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Or-Tal's Writings

entrepreneur/mother/education revolutionist/high tech addict

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Communications is KEY, in the classroom too

So I took this expertise I have – communications – and simply applied it to the classroom. We live in the “age of communications”. How we communicate is a big deal. I really wanted to speak about my  concept of education through communications at the conference this week in Boston, lead by The Communications Guy – Jeff Pulver. But I am teaching now. No time off.

Communications is key, yet in most classrooms it’s still the same hundreds-years-old model of one teacher “communicating to” many students. The blackboard was the first edtech which improved the communications in the classroom. Not to be confused with the 20th century’s whiteboard, or the later smart-board. Or so many other technology solutions aimed at marching the classroom communications forward.

But really, communications is first and foremost a listening-speaking-listening cycle. And while we often ask students to listen, we’re not coached to listen to the students (other then when they are tested). And there’s a lot to listen to.

I started this year with a “Getting to know you” questionnaire. It’s amazing how much head start you get when you open the year with this. I teach 7th and 8th graders English as a Second language. Being a country of immigrants, for some this is the 3rd or even 4th language – which was another important questions to answer. And that’s just one example.

I received information about the students from their homeroom teachers, and continued to take a look at those open and unprotected Facebook profiles. When the group of students who are into racing cars received from me an assignment about a teen racing driver they were surprised and pleased. When the artist was asked to use her special skills in designing flash cards she was thrilled that someone has noticed here talent. I learned that one of the students, who is a recent immigrant from Russia, has a dream: to learn programming. So I asked him and a classmate who also stated an interest in high tech to do the Codemonkey programming game in class. This got him totally devoted and also earned the respect of his classmates, who bothered for the first time to communicate with him.

It’s not easy to get through to all kids. Some are still a mystery to me. So I try to get them to talk with me for a minute or two in between classes or assignments. I will win them over eventually. I must. The thing is, what I need to teach them has nothing to do with the process I am into at this stage. This is all about communications. And it’s much deeper than the transfer of knowledge.

I think the main surprise so far was the shock of my students when I insisted on developing other digital communications channels in favor of learning. Other than Whatsapp that is.

My 7th graders seemed to think that email is old-fashioned and not needed. The class wiki, where I post the class summary, homework, links and files, is a burden to them. And while they all where extremely enthusiastic about joining the Classcraft game – only about a quarter of the students bothered to login and create their character in the past 10 days since they received their invitation. They don’t open their email, so they didn’t see the invitation. Only half of the class logged in the wiki to see the links and invitations there, the fact is not even all of those got into Classcraft. Several kids forgot their passwords – some of them learned the process of retrieving a password. Others didn’t get that idea. They seem over confident about their mastery of technology – yet this extremely simple actions are beyond them. And don’t even get me started on things like Google Docs…

I find that preparing them to properly communicate in all these channels is an essential part of their education. Since most tools are in English – I dared to add it to their English class. But then, what about the English curriculum? Looks like even these declared young innovators prefer the old ways when it comes to the classroom. The new is scary. I have a long long way to go.

 

Back in a Classroom

Last week I went into a classroom as a student for the first time in 20 years. Very important for an education innovator who isn’t a teacher. I am very proud of the fact that motherhood dragged me into the education innovation, but experiencing a classroom as a student isn’t experiencing it as a mother of a student, not even similar to experiencing it as a teacher, I am sure.

You can’t really comprehend the enormousness of the education crisis before you are sitting behind a desk totally dependent on someone else for the pearls of wisdom you’re supposed to get, without any say about how you’re going to get them or when, and then you’re graded for your grasp. Hmmm.

classroom I am an old fashioned schooled one. I grew up without any digital mobile instruments around me, not even a PC. I think that even a walkman was too much of a luxury, had to work and save before I could get one. And I started my journalistic career with my dad’s Hermes typewriter and working in the print house with lead letters.

So the technicality of sitting behind a desk, writing a summary of the class, doing exercises, performing to the rhythm of the conductor – all this should be well imprinted in me.

But it’s not. I’m was slowly and gradually spoiled by various forms of computers. I think it started in the early 90’s with a DOS computer, and grew exponentially until today I spend about 14 hours a day online. I have a desktop, a laptop, a netbook, an iPad and an iPhone. I rarely get disconnected. In fact I can say I am pretty addicted. Can’t go through a day with no connectivity at all. Can’t watch a movie without playing something on my iPhone\iPad at the same time. Ahmm. Yep, in the movies too.

Reading a book is one of the toughest tasks for me. When I was 14, 8th grade, I got the school’s annual award for reading the largest number of books which I borrowed from the school’s library. 400 books. Some days I finished 2+. I couldn’t get enough. Nowadays, give them to me in 140 characters chunks. I am sure if I’ll do the math I’m reading much more today than I have ever – in characters count. But I’m down from 400 books in 10 months, to 1 book in 800 days and the sad thing, I miss the relaxed experience.

This rhythm my life has adjusted to is an immediate rhythm. I’m at The State of Now.

Now think about the generation born into this reality and this rhythm. About the toddlers trying to swipe the photo in the frame on their grandparents’ mantle. How are they expected to take a break for 5-9 hours a day and go back from rockets to horse-and-carriage?

People, when talking about the education crisis, worldwide, know that what you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg and think Titanic.

Say “Passion” instead of “Engagement”

“Engagement” seems to be the key word, the major buzz word, where educational technology is concerned. Ask an Edtech entrepreneur what their app or software is doing, and at least 90% of the time the word “engagement” pops up. The other 10% are administrative apps that do not presume to change any classroom or student experience.

Last week I attended several events, one of them was the Demo Day of the first wave of graduate startups from the MindCET incubator. MindCET is the first and currently only incubator for educational technology startups in Israel. Obviously, there wasn’t a single startup that skipped the word “engagement”. And there’s nothing unusual about it: Dozens of edtech startups I met during SXSWedu and SXSW also made sure they slip “engagement” into every pitch or presentation. At one moment during last week’s presentations I found myself trying to build an image to go along with “engagement”. That promise of engagement seems to be the main attractions teachers feel towards educational technology: something to keep their students wide-eyed, open-mouths, hung on the teacher’s every word. Something like hypnotized. With built-in recorders in their heads.engagedclass

And then today I read this wonderful blog post by Angela Maiers, “an Educator, Author, Speaker passionate about literacy, learning, and power of social media”. “The Passion Gap” is the title, and she tells that “As a teacher at the K-2 level for 14 years, I had the privilege of spending each day with children eager to learn and explore. Yet this begins to change somewhere around the fourth grade.”

She doesn’t mention the word “engagement”, but points out that in Education conferences “you are far more likely to hear the words “assessment,” “standardize,” “common core” and “pedagogy” than you are to hear the word “passion.”…” And let me add, as an edtech entrepreneur, that I am much more likely to hear the word “engagement” in tech solutions for the classroom, and I don’t think I heard the word “passion”.

So what is passion? I love her quote: “Passion is what you must do, even if you have to suffer to do it”. I should know, I experience passion in what I do and it is costing me every day. Because at some point I decided pursuing my passion is more important than getting a salary. Silly me?

Angela Maiers refers to the human teachers, not the tech they might use or not use, as the first circle needed for students to find their passion. Sir Ken Robinson is devoting his messages and books to this topic too; The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 21 languages and Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life has just been published.” The Element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When people arrive at the Element, they feel most themselves, most inspired and achieve at their highest levels”, is the introduction to his first book.

Yet, Edtech startups are still mostly concerned about engagement of students in the classroom. How does this contribute to helping students find their passion? Or element?

Education systems are so hung on educational technology to reform, change and modify. But obviously, no real revolution can be achieved without striking the personal passion fuse of each and every student.

Touching kids’ passion is what I’m doing with my new startup. More to come.

Let Them Be Bored

“Let them be bored, teach them how to make it through boring stuff”.
I think that was the most interesting request I have ever heard a parent ask a teacher before. It came partly as a comment to me saying that my greatest expectation of my young son’s school is that he will learn how to learn.

The conversation took place in the first meeting of the parents in my son’s 5th grade with the new class teacher. In this introductory meeting he asked each of the nearly 70 parents that gathered in the classroom to describe their education vision, wishes, hopes and expectations of the school. It’s a Waldorf school and many of the parents said they chose this school simply because they hated the alternative – the “regular” school system. But listening to each one describe a vision was interesting and inspiring. Parents aren’t asked often enough this very clear and simple question. I have 24 school years of parenting behind me (12 of my daughter, 8 of one son and 4 of the other son) and this was the first time. Learning what members of this community are expecting lay the foundation for a supportive community for the joint ride to education and scholarship.

“Learning how to learn is important and valuable”, this father continued my thread, “but while we teach our kids the process of learning, they must also learn how to cope with the boring side of it, the tedious tasks: they can’t expect everything to be interesting and attractive all the time”.

It got me thinking. I thought about all the times I hear or read about engagement in the classroom. All the intensive dealing with using technology in the classroom, so that kids will have an interesting time and action packed learning experience. We often get out of our minds in that effort to make the schooling experience so rich. Anything to keep them in the process.

But the basis of learning is a human need. Like we need food and drink and love, we also need to learn. At early childhood it is a survival instinct. How many times would the baby try to walk and fall until he gets it? Or the toddler repeats the stacking of building blocks until he figures out the right way to do it without them falling? Hear any complaints about the process? I don’t think so. Do parents interfere in that process, or work hard to make it more interesting?

So what happens when our kids get to school? To be perfectly honest – boring happens. Boring takes over. The balance between boring and tedious on one hand and rewarding or satisfying on the other hand is broken. Getting a smiley sticker on the notebook isn’t a reward worthy the investing of a whole hour in solving arithmetic exercises. This doesn’t feel like a rewarding experience. My daughter, Shai, thinks that sometimes the clear path or a result, conclusion or some other grand finale, can also make for a rewarding or gratifying experience. But it’s the little tedious tasks you do with no clear vision of where it is leading you, or when will it end, that earn the title “boring” and end up detestable.

On a slightly different note: we got a dog last week. Her trainer works with the positive dog training method. So each task the dog does to our satisfaction earn it a big reward, either in the form of something to chew or in the form of love demonstrations. It’s amazing to see how quickly this young dog learns through a simple promise of a rewarding experience.

My 3rd Grade Entrepreneurship Workshop

Global Entrepreneurship Week and my invitation to join GEW-Israel partners have inspired me, among other things to hold an entrepreneurship workshop in my youngest son’s class of third graders. It was an amazing experience.

I’d like to share this report so you can take this workshop to your class, whether you are a teacher or a parent.

I have to admit I wasn’t quite sure how to go about this: what knowledge do the kids have to begin with? Those are 8-9 year old kids, from various socio-economic backgrounds, some are new immigrants or born here to new immigrant. How would language and culture differences affect their entrepreneurial skills??

Still, I came with one assumption: that all kids are born with entrepreneurial skills. Certainly in the 21st century, when in fact, anywhere you look, entrepreneurial skills are probably one of the utmost important set of skills needed for survival in their future.

I started by asking what entrepreneurship is and was rather surprised to hear a very precise definition: “to get an idea and do it”. Then we started to talk about where do ideas come from, and pretty soon they recognized problems, needs and wants. We agreed to refer to all of those as “problems which need solutions”. Then we started to talk about identifying such problems. I asked the children to think about problems in their classroom, at school, at home, in the country, in the world. The first student who spoke amazed me when she said the major problem in her eyes is “All those wars around the world”. The second student said he was “worried about the hole in the ozone layer” (A girl was startled and asked in shock “Is there a hole in the ozone layer?”). The third one (that’s mine) said that “animal extinction is a serious problem, especially the hunting of whales”. We went through other problems too – like kids who fight in the classroom and losing pencils. All very valid problems.

We started to discuss world peace. I wanted the kids to see that knowing of the problem is not the same as understanding the problem or approaching a solution. So I lead them in a discussion about what do classroom fights and countries fighting have in common. It was a great discussion leading the kids to pinpoint “communications” as the core of this trouble. Then we started to discuss various means of communications – to understand that different means are used to solve different types of conflicts. They agreed that “sometimes you need to talk face to face, and sometimes written communications are better.”*

We also talked about the hole in the ozone layer and preservation of the environment. The kids seem very aware of that. We discussed Shai Agassi’s “Better Place” as a fine example of entrepreneurship.

For the second part of my visit I have prepared two types of tasks. The kids divided into groups of 4-5 kids. Each group received 2-3 cards, each with a problem, a want or a need, and they had to discuss between them possible solutions. I didn’t want them to write it down, which was odd to them. I wanted them to concentrate on the thinking, but the kids, who are used to deliver some physical product, were handed papers by the teacher and developed unnecessary arguments about who’s going to write, which was a disappointing distraction in my opinion.

After they finished with this exercise I moved to the second one. I brought along a bunch of clippings from the daily newspapers of the last several days. I made sure I bring some from each section of the paper – including sports, arts, literature, health, hi-tech, education, finance and politics. On a one of the desks I placed cards with sentences depicting problems and or solutions. For example: “Public hospitals in Israel don’t have enough money”. “People love to play games and are willing to pay for it”. “Traffic jams are horrible, how can we solve it?”. “We have to study the earth to understand climate changes”. “We need entertainment”. “We like beautiful things”. I handed 2-3 stories to each group so they discuss it and try to recognize what was the problem and what was the solution. I thought for a next phase to develop the question of “is this a good solution? Are there any more solutions?”. After discussing the stories they were allowed to go check the solution cards to see if they got it or to find help to understand the context of the story they read.

The conclusion was lead by the teacher, who invited the kids to share their impression of the workshop. It seems like what the kids have enjoyed the most is to work in groups. The collaboration was exciting. I expected it. Which leads me to a problem I’d like to solve: lack of collaborative work in school and homework. But that’s a separate page.

*More About Communications and Facebook

During the conversation about communications I asked the kids to raise their hands if they have Facebook. I believe almost every one of the 30 students raised their hands. I asked them who had registered on their own, who had used the help of an older sibling, who used the help of a parent. About half of the kids registered with the assistance of a parent. A third used the help of an older sibling. The rest either did it themselves or with the help of a class mate. These are 8-9 year old kids. Most of them are registered for a year or more. When I asked one of the kids how he registered himself he said “that’s easy, just invent some email, pick a birth date that’s 100 years older then you and you’re in”.
After pointing out that communications is one of the biggest obstacles on the way to solve conflicts we talked about different methods of communications and discussed oral vs. written. At third grade seems like most kids initially don’t like to write. It’s slow and tedious. However, when I asked them about sending messages to each other on Facebook they woke up. All are using it. And other chat programs too. One student jumped ahead and stated “I never chat with strangers”, which got everybody’s approval (to my satisfaction). “Who are you chatting with?”, I asked. “My class mates”, she said. “But why chat with them in writing when you can talk on the phone or in the classroom?”, I asked. “It’s different; I can chat with many kids at once for example”. So we did a little demonstration. I picked a group of 5 kids to the center of the class and whispered to them “When I give you the sign you immediately start to talk about wearing a hat in the sun”. I gave the sign, they all spoke together and when I asked the other kids to tell me what the group spoke about – no one knew. I then told them and asked if this was in writing – would you know what the group was discussing? That got them to agree that in some cases written communications can be useful. “But if someone is angry with me and they remove me from friends on Facebook then I can’t chat with them”, said one child. His friend said: “So talk to him in the classroom”.

Education Re-Form, For the Sake of the Future

After a couple of years of intense and on-going research into education world wide, trends, fashions, innovation, methods, approaches, doctrines, special education, unique education, religious education, private education, public education, with technology, without technology, with money or without – I need to put in writing just a few of my observations and conclusions, to date.

The future of education lies with the recognition of each student as a unique individual.

The acceptance of uniqueness and diversity is the key to a better future for all and greater success in education achievements.

Old news: Some kids are good in Math and lousy in literature. Some are great in Lit and lousy and Math. One kid can excel in Math and Lit, but he sucks in Physics and Art. There are kids who suck at all topics, but are social stars. There are those who excel at everything, but are still unhappy. Oh, there are so many types of kids, and yet there are no types – because every child is his own special one and an only package of can-do and can’t-do, of wants and non’s. Still the teachers get a classroom filled with many different kids. Usually the things that bind those kids together in one classroom is their age and sometimes where they live or the financial background of their families. That’s a very artificial binder. Look around your adulthood friends and make your own deductions.

So this classroom, turns into a class, a group of kids, now has to study fractions. Great. But while some kids get it in a blink, others may find it difficult, or maybe not difficult, but simply boring, so boring they can’t concentrate or get what the teacher is talking about. And at the end of the day they have homework or exams and behold, some kids get less then a perfect score. Fractioning this group titled a classroom into mini groups….

Greg Whitby, the Executive Director leading a system of approximately 80 Catholic schools in greater Western Sydney Australia, talks about uniformity Vs. diversity here:

One of my own eye openers is my youngest son. A second grader he told me that he loves to learn, but only when he chooses and what he chooses. While the professional educators around him criticize his independent thinking and work constantly to turn him into a uniformed student in his classroom, who does everything the same as the rest of the class, I am observing and here are my findings:

He hates his Arithmetic class and homework. It drives him nuts. Yet, when his father went abroad he produced an amazing shopping list – listing the prices of the toys, after he converted them from US dollars to Israeli Shekels. He can also Arithmetic percentage of time, to know exactly when his eggplants will be ready for harvesting on FarmVille.

How important is it, for a kid like that, to go through a methodical, framed, graded system of teaching him Arithmetic? To be honest – there is no simple answer. As we are in an education system – the education is systematic, automatic, and cannot be adjusted to individual persons. Or can it?

In an education system that is based solely on the transference of knowledge or information from a single teacher to a class of kids – there is indeed no room for recognition of the individual.

So, what’s the purpose of the education? Have we forgotten about it?

I think if a child knows how to calculate foreign exchange rates and percentage (on time!) – he is well beyond simple Arithmetic. So what’s the point of insisting on teaching him one booklet after the other of things he is way passed? Is the purpose of the education here is to transfer the specific books into the child, or is the purpose is that the student actually gets a knowledge in the particular subject and knows how to use it?

Well, neither is enough. The major declared goal of education has always been about preparing the young students to their adult life, to acquiring professions and making a living. Arithmetic was important to learn, and very methodically, in a time where trades men managed their own little businesses and they didn’t have computers or even calculators.

But what does today’s education system do to prepare today’s students to tomorrow’s professions? Those professions which have not yet been born? What did yesterday’s education system did to turn me into an internet communications specialist? Or a multi player online game designer? Or my neighbor to a genome researcher or my friend to a researcher of the structure and function of the ribosome? Answer: nothing. Those are individuals who are born with an important quality or two: curiosity and the ability to ask and to teach themselves.

Self teaching is indeed a quality some lucky people are born with, but eventually, all people are in need of this quality. The amounts of information are growing constantly. It is not possible to transfer all this knowledge to any individual. The diversity of occupation is increasing, allowing people to develop expertise in what really interests them. Turning some knowledge they acquired in school irrelevant.

Those who are afraid of the individualism of education often talk about the importance of wide education. But is it really necessary for a physicist to study how to analyze a poem? Or is it enough to assign reading assignments, to those who do not read enough on their own? And while you assign those books to read, how about some classic films? Classical music? Classical rock bands? Tours in various museums world wide and in archaeological sites around the world? If we are talking about expanding horizons let’s do it with pleasure – and not with pressure. Not every subject in school requires grading and marks.

And as individuals are encouraged to learn and expand their horizons let’s allow for one more thing to change in the classroom: let the kids express and teach – teach other kids, teach the teacher. Because only when the teacher becomes a learner, then he can become a learning enabler. A real 21st century educator.

Here Greg Whitby talks about the 21st century new teaching DNA:

Curiosity Fed The Cat

Addressing younger Israeli scientists, Ada Yonath, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry said – curiosity was the key to scientific progress. “If one has curiosity, then one stands the chance of attaining a high level of scientific inquiry.”
Read more here.
I took this quote and asked my friends and colleagues on firesidelearning – the social network that’s doing conversations about education, what room is there for curiosity in the classroom.

Got some interesting replies, including a surprise visit from my 15 year old daughter, who was happy to share her view on this topic.

Ian Carmichael, from Tasmania, Australia said – “…So, in classrooms there needs to be space – and a record – for fruitful questions – and that means space for unprogrammed questions. There also needs to be space for the pursuit of those unanswered questions…” He then adds: “And if there’s no space for curiosity, fruitful questions and their pursuit, then my classrooms will contribute nothing to creativity, invention or understanding. I may have a future Nobel prizewinner pass through – but my classes will have added nothing to them.”

Mike from the US added: “For me…. CONNECTION is a key component to education vs factory schooling. It is next to impossible to connect with 140 kids a day…. that is an assembly line…. good for making cars…not being with people…”

The my daughter joined in and admitted: “Well, the truth is I like studying- I just don’t like to study at school. I’m just bored, and I think it’s hard for me to wake up in the morning not because I didn’t sleep enough, but because it happens to me too often that I sit in the classroom and think ‘what did I wake up for? staying in bed would be a better use of my time than sitting here and getting bored..’. …”

She goes on and amazes me with this: “I think of school and how we learn now, and it’s just amazing to think that what was said about education more than 2000 years ago is so true for today-Socrates thought that humans have a basic nature they are born with: curiosity. He thought it’s wrong that the education system, instead of developing and using this curiosity to teach the children, they kill this curiosity and instead of teaching they make the kids memorize, and while learning and understanding through thinking and researching will help the humanity develop, memorization is a great way for staying in one place.”

Are we staying in one place?

Following Mike’s questions she writes:  “It’s fun to ask questions and think about them, and finding the solution gives a good feeling – but after you find the answer, the only thing you can do with it is ask more questions.”

Well she refuses to stay in one place.

Ellen Pham, an elementary teacher from the US, suggests a more realistic view of this room for curiosity in the classroom, or lack of it. She writes: “…I don’t think the purpose of today’s public education is to develop large groups of free and creative thinkers. How would industry keep them in line for the menial tasks that await them? And in any system, these menial tasks have to be done by a large group of people. I think it helps the individual soul when these tasks are at least essential, and not just for making someone else profit.” And adds: “The way I see it is that realistically, in the system we have, it is up to the individual student to keep his/her curiosity alive. Parents, concerned teachers, and students can fight for more engaged and creative curriculum, but it remains an uphill swim.”

Latest input to date came from Janet Navarro, who teaches literacy education courses to pre-service teachers in Michigan and is a mother of 2 teenage boys. With an optimistic note she writes: “…I said to a friend, just the other day, that in my teacher education classes, if the only thing the students take from the class is the disposition to be curious (especially about the children they will teach) then I’ve done enough.
Bottom line, I said, it’s not really about the content I’m teaching: with curiosity, they can learn to teach children how to read strategically (it’s all in books and it’s all on the Internet). It’s about the development of a way of being in the world – the world we live in, the world we will help to create – or destroy – the world beyond the one in which we were raised, and the worlds of the children they will teach.
It’s better to be curious about whether or not you are teaching this child the things that will move him/her forward, whether or not you have the right books, strategies, tools set up for them, than to be able to pass a test on what those strategies are….
Yes – whoever coined the adage “Curiosity killed the cat” started us in the wrong direction. Maybe we could say, “Curiosity fed the cat!”…”

Oh, how I wish this cat is fat.

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