Thursday, April 12, 2012

Face to Face Big Ideas

This week, while I attend the Mobile 2012 conference, I am lucky to be able to take the light rail to the event each day, which gives me time to use one of my favorite apps, Read It Later, (is very similar to InstaPaper). In it, I save all the things that I want to read, but will probably forget about if I don't save them. Added bonus: it saves them in an offline mode so I can read them anytime (usually when I'm waiting on something). What I usually pair Read It Later with is the LongReads twitter feed. LongReads makes it its business to promote longer-form essays, which don't tend to be too popular in this day and age of two-paragraph news articles and 24 hour news tickers.

The essay I read today during my light rail ride was an opinion piece from the New York Times called "The Elusive Big Idea." It's main premise is that we're living in the Information Age, where we can know anything with Google, Wikipedia, etc. and where we can know everything about our friends through social media. However, there are very few big ideas or "big idea"-type people around anymore, and the ones that are around, aren't heard.

It makes excellent points about how social media especially leads us to focus on the short, distilled form of knowledge about a topic, rather than anything that deeply explores the ideas that can lead to new inspiration. The author quotes Yogi Berra who said that you can't think and hit at the same time. I have found this to be quite true at this conference (and conferences in general). When I sit and listen to a keynote, I rarely just sit and listen. Often I'm taking notes and tweeting quotes from the speaker throughout the process. While I'm glad I do this on some level, I'm fairly certain it doesn't encourage me to actually thoroughly digest the ideas that are being presented to me, because I'm too busy tweeting that fascinating statistic the speaker just mentioned, etc. In fact, the author of this article describes it as not just a form of distraction, but "anti-thinking."

However, I do draw encouragement from conferences like this, because it is an incubator of big ideas. One speaker yesterday quoted Steve Jobs, who is obviously a technology guru, as saying,
"There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."
When we take time to sit down with other people and talk about how we go about doing things, and thoughts we've been pondering of how to make our teaching better, those big ideas can become real practices that can fundamentally change what we do. As the author states, "While social networking may enlarge one's circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same as enlarging one's intellectual universe." I feel that gathering, idea-discussing, and brainstorming are the incubators of today's big ideas. In many ways, the face-to-face conference is from the last generation, but it serves a critical purpose for today. Direct contact is what inspires the big ideas of the future.

[Img: ]

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oh the places Google will take you...

Since I'll be at a conference for most of this week, the few 7th graders I did see spent their class period this week doing a Google scavenger hunt I compiled from a few sources. Its meant to have them practice the search skills we've discussed all year (use keywords, choose reliable sites, use multiple sources, etc.) However, as I was putting the scavenger hunt together, I ran across Google's search features page, which describes many of the reference-type features Google has integrated into their search results. For example, if you want to know the score of your favorite basketball team's last game, you simply type in the name of the team, and the score appears at the top of the search results; you don't even have to go to a website. (See below.) It was good practice and the kids enjoyed seeing that Google will do math for you, tell you stock prices, and even offer it's best guess.

The "best guess" feature was something I'd never seen on Google before. I was quite interested to see that if you type in a fairly generic question/keywords, Google will offer it's best guess. Basically, it takes several of the top hits and combines their answers into one obvious answer posted at the top of the page. For example, if you type in "length of Mississippi River," it offers it's best guess as 2,320 miles, based on information from National Parks Service, Wikipedia and others. (See below.) I especially like that it tells you where it's taking it's information from. (This helps my students learn what is and isn't a trustworthy source.) This particular feature seems to have been rolled out with absolutely zero fanfare, as I can't find anything online about it, but I like it so far! :-)

As my students were discovering all the cool things Google can do, I noticed a student struggling with the first answer. The problem wasn't difficult, but he is a special education student who I knew was going to spend the entire class trying to remember the first four letters of the answer while he clicked back and forth between tabs. So, I taught him how to copy and paste.

Some teachers would totally cringe at this thought, since they think all students will begin copying everything from the internet. However, I knew this student 1) was too sweet to even think of doing that, and 2) needed it too badly not to teach it to him. When I showed him, he was blown away! Changed his world. He was so excited that he literally came back after class to ask for the link to the scavenger hunt so he could finish it on his own time! How often do kids come back asking for more work?? As he left class, he offered to show his teacher how to do it (who doesn't know how!) :-) [Another skill that falls into this category is the "search" function available on any webpage. This saves SPED and ELL kids from thinking they have to read and understand every word on a webpage to find the answer.]

Too often in education we assess students on something that isn't what we actually need them to know. For example, oftentimes word problems end up testing a student's reading ability, more than their skill at adding fractions. In this case, I would have thought the student didn't know how to use Google, given that he only would have answered a few questions. However, offering one simple skill enabled him to focus on the content. Not only that, but he was able to enjoy the content as well.

[More on tech adaptations for SPED and ELL students]