Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thinking about Thinking, or "Why Memorization is not the Boogeyman"

I have been going to a lot of conferences recently. I even wrote about those experiences on another blog to which I contribute, CANEns. The short of it is that I think conferences are valuable not only for the "hardware" (i.e. the tangible materials and resources I can take from it) but also the "software" (i.e. the meaningful conversations that occur and challenge my preconceived notions.)

Discussion surrounding the ideas of SAMR, Blooms, and others started me thinking. The first thought was: Wow, we humans sure like to compartmentalize and categorize the perceptible world. The second was: Hmm, why are so many of these charts hierarchical or linear? I started thinking about how students learn now, how I learned when I was "in school," and how people 100, 200, or 2000 years learned before us. I considered the many "great thinkers" of the history books; Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero, DesCartes, Ben Franklin (as just a fraction of the tip of the iceberg.) We want our students to be great thinkers. How did they do it?

They didn't have the technology we have. Communication was limited in many cases (especially before the printing press.) Where would Ben Franklin be on the Bloom's chart? What about the SAMR? Did these great thinkers create and produce in their equivalent to school? We know they created because we have their books, essays, and inventions; but did this happen early in their learning or later in life? What did they do in school?

I think there was a lot of memorization. There was translation, and reading. There was a great deal of order, and perhaps teaching via models (i.e. read the works of great authors who have come before and memorize how they wrote. Now practice that model and emulate it.) These practices sound like the bottom parts of the SAMR and Blooms models. They sound so "last century." (Ha, well... they are!) But it makes me wonder.

What is the underlying value of that practice? We use the word "rigor" today to try to explain this phenomenon. Perhaps a better term is perseverance, combined with structure and motivation. A key difference between "then" and "now" is that those who went to school had wealth, or power, or means, and it was optional. They were also guaranteed results from this schooling. Today schooling is more or less mandatory, and there are no guaranteed results (read: jobs.)

Did rote learning create a Ben Franklin? I think it did. But why? And why won't that work today? Is it partly sampling bias (after all, we only know of the successes of history - for every Ben Franklin, how many were failures?) We see students' eyes glaze over when we try to do too much rote memorization. We advocate for more synthesis, more analysis, more creation. And yet, even given these freedoms, sometimes students' eyes glaze over. What gives?

I think it comes back to motivation. If Ben Franklin sat up at night and said to himself, "I want to invent awesome stuff," what was he willing to sacrifice for that goal? Was he inventing stuff when he was 10 or did he resign himself to the fact that he needed to practice and do some rote tasks? Is creation the end of a process or is it immediately available?

If this post seems scattered, it is. I can't really formulate my thoughts around an essential question. But I see that the simple tools of yesteryear, that created great thinkers, are scoffed at and almost vilified today. And I see kids today who have tools that are, in a word, magic, take them for granted and pass them off after 2 minutes. The tools have become disconnected from the learning process.

If memorization is a piece of the puzzle that leads to creation, then it is essential. If it stymies creation, it must be discarded. Perhaps the SAMR and Blooms models are not so black and white; the context of the learning matters more than the mode to get there. Creation without perseverance, gumption, drive, spirit, verve, rigor - or whatever you want to call it - is empty and will fall flat, and any "low level" skills will seem like busywork and void of meaning. Yet if you add that drive back to the equation, then the low level skills are building blocks to creation; indeed, without those building blocks, creation (rich, meaningful, and deep) is not possible.

I think we need to be careful when we look at these charts. Learning is not linear, and it is not easily explained through graphic organizers. In our pursuit of new and better ways to teach, we cannot forget that the low level skills are essential pieces of the puzzle. We should not forgo the nails when we dream of our castles in the sky.

I'm curious about your perspective. Leave comments below or Tweet me @brevkin.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Pondering the Past

I recently completed another Coursera course entitled "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets" featuring Sue Alcock and a bevy of her graduate students, production crew, other archaeologists, and many other helpers. It was a wonderful experience because it really showed the potential of MOOCs and showcased how even the humanities can be broken down into manageable units with interactive elements. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a large swath of the MOOC landscape seems to be relegated to the hard sciences, computer programming, and math. My hope is that the dearth of humanities courses on MOOC websites is due to a lack of marketing rather than a fear from humanities instructors that the mission and execution of MOOCs is incompatible with the teaching and learning of said humanities. A well executed humanities MOOC such as ADSL foments the same curiosity, interrogation, discussion, deep thinking, and comparative analysis that any great teacher in a classroom could ever hope to foster.

We talked a lot about context. Context gives meaning to things; a piece of pottery found in isolation means nothing, but with its surroundings it gains new meaning. I think this idea of context is important in our increasingly fragmented and decontextualized world. Standardized tests increasingly demand mastery of diverse scintillae of facts; teachers are increasingly told to teach more with less time, so that a triage of information occurs where only those facts most essential for the test are saved and anything else is left on the cutting floor. Marketers ask us to choose product A or B without explaining why it matters in the first place. All around us, our collective forest is disappearing and, not only do we not see the trees, we only see the single leaf that someone else told us was important.

People tend to look forward for improvement and innovation. Yet this is only half of the work. Without investigating the past, how and why do we improve and innovate? From what insufficient past must we create a more sufficient future? As George Santayana has written:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Context allows us to progress. It is my hope that, as we push forward into the brave new world of tech integration, streamlined processes, big data, and super-specialized knowledge, we don't lose sight of the arc of history. Though the MOOC I took was essentially a beginner's guide to archaeology, it has reinvigorated in me, and I hope in many others, the larger import of context in our daily lives.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Foreign Language Tools

It has been a while since I last posted, but it has been a hectic month and a half! I've decided to show some tools I've run across that pertain especially well to the foreign language classroom. Some are more suited for a modern language (emphasis on aural/oral communication), but all can be used even in classical languages (and other subjects, for that matter.) I will organize these by skills.



I have written about this website before. It allows linear contribution to a storyline. A great way to get students collaborating and writing.


This website allows you to give anonymous, filterable email addresses to your students. You and another teacher can then trade your students' anonymized addresses with each other and participate in a "pen pal" exchange. Finding another teacher is centered around "projects" that are put forth; teachers search for projects and then get in touch with other teachers.

One benefit is that a teacher can enable all emails to be seen by the teacher before the recipient sees it. This is a safe and secure way for students to communicate. The website has an international audience and you may be able to chat with kids from other countries! Followup ideas: Use an LMS (Like Edmodo or Schoology) and Skype to continue and further your discussions with your newfound friends.


This is a very easy to use activity/drill creator. You paste some text in the input field, hit the textivate button, and find yourself with a plethora of activities. These range from ordering text segments, to cloze exercises, to matching, and more. The range of possibilities is limitless - from simple vocabulary matching to exploratory story analysis.

Word Clouds

Tagul, Tagxedo, and Wordle all do roughly the same thing. One enters some text, and the websites produce a graphic that shows the most commonly used words in the text. These sites merge language and art in interesting ways, but the primary benefit I see is that they can be used to emphasize key vocabulary for a text. Perhaps you might compare two famous speeches in the target language and see what themes are common or dissimilar.


Student-Centered Audio

Google Voice and are two services that allow students to call in and leave a voice message. The teacher can then access these messages. It frees a teacher up from the synchronous limitations of a language lab and makes communication more authentic. These would probably be used primarily for student to teacher interaction, though there may be ways to create student to student interaction (although isn't that what class is for?)

Teacher-Centered Audio

I suppose I mean the idea of "flipping" or curation here. There are various tools that allow you to narrate over a video, powerpoint, or other medium. Some new ones I've found since my curation post include Brainshark, Jing, and Voicethread.

Classical-World Specific


This amazing project allows one to imagine and track real-world limitations to travel in the ancient world. It is highly customizable and answers an often overlooked question.

Operation Lapis

Kevin Ballestrini has put in a lot of thought and hours into this novel approach to Latin learning. I can't do him or his project justice in these too-short sentences, but the idea behind the approach is immersive, authentic, and fun. Follow him on Twitter @kballestrini

Tres Columnae

I've never met Justin Schwamm, but his blog is very passionate about teaching. He also has an immersive, authentic take on Latin learning. Follow him on Twitter @trescolumnae

Twitter PLN (Personal Learning Network)

Here is a public Twitter list of people involved with Latin or Classics.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


What is curation? From the Latin word curare - to care for, curation is the role a person takes to lead an audience through an investigation of some kind. The curator at a museum will lead the patrons around the exhibits, explaining the significance of each and illuminating the larger topic therein.

So what does this have to do with the daily grind of teaching? I believe this is the trend, and hopefully future (as a revisit to the past), of education as we know it.

I think many educators would agree that a prime goal we have for our students is for them to take their learning by the horns and acquire a thirst for thirst; we want them to not just recite back facts and figures, but to actively engage in content, discover knowledge on their own, and create new ideas.

We also know that if you open Pandora's box, chaos ensues. We cannot unleash our students on the world sight unseen and expect miracles. If that were the case, teachers wouldn't exist, and people would spontaneously know exactly how, where, and why to understand anything.

This is why curation is the Golden Mean. It allows teachers, who have the content knowledge and experience, to suggest, persuade, influence, explain, and sometimes coerce students towards finding their own way.

Curation is the antithesis to "spoon feeding." It is embodied in quotes like "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" (John F. Kennedy) and "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled" (Plutarch). It is embodied in the idea of a flipped classroom. It is embodied in the idea of a 1:1 school. It is embodied in MOOCs. It is embodied in the idea that kids do not need their own textbooks; they create their own textbooks.

This trend towards curation, towards ownership of thought and creativity, is not easy. Students who are accustomed to passive learning do not enjoy the recently kindled fires in their minds. But I think this is the way to get our next generation engaged and productive.

Curation is a timeless concept. Socrates was curating his students' thoughts millennia ago; technology just lets you get from 0-60 that much faster. These tools allow a teacher or student to organize media in various ways. This is the heart of curation. In a way it is a rehashing of the art of a research paper; finding sources, but using your own voice and thought process to organize and conceptualize the information. What makes this richer than a research paper is that many media are supported, and the ability to share makes the process more democratic.

Here are a few of the digital tools that can get you and your students on the highway to enlightenment:

Mentormob - Create "playlists" to go through material (videos, links, pictures) in a specific sequence.
Teachem - Similar to Mentormob.
Storify - Collate Twitter chats into archives for later reference.
Scoopit - Organize and catalogue web sources in a curated manner.
Evernote - Can be used similarly to Scoopit.
Sophia - A place to host and share curated videos.
Mobento - A place to find curated videos for autodidactic learning.

PS. If you clicked on any of the links in this post, you participated in an act of curation! Even blogs and  the static websites of 5-10 years ago can serve as vehicles for curation. You do it every day as a teacher, there are just more tools out there now to help you do it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Formative Assessments

There are several websites out there that let teachers quickly assess student comprehension. Most allow the students to answer questions using any device (smartphone, iPad, computer, etc) and can show graphs of results. Question types often include polls, multiple choice, true/false, and other non-divergent responses. Some of the websites may allow for saving the questions so that you could create a more summative type assessment for students to take.

These websites are great for pinpointing student understanding and allowing the teacher and students to progress at an appropriate rate during a lesson. They replace the "clickers" of interactive whiteboards and update the tried-and-true practice of exit slips, tiny pop quizzes, or other fast assessment tools. It could even replace "Please raise your hand to show you understand" and the chaos that can ensue in a large classroom. Because of the results data, teachers can find common misconceptions and more easily target them.

Listed below are some of the tools I have come across. This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor do I favor one over others (in truth, I haven't had an opportunity to try them all.) Do any of these pop out at you as especially worthwhile?