Archive for Curricular integration

Dragon Box: Learn Algebra In a Visual Game

A few weeks ago, Wired published an article about a University of Washington professor’s experiment with algebra learning using an app called Dragon Box. Developed by a Norwegian company, the app comes in two versions, one for ages 5+ and the other for ages 12+. I bought both apps and invited our eight year-old to try them out.

Try them out he did! Perhaps not unusually for a boy his age, he completed the activities in the first app within three hours and moved on to the second app. After an additional three hours on Sunday, he announced that he had “finished” the ages 12+ app as well. Not so fast! Dragon Box invited him to “Side B,” which apparently provides about a hundred practice problems, still in the interactive environment, in traditional categories of pre-algebra and algebra problems. He still has plenty to do.

Indeed, the apps are very engaging. They provide a fun, exploration-based learning environment through which our son progressed when he correctly applied algebraic principles. Instruction was minimal. The app explained a few simple rules at the start of each set of challenges, using very simple, non-math language. Our son swiped and tapped his way through simplifying equations and solving for the unknown. Gradually, a few additional rules and more complex problems are presented until the player is multiplying by common denominators and solving complicated equations.

Ingeniously, the app starts with a sparkling box to represent an unknown variable, fantasy animals to represent numeric values, and a bar dividing right from left to represent equivalency. As one completes levels, eventually the box becomes x, the animals become numbers, the bar becomes an equal sign, and additional operands appear. The solution methods stay the same. The game is entirely faithful to the mathematical principles. Knowledge and skills learned transfer into solutions for algebraic equations.

Additional information:

We Want To Know (the Norwegian company)

Dragon Box (the apps, $6 and $10 for iOS, other mobile and desktop versions available)

Center for Game Science (University of Washington)

Kids Like to Learn Algebra, if It Comes in the Right App” (Wired)

DragonBox: Algebra Beats Angry Birds (Wired, detailed app info)


Another Special Senior Art Gift

Last year’s seniors gave a beautiful math-based painting to the school. The Class of 2012 just unveiled these two marvels, creating for science what math received last year. Yes, that’s a strand of DNA in cat’s cradle form. Click the photo to take a closer look.

Computer Use in Classrooms

I find any time I make to get into classrooms very useful, to observe instruction and speak with teachers and students about teaching and learning. It really helps to broaden and update my understanding of what innovative teaching happens here. I hosted a visitor from another school today and ended up joining him for all of the observations and faculty conversations instead of dropping him off.

In an Upper School math class, Lauren effortlessly moved among the students, her computer, and the Smart Board. Students completed problems on paper with the assistance of Geometer’s Sketchpad as a modeling environment, and then Lauren manipulated the same model on the Smart Board while checking for student understanding.

In seventh grade World Cultures, students spent the period developing their trip planning projects, in which they design a hypothetical trip to an eastern hemisphere country in great detail, including a daily itinerary and budget. The entire project is completed in Google Apps (Earth, Docs, and Spreadsheet).

Beyond the trip planning project, it was interesting to note the new table arrangement in Paul’s classroom and how every student was completely on task. The S shaped classroom arrangement provides for both student collaboration and quick teacher access.

In third-year computer science, Andrew explained that students were building simple computers from the most base level using bread boards and a computer-based modeling program. We also discussed the place of computer science in a six-discipline high school and the role of AP exams in our schools.

Early World History students worked in small groups to formulate four different kinds of thesis statements and post their ideas to an online forum for class discussion. These ideas will form the foundation for their individual final writing assignment of the year.

Media Arts students were honing their practice with critique, explaining their reactions to their peers’ work to each other, and then taking notes on a video.

In these classrooms, computers were used very naturally in the course of teaching and learning. They did not receive undue attention, and frankly they were hardly mentioned. Desktop and website applications functioned as part of the fabric of the learning environment, and the students mostly accessed prior knowledge to complete the work of the day.


Class Maps in Google Apps

Maps has been one of my favorite Google Apps to use in fourth and fifth grade. Students conduct research on a topic, create placemarks, and add descriptions, images, and sometimes links. The collaboration feature allows the class to quickly create a visual guide to any topic, for example the agricultural products of Oregon. The work environment is media-rich, collaborative, and fast. The mapping skills are very transferable to other subjects.

View Map Of Oregon in a larger map

In the following map, each student designed a fruit salad from a list of ingredients and then mapped the distance to the place of origin of each fruit.

View Fruit Salad in a larger map

edCampPDX Rocks Again

We hosted the third edCampPDX at Catlin Gabel on Saturday. The vibe and content were both great. Teachers, librarians, technologists, and parents from public schools, independent schools, school districts, and technology companies explored ideas on teaching, learning, information, and technology. Participants created all of the sessions. See below for the list of topics covered.

I personally came away with much appreciation for the diverse perspectives and experience of different education professionals, as well as a grab bag of promising tools that others are using. Most importantly, we are succeeding in creating a new, broadly based professional network in the Portland area.

Delightful Design (Rachel Wente-Chaney)
Design principles for non-designers. One of my favorite books is Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book. Her lessons are useful for all people, but I think especially so for educators.
Link to presentation:
Link to Delicious Stack:

iPads in the Classroom (Mike Kruse)
I will share best practices from numerous deployments that I have surveyed around the nation.

Smart Search (Colette Cassinelli)
A show-n-tell / discussion around search and how to effectively teach students & teachers to move on the basic Google Search. Some of the session links

Intro to Web 2.0/EdTech Strand (Melissa Lim)
Three of my favorite web 2.0 tools and how I use them in the classroom.__

Why Is School Change Hard? (Richard Kassissieh)
School Change theory, Larry Cuban and David Tyack, systems thinking, mental models of “good” education, industrial model for education and the information age.

Speed Innovation Session (All)
In this session, a large number of participants have 3 (5?) minutes to share a tool, tip, idea, or anything else. The idea is to share out a wide range of ideas very quickly, with suggestions for further reading/resources on each topic.

Literature Circles to Create Content Area Relevancy (Ben Bleckley)
Sharing resources for finding young adult literature relevant to specific content topics, ways to develop student self-directed discussion skills, and assessments. Discussion Links  Talking Points

Leave Your Tech at the Door (Corin Richards)
Let’s have a conversation about student-centered learning and other great teaching practices crossing content and grades levels. Of course, technology MIGHT creep into the conversation. This could be a continuation of Richard’s change theory discussion.

PLN Picks for the Week

The professional learning network comes through again. Here are some blog posts from around the web that piqued my interest this weekend.

The Multi-layered Curriculum: Why Change Is often Confused with Reform

… once states adopt curricular frameworks in science they will have only a passing similarity to the science content and skills that teachers will teach once they close their classroom doors. In the real world of age-graded schools, pedagogy, assessment, and professional development are thoroughly entangled while the official curriculum too often sails above the clouds loosely tethered to what happens in classrooms.

Larry Cuban finds four layers of curriculum in schools:

1. The “official,” state-mandated curriculum

2. What teachers teach

3. What students learn

4. What is assessed

Read more

What Can the U.S. Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

We should not ask whether Finnish educational model would work in the United States or anywhere else. The question should be: What can we learn from the Finnish experience as high performer and successful reformer?

Finnish lesson is that good policies and overall well-being of people, including poverty reduction, are the corner stones of sustainable educational success.

Pasi Sahlberg (by way of Larry Cuban) underscores the key lesson from Finland, that a demonstrated alternative exists to test-based school accountability systems. The Atlantic also wrote on the topic.

Read more

Study: Class size doesn’t matter

… we show that an index of five policies suggested by over forty years of qualitative research — frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations — explains approximately 50 percent of the variation in school effectiveness.

If this becomes the new conventional wisdom, then independent schools will need to update their marketing messages. Independent schools are generally well-positioned to speak to highlight teacher feedback, tutoring, and high expectations and perhaps less well-positioned for data-informed instruction and increased instructional time.

Read more

Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools

Teachers are resisting, saying that they prefer to employ technology as it suits their own teaching methods and styles.

Legislating computer use, especially if it results in teacher layoffs, would generate a strong reaction, wouldn’t it?

Read more

LiveBinders Comes to the iPad

Sorting Out an Avalanche of iPad Apps for the Best of 2011

Free Tech for Teachers and The New York Times offer some quality app selections that may work well for schools. I am especially interested in presentation tools for organizing content, whether for student portfolios or other, more short-term purposes.

LiveBinders  Best of 2011


New Student Newspapers Online

By coincidence, sister schools Catlin Gabel and Maru-a-Pula just launched their inaugural online issues just a week apart. It’s great to see both schools embracing an online format.


MAP Voices:

I worked a bit with the CatlinSpeak staff, and a few thought-provoking questions came up.

What is an “issue” in an online format?

The staff plans to publish four paper issues and some additional number of online issues. To simulate an “issue” on the website, the initially planned to schedule all of the posts to publish on a specific date. In reality, it was too difficult to troubleshoot design and layout without publishing the first batch of articles immediately.

The online format forces some shifts in thinking. When breaking news happens, why not publish it to the site immediately? Major news websites no longer publish issues but rather post articles continuously as they are written. Can a school newspaper generate enough traffic without announcing new issues? Can students devote focused attention to writing and editing amongst their other school commitments?

How can we get students to read more serious articles?

CatlinSpeak had a terrific launch day as measured by site traffic, nearly 2,000 hits in a single day. However, look how steeply traffic dropped off after the home page.

Serious articles about global travel, the presidential election, etc. only received low double-digit hits. How many of those read the articles all the way through?

How much technical website expertise should a journalism class develop?

The CatlinSpeak staff had high standards for layout and design but was not able to take on the CSS customization required to make the necessary changes. Given that the design is likely to stay relatively static now that the site is launched, how important is it for the staff to develop CSS skills, compared to spending time on journalism and publicity skills? Is it okay for adults to do most of the CSS work at the start of this project, to help the staff achieve a good launch?

What collaboration is possible between Maru-a-Pula and Catlin Gabel students?

We have two student newspaper staffs writing serious articles about their schools and communities. How should they collaborate together in ways that will be worth the effort required? What could students learn from the similarities and differences in their journalistic priorities and methods?

What is the role of social media in these online papers?

The Catlin Gabel staff chose Twitter for a very practical reason: the ease of posting links to external news articles and Catlin Gabel sports scores. They are not really using it for networking, but it is effective for presenting updates quickly and concisely.

Journalism and 21st Century Skills

This year, CatlinSpeak changed from a club to a half-credit lunch class. This promotion underscores the legitimacy of a journalism class within a classic academic program. That said, why not fully integrate the class within the English department’s elective or required course of study? Communication, presentation, and global citizenship are key 21st century skills. Why not five them full status in the school curriculum?

Design Thinking and School Change

I recently facilitated a discussion on design thinking at EdCampPDX. Design thinking is a process for solving problems promoted by IDEO and Stanford’s, among others. The design process includes the following steps:

  • Interviewing users
  • Seeking themes in identified issues
  • Brainstorming solutions while reserving judgment
  • Prototyping and revision

Our discussion group explored the potential of design thinking for student instruction, technology innovation, and school management. The discussion quickly turned to the question of school change — how may a school broadly adopt innovative forms of teaching and management such as design thinking? One school leader expressed concern that students would be less prepared for college admissions as a result of such a change in instructional methods. Others in the group advocated for instructional innovation and risk-taking.

This debate happens frequently when discussing innovation, and school change is difficult to lead. It feels safer to continue to practice the current methods that to try something new, because the promise for improvement is only theoretical, and others have to buy into the change for it to succeed.

At the same time, I left this discussion with a new idea; that design thinking itself could help an instructional team build support for design thinking and other educational innovations. That is, the protocol for discussing design thinking should itself model the design thinking process.

Let us interview students directly and find out whether they are actually passionate about their studies or rather just “doing school” (Pope). Let us seek themes in identified issues to find the problems for which solutions would most benefit students.

When considering possibilities for change, let us set a protocol to reserve judgment and only build on others’ ideas. Nothing kills a discussion more quickly than a veteran teacher standing up to denounce a new idea when it has only just been proposed.

Let us prototype design thinking as an instructional method within our school, with small groups or short units in the year, collect feedback on prototype performance, revise, and try again. Let us evaluate the potential of an idea not just by discussing it but by trying it.


School Change Through Experiential Programs

Independent schools have increasingly created specialized positions to lead or facilitate new, experiential learning opportunities for their students. Do you have these positions at your school?

Director of service learning
Director of global programs
Educational technology specialist
Urban studies program director
Director of student life
Outdoor programs coordinator
Director of diversity

These programs feature a common thread: experiential learning. Students engage in hands-on activities grounded in an authentic context such as service, the outdoors, global travel, or multiculturalism.

Where do experiential programs live within the school? How do students access them?

One model: students experience two separate courses of study, a “core” of discipline-based study plus a “peripheral” set of experiential programs.

This structure implies an “influencer” model of school change. The school creates new positions for experiential program leaders. Students participate in these special programs outside of the regular class schedule. Most teachers observe from a distance. If the experiential programs are exciting and the program specialists effective at outreach, then teachers may increasingly partner with the programs to introduce more experiential elements into subject-based instruction. Experiential programs only affect the core as much as they influence from a distance.

The contrast of teaching methods may send students unintended messages. Discipline-based classes may use more recognizable forms of teaching: holding classes, facilitating class discussion, assigning readings, and assessing student mastery through papers, presentations, and tests. Experiential programs may take place in the woods, on Skype, or through a blog. They may emphasize student construction of the learning environment, partnerships with local organizations, special events, and interdisciplinary study. Experiential programs may gain a reputation for being optional or less rigorous.

Another model: students experience a “core” program that incorporates experiential components.

This structure adopts a rapid, comprehensive model of school change. The school makes a decision early on to broadly adopt specific experiential learning themes. All teachers are involved, and all courses integrate experiential learning in some manner. If the school creates special program director positions at all, then these individuals are few in number and partner closely with teachers to create student learning experiences. They do not offer separate programs to students. The weekly timetable is organized to facilitate experiential learning opportunities. Students experience a relatively consistent learning experience across the school program.

How may an existing school integrate experiential programs without completely reorganizing itself?

1. Assign experiential program responsibilities to core teachers. Partly discipline-based teachers, partly program specialists, they are more likely to influence their colleagues to try something new.

2. Mandate special, schoolwide initiatives to introduce more experiential learning, supported by program specialists.

3. Facilitate democratic, teacher decision-making processes to introduce specific types of experiential learning into the school program, facilitated by program specialists.

4. Provide program specialists greater access to school change vehicles, such as administrative leadership and curriculum review committees.

Case studies: schools trying different experiential programs

I would like to list these schools now and write short case studies in the future. What other independent schools would you add to this list?

Urban School: Innovative Teaching

Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences

Lick-Wilmerding School: Public purpose

“Leading from the Middle”

A summer institute offered by the Santa Fe Leadership Center

Ubiquitous Technology in Elementary

Schools are considering how much to integrate technology instruction into homeroom technology programs. Fully integrated (a.k.a. “ubiquitous”) technology is the norm in public schools, which usually do not have specialist technology instructors or separate periods for technology instruction. Homeroom teachers teach computer skills and use what technology tools are available to further homeroom projects. Independent schools commonly have specialist technology teachers who teach students in dedicated class periods.

If a school has the option, should it hold separate technology classes in elementary grades or fully integrate technology within the homeroom program? We have experimented with a hybrid approach for the past two years: technology classes meet in two 40-minute dedicated periods per week, but I teach one and homeroom teachers lead the other. This encourages us to design technology lessons that directly support homeroom projects and necessitates that we plan instructional units together. It sends the message to students that technology use is not a specialized domain but rather a ubiquitous tool that we use when needed.

In the spirit of ubiquity, should we integrate technology wholly into the homeroom program and eliminate distinct technology periods? Recently, elementary technology educators met at Head-Royce School in Oakland, and Olga from Woodland School made the following observation (paraphrased). There exist two sets of technology skills, informational skills (take notes, organize, know what resources you need, streamline, understand how to approach various learning methods) and computational learning (open complex software and learn how to use it, such as Photoshop, Scratch, HTML, etc.). There is no time in a ubiquitous learning model for learning specialized software skills such as Photoshop. With a complex application, students need time for exploration. Computational skills cannot be taught in a ubiquitous class setting like informational skills can. Arguable, the greatest emphasis on computational skills should occur in the middle school years.

This clarifies our choice. If we believe that students can master computational skills in fourth and fifth grades (and why can’t they?), then it makes sense to continue with the hybrid approach. We could continue to split time between applying informational and computational skills to homeroom projects, and the technology specialist and homeroom teachers could continue to collaborate closely to ensure that technology projects remain authentic to homeroom work. At the same time, we don’t have to hire a dedicated technology teacher for such a small course load. Collaboration also serves as professional development for homeroom teachers — their technology skills will likely improve through regular meetings with the technology specialist and teaching technology skills to their students.