Monday, November 26, 2012

How Fast are You Getting the Bad News?

Captain Dave Boudreau, one of my first mentors and teachers back in my early army days, used to say that you can always tell a good commander by how quickly they got the bad news. Capt Boudreau explained that everybody likes good news, and it is always nice to pass it on, especially given that involvement in good news can be beneficial to our careers at any level. 

But to know if you are really trusted, in whatever role you may be playing; to know people believe in you and what you are doing; to, in short, know that goals and values are shared in a high trust climate; the litmus test is bad news. Are you one of the first ones told? Are you trusted to
advise people how to get out of a tight spot? Are you asked for advice in stressful, emotionally volatile situations?

I have seen managers in both education and business with signs on their doors or in their offices saying things like 'excuse limit 0' or 'no complaining zone' or, in classrooms, 'no whining zone' etc. These people often think they are being witty or cute, but what they are really doing is cutting off honesty and frankness and stifling direct and open communication.

What happens when openness is stifled? When honesty becomes a vice instead of a virtue? One of the first things that happens is there is little anger or frustration shown on the surface, for fear of reprisal. Does the anger disappear? Hardly! Usually it migrates underground and causes a cancerous growth which, over time, eats away at the health of the organization. An organization, whether it be a school or a bank or even a family, is really a living organism with its main blood flow being sound and honest communication. Closed or one way communication, that is not direct and honest, clogs the arteries of the organization. The heart, meaning management, must pump more and more blood (that is, give direct orders) to overcome the clogging created by the dishonesty and duplicity that is a byproduct of failing to encourage and reward open communication. Over time, the weight and drag of this ineffectiveness, unchecked, will cause an organization to deteriorate, and, eventually, collapse.

I teach in a classroom. I work with kids who have trouble learning in a normal class setting. I am very concerned about open communication and think a lot about how to encourage it. I do this because I know a frustrated kid can't learn, and nothing is more frustrating than not being listened to when one has a concern or is hurting emotionally.

So, how can we encourage open communication? Start with being open and frank when you mess up. People of any age will pick up on this.

Often I hear people say that if they do this, they will be seen as weak. But this is not my experience. What happens is people, seeing you as having vulnerability and humility and as being unafraid to let others see you as flawed, as human, will open up to you and tell you straight out what is on their mind.

Not a day goes by a child or a colleague does not come in and tell me what he or she feels is a better way to do something. And often they are right. And I just change the procedure when that situation comes up again. The kids love it; because I will publicly recognize the contribution and the contributor.

Part of this also, and maybe we can call this a second 'thing to do' is not to be over-invested or wedded to any one procedure. You see, to me, how I am doing things right now is just how I am doing them. Somebody can come along a day or an hour from now and say "Andy, look, this works better, and here's why..." If it makes sense, I am going to give it a shot! I can always revert back if it does not improve things. I love the medical metaphor "practicing medicine" meaning we haven't got it quite perfect yet; we can still adjust and get better. Yes, I am practicing teaching. Maybe you are practicing hair styling or computer programming or dancing or acting or automotive mechanics.

Kids come in on a regular basis and tell me they messed up or were not honest with a friend or another teacher or have been hurtful with their parents. It's not because I am super human or some wonderful guy or anything like that! It's because I mess up. A lot. And they know it and that I am not scared of it or worried about them knowing. I get impatient and angry and frustrated and upset. I am real with them; they are real with me. And because I get the bad news quickly, I can respond while there is still plenty of time to sort things out.

So, think about it: How fast are you getting the bad news?...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Why are we doing this?

"I enjoy teaching the most when I see my students enjoy learning in my class. I believe that learning becomes more meaningful if students enjoy the process of learning. Of course, results of learning, such as exam marks and quiz scores, are important, but learning only for test scores will not produce any joy in learning. When I teach, I often wonder how I can get my students to enjoy the learning process itself and not to study only for exams. As a teacher, I would like my students to find enjoyment, satisfaction, a sense of achievement, or any positive feelings when they learn. I believe that cooperative learning is one way to achieve this goal. Cooperative learning is one of the excellent student-centered approaches, which is based on a social constructivist view, and this teaching method becomes more effective when certain conditions are met and structures are well implemented." (Chie Katsuda, 2010)

The lady who wrote this is a former graduate student of mine.  I recalled these lines from one of her papers, after having a conversation with a friend and colleague of mine, Ray Rennie, who teaches values at our school.  Ray has been teaching in Canada for somewhere around 30 years or so and here at our school in Thailand for a few years now.  He's a guy I am always learning from.  One of the things we focus on at our school here is life-long learning, and Ray exemplifies that. We’re always talking about what’s going on with the students and ways we can help them get along better and learn from each other.

We were having a chat, which turned to experiences in education, and Ray was explaining something to me about how he likes to start his classes and why he uses a somewhat unorthodox procedure.  “See Andy, look at them,” his kids were gathering in the room at the start of a values class, “we are just getting started but they don’t come in and sit down, they are walking around.” Ray went on to say, “look, a lot of people tell you to get the kids on task and get them started right away, but I don’t believe in that.”

Ray’s methods are a little different.  Hid kids came in, and often the direction is simply to try to find something.  On this particular day Ray had hidden a toy rubber gecko that he keeps on his desk somewhere in the room.  So the kids are searching for the gecko. The one who finds the gecko gets a candy.

“But you see, while they are looking for it, I watch them,” Ray elaborated.  “And I notice things, I learn about how they are that day, what their feelings are.”  There are days he will notice someone is looking a little down and he can pull them aside for a private word and see if he can help or possibly find out what the situation is that is causing stress for that individual. On other days he can notice a particular troublesome mood of the group as a whole and make adjustments to what he is doing to accommodate it.

Ray looked at me as I watched his kids moving around in the room: “You see, these kids, they are more important than the subject; they are more important than me.”

Ray Rennie, a guy who knows, has always known, why we are doing this.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Doing it Over Again, for the First Time

Doing it over again, for the first time: Have you ever noticed how, with a routine task you have done a hundred times, that you may become almost lobotomized when you do it, performing the task half awake with your mind a million miles away occupied with something else? I have literally arrived somewhere to do something and not quite recalled how I got there! Has that ever happened to you? We get so caught up in our thinking that half the time we are not aware of what we are doing.

This is the opposite of being present, and is a state that is all too familiar to a lot of us. Eckhart Tolle calls this being "unconscious" in that we have no awareness of what we are doing or what is going on around us. I could carry it further and call it being "dead" because whatever record is playing on the track in our mind is not real, is not alive, has nothing whatsoever to do with what is happening here and now.

Some of us may try to block out our surroundings by excessive use of electronic devices or plugging ourselves into some repetitive soundtrack. The problem is, no matter how beautiful or entrancing those sounds or videos or electronic signals may be, they deaden us to relationships, to nature, the song of a bird , the whir of a cricket, the brush of a falling feather; they deaden us to life.

It's not possible in today's world to avoid the use of technology or even to always be fully engaged in every task. That's not the point. Rather, try this: when you do something you have done a hundred times, sometimes do it as if you had never done it before. Do it again. For the first time.

Let me give you a specific example. I just put my phone down and lay beside my son in bed doing nothing. I looked at this, however, as a new experience. I just lay there and looked at him. Nothing else; lay there gazing. Then I noticed his breathing deepen. He rolled over and snaked his arm across my chest as he slept. His arm went totally limp. Complete trust, surrender in a state of deep relaxation and acceptance. My own state then started to lighten. Always remember that even though you have to pay bills and think and plan to get by in this world, none of that abstract stuff is real. Live your life here with the surroundings and people in front of you. Keep coming back to that every time you wander; and, remember this: That's the only thing that's real. So, do it again, for the first time...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Life, Love, Learning

When a task is difficult, we often want to run from it. But often the difficulty is a way of sending us a signal that we should persist and see it through to the end, whatever that may be. The irony is we never know if a task is worthwhile until we have completed it. Then the results may seem to tell us it was not worth it, or was a waste of time. But then we are wrong still a second time, for it is not about the task at all, but about who we are while we complete it. When we do the work before us, no matter the nature of it, no matter the outcome, with love, the outcome can never be 'bad' in any meaningful sense. Our state of mind and heart while we work or even perform a routine task determine it's value, whether we are paid two million dollars, twenty five cents, or nothing, is not the point.

For me, the man who mostly taught me this did it without teaching. He just lived. His life was the lesson. He enjoyed talking and having a laugh but he never used talking to teach. He just lived. He was my dad. He used to love to make things out of wood, he was a skilled carpenter, and, though he worked as a flame cutter for his living, he made beautiful things with wood. Chairs, tables, benches, lattice work. I used to cut patterns for him, and sometimes I would just watch him work. He would touch the wood softly like caressing the wings of a butterfly. He spent hours in his shop. His eyes were soft and caring while he worked. He always placed the wood on the bench, never throwing or tossing the wood, even the scraps were gently placed in the bin or often re-used.

Then, when he was finished, he gave the things he made away. Many times people tried to pay for his work, but he refused the money. He made some of the most beautiful things ever seen and gave them all away. And while he worked, he taught his son, me, not how to work, because I am a lousy carpenter, to be quite frank. He taught me something else entirely. I watched him work, and I learned how to live. I learned how to love....

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Managing a Classroom for Maximum Effectiveness and Minimum Stress

There is an old saying in the performance improvement area often used by Brian Tracy, though probably originated a lot earlier, that could be well applied to the concept of managing a classroom in a way that will allow kids to learn best while minimizing stress for the teacher: “it’s simple, but it’s not easy.” The simplicity comes from the fact that there are some very straightforward guidelines that can help us create a great climate for learning. The difficulty comes from being able to apply these how, when and where needed, and, more often, recalling and being able to use them effectively in the ‘heat of battle,’ in a manner of speaking. To lower the stress, we would do well to keep in mind a couple of ideas of the late Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale one of which is to, “relax for easy power.” Dr. Peale taught that if we can learn what to do in a situation and apply it consistently, this knowledge should allow us to relax, and our power will flow more easily. Dr. Peale also taught, that, “a clean engine, always delivers power” meaning that if we can keep our focus simple and avoid a lot of excess mental baggage, our mind and lives will function with strength in the same way that a properly cleaned and maintained engine will deliver a constant stream of power to an automobile.

So how do we approach things in a way that will allow us to relax and have an easy flow of clean instructional and learning power in our classrooms?  The starting point actually has little to do with our management skills and more to do with our instruction. The most effectively managed classrooms, perhaps not surprisingly, also tend to be the ones with the highest levels of student engagement, interaction and hands on activities that lead to student growth. An effectively managed class is usually an effectively taught class.  The teacher is aware of the skill levels and abilities of the students, and has designed activities and support levels that match those abilities and skills while challenging students to achieve to their highest level.  

Starting with getting the strategies for learning and activity mixes right, the teacher is able to create engaging instruction that makes classroom management simpler and easier. 

Knowing your students is an important component in being able to manage a class for learning.  Having some idea of the interests of your students outside the classroom is a critical aspect of being effective in managing a class.  You do not need to be an expert in all of the latest computer games, pop fiction or applications your students may be messing around with on facebook or twitter, but some knowledge of what engages them outside the class is critical. 

Doing something as simple as getting your students to use their phones to find out about a topic you are learning in class can create rapport. We often will do an activity where I will have the students see who can get the answer to a query by texting somebody or by searching on the internet.  This lets them see the connection between something most of them love to do anyway (use technology to chat or message friends) and what they are learning in school.  These connections make learning more real for students.

Knowing the limitations of students, what their skills are, what their frustrations are, what they are good at, all can help us in building learner profiles that will help us understand when and where to push a child to excel as well as where to back off. This knowledge can be built up over time by engaging in informal chats with students, having them write in journals, asking them about their concerns; especially critical is watching how they are in informal social engagements with their peers.

The issue of social engagement with other students is very important and is an area where we need to be aware of difficulties that students may be undergoing, as well as strengths, since these observations will tell us much that we cannot learn from day to day observations or academic data.

 Knowing a lot about our students may seem time consuming and not directly related to academic success, but we must remember:  Ultimately we do not teach math or history or science or language, we teach kids.  We are teaching students, people, and not subjects.  Understanding the needs of a child is critical to being able to effectively create learning opportunity and to having a properly balanced and well-managed environment where both achievement and social harmony are accepted and understood as integral to success.

Teaching to strengths is another critical aspect of learning that vastly simplifies the management task.  The more we understand our students and the abilities that they have, the natural tendencies and leanings in activities, the style of learning they most enjoy, the better we can help them learn and grow. We can use multiple intelligence or learning style inventories to get a handle on where students excel or where they are challenged, or even just observe them in classes or engage in dialogue with other teachers about what students are enjoying or excelling at in their classes will provide us with invaluable input.  Just being aware of the skills and abilities of our students changes how we respond to them, and makes us more cognizant of why they may be experiencing difficulties in certain areas or excelling in others.

If we have some grounding in how students think and feel or ‘what makes them tick,’ we will be better able to avoid triggering undesirable behavior in our students. Knowing what sets a student off and how to avoid triggering behaviors is very important to being effective in a classroom because this knowledge allows us to be proactive and avoid problems up front rather than reactively ‘putting out fires’ or having to deal with emergency after emergency.

When we know the challenges, we can accommodate:  I once had a student who for some reason could not work sitting down and became very frustrated when asked to sit for a period of time.  But if he was walking around, all of a sudden he went from being a troubled student creating disruption and disharmony to an average student with significant talents in certain areas, like math, for example. 

I had a chat with him and we made a deal: I give him a one meter zone around his desk and clearly showed where the lines for his roaming were limited (he could not touch his neighbor’s desks, or take any of their things, as an example.) Within this zone he was free to roam at will.  This adjustment made everybody happy; him, because he could be free to learn in a way that was best for him, me, because I was free to continue teaching without wasting time harping on him, and the other students, because they were all freed from the distraction he created when he started running round their desks.

You can even adjust something like this: Because we had administrators who were not comfortable with students being out of their desks during instruction, we had an arrangement whereby if certain individuals came in the room he could go back to sitting down for a few minutes until they left.

Another student with Aspergers, a type of disorder that makes it difficult to understand and deal with social situations, was often very combative in the class and wanted to argue constantly. He also enjoyed yelling out responses.  Again I worked with him individually to deal with the challenges.  I had a reward system whereby he got to do something he really liked in the last five minutes of each class session for avoiding yelling out for certain periods of time. Over a period of weeks we increased the time periods in which he had to go without yelling out responses.

When he became combative, I used to take him aside and talk to him, explaining that I was on his team and wanted him to succeed.  As an ex soldier myself, and dealing with a student who I knew liked the military, I would use an analogy:  If I were in your platoon and you were the platoon leader (he liked the idea of himself in command and me working for him!) would you shoot me in the back of the head if I was doing what you asked me to do?  He would laugh and say how crazy an idea that was.  Now you have to know the kids, as this would be most inappropriate with a lot of children, but for him it made him see what he was doing in a different light, and he would laugh and settle down to work as best he was able.

Dealing with problem students effectively, easily and simply with minimal stress requires that we be able to step aside and understand them as individuals with their own challenges.  As a general rule, we need to focus on the behavior, not the person. Changes can be made in behavior, but people as a rule are very resistant to changing who they are, and we also have no right as teachers to adjust personality types.

I always make it a point when I have to work with a student to improve behavior choice to start out by talking genuinely about something the student does well.  Talking about where the difficulty lays means that we work with the student on how the choice was unhelpful and what may need to be changed.  It is always best if you can get the student to see where and why change is needed.  Once that is done, you can work together on a plan for change and improvement. Always assume, even given contrary evidence, the student wants to improve and do the best they can.

Some students can be explosive.  It is most important to separate an explosive student from the class as early as possible when an episode occurs, for the sake of class safety.  It is very important to realize in an explosive episode that this has nothing to do with us as teachers and that our role is to help the student with the challenge. Though hard to do at times, we must not take the situation personally, as this will cause us to make mistakes that could make the situation worse. 

If a younger student is involved and they are crying uncontrollably, they may need to ‘cry it out’ and have a cooling off period.  As soon as possible after, it is important to let the child know you support and believe in them and that the difficulty they had in no way reflects how you see them as a person.  With an older explosive student, if you can get them to come to an understanding of what causes or precipitates an episode, you can develop a signal where they let you know there is a problem and may get the chance to go for a walk outside or visit another class for a few moments to let themselves cool down.  Any discussion of the difficulty should always be in private.

Avoiding conflict and stress in the classroom can be seen mostly as a result of negotiating with students effectively. This means that we treat them with respect, explain the reasons for what we are asking in terms they can understand, and where possible accommodate some of their requests and desires in the class so that they feel ownership as partners in the decision making process.  This is more important as students get older, but is even possible with very young students.  I have even seen kindergarten teachers let students decide which order they would like to do activities.  This ownership of decisions means that students will feel at least partly responsible for what goes on in the classroom, and that makes our job of managing the class much simpler.

As to rules, there have been thousands, probably millions, of pages written as to how to create rules that work in a classroom and we don’t really want to re-visit all of it here, but let’s look at a few ideas.  Generally the rules should be simple, stated in the positive in terms of what you want to happen rather than what you do not want to happen, and there should not be too many rules, four to five is ideal.  The rules should aim at qualities you want to develop such as respect, cooperation, fairness and kindness.  It is often valuable to let the students be involved in formulating the rules, at least to some extent, as again this will increase ownership and student responsibility for results in the class. Avoid negative rules as they will tend to bring out the ‘class lawyer’ who will try to find exceptions or areas where your negative rule does not work.

What should we consider, as ‘the last word’ as we conclude our discussion of some key aspects of classroom management?  It is important that we be aware of our own style and consider it in managing our class.  Often the style of the teacher is not even discussed in talking of how to manage a class, and this is a shortcoming of the research.  

Our style is critical!  If, like me, you are a teacher who is comfortable with a certain amount of noise (I actually enjoy it!) and even discussion not related to the topic at hand, and you are a little looser in terms of what you feel is ok or allowable in a class, you will manage a class much differently than if you are a naturally more quiet person and would rather have an environment with more order and precision.  It is ok for you to talk with students about this, and let them know that some of your preferences are personal, and that another teacher may well manage a class differently.

Kids need to learn that different conduct may be considered appropriate or inappropriate depending on the context.  Sometimes we as teachers may even mislead our students on this point.  I have even heard some teachers tell parents, “we need to be consistent, and expectations at home should match those in the classroom.” But that’s crazy!  I have a six and a seven year old son, and I wrestle with them and throw them on the sofa at home, but I am darn sure their teacher is not doing it! And I would not do it with them at school either.  Different environments, different circumstances, different personalities, different goals, all demand different behavioral responses.  It’s perfectly ok for your style, within the limits of fairness to the students, to at least partly dictate how you manage a class.

Let’s enjoy our classes, our kids, and our teaching!

Blessings, Dr. Andy

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What was Mr. G doing with those darn buckets?!

The other day I glanced down at the quad open area in the school where I teach and saw Mr. G with his students assembled towards one edge of the open area with pairs of students laboring under a bucket full of water each walking towards the far end of the quad. Mr. G is known for his innovative approaches to creating student learning so I was not entirely surprised by these proceedings but nonetheless wondered what he was up to. I had an inkling of what it might be all about but decided I would go right to the source and check with the students.

When some of Mr. G's group came up to my class at the period change, I asked them what they were doing messing around with the buckets and weren't they worried the principal might not appreciate them getting the astroturf in the quad wet?!

"We we're learning about what it is like in the farming communities and the small towns in many parts of the world where there is no running water!” a student said, bursting with enthusiasm.  “Dr. Andy, it’s so hard, those people have to carry that water for many miles up hills and in the really hot weather just so they can wash and cook,” the student explained.

“It is a very hard life and it affects the health because the water is not clean” a second student continued.  “It is not fair in a world where others have so much wealth” a third student added.

This lesson had quite an impact on me, thinking about it at home later that night, I realized how many times I had seen somebody carrying a bucket of water or food on their shoulders in National Geographic or on the television and had barely thought about it. 

Of course I know intellectually about the poverty, but, even with my wife having grown up in a community with many of these same challenges, I had never really experienced it.  My feeling was that those kids would never forget the reality of what they had experienced in that class, and I can hazard a guess that it may well impact their career and life choices as well as how they may contribute to their communities for years down the road.

I had a chat with Mr. G and commended him on his efforts. I also told him of the impact what he was doing may be having and how important this type of lesson was in developing empathy and compassion.  He verified this, telling me he has high school students (Mr. G teaches middle school values) who often come back and talk to him about the ‘bucket lesson’ and the impact that it had on them.  It is often one of the most memorable moments for them as students.

When you can take something and make it real, make it experiential, the impact can be great, and can often last years.  All of us remember something from school or our earlier years that sticks with us, that is so real we can go back to that moment and re-experience it like it was now, with the words, feelings and pictures still intact.

For all of us, especially those of us involved with younger children, the more we can bring the learning into the touch and feel and see realm of life, the greater, more powerful and lasting will be our impact.

Blessings to all of you!

Dr. Andy

Monday, April 23, 2012

Either, Or, And

Who would have thought that three little words could contain so much power?  Three words, not even particularly complicated ones, 'either,' 'or,' 'and,' yet they not only can determine the nature of our relationship with others; they often can also determine our world view; how we see each other; the way we interact socially and even how nations and peoples interact on the world stage.

Most of the known world that we live in operates on the hidden (or in some cases not so hidden) assumptions of 'either.' In a few more enligtened cases, there are some limited examples of 'or.'  'And' thinking, outside of a few rare and isolated examples, is almost never seen.  The irony is that as rare as 'and' thinking is, where it exists it is transformational.

What the heck is he talking about(?!) you may well be asking, if you have not already decided to forgo reading further.

Let's look at some examples: There are literally whole industries and social institutions out there right now geared toward the 'either' paradigm.  In the USA, either you support the Republican Party, believing in small government, free enterprise, large bank bailouts using taxpayer money, and abortion; or you support the Democratic Party, believing in big government, social responsibility, large bank bailouts using taxpayer money, and public enterprise.  The fact that other ways of doing things may exist is barely even discussed.  What about free enterprise that incorporates social responsibility?  Government that is sized according to the tasks it needs to perform and may be bigger or smaller depending on what those needs are? Abortion that is looked at not as a free choice for women (or men), so much as a need in certain cases (rape, incest, threats to a mother's life) and is restricted or controlled in others such as choosing the gender of a child which most would see as unacceptable? Not that I am saying any of these positions is inherently better than another; the point is we don't even discuss them.  The sound bite culture we live in is based only on positions that are antagonistic; and if we can throw in a little violence or a riot for the six o'clock news to improve the ratings, all the better! Either Occupy Wall Street or build another nuclear reactor, the choice is yours, but you only have ten seconds to make it!

Talk shows live on the 'either' mindset.  Get two sides together and have a war on the air: its re-enacated all over the globe every day.  All are disempowered, others are blamed for all our problems, the 'other side' is always at fault, nothing gets done, nobody's responsible, nothing gets solved, but ratings soar!

Thailand has had an on again off again conflict these past few years between the so-called yellow shirts, who appeal to traditional values and royalty, and the so-called red shirts, who appeal to the agrarian base and grassroots populist issues.  Nobody seems to notice that traditional Thai culture is both agrarian and supportive of the royal institution and that certain populist issues such as wide access to health care if funded responsibly in no way impinge on traditional values or threaten the royal institution.  Again, the point is not that any of these positions is superior, but rather that, in the 'either' mode of thinking, where all must define a side or a color or a party then fight it out, such thinking is barely allowed and quickly ridiculed or dismissed as idealistic if voiced.

If we do show some mild maturity once in a while, we may graduate from 'either' thinking to 'or' thinking, which is mildy better but hardly transformative or revolutionary in its impact. We might talk about resolving the Palestinian question using a two state solution, in which you have to define yourself as only wishing to interact with one side or the other and thus living on one side of the dividing line or the other.  So we take care of the interaction challenge by avoiding it! There are many areas of the world where Jews and Muslims live side by side and interact and do business with each other, why not in Israel and Palestine?  Why must it be one or the other?  The Israeli writer Halevi has talked about, "accomodating a competing narrative" but again, such thinking gets lost in the wilderness of angry debate. Suicide bombings or illegal settlements, please make your choice quickly!

Some may say 'and' thinking is idealistic.  I say it's not only realistic it may be our only way forward. With seven billion people on the globe is the 'green' movement without development a reasonable option?  Over half the globe would starve without our cities and industries! Is development with no restrictions realistic?  We will choke to death on our own carbon before we even see 2025! The only realistic choice is development and a green mindset combined, using new technologies that move us away from fossil fuel dependency.  The 'and' option is not only realistic it is probably unavoidable if we want the human race to prosper.

Or what about crime? Being tough on crime and improving rehabilitation is clearly superior to either the soft approach of light sentencing which leads to more rampant crime problems and irresponsibility, or the hard approach of locking everybody up and throwing away the key, which is both unaffordable and unrealistic. A tough on crime approach that includes rehabilitation will be both less expensive, more effective and more humane in the long term.

The only thing 'wrong' with 'and' thinking is that it doesn't generate any headlines! People are doing it quietly.  And we need more of it if we want to survive and prosper and be happier and live more fulfilling lives of contribution!

Be responsible and happy!

Blessings, Dr. Andy

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Experience, Learning and Technology

Hi There and welcome to my new blog. Before I have only used these for university courses I have taught, and this is the first time for me opening one just to express ideas about education, learning, or anything elese that may seem relevent! I hope you enjoy it, please feel free to let me know your thoughts. Best, Dr. Andy

Today's topic:

Experience, Learning and Technology

It seems to me from my own experiences working both with special needs and ESL students in American and international schools, as well as training teachers, that we may have gotten slightly off track in our technological applications and debates or discussion of the use of technology as well as its application in our schools.

We often start the discussion by asking how we are using technology in our lessons: The hidden assumption is that technology is always the better way to go in delivering instruction. As we all know, if you start with an error, as in math and so with life, everything that proceeds after will be erroneous. And it seems to me that this presumption is not, in essence, correct.

Why not?

Well let's look at some real life experiences and ask a few pointed questions. Take a toddler say of 8 to 14 months old, about the time a lot of children first learn to walk. So how is this skill learned? With an I-pad? Virtual reality? Notes derived from google docs? What about reviewing walking videos on youtube? Do social networks like twitter or facebook offer any guidelines?

Walking, like a lot of learning, is experiential, and the two main methods most children will tend to use are imitation, by watching friends or parents do it then trying the same thing, or by trial and error, and in the vast majority of cases a combination of these.

You might feel this is an unfair and overly simplistic example, so let's look at one more directly related to classroom experience, how about figuring out the area of a rectangle is the product of it's length and width in square units, a key concept taught at about the middle school level in mathematics. How is this best learned? Now this is a little trickier and answers will vary. I worked with a child in my class just this week who was totally unable to learn this in any other way than by watching a video, and even then I had to take some of the key parts and play them over and over for him to get the idea down. Score one for technology!

But wait!! With learning disabled kids that have trouble with new concepts, I have found that the number one most effective technique in teaching this idea is to have them compare it with perimeter by pacing around the edges of a room or enclosed area outside, then comparing the fact that area includes everything within those boundaries, while premiter is only the edge or straight line distance. I have them go to different parts of the room and look at the floor, or even touch sections with their hands. Is this part of area? Yes. Go to another section. What about this? Yes, again and again till they get the concept. Retention rates are near 100 percent with this method, better than with books, videos, or anything else I have tried.

We could look at a lot of examples; if you look at counting, with very young children the finger counting method is usually the best place to start because it is both highly visceral (involving physical feelings) and visual. Reading is often best when done orally with both teachers and students doing it. Using a book gives you something to feel, and again it is often easier for the younger reader to flip back pages and find something in a book than with a mouse on a pdf file. But if reading for research, often using links with online resources or databases make the research process quicker and easier for the older learner.

There is nothing wrong with asking how we are using technology; but it is the wrong place to start the discussion. The discussion should always start with what the learning needs of the students are. Then we can discuss what we might use to teach the skills in a way that will best meet those needs, and why and then how.

Starting the discussion with technology is putting the proverbial cart before the horse, and our students will suffer accordingly, from such an approach!

Teach with understanding, teach with compassion, teach with love!

Dr. Andy