Friday, August 15, 2014

Blended Learning - New Idea or Trend?

Blended learning is one of our new “go to” pieces of educational jargon.  It seems everyone is either doing it, thinking about it, or planning to do it.  It sports different names – blended education, hybrid learning, flipping the classroom and is being touted as the new way to deliver instruction. 

So what is blended learning?  It is a model of delivery of instruction that combines classroom and online education.  This trend is propelled forward by the reality of the way we live - surrounded by technology.  Why only last evening, I asked Siri to wake me up at six; then asked her to send a message to my children and set a reminder to take the potatoes off the stove.  I also dictated notes to myself about new ideas for my lesson during my daily walk and had Siri e-mail them to me. 

As teachers we incorporate and apply theories; design lessons using varied strategies; and look to meet the needs of students that have different learning styles and requirements.  It’s part of the job and the only differences are the tools at our disposal.  When I started teaching we relied on mimeograph machines, overhead projectors, and books for research. Now we have wireless printers, smart classrooms, and instant access to information via the internet. 

The tools have changed. 

What hasn’t changed is the fact that we still need to teach our students to think critically and to evaluate what they read, regardless of where the information comes from.

For our students to be engaged, we need to keep pace with them and embrace the ways they use to communicate.  The tools for education and the way we use them must be relevant in order to engage students in the importance of the content.  If the way we deliver the message is antiquated, then why would our students think that the subject is any less so. 

Tapping into prior knowledge, frontloading, and all the tricks of our trade have just had a face lift.  Watching a lecture ahead of time, engaging peers in an online discussion, uploading assignments to the teacher’s website and receiving annotated responses is only the next level of using the tools at our disposal.  The need to move our students to higher and deeper levels of thinking hasn’t changed.

So….is blended learning a revolutionary new idea or just the latest trend in our educational pendulum?

Maybe it is either or both.  It doesn’t matter.  What we do with it is what matters.

And, by the way, the potatoes came out wonderful !  Thank you Siri.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chasing Beautiful Questions

“What if you found that creative genius does not lie in knowing all of the answers?”  That’s how a relatively boring flight to visit family became an adventure in revamping some of my favorite lessons.  As I rapidly approach the beginning of the school year (for the 40th time), I am starting to think of lessons, activities, and how to motivate my students for yet another year.

When I started teaching, I felt that my main purpose was to provide my students with the correct answers to their questions.  The problem turned out to be what whatever was the correct answer to the question one day could very well be the wrong answer the next day.  I also became troubled by the idea that I was producing clones of myself as my students adopted my “interpretations” of literature, events, and life, in general.  I then started to think about the power of questions – but not just any questions – the ones that matter and to which we don’t have the answers.

About the time I started training teachers, I had given up on the futile attempt of giving answers and announced to my students that if they came to my class looking for answers, they would be disappointed because I had none.  Instead, we could spend our time looking at questions that are interesting and see if we could find some answers that made sense.

The article “Chasing Beautiful Questions” started me thinking of how – forty years later – we are still engaged in providing answers instead of promoting questions in the classroom.  “What is a beautiful question?  It’s one that challenges assumptions, considers new possibilities, and has potential to serve as a catalyst for action and change.”  Organizing our thinking around what we don’t know is a perfectly plausible way to start each year, each semester, each day.  We can generalize about our student population, look at census data and test scores, but any answers we get are more likely to generate more questions rather than point to a definitive path. 

As teachers, we may feel uncomfortable with the idea of not having all of the answers and therefore discourage our students from asking too many “open-ended” questions.  It is also difficult to grade answers when each student is coming up with a different answer to the same question.  We are a system based on getting the right answer, and that answer needs to be known to us (the teachers) ahead of time.  Thus we shy away from “beautiful questions” because we are not certain that we have any beautiful answers.  But are beautiful answers what our students expect from us?  Or do they just want an opportunity to explore their own beautiful questions and all they want from us is encouragement and a bit of guidance?

Looking at how innovators come up with new ideas, the article shows us that questioning is a key to innovative thinking.  “To question well and productively requires stepping back from habits, assumptions, and familiar thoughts; listening to and closely observing the world around you; being unafraid to ask na├»ve or fundamental questions; and being willing to stay with the questions as you endeavor to understand and act on them.”

So maybe we need to start focusing on our questions and challenge our assumptions on a regular basis because, as Warren Berger states at the end of his article “answers have a way of becoming insufficient or obsolete over time.  Only the question endures.”

Powerful Shifts in Learning

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