Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Sunday, July 05, 2015

כנס ISTE- לחשוב ולנסות אחרת. פוסט אורח נכתבה על ידי מורה דפנה זילברשמיד

During their first full week of summer break, 14 faculty members from The Frisch School have been at the ISTE Educational Technology Conference in Philadelphia further refining their craft in integrating technology in education in meaningful ways to further student learning.
The following reflections on ISTE is written in Hebrew by my colleague at The Frisch School, Mrs. Dafna Zilberschmid, Chair of the Hebrew Department. You can read an English translation of this post here.

כנס ISTE- לחשוב ולנסות אחרת. פוסט אורח נכתבה על ידי מורה דפנה זילברשמיד

15,000 אנשים הולכים לכיוונים שונים, עשרות אולמות, מסכי טלוויזיה בכל פינה. מורים ותלמידים מציגים נושאי לימוד חדשניים, טכנולוגיה חדשה, רעש והמולה ובנין אחד ענק. מבוהלת, מלאת חששות צעדתי לעבר דוכן ההרשמה מחפשת דרך מילוט כשבראשי מהדהדת המחשבה אולי בכלל היתה זו טעות גדולה.

המסר שדרך ההוראה השתנתה הורגש בכל פינה.

 ואכן אחרי 4 ימים אינטנסיביים בהם השתתפתי בהרצאות ובדיונים נחשף לפניי עולם של חידושים והמצאות, שכולם כאחד עוררו בי בעיקר שתי שאלות מהותיות:

1- כיצד ואיך משתנה מעמד התלמיד בכיתה, שהטכנולוגיה הפכה להיות חלק אינטגרלי מחייו.

2- מה תפקיד המורה בסביבת הלימוד החדשה שנוצרה.

התלמיד החושב המגלה ענין בחומר הנלמד הוא תלמיד השואל שאלות.

פיתוח היכולת לשאול שאלות היא זו שהופכת את התלמיד לפעיל ומעורב בהליך הלמידה.הצורך להתמודד עם השאלות מצריכות את התלמיד להיחשף למאגרי המידע המתאימים .אם כך באוירת הלימוד החדשה הופך המורה למנחה העומד לצד התלמיד בחיפוש התשובות לשאלותיו. מעורבותו של התלמיד בהליך חיפוש המידע הרלוונטי, ובמציאת התשובות לשאלותיו מאפשרות לו להעריך את עבודתו והישגיו ולהיות עד לצמיחתו כאדם חושב.

מצוידת בהמון רעיונות הגעתי בעצם לשלב הקשה ביותר והוא מציאת הדרך ליישם אותם בהליך ההוראה. אין ספק שישום הרעיונות מצריך עבודת צוות, הדרכה, ויצירת אוירה תומכת המאפשרת לכל מורה להעיז לנסות ולא לפחד מכישלונות . החינוך למדתי הוא מסע של ניסוי וטעייה.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Asking Good Questions in Jewish Education: Thoughts on @chrislehmann's session for #Iste2015

I once asked an esteemed colleague of mine whose classes were known for their rich, deep discussions how she encouraged such discussions with her students. She responded that she accomplished this by asking questions that she did not know the answer to. I thought of this while participating in Chris Lehmann's excellent interactive lecture today on Transforming Schools: Building Conditions for Modern Learning.

Chris Lehmann presented a "modern" approach in which teachers plan classes not based on discrete knowledge areas students should learn but on inquiries students should engage with. This can be scary for teachers at first as they might think this class will become a bit chaotic with its lack of clear teacher driven structure and will not cover as much content knowledge. As Chris Lehmann quipped, "An inquiry classroom is far more a jazz competition than it is a classical piece".

For Jewish educators, this inquiry driven model is really not that scary at all since it is the way many of us were brought up. As Nobel Laurette, Isidor I. Rabi, puts it:
''My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions -made me become a scientist!''
Asking good questions has always been a Jewish value. The seminal document in Judaism is not the Bible or Tanach as it known in Hebrew but the Talmud. The backbone of the Talmud is not stories or even statements of Jewish law, rather it is Socratic dialogue, a question/answer format called the shakla vertarya of the Talmud.

The Talmud is full of questions. It makes fine distinctions between different types of questions based on keywords. As the Gemara Berura curriculum defines it, there is the SHEYLAT BERUR or Inquiry which is introduced with words like IBAYA LHU in which a question is posed with two different possible answers, it is like this way or maybe it is like that way? The second type of question is the KUSHYA or Objection based on logic or a source of higher authority. Words like MEITIVEY indicate an objection. The third and final Gemara question is the SETIRA or Contradiction with a source of equal authority. This would be typified by a word like VRAMINHU.

Why am I sharing all of this? To emphasize the nuanced approach the Gemara takes in making fine distinctions between different types of questions. This "modern learning" approach actually dates back some 2000 years. Technology can be leveraged in a "modern" version of this approach through online research, flipped videos and the like, to make the inquiry driven model deeper and more profound as students have so many more sources at their fingertips as I mentioned yesterday. However, the fundamental value of this approach has been confirmed through centuries of CHAVRUTA or cooperative style learning where students working in pairs or small groups inquire, analyze, and engage in a "War of Torah" which has always been the hallmark of the BEIT MIDRASH.

Inquiry is such a natural fit in Jewish education and yet many of us will readily admit that we find it hard to teach in an inquiry-driven classroom. When I teach a chapter in Tanach, I prepare the verses I wish to focus on, the difficulties in these verses, and the major approaches from various commentators to these difficulties. I try to encourage inquiry in which my students discover these key questions and explore various approaches on their own. But am I really giving them an inquiry-driven model? Am I asking questions that I myself do not know the answer to? Am I entertaining the possibility that my students could come up with a legitimate and sometimes profound question or answer on their own which I had not thought of and cannot find in classical commentaries? Open-ended inquiry is tough. But it pays dividends in terms of student engagement and deep learning by transforming one's classroom into a BEIT MIDRASH, a genuine quest for knowledge.

I think back to my days in Yeshiva. I had the privilege to learn in Rav Yehuda Parnes' shiur for three years. Many others were drawn to Rav Hershel Schachter with his tremendous breadth of knowledge and his uncanny ability to present all of it like a song in the simplest way possible. And yet I chose Rav Parnes because he was NOT presenting his knowledge in such a format. He was carrying on a conversation with us and the text, letting us into the Halachic universe as he liked to call it. We were each equal participants in our travels through this vast domain. This is inquiry driven learning at the highest level, a uniquely Jewish approach.

How Can We Rethink Education in Our Modern Age? Musings on #ISTE2015

Eight years ago this week, the first iPhone was introduced. While Steve Jobs touted its widescreen format and capability as a phone, mobile internet device, and digital music player, could anyone have predicted that eight years later this device and its android clones would blindside the hotel industry, disrupt the taxi business, and equalize the access to information world-wide?

Technology can be transformative. This message is pervasive at the ISTE conference which I have been attending this week. Everyone is touting how technology is transforming the classroom, providing equal access to information for all students, opening up new avenues for student creativity, the highest level of The Revised Bloom's Taxonomy, and a plethora of apps for teachers to do everything from conducting real-time formative assessment, to "flipping" their classrooms by providing videos for students to watch prior to the instruction, to curating and delivering learning content and the list goes on and on.

And yet, with all of this talk about technology's transformative effect on education, I wonder about the extent of this transformation. My colleague at The Frisch School, Dr. Rivka Schwartz put it well when she expressed her frustration that she came to ISTE as a first-time attendee expecting presenters to address the "big" question about how teaching and learning can fundamentally look different in a world where anyone can access so much information even from their mobile device. And instead she attended numerous sessions about _________ different ways to use apps to transform _______________ in the classroom. I love useful apps but these types of sessions are hardly transformative. They mostly assume classroom teaching and learning as usual, coupled with some new cool tricks for teachers to use to engage their students.

To put it differently, using the Understanding by Design framework of "backwards design" that many of us are familiar with from graduate school, instead of focusing on the enduring understandings and overarching questions concerning the adoption of technology in education, most presenters are focusing on the learning activities. These learning activities might be well-planned and perfectly executed, integrating technology in meaningful ways. Yet, if the basic educational model remains the same as thirty years ago, the pre-Internet era, are these activities really optimizing the potential learning that our students can gain?

Another colleague of mine, Dr. Eitan Zadoff, a newly-minted doctoral student expressed how technology is fundamentally transforming graduate education. There is an entire field of the digital humanities grappling with the question of how humanities instruction changes when every student has access to every manuscript in every major library in the world, from their laptop or smartphone, since they have all been digitized. Whereas even doctoral dissertations in the past were not expected to review ALL of the literature on a particular topic since there was so much information that required traveling to libraries at great geographical distances, doctoral students today are expected to have at their fingertips ALL of the literature. The dissertations published today contain a greater breadth of knowledge than those in the past not because students today are smarter but because they are blessed with almost universal access to information.

 And yet, how much have our K-12 classes changed?

The only speaker that I have heard so far who even began to address this issue was Alan November. In his session, he spoke about how the questions we ask should be different in an Internet age involving more critical thinking, teachers should seek to give students access to ALL information about a topic using the Harvard Computer Science course as a model, and teachers should spend more time teaching kids how to research effectively in an age of Google. And yet, his presentation left me with an empty feeling. He presented pieces of the puzzle of teaching in this new Internet age but still did not apply a framework to put it all together and a vision to express how classes and schools can look differently today.

Let me give an example. I have another colleague Sabrina Bernath, whose very precocious 13 year old son Eitan is an accomplished chef with a wide following on Instagram, a popular blog, and even an appearance on the Food Network show Chopped. A few weeks ago while researching MOOCs for my own summer learning, I spotted a course from Harvard Edx entitled Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. I knew about Eitan's passion so I quickly shot off an email to his mother about the course. Eitan was so excited that he decided with his parents to pay for the certificate track for the course and is now devoting hours each day over his summer vacation to college-level chemistry and mathematics to work through the complex course assignments. So far he is excelling in the course, completing not only the required assignments but the extra suggested resources as well, and finding ways to learn even the most difficult material. Eitan is obviously highly motivated in this course which relates to his cooking passion but even a few years ago such an avenue to pursue his passion on such a high level would not have existed for him.

Eitan might be a unique kid but this story is not really that unusual. Our students are developing their own personal learning networks, watching YouTube videos, reading online articles, and discussion forums devoted to achieving mastery in knowledge areas they wish to explore; many times even creating their own content to contribute to these same online spaces. But what happens when this young man goes back to school in the fall for the eighth grade after having completed such high level work over the summer? Will the Eitans of the world feel engaged and challenged in our current classroom setting? Our students have access to an information surplus and yet we continue to teach our lessons in the same basic format for every student, one unit at a time, in the traditional linear fashion with little recognition for these vast resources our students are already using in every learning environment EXCEPT school.

These are the types of questions that I wish ISTE would explore. The conference ends tomorrow. Hopefully, I will find at least one individual in the next day to address this issue. I don't need any more apps. I need a framework for how to begin to rethink education in our modern age.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

#ISTE2015 Day One: It's about the students, NOT the Keynote

Five years ago, I went to my first ISTE conference in Philadelphia. I remember waiting with nervous anticipation for the opening keynote in the grand ballroom in the Pennsylvania Convention Center along with thousands of other participants. And then dancing robots came out. Followed by the introductory speakers who were long on praise of ISTE and short on specifics. This was followed by the keynote itself which was so underwhelming that I have no memory of the speaker or the content of the talk. At that time, I made a rule for myself. I would never attend a keynote again.

Today, I violated that rule. Well, sort of. I did not actually go into the ballroom to watch the keynote. I watched outside on a screen in one of the playgrounds. The keynote was OK. Part pep rally and part mussar schmooze. The presenter, Soledad O'Brien, was entertaining enough. She shared information about her father who was white and Australian and her mother who was black and Cuban. They were a rare interracial marriage in the 1950s, having to travel to Washington D.C. to get married since interracial marriage was still illegal in Baltimore, Maryland where they lived. She spoke of being the first Latino/black family growing up in her neighborhood in Long Island. She described how in her professional life she has tried to open vistas for minority children who often had lesser opportunities just because they did not have many examples in their family and community of successful professionals. All good stuff, but little about technology. The only technology in her talk to this point were some truisms that everyone could agree with, like its not the technology that matters but the education.

Soledad then told the story of Maria, a young lady who dreamed of going to Stanford, loved STEM, and was a leader on her FIRST robotics team. When calculus was not offered in her school, a requirement for applying to Stanford, Maria arranged for an after-school calculus class in her school. Unfortunately, Maria never got into Stanford. Then Soledad said something to the order of that greater access to online classes might have helped Maria fulfill her dream. This type of generalization made me quite skeptical and downright annoyed. Does the lack of opportunity for people like Maria really stem from less access to technology or are there much more complex issues at play?

This gets to the crux of what I love about ISTE but HATE about keynotes. Keynotes are an inherently difficult medium since they are designed to appeal to everyone so that they rarely enlighten anyone. I want practical examples not generalizations. I want to hear from real-life teachers and students on how they have transformed their learning with the help of technology. Not from journalists or other professional speakers who are entertainers and crowd-pleasers but ultimately add little to the conversation about technology in education.

At some point shortly after this, I left with my group to attend some of the Poster sessions. These are sessions where teachers and students share projects that they have done in the classroom. I LOVE Poster sessions for all the reasons that I HATE Keynotes. They are filled with specifics.

I talked with a group of delightful eighth graders from the Longfellow Middle School 2015 Media Club in Enid Oklahoma. They shared how they produced a weekly broadcast for their school complete with announcements, the lunch menu, song of the week, app reviews and much more. This was something that I could imagine doing in my school. It required a pretty simple setup of green-screen, lighting, iPad or smartphones to take videos and a Mac with iMovie and it combined so many fundamental skills sets in written communication, public speaking, and film editing.

Next, I talked students from Mexico who described their project entitled, Mesoamerica: Virtual Trip to an Ancient Magic World. This project combined the history and archeology of ancient Mayan culture with filmmaking using Adobe Premiere and apps like Prezi and Google Maps. What was fascinating about this presentation was how the class integrated history and technology. Students researched and visited ancient Mesamerica sites while also learning about high level filmmaking with their final project involving sharing both content knowledge about the places, peoples, and cultures, they studied and procedural knowledge on filmmaking with student-produced tutorials on various features in Adobe Premiere.

What I loved about these two projects which I sampled on my first day and so much more to follow at ISTE is how they demonstrated how technology can be used to promote student centered learning in which they compose and share high quality content with a worldwide audience. This to me is what should be front and center at ISTE. Maybe next time, we can have a keynote session led by the students presenting their amazing projects, facilitated by creative and talented teachers who know how to harness technology to spark student creativity.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Crowdsourcing Notes for #ISTE2015 attendees and for #NOTATISTE15

The ISTE 2015 Conference begins tomorrow and once again I am crowdsourcing notes with help from Sue Waters and the #NOTATISTE crowd. I hope this will server a dual purpose, benefitting conference attendees who cannot attend a session due to the packed schedule and those who are not at ISTE this year but are following the conference virtually. Please help by contributing to this shared document and publicizing it to your friends and followers on social media.

To do this, take notes at an ISTE lecture, session, or workshop using the digital platform you are most comfortable with like Evernote, OneNote, or Google Docs, and then post a public link of your notes together with a description of the session to the spreadsheet below which can be edited by anyone using the following link: 

I am looking forward to watching this sheet fill up with your take on many of the fascinating experiences that ISTE has to offer.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Preparing for #ISTE2015, Why Technology is so AWESOME

These past few weeks counting down to ISTE 2015 have given me a new-found appreciation for why technology is so AWESOME.

Let me explain...

Those of you who follow this blog know that this year I am presenting at ISTE for the first time. My topic is Crowdsourcing ISTE: A Dynamic Model for Collaboration Inside and Outside the Classroom. This presentation was inspired by my collaboration last year with Sue Waters of Edublogs on crowdsourced notes for the conference. After ISTE was over, I reached out to Sue with the idea for a designing a workshop together describing our experience crowdsourcing and using it as a model for crowdsourcing in the classroom.

One caveat. We always tell our kids not to talk to strangers. Although I felt I knew Sue so well from our work together and viewed her as a colleague, albeit a virtual one, I had never actually met with Sue or even spoken to her. It was our experience using tools like Twitter, Google Docs, and Flipboard that forged our relationship so Sue was very much not a stranger to me and I was confident that we could continue our strong working relationship.

A few weeks ago, I finally had my first Google Hangout with Sue. (We still cannot physically meet in person because she is "down under" in Perth, Australia, presenting at ISTE virtually, while I am in the US in New Jersey and will be attending ISTE in person in nearby Philadalphia.) Our Hangout confirmed my intuition. Sue was engaging, full of ideas, reflective, and she had a really cool accent as well. It was such a pleasure to plan together, share tidbits contrasting the weather and seasons in Australia and the US, and differences in how people drive in each country.

**Spoiler Alert** In Australia people really don't use their smartphones in the car. Sue did not even know what Waze was. Maybe we Americans could learn a thing or two about driver safety from our Aussie friends.

We had our second Hangout a week later. I was home and school was out and camp had not yet started so Sue got to know some of my kids who were amazed to peer over my shoulder and watch her on my computer. My five year old started trying to mimic her accent and my eight year old daughter was sitting there trying to figure out if Sue was actually speaking to us from "tomorrow" since Australia is on the other side of the international date line.

So why I am sharing all of these personal tidbits?

These interactions both with Sue and the entire #NOTATISTE community have confirmed everything that I love about technology. At its core, technology has become the most profound communication and collaboration tool in human history. Every time I Google Hangout or Skype, I still feel like it is something out of the Jetsons.

But its much more. 

Because using technology tools we can not only see and talk to people across the globe, we can collaborate together. We can crowdsource encyclopedias more accurate than those written, edited, and published in the traditional manner, navigate using real-time traffic data from thousands of smartphones communicating their driving conditions, and create shared documents that hundreds can contribute to. This is why our students are so connected to their mobile devices that they find it hard to stop texting even during class. Their device is not just a hi-tech tool, it is an extension of themselves.

I know there is a danger to all of this and perhaps that should be a subject of a different posting but my experience preparing for #ISTE2015 has confirmed the tremendous potential of this modern medium. The challenge is how we can harness this to collaborate together as educators and create worthwhile collaborations to open new vistas for our students.

As a start you can join the crowd as well. Here are three ideas.

Below, I have embedded the current version of our crowdsourcing presentation so you can gain ideas for your students from the contributions of so many others.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Crowdsourcing #ISTE15: With Some Help From the Crowd

Crowdsourcing by adesigna via CC license on Flickr
The ISTE Conference is less than three weeks away and I need your help. Together with Sue Waters from Edublogs, I will be leading a BYOD sessions on Crowdsourcing ISTE: A Dynamic Model for Collaboration Inside and Outside the Classroom. This session will discuss ways to use crowdsourcing to foster collaboration and deep thinking in the classroom. As the saying goes, the smartest person in the room is the room.

From my vantage point as a rabbi and Torah teacher, I find crowdsourcing to be particularly fascinating. 

In many ways, I believe this method has been utilized in Judaism for thousands of years. For example, the Talmud itself is a "crowdsourced" document starting with the text of the Mishna which was a transcript of rabbinic conversations spanning houses of learning in multiple countries from before the Common Era until around 200, the Talmud which continued these conversations by hundreds of Sages across dozens of locations through the year 600 or so, and then continuing with medieval commentaries like Rashi, Tosafot and others. The page of Talmud is so densely packed with information due to its crowdsourced contributions by so many across millennia. The commentary of Tosafot itself is crowdsourced as it is not one individual but the work of a rabbinic school in France and Germany in the 11th and 12th centuries.

There are many examples where the wisdom of the crowd in Judaism trumps all. Notably Tosafot often uses the principle, "the minhag of our fathers is [equivalent to] Torah", in justifying the practices of the crowd even when these practices appear to contradict the law as stated by other rabbinic authorities.

Maimonides uses crowdsourcing to determine the very fabric of Judaism, its calendar and holidays. He writes in his Mishne Torah (Kiddush HaChodesh 5:13) that "It is the establishment of the calendar by the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael that establishes a day as Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) or a festival, not our calculations of the calendar." Maimonides is saying that when it comes to determining the Jewish calendar and holidays, it is not astronomical calculations which ultimately determine this, it is the behavior of the "crowd", namely the crowd of Jews living in the Land of Israel. We look to this crowd and when they celebrate Jewish holidays is when the Jewish world celebrates them as well.

My inspiration for presenting the topic of crowdsourcing at ISTE was my experience last year crowdsourcing notes for ISTE 2014. 

I started crowdsourcing notes last year almost as an afterthought when a friend of mine who was not at ISTE asked me if I could share with her my notes. Why not post all of my notes on a Google spreadsheet and allow others to post their notes as well, I thought. I did not realize that I was joining an entire community of people #notatiste coordinated by Sue Waters and others who were virtually following the conference, participating, and sharing. You can read my reflections on this exhilarating experience here and here.

Considering my session topic, I really feel inadequate as a "guru" of crowdsourcing. Yes, I use crowdsourcing in my classroom to help students share what they know and collaboratively design genuine assessments as do others in my school as well. But I am certain that there are many amazing ways to use crowdsourcing in the classroom that I have never even considered.

This is where I need YOUR help. 

I am crowdsourcing a presentation on crowdsourcing. Here is a link to a Google Slides presentation that I created. Anyone in the world with this link can not only view but also edit this presentation. Please use it as a platform to share your ideas for crowdsourcing in the classroom. All you need to do is add a slide, put up some text, perhaps add a picture, and include your name and/or Twitter handle. If you are familiar with this crowdsourcing slides model, I crowdsourced this idea from @tombarrett who pioneered the Interesting Ways series. I have embedded the Google Slides presentation below so we can all watch how it develops.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Potential for 3D Printing to Transform the World

Last month, I met Juan. Juan works for the NYC justice department investigating traffic accidents. Fascinating stuff but this is not what I found so intriguing about him. Juan is on a quest to develop the best way to print the ideal prosthetic leg brace. For Juan, its personal. Juan shared with me that some 10 years ago, his wife, an elementary school teacher in Queens was hit by a stray bullet in the back in a random incident. The doctors told her that she would never walk again. But Juan's wife persevered and today with the help of a leg brace she can walk and is back in the classroom. But the leg brace is big, bulky, heavy, and expensive. It does not fit very well to begin with and if Juan's wife loses or gains a few pounds then it really doesn't fit at all.

I met Juan at the Inside 3D Printing Conference which I attended at the recommendation of my good friend and fellow edtech enthusiast, Rabbi Marc Spivak. Juan was walking around with his wife's  prosthetic leg brace going to every booth, talking to every vendor about 3D scanning and different methods of 3D printing. Juan told me that with scanning technology and filament based 3D printing, called additive manufacturing in the industry since one adds material layer by layer, he could print a leg brace that is customized to fit his wife at a fraction of the cost, $2000 with today's prices vs. $8000 or more for the traditional prosthetic leg brace. And this price will only continue to drop dramatically as the technology develops.

The potential of 3D printing is truly fascinating. It not only can revolutionize the world of prosthetics. It ALREADY IS. For example, watch Robert Downey Jr. AKA "Iron Man" giving a genuine iron man 3D printed prothetic arm to a 7 year boy.

I experienced a more playful example of this technology at the conference when I got a full body scan at a booth run by a company called Shapify. They produced a 3D scan of me which I can purchase in different sizes for around $200. Who would want to buy a statue of me? But I did it so I could see the result. You can view it for yourself by clicking on this image of my scan.

Body scan of TechRav, manipulate it here.

Below is a video that I posted on Instagram of my body rendering in 3 dimensions. Cool but a bit scary.

Imagine the applications not only for prosthetics but all types of medical devices. Doctors could operate on an exact replica of YOUR heart before performing open heart surgery. Stints and other small medical devices could be made to order. A brain surgeon can 3D print operating tools designed to fit her hand like a glove because they come from her hand.

3D printing will not only transform the medical field but manufacturing as well. Right now, designers no longer need to send prototypes to be printed overseas costing weeks of time and a great deal of money. They can 3D print a model of their prototype in hours. And imagine a future where instead of large factories in China producing most of our consumer goods there are 3D warehouses outside every major metropolitan area where the consumer goods are printed to order. You would buy a household item on Amazon, it could even be personalized for you at little extra cost, and in hours a drone would land on your doorstep with the item that was printed for you.

Smaller versions of these industrial printers are becoming affordable for almost any school. Imagine an engineering product where students custom design a gear with interlocking moving parts that moves a walker up the stairs so an elderly or handicapped person can have a walk that walks up the stairs besides them. This is a project that I watched amazing high school engineering students at my school Frisch design this week. Every engineering project included 3D printed parts designed to order. No more duct tape and ugly prototypes. Students were able to combine circuits, arduino boards, and other items into their projects with the help of custom parts printed for their project. So how can we incorporate this technology which will soon transform the world into education as well? This is a thought that I continue to ponder and hopefully will try to address in future blog posts.

Please post your ideas in the comments to this posting below.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Flipped Learning and Real-Time Assessment in the Judaic Studies Classroom, A @DigitalJLearn Google Hangout

Today, I had the privilege to present a Google Hangout on Flipped Learning and Real-Time Assessment in a Judaic Studies Classroom for the DigitalJLearning Network. DigitalJLearning is one of the leaders in helping Jewish Day Schools adapt blended learning models in a thoughtful and incremental way to create lasting educational change so it was my pleasure and honor to present to this network.

I find giving webinars to be strangely exhilarating. On the one hand, you really are presenting to a blank space. At times, I could see Gary Hartstein from DigitalJLearning who was facilitating today's presentation, for most of the time when I was sharing my screen I could not even see him. But I could never see or actively connect to anyone else who might have been tuning in. It is probably akin to the experience of being a radio talk show host with a few staff "behind the glass", the occasional caller, and the unseen world of listeners who might be tuning in. However, I am trained as a teacher not as a radio person. I take my cues from the constant feedback that I get from my students throughout the lesson who I can watch and call on to check for understanding.

Still I find this experience to be exciting. First of all, I have to prepare A LOT because I will be speaking the entire time. I usually over-prepare, a process which helps me solidify my own thoughts on the topic of my presentation. I also imagine that through my Hangout which is streamed live and then recorded for future viewing on YouTube, I am creating something that hopefully will have a lasting value for people who tune in at some future date.

The topic of my talk, Flipped Learning and Real-Time Assessment, is one that I have blogged about a great deal in the past and I have tried to fully integrate as a regular part of my teaching. For example, you can read some of my posts on Flipped Learning here, here, here, and here. And a guest post on flipping by a colleague of mine in Frisch here. You can read my experiences with some real-time assessment tools in this posting on Nearpod and this one on Edmodo. So I am not sure if my presentation today said anything new but I enjoyed the process of putting together the various strands and presenting them in a (hopefully) cohesive and coherent unit.

You can watch my presentation below. Here is a link to the Prezi upon which the presentation was based and a sheet with most of the links that I referenced in the presentation. I welcome your feedback and experiences using flipped learning and/or real-time assessment in your classroom. Please add them to the comments section of this posting.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Show your support for innovative ideas in Jewish education. Please vote for the Atid Day School Innovation Challenge. #atidchallenge

Now I know why I never became a politician. I HATE asking for your vote. BUT, please click on this link to watch the presentation of our 10th grade Nach Pottery project designed by myself and my other very talented and devoted colleagues at The Frisch School. This was an interdisciplinary project which every 10th grade Nach class participated in before Yom Kippur in which our students experienced Jeremiah's vision from chapter 18 at the Potter's House first hand by creating their own pottery. They then compared this vision with the classic piyut from the Yom Kippur liturgy, כחומר ביד היוצר. I could explain in detail what made this process such a substantial and deep learning experience but I have already blogged about this on my TanachRav blog here, here, and here.

One thing that I am particularly proud of is that this was not an individual project for just my Nach class but a group project for the entire 10th grade. In my role in educational technology, I always like to work behind the scenes. I tell my fellow colleagues that my job is to make them look good. I am almost embarrassed to promote something that was just done in my classroom. However, in this case, thanks to strong leadership from our Nach Department Chair, Mrs. Rachel Besser, and the head of our Art department, Ms. Ahuva Mantell, every 10th grade Nach student was able to participate in this unique experience. That is why we chose to enter it in the Atid Day School Innovation Challenge, we could publicize this model for others to use with their classes as well.

Now a little word about the Atid Innovation Challenge in general. One of the areas of Jewish education which we can always do more of is in sharing good ideas, creating a community of practice of professional Judaic educators. Obviously, there are many venues for this especially with the cognitive surplus that the online world brings to our fingertips through Lookjed, JEDCamp, JEDLab, and blogs like this space and others like Aaron Ross' Thinking About Chinuch. However, there is always the need for more innovative ideas in Jewish education so I applaud The Jewish Education Project, UJA Federation of NY, and PresentTense for setting up this exciting new space for showcasing Jewish innovation.

Once you are at the Atid Innovation Challenge take a look around at some of the other presentations. You can vote for more than one if you like. Two that I LOVE are the project by my good friend Moshe Rosenberg on bringing augmented reality into the Judaic Studies classroom and the project from Yeshivat Noam, where one of my daughters attends, about utilizing iPads to bring music education into the lower school classroom.

So PLEASE vote both for our project at Frisch, if you so desire, and for others that interest you as well. Then please share this posting with your friends and family so that others can recognize some of the innovative and creative lessons going on in Jewish education today.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Does ALL Learning Need to be Relevant?

A few days ago my friend and valuable member of my PLN, Rabbi Michael Bitton wrote on Facebook about a conversation he had with one his students about a chemistry question. The student asked if he could help him with a chemistry question. When Rabbi Bitton responded that he never really liked chemistry and could not help, the student responded that no one really knows this stuff since it doesn't matter in our life. The gist of the posting was that we should make all learning relevant.

This got me thinking about what it means to make learning relevant for our students. Does ALL learning in a school setting need to be relevant? And if the answer is yes, how does one define relevance?

On one level, of course ALL learning taught in school should be relevant. If it is not relevant, then why are we teaching it?

However, relevance can mean many different things. Something that could be relevant for our students because it is a building block for future intellectual pursuits might not seem relevant at the time.

Let me use high school chemistry as an example. (Although this discussion is about chemistry, it can equally apply to a Torah subject like Talmud or Tanach. For further reading on this, see Torah Lishmah by Rabbi Norman Lamm,  Torah Study by Rabbi Yehudah Levi, and my article from Ten Daat on the Role of Teacher and Student according to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitechik.)

On the most basic level, high school chemistry can be relevant for our students because it is a required course needed for our students to graduate. This might sound like a cop-out but, lets face it, the most important job of any high school is to prepare its students for the future. In a high school with a college preparatory curriculum, the school is designed to prepare its students for college. If an outside arbiter like the state board of regents or the college admissions department requires a course then it must be taught in high school because it is relevant by definition.

Obviously, this is a very low level relevance. A student might not care about the model of an atom whether its be the Neils Bohr atomic model or the more accurate model from quantum mechanics. A kid might never need to balance a chemical equation after high school. But since this is a requirement for graduation and/or college acceptance it is relevant.

There are of course other types of relevance. A teacher might make chemistry more relevant to students by sharing her excitement for the subject. Passion is contagious. A teacher who genuinely LOVES chemistry can effectively get all or at least most of her students to love it too. This would make the course more relevant by making it more exciting.

On another level, a teacher could make the chemistry course relevant through the subject matter. A master teacher and mentor of mine, Dr. Chaim Feuerman, often speaks of innately pleasurable learning activities. These are activities like solving problems while working in cooperative groups that give one the joy of discovery, of using one's brain and stretching one's thinking. An effective teacher can make a complex subject like chemistry more relevant through these types of activities.

Chemistry can also be relevant by utilizing it to solve problems in everyday life. One can conduct experiments on common household items about how they work or try to use chemistry to solve seemingly intractable problems facing our environment like climate change. This would also give chemistry relevance.

Of course, the last item listed appears to be the most relevant, bringing chemistry into everyday life. However, I hesitate to define this as the ideal relevance for many reasons. Firstly, a course of study focusing on this everyday relevance might seriously hamper the learning process. What if there are areas of chemistry or any other subject for that matter in which it is difficult to find everyday relevance? Should one skip or downplay those units of study? This is the argument that some have made against requiring subjects like algebra. I am seriously worried that this attitude could dumb down our education.

Let me explain. Not all subjects need to always have relevance to our daily lives. Some subjects might be relevant just because they are worthwhile intellectual pursuits. My son dreams about math problems. He finds calculus to be tremendously relevant not necessarily because he sees its applications in the physical world but because he sees the innate beauty of the subject itself. This I believe is the HIGHEST form of relevance and what we should aspire to impart to our students.

But this relevance is perhaps the most difficult to communicate and might require years of hard work before it is achieved. Does this mean we should take the easier path and skip the building blocks which are not necessarily relevant? Heaven forbid! And does this mean that we should only teach these building blocks to certain students who will be pursuing the higher level subject matter later in life? How could we possibly know which students this will be? So we get to our current model. To teach EVERY student the basic building blocks in a number of subjects, whether they appear to be relevant or not, so they can find their passions and develop the skills to pursue them on a higher level later in life.

I am not arguing that we should not make these building blocks relevant. I remember as a young teacher attending Azrieli Graduate School how Rabbi David Eliach used to speak of the importance of opening every lesson with a motivation or מוטיבציה as he called it. We certainly can make our learning relevant through an effective motivation, by communicating our passion for the subject, by creating discovery based activities to make even these basic skills pleasurable, or by finding everyday examples when applicable.

But sometimes we won't succeed with all of our students. Sometimes students will not find a certain subject to be relevant to them. In this case, I do not believe the school has failed. I think rather that our students have gained an equally important learning experience. They have learned what they do NOT wish to pursue later in life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Do you have a Sephardi minyan? Do you have Wifi? A study in the Yeshiva experience.

We just returned from Israel night. It is that magical time when my son is looking at Yeshivot to study at in Israel for his upcoming gap year before going off to University. It is especially nostalgic for me as I see that the schools he is seriously considering are the same as those that I looked at when researching my post-high school year in Israel.

My son has a very unique plan when attending an Israel school presentation and asking follow-up questions. (I am revealing this WITH my son's permission.) He asks every school the same two questions: "Do you have a Sephardi minyan?" and "Do you have Wifi?"

On the surface, these seem to be two very strange and almost diametrically opposite questions. I must admit I squirmed a bit tonight when he asked one school these two questions and some in the room chuckled. But my son has a very specific reason for asking these questions. On one level, he wants to ask the unexpected and see how the representatives of various Yeshivot respond when faced with something a bit off the script. However, I also think there is something much deeper at work here which I later discussed with my son and he confirmed.

Do you have a Sephardi minyan? Note, my son has blond hair and blue eyes. He is a mix of Polish, German, and Ukrainian, Yeki, Litvak, and Chasidish, with nary a Sephardi ancestor for as far on our family tree as we can go. But he decided this year to start davening every morning in the Sephardi minyan at school and is now a proud member of the "Sephardi party". He began this practice to emulate an older Ashkenazi classmate, who is now a recent graduate of our Yeshiva, who followed this same practice in previous years. He has continued because he genuinely appreciates the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the difference of the Sephardi prayers.

The first question, do you have a Sephardi minyan, is asking what is your attitude towards difference? Do you celebrate diversity, Shivim Panim LeTorah, 70 Faces to the Torah? Do you want all of their students to become the best religiously committed Jewish individuals they can be with an emphasis on keeping their individuality, what makes each of them special? Do you celebrate the Dignity of Difference as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it? Or do you aspire to create an ideal model for a religious Jew? Do you want every student to ultimately follow that same mold?

The second question, do you have Wifi, asks what is your attitude towards the outside world? And what do you view is the role of the Yeshiva in preparing students for this world? Do you view your Yeshiva as a citadel, a fortress to defend against the insidious forces which are unfortunately all too prevalent in our outside world, especially in the dark corners of the world wide web? Is the Internet something to be tolerated at best, perhaps even feared? Something you want to protect your students from? Or, do you view your Yeshiva not as a citadel or fortress but as a lighthouse, a city on a hill, bringing light to the world outside the confines of the academy? Do you view the role of the Yeshiva as one to prepare your students to become thoughtful adults who engage with the world with the Internet as a powerful tool for this engagement?

This is a topic that I have thought a great deal about in my role as a parent and as teacher and that I have blogged about in the past. Thanks to my son and his quirky questioning strategy, I am contemplating it once again.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is it time for Jewish MOOCs?

I have been thinking a lot about MOOCs. For those who have been living in a hole these past 2+ years and don't know what MOOCs are, here is a definition. A MOOC is short for massive open online course and is defined as:
a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.
MOOCs began in the fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun launched a fully online free version of his course Introduction to Artificial Intelligence which quickly gained an enrollment of over 160,000 students. Soon Dr. Thrun left Stanford to found an online MOOC platform, Udacity, and another more open platform for MOOCs Coursera began as well. Then schools like MIT, Harvard, Berkley, and the University of Texas combined to create their own MOOC platform, edX.

What made these courses fundamentally different from previous online courses was that they were free and, unlike platforms like MIT's Open Courseware which merely shared materials from courses given in University for one to "audit" online, these MOOCs were transformed for the online space for students to actively engage with the material and ultimately complete the course with a grade and certificate.

Some of the distinctive features of the courses were that they divided up the learning into bite-size chunks of 7-12 minute videos immediately followed by short quizzes with immediate feedback, featured discussion forums to foster interaction between students, and often contained more sophisticated assessments which depended on crowd-sourced grading where fellow students graded the exercises, since a professor or even a series of teaching assistants could not possibly grade tens of thousands of responses. The courses encouraged the peer grading model by using a system where one could only receive a grade on her own assignment after grading 5 assignments.

The hype was tremendous. The New York Times declared 2012 to be the Year of the MOOC and some state run schools including the California University system decided to cut costs by transferring introductory courses to MOOCs which their students would take for credit. This led to a debate on the value of outsourcing some of the direct instruction to these less expensive but less personal online platforms; a debate very similar to the debate about blended learning and affordability in Jewish education, something that I tweeted about at the time.

Ultimately, the MOOC experiment in for-credit college courses was an unmitigated disaster with online pass rates much lower than their on-campus equivalents and schools like San Jose State scaling back or pulling out of their MOOC contracts.

The reason for this is that the MOOC was never designed to be a replacement for face-to-face courses in colleges and other places of higher learning. MOOCs have a very low cost of entry which leads to a high dropout rate. They also do not provide the direct interaction with professors (and nagging reminders about upcoming assignments and assessments) that the average student needs to keep up with her school work and succeed academically. However, even though the MOOC model might have been determined to be only ideal for the top 5% of the student body who are self starters, that is still a lot of students and MOOCs remain a fascinating model nevertheless. It provides genuine, advanced education for those who might no longer be in the world of the university and could not otherwise devote the time and expense to advance their knowledge further.

This past summer, I dabbled in MOOCs myself both to further my knowledge about MOOCs and for my own personal professional development. Two years ago, I signed up for the first Udacity course on Computer Science 101: Building a Search Engine and quickly dropped out when the course-work got too difficult for me to keep up with during the school year. I felt that July and August when my schedule was much lighter would be an ideal time for me to devote some serious time to this online platform. My blogging definitely suffered while I was enrolled in my MOOCs but I gained new horizons in my online courses.

I signed up for 3 courses, a one week course from the Buck Institute for Education on How to Design a Driving Question, and two six week courses from Stanford on Nano-manufacturing and Computer Science 101. The Driving Question course used Edmodo, a platform which I am very familiar with but which I find to be limiting at times. The two Stanford courses used the edX platform.

I found all three courses to be exhilarating. The Driving Question course was highly social. This was partially because of the Edmodo platform with its Facebook-like interface which lends itself to much interaction but also due to the fact that everyone enrolled in the course were like-minded teachers sharing very similar experiences in the classroom. The instructor designed the course to maximize interaction with a great deal of online discussion and a requirement for all final assignments to be peer reviewed by another student in the class. The fast pace of the course, with daily assignments and discussions all in a one-week span, also lent a more immediate flavor to the conversation. Even though the instructor divided the hundreds of participants into smaller manageable groups, I still met a number of people who I knew from the world of Jewish education in the course.

The two Stanford courses were of a decidedly different flavor. The Computer Science course was informative but relatively easy. I knew some of the material already and other units were presented so simply and clearly that it was easy to master what was taught. The one thing missing from this course was interaction with peers. The course was a series of video tutorials followed by quizzes with no final project or alternative method of assessment. Forums were included but I had no need to participate in them so it felt very much like a correspondence course.

Ironically, nano-manufacturing which was the most esoteric and highly specialized course that I enrolled in with its focus on LCD and LED displays, Moore's Law and old and new technologies used to produce various types micro-processors including those for the computer's central processing unit or cpu and for flash memory storage, was the course in which my interaction with peers was the most valuable. I have no engineering background and did not really even understand what a transistor was before I took this course. (If you want to quickly get up to speed, here is an excellent video on how a transistor works.)

I was way out of my league in this course. But I was determined to succeed both because I wanted to finish the course and because I felt it would give me a firmer grasp of the hardware in devices that I use on a daily basis like iPads and smartphones- it did. So I watched and rewatched the course videos, I participated in the forums where I discovered that most of my "classmates" from all over the world were engineering students who freely shared their knowledge and expertise, and I reached out to the teaching assistant who amazingly provided personalized feedback despite the fact that there were probably 10,000+ people taking the course. By the end of the course, I passed (HOORAY), learned a great deal, and am especially proud of the video that I produced for my final project in which I performed a tear-down of a first generation iPod Touch.

You can watch the video below. (Caution: A real iPod Touch was harmed in the making of this film.)

Since the summer, I have enrolled in another edX MOOC, this one from MIT on The Design and Development of Educational Technology. I have less time to devote to this course as it is during the school year so I am taking more of an auditing approach to the course, watching the videos on my own pace, and doing only some of the assignments.

Why are my experiences with MOOCs relevant for a blog on the intersection of technology and Jewish education?

I believe that the MOOC model could be a powerful one for Jewish education.

Currently, there are many opportunities for high level Jewish learning online for free. There is the Gush Virtual Beit Midrash with its text-based shiurim and Yeshiva University's YUTorah online with its mostly audio shiurum, which is a major part of my morning commute as I listen in the car. There are even real-time video shiurim like WebYeshiva's subscription based courses.

However, I cannot think of anything like the MOOC model in online Jewish education. These would be asynchronous courses where people can watch, listen, or read the Torah content on their own schedule, embedded into a synchronous course with real-time quizzes as a check for understanding, a weekly curriculum for information covered, interaction with classmates in online forums, and substantive peer-reviewed projects.

The closest I can think of to the MOOC model in Jewish education is actually from decades ago; the classic Gilyonot that Nechama Leibowitz sent out by snail mail and graded on a weekly basis. These combined a weekly curriculum, Nechama's source-sheet on the Parshat Hashavua, with almost real-time hand written feedback which Nechama gave to anyone who mailed them back to her with their answers.

Although, as I mentioned above, the MOOC is not the panacea for the world of education and certainly would only work with a subset of students, I believe it is time for someone to adapt this model to Jewish education. We already have a world-wide Jewish curriculum with Parshat Hashavua, Daf Yomi, Nach Yomi and the like. Isn't it time to combine all of the elements of the MOOC, the small bite-sized lectures, the real-time self check quizzes, the online community of learners, and the peer reviewed higher level assignments to Jewish education?

I think there are a number of platforms currently in development to support this model for Jewish education. The Mercava is well into the development of its next generation app which will support audio and video shiurim, real-time assessment, and interaction with peers throughout the world while staying on "the daf", the traditional page of Jewish text. Gemara Berura has also created a compelling skills based web app together with a learning management system. Perhaps the institutions of higher Jewish learning could get together to design MOOC-like courses modeled after the consortium of MIT, Harvard, and others that created the edX platform.

It is time for the Jewish MOOC. It might not transform the world of Jewish education for everyone, but it would provide more options for anyone, anywhere with a passion to learn more about their Judaism and a computer or mobile device to dive into the sea of high-level, interactive Jewish learning.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Maker Spaces, 3D Printing, and the Role of the Teacher

I must apologize. It has been over three months since my last posting on this blog. I have been involved in other online spaces during this time, with three postings on my TanachRav blog, three new flipped classroom YouTube videos, and a number of Facebook and Twitter postings. However, this blog has always been my primary personal space for reflecting on my teaching and learning and I have not really been a part of it lately for a variety of reasons, the beginning of a new school year, various online MOOCs that I have been taking, other responsibilities blah, blah, blah... So here it goes. Hopefully, this will be the first of a number of postings in the coming weeks where I can do a brain dump into this blog mostly for my benefit and if some of you find it to be worthwhile as well, that's great too.

I have been thinking a lot about the Maker movement. It has been the talk of the educational technology world with many schools beginning to create Maker Spaces. For those of you not in the know, the Maker Movement is defined as:
A trend in which individuals or groups of individuals create and market products that are recreated and assembled using unused, discarded or broken electronic, plastic, silicon or virtually any raw material and/or product from a computer-related device.
At ISTE, I had the privilege to attend a session by one of the leading champions of the Maker Movement in schools, Dr. Gary Stager. Gary spoke of the confluence of three technologies that has made the idea of students learning by doing, something that has been championed by educational reformers for decades if not longer, so much more exciting today. These three technologies are personal fabrication, the ability to create things oneself using 3D printing, physical computing, the ability to connect microprocessors like Arduino boards or the Raspberry Pi to anything, and programming, the ability to easily program these computers to do many tasks.

So I was very excited to sign up for the Maker Faire in Queens, NY, in September. I took my two teenage daughters with me as well since they are both very creative and I thought they would love the experience.

Was I wrong. My daughters HATED it.

Mind you, as I said above, both my daughters love making things. My older daughter, who just turned sixteen, loves art, music, and drama. She will be starring in the school play this year for the third year in the row, where she is privileged to be guided by the incredible professional, Rabbi Dr. John Krug. She has a strong sense of fashion and style. She created an Instagram account (StyleByChevi) to express her creative ideas online and she recently learned how to sew under the guidance of the incredibly talented and creative Frisch art teacher, Mrs. Ahuva Mantell. My younger daughter who is thirteen also loves art, drama, and is very musical. She has a beautiful voice and her friends get a kick out of the fact that she can sing all of the lyrics to any song she hears on the radio even just once. She loves science as well. These kids should be the primary audience for the Maker Faire. They should LOVE it. But they didn't.

This despite the fact that the Maker Faire featured so much creative music, art, and crafts. Below are just a few examples.

A photo posted by Tzvi Pittinsky (@techrav) on

A photo posted by Tzvi Pittinsky (@techrav) on

There were numerous musical instruments made out of discarded household items. Laser engraved leather bracelets. (My daughters actually liked them.) A bizarre musical car. A session on how to pick a lock. A competition between helicopter drones. SO many examples of items created using 3D printing. Kids who created switches to turn on electrical appliances all over the house. But my daughters were not impressed.

The Maker Faire had all the trappings of a religious movement. People were making for makings' sake. People were playing and having a great deal of fun. But, I think what turned off my daughters was that there seemed to be a lot of playing but very little purpose. It is nice to play around with Arduino boards and figure out how to make a series of switches to turn on every appliance in the house but how is that better than just walking up to the appliance and turning it on oneself? My daughters like to play. But they are very practical as well. (I thank my wife for that.) They want to play with a purpose.

My younger daughter said it best. She said the Maker Faire was like a science fair but without the science.

Science involves making stuff and exploring new ways of thinking. But it also involves generating a hypothesis and conducting experiments in order to collect a data set to prove or disprove one's thinking. It involves directed play.

This week, I was privileged to visit a different type of MakerSpace. The engineering lab in my school which thanks to Mrs. Rifkie Silverman's passionate guidance has become one of the most exciting and passionate places for directed play at Frisch. I watched a presentation by Mr. Ben Gross, Educational Technology Director at HAFTR, who was introducing a collaboration between HAFTR and Frisch using our new 3D printer.

Ben introduced the printer by pointing out the following problem. One designs a prototype robot using Lego Mindstorms, Arduino boards, and various other components and one finds the pieces just don't fit together. What does one do? In past years, the only option was duct tape. Make it fit. It's only a prototype anyways so what is the big deal if some of the pieces are taped together. Now with the 3D printer one can create the missing pieces using a 3D design program and print them oneself. Mind you, this is not nearly as exciting as some of the 3D examples introduced in the MakerFaire and I am sure there will be MANY more uses for our 3D printer in our engineering MakerSpace. But by starting with a much more practical example, Ben was promoting making with a purpose.

I think it is important that we give our students time to play. But as our students move to elementary school, middle school, high school, and beyond, we need to remember our role as teachers; to help our students to play with a purpose. We need to be their guide so that things they create are so much richer, deeper, and well thought out because we provided them with a sense of direction, purpose, and constructive feedback. I think back to that classic scene from one of my favorite teacher movies of all time, Mr. Holland's Opus, where the principal, Ms. Jacobs, reminds Mr. Holland, a newly minted music teacher that:
Our job is more than just filling young minds with knowledge. It is giving those minds a compass.
Kids will always love making. But be careful before installing a MakerSpace in your school. Kids have plenty of time to play at home. What they need in school is to play with a purpose. Make sure that your MakerSpace involves making as an integral part of a curriculum which can guide our students in engineering, the arts, or some other subject area. This is what our students really crave. They want the ability to create but they also desire the compass, the expert guidance that only a teacher can provide.

Monday, August 04, 2014

I Flipped My Lesson. Now What?

The following blog post is written by Mrs. Rhona Flaumenhaft, Math Teacher at The Frisch School. I have invited Rhona to cross-post on this space so we can benefit from a master teacher's years of experience in teaching math while at the same time integrating new technologies and research.

For the past six years, in an effort to keep my students more engaged, I have been writing worksheets for the kids to read at home the night before a difficult lesson. I had no idea that what I was attempting was a “flipped classroom”.

I always felt that it was important for my students take more responsibility and be active partners in what they needed to learn. It was a feature of the learning process that seemed to be disappearing from my classroom in recent years. My sheets were carefully designed to start with very simple facts, linking them together in a way that built a solid foundation to support the difficult concept or skill that I hoped to cover the next day, making the lesson more productive. However, many kids still needed me to read the sheets with them in class. The sheets were visual tools and many of my students needed an auditory experience.

Technology, in the form of the iPad and the Explain Everything app, allowed me to turn my worksheets into videos. For the past year, that has been my focus. 

I have been teaching middle school and high school math for almost 40 years and have very definite ideas about how to teach a math lesson. Of course, the graphing calculator and the Smart Board have made significant contributions to certain aspects of my lessons. But the fundamental structure of my lessons hadn’t changed, nor did it ever occur to me that it should.

I came to the recent unConference on the Flipped Classroom looking for new tools to make a better video, but what I came away with a much larger issue to tackle. As those of you who read my previous blog know, what shook up my world was the presentation by the keynote speaker, Julie Schell from Harvard University, who invited us to compare a picture of an operating room in the 1800’s with the operating room of today. They were shockingly different; technology had transformed the OR. Then we were asked to view then and now photos of the classroom; the differences seemed shockingly non-existent. The message was subtle yet clear: medicine had advanced, education had not.

The next idea that captured my imagination was the call for creativity posed by Sir Ken Robinson in a video clip shown during one presentation. Robinson spoke about the need to embrace creativity and prepare the classrooms of the future to equip students to meet the challenges in the new world that technology and globalization will establish. I was energized when I left that conference; convinced that I needed to change the way I taught.

But the more I thought about the comparison of an operating room to a classroom, the less compelling it became. Medicine relies on the discovery of new protocols and new drugs to treat or prevent disease. Technological advances in robotic surgery, for example, have transformed the OR. Teaching, however, is about enabling children and young adults to gain the information and skills they will need to support their future goals. I knew that student expectations had changed; that is what started my journey to “flip” my classroom. But had the fundamental ways in which students acquired knowledge changed?

I began by searching “how the brain learns” and got 81,600,000 results. Yikes; the task seemed impossible but I don’t give up easily; spending six years re-writing worksheets had made me tough! I jumped right in and almost immediately felt like I was drowning. One article claimed that new research into how the brain learns will change the way we teach. Another article claimed that not all scientists agree on how brain research should be applied to education, but many articles made suggestions about how to use brain research to improve education. Some spoke very clearly to the elementary school years and dealt with the issues articulated by Ken Robinson, although I felt that some of the suggestions would benefit the high school classroom as well.

Shifting my focus to math education in the high school years made my job harder (it is fascinating how much educational energy is devoted to math). I found so many articles with so many opinions, some diametrically opposite to each other, that it became impossible to juggle them all. Some articles were backed by research; some were not. Although all the authors felt that math education was important, they were split on what the content of the math curriculum should be. Many articles were devoted to discussions about algebra, but the algebra they were discussing was high school Algebra I in some articles, and College Algebra in others.

In desperation, and to maintain my sanity, I finally had to accept that in whatever way the math curriculum might change in the future, that was not my focus. I still wanted to know if there was a “best way” to teach math in the high school classroom of today. The only mandate I considered non-negotiable was, every student should be offered the opportunity to gain the skills needed to attend college. For now, that makes mastering algebra important.

First, I needed to review a “real world relevant/exploration” approach to structuring a math lesson. It was simple to consult the TED talk that had been part of the Frisch Math Department’s Staff Development program this past year presented by Dan Meyer. He feels strongly that teachers need to make math more palatable by making it more relevant, which is accomplished by finding problems that reflect the real world. He believes it is important to create an environment in the classroom where students are able to feel comfortable having math conversations. Meyer feels that technology is a compelling tool for powering our lessons. He also injects humor to make his lessons more engaging. All of these principles, relevance, visual stimulation, and humor, are mentioned in the brain research I read. At that point I realized that I had used all three to make my worksheets more effective. There is something very appealing in this approach, using relevance to generate excitement. However, I am concerned that there are certain limitations to making this approach a steady diet.

It is not always possible to see the relevance of something you learn at the exact point in time when you learn it. In order to make sense of all the articles I researched, I needed to be able to read and understand what I was reading. That process began with Dick and Jane, and “run Spot run”; yes, I am that old! Luckily for me, it never occurred to me to wonder why it was important whether Spot ran or not.

We cannot limit ourselves to concepts and skills based only on their real world relevance. Some important skills are embedded within a larger question, and the reason for learning them may not be apparent.

Second, as the adult in the room, I feel it is my responsibility to make decisions in my student’s own best interests, whether they understand my reasons or not. It is much more fun to ride a bike without a helmet, and to travel without a seat belt. We don’t allow our kids to do either, whether or not they understand its importance. By attaching too many bells and whistles to a math lesson, we may be sending the message that pure math is boring, or that the legitimacy of what we teach must pass muster with our students.

I feel that one of the biggest shortcomings in today's students is their failure to accept that some of the things they learn can be necessary without being fun in the way they define it, nor instantly rewarding. This is a fact of real life.

Any parent who wants to raise a child (which I think is rewarding) has to change dirty diapers (which may not). While I certainly don’t equate factoring, for example, with dirty diapers, the fact is that many of my students do. At this point, I realized that my concerns had meshed with another key component of the brain research, meaningful practice.

I turned to an article that spoke to this issue, written by John Mighton in Scientific American. Mighton believes that every student is capable of learning math. The key is breaking down each skill or concept into micro steps and then practicing each step. He suggests that the teacher needs to provide guidance and scaffolding to help students master new concepts. According to an American Psychological Association Report, “Practice for Knowledge Acquisition”, student performance is affected by how much they engage in effective practice.

After reading this article, I realized that Mighton’s approach was also a big part of both my sheets and my lessons. I thought back over the hours (and I am not exaggerating) it sometimes took to analyze the steps needed to understand a new concept or skill, in order to present the material in a way my students could absorb.

And, I realized that the whole point of the “flip” was to provide more time in class to practice each new skill.

I agree with Dan Meyer that students need to be able to talk about math and work together; I encourage collaboration and peer instruction. But I also agree with John Migton that kids need guidance and a framework to learn information for its own sake.

My first teaching job was at Hunter College High School and my first chairman was an incredibly talented educator, Dr. Harry D. Ruderman. He always warned his teachers that if a lesson is properly structured our students will be willing to join us on the exploration of new territory. The minute a student asks, “why do we have to know this” what he is really saying is “you lost me”.

Learning is a fascinating activity. The brain loves to learn and that is our ace in the hole. I have found that my passion and love for math influences my students. I don’t teach to their limited vision of what is important; I try to invite them to share mine. 

In the end, I try for a Meyer-supported and Mighton-based classroom. The biggest support I have for continuing to teach this way comes from my students. After accepting that I will not teach what they would secretly call a “joke course”, they very reluctantly accommodate this crazy woman, with the quirky sense of humor, who actually loves math and often thinks math problems are “cute”! And as they see that they can learn the material and be successful, their delight and excitement is its own reward. I often hear, at year’s end, that they are amazed by how much they have learned and understood; they take pride in what they have accomplished. Students often tell me that they feel smarter and they say it with confidence; if they could learn math this year, then why not next year as well? A subject that they had previously written off is now a potential resource. That feeling can open doors and that is the whole point!

(Cross-posted on the The Emperor Can't Do Math)