Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Idea vs Implementation–Using What We Learn

You’re at a great conference and you are hearing all sorts of great ideas. It’s exciting! You hear about tools and techniques that are working wonders in the presenter’s school or in the schools the researcher or vendor repeats stories from. You love it. It could make a world of difference in your class. And you get home and never use it. Has that ever happened to you? It has to me though I am embarrassed to admit it.

What happens to us? Lots of different things. Sometimes the tech is too expensive. Even when it is free perhaps we don’t have hardware capable of running it. Most likely though we start our planning for the year and it looks hard to find a place to use the tools. We may not have gotten a good idea of how the presenter uses it. It’s cool but what does it really teach? Perhaps we get push back from other teachers who are more resistant to change than we are. Or perhaps we just don’t have as much time as we’d like. Taking the idea/tool we heard in a conference and translating it into our own curriculum and style can be hard, at least in part, because we don’t know enough about who to teach with the tool. What does it teach? How well does it teach? When/where in the curriculum does it belong?

So much of what we hear at conferences is presented as how to use a tool with implementation in the curriculum left up to the teacher. Scott McLeod has a great post on Wasting opportunities at ed tech conferences that puts a lot of the blame (largely correctly) on the sessions presented at conferences. There are 78 comments there as I write this BTW. .

This problem isn’t limited to conferences though. How often do we teach tools to students where the focus is more about how to use the tool (this is how to format in Word, this is how you create a graph in Excel) without teaching them how to use the tool to solve problems or do useful things or learn other things?

One of the things we’re focused on in my school in our first course in the CS department is teaching with context. That is to say solving problems with the tools and learning more than the mechanics. We’re trying to make it more about the concepts and the ways you can learn things than about the tools themselves. I feel good about that but we still have a ways to go.

Two of the tools I learned about over the last year (Code Hunt and Office Mix) are relatively new. Teachers, especially including me, are still figuring out how to use them to teach better. I’m off to a slow start. I planned on creating a whole bunch of Office Mixes over the summer – I made two. I introduced Code Hunt late when I should probably have introduced it early. Currently I am working on a couple of Office Mixes that incorporate Code Hunt. I’m excited about seeing them in action but they’re not ready.

I bring this up in part because over the weekend I was thinking that I’d wished I’d submitted a proposal to the CSTA Conference to present on these tools. After all I think they are really cool. But then I read Scott’s post and realized that I am really not ready to present them. I don’t know yet how well they work with students or how I am going to fit them into my curriculum. Oh I have ideas and I have excitement. but how will they work in reality? That I don’t know yet.

While I hope (assume) they will be good and have some tentative plans I will not have real (or even good anecdotal) evidence until the spring. So while I might have a great talk for the summer it is not a sure thing. I may be missing an opportunity to present or have saved myself embarrassment. Fortunately I have a blog and I will be able to share what works and doesn’t work that way. Not the same perhaps but I think the important thing is that sharing goes on and that it is more about how to teach than how to use the tool for its own sake. That’s my goal anyway.

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Garth said...

Many of the cool tools I see presented add to the list of things to teach or learn. That list is already jam packed so an addition is just not needed. Now if the tool replaced something or made some task significantly easier then it is a winner. I have just started using Geogebra to help solve simple linear programming problems. The kids know how to find the intersection of two lines by hand so why not use a tool that does it quicker and easier. The tool in this case shortens and improves the task. It is also easy to do and is much prettier. My school had several in-services a couple years ago on all the Google tools. She was very excited to give all this new stuff to us. It did not improve what we were doing, it just added to the classroom teaching load. Most of it is long forgotten.

Alfred C Thompson II said...

You make a great point Garth. if it doesn't change the way we teach it is of little use. One of the things I am doing with Code Hunt (and Office Mix to some extent) it to change the way I teach. I want the students to do more hand on problem solving than I can do in a class situation. My creating some code duels I can assign problems to work on at home without students needing more than Internet/web access.