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Friday, March 16, 2012

Vi Hart and her perspectives and videos on Math

Vi Hart is one of those people that makes you wish you could see things like she does. Vi makes me want to approach teaching and learning from a multiple, creative perspective. Her ability to see the simple relationships in traditionally complex topics is humbling. As a teacher, she inspires me to look at learning through her lens. As a student, she inspires me to look at teaching through her lens.
This is her website. I love the video on Fibonocci.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Relativity, Our Universe and a darn cool webisite

Since Ethan's first words, my son has asked "why?" I'm sure parents reading this can remember those endearing yet sometimes annoying questioning sessions, especially when it's on a long car ride and you cannot jump without risk of injury. Ethan has been fascinated by numbers, comparisons, statistics and the size of things. One of his favorite books was about dinosaurs. It had comparative pictures of the beasts with a small silhouette of a man. He would always ask "Daddy, is the Allosaurus as big as our house? Our car? How about Nana's house? Is it as big as hers?"
I came across an interesting website a colleague had shared. It is right up Ethan's alley. He spent an hour going through it.
So, if you look to the stars, wonder about nature, are a spatial learner or just like playing on cool sites, then take a look at this site developed by the Huang twins. It gives a clear perspective on how important everything is from the tiniest material to the limits of the unknown. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Two Kids in a Brook and the Zone of Proximal Development

I learned something about learning today.

It’s Sunday and the weather is perfect for a late winter walk.  My wife and I took our two children and rambunctious puppy to Session’s Woods to burn some energy and calories. About a third of the way on the hilly, two and a half mile hike, my daughter had pout on her face and was walking with her arms crossed in front…that’s 9 year-old code for “ask me why I’m mad!”

My wife, the evil and wicked meanie wouldn’t let my daughter climb the slippery rocks on a twenty foot waterfall. The nerve! After we walked a bit, we came to a clearing where the brook meandered through the trees. There was a large rock in the middle of the water. My son ran ahead and was sitting on the rock. When my daughter arrived a minute later she asked him how he got on the rock without falling. He moved back a bit and told her to just jump. I watched as she teetered, crouched and was ready to spring, but ultimately she chickened out. She was afraid of falling, or getting wet, or any number of things. Even though I encouraged her to try it, and explained that the worst thing would be that she gets wet. Nope, she still wouldn’t. Ethan told his sister Samantha he’d show her how to jump, and he did. Without hesitation she mimicked his jump and landed safely on the rock. They played in and on the rocks for nearly half and hour (without getting wet, which is impressive). Samantha immediately had more confidence and was jumping on bigger rocks farther from the bank. She learned by seeing, asking, watching, taking a risk and doing.

These are examples of how psychologist and social constructivist Lev Vygostsky describes learning as it applies to his theory of the zone of proximal development or ZPD. The simple jump and larger “attempt” to overcome an obstacle will have a positive effect on how Samantha tackles new learning. Her brother, or another more experienced peer may not always be there, but when they are-she and other learners are more apt to emulate the task. What if she failed? What if she jumped short and ended up in the five inches of water surrounding the rock?  I would hope she would try it again. It may have taken some encouragement from her brother or me, but eventually the outcome would be the same.

Earlier in the day I observed a dissertation defense by a doctoral candidate. During her presentation, she made an analogy that resonated with me. She explained that learning is similar to people dancing at a party. The first dancers are usually the most skilled and/or confident ones. They know how to dance well and enjoy it. Then there are the reluctant dancers that observe and join the others when a better song comes on, or others have gathered. They like dancing. They just need a bit more time and courage. Finally there are the lurkers or non-participants. These folks may not like dancing because they’ve had a bad experience and feel self-conscious or don’t like the music style, or they have never danced in a formal setting. But they do want to dance. The sit and watch. The lurkers however, do learn how to dance by simply watching. They make mental notes, see what others are doing and if approached, may give it a whirl. The lurkers are known as the peripheral learners.  They do in fact have the capacity to learn and master the skills needed to dance, but it comes at a different pace and on their own terms.

I strongly believe that using these models of learning in the classroom will strengthen students’ capacity to gain new knowledge and take intellectual risks. Children cannot simply sit idly and absorb information. Learning is a dynamic process that is strengthened by the interaction of students on different levels of understanding. Teachers need to dedicate more time toward group work, peer learning and mentors. Using these proven methods of delivery allow children multiple pathways of gaining knowledge. They make sense of it on their terms. I look forward to our next adventure in the woods. See you there!

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Last Starfighter and Piano Lessons

I must admit. I do allow my children to play video games, watch television and movies, all in moderation of course. There are cognitive benefits for children who play certain types of video games. I'll discuss that later in my commentary. There are benefits to watching TV too. But that depends on what is watched and how often. My son loves the Discovery Channel. Any shows on nature or the weather and he is mesmerized. He also loves shows on the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and the misnomer- Family Channel. Watching the former is learning, but passively. He is not actively engaged in the field of science. It is similar to attending a lecture. So, even though these nature shows are great, they must be taken in small doses. But they are far better than the latter. I watched a day of shows on the children's channels. The sitcoms are funny, entertaining, but also horribly designed. The characters on these programs do not exhibit respect for authorities (parents and adults) and kids get the wrong impression of how children should interact with adults.

There are times, probably more than I'd like to admit, when a couple hours have passed without my intervention to get the kids off the TV. I may have been occupied with a task and enjoyed the uninterrupted time. But more often than not, my wife or I inform the kids there is no TV today, or for the week. We call it a "no electronics" day. The kids of course whine, complain or begrudgingly begin an activity, but soon enough all is well. They're reading, painting, playing or just doing the weird games only kids can invent. Days like this are easier if the weather is nice or you're on vacation . But I have found that as time passes and they get used to not watching TV, it is easier to get them do alternate activities that don't require a battery. Give kids an umbrella, some Tupperware and string, you'd be surprised what they can do.

Video Games Improve Concentration and other Cognitive Skills

I remember a few years ago I had a professor of writing conducting a workshop with my fourth-graders. He was hired by our school district to prepare them for the Connecticut Mastery Tests, specifically the writing and reader-response portion. Yup, it was boring; boring for me and the students. He was using a basic scaffolding to teach the mechanics of expository writing, snckzzzzz. The only thing I remember from his mundane lesson was how he referred to the kids who played video games. He called them "Vidiots". Initially, it was funny...still is. But the more I thought about it, the more I didn't like his term. I cannot stand it when people, especially educators, insult or belittle students. It just serves no purpose. I can't stand the retro, old-school stupidity tossed around by people who think the way things were was better. It wasn't. The second thought brought me to a 1984 movie The Last Starfighter. For those of you in my generation, it was right in the midst of the arcade craze. The movie was about a high school boy Alex, who was turned down for a student loan for college. He meets a man named Centauri. Centauri informs the boy that he invented the video game Starfighter that Alex plays so well. Earlier in the day, Alex set the all-time high score. Eventually Alex discovers that the video game is actually a trainer and tester to find people (Earthlings) with the speed, skill and dexterity to pilot a real, extra-terrestrial star fighter (space ship). Coincidently there is truth to this science fiction script.

According to Dr. Restak, a leading neuroscientist, video games, if used wisely can help you notice more, concentrate better, respond more quickly, and increase several components of your overall IQ. The effects induced by regular video-gaming can be compared to what occurs in the brain of a concert pianist (Restak, 2009).  He does offer two caveats in addition to his research. One is that violent video games have no or even negative impacts on the gamers, and two, that too much gaming reverses the benefits. So, moderation. His book Think Smart is a fantastic read. It details, among many other things, ways of increasing your brain's performance. Children who play particular types of video games that require attention to detail, finger dexterity and sustained focus develop parts of the supplementary motor cortex, the brain area responsible for planning the finger movements required for each selection. With increase experience and practice, the neural connections are strengthened and made more efficient. This is true for practicing pianists and video-gamers. These applications can be used in real world situations such as finding people in a crowd, ability to focus and information processing speeds.

Just as important to good brain health and staving off alzheimer's and reduced brain-function is using your brain in a positive, interactive manner. Do things such as crossword puzzles, cards, cryptograms and anything that requires thinking and problem-solving. Learn a new language, take up a musical instrument, build models. Activities such as these build more efficient connections. The help keep your brain "in shape". We're all familiar with the saying "use it or lose it". Well it's true. So keep that wonderful nugget in your skulls busy.