Friday, December 6, 2013

Focus. I can. . . squirrel!

They call it multitasking. It isn't. It's being distracted.

A lot of us joke about. . .squirrel! It's funny, but not really. We all suffer from it. We're Pavlovian in our response to the ding, chirp, or ring tone that signals a new message. It could be important and I have to know NOW.

When I'm trying to focus, to really dig in and get work done, I turn off any chimes, dings, whooshes, chirps, or other noises that will notify me of some message. . . on Facebook, on Skype, on LinkedIn, on email, on Twitter, on anything. I must disconnect to focus.
Important research compiled on the effects of students multitasking while learning shows that they are losing depth of learning, getting mentally fatigued, and are weakening their ability to transfer what they have learned to other subjects and situations.
In that same article (May 2013), educators recognized the double-edged sword of technology in the classroom. It's a useful tool, but it's a distraction. But one teacher also acknowledged that it's likely "that many students aren't being challenged and engaged enough to stimulate their brains in class." She wonders what would happen if teachers were "given more leeway at all levels. . . to teach important concepts in-depth, students would find the learning we are doing more intriguing and would be less likely to head to Facebook for a distraction."

She raises a good point. And the teacher who wants her students to boldly take risks without technology underestimates, I think, the importance of students knowing how to use their technology most effectively as they take those risks. Let's face, the Internet makes one heckuva discovery tool.

But the concern for learning to focus is, as noted in this article, "Age of Distraction: Why It's Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus," well, crucial.
The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention,” said Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and other books about social and emotional learning on KQED’s Forum program.
There are two things in this article that seem particularly alarming. First, the relationship between concentration and empathy. “'The circuitry for paying attention is identical for the circuits for managing distressing emotion,' Goleman said. . .This is also the part of the brain that allows people to control themselves, to keep emotions in check and to feel empathy for other people." I can infer that those who have little ability to focus will have little ability to manage their emotions and to feel empathy for others. The consequences of that are stupendous.

Dr. Goleman goes on to say that the ability to focus "is more important than IQ or the socio-economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health” and teachers observe that "students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems." Now, some of that student comprehension could be the students, could be the materials, and could be the teaching and/or the teacher. But, for the sake of argument, let's say it's true that students have more difficulty comprehending texts and partially because they struggle to focus.

The implications for teachers and education are profound; the implications for our future is even more profound.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Serendipity of Learning

I wish I could take credit for this title, but I've swiped it quite boldly from the title of an article of the same title. As I noted when I scooped the article, I love the idea of serendipitous learning.

I came back to this article and this idea with a bit of wistfulness. For the past several months, I've had the privilege of working with educators who are implementing Common Core. Various approaches, various interpretations, various degrees of success. In fact, because of much of the conversation prompted by Common Core, I'm going to begin my own series on Common Core. Stay tuned for that.

One of the topics in the Common Core discussions is "productive struggle." Now I have to say that this is not a new idea. Richard Allington, a long-time educational leader with an emphasis in reading instruction, wrote in You Can't Learn Much from Books You Can't Read (2002) about struggling readers, mismatched textbooks, and encouraging students to struggle but not become frustrated. He repeated and elaborated on some of those ideas in Doing Right by Struggling Readers (2013). Perhaps we haven't always called it "productive struggle," but good teachers have always encouraged students to work beyond their perceived limits.

When I was a kid, I'd ask my mom how to spell a word or what it meant. Her response, "Look it up." Didn't seem to matter if I had no idea how to spell the word. And I remember sitting on the floor with that big dictionary on my lap getting lost in the words. Fast forward to high school and I remember sitting at my desk with the dictionary, just thumbing through it. I'd completely forgotten what I'd meant to look up.

Serendipitous learning. In my mind, learning that occurs unexpectedly in the midst of purposeful learning and which, one might hope, causes a tug of excitement in the student who just learned something through a brief foray down a rabbit trail or by feeling safe enough and encouraged enough to ask one of those potentially weird (aka open-ended, higher-order thinking) questions to which no one in the room knows the answer, but which the student is encouraged to explore. "I don't know, but that's an interesting question. Let's take about 5 minutes to see what we might discover. Maybe we'll see how that adds to what we're trying to learn today."

Right then. Discovery. Collaborating during the excavation and then finding even more unexpected connections. . .that the students make and to which the teacher might contribute.

Yes, the teacher is keeping a watchful eye on the clock and the day's learning objectives but immediately recognizes that this occasional expeditions of learning make some of the more commonplace experiences look, feel, and sound different. Maybe even better.

Yea, come on kids of all ages. Let's do some serendipitous discovery learning today.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Brick by Brick, Bird by Bird, Step by Step

I saw this post today and reposted it through my Writing Matters account. The post is about a word wall and how a teacher improvised and adapted the use of a word wall and the surprising results.

The post reminded me of one of my favorite books about writing, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In the book she tells of the incident which gives the book its title.

Front CoverThirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird."
I used that, among other things, in my freshman writing classes. Too often we are "immobilized by the hugeness of the task." Some tasks are truly huge, and other just seem huge. For freshman writing students, sometimes just writing was huge. . .procrastination aside. The blank page, the blank screen, taunting them.

I know a lot of folks think teaching is easy. After all, teachers have short days and work only 9  months a year. Right? Not so much. Those who really know teachers are quite aware that their days begin early and end late, continuing after the family is fed and the kids abed.

I know a lot of folks think education needs a complete overall, and I'm inclined to agree with them. But so does our tax system, our medical and health care system, and a bunch more. Whether in the camp of those who want radical changes or those who see the need for incremental changes, the fact is that we cannot institute change overnight.

I get to talk to administrators and teachers around the country. I learn so much from them!! But when I asked a group of administrators about priorities, one sighed and blurted out, "Even my priorities have priorities."

And so I swung into gear with my "Choose just one!" mantra. Just one thing. Choose just one thing you want to get done this week. Just one. Choose just one thing you want to get done this month. Just one. Choose just one thing you want your teachers to know or do before the end of the school year. Just one. Choose just one thing you want your teachers to know or do before school starts next year. Just one.

Everything is important but you can do only one thing at a time.

Just one.

Bird by bird.

Brick by brick.

Priority by priority.

Just make sure that each priority, each thing, each activity gets you and your teachers closer to achieving the vision as articulated by your plan. And if you don't have a vision for where you want to be or a plan for how to get there, little of what you do will accomplish much. So if you don't have a vision and you don't have a plan, that's the one thing, the only thing you work on. Right now, for now.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ebooks: Much Ado about Nothing?

Print is here to stay. Hey! It was reported in the Wall Street Journal that print isn't going anywhere any time soon. Nicholas Carr reports
Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.
I like ebooks in practice and in principle, but I prefer pages. And not just because I can continue to read when the doors close on an airplane, though that has something to do with it. It's so annoying to have to turn off all electronics until 10 minutes after take-off. That's a lot of reading time!

Josh Catone of Mashable reports Why Printed Books Will Never Die but suggests that ebooks have an advantage over print books. We see kids who know how to "page" on an iPad and who try to do the same with actual books, but we also know there is a different kind of interaction in being able to see and hold the whole book. Most of Catone's work is focused on why printed books have advantages over ebooks that we hope those kids will discover.

A lot of us talk about the experience of sitting with a book. Of being able to annotate, even in different colors or with different kinds of lines, or to be able to write in the margins. And there's just something about holding an actual book, the feel of the pages.

Don't get me wrong. I think there's value in the ebook, but I don't think we should rush to say that print is dead or that ebooks are superior. As with anything else, I think we'll find certain situations in which ebooks might make more sense and others in which books are the best option.

As long as people are reading, I'm not sure I care.