Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Constructivism & Constructionism

My general approach to teaching my high school math classes is to create scientists of my students. (This will be particularly true of my IB Math SL class next year!) By this description, I mean that they are actively inquiring as to the nature of the material they study. We routinely practice questioning techniques that they can use even during tests when they come to unfamiliar territory.

In our ongoing efforts to help produce students ready for the world outside of education, our school has partnered with some local industries to help ensure that we really are doing the job that they require us to do. One of the best pieces of information we have gleaned from those partnerships was from one manager who said "we need workers who know what to do when they don't know what to do." Far from being nonsensical doublespeak, this was an urgent plea for problem-solvers. He was really saying that they need independent thinkers, not mindless drones. Workers who can solve problems effectively are an asset to the company, and provide much more value when they can reach beyond the minimum requirements.

So, my "scientists" are preparing themselves to become future leaders! To do that, they will need to be able to make educated guesses (hypotheses) and to determine a best course of action (testing/evaluating.) Sometimes, that constructionist way of approaching problems works very well-- especially when students are empowered to build prototypes, to rehearse and play out hypothetical situations, or to create demonstrations of a concept. All of those skills build not only an item, but also build and strengthen the neural networks surrounding those concepts in their minds.

Currently, my AP calculus students are working on their exam projects. Each group of 4 students has selected a topic that interests them from our year of study, and are developing "some interactive awesome thing" (my description in class) to teach future classes about their topic. The final products range from music videos, to electronic models that demonstrate volumes of three-dimensional figures, to interactive displays allowing experimentation with concrete representations of abstract concepts. Participation is excellent - students are able to write their own exam grade by judicious application of the supplied rubric throughout the process, and their personal interests and skills greatly guide the development. The level of engagement is particularly impressive when we consider that we have already covered the entire textbook and the AP Exam has already happened, leaving us with a rather empty month before the end of school.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cognitivism in Practice

Our faculty did a book study of Classroom Instruction that Works, so I was quite interested to see that the course textbook for EDUC 6711 was dedicated to supporting those ideas with technology. For me, it has always been a tricky business when selecting appropriate means for students to interact with content. From my vantage point, I can visualize the same concepts via pencil & paper methods as easily as through technology methods. So, if there were no other considerations, I would select whichever is more convenient to create. However, in the role of teacher, I need to be aware of the effectiveness of a particular method from the students' points of view.

Our students are so immersed in technology that it is no longer a special treat to go to the computer lab. Twenty years ago, students would have been excited to use the computers because of the novelty. Now, students carry so much technology with them that schools have had to adopt new policies about technology use to deal with disruptions, cheating, privacy, and security issues. This means that students are often just as reluctant to use the computer as they are to use paper and pencil; they realize that both scenarios indicate that they will need to think-- not just play. For the educator, this is a good thing-- we can focus on the content rather than merely the novelty of using computers.

Concept mapping can easily be done with low-tech solutions such as Post-It (tm) notes on a table or poster board. However, with the invention of software like Inspiration and Kidspiration, the process can easily be automated and even exported in various forms to be used elsewhere. By computerizing tools like this, it frees students' minds to deal with the tasks and concepts at hand, rather than needing to create their own systems of classification and linking. For example, Inspiration has a rapid-fire mode that allows new topic nodes to be created as fast as the user can type. This greatly liberates the brainstorming process, as students are not slowed down by handwriting. Plus, even the most enthusiastic and prolific student will not run out of room for new ideas in a virtual concept map!

However, the classification of ideas and the creation of categories and sub-categories is an important part of the mapping. When students classify information, they must analyze that data in order to place it appropriately. To the cognitive theorist, this is a marvelous means of strengthening those links in the brain, helping to move the ideas from short-term to long-term memory.

Virtual field trips are an enormous cost-saving measure in these tight economic times. Yet instead of using them just as a replacement for costly physical journeys, those same virtual field trips can be a much more common part in the life of a class. By venturing out into the world from a virtual perspective, there are certain benefits for students. For example, students who are shy and reserved when they leave their comfort zone may actually learn more in the virtual trip than the same trip done in a more traditional fashion. That student can take comfort in the familiarity of their usual classroom environment yet still gain the experience that their more extroverted classmates may enjoy.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Behaviorist Theory & Instructional Strategies

As our video presenter indicated, behaviorist theory relies on reward and punishments-- the basis of operant conditioning. While we are not resorting to shock collars and food pellets, we do essentially the same thing with our words and actions in the classroom. In the text, a major focus is on providing appropriate feedback. When we give a simple "good job" or "that's correct," we have just given a small positive reward to encourage that behavior. Similarly, when we enact any of our stated-and-posted classroom rules/policies/practices due to some misbehavior, there is a negative consequence.

For me however, student success in my subject area (high school math) cannot be just about getting the right answer and small behaviorist viewpoints on teaching & learning. In all my lessons, I seek not only to educate students in the content, but to also help them regain their lost abilities of: being curious, wanting to learn, needing to know "why," and striving to succeed. I wish there were a way I could help students survive 5th-8th grade without that joy of learning being squashed out of them. It is a big job to dig it back out once it has been put away!

However, behaviorist theory can still help me in this quest, for it is often a student's perception of their abilities that controls their actions. Most of us will avoid doing things that make us look foolish, awkward, or stupid. For teenagers, that list of "things" can be almost infinite, and school tasks are no exception. So, I ask a lot of "duh" questions during class- if a student finds themselves thinking "duh" when I ask the question, it means they are probably right! This leads to a series of personal successes that build self esteem and confidence. Then, I work to help students transfer that success into bigger successes with problem solving and increased test scores. That whole process is operant conditioning-- the gradual reinforcement of desired behaviors to encourage those behaviors to be repeated.