Monday, February 4, 2008

A moment to brag…but not about myself

I recently finished evaluating student projects from the software design class I teach at the Harvard Grad School of Education. With all due respect to my past classes (which were all fabulous, each one better than the others), this year’s group really clicked, and the range of high quality projects was impressive. To complete the projects students work in small teams on a project of their choice. They gather evidence to define an educational problem they are tackling, review relevant research for clues about effective approaches, devise a plan, construct a prototype, and test and revise it. I learn an enormous amount; hopefully they do too.

I had a number of former, current, and prospective teachers in this year’s mix. They helped maintain a grounding in reality that sometimes gets lost when folks start playing with the possibilities technology offers. One group of students, who are in a mid-career teacher transition program, took on negative numbers. They wanted a program to help them with a problem they were encountering in their classrooms. Digging into the research gave them a depth of awareness about a core learning issue that few teachers have the luxury to plumb. They found no easy answers, but I suspect the knowledge and experience they did gain will serve them well down the line.

So too for the group that focused on teaching the physics of sound, the one that hoped to use a program on the Pilgrims to help elementary students see outside themselves to better understand history, and the one with fabulous activities to build reading comprehension skills. The physics group developed a pre-assessment on student conceptions of sound that was incredibly enlightening. The drawings and descriptions revealed a great deal about kids’ thinking and provided a powerful reminder about the importance of respecting the knowledge students bring with them to class. The Pilgrim project worked to push second and third graders developmentally, and the effort uncovered the edges of what young students can comprehend. The reading comprehension project simply radiated a graduate student’s passion about what she teaches in her high school English class in Florida. Her project introduced me to some very intriguing ideas about using comics and graphic novels to teach comprehension. More importantly, it allowed her to focus and deepen her thinking about some very powerful instructional lessons. Wouldn’t it be fantastic for all teachers to be able to take a semester to really grapple with some element of their teaching?

Three projects gave me hope that recently neglected parts of the curriculum may soon recover. One was a project that engaged students in using primary sources scaffolded reading and interpretation and helped turn what is too often a “read and remember” subject into one that is dynamic and alive. History is being made and interpreted everyday; we should teach it! When the “Culture Shock” team presented its project to the class, they started with a National Geographic geography online quiz. While the performance of my graduate students was pretty solid (this is Harvard, after all), the national results were pretty sorry. We are a geographically ignorant nation. That’s sad given how interconnected the world has become. The team’s simulation puts students in the role of manufacturers looking for the best resources and most responsible working conditions from around the globe. That’s real and relevant. Can’t we squeeze a little geography and culture back into the curriculum? The third project dealt with decision-making, civic responsibility, and conflict management. They developed a whole class prototype that had my students engaged in rich conversation and perspective-taking for two hours. Shouldn’t we devote a bit of school time to learning how to see and work with others?

Two groups of students gained experience by working with real clients. One team of international students partnered with a professor at the University of Athens in Greece. They aimed to design an online support environment for a course that’s part of a program training future teachers of English to native Greek speakers. The team that developed a technology-rich program for a media literacy unit in a local urban high school also had to revise and rethink based on the input from the teacher who would ultimately be using the materials. We all relearned the lesson that designing something cool might be different from designing something that will work somewhere real.

And speaking of contextual constraints, one group turned to cell phones as a delivery platform for teaching French to children and adult learners in Ghana. That team had to think through a whole new infrastructure that leverages a number of emerging technologies with solid, proven pedagogy. This mobile learning project, along with one working to incorporate some web 2.0 features into an online vocabulary-building environment, particularly highlighted the promise of new technologies. All of the projects had solid research foundations, but they each took creative paths to applying that research with the aid of technology to meet important educational needs.

I think I covered all the projects from this fall’s course. I hope I didn’t embarrass any of my students or leave anyone out. I just wanted to brag about their efforts a bit and tease out some of the general lessons that are easy to overlook in the details of each project. Nice work!

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