Posted in Virtual Book Club

Review – Educated by Design by Michael Cohen

In my work as a Technology Integrator, one of my greatest challenges was helping students and teachers see the potential for creativity that our new and ever changing technology afforded us. It was just too easy to use our devices simply for record keeping and consuming digitized content. Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR Model helped us understand how technology can transform teaching and learning, but in actual practice most teachers found it difficult to move beyond substitution or augmentation, and opportunities for activating our own and our students’ creativity were missed.

Michael Cohen, the Tech Rabbi, addresses the disconnect between creativity and teaching practice in his book Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, & Extract Your Creative Potential. He makes the argument that we all have the potential for creativity, and he’s careful to make clear distinctions between creativity and talent, and between skill and artistry. He illustrates the book with quotes and aphorisms meant to inspire teachers to develop a creative mindset and take the risks necessary to design learning opportunities that could unleash student creativity. He relates examples and anecdotes from his teaching successes and failures, and his last chapter includes activities and ideas that teachers can use to begin constructing their own creativity toolkit.

creativity illustration
Creativity flickr photo by Hldrmn shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Cohen devotes a whole chapter to the role of empathy in the creative process, an idea that I found particularly interesting. Most creative process models begin with preparation and/or definition of a problem as the first step, but Cohen suggests that without empathy, proposed solutions to a problem are likely to fail. Although he presents empathy as a first step, he also demonstrates how it’s woven through the whole process and how it inspires creativity.

The chapter on collaboration is a must-read for all teachers. Anyone who has ever attempted group projects has probably observed the experience Cohen describes here. Generally when a group of students is assigned a challenge, one or two do all the work while the rest sit back and watch. I learned long ago (the hard way) that randomly assigning students to a group seldom promotes true collaboration. Each individual must feel that they are bringing something valuable to the process. Forming groups where students take on specific roles based on their strengths and interests and where they see a purpose to their work will lead to more successful outcomes.

Maybe our biggest takeaway from this book should be that teachers must be designers. So often we fall into a rut, doing things the same way year after year, often following a canned curriculum using someone else’s lesson plans. I have found that the greatest joy of teaching comes from designing a learning opportunity for students that inspires them to think creatively to answer an essential question or solve a real problem. Our challenge is to take the Tech Rabbi’s advice and ideas and use them to revise our own teaching practice.

Michael Cohen, the Tech Rabbi, will be the keynote speaker and presenter at the 2019 ACTEM Conference on Friday, October 11, and copies of Educated by Design will be available at the ACTEM store.

Posted in Virtual Book Club

Review – Learning Transformed by Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray

This review can also be found in the June 2019 issue of The Connected Educator.

No one can deny that our schools are not meeting the needs of all students, and in this fast-changing world, much of what we do is often ineffective or irrelevant. So much of how we run our schools is based on tradition and our collective memory of how we ourselves were schooled. We know we need to change, but schools are complex institutions and it’s hard to know where to begin.

classroom with desks in rows
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

In Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today, Eric Sheninger and Thomas Murray provide a roadmap for change that’s both innovative and practical. The primary audience for this book is school leaders but, as the authors suggest, meaningful change comes from “leaders by action” rather than “leaders by title” and they can be anyone in the school community.

The authors devote a chapter to each of their eight identified keys to designing (or redesigning) schools. Each chapter breaks down the big idea (the key) into its elements and provides a research-based rationale for the advice and action steps given. Chapters end with an “Innovative Practices in Action” section where school leaders from around the country describe how they succeeded in bringing substantial change to their buildings or districts.

The chapter on leadership and culture contains many of the themes that run through any discussion of how to turn vision into action: communicating, building relationships, delegating (but not too much), modeling, reflecting, etc. We’ve heard these ideas before, but they bear repeating. Educational technology is discussed throughout the book, including a whole chapter on leveraging technology with advice for building an infrastructure and addressing some of the issues that we in Maine have struggled with since MLTI brought one-to-one computing to every middle school in the state.

The chapter titled “Designing Learner Centered Spaces” may be the most interesting and valuable in the book. Often when we think of school reform, we pay little attention to the effect the physical space can have on learning. This chapter cites research about school environments and gives practical tips for creating inviting and flexible learning spaces and avoiding what the authors call the “cemetery effect” where desks are in rows with the teacher in front. The theme of this chapter is that learning is not confined to the traditional classroom, and we can design physical and virtual spaces that provide students and teachers with variety and choice.

If you only have time for one chapter of this book, read Chapter 5, “Making Professional Learning Personal.” I have been on both the giving and receiving end of ineffective professional development practices, so this chapter resonated with me. Much of what passes for professional learning opportunities for teachers is a just a series of one-size-fits-all sessions where an expert is brought in to tell teachers how to do it better. It may or may not be relevant to an individual teacher’s practice and seldom has any lasting effect. Where teachers are given choice, their “development” is measured by the amount of time spent in coursework or in-service classes rather than by how they improve their practice. This chapter promotes a personalized plan for professional learning that allows teachers to combine a variety of learning experiences including  personal and professional networks, peer observations, coaching, Edcamps, and other formal and informal opportunities. Professional learning should be embedded in the culture of the school so it’s ongoing and expected, and its success is measured by outcomes, not hours.

The authors are experienced educators and administrators with extensive backgrounds in educational technology, and this book reflects their research and expertise, providing practical ideas for designing better schools for today and for the future. Thomas Murray will be a keynote speaker and presenter at the 2019 ACTEM Conference. Come hear him on Thursday, October 10 to learn more about how these 8 keys can help you and your school community transform learning.



Posted in Technology Integration, Virtual Book Club

Ditch That Textbook by Matt Miller

I’ve never liked textbooks. Early in my career, I taught 6th grade for several years in a school where the only textbook I had was for math. I gathered my own materials for science, social studies, and ELA. In those pre-internet days, this was not easy, but I had help from my school librarian and members of the community who would donate books and magazines. We had plenty of print content, I often invited local experts to come to my classroom to talk to my students, and we took lots of field trips. I think I embraced PBL before I knew what it was. I could not imagine teaching from a textbook and letting it define my curriculum.

High pile of hardcover books
flickr photo by albertogp123 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Matt Miller promotes similar ideas in his book Ditch That Textbook: Free Your Teaching and Revolutionize Your ClassroomThe title of the book intrigued me, given my aversion to textbooks, and I expected the book to be about the harmful practice of assigning reading from one-size-fits-all textbooks to a class of diverse learners. I was looking for arguments to use when I discuss literacy issues with teachers who depend heavily on textbooks and who have students who struggle to read them. Instead, I found arguments for teaching with technology which seemed obvious to me but may be helpful to some teachers.

The author makes some good points about ditching the “textbook mentality” which means getting out of the rut of conventional teaching including reading from a textbook, answering the questions at the end of the chapter, completing the related worksheets, etc. His ideas are similar to what I was doing with my 6th graders except now it’s easier with technology. He discusses using digital resources from the internet, creating your own resources and sharing them, connecting with experts and with other classes through Skype, and using social media for teaching and learning. He also describes his paperless classroom and admits to making many mistakes in implementing it. I especially liked Chapter 21, ” You Are Your Own Best PD” where he says, “But if you’re waiting for school-provided PD to answer your every question and guide you on the path of high-quality teaching, you’re waiting on the wrong thing.” I think many teachers will find this book reassuring with the apparent theme being, “I did it and you can do it too.”

So, here’s the question I’m pondering: How do we nudge teachers out of the textbook driven practices that they find so comfortable? I’m thinking mostly about high school teachers, although I know a few middle school teachers who could use some nudging too. Let this be fodder for a healthy discussion in the comments for this post.

This week I’ll start reading Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator by Dave Burgess. I’m still working my way through 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools by David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass (I tend to read one lie at a time) but I hope to finish it soon.