we test kids. So let’s just say that I am cautiously optimistic. I took a day or two going through the available practice tests and also spent some time working with state and national assessment groups to begin reviewing what the assessment items look like. While the new tests are not perfect, like Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent said, they are definitely better. Much, much better. Are these next generation of assessments smarter than the old tests? Is this the start of something really, really big? Let’s hope so. This nerd is counting on it…and so are our classrooms.
There are times when I am really glad that we have tests…and lots of them. For example, those who know me best are aware that I am absolutely, positively terrified of flying. My friends and family try to tell me that it is irrational to get so nervous on a plane, and that ‘statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel.’ First of all, I have had a hard time finding the exact numbers that back this claim up. Second of all, that statement was initially made by Superman—who not only possesses the ability to fly, but also happens to be indestructible if he somehow starts to fall tens-of thousands of feet to his doom.
It’s simple, really. If I have engine trouble in my old Honda civic with nearly 200,000 thousand miles on it, I merely pull over to the side of the road and get some assistance. If the plane I’m flying in, however, has engine trouble, that isn’t really an option. Since I’m not the Man of Steel, chances are that the ground and I are going to meet, and…that it will be very, very messy. What little comfort I can give myself as I hyperventilate into a little bag the during take-off, landing (and virtually every step in between), comes because I know that the pilot I have entrusted my life to…is no dummy. And…that he or she has proven it on test, after test, after test.
The education and assessment of commercial pilots is a model of rigor and relevance if ever there was one. Those of us who have recently received or renewed a driver’s license, might have some small glimpse of what it is like for a pilot. Usually to pass a state driver’s test, you have demonstrate mastery of rudiments such as signaling, steering, breaking, three point turns, and parallel parking. In other words, we are granted carte blanche on the road by merely demonstrating mastery of a few, basic skills that make it a little less-likely that we won’t hurt ourselves or others.
But no real assessment, let alone training, is given on how to minimize the effects of others’ stupidity and other factors beyond our own control. For example, whether we should brake or accelerate in a split-second when trying to avoid a collision. Or, how to regain control if we start to skid or hydroplane. Even how to minimize damage to ourselves and others when a collision is unavoidable. These are necessary, life saving skills that do not appear in any driver’s education study guides or on the Department of Motor Vehicle’s tests. But that is not the case…if you are learning to be a pilot.
According to USA Today and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, pilots go through a rigorous training and certification processes. They are screened are rescreened—trained and retrained—not only in takeoff, flight, instrumentation, navigation, and landing, but also in what to do when something goes terribly wrong (Loewentheil, 2013). You see, when airplanes crash, it’s usually because a bunch of unexpected things go wrong all at once, or one after another (Newman, 2009). During flight, the difference between success and failure—and between life or death—is rigorous training and assessment.
This became apparent a few years ago when Flight 1549 left LaGuardia and lost power in both engines, allegedly because a few birds were sucked in to the plane’s intake. ‘Statistically speaking,’ to borrow some words from Superman, it should have ended in a catastrophe for the crew, the passengers, and the numerous citizens of New York and New Jersey below. But thank goodness for tests. You see, according to author and pilot Lynn Spencer, “pilots don’t spend their training time flying straight and level”. Instead, “In simulator training, we’re doing nothing but flying in all sorts of emergencies. Emergencies become just another set of procedures when repeatedly trained” (Newman, 2009). In other words, good pilot training tends to blur the lines between learning and assessment. And for pilots, you are never done with either one.
So, while I applaud the pilot and co-pilot who managed to touch flight 1549 down safely in the Hudson River with no lives lost, the real superheroes are those who were never interviewed or who never appeared on camera—those who train pilots and co-pilots, those who build their curriculum, those who teach them and test them, and those who design and redesign their assessments. So over the next few weeks, instead of just looking at the new assessments, we will seek out the opinions of these types of individuals—these real superheroes. People whose job it is to ensure that kids learn—and that they can demonstrate it. We will listen to what they have to say about the next generation of assessments that are being developed for your students…and for mine.
Newman, R. (2009). How Sullenberger Really Saved US Airways Flight 1549. U.S News. Retrieved from http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/flowchart/ 2009/02/03/how-sullenberger-really-saved-us-airways-flight-1549
Lowentheil, H. (2013). 7 Reasons Flying is Still the Safest Way to Travel. Policy Mic. Retrieved from http://www.policymic.com/articles/53293/7-reasons-flying-is-still-the-safest-way-to-travel
As teachers, we must seek to move beyond traditional, prescriptive classrooms and instead, utilize tools and techniques that meet students where they are at right now—tools and techniques that make learning accessible, meaningful, and fun.
This article also appeared on Gettingsmart.com
Not too long ago, my four boys went outside, disappeared for a couple of hours, and then returned home in a heated debate over some mysterious eggs that they had discovered at the edge of a pond located a short distance from our house. Despite the fact that our home lies nearly 1,000 miles inland, the youngest boy insisted that that the eggs were from a crocodile. His hope was to get a hold of a few hatchlings, raise them to full maturity, and train them to keep intruders out of our yard. While his older brothers both scoffed at the ‘croc theory,’ they could not come to an agreement about what type of eggs they had actually found. One of them insisted that they had been left by a turtle, but the oldest brother argued vehemently that turtles usually buried their eggs…so it was more likely that a snake or a bird was the culprit.
For days they sought to uncover everything they could about various animals in the area. They photographed the eggs, showed them to everyone they knew, debated, and—in their own words—are now looking for an ‘egg-spert’ to settle it once and for all. The ‘egg incident,’ as my wife and I now refer to it, reminded us both of the impassioned, deep learning that often transpires when young people are permitted to explore their own interests on their own terms. But this event has also caused me to reflect on the need to do something similar in the classroom—to transform traditional learning practices into more customized learning experiences where students are encouraged to employ choice and self-regulation in their own studies.
By definition, customized learning seeks to gear classroom content, instruction, and other aspects of learning towards individual students, their unique interests, and past learning experiences (Hattie, 2009). As of late, a multitude of research findings have underscored the importance of learning activities that encourage student control over the learning process (Ewen, & Topping, 2012; McLoughlin & Lee, 2010). While student characteristics such as learning styles have long been recognized as factors that may affect learning (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004; Felder & Silverman, 1988; Keefe, 1979), the use of other individual differences between students to guide instruction is largely still viewed as an “innovation” in education (Raman & Nedungadi, 2012). According to Horizon Report (2011), the real potential of a personalized approach to learning lies in teachers’ exploration of ways to customize curriculum, instruction, and even assessment in ways that differ from person to person, and student to student.
It is no small coincidence that some of the most popular tools amongst young people outside of school, such as video games, are successful largely due to their ability to extend control and choice to learners through customization of play (Chandler, 2013). In the world of X-boxes and Play Stations, customization means that players are able to adjust the game to accommodate their own interests, style, and objectives. Gee (2007) observed that classrooms adopting this principle would allow students to discover their favored learning styles and to try new ones without fear. In the act of customizing their own learning, students would learn a good deal about their own thinking, reflection, and ways of solving problems.
I recently came across a free teaching tool called Actively Learn that makes it simpler than ever for teachers to customize text-based assignments in ways that make reading more accessible to students. The tool enhances reading passages with ‘layers,’ or combinations of embedded, common-core aligned questions, images, notes, and even multimedia like audio and video clips to help provide students with contextual information. My own students and I tried it out, and really found it quite easy to use. They particularly enjoyed some of the quasi-collaborative features that allowed them to view and comment on the responses of other students after answering questions on their own.
On the teacher side of things, I was able to use pre-loaded texts from the system or could upload my own. When the students had finished, I had the option of manually reviewing student responses or could have the tool grade it for me. What I really was impressed by, however, was the well-developed analytics tool that allowed me to measure with precision how my students performed on specific types of literacy tasks. A complete video demonstration of the tool can be found here.
With or without tools like Actively Learn, however, we as teachers can do more to customize learning and to make it increasingly accessible to students. For example, not too long ago, I observed a ninth grade math teacher who started class by asking her students to help her determine how many stars exist in the known universe. She explained that before looking at any formulas or equations used by other mathematicians, she wanted to hear how her students might go about solving the problem and insisted that there were likely several valid approaches. Students were given the option of working alone or with others, and then worked to formulate responses. The class period was spent sharing, evaluating, and revising various approaches created by students.
The following day, students were asked to self-select a station where they could review the theories of accomplished scientists either by listening, watching, or reading excerpts of commentaries by various astronomers and mathematicians. Students then worked at their stations to discuss and critique the various theoretical approaches. The instructor pointed out that the experts in the field utilized different approaches to solving the problem, and that many disagreed on the estimated number of stars. In this way, her students learned that this activity’s design was not to achieve a single “right” answer in mathematics, but rather to pose questions, explore, analyze, and develop the ability to reason. Be it in math or other content areas, teachers can work to create opportunities for reflective learning, developing strategies, and selecting learning styles appropriate to specific learning tasks (Coffield et al., 2004).
Regardless of which approach we take in our attempts to personalize student learning, there exists a great need for teachers to spend more time and energy learning through the eyes of the students and to design pedagogy that capitalizes on their interest and readiness to learn (Hattie, 2009). The development and implementation of customized learning and personalized pedagogy takes time, but will be well worth it. Educating today’s young people requires us to really get to know our students—their interests, strengths, and approaches to learning—and to use this information to customize the learning that takes place inside of our classrooms. While we cannot provide a pond and mysterious eggs for every young person in our schools, we can work more conscientiously to personalize learning. As teachers, we must seek to move beyond traditional, prescriptive classrooms and instead, utilize tools and techniques that meet students where they are at right now—tools and techniques that make learning accessible, meaningful, and fun.
Chandler, C. (2013). The Use of Game Dynamics to Enhance Curriculum and Instruction: What Teachers Can Learn from the Design of Video Games. Journal Of Curriculum And Instruction, 6(2). Retrieved July 23, 2013, from http://www.joci.ecu.edu/index.php/JoCI/article/view/226
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre http://www.lsneducation.org.uk.er.lib.k-state.edu/research/reports/.
Ewen, M., & Topping, K. J. (2012). Personalised learning for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Educational Psychology in Practice, 28(3), 221-239.
Felder, R. M., & Silverman, L. K. (1988). Learning styles and teaching styles in engineering education. Engineering Education, 78(7), 674–681.
Gee, J. P. (2007). Good video games + good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy. New York, NY: P. Lang.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
Horizon Report, New Media Consortium (2011). http://www.nmc.org/publications/2011-horizon-report. Retrieved Oct 2011.
Keefe, J. W. (1979). Learning style: An overview. In National association of secondary school principals (Ed.), Student learning styles: Diagnosing and prescribing programs (pp. 1–17). Reston, Virginia: National Association of Secondary School Principals.
McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M. J. (2010). Personalised and self regulated learning in the web 2.0 era: International exemplars of innovative pedagogy using social software. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(1), 28-43.
Raman, R., & Nedungadi, P. (2012). Modelling diffusion of a personalized learning framework. Educational Technology Research and Development, 60(4), 585-600.
Even with limited resources, effective educators keep ‘learning afloat’ by making use of free technology tools, school resources, community members, and a little ingenuity to ensure that rigor and relevance don’t drown.
Years ago, when I was younger and much more dim-witted, I thought of the ocean as something beautiful and friendly. That was, until I actually went there. I was only 13 at the time, but can still recall the excitement and anticipation following my parents’ announcement that we would all be taking a vacation to the beach. Like any kid might do, I imagined myself surfing the waves, exploring the reefs, and skimming the crystal waters of an exotic island in a wave runner. One can only imagine my disappointment as we pulled in to Galveston, Texas, barely a year after the Mega Borg oil spill. The beaches were a dull, dingy grey, and due to the recent environmental disaster, balls of tar littered the surf and sand.
The worst part, however, was the undertow lurking just below the surface of the water. I had barely waded in up to my chest when I was pulled from my feet and found myself being swept away from the shore. I flailed and swam as hard as I could, but to no avail. Any screaming for help only resulted in a mouthful of gagging, tar-filled sea water. Before long I was exhausted and struggled to keep my head above the surface. To make a long story short, I was rescued by a burly beach lifeguard named Larry and lived to tell the tale. Moving to the Midwest seemed like the surest way to steer clear of the ocean and future near-death experiences. But ironically, nearly twenty years later, schools all over the region find themselves in a similar predicament—fighting to keep their heads above water. News headlines and conversations in teachers’ lounges over the past couple of years reveal tales of schools struggling with issues that include new curricular standards, teacher evaluation, meaningful assessment, and half a dozen other things. While these issues warrant attention, all have been forced to a take a back seat to a single, pervading dilemma—how can schools improve college and career readiness in an era of increasingly limited resources?
I’ll admit that I am still new to this. I lack an in-depth understanding of the intricacies of school finance and have just barely hit the ten-year mark in the teaching profession, yet I already find myself referring to the “good old days.” If my thirty-something memory still serves me, it seems that when we first waded in to No Child Left Behind over a decade ago, no one really complained too much. After all, public schools reaped the benefits of a “boost” in educational spending that resulted in valuable additions like early childhood education, differentiated curriculum tools, professional development, instructional technology, interventions for struggling students, and enrichment activities for advanced learners. But over the past five or so years, piece by piece these crucial learning initiatives have been dissected like lab frogs by ever-shrinking budgets. Years ago at the beach I learned firsthand just how quickly sure footing can be lost. Likewise, the recent plummeting of state and local funding has put these (and other) vital components of education at risk. I visited with a district superintendent who resigned recently who commented, “I have been forced to spend the last few years dismantling the educational system that it took us decades to build. I just can’t do it anymore.”
Recently, a series of visits to various schools and professional development organizations around the state has reminded me that one of the best survival tactics is our ability to ‘tread water.’ To tell the truth, I was worried that as I popped in and out of classrooms and visited with educators, I would find learning crippled by a lack of funding. However, what I found was completely the opposite. What I found instead were “teacherprenuers,” as my friend and fellow educator Barnett Barry calls them. Educators in rural Kansas were utilizing free, social learning platforms like Edmodo, Schoolbinder, and Weebly to cut costs, engage students and streamline communication. Their administrators seemed happy with the savings that a paperless classroom brought, while students enjoyed opportunities to engage in learning with other students. A handful of secondary educators in a much larger city were enhancing standard-based learning tasks with problem-based challenges. Their classes were busily engaged in a science unit on the laws of physics. Teachers challenged students to use their knowledge of inertia and Newton’s laws to build balloon cars out of recycled materials found in bins around the campus. In a nearby elementary school, teachers and students were working together at the beginning of a unit to formulate exploration questions on a topic and then identified community resources and local experts in the field that students could contact via Skype for more information. An example could be provided for nearly all of the sites I frequented.
Looking back, it all makes sense. If anyone is equipped to weather a financial crisis, it would be educators. After all, choosing teaching as a profession seems like the surest route to a small home, an ugly car, and a checkbook riddled with negative integers. Our fiscal creativity pays the gas bill and keeps food on the table. So…despite a dangerous financial undertow, the water remains safe. What a relief it was to observe effective educators ‘on watch’ all over the Midwest who refuse to be deterred by the current budget. They keep ‘learning afloat’ by making use of free technology tools, school resources, community members, and a little ingenuity to ensure that rigor and relevance don’t drown. Lifeguard Larry would be proud.
Berry, B., & TeacherSolutions 2030 Team. (2011). Teaching 2030: What we must do for our students and our public schools : now and in the future. New York: Teachers College Press.
Sorry, folks. This piece is a bit more academic, quite a bit longer, but still useful. You see, video games have received an increased amount of recent attention from educational institutions due to their widespread use and their ability to engage and sustain players in difficult learning tasks for extended amounts of time. Many studies have been conducted on the potential of video games to influence learning. However, some educational researchers have begun to analyze how the game dynamics embedded in video games are used to immerse students in difficult problem-solving and to support their learning. This article examines the need for public school educators to adapt a game design mentality when designing secondary level curriculum and instruction. Game design is presented as a tool for improving student learning and suggestions are offered for how educators can incorporate game dynamics such as narrative context, explicit interconnectedness, well-ordered problems, control, choice, customization, and co-design. Want to read more? Below is link to ‘The Use of Game Dynamics to Enhance Curriculum and Instruction: What Teachers Can Learn from the Design of Video Games.’ I have worked on it for several months, and the Journal of Curriculum and Instruction just published it. Enjoy.
Here is the link to the my latest article as it appeared in Ed Week this week. Below is the text of the article itself.
I approached these youngsters in the hall, visited with them for a few minutes, and discovered that they–and several more of my students–were all playing the same game online, together, over the weekend. They explained that this particular game, called Minecraft, has been around for quite some time and that it allows players to harvest, or “mine” resources from a virtual landscape such as wood, stone, food, and coal. Players collaborate to construct everything from furniture to fortresses and factories by placing their mined “blocks” together. A quick survey of my students throughout the day revealed just how popular this activity is with my kiddos: over one-third of them play Minecraft regularly (3-5 times a week), and nearly fifty percent of them play it once or twice a week.
Though not a gamer, I had to see what it is about this particular game that has grabbed–and maintained–the attention of so many of my students. After only half an hour of ‘Mining,’ I was captivated and completely enthralled in play, despite the simple premise of the game and its horrible graphics. My favorite part–oddly charming zombies that look as though they are made from spinach and broccoli, who creep out at night to test the fortitude of whatever it is that you have built.
Why would so many young people growing up in a high-definition world, riddled with ridiculously realistic games like Call of Duty and Halo, spend an inordinate amount of time on something so primitive like Minecraft? Perhaps it is because, by playing this game, these kids are participating in principles of creativity in connection with their peers. Minecraft–and others games similar to it such as Sims, Cubeland, and Incredibots–are crafted by game designers to provide a virtual sandbox for young people to experience “horizontal learning” where they are able to experiment, explore, and develop skills that augment their creative capacities.
Learners also get to experience realistic challenges, but with risks and dangers greatly mitigated. Broccoli zombies pose no real-life threat, yet within the context of a game, they create a sense of urgency for players to gather resources and solve problems.
Finally, in stark contrast to schools, sandbox games permit learners to try, fail, try again, and still feel a sense of authenticity and accomplishment. As a result, players come to view failure as a necessary component of learning, and not as a final judgment or roadblock to creative problem solving.
Like my students said… Minecraft isn’t new, but then again, neither is the use of “sandboxing.” Since the 1950′s, a wide variety of instructional approaches have been developed to facilitate creative thinking. But, at the heart of each is the core philosophy that experience, training, practice, and encouragement in using creative thinking skills can improve a student’s ability to think with fluency, flexibility, and to pose novel and inventive solutions to questions and problems.
In an effort to foster my own students’ creativity, I recently tried out some sandboxing within my classroom and modified one of our multi-genre writing units to include a design element where students wrote about and constructed their own original ideas for a restaurant out of whatever materials they could find at home. Students were not allowed to spend any money on the project and were invited to build out of recyclables, food or anything else they could find lying around the house. I also suggested that, as an alternative, students consider using a tech-based tool like Minecraft to assemble their project.
The results were incredible. Each class’s models–whether homemade or Minecrafted–exhibited tremendous effort and inventiveness. It was amazing to see the realistic, mathematically scaled restaurant designs that students fabricated from pop-cans, cereal boxes, marshmallows, and toilet paper rolls. Those who used Minecraft to design were equally impressive. One student brought in his final project on his game system and explained how he and his friends spent 3 hours on Xbox Live, just to round up cows in Minecraft and then worked collaboratively to encase them behind a wall of glass inside the restaurant, so his customers could “see that the beef was fresh.” Another student built an entire amusement park ride as part of her venue to help her customers joyfully pass the time. A class favorite seemed to be Noah’s Arc–an immense, floating restaurant that served customers “two-by-two.” But whether they were building with recyclables from home or using “mined” resources to build online–students seemed overjoyed to have an opportunity to be creative.
For nearly three decades now, I have listened to authors like Neil Postman and Nicholaus Carr predict that our young people will eventually be consumed by activities that undo their capacities to think. They are wrong, as are others who view today’s students with unwarranted pessimism. The popularity of Minecraft and other virtual sandbox games is evidence that today’s students would rather construct, collaborate, and be creative than to merely “amuse themselves to death.”
Interestingly, the creators of Sims and Minecraft have just developed and released educational versions of their games and seem anxious to capitalize on the creative capacities of young people. I just hope that, as we re-envision schools, we are as willing to foster creativity within our students.
Carr, Nicholas G.. (2010) The shallows : What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York : W.W. Norton.
Gee, J. P. (2007) Good video games + good learning : collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy New York : P. Lang.
Goto, S. (2003). Basic writing and policy reform: Why we keep talking past each other. Journal of Basic Writing. 21 : 16-32.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London, England: Routledge.
Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York, NY: Viking
During class, one my students grips her desk violently, bracing herself and trying in desperation to not regurgitate the contents of her mouth. In between gags she calls out to the students surrounding her—“It’s like I’m eating a salty, soggy eye-ball covered in sandpaper!” Her group members cheer and then quickly scribble down her words on their own paper. While this may sound a bit like cruel and unusual punishment, it is actually a learning activity designed to help students “develop an understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings” (NGA, 2010).
I am confident that I am not the only educator struggling to help students maintain their focus in a season of long, winter breaks and frequent holidays. Lately I have been taking a closer look at immersive learning, or learning environments where students actively and realistically experience the task at hand. In recent years, immersive learning has gained a foothold in “life-or-death” professions such as the medical field and in the Armed Forces, but for some reason has been slower to attract the attention of other “high-stakes” professions like public education (Van Schaik, Martin, & Vallance, 2012).
My own students are fast approaching the date of the state writing assessment, but their recent compositions indicate that a bit of “basic training” is needed in word choice and in the use of figurative language. Instead of the usual mini-lesson or writer’s workshop, this time I dressed up in a fake military uniform and made use of an old drill sergeant’s hat. As soon as the bell rang, I blew my whistle, gruffly welcomed them to “writing boot camp,” and began shouting out “orders.” I was trying to sound tough and intimidating like Sergeant Slaughter, but I’m pretty sure that it sounded a bit more like Barney Fife. Either way, it’s amazing what a little novelty and a few props and costumes can do to raise the energy level of group of teenagers.
“First—each group’s ‘mission’ is to come up with a minimum of fifteen descriptive phrases describing the contents of the jar. Second—you are permitted to examine the pigs’ feet by smelling them, touching them, and doing whatever else you need to do, but under no circumstances is any ‘soldier’ permitted to eat the pigs’ feet.”
I went on to explain that the taste of the pigs’ feet was so bad that most people vomit the moment they place one in their mouth. This last bit of information was greatly exaggerated, of course, but definitely piqued their interest.
You can imagine what happened next. Students sniffed, stabbed, and sloshed around the contents of the jar. Each group worked diligently and came up with creative phrases like putrid rancidity, gnarly and nauseating, and even a few invented words like puke-tastic and crud-a-licious. But inevitably, nearly every group “broke regulations” and enlisted someone in their group to eat the pickled pigs’ feet. Thus…the young lady gagging and yelling “It’s like I’m eating a salty, soggy eye-ball covered in sandpaper!” I couldn’t help but smile. My kiddos may have broken the rules, but the pay off was worth it—they were actively experiencing a key aspect of the writing process and joyfully immersed in a world of word choice and figurative language.
I recently took a tour of some actual, “immersive” training facilities at a local military base. The first thing that struck me was how quiet the skies and field exercise areas were. I grew up on military bases back in the eighties and nineties, and it seemed like I could always hear the sounds of soldiers preparing for combat; there was the constant rumble of aircraft overhead and the rhythmic thudding of artillery cannons in the distance. But now, training has evolved to be “quieter”—more practical, high-tech, focused, and cost effective. Tanks, helicopters, and jets spend the majority of their time parked on the blacktop while their commanders and pilots practice in collaborative, 3D virtual war games housed inside of pods that resemble over-sized port-a-potties.
As I visited the facility, I discovered that the military seems to have a couple goals similar to those of public schools. First is the need for learners to develop new skills in both individual and collaborative contexts. Second is the desire to provide realistic, experiential learning environments that allow for skills practice and decision making that would be costly—and sometimes even dangerous—to execute in the real world.
Far from any military base, I also recently observed a Social Studies teacher named Mr. T. Interestingly, he and his students were doing something very similar to what had I witnessed at the military training facilities. While there were no war games in electronic port-a-potties, Mr. T’s students were using an online game titled Do I Have a Right to try and run a virtual law firm. The goal of the simulation—to help defend and protect individuals who believe that their basic constitutional rights had been violated.
As I watched and spoke with students, I was impressed by how engaged these young people seemed to be for the entire duration of the class. Even more impressive was that, while the “gameplay” aspect of the lesson was enthralling, the teacher was clearly using the simulation to supplement instruction, but not to supplant it (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005). Do I Have a Right was one of several, well-designed pedagogical activities being used by Mr. T to help his students really experience the Constitution. Before, during, and after the game, they discussed content, debated strategy, and dialogued about the most challenging aspects of the simulation.
While you and I might not teach Social Studies, I am certain that Mr. T’s approach to immersive learning is one worth tinkering with—particularly his notion that teacher-facilitated interaction around the game is as important as the game itself. Therefore, it is imperative that as educators we work consciously to embed games as part of larger experiences and constructive activities, often through dialogue, reflection, and debriefing (Garris, Ahlers, & Driskell, 2002; Koster, 2005; Mitgutsch , 2007).
Those of us who might be a little wary of digital games or online simulations can just as easily design learning activities to be more “immersive,” or experiential for students. After all, the use of an old army hat, a jar of pickled pigs’ feet, and “missions” for kids to complete is as low-tech as it gets. But fictitious quests, silly props, bizarre foods, and other tangibles help learning come alive for students. They make abstract concepts a bit more concrete. Seemingly linear tasks like writing become a little less routine. Learning becomes engaging, effective, and fun. It becomes…well…immersive.
The bottom line—education can learn a thing or two from the immersive training of military bases. After all, we share the same high-stakes mentality and desire to ensure that our learners succeed. In years past, teachers have struggled to answer one question—How can I ensure that my students know this? A week of pickled pigs’ feet, war-game port-a-potties, and online simulations suggests that maybe instead, we should be asking…How can I help my students experience this? The good news is that if we answer the latter, we are also likely to answer the first.
Dede, C. (2009). Immersive interfaces for engagement and learning. Science, 323(5910), 66-69.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2007). Third Generation Educational Use of ComputerGames. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia. 16(3).
Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J. E. (2002). Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation & Gaming, 33(4), 441-467.
Koster, R. (2005). A theory of fun for game design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press.
Mitgutsch, K. (2007). Digital play-based learning; A philosophical-pedagogical perspective on learning anew. Paper presented at the Games in Action Conference, Gothenburg, Sweden.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State
Standards (English Language Arts). Washington DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.
Van Schaik, P., Martin, S. and Vallance, M. (2012). Measuring flow experience in an immersive virtual environment for collaborative learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28(4), 350–365.