Saturday, March 30, 2013

Art and Sensory Overload- A Floridian Note

This past week I visited Florida with my kids. One day we chose to go to Young at Art an active arts experience in Davie Fl. It was a great facility with a lot of materials, styles and sensory inputs to explore. The place offered a plethora of art ideas from digital media, to architecture, plastic arts and visual arts. It also included music (mostly through percussion) and drama.

I was really looking forward to sharing this experience with my kids, but the place actually made it difficult to do that. What welcomed us was a wave of sights sounds and materials that overwhelmed not just my older than the mean senses but my kids (7,9, and 16) and their cousins (4,6,8). Every time I tried to stay at one point to explore in depth and create the eye of the child I was with at the time was immediately drawn to a different sound or sight beyond what we were doing. In a way the place was an invitation to not attend to anything but instead just move through the space constantly stimulated but never truly attending to any one thing.

I love art/science spaces designed for learning and I agree that we do not need stuffy old museum in which you have to stay quiet and not touch anything. But this option was so far the other side- that it serves to reinforce the idea that this generation of kids needs to be constantly bombarded with new inputs. This isn't true in any way but if we only create such experiences our kids and students will come to expect them. Just like my undergraduate students expect lecture, powerpoint presentations and letter grades. They are not wrong to expect them, it is what they grew up with. These are schemas that are usable even if not the most efficient.

The over-stimulation of spaces (real or digital) designed for kids may create a short attention-span generation, but this development is in direct conflict with the way our brains are designed. We can attend to only a few things at a time and develop deep understanding only given the time to focus on one thing without disruptive sensory inputs.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Technology, Attending, and the Arts

I have three iPads, a laptop (or two) a smart phone and an e-reader. When I work at home I have 2-4 devices open. The evidence has been in for a while we cannot truly attend to more than one thing at a time. In fact, trying to attend to multiple things at once results in n effective execution of both in most cases.

Why am I bringing this up (again)?

One, I left my phone behind when I snuck away to write at my favorite spot, the Village Inn around the corner. I had my laptop only. I ate lunch and got the two most productive focus time hours. I was online but I resisted answering emails.

Two, my undergraduate student all have devices of some sort that I encourage them to use. This, however, sometimes have negative consequences when they are unsuccessfully trying to multi-task listening to class discussion or lecture (they asked for it) while on Pintrest, Facebook, registering for classes, or one of the thousand other things they can do online.

Three, I am reading Getting Things Done, and am surprised to find interesting parallels from the beginning of the mobile era.

So... Technology has its down side. I love it, I use it every day, but it has a dark side. We have to teach ourselves to attend to the world around us. After we find ways to do it ourselves, we must find ways to teach it to our students.

I think one tool to teach students to attend, is through genuine engagement with art. It can be visual art, plastic art, movement or music. In all of these activities success can be found when you are fully attending. The lure for students (and adults) is the unique feeling that feel when you reach Flow. If someone asks why the arts, one possible answer can be that art creation can teach students to experience focus attending fully to a task. These moments of creative joy can serve as an idea of what we can achieve when we are fully present.

Now I will leave the computer and go attend to my children.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Testing Teachers: Arts and Technology Integration

This week I was invited to participate in a state panel examining which test Nebraska should use as one of the criteria for certification. Teacher testing has become very popular across the states with encouragement from the office of education. There is very little evidence that such tests are connected in any way to teacher quality. For example in a recent report Angrist and Guryan (2013) say: "The results suggest that state-mandated teacher testing increases teacher wages with no corresponding increase in quality." The tests, however, are apparently here to stay and even Nebraska usually one of the last holdouts on testing has decided to cave in.

Nebraska has chosen to work with ETS and our task at the panels was to review from a selection of tests and make a recommendation about which tests are most appropriate and what should a cutoff score be. One of the more relevant options we considered was the Parxis II with emphasis on pedagogical decision making. As we read through the items (which I cannot disclose) I found that quit a few addressed arts integration through theatre, movement and visual art. It was clear that integration ideas were well integrated (at least into the version of the test I saw). 

Technology was mentioned in two items only. The technologies mentioned were: looms and books on tape... There was nothing that incorporated Internet searches, evaluation of Internet resources, reading on screen, or any of the other skills mentioned in our state standards, the common core standards and professional organizations. Now, I know there is no consensus over what exactly do new teachers need to know, but no technology integration, no reference to digital modes of literacy?

We made sure our concern registered. I worry because tests (even marginally reliable ones) cause some educators to "reverse engineer" their curriculum. We need more about technology integration in our pre-service programs not less. As for the tests, they need to adapt quickly to these changes to stay relevant.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Yo Yo

The last two weeks have felt like the perpetual motion of a YoYo. After presenting at the state conference - a high note, we came back to earth with our students midterm reviews. Laurie and I co-teach a reading/language arts methods courses. This semester following our passion for technology integration and its rising importance in schools we decided to be playful and layer in a variety of technologies and ideas. Our students were somewhat unhappy, and a few were so disconcerted that they wrote a quite lengthy review that was frankly a bit hard to read.

So Laurie and I sat down to process why the reaction to our efforts was so negative. We came up with four main reasons that overlap to a degree.

1. We assumed that students who grew up in the 21st century would have an innate understanding of why technology integration is important. It turned out they don't- quite possibly because while they grew up with the internet and a multitude of devices they were never an integral part of their school experience. Laurie and I were so immersed in this topic we forgot other aren't.

2. Our students are making their first steps as pre-service teachers. When we integrated a large number of technologies they became overwhelmed and lost the single most important aspect which is the link to teaching. Practicing teachers we work with see the relevance almost immediately in our Tech EDGE Conference.  Our students are simply not quite there developmentally.

3. This generation of students is used to the chaos of internet resources and the vast number of media available. In college classes, however, they want us to help them organize the information and sort out what is important. That said I think it is a set of skills we need to help them develop- something that should probably start long before junior year of college. 

4. Beginning professionals want straight answers and procedures. We attempt to give complex responses in an effort to teach them to think in an organized way- while dealing with ambiguity. This tension is at the heart of teacher preparation and Laurie and I may have crossed the boundary for this group of students.

Laurie and I have regrouped and refocused the work we do. Since we have just under half a semester to go we hope to be able and present a more balanced picture that will allow them to learn and use technology integration skills that are appropriate developmentally. The same can probably be applied to anyone scaling up technology integration with teachers. We must recognize where teachers are developmentally and support them in the steps that they need to make next.