A Window of Opportunity

I frequently get requests from administrators and educators who want me to share technology-related resources that will help students become better thinkers. I get telephone calls or emails from folks asking the same question: “Hey, do you know of any websites or programs that’ll help our pupils refine their problem-solving skills?” I usually pause a moment and answer, “Yes,” and begin describing a number of suggestions. During the course of the ensuing conversation many of those who contact me intimate that what they really want are digitized busy work activities, mainly of the drill and kill variety. Oddly enough this kind of scenario repeats itself with a surprising number of Science teachers. This never ceases to surprise me. I guess I just expect those who teach Science to always be on the lookout for ways to help learners find experiences that go well beyond memorization, facts, and recall and dive into opportunities for hypothesizing, applying logic, and critical and creative thinking.

Now, I’ll concede that occasional drilling is necessary. After all, facts and mastery of basic skills help to form a firm foundation upon which new information can be assessed and extended. Reasonably sustained practice results in a liberating level of automaticity that basically frees one’s mind so it can focus on other details. That said, killing a young mind with needlessly boring repetition is totally unnecessary. Learning and doing should be worthwhile and anticipated. The rehearsal of information and skills should be infectiously engaging. Young men and women who are eager to be present in a classroom are much more likely to absorb, retain, and use (well beyond the confines of school) the facts and skills they encounter.

A good case in point is the manner in which some schools introduce the Scientific Method. Though the Scientific Method is vital to increasing one’s understanding of the universe, pupils rarely get to practice its tenets! Instead, in many classrooms, row after row of boys and girls are repeatedly made to copy down descriptions of the process as if, by the magic of cognitive osmosis, the concept will be slowly but eventually absorbed into the brain. Rather than simply having pupils memorize dry definitions of the Scientific Method, teachers could give students opportunities to see and experience the value experimentation. In fact, if the Scientific Method is to help learners gain a better conceptualization of the world around them, students must have chances to:

  • carefully investigate, describe, and record phenomena,
  • acquire new knowledge,
  • make guesses and generate hypotheses,
  • distinguish false or inaccurate data from true data,
  • distinguish disconnected lines of thought from those that truly apply to a given situation,
  • develop novel ideas/perspectives, and
  • apply critical, logical and creative thinking to the achievement of desired goals.

In short, when exploring Science (and other disciplines) pupils need engrossing experiences that require the application of  critical thinking, logical thinking, creative thinking and strategic thinking skills. There all kinds of digital resources available to dedicated teachers who want students to hunger for a taste of the Scientific Method. Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to entice learners into applying the precepts of experimentation and logic. This can be done with games. Well constructed games create favorable conditions for making and testing hypotheses, applying logic, and generating creative approaches to problems. Games need not be difficult, only intriguing and challenging.


For example, many people have been excitedly discussing a new game called Windosill. Developed by Patrick Smith (of Vectorpark renown) the game is a thoroughly absorbing experience that is as much a feast for the mind as it is for the eyes. Windosill, much like real life, starts out easy enough. Within a few minutes, though, attention to detail and suppositions, logic, strategy, hypothesizing, and experimentation come into play. This game could could easily be integrated into instruction.

Imagine a Science classroom where there’s an interactive whiteboard (like those produced by Interwite, Promethean, and SMARTBoard). Pupils are asked to explore the game using the interactive whiteboard and collaboratively examine, describe, and record (via a resource such as Google Docs) what they (think) they see/understand. As they try to clarify the underlying logic and “rules” that drive the game they have numerous opportunities to hypothesize, experiment, record data, and ascertain the laws under which the Windosill universe operates. Such an experiment would not only be engaging–heck, plain old fun–it would engender a reinforcing habit for continually working at understanding a problem/situation/event. It would create a habit for the pleasure of thinking.

All a teacher, a student, or parent has to do, it seems, is escape from the narrow confines of the assumption that learning must be drill and kill in nature. All we have to do is find a way out of our current modes of thought. We have to be creative and take advantage of the raptures of seeing the world around us from a new vantage point. Are we game enough to do so?

NOTEWindosill is an absolute treat! I had the great pleasure of downloading the game and quickly decided to pay the very nominal fee of $3 to get the full version. The challenging nature of Windosill along with the captivating images and features that suffuse this surreal Flash-based game make it an immediate favorite among students of all ages. If it whets your appetite for similar experiences, take a gander at the equally eclectic Feed the Head and Levers.

Enlisting Good Readers: BookArmy

Feeling a need to read but don’t want to end up saddled with poor prose, failing fiction, or a boring biography? Never fear, the BookArmy is here. A literary legion on a mission to connect readers and authors, this battalion of bibliophiles allows bookworms to stay abreast of reading-related events, watch book trailers,  join groups, swap reviews, and be first in line for numerous free giveaways and early-reader copies of much-anticipated texts.bookarmy

This resource, though fairly new on the scene, harbors great potential for media specialists, treachers, and students, not to mention anyone else who enjoys reading. Administrators should be thrilled to see a High School Literature teachers using BookArmy (or other, similar services such as  LibraryThing or Shelfari) to help students share and classify the books they are reading. Mix these kinds of resources with the likes of Bibliomania, WhatShouldIReadNext, LibriVox, Project Gutenberg’s Top 100, and the Online Books Page and educators have a cognitive toolbox ready for some serious intellect-building.

Health Tracking Goes Viral: What We Can Learn from the H1N1 Swine Flu Event


As bad as the recent H1N1 Swine Flu crisis is–and to be sure, the rapid spread of the illness is quite troubling–the event presents a powerful opportunity for authentic learning. Thanks to technology resources such as web mapping service applications like Google Maps and dynamically updated information by way of RSS, students, educators, and citizens everywhere can reinforce use of knowledge and skills from diverse disciplines such as Reading, Geography, Science, Math, Economics, and Media Literacy. By following reports of H1N1 Swine Flu and reflecting upon what’s needed to maintain a healthy body, economy, government, and society, policy-makers, educators, pupils, and common citizens have a chance to blend and apply knowledge in a real-world manner that leaves traditional, textbook-driven instruction far behind. The H1N1 Swine Flu emergency reinforces the importance of access to critical data, the ability to differentiate between unreliable and reliable information, problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity. How motivated and well-prepared are your students to monitor news, integrate content knowledge and skills, and make choices that ensure a long and healthy life?

Related links:

Off the Charts

I teach a class at a university near my home. Recently, one my students told me about about an assignment in one of the other classes she’s taking. As part of her assignment she’s expected to describe and explain information contained within spreadsheets. She noted how tedious it was to sit through spreadsheet-dominated presentations from her peers and opined that there had to be a more engaging way to get the essential information locked within the confines of all those rows and columns.

I agreed.

“Why don’t you and your classmates liberate that data and make it easier for your audience understand it?” I asked. I suggested that she pay a visit to a few of my favorite data visualizations resourecs:

I’m betting that things are a little more interesting in her class these days.


FETC Virtual Conference Updates

FETC-virt-09I’m currently attending the FETC Virtual Conference & Expo ’09 event. Right now, Dr. Steven L. Paine, the State Superintendent of the West Virginia Department of Education is delivering the keynote address.

UPDATE: Now, I’m listening to Chris Dede from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to him before (mostly at NECC). He’s shares incredibly good content.