Sunday, January 27, 2013

YOU are genius

That's what educators and learners should understand.
Everybody has a very special talent, something to share and contribute to the world.
We should all be part of a culture of sharing and collaboration for something bigger than our own talented world, to take knowledge and understanding to a new dimension.

We need to understand how our contributing talents add to any learning network and strengthen it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Big Bear, Online Learning and Connections

I've been following #etmooc with interest, but with the hectic first week in our Electronic Village Online about neuroscience in Education (#brainELT), I haven't been much of a contributor, but an active listener.

What I've been trying to explore with much interest and anticipation is how a MOOC develops, unfolds, how conversations start and persist, and, mainly how participants perceive this whole experience of being in a massive online professional development opportunity and react to it. This year I've been having a two-side perspective, as a participant in #etmooc and a co-moderator in EVO.

In any online setting, no matter if we have newbies in the digital sphere or more experienced participants, the reaction to the first week in the online setting is one that corroborates what neuroscience has been exploring and helping us understand about the intricate and fascinating world of our brains.

Our brains are wired for survival. So, whenever we come across a new experience, our amygdala, part of our limbic system mainly involved in emotional responses will analyze the situation, and there are three ways we can react.

Imagine we are joyfully walking through the woods with friends. All of a sudden, we come across this huge BEAR.


Amygdala in action. Three possible reactions:


First, your brain send signals to your amygdala, your body reacts to it, and you act upon it. If you had the right tools and the technical skills, you could even think of shooting the bear, or giving him a sedative. However, a very natural reaction is to flight. You start running as fast as you can. Or you simply freeze, don't know what to do, and have no reaction. You get stuck.

One of the main roles of the amygdala is to prevent threat.

So, getting back to our online world, imagine this brand new context for participants experiencing for the first time an online session, but not simply an online course with a formal structure with a certain number of participants, but an online session with massive challenges. First, understanding how it works, where to go, how to connect, then realizing that it is massive in terms of number of participants. Many of these newcomers should have come from very traditional formal educational settings as learners and as educators. What are their amygdalas screaming? THREAT, THREAT, THREAT! Reactions?

Some just leave with no traces of ever getting there. Other participants get stuck and give up, they don't even give it a try, thinking to themselves, "oh, this is just too much for me. I don't have time for it". In fact, it is really hard to make good decisions when we feel afraid. The brave souls, on the other hand, embark, can even think that it is too much, but they FIGHT, they move on, connect at first a little clumsily, but they become survivors at first, then they just find their way around and thrive. It is that kind of learning that sticks, that stays. The ones who overcome their initial fears of the big digital MOOC bear or just don't face it as any kind of initial threat, but as opportunity, open new spaces for their learning, for new brain connections and personal conversations with like-minded professionals, flourish and radiate their learning through the co-construction of knowledge with peers.

But this is seen from the participant's angle. What really has caught my attention since I've started in the realm of online moderation is the role of the moderators in the process of lowering participants' initial anxiety and helping them see these online PD sessions as an open door for learning with the support of sound instructional design together with spaces that give room to discovery, flexibility, experimentation and connections.

So, this first week of #etmooc and #brainelt has just proven that the moderators' support, be it in the technical aspects of the session or in the human side of just being felt as present for participants, makes a difference for the participants' initial perceptions of the MOOC journey being a big fearful bear with its sharp teeth and huge body facing us or simply not seing any kind of bear at all!

I've seen great examples of support that totally makes a difference - from the orientation synchronous sessions offered by the #etmooc team, the questions on how to better address the initial challenges newcomers face and offerings for a mentee-mentor informal scheme, to a well-designed Wordpress hub to guide participants and a Google+ to let the conversations and sharing flow. Even if for some, it is still a daunting endeavor, everything seems to be manageable with the community support that has been taking place and the wonderful, emotional accounts that members are already sharing in their own learning spaces.

As for the EVO standpoint, just like in #etmooc, what counts, more than the content, are the connections, the learning together as a community, the discussions, just being there with one another. The moderators do their best to be welcome and be present, and we've had a very positive reaction from participants on a page we created on how to survive the first week and thrive in which we try to have a positive and playful tone to make participants relax and enjoy the ride. The word from a participant that truly got the spirit of this whole orientation period is "liberating".

What online moderators and any educator need to understand is how the emotional brain is always acting and reacting to threat, and when learning situations are perceived as a menace, how can they i design educational endeavors that are welcoming and made of meaningful human connections. In this case, the bear might disappear before one realized that it has ever been around...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Unmissable Professional Development Opportunities

January 14th. A date to remember for two very good reasons. It is the launching of #etmooc , with an amazing line-up of organizers, the wonderful team of "conspirators " < My expectations are high and besides the discussions on the Ed Tech field and the connections, I'm always interested in how these online experiences are organized, mainly to enhance conversations, discussions, distributed in online spaces. I'm always in the look for best practices of how conversations develop and our non-linear co-construction of knowledge unfolds with the help of platforms and well-thought strategies for connecting the pieces. And these guys certainly know the drill. 

In the first weeks, etmooc will overlap with the Electronic Village Online, also a free online professional development opportunity for educators all over the globe, with sessions ranging from digital storytelling for young learners to neuroscience in education - . This last session is one I'm moderating with a wonderful team of educators.

All too exciting for our beginning of the year! etmooc and EVO - Two amazing possibilities for educators who understand that the only possible way to thrive in education is to keep connecting and learning.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Learning by Retrieval - Forget Highlighting

Highlights everywhere with different marker colors. Blue, orange, green, yellow. The most common sense studying strategy my kids' teachers use with their pupils. I've always wondered what the meaning of all that was, as my kids tend to highlight almost everything! I've questioned myself what the connection was between disconnecting parts of a text with not much methodology to it. And I've asked my kids how they decided what to highlight. They'd just say, "my teacher told us to highlight the important parts if the text". The funny thing is that they considered everything important, so it meant that the pages simply changed colors!

My suspect of the total inefficiency of such common-sense practice is corroborated by scientific research and also mentioned in a Time article In "Highlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques", author Annie Murphy Paul explores what I had suspected - studying strategies being used by students are the least effective for retention. Annie points out that according to a report by psychologists in Kent State University, highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing are considered to be of “low utility” in the learning process.

In contrast to these ineffective strategies, research about how memory works has shown that some of the most useful ways in which we can help our students learn and keep it in their long-term memories has much more to do on how we retrieve the information over time. As Dr. Spitzer puts it in a very interesting post by Larry Ferlazzo  about brain-based learning in the classroom,

We thought for many years that the best way to learn is to study, study, and study some more in preparation for a test. However,recent research has demonstrated that although studying is good, and indeed is essential, consistently practicing the ability to recall information is even more effective. 
Evaluation of long-term retention of knowledge has revealed that a sequence of study-test-study-test-study-test is more effective than a sequence of study-study-study-study-study-test. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it tells us that repeated testing, involving retrieval of information, assists in consolidation of the learning process. Students can use it as a method of studying or teachers can enforce it with quizzes and other informal assessments.

When I look back into my own teaching practice, I've realized that, intuitively, I've been on the right track to help my students learn, and these are some strategies I've used that seem to have scientific foundation, mainly if you consider the research from Dr.
  •  Roediger III 

  • ( )Their study shows that repeated retrieval practice in tests generates great benefits for long-term retention.  What I've been doing that you might find useful:
    •  Every beginning of class, I'd find a different way to retrieve the content we had previously studied through different forms of mini-quizzes; they wouldn't take long, but they would be broad enough to include content not only from previous classes, but distributed subjects that we had seen during our time together as I am not teaching for test taking, but for true learning.
    • I had a place on the board called "the Learning Cycle" in which I'd invite learners to retrieve info, ideas, thoughts from previous classes.
    • I' d encourage students to create quizzes for their partners
    What I am going to further explore in my classes this year:

    • Having this test-study-test-study practice cycle in mind, I want to raise students' awareness about it through the exploration of techniques, such as the creation of digital flashcards, using Quizlet and Evernote flashcards for constant retrieval.
    • I want to engage my students in a reflective practice of learning strategies that really work
    • I hope to explore engaging ways to keep testing knowledge through quizzes, challenges, digital projects

    Finally, I need to keep becoming a better informed educator about recent studies in the neuroscientific field to guide my teaching without preconceived, ineffective ideas that will do no good for my students in their learning process, for I want them to have learning that "sticks" to their long-term memory through engaging retrieval practices. Highlighting no more!

    Wednesday, January 9, 2013

    Educators as Designers

    I've always had a deep fascination for what was aesthetically beautiful for the eyes and pleasing for the mind. Design has always mattered for me, and it has guided me personally and professionally as a principle of good living an a people connector. I've always believed in its engagement power. And unconsciously I understood that through design, you could express to a group a sense of belonging, being part of a community with shared values.

    I remember that from the start of my role as an Ed Tech Supervisor how I'd worry about the simple things, starting from a well-design poster inviting teachers for professional development opportunity. I felt that through design, I could show in a way that I cared for them and that I valued their presence in our training sessions. It was not just a simple announcement on the wall, but a call for action, for meaning and connections, and all of that had to be transmitted visually.

    When I think of design, though, it is not only about its aesthetics aspects. Instructional design has permeated my role as an educator. Again, when we are aware of the power of certain rules of good practices and processes, learning sticks, the experience of constructing new knowledge holds meaning, engagement, excitement. It takes the learner to the next level, where he/she feels the thrill of experiencing that urge to move forward, to keep learning.

    It is also through instructional design that an educator builds community, makes a tribe thrive as a group, considers effective instruction for differentiated learning. If

    If, when we make our lesson plans, we start seeing ourselves less of teachers, but more as designers of experiences through creation and exploration with our learners, then we transform the way we teach and learn. We will then realize:

    - the meaning of flow from one activity to the other;
    - the need for blank spaces to leave room for creation, questioning, experimenting,; and not cramming one activity after another with no space for thinking or wondering:
    - the power of a carefully planned lesson with a variety of activities that engage and not bore, but letting serendipity and surprise have their role in the learning process;
    - the significance of considering your audience and its specificities to design experiences that make sense and bring on board layers of knowledge construction that are solid, meaningful, and long-lasting.

    When we think os ourselves as Designers of learning experiences, we are enhancing the art of possibility and wonder. We become the catalysts of the so-desired change in our classroom microcosmos.