Sunday, December 7, 2014

Learning Centers…a.k.a The Station Approach

Educators are constantly working to create a positive atmosphere of learning that engages students and motivates them to want to learn. While attending a conference a few weeks ago I was reminded of an instructional methodology called “The Station Approach.” This approach has similarities to “centers” used frequently by elementary school teachers. I often used the station approach during my years as a high school chemistry/physics teacher. I first learned about this approach during a summer course at North Carolina State University about 18 years ago, so it has been around for quite some time. As a new teacher, I remember being surprised that my students actually performed much better on many topics on the state end-of-course test that did not involve lecturing on my part, but rather a self-discovery, exploratory teaching model that included stations. So how does it work?

In the station approach, students physically move or rotate to various areas in the classroom to actively participate in the instructional undertakings at each station. I always posted a rotation plan so that groups of students would know where to start, their role in the activity and how to progress. The average time per station varied but it was typically between 15 and 20 minutes    which worked well with the attention span of students. Sometimes I designed a couple of stations that were very similar when students needed further explanation of content or practice with skills. I would change the method of delivery to address different learning preferences. For example, a short video or screencast could be used in one station and an interactive simulation could be used in another to explain a similar content topic.

Students were also assigned a role for each station activity such as the experimenter, the scribe, the observer and the reader/leader.  Students would rotate roles allowing each to have opportunities to lead, communicate, execute and experiment. I found a maximum of four students in a group to be most effective in optimizing the hands-on, minds-on experience of each student.   
This approach works well in classroom with limited resources. For example, classrooms with a limited numbers of computers can set up a computer station when 1:1 is not an option. Years ago, in physics, I desperately wanted my students to be able to experiment with a frictionless surface so I built an air track out of PVC pipe and a vacuum cleaner.  I purchased a glider and a photo gate timer and presto!  I was able to design hands-on, student-centered, collaborative experiments for my students.

Admittedly, it does take significant planning and time to design the stations initially.  Like anything else, keep the elements that work and enhance or switch up the ones that are not as effective. Bottom line… the students enjoy the multifaceted experiences and that makes it all worth it.

Additional benefits include the opportunities for students to gain social skills, develop in areas of communication, task completion and persistence. Leadership skills, working as part of a team and learning to share responsibility are also positive by-products. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Computational Thinking

As do many, our school offers enriching summer programs for our students which allow them the opportunity to explore areas of interest in a challenging yet informal, enjoyable format.  Our summer experiences offer knowledge expansion and skill development in areas ranging from athletics to fine arts to outdoor and environmental investigation. The summer camps that fall in my specific realm of responsibility are Computer Game Design and Mobile App Development. It was exciting to work with children of all ages as they developed apps pertaining to topics they are passionate about.  Our students developed mobile applications for such things as chess move tips, Mindcraft techniques, great camping sites, music and favorite fishing spots.  Students then proudly shared their creations.  To be honest, it was a highlight of my summer.

Mobile app development is becoming an essential part of our curriculum across all grade levels for a number of reasons. First, as digital natives, the daily use of a variety of mobile apps is familiar territory for our students. They have a fundamental understanding of the wide range of possibilities mobile apps provide.  Further, the discipline of brainstorming, ideation and mind mapping is an essential part of the app development process.  Carefully visualizing and planning the app’s function forces high level critical thinking.  Our students use Crescerance’s Mad Learn interface because its templates cater to younger, first-experience students but also allows older, tech-savvy students to develop more graphic and image rich, sophisticated mobile applications.  Students can also create, edit and embed their own code as they gain proficiency. MIT’s App Inventor is another example that is also gaining popularity.

I find that many girls are interested in creating apps because of the necessary design elements which must be incorporated throughout the development process. The task serves as a great entry experience which encourages females particularly.  The “cool” factor seems to mobilize our male students most.  Both are encouraged by their sense of accomplishment.  More and more, I think that it is important to embed experiences throughout our curriculum that provide opportunities for students to create and express themselves and their interests with technologies.

There is also a shift in education toward project based learning. “In project-based learning, students gain important knowledge, skills, and dispositions by investigating open ended questions to ’make meaning ‘that they transmit in purposeful ways.” (Krass & Boss, 2013) Setting goals, managing a timeline, brainstorming solutions, collaborating, revising and presenting to a pubic audience is a great way to reinforce executive function skills. Creating an innovative project using technology to demonstrate learning is an enjoyable, engaging way for students to develop and practice the use of computational thinking skills.

Programs that help students build coding skills abound.  Examples include Scratch, Hyperscore, Alice, Turtle Art, Game Maker and WeDo Robotics. Additionally, popular apps such as Tynker, Cargo-Bot, Lightbot, Bridge Building and Hopscotch further enable children to learn to think, problem solve and  develop passions, interests and abilities through exposure.  Additionally, researchers predict that employment opportunities in professions involving coding and programming are extremely promising.  Exposing our children early to the precepts of computational thinking serves them well and most importantly, it is fun!

This article appeared in Southern Distinction magazine. Volume 2:5 2014

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blended Learning

Educators are constantly working on their craft. In our field, new ideas, strategies and best practices are consistently developed and shared in an effort to continually improve the teaching and learning process. One of the instructional strategies at the forefront of the educational conversation today is blended learning. Blended learning combines online learning with traditional classroom instruction. Most often, this means teachers will share content such as small, targeted segments of videos or screencasts online for students to access when, where and how they desire. Class time can then be spent working through student questions rather than sitting through classroom lectures. Students are able to take control and personalize their learning.

Time and targeted professional development is required in order for teachers to feel comfortable with this model. In my experience, the biggest hurdle teachers must overcome is simply the lack of confidence to get started. Newton told us that an object at rest tends to stay at rest. It takes effort to overcome inertia. Support and encouragement for teachers who are reluctant to try new things or to take a risk is critical. 
Blended learning can benefit the child who needs more time to review the day’s lesson. She can access the content as many times as necessary. Accelerated students can quickly move through the lesson and then go beyond to explore and consider new questions and further applications. Blended learning promotes classroom differentiation (individualized learning) – another powerful teaching strategy.

Blended learning is often more engaging than traditional lecture.  The online platform allows teachers to embed pictures, videos and resources which make the instruction more interesting. Online discussions and the use of online tools to engage in conversation with teachers and other students build community and interaction that is difficult to have in traditional classrooms. Shy, quiet students now engage more actively.

Time and money (not to mention the environment!) are also saved since assignments, notes, articles and resources can be posted to the online platform. The need to print is reduced or eliminated.

This model is helpful for the student athlete or thespian that often misses part of the school day because of away games, performances or competitions. The student who has a doctor’s appointment or an illness is also able to catch up when he begins to feel better. Teachers who have mastered this model of instruction are well equipped to teach electronically when their school is closed unexpectedly.  Say goodbye to snow days as we have known them. At the same time, say goodbye to make-up days.

I believe that the greatest benefits involve the students and their ability to optimally focus and learn at school. Students deal with issues on a daily basis and it is impossible to learn when they are experiencing anxiety, have had little sleep or are consumed by something that happened in the hallway or even at home before they came to school. The ability to learn without typical adolescent distractions is a significant benefit of blended classrooms. Blended learning strategies enable the teacher to meet students where they are and offer multi-faceted, rigorous learning experiences that continually foster a passion for learning.   

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Learning Differences - Overcoming Obstacles

I recently served on an SAIS school accreditation team for a school that serves children with Dyslexia. During the process, we met with students from various grade levels. To one student, we asked the question, “What do you like most about your school?” A beautiful, articulate, fourth grade girl eloquently responded “I used to feel dumb until I starting attending this school. All of the kids here are just like me. Dyslexia,” she explained, “is a gift not an illness.” Wow. 

Jane M. Healy, Ph.D. , author of Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child’s Learning Problems says that “A child born today in the US has a 30 percent chance of being diagnosed with some type of learning problem. “ Clearly, that’s a high number. 

I often wonder why there seems to be such an increase in the number of children with learning problems. Could it be a result of food additives, excessive media bombardment, over-scheduling or other environmental exposures? We don’t know but we do know that the list of childhood disorders continues to grow. Children must deal with ADD, ADHD, anxiety disorders, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, executive function issues and more. Many children have multiple issues.  For many children, the issues create tremendous challenges, frustrations and feelings of inadequacy. Many of these children are bright and gifted but because their brains are wired differently, learning in certain ways is difficult.

Thanks to advances in brain science, we are learning more and more about instructional strategies, routines and techniques that can help our children actually rewire and grow the needed dendrite-neuron connections in their brains.  Further, we are learning more and more about how to teach students regardless of their learning differences.    

Of course, parents should intentionally manage environmental influences such as diet, sleep, exercise, sensory stimuli and opportunities for play. Students with suspected learning challenges need more.  Bottom line, you are your child’s advocate. Tactically, begin with your pediatrician. Often, concerns are unfounded but if you discover your child does have a learning difference then the sooner you can start helping, the better. Research and create an action plan with trusted professionals.

More important is that the learning challenged student understands that he is a person of worth and value.  Being among one in three students with a learning difference can hardly be regarded “abnormal.”  In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell statistically supports that things popularly regarded as disadvantages are often, in fact, advantages and vice versa.  (An extraordinarily high number of the most successful innovators and entrepreneurs in recent decades are dyslexic for example.)  People who must work diligently to overcome learning obstacles and barriers quite often benefit from the struggle in significant, impactful ways. 

Everyone has obstacles and barriers.  What may initially seem as an insurmountable hurdle can turn out to be an advantage that results in empathy, sensitivity and compassion that can make the world a better place.

Thus, she says, “Dyslexia is a gift, not an illness.”  Again…wow.

This article appeared in Southern Distinction magazine. Volume 2:3 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Understanding Project Based Learning

In February, I traveled to Concord, North Carolina to the Cannon School and led a Project Based Learning workshop for the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS). I absolutely love helping teachers gain an understanding of the possibilities of updating current instructional practices to motivate children to want to learn.  
I like the definition of Project Based Learning (PBL) by Jane Krauss and Suzie Boss. They state, “In project-based learning, students gain important knowledge, skills, and dispositions by investigating open-ended questions to “make meaning” that they transmit in purposeful ways.”  (Krauss & Boss, 2013)

This instructional strategy is not new to educators.  The well-respected education and social reformer John Dewey suggested that treating students as receptacles of knowledge left true intellectual engagement to chance.  In 1916, in Democracy and Education, he said, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” University medical faculty started using Problem Based Learning in the 1950s as they questioned the effectiveness of massive memorization of science facts via lectures followed by exhausting clinicals. This approach that challenges students to learn through engagement in a real world problem continues in medical schools today and was the forerunner of today’s Project Based Learning.

Buck’s Institute at provides a wonderful framework to get us started with this type of lesson design. PBL starts with significant content and key concepts in academic disciplines.  Students are challenged to solve an open-ended, driving question and in order to do so they must use higher-order thinking and problem solving skills to create something new. They also must collaborate and communicate with others to work as a team. In-depth inquiry is an important component.  Students research, read, write and expresses themselves in a variety of ways. Since PBL begins with a meaningful, relevant question to solve it provides context and a reason to learn. Students will have opportunities to express themselves in their own voice and make responsible choices as part of the experience. A student learns to give and receive feedback through ongoing revision and reflection opportunities and present their created products or solution to a public audience which increases the students’ motivation and adds authenticity.

An example of PBL question might be, “how can we, as structural engineers, design and test bridge models for a walkway over Lakeview creek?” Traditionally, a teacher might lecture and then quiz students on the three types of primary bridges and the basic principles of engineering for each type in a science class.

Successful adults have learned to manage themselves, set goals, direct their time and make decisions. When students have opportunities to experience PBL they can also learn to develop the executive function skills needed in today’s world. I believe that children must have the opportunity to make decisions in order to learn to make decisions.  In addition, to stimulate the curiosity of children and to engage them as thinkers and learners can become a foundation for the development of creative innovators.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Great Tools to Develop Essential Skills

I have been fortunate to be able to travel, speak and share at conferences and workshops around the country and internationally. In October I traveled to Doha, Qatar to share technology integration ideas and best practices with teachers. I truly enjoy learning about other cultures and meeting new people. It occurs to me that I always learn much more from my travels than I share and that the 21st century skills that are important in Gainesville, Ga., are important all over the world.

We now have many tremendous technology tools available to support our desire to help children develop the skills that will help to prepare them for not only today but the future. The National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) is a great list of essential skills.  It includes creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration, research and information fluency, critical thinking, problem solving and decision making, digital citizenship and technology operations and concepts.

The program Algodoo by Algoryx is a great example of a tool that fosters creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. The program allows for playful experimentation with physics principles to build amazing inventions or to visualize the effect of actual physical forces. Imagine using Algodoo to build a Rube Goldberg machine.  This afternoon I served as a judge for our middle school robotics team and a 7th grade student demonstrated the effects of an earthquake on various building materials using Algodoo. I must admit that I was incredibly impressed by the presentation.

Hyperscore is a new program from MIT that allows students and adults of all ages to creatively express themselves by composing music. I learned about Hyperscore this summer while visiting MIT’s Media Lab as part of the Constructing Modern Knowledge Conference.  Hyperscore uses a graphical interface that provides users with immediate visual and audio feedback. A sketching paradigm allows students to sketch ideas onto the canvas, listen and adjust which allows students to skip the theory and get right to the practice. In our Computer Applications course our students were asked to create an audio recording of their favorite children’s book.  They used Audacity to record the narration of the book, mix in sound effects and then added music created with Hyperscore.

One of my favorite data visualization programs for high school students is Fathom because it brings relevance and meaning to courses such as statistics or even history. One of the cools things that I shared with teachers while in Doha was that one can take data sets directly from the internet and drop them into Fathom to immediately manipulate and analyze. I believe real world data produces a depth of understanding that is powerful.

New tools and resources are developed every day. I never dreamed that 3D printers and digital fabricators would become affordable to many of our schools or that early elementary students would start learning to program using programs like Robot Turtles, WeDo Robotics and later Scratch but they can if schools have the vision to plan these opportunities with the focus on making the learning fun.