Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Digital Literacy Matters

For years, I've heard teachers in the district rave about tech camp in Tucson. For years, I've thought, "Hm, that sounds nice. Too bad I wouldn't be able to convince anyone to pay for me to go to a resort for a week." In reality, I never asked, I just assumed that was the case. Yes, I know what that makes me. It also goes against my philosophy of "You never know till you ask." Either way, when my Instructional Technology director happened to mention that he still had slots to fill for both ISTE 2011 and tech camp, I "happened to mention" that I had never been to either. (Subtle of me, right?) So, when he offered me a spot at tech camp, I was all over it. And here I am!

While it's affectionately called tech camp, it's officially called "Camp Plug & Play 6.0" and is sponsored by the AZ K-12 Center. It's not a conference, so much as an extended workshop, in which you learn a specific skill all week. Some of this week's strands focus on iMovie, interactive whiteboards, Google, and digital storytelling (the strand I was signed up for). Though it's not really a standard sit-and-get conference, there was a keynote speaker yesterday, who made some excellent points. Her name is Angela Maiers and she was so passionate, I decided to go back for an optional evening session on the first day when I was already exhausted. The focus of her second presentation was the importance of digital literacy. I have never seen someone speak so passionately on this topic (for good reason)! These are some of her best points, written through my lens.  

Being literate is no longer only about being able to read words. Obviously that is a critical, first step, but if you don't know how to communicate in this new digital world, you will feel like you're in a foreign country. We see evidence of this everyday as more and more people with public identities try to speak in a language in which they are not literate (Representative Weiner, etc., etc., etc.) One of her key elements to being literate in the digital world is learning how to be a "great infosumer." Not only do our children have to know how to read, now they have to know how to find and then select the most relevant, accurate information. Without this, we have students meandering all over the wasteland of the internet looking at images as "research" or using Honda.com as an impartial source of information. 

Then, once they find the information their looking for, they need to know how best to represent that information to others. This includes synthesizing that information into a person's own unique words and understanding, as well as adding new information to what is already available. While many of our students are experts at knowing how to upload a fight video to Youtube or how to post on Facebook, they are absolutely clueless on how to post information that the world finds valuable. In Ms. Maiers' words, "The web doesn't care about you until you contribute valuable information to the community." Our students rarely think beyond the borders of their own community. They don't realize that there is a whole world of people who may be viewing their work, and that if those people find it valuable, it could be shared with hundreds and thousands of people. It absolutely behooves us to help our students differentiate between information for friends and information that is useful to people around the world. 

On a related note, we have to teach kids about how to act respectably and respectfully on the web. Heaven knows adults are not setting good examples for them, and we must point this out to them. We have to help them have a bit of foresight and know that the internet actually "does NOT have an erase button." There is no such thing as deleting. If your screen name in 7th grade was sexychica, it will define you for far longer than you want. Everything a student puts on the web will be searchable by someone, potentially someone you don't want to find it (a future employer?) and will do so long after it ceases to represent who he/she really is. (There are fantastic interviews with students on this point in Along Together.) We have to help our students have the foresight to represent themselves well. 

These were just a few of the points she covered in her 60 minutes, but she was kind of enough to show us her full-blown graduate class information via her wiki for free. Check it out if you want step-by-step lessons for ways to teach these concepts to your students. Needless to say, I will definitely be including portions of this information in my courses this year. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mind, Brain & Education

That's the title of an interesting collection of brain-based education articles I borrowed from a friend. While there are definitely some dryer parts to this collection, there is much that can be applied in everyday classrooms. It also expounds on the numerous inaccuracies that many teachers have been led to believe is solid research in terms of the brain and it's impact on education.

  • Right-brained vs. Left-brained. While there are clearly different sides of the brain that accomplish different tasks, there is no such thing as a kid who is too left-brained to be able to do something "right brained." (I read the same thing in a NYTimes article today.)
  • Mozart EffectThe original study describing the impact of Mozart's music on increasing intelligence in people has never been replicated, and the original study only showed a weak, temporary increase in intelligence. 
  • Brain Plasticity is Limited to Certain Ages. The past ten years of research has confirmed that a person's brain is able to change to include new things at any age. While it is true that there are certain periods in which the brain demonstrates extreme plasticity, this process continues in varying degrees throughout life. 
 Here are some of my favorite ideas from the book.

  • Only kids who think, learn. Specifically, when kids make predictions, it ensures that they learn something. When they are engaged with the material and have to presuppose what might come next, and they receive confirmation (or not), the neural network in the brain is either rewarded with a dopamine burst for being correct, or has to rewire itself to adapt to the new information. Either way, comprehension is occurring. But it only happens when kids think. (p. 56) 
  • Know your brain. When students understand a few key bits of information about their brain, it can motivate them to not only study more, but study more effectively. For example, if a student knows that repetition forces the neural networks to prune out unnecessary information and only latches on to the repeated information, their practice can make that knowledge permanent. (p. 58)
  • You can change your brain. Research has shown many times that human brains change from birth to death, due to experiences and learning. This is critical for all students to know, but especially those students who think they aren't as bright as others. When they find out that they can change their own brain by practicing new skills, correcting mistakes, and having new experiences, they are empowered to take responsibility for their own learning. (p. 61)
  • Think big picture. Ask the kind of probing questions that help students develop intuition about their own thinking. For instance, if a student is trying to solve a math problem, have them back up and ask themselves if they are using the right strategy for that type of problem. Or, if they're working on a science project of some sort, have them ask themselves, "Am I getting closer to the answer?" This type of metacognition (thinking about one's thinking) encourages the brain to begin to automatically ask these sorts of questions when working through any problem. By evaluating their thinking process, students learn to make their thinking more effective, by focusing on what works, and how to get there as quickly as possible. (p. 80)