Unleashing the Inner Child

March 6th, 2008 by webmaster

Unleashing the Inner Child

Who doesn’t love kindergarten. Crafts, colouring, and learning new things makes for an enjoyable time, what’s not to love?
Now, replace “kindergarten” with “glycolysis”, and you have a conversation killer.
The process of cellular respiration - glycolysis, the Krebs cycle and oxidative phosphorylation - has been glazing eyes of stunned Biology students for decades. And yet, if approached carefully, it is quite straightforward - thare is just a lot of pieces to the puzzle. So in order to pull my senior Biology students away from the brink of the memorizing abyss, I decided to bring them back to kindergarten. I stopped in at the dollar store and purchased a set of bingo markers (also called daubers, dobbers or dabbers - tubes of brightly coloured ink with spongy tops), and a roll of paper from the art department. The students’ task was simply to draw cellular respiration. To draw it big, and draw it bold.
At first, the students began reproducing the diagrams from their text. When I suggested that perhaps fun and whimzy should play a part in their work - after all, we were using bingo markers - they became genuinely excited. Enzymes became hearts and hats and stars. Sugar molecules became faces with one hair for each carbon, and ATP became magical.
Instead of copying the diagrams from the text, they began interpreting them. Identifying what was important, why they were presented in a particular way, and how they related to each other.  A few of them made mistakes - drawing arrows or molecules where there were none - which forced them to observe the diagrams more carefully, and recognize why there wasn’t an arrow there. It also forced them to make decisions - how do I fix this?  In short, learning happened.
The lesson, of course, does not stop there. I will be posting images of the work, and will be asking the students to provide critique and feedback, which will force them to analyze the interpretations, and compare them with their understanding.
The class wasn’t entirely without incident. There was some misbehaviour with the markers, and there was one boy who decided (after doing some good work) that doing Art in Bio class was not worth his full attention.
But then, if I could have all but one student fully engaged in my class every day, I think I would be getting somewhere. 
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Shhhh! Don’t tell them they’re learning…

January 27th, 2008 by webmaster

My son is writing a novel. The amusing part is that he doesn’t know it.

At some point a couple of years ago, when my son was 11 or 12, he was introduced to lego fan forums by one of his friends (who, by the way, he plays with every night, even though they live in different countries. The power of Skype.). In the forums, he discovered a medium known as “RPGs”. Now, if you are my generation you may recognize the term Role Playing Game from such classics as Dungeons and Dragons. These involve rules, and dice, and little lead figures, and maps, and funny hats, and more dice. Forum RPGs, in contrast, involve none of these. As a game, it’s closest “classic” comparison would be what we called “Dark and Stormy Night” or simply “The Story Game”. It is a campfire game where one person begins a story, and the next person continues.

In the Forum RPG version, the rules of the “game” -  setting, character attributes, time period and so on - are established by the creator. When a person joins the game, they create a character and join in the fun. Each player then submits a blurb in response to the previous blurbs, and a storyline develops. The creator of the “game”, as well as any designated moderators, make sure that submissions fall within the guidelines, and ask for corrections if necessary. The players, in addition to storyline posts (referred to as In Character, or IC), post questions, comments, background information under the heading of Out Of Character (OOC).

My son - then 12 - created one of these games, based on a theme inspired by the very popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and this has been a staple of his online time ever since. He spends more time “RPGing” than he does on Homestar Runner. And that’s saying something. As a dutiful parent, I check periodically to see that my children’s activities online are appropriate. This is known as “spying”. A recent bit of espionage turned up something interesting - this RPG has been running for over a year, with almost six hundred individual posts, each of which is on the order of 100 words of storyline (many with half that again in OOC comments). Of course, my son, like many a young teen, if asked to produce a piece of creative writing for school, would whine “I don’t know what to wriiiiiiiite.” And yet he, along with like minded collaborators from around the world, has created a grand serial adventure novel that sits currently at 60 000 words, with no end in sight.

It occurs to me, as it probably has to you by now, that if we could harness this energy and enthusiasm for education, it could be a very powerful tool indeed. Imagine children wanting to write. Wanting to rush home and “play my RPG”, and at the same time building their creative skills and writing ability. I know many frontline educators who would think to themselves, and even mutter aloud, that no administrator at their school would allow Role Playing Games as a means of education. No siree, we don’t DO games at this institution, it’s all about hard work. So, for these people, I propose a new name, one that hints at all that is good in 21st century learning, one that sounds like a new wave in pedagogical philosphy that a stick-in-the-mud administrator would love to soak up. So for these people, I give you Asynchronous Collaborative Online Storytelling (ACOS).

At it’s simplest, ACOS provides practice in writing skills, something that is much needed at all grade levels. More subtly, it involves the process of production or creation, which I feel is fundamental to the learning process. The process of producing information, rather than simply consuming it, builds knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking skills. It could have any number of roles in a classroom, from “just for fun” to part of the backbone of a literature or language unit or course. And how about this for an idea - the students begin an ACOS storyline - or maybe two or three different ones - and contribute for several months. At some point, the students can be directed to bring their story to a close through discussion during class time. Each storyline could be compiled and edited, and finally the stories could be submitted for publication. At the end of the year each student would receive a print copy of the book they helped to create, complete with their name on the author list, and student artwork on the cover. How’s that for a souvenir of Grade 7 English class?

I think this is an idea with definite potential. I would love to hear from anyone who has done anything like ACOS, would like to try this, or has any suggestions for how to do something like ACOS most effectively.

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Google Sky hits the streets

August 22nd, 2007 by webmaster

Adding to its popular Google Earth, the search engine and software giant has turned its gaze skyward with Google Sky. Accessed from within the Google Earth desktop application, Sky allows users to peruse the night sky, identify stars, constellations, and a variety of deep sky objects. An information bubble pops up when you mouse over any object, and for many of the identified objects a telescopic image is available.

Although this feature is in its infancy and is not (yet?) a threat to applications such as Starry Night and The Sky, it is nevertheless more than just a fun distraction. A variety of features (particularly the Layers) make it a useful resource for amateur astronomers, and its ease of use and free availability make it attractive for students and educators - many of whom already make use of Google Earth.

From the perspective of both an astronomer and an educator, any free tool that helps people learn astronomy and spread an appreciation of the night sky is a worthy one. Go check it out.

Of course, I should also mention, that for those who don’t want to download and install Google Earth, there is still the earlier, but less well known, Sky-Map.org.


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The Parable of Rose and Daisy

May 14th, 2007 by webmaster

A cautionary tale…

Once upon a time there were two neighbours, named Rose and Daisy. Both neighbours had beautiful gardens, that they tended regularly. On any clear day in the warmer months they could be seen doting around their gardens with a watering can, checking that the plants were not wilting, and the soil was good, the weeds were not encroaching, and the lawn edges remained crisp.
One day, Daisy came home with a set of boxes, and began to busily install equipment throughout the yard.
She explained to Rose: “I am tired of all that lugging the watering can around. This new irigation system will water the garden for me at regular intervals. With less time spent watering, I can spend more time working with the plants.”  Agreeing that this sounded like an excellent plan, Rose went out and purchased one herself.
A few weeks later, Daisy’s garden was healthier and more vibrant than ever - a genuine showpiece garden.
Rose’s garden, however, did not improve in appearance. The plants were certainly healthy, but a few weeds were poking through, and some of the plants heeded dead-heading, and some of the edges were creeping in.
So why is there a difference between the two?
Both neighbours loved their gardens, but Daisy loved to garden. She loved poking in the diret and caring for the plants and pulling the weeds and trimming the edging and all the other little gardening chores needed to keep a garden in top form. Rose loved her garden, but only did the chores when necessary. When watering by hand, Rose would see all the little things that needed to be done, because she was stopping and watering each plant. With the central system, she sat back and watched her garden grow, without getting in and giving it the individual attention each plant deserved. 
You can probably see where this is heading…
With the introduction of any new technology in education, particularly one that promises improvement “automatically”, there is a risk of the teacher withdrawing behind the technology, and not giving each student the individual attention they deserve.
But this is not a criticism of teachers, nor technology. It is a cautionary tale, it comes with no moral judgement. If you are reading this, you need to take a long, hard look at your own practices, and ask yourself if you are a Rose or a Daisy - and if you realize that you are a Rose (and if you consider human nature, that would likely be the majority!), you must decide for yourself how you will ensure that each student is looked after individually.
Good luck, and watch your gardens grow!

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Information Ecology and 21st Century Learning

May 1st, 2007 by webmaster

I like organic metaphors for information transfer and learning. I trained as a biologist, so it is not surprising, but beyond that - there is something right about a complex, non-linear  process, as opposed to an orderly one. Orderly things are only that way because constraints have been put on them.

One of the ideas I really like is that of the Information Ecology - a term I am sorry to say I did not coin. It is a concept that relates the flow of information to an ecological system. So, let’s go back to a little refresher on ecology….

Remember what you leaned in school long ago about food chains and food webs? Producers, consumers, more consumers, top predator, detritovores and decomposers? Well, here’s the tough news. You never learned it right in the first place, and here’s why. Your teacher didn’t understand it. Your teacher learned it from a textbook that was as dry as the one you learned from, and was even more outdated. More’s the pity, as the real beauty of ecology is in the complexity and interractions - things that are very difficult to convey effectively in a textbook.

In any ecology, There is a foundation, and that is the producers. Electromagnetic energy in the form of light is used to convert CO2 to chemical energy, in the form of biomass. This can then be used to sustain each successive level. At each level, however, there is less useful energy, as much of it is used up by the previous level. As a result, in most food webs producers have the largest numbers, and each successive level of consumer has fewer and fewer numbers. This does not mean, however, that the producers are the most important, per se, since each and every trophic level is entirely necessary for the web to function. Remove one, and the entire thing collapses. There really is no “Most Important”.

The Information Ecology can be outlined with many parallels to a food web. However, it needs to be drawn upside down. In the living world, producers are common and produce a large but finite amount of usable energy for the next level. Each level is smaller and smaller in number, with final consumers being the most scarce. In the Information Ecology, primary producers are scarce, and produce a limited amount of primary information. This information, however, can be consumed an infinite number of times by information consumers. These consumers, in turn, can settle for mere consumption (terminal consumers), or they can take the information and in turn produce something of their own using what they have gleaned. When information is consumed and something new is produced, there is a significant chance that the quality of that information will decline. In other words, the information gets ground up in a rumour mill. Broken telephone. Take your pick of metaphors.

So in an information ecology, we should be able to qualify information by its proximity to its origin (of course, whether the origin itself is reliable is another matter altogether!). Is this to say that all information should be tracked down to its source? For graduate studies, definitely. For the purposes of K-12 education, the source information might be too rich, and completely indigestible. A secondary source may provide similar information presented in a much clearer fashion.

One thing that is clear, however, is that in an information ecology, pure consumers do nothing of benefit. It is only producers who cause the information ecology to grow.

So what is the take-away lesson? It is that quality learning is tied to the quality information, and that information is really only processed when it is used to produce more information. Today’s learners should be encouraged as much as possible to both produce and consume as close to the primary production level as possible.

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