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Archive for November 2011


Whatever It Takes

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. Read more about Finnish Education

Finland Schools

“Whatever it takes” should be education’s manifesto everywhere. Every child is unique, special, and gifted. Finland values good teachers, expects them to be highly trained (Master degrees), pays them what they are worth, and provides them ongoing support. Children start school at seven and stay with the same teacher for at least six years. At least 30% of Finnish children may be identified with special needs and are given additional support. All teachers are mentored and coached. No one is allowed to be left behind. So how can we adopt or adapt some of these strategies so schools in the US do “whatever it takes?”

Here’s some ideas to throw around…

    • Study the Finnish model in teacher education programs.

    • Set up weekly study groups (on-site or online) for teachers to discuss this model.
    • Compare and contrast US and Finnish curriculum.
    • Facilitate the design of personal learner profiles for students and teachers.
    • Personalize learning so it is about the learner so they drive their own learning.
    • Be flexible to include all children in learning AND be flexible in how children learn.

Each student is unique. I remember studying Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and thinking how much sense this made. He developed this in 1928 and it is so needed now. In the zone of proximal development, Vygotsky saw the need
for an adult mentor, a guide who could help the learner connect new
information to older ideas and take on new challenges.

It is time for people to think about personalizing learning NOW. It is truly about the learner.


Your Brain on Learning

Seed Brain about NeuroplasticityIntelligence is forming and developing throughout our lives. The concept is called neuroplasticity, a theory that was developed in the mid-1800s and researched in the 1990s. Kurt Fischer, education professor and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard University explains “The brain is remarkably plastic. Even in middle or old age, it’s still adapting very actively to its environment.” Sara Bernard supports this in her article for Edutopia Neuroplasticity: Learning Physically Changes the Brain “All those little brains in your classroom are physically growing and changing every time they learn something. And there are ways to keep that happening.”

Cells that fire together, wire together
Neuroplasticity means that if you perform a task or recall some information, that causes different neurons to fire in concert. It strengthens the connections between those cells. Researcher and middle school teacher Judy Willis, in this same article, wrote that she saw that her students were more motivated when they knew that they were all fully physically capable of building knowledge and changing their brains. She provided a few tips to create a learning environment that encourages students to learn:

    • Practice, practice, practice. When students learn content in different ways, repeat an activity and then retrieve that memory they build thicker, stronger, more hard-wired connections in the brain.

    • Put information in context. Tap into already-existing pathways by recognizing that learning is the formation of new or stronger neural connections. Stop rote memorization of isolated facts. Facilitate students connecting the dots and how the concept they are learning is related to past experiences and the real-world.
    • Let students know that this is how the brain works. Intelligence is not predetermined especially for students who believe they are ‘not smart.’ If students realize they have the power to change their brains, they will be empowered to learn more and in different ways.


Brain remodels itself on experiences

Use it or Lose it

A 1998 landmark study found that the human brain had the ability to develop new brain cells. This research challenged the prevailing theory that the human brain was a rigid system with no ability to generate new brain cells. Neurologist Arne May and colleagues at the University of Regensburg asked 12 people in their early 20s to learn a classic three-ball juggling trick over three months until they could sustain a performance for at least a minute. Another 12 were in a ‘control’ group who were not asked to learn how to juggle.

The jugglers showed a significant increase of gray matter in brain area V5 that is an area implicated in the processing of visual movement. In order to investigate what happens when newly acquired skills are allowed to stagnate, the participants were asked not to practice their juggling skills and were scanned for a third time after another three-month period. The amount of gray matter in V5 had reduced, supporting the idea that the brain operates in a use-it-or-lose-it fashion.

Draganski and colleagues showed that extensive learning of abstract information can also trigger some plastic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of German medical students three months before their medical exam and right after the exam and compared them to brains of students who were not studying for the exam at this time. Medical students’ brains showed learning-induced changes in regions of the parietal cortex as well as in the posterior hippocampus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in memory retrieval and learning.

Making New Connections

Dr. Doidge wrote “The Brain that Changes Itself” and that all of us can rewire our brains. Main ideas he writes about include:

    • Learning and brain exercises slow age-related mental declines. New information and new branching increases the volume and thickness of the brain that would otherwise decline with age. So read, play games, challenge yourself no matter what age.

    • Physical exercise promotes the creation of new neurons in the brain. Walk, exercise and get physical education back in schools.
    • Specifically designed brain exercises have been shown to improve brain function in children and adults with learning disabilities.
    • The brain undergoes measurable, physical changes as we go through the thinking and learning process. Computer technology can now use these measurements and changes to allow paralyzed people to moves objects with their thoughts. This is where research is going to find ways to utilize our thoughts with technology.
    • Researchers at UCSD have used imagination and illusion to restructure brain maps and ‘trick” the brain into managing phantom pain and some forms of chronic pain.
    • Performance can be improved through visualization because action and imagination can activate the same parts of the brain. People have learned to play the piano or achieve greater results in athletic endeavors through mental practice. To lose weight, visualize yourself eating instead of eating.

Neuroplasticity, School, and Learning
The idea that brains are plastic and can change means that students can drive their own learning. If students are passionate about learning something like how to play a guitar and then are given the freedom to experiment, practice, get feedback from others, play, take risks, practice some more, they will want to learn. They will want to learn. The learning environment plays a large role. Schools today assume everyone in the classroom learns at the same time and at the same rate. If we take the idea that brains can change and students all come into a class at different levels, then it is important to change the learning environment to encourage experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from each other.

I am looking for research on neuroplasticity with school children similar to the other research studies. How are they learning? What is happening to their brains on CT scans? Has anyone done this?


Creativity, Failure and Learning

Science 21st Century Skills

21st Century Skills include three areas of creativity:

  • Think creatively.
  • Work creatively with others.
  • Implement innovations.

The elements for these skills include:

View failure as an opportunity to learn; understand that creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.

Traditional school doesn’t allow for people to take risks and fail. Glenn Wiebe wrote in Are You an Under-taker or a Risk-Taker?

“One of the reasons that we as teachers don’t take risks is our fear of failure. We’re afraid that our state tests scores won’t be good enough or that we’ll look silly in front of kids or that the technology won’t work or that we’ll get calls from parents or…

But we also know that failure is often a prerequisite to success. Teachers take risks because they understand that screwing up is not necessarily a bad thing. Risk-taking involves possible failure. If it didn’t, it would be called Sure Thing-taking.”

Standardized TestNothing in life is a sure thing-taking. That is except the answers on a standardized test. Life is not a standardized test or we would have everything labelled A, B, C, or D. Today is so different than yesterday. Look at the economy. Who knows what’s going to happen with the stockmarket? Look at jobs and unemployment. What type of jobs will be available for us in the future? Many jobs we used to offer are no longer an option. Because of that higher ed is changing or needs to change. So why am I talking about failure?

For hundreds of years, people were preparing for factory jobs. That’s why schools were set up in that model. They needed to know how to follow orders and not question. Failure was NOT an option. Candidates for most jobs now need critical thinking skills and to stand out of the crowd. They need to be remarkable. The only way you can be different is to take risks, fail, and come up with new ideas. You also need to build up a network of people you can ask because the world is changing so fast. You won’t find the answer in a book. You may not even find the answer online. You will need to know how to collaborate and work together as a team. Each of the team members will bounce ideas off of the other members of the team; some ideas work, some don’t. You learn from things that don’t work.

Thomas Edison with Light Bulb

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
― Thomas A. Edison

We want our kids to be inventors, thinkers, team players, and innovators. The only way to do that is to create a learning environment that encourages failure or new ways that won’t work. I believe the secret to success is failure. We need to create an environment that challenges students so they struggle with unfamiliar or difficult information. Why make it easy for someone to learn? Why is it that teachers are working harder now than ever? The students need to be the hardest working people in the room and challenged so they are excited about the topic.

When you look at children playing a game that challenges them in a good way, they are motivated. They don’t win right away. They get feedback right away. What is the fun in winning right away or all the time. The fun is in challenging themselves beyond what they know. I know myself and how I am writing and taking risks to write down new thoughts. I learn from you. I learn from others. I don’t have to have the right answers all the time. That’s what learning is all about. Challenging yourself to change; trying new things and failing and trying again.

National STEM ChallengeHere’s a new challenge: The 2012 National STEM Video Game Challenge that opened today is a multi-year competition whose goal is to motivate interest in STEM learning among America’s youth by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games. Go ahead and show your students this challenge. It is open to multiple ages. They have until March 2012. Have them experiment, fail, and come up with something amazing. They will learn so much.


Immerse Yourself in Video

A new iPad app just came out, Condition ONE, that lets you change the perspective of what you are seeing in the video. You can physically control the camera’s perspective in the video by moving the events on the iPad as if you are holding the camera. This is just the beginning of what we will be seeing in the future how you will be able to make your virtual experience with technology more personal.

Condition ONE Demo from Danfung Dennis on Vimeo.

Condition ONE was created by photojournalist Danfung Dennis and his partners as a way to make more immersive documentaries, but the format has the potential to work for any topic or subject that is enhanced by a feeling of immersion (sports, live music, education). The app turns specially encoded video into a virtual reality experience, where the iPad becomes your window into the video that you are watching. Using the iPad’s gyroscope, as you twist your body the viewing window follows with you as if you were in control of the video’s camera. Want to see where that action is coming from? Just turn your body (with the iPad) and look.

How do you see this as an app in education?

Download Condition ONE here.


11 Tips to Personalize Learning

1. Find out how each student learns best.

Each student is unique. Find out each students best learning styles using multiple assessments. Have students create a personal learner profile that identifies how they best learn, their strengths, and their weaknesses.

2. Allow students to choose their topic.

Give students a chance to make decisions about how they learn best. Have students pursue their own interests and something they are passionate about. Make sure they address their strengths and their learning styles. Don’t expect everyone to respond in the same way.

3. Encourage teachers and students to co-design the curriculum.

Review the standards with the students so they understand what they need to know and do. Ask students to brainstorm ideas and topics around the standards and examples of projects, problems, and challenges.

4. Ask lots of questions.

Take one topic and brainstorm open-ended questions that have no one right answer but multiple answers and more questions. Provide a framework for students to engage with new learning by making connections, thinking critically and exploring possibilities. Have them brainstorm questions and then prioritize the questions.

5. Teach less, learn more.

Review the lesson so you are not lecturing or the main expert of the content. Make it so everyone in the class is an expert on something or a great researcher so they can find the information they need. Change the seating arrangements so students are in groups or encourage students to redesign the learning environment. Have students find their strengths and be available to help others. When someone has a question about something, have them ask 3 people that have identified they know the topic before you. Integrate the appropriate technology that encourages publishing, creating, and collaborating with other students.

6. Share how you learn.

Talk about your own learning. You are creating a learning community where you are modeling collaboration, curiosity, and reflection. Be an active participant in the learning community. Opening up about you and what you know about a specific topic encourages discourse among your students.

7. Connect, extend, challenge.

Ask your students to write down and reflect on what they learned, if there was a particular learning experience they enjoyed, what helped and hindered their learning, and what might they do different next time. This can be in the form of a blog or personal online journal.

8. Re-evaluate assessment.

Instead of focusing on standardized tests only to measure progress, create meaningful assessment tasks that allow transfer of learning to other contexts. Have students publish evidence of their learning on the internet for an authentic audience such as a blog or ePortfolio. Place as much value on process and progress as on the final product.

9. Define goals and encourage reflection.

Each student can define their learning goals and develop their personal learning plan. They can refer to their progress towards their goals with ongoing self-evaluation and reflection. Provide opportunities for constructive, specific feedback from you, the student, their peers, and their parents. Student blogs are great tools for reflecting on learning and responding to their peers.

10. Focus on learning, not work.

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Avoid giving worksheets and busy work. Start with the Why they are learning something. Ask questions. Encourage questions. Develop with your students learning experiences that support personalized learning and collaborative group activities.

11. Coordinate student led conferences.

Invite students to lead the conference about them sharing their strengths and weaknesses with their teacher and parents. They also share how learning has progressed, areas for improvement, and the process and product of learning. Evidence of learning and the process can be published to an ePortfolio, a VoiceThread, Glogster, or blog.


Making Change with Good Questions

Make Just One ChangeToday I’m talking to Sara Armstrong about Good Questions. Before I attended Sara’s session at the Fall CUE conference on Good Questions Good Searching, I thought I was asking good questions. Now I know I wasn’t going deep enough. Sara shared a book, Make Just One Change, that opened her eyes to a new path that is straightforward to help us ask good questions. So I decided to ask Sara about the book, the process, and why it is important to use this process in teaching and learning. Info about the book with discount code if you want to purchase it is at the end of this post.

Q.Why are good questions important?
A. Good questions really help us think deeply about a topic. When we develop a project for PBL, good questions drive the process that kids go through to understand the topic. This processes laid out in Make Just One Change provide specific ways for teachers and kids to think more broadly than in the past — techniques that can be applied in all areas of the curriculum.

Q. Can good questions help students be more responsible for their own learning?
A. By empowering students to get to good questions, we can help them make better choices for good research, they can organize their work, and they will begin to think more critically. Actually students can use this process to determine the path or topic they are pursuing in any curriculum area. And the role of the teacher is vital. The authors, Rothstein and Santana, specify a process to help teachers refine the topic so it is not too broad or too narrow. Teachers, too, get better at their role of posing the main theme for kids to spark their brainstorming aspect to getting to the good questions.

Q. Can teachers use this process with existing curriculum?
A. Yes. Any curriculum. Any time. As we’re trying to instill more responsibility for students, the classroom changes to include more student voice and choice about anything they are learning. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking math concepts, cyberbullying or any topic, students can learn from their peers when they ask each other good questions about the topic. I had trouble with learning geometry and wishes she had had the ability to ask good questions with her peers. When a teacher allows discussions about the topic and asks “how are we going to do it?” students own their learning and are more engaged in the process.

Q. What is the questioning process?
A. The process involves meta-cognitive, divergent, and convergent thinking. Here’s a condense version:

  1. The teacher defines a topic.

  2. Students discuss the rules for brainstorming.
  3. Students brainstorm questions about the topic.
  4. Students prioritize the questions.
  5. Students analyze questions as open or closed and then prioritize those.
  6. Students use the questions to help research, complete their project, and learn the material.
  7. Students and the teacher reflect on the process, what they learned, and what they would do differently next time.

Sara ArmstrongSara highly recommends this book and is designing how to use good questions for good searching and good research. That will definitely be another post. Thank you Sara!

Interested in this book, go to and mention sales code MJAP11 for a 20% discount. If you have any questions, you can leave comments here are contact Sara directly at or go to her website (

The authors of Make Just One Change, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana of the Right Question Institute, shared a new podcast from Harvard Education Press. Harvard EdCast: Make Just One Change.


Noticing what gets your attention

I started several Scoop-its to curate the resources in one place to use later.
Apps for The Student-Centered Classroom
Creativity, Innovation, and Change
Making Learning Personal
Communities of Practice for New Learning Environments
Curate Your Learning

In doing that I’ve been noticing what people like and follow. It seems to be the Apps and Tools. I know we as educators say not to focus on the tools but it doesn’t seem that way. I notice this at technology conferences and, as a reader, the proposals submitted and accepted.

It seems that adults and teachers have technolust just like the kids. What does that mean for the classroom? The other Scoop-its are about change, pedagogy, communities of practice, and all the things that teachers tell me they want to understand for their own professional learning. However, when you go to a conference and the speaker is talking about change, the future, pedagogy, the room is not full.

For years I have done Tips and Tricks about this tool or that app and the room is overcrowded. It’s like a feeding frenzy. I do a session on change and the steps needed for change, and there’s only a few there. But I know those that are there are really interested.

What I’m wondering is how to take this technolust attitude and use it to make change. I am working with teachers to move to student-centered learning environments. In the process, they are learning new tools that engage and motivate students — and them. School is just not engaging — especially if you read out of the workbook. Kids are bored. They are digital whiz kids now.

How about adding a Smackdown at the end of the week and let three kids share a new tool or app they found for 2 minutes each? Then you as the teacher look at slowly changing the classroom and make student experts.

Think we need to shake things up here and look at the bigger picture. It’s not about the technology. Right? Technology is just a great way to make change.


Mindshift to Learner-Centered Environments

Just putting technology in students’ hands doesn’t make the environment learner-centered. Change takes time. Actually change takes years. When you put a program together and ask teachers to change how they teach in one year, it’s just not going to happen. I put up a Scoop-it on Apps for the Student-Centered Classroom and it became my most popular Scoop-it quickly. Why? Because it’s all about the apps. I have techno-lust. I love new apps and learning about new technology, but really changes in the classroom.

I created other Scoop-its on Creativity, Innovation, and Change and Making Learning Personal that have followers looking for something different than apps. Well, maybe they are looking for apps and tools too, but the ideas for those apps focus on a changing learning environment.

I am very lucky to have coaching jobs where I facilitate change. Yesterday I saw some Aha moments from some of the teachers where they had all day to collaborate and rethink their learning strategies. Live Oak Elementary in San Ramon, CA is a large school with 6-7 teachers at each grade level. So the school provided them subs for the 3rd grade teachers so they could plan and share and learn without interruptions. What a concept!

I just read “10 Big Problems with Lecture-Based Learning” that is targeted for higher ed but applies to all learning environments.
The 10 points in this article include…

  1. It’s passive.

  2. It doesn’t engage every learning style.
  3. It facilitates rote learning above all else.
  4. It’s biased.
  5. It precludes discussion.
  6. It’s not the right fit for every subject.
  7. Minimal student feedback.
  8. Not every teacher excels at public speaking.
  9. Not every attention span lasts that long.
  10. It only nurtures a limited range of skill sets.

I suggest reading the article above for more information and just don’t think teachers and professors are going to give up lecturing. Since I said it takes time, we need to rethink how we approach different topics. Student or learner-centered means that learning is personalized for the student. The student drives their learning. It is different than a teacher differentiating learning for each student. When you differentiate instruction, the teacher is working even harder now creating multiple lesson plans for the different types of learners in their classroom. Personalization means the student is curating their learning, finding learning appropriate and relevant learning objects for their topic.

What I suggest is moving slowly to a more learner-centered environment by designing collaborative projects that build in inquiry and student voice and choice. This first project the teachers are creating at Live Oak is still mostly teacher-centric. The teachers are choosing the topic and standards met, designing the driving question, determining groups, roles, tasks, and assessments. Students are working in groups, choosing the types of products. The teachers are creating a collaborative website and link it to their class website. This is the first step toward learner-centered environments.

The power of designing the same project together is that the teachers will do action research on what worked and what didn’t work for each teacher. This feedback will help them design the next project. The mindshift only works if teachers and students are immersed in the process, do the work, see how it works, learn and reflect on the results (not the test scores only) but if students were able to demonstrate evidence of learning and were engaged in the learning process. I think this is cool!