Monday, December 26, 2011

NCSS 2011: Post 3, Gaming in Education

At the NCSS conference this year one of the few sessions I went to promoted a series of games put out by PBS called "Mission US."  It struck me quickly that these games have a lot of potential- more than many other games I've seen that are designed for classroom use, which are more about rewarding students for jobs well done or repetitive drill for low-level cognitive skills rather than for actually supporting instruction in critical thinking and analysis of more complex ideas.

Some of the work I've done outside of the classroom this year has been a collaborative effort between "technologists" and NYC educators to create new technologies for the classroom that are actually useful, easy to implement, and attractive to teachers.  This is a significant departure from many technology initiatives, which are created by people outside of the classroom and oftentimes by people who have never been in a classroom.  Most of these initiatives fail because they don’t lead to real academic improvement or achievement and are really more about bells and whistles than solid instruction.

One of the major veins the larger group of technologists and educators has worked is "gamification": bringing elements of gaming such as leveling-up, accruing points, and defeating levels into an academic curriculum. There is a wide range of opinions about gamifying education, ranging from the naysayers to those that believe this will help deliver public education from its obvious bottoming out (see the previous post about Ravitch’s view on education).

The largest issue I have with using games in the classroom is that when you play most video games there is essentially one preferred outcome- completing a level.  While there might be some variance in how a level is completed, the problem is the same and is not created by the player and there are generally very few ways of effectively addressing the challenge.  In education, this strikes me as something that puts a learner at quite a disadvantage, as they will develop the mindset that the end goal is obvious, that there is only one, and the ways to solve the problem are either predefined or extremely limited.  This seems to put boundaries on critical thinking, problem generation, and problem solving skills.

On another level, I think that video games are rotting many young minds in this country.  They’re addictive and have replaced hours of time that could have been spent playing and discovering things with friends, reading, etc.

At the conference, a representative from PBS presented the first mission in the "Mission US" series, entitled "For Crown or Colony?".  The goal of the game is to teach students basic facts about the colonial period and pose problems that can be discussed in the classroom by the teacher and students, thereby directly supporting instruction about the colonial period in United States history.  The developers recognized that flexibility is a must for any academic curriculum, so they provide graphic organizers, vocabulary exercises, extension activities and other materials for the game, while at the same time promoting the idea that this game could be used for one day, two days or three weeks.  This leaves it up to the teacher to determine how it best supports the students’ needs and how it can be woven into the curriculum he or she developed- quite a departure from the canned online curricula being sold in licenses by the thousands all across the United States.

The PBS game is also set up like a choose-your-own-adventure book, wherein your actions change the outcome of the story.  Because of this, students can play the mission numerous times and get a different perspective on the colonial period in what seems to be a fairly engaging way.  I actually had to refocus my attention on the speaker several times, as I was getting sucked in before he was even half-way through the session.

This year I started using more BrainPOP videos as homework assignments. My assumption was more students would watch them and complete the associated quizzes than would complete reading assignments about similar topics.  When students do this, it frees up more class time for things such as writing, inquiry, and collaboration, and also shifts the structure of the class.  Instead of class being used for both content acquisition and skill development, it becomes more about the latter, which is something for which the students seem to need a bit more guidance.   

While I can't endorse it yet, I'm definitely going to pilot the use of "For Crown or Colony?" in my homeroom this year to see how it engages students and how well they learn content through it.  PBS is also coming out in January with another mission about abolitionism.  Based on what the presenter showed at the conference, I’ll likely give that one a whirl as well.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

As a follow-up to the previous post, the link below goes to the heart of what Ravitch is about.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

NCSS 2011: Post 2, Diane vs. Duncan

A number of keynote speakers at the conference, but three really caught my attention, namely: Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch and James Loewen. I was able to see Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, and Diane Ravitch, a professor at NYU and a fairly controversial, though respected, figure in education, however James Loewen, the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and many other works, I was not able to see due to another commitment. 

Duncan spoke first on Friday, though he was originally scheduled to speak after Ravitch.  After hearing both speeches, many people I talked to support the theory that hers would be a hard act (for him) to follow and so he moved to the morning.  Up until that morning, I’ve put forth some effort to defend the Obama administration and even given them the benefit of the doubt on their education policy.  After hearing Duncan speak, I can’t justify his policies anymore with regard to education.

There were two main takeaways from his speech: teachers should accept standardized exams as part of their evaluation and he’s willing to say basically anything to get the applause of teachers.  I go back and forth on whether I think test scores should count for a very tiny part of teacher evaluation or none at all, but when he started saying we should double teachers’ salaries across the board, it was obvious that he wasn’t taking us seriously.  There is no way to double teachers’ salaries.  We are the most expensive part about education- and rightly so- in spite of our meager salaries.  Doubling the cost of the most expensive part of education would bankrupt every single state in this country and Duncan knows that.  Suggesting it to get some applause out of teachers is not only patronizing, it’s reprehensible.

I was disgusted when he finished his address.

Ravitch’s address was quite a departure from that.  It was apparent from the beginning of the speech that she’d actually prepared for the group, rather than listing a few bland policy pieces taken from government-issued literature and dreaming up something absurd to make us clap.  Part of the reason she is so fascinating and controversial right now is that she worked with the Bush, Sr. and the Clinton administrations and was a huge proponent of standardized testing and NCLB, but as the movement began playing out realized that they are in fact really bad for our students and country.  This came out during her keynote.

It’s difficult to sum up everything she said, but some main takeaways for me were:
·      The biggest crisis our schools face is the one being created by the media- a direct attack on teachers, students, and our nation’s education system.
·      Our schools are not the problem- poverty is.  She pointed to the fact that the U.S. has never scored high in international polls, but everyone seems to think we did.  In fact, when the first major comparative international study of schools was conducted, it compared only twelve nations and we were dead last.  If you compare schools with even a 25% poverty rate in our nation to schools in other nations, we are ranked as high or higher than them.  As you reduce the poverty level in a given school we outscore all other nations and if you increase it, we fall in the rankings.  The real issue is economic disparity and the fact that a huge fraction of American kids are now living in poverty. 

I am biased as a teacher- that’s obvious. But I do actually believe what Ravitch is saying and have espoused similar ideas about the media.  Most reasonable people I know think the “mainstream” media at this point in American history is complete garbage and does very little to inform us or help us to prevent problems from arising in this country.  In fact, I think many would agree that they promote, hope for, and/or make up terrible scandals and problems almost daily.

Perhaps we should commiserate with media moguls though.  They’re just trying to make a living, right?  And the fact that teachers are extremely easy targets makes for easy picking, right?  Heck, we work with kids every day and, completely seriously, should be scrutinized for that; we are public employees, paid by tax dollars; and, as soon as Secretary Duncan’s plan to double our pay is pushed through Congress, we will actually be the cause for America’s implosion and transformation into a human black hole.

In spite of the bias, even if you refuse to believe what Diane Ravitch has to say, at least she has real things to say.  Perhaps Arne Duncan should enroll at NYU and figure out how to do that.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

NCSS 2011: Post 1, The Conference

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference was in Washington, D.C. again this year.  An old post of mine I looked through today about NCSS made me smile, as I seemed to be pretty gung-ho about the organization, if a bit sarcastic. In the post I mention a few different approaches to attending conferences.  At this year’s the following things enhanced my experience: the fact that I’ve taught for a while and attended with closer colleagues; having helped to implement a curriculum piece substantial enough that its write-up is being published twice this year; and, the fact that I’ve attended 4.5 previous NCSS conferences (one was just virtually). 

The last proved helpful in a number of ways.  I was able to identify fruitful sessions more easily in the program, talk people up about the sweet, sweet giveaways in the exhibitors’ hall, and I was less stressed about wringing everything possible out of the conference, and more interested in relaxing, learning a lot, networking, and enjoying the city.  My first NCSS conference was in DC while I was an undergrad and, after madly attending every possible session for two straight days, I asked my advisor, “Should I keep attending sessions or go see the city?  I’ve never been here before.” He smiled a bit at my pre-service dedication and told me to get heck out of the conference center and see the nation’s Capitol. 

A few years of teaching experience gave me some insight into what to look for in sessions and materials, but also on keynote speakers, and conversations happening that addressed policy issues and trends in the field.  The relationships I have with peers, friends, and colleagues are substantially different, lending to a better conference. My first year, I was a squirrelly undergrad from Kansas with a brand new suit running around D.C.’s convention center trying to figure what the heck it means to be a history teacher and wandering around the city by myself in awe of all that it is.  This year I took a train down from New York, as did my fiancĂ©e, met with my friends/colleagues, and was a bit more interested in relationship building.

One new development stemmed out of the cross-continental discussion effort my colleagues and I have supported over the past couple years.  At the very least, we talked the talk well enough to get some people in our session room interested in our work and in starting another major initiative similar to, and potentially substantially larger than, ours. Divulging details at this point is premature, but the very prospect of an international collaborative effort and even the opportunity to have a conversation about it was fairly exhilarating.  If there ever is more on that (knock on wood), I’m sure I’ll post it.  Regardless, networking was a much larger focus this year, instead of figuring out the definition of social studies or finding tools to get things under control in my classroom.

Overall I’d say this year’s conference was a success. I’m already looking forward to next year’s, which will be in Seattle, as well as the National Council for History Education (NCHE) conference, which my colleagues and I will be attending in the spring.  It’ll be good to get a look at a different organization specifically geared for history teachers and compare the free swag they give out to the free swag I get at the NCSS conference.