School Re-Examined

kids(6)I believe kids are natural scientists. They are curious about how the world works. Just watch some children playing around a pond, chasing frogs, peering at the minnows, exclaiming over water striders and dragonflies. Young children ask a seemingly endless series of questions, expressing an insatiable desire to understand. This, I think, is a basic, evolutionary characteristic, of being human.

How then has traditional education often made learning arduous, stressful, and sometimes downright unpleasant? Just observe an average high school student preparing for final exams to witness the misery.

How, and why, do we do create this? Can we do it differently? Can we do things better?

How can we, as educators, tap into that natural human curiosity, that drive to understand, that intrinsic need to master the world? How can we ignite that passion for learning, blow it into a flame and keep adding fuel, rather than throwing a bucket of cold water on the fire?

Let us start to question our assumptions of how education works. Let us build a new paradigm!

Here are some assumptions I would like to begin to re-examine.

– Learning is largely a solo activity, accomplished at a desk, in a library or in one’s room.

– Learning happens best when students sit quietly and listen to the teacher.

– Frequent quizzes, tests, and the assigning of grades are required to properly motivate students to work hard.

– Homework is a key part of school.

– Pressure and stress are an inevitable, if not important part, of the academic experience.

– Final exams are necessary to: measure learning / motivate students to work / justify the grades in our grade books.

This year I am so excited to have the opportunity to again teach a class of Biology. Approaching this prep fresh from a summer of rejuvenation, I am feeling energized and creative. With the luxury of summer time to contemplate, I’ve been thinking of the “big goals” for this course. I want this class to be much more than a traditional march through content.

Biology is such an amazing subject. What could be more interesting than studying the life on this planet?! What a terrific platform upon which to set these youngsters up for success in high school and beyond. Let us not simply learn some cool stuff, let us become learners, become collaborators, become scientific thinkers, become tech-savvy investigators, become problem solvers!

Here are the “big goals” I’ve been working on this week.

Goals of the course:

◊ To ignite a genuine passion for learning about the natural world!

◊ To become empowered and compassionate cooperative learners, able to contribute, and nurture the participation of others.

◊ To gain confidence and skills for learning in the modern age by integrating proficient use of powerful technology with real life hands on study of nature.

◊ To develop deep working understandings of the major paradigms of Biological Science from the “big picture” of ecological relationships, down to the molecular level.

◊ To become scientifically literate citizens who can participate, from a basis of understanding, in helping to shape humanity’s relationship with this living planet, Earth.

Now, it is time to work on the nitty gritty lesson plans. I’m envisioning some projects this fall students can do together, kids outside, getting dirty, laughter and joyful exploration. I’m hoping to make this class more student centered, tapping into the social and emotional components of learning that are the way human beings have been learning for thousands of years, long before the industrial model of education took over and became the norm. Humans are, after all, social primates. We learn best in a social setting. We depend on one another, we share knowledge, tap into each others’ strengths, support one another, and as a group, we achieve more than the sum of the individuals.

Life is a team sport. I believe learning is also. Let us begin!

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backlashInevitably as advancements occur in a culture the excitement of new ideas will surely be followed by anxiety and then a backlash.

Educators are in the midst of this phenomenon as we see our classrooms inexorably invaded by smartphones, Ipads and computers.

It is the end of the year, and as is so common when faculty are both tired and in a place to reflect a little, there are those “faculty-all” e-mails in which colleagues are sharing their thoughts with everyone all at once. This year the topics seem to be about technology.       No surprise.

There are links to scientific articles proving that smartphones will damage children’s brains, or a piece telling us that good old fashioned pencil and paper is a better tool for imprinting memories in the human mind than any of these distracting electronic devices. As I write this blog piece, the latest entry in my e-mail box is a proposal to institute restricting rules around technology in public areas. Well, good luck with that folks. Pandora’s box has been open for some time now.                                                                    LOL.

We love innovation and want to have the latest fashionable dress yoga pants, the newest go-pro camera, the most up to date safety features in our cars, and yet we also love the retro stuff, the music of our youth, the backpack that has seen a thousand trail miles, a comforting morning routine of coffee and a newspaper.                                                          The human condition.

Maybe this apparent oxymoron comes from our evolutionary heritage. We have survived as a weak and clawless creature mostly as a result of our culturally acquired skills and knowledge. We know how to hunt and find wild edibles because our elders taught us. They learned from their elders. We have the longest childhoods of any species because so much time is needed for that transfer of knowledge from parent to offspring.

And yet we also survived the Earth’s upheaval of Climate change through the last ice age because we are the most adaptable mammalian species ever. Perhaps the defining characteristic of being human is the ability to have a cultural conversation about ideas, to discuss and debate, to try things out, and to discard or improve. We have no fangs and we are slow runners, but our minds are fertile grounds where new ideas compete with older traditions. Often what results is a creative blend of “all of the above,” and thus the tribes of humans have learned to inhabit every corner of this varied planet from jungle to desert to tundra.                                                                                                                                                  We have always been experimenters.

Let me return to the debate about technology in the classroom. A calculator is a poor tool for pounding in nails, but it sure works nicely when you need to find the area of a circle.

Of course some of us are old enough to remember the outcry against calculators in classrooms too.

But I find the debate about technology in the classroom fascinating, and revealing too. Maybe we are not asking the right questions yet? Is this really the fundamental question “What is better for learning my History or English facts, a notebook or an Ipad?”

The Wright brothers asked the question “Can humans fly?” Watson, Crick and Franklin asked “What does DNA look like?”  Maybe we educators could be asking some new questions?                                                                                                                                                It is finding the right question to ask that might get us somewhere.

Here are a few that plague me all the time.

“What is truly most important for our students to learn in school right now, as humanity will face this century, the greatest challenges it has ever faced, the very limits of the Earth to sustain us all?”

“What social, technical, scientific and cultural skills will our students need, to be able to help find solutions to the seemingly insurmountable problems ahead?”

“How can we educators help our students to be prepared for the future that none of us really understands yet?”

I don’t have the answers… but let’s talk!

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Project Update: In Students’ Own Words

Upon starting to write this post to follow up on progress with this project, (See the last post “Learning that Matters.”) I  realized that student voices should be the ones to tell the story.  These students have done an incredible job with their team projects, and with their individual blogs.

Now… in their own words…


Photo: Sue Houston

“This blog is about protecting and preserving our environment. I am currently in high school and taking a climate science class. My goal for this blog is to encourage all to help save our wonderful planet.”  Ollie

“I will be posting about things that I am going to make in my climate science class. It is a fun class that has a great teacher and great classmates. We are now building miniature windmills for class and will be blogging about the experiences.”  Lucas


Photo credit: Sam Royal

“The way the turbine worked was by getting kinetic energy from the wind which would rotate the wings on the turbine that would then turn into mechanical energy. The mechanical energy is then put into the ac generator which turns the mechanical energy into electrical energy that we can use and store…. A very important function of the turbine is the gears. The way the gears work is if there is a large gear connected to a small gear then every one rotation of the big gear is equal to two rotations of the small gear, because of this, the smaller gear will rotate faster but it will also be harder to turn. Wind turbines use this mechanical advantage to get the most energy production. On a windy day, the wind turbines would use a large to small gear ratio, but on a less windy day, the turbines would use a smaller to larger gear ratio.” Sam



Photo: Sue Houston

“The blades are designed to be a certain shape in order to be efficiently turned by the wind. This shape is similar to an airplane wing and is based around the The Bernoulli Effect. This effect is the concept that fast moving air has lower pressure while slow moving air has higher pressure.  In an airplane the slower current under the wing has more pressure and creates lift while the faster current of top has less pressure. This concept can be applied to the blades of a wind turbine and how the air pushes against them. When the wind blows the circular motion of the fan turning creates kinetic energy. The energy from the fan turns the gears in the gear box which turn the generator. The generator is the component of the wind turbine that actually converts ” Ceilidh



“If you look at the gear box to above you can see that the two blue gears are connected. This is for medium winds. For higher winds we connect the last yellow and red gear and for lower winds we connect the first yellow and red gear. The reason we do this is because although the last gear it harder to turn, we generate a lot more energy because one turn with a big gear in this scenario is like four turns with a little gear. And in the front the small red gear needs to turn about four or five times to get the big yellow gear to turn once. This is a lot easier to turn but generates not as much energy. If you look at the gear box you will see that the speed at which the bottom gears turn effect the energy generated. But with low winds it is a lot easier just to align the small red gear in front with the big yellow although it generates less energy. But if you align the last big gear with the last small red gear it won’t even spin.” Ollie

“The last thing we are going to look at is how the generator transforms kinetic energy, in the form of a rotating turbine, to electrical energy, in the form of the LED light. The way it does this is use the kinetic energy to spin a magnet around a coil of wire. What this accomplishes is that the magnetic field created pushes electrons through the wire. It applies a pressure and moves the electrons along much like a pump pushes water through a pipe. Once the electrons are flowing through the wire we have electricity at varying volts and amps. This can be connected to anything as we know in our very diverse use of electricity in technology. Our kit can even charge batteries which transforms the energy again, this time from electrical energy to chemical energy stored in the battery.” Andrew



Photo credit: Delia Holland

“This project was very engaging for all of us, but it also really allowed the different group members to display their talents. Sam was very good at interpreting directions and explaining them. Ollie was the chief engineer. Andrew helped to screw together the different pieces which was quite the task without a screw driver! Lucas and Delia were the overseers of the project. We kept the many pieces and parts organized which was especially important during clean up. Overall, this was a really enjoyable project for everyone and it brought us a lot closer as a team because we were all trying to figure this out together. Each one of us had something valuable to contribute and everyone’s voice was heard. ” Delia

“The lesson in this project besides learning more about energy sources was working with a group and thinking outside the box. We had to think outside the box and beyond the directions to figure out how to construct our kit and then again to realize that a mashup of our kits was the answer.  The special thing about a hands on project is that you are learning without even realizing it. Being hands on keeps you more involved in the project and forces you to participate. I really enjoyed learning through working hands on and hope other students get to experience this  opportunity too.” Cassie







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Learning That Matters

IndiaGirlToday I learned from a high school girl on the other side of the planet, how to make a steam powered electrical generator out of a pressure cooker, part of a hair dryer, some plastic tubing and a few wires, stuff many people have around the house. The video lesson spawned all sorts of ideas about how my students could use inexpensive parts like this to experiment with wind power generators.

Which is just in time, because next trimester, we are going to build things, like wind turbines in Climate Science class. And for once in my time as a teacher, I’ve not designed the curriculum, nor planned out the lessons day by day.

You see, I cannot do so this time, because I need the kids to help make the plans. This is going to be a different sort of trimester, student driven, student powered, student created. The trick I’m hoping to pull off is total buy-in from the kids, and to do that, they have to be fully empowered.

The course has already had two trimesters of somewhat more traditional learning.  The students have studied how Earth’s Climate works and how humans have been disrupting the natural processes.  They understand the problem and the gravity of the situation. Now they are ready, hungry even, to look at solutions, to explore ideas for fossil fuel free energy systems.

These are the young people who will inherit the world and be faced with the issues humanity has created.  These are the young people who will find better ways to inhabit the Earth.  These are the young people who must develop their creativity, their problem solving skills, and most important of all their ability to collaborate with others near and far, and come up with new ideas.

Let us empower them to begin now.  Let them do work now that matters.

In the “Real World” learning happens continuously and as needed.  Each level of new understanding leads to more questions, to be figured out and tested,  the results added to a body of knowledge which is immediately put to practical use.

What if school was like that?

Here is the idea so far. We are going to explore solutions to the climate crisis by making things, and we are going to blog about it. The concept is continuous learning through building, discussing, photographing, writing, experimenting, thinking, and reflecting. We will be using our portals to information, I-pads, lap-tops, smart phones, to tap into other human brains on the planet who are also building, experimenting and thinking about solutions to the climate issue.

This is the vision anyway. I don’t know how this is all going to work out. The students and I will be creating this curriculum together. My wish is for learning to be real, hands on, relevant, and above all inspiring.  I’m expecting some bumps along the way and many unanticipated challenges.  But I’m also optimistic there will be new insights into how kids learn.  Hopefully there will be breakthroughs for them in terms of making connections, unleashing their creativity, and increasing confidence, because we are going to need super capable people to meet this century’s challenges.

LightBulbThere is something about holding objects in the hands, manipulating them, fitting things together, and trouble shooting, that I suspect will be ever so much more effective at creating neuronal connections, than reading about what other people have done, followed by a test on that material.

I’ve ordered some simple kits to get us started learning. There is one that makes a model of a working wind turbine. It promises that once built, students can do several experiments with it. There is another that explores hydro-power and a third that is a different variety of windmill. Students can work in small groups to put these models together, then of course experiment with them.

Hopefully, once we all have the basics down, we can become more creative, like our friend from across the planet, who showed us how to make a steam electric generator from some junk around the house.

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SAMR: Don’t Get Stuck On “S!”


Remember when you learned how to ride a bike, practicing in the driveway for hours, until suddenly you got it! Balance was achieved, and with a little more pedaling you were off and riding down the road, exploring places your little feet had never taken you before!

One of the things you realized while learning to ride, was it is essential to look up, to look forward, to look where you were going. Looking down at the front wheel inevitably led to loss of balance, or worse yet a crash.

A model for tech integration developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, is called SAMR: Substitute, Augment, Modify and Redefine.

I see educators struggling to use technology because they do not keep their eyes on where they are going, or worse yet, don’t seem to realize there is a journey to be made at all. A few tries with using an I-pad as a substitute for pen and paper and soon enough the teacher is unhappy as students are inevitably lured into distraction by this portal-to-the-universe in their hands. Substitute is just the beginning, the gaining of balance and acquisition of steering skills. It is crucial to start going somewhere as soon as possible!

You did not learn to ride a bike so you could circle around your family’s driveway. You learned to ride a bike so you could ride to town, or to your friend’s house, or across the country. Do you remember that heady, exhilarating sensation of freedom?

Likewise, the goal of learning the basics of operating an I-pad is not so you can use it as a fancy three ring binder. Don’t get stuck there, in the family driveway. You will soon find the bike itself is preposterous in that setting, difficult to turn so sharply and dizzying to operate in circles.

The I-pad has the potential to take students anywhere in the world, and deeply into any field of knowledge. It also empowers students to create and do things things us older folks cannot even imagine, our minds being well trained in the boundaries of what has been possible up until recently.

New technology empowers us, enables us, indeed forces us, to redesign our curriculum. With nearly infinite knowledge at their fingertips, our students do not need us to download all the data from our own heads into theirs anymore. It is still essential that as teachers we have a body of knowledge about our subject matter, not because students need to hear the details directly from us, those are google-able, but because we understand the big picture of our subject.  What students need is our guidance in navigating this brave new world. They need our help organizing information around key concepts, understanding systems and seeing connections.

Redesigning how we teach with the new tools now in hand is a formidable, essential and of course completely unavoidable task ahead for all of us educators.   There is no good reason for delay, and many reasons to begin now.

What are the possibilities out there once students and teachers learn how to ride this virtual bicycle? Imagine students publishing their English papers on their own blogs, gaining a readership of peers around the world. Imagine science students connecting with actual scientists out in the field who are doing current research on Climate Change. Imagine Social Science students having a UN style summit with young people from other nations.  Imagine Language students communicating in the target language in real time with kids their own age  on the other side of the planet. There are many ideas we can think of off the top of our heads, and certainly many more our students will discover as we launch on our journey together.

Let us ride!


Photo Credit: Lisa Drummond

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Wake Up Fellow Educators! The Age of Knowledge is here!

phoneIn my pocket is a magical device that opens a portal to nearly all the accumulated knowledge humankind has acquired in the past ten thousand years. That knowledge includes all the major scientific, historical and cultural understandings we have gained as a species.

There is another such portal device in my schoolbag.

All my students have similar devices as well!

Think about this. It is an absolute miracle! It has taken thousands of years for humans to create our complex cultures, to develop all our versatile technologies, from the Neolithic Revolution to the Industrial Revolution to the Age of Technology.

All of this, is available, right now, at our fingertips.

Isn’t this the answer to all our most outrageous dreams as educators, where knowledge is abundant and free, where students can find answers, and better yet explore questions, at any time, from nearly anywhere?

And yet many of my fellow educators would wish this miracle away, spurn it, deny it, pretend it does not exist… not allow these “portals to knowledge” to appear in their classrooms.

laptopHow is this not the very height of folly?

Dear fellow educators, we cannot, nor should we even try, to return to a time when we were the sole keepers of the keys to the gates of knowledge, a time when students were lined up in rows to receive our wisdom, then obediently spit it back to us on a test.

What we have been doing, perhaps even doing well,  20, 10, or even just 5 years ago, is not going to cut it anymore.

However, fear not! This truth does not mean we are out of a job! Quite the contrary I believe we are still very much needed, but our role is going to be different. In fact, it is going to be harder than ever, because fate has given us the job of shaping the new educational paradigm.

The old model of education we grew up with, prepared us for the world of the twentieth century, a predictable world where we knew the script: go to college, get a job, raise a family in the certain context of increasing prosperity for all. We don’t live in that kind of a world anymore. Times are changing and the future is less secure.

We are tasked with readying this new generation of youngsters to tackle the most challenging century the human species has ever faced.

Look around. Civilization has some tremendous difficulties to tackle in this next century. We have climate change with an energy crisis,  environmental degradation, human hunger, wars and genocide, sectarian divides and religious conflict, and most of all, a human population overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet.

LimitsToGrowthIt is our job to prepare our students to run the planet as we hurtle headlong and inexorably into these crises.  Do you think they need some help from us old folks to get up to speed before they are in charge of things?  You bet they do!  And our job preparing them is going to take all our collective intellect,  imagination, courage,  and a whole bunch of hard work.

To deal with the challenges of the twenty first century, our students will need to break away from the passive model of learning we have inherited because they must become truly active problem solvers.  They will  need to be innately curious and persistent learners, able to connect concepts across fields of knowledge to anticipate and prevent catastrophes. We will need people who are passionate inventors of  new ways to grow food, reduce pollution, power society, adapt to climate change,  protect the planet that sustains us, and reduce human conflict and wars.  It is a fairly hefty homework assignment!

There is no shortage of work for us to do, preparing our students for this future. Let’s get busy!

Our first step might be to start modeling what our students will need to be, and that is avid,  collaborative learners and creators. Hmm… where can we go to find ideas, and other people who want to work on the new educational paradigm?

You probably have one of those nifty portal-to-the-universe devices in your pocket or schoolbag right now.

Use it! 😉

And by the way, teach and empower your students to use that portal too.  They are going to need it.

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How Technology is Not Ruining My Classroom

TechnologyNotRuiningJust four years ago there was a “no screens” rule in my classroom. Open laptops were forbidden, I-pads frowned upon, and cell phones a target. I wanted my students’ full attention at all times and it seemed obvious to me that technology would be a destructive distraction. All I could imagine was adding technology to the classroom as it was, that is tech as an addition, rather than reconsidering my entire approach to teaching.

Over the last few years things have been turned upside down. Kids are using I-pads, laptops, even cell phones, fluidly during class. Students are on task, collaborating and learning. We use hardly any paper at all. Students do practice sheets and write labs on their I-pads, and send them to me by e-mail. I write feedback and do the grading on my own I-pad and send their work back to them electronically as well.

Work flows between student and teacher smoothly, at any time of the day or evening. We have “electronic extra help” from miles away in the dead of winter. Students are getting more feedback, in a more timely way, and they are feeling even more supported in their learning.

What happened?

There are three themes that have emerged in this transformation.

TechNotGirlz1) The curriculum is now more student centered. Instead of the teacher always up front delivering knowledge, there is a new rhythm to the class. A few minutes of teacher instruction is followed by students working on problems or collaborating together. Students are therefore free to go at their own pace more of the time.

Having given up a lot of the limelight, I no longer have to take it personally, as a sign of disrespect, if a student is not giving me his rapt attention for 50 minutes. (Could we adults be as attentive and obedient as we ask students to be ?)

I have come to understand that technology is the sea in which today’s students swim. They grew up in this water. It is how they communicate and how they learn about the world. This new perspective makes it obvious to me that taking kids totally out of their ocean in order to learn, does not really make much sense.

Having given up my spot at the front, I’m also freer to circulate around the room and help students as they work.  Our relationship as learner and coach is thus reinforced. It is a much more joyful and empowering relationship than child and autocrat.

TechNotAri2) Technology is integrated into the curriculum seamlessly. It is not simply that we have replaced paper and pencil with a tablet computer and a stylus, although we have.

Our books are I-books which have interactive features in addition to regular text. This creates a richer experience of learning.

In chemistry class students use I-pads to create their own unique lab reports, complete with photographs of the experiments. It is immensely helpful to their understanding to have images to work with, rather than just fading and confused memories of what they saw the day before in class.

In Climate Science some assignments ask students to search google images to find examples, graphs, and diagrams. Students then use the electronic tools to insert these into their work or notes and annotate them with their own hand. Climate Science being such a current field with research and breakthroughs happening all the time, it is absolutely necessary students are on the web, learning to find out what is happening, and becoming skilled at sorting the good science from the propaganda.

TechNotBoyz3) There is a culture of trust developing in the room around technology and in fact the whole process of learning. Students know it is a privilege to have these tools available to them. We have an understanding that they need to stay on task in class and not get led off course by the tempting distractions of e-mail or chat. I have been pleased and amazed at how infrequently there is a need for a gentle reminder to get back on track.

Perhaps because they realize this about their education, rather than about “doing it the teacher’s way” they are responding so well. They know I am here to support them in learning, not here to admonish or scold them for momentary lapses. That is not a game either of us wants to play.

Maybe another reason students are able to stay on task is because they can learn at their own pace. I suspect much of the time when students succumb to the technology distraction in school it is either because they are bored when the traditional class is going too slowly, or the class has gone too fast and they are hopelessly lost. Both those situations will result in a student looking for that dopamine release one gets from checking facebook.

So what are my conclusions here? I believe there are pleasant surprises to be found if one is willing to try new things. Having started out a few years ago as a total naysayer to technology, I’m quite happy so far with the results of change. It has been somewhat of a challenging and even scary process to re-evaluate how I teach, to step back… and to let go.

In the end, empowering the students is far, far more rewarding than what ever it was I was doing before.  What was that anyway?  Was that needing to be in control of their behavior, their attention, even their minds all the time?  Maybe that is over simplifying, and being a bit too hard on myself, but in any case, I’m glad to have left that approach behind. 😉

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