Jared Diamond’s treatise on environmental damage and societal collapse is a landmark work on societal issues facing the world today. As such, it makes a fantastic teaching tool for my 12th grade current world problems class, and I’ve been using the book as a text for several years now. For my digital education leadership class, I decided to integrate technology in a more meaningful way in this project. For my final blog post for this quarter, I will be posting my lesson plans for this semester-long unit as well as my thoughts on the lessons. All of this will be done through the filter of Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (2005) or UbD.
The project has proven very successful in the past, with many graduates commenting years later on what they’ve learned, but I look forward to adding the technology elements this year to better facilitate the learning and I have enjoyed the reflective nature of the UbD approach. Agree or disagree with the totality of Diamond’s approach, this lesson is a meaningful way to get students to think about the environment, the world they live in, and the choices they make.
I may have a problem. My current board game collection runs slightly over 200 games – and excluding all the expansion, upgrades, and other fiddly bits I’ve acquired along the way. It’s getting to the point where storage is becoming an issue. I have a game group I game with once a week and I’ve spent countless hours painting miniature figures of soldiers or superheroes or spaceships to make my games look that much cooler. Some may say I have an addiction. Possibly. I wouldn’t say they’re wrong, but it’s not to the point where it’s impacting my life in a negative way (storage issues notwithstanding), so maybe it’s not exactly an addiction. After all, I can quit any time I want. But the reason I bring up my gaming “hobby” is that I have found it, on occasion, to be helpful to my profession (teaching). I have, on occasion, incorporated historical simulations into my classroom, with varying success. My goal in this post is to examine how technology can be utilized to facilitate historical simulations in the classroom. ISTE standard 6, indicator 6c states, “Students communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.” “Simulations” are further defined as “Representation or imitation of systems or situations that are not easily subject to experimentation or not readily accessible” (ISTE 2016). Perfect! This is incredibly applicable to teaching history and my question for this week centered on how, exactly, can one use digital visualizations, models, and simulations to teach history and how are these visualizations, models, and simulations better than their non-digital counterparts.
Gaming can teach us quite a bit about history. My own interest in board gaming stretches back to my teen years and from this early stage it has almost always combined my love of history with my love of strategic thinking. My first “serious” game (though not by today’s standards) was Axis & Allies – the game pictured at the top of this post (Any gamer with a more-than-passing interest in gaming could easily identify the game from the photo – and more than likely the edition as well. Anyone who’s played it more than a few times could also tell you that unless something has gone horribly wrong, this is a picture of the initial setup). It combined WWII and strategic thinking – it was wonderful! Playing it, it was like I could go back in history and make all of the crucial decisions that the world leaders of that time made (of course the game is careful to purge Nazism and its sins from the game). Playing the game teaches you how bloody the war on the Eastern Front was between the USSR and Germany. You struggle as the UK tries to defend its expansive empire. As Japan, you are relatively resource-poor, but possess a powerful navy and air force. You see the US, the economic colossus of the game, start out militarily fairly weak, but over time it will generate the men and material necessary to win the war if left unchecked. The decisions, the stress, the empathy, that’s what historical gaming can provide. It can draw you in and make you invested in something in a way few forms of media can.
Gaming as story-telling
(T.I.M.E. Stories’ Endurance game vs. the real thing)
In a way, historical gaming or simulations are essentially telling, or maybe more accurately, writing stories set in a historical era. It’s the reverse of what we as historians do when we analyze historic documents or artifacts. In those instances we often have the story and seek to fit in in the era – to see how it fits in the larger story. With gaming we have the trappings of the era, but WE write the story. It’s putting us in the shoes of the historical protagonist; writing their story. The importance of storytelling in education and its facilitation by digital education can be seen in B. R. Robin’s article on digital storytelling. In it, he unwittingly supports the cause of historical gaming and ISTE standard 6 when he writes, “At its core, digital storytelling allows computer users to become creative storytellers through the traditional processes of selecting a topic, conducting some research, writing a script, and developing an interesting story. This material is then combined with various types of multimedia, including computer-based graphics, recorded audio, computer-generated text, video clips, and music so that it can be played on a computer, uploaded on a web site, or burned on a DVD” (Robin p. 222). Robin goes on to further elaborate on the essential elements of effective digital storytelling. All of these factors apply to good historical gaming as well.
1. Point of view: What is the main point of the story and what is the perspective of the author?
2. A dramatic question: A key question that keeps the viewer’s attention and will be answered by the end of the story.
3. Emotional content: Serious issues that come alive in a personal and powerful way and connects the story to the audience.
4. The gift of your voice: A way to personalize the story to help the audience understand the context.
5. The power of the soundtrack: Music or other sounds that support and embellish the storyline.
6. Economy: Using just enough content to tell the story without overloading the viewer.
7. Pacing: The rhythm of the story and how slowly or quickly it progresses (Robin p. 223).
I could easily write 7 more blog posts outlining how each of these applies to digital and board gaming. Suffice to say for now, that they all do – in droves. Much like good books and movies, good games, be they digital or board games, historical or not, share these common features. The connection between historical gaming and storytelling is solid. My question then revolves around how this can be applied digitally in my classroom and the benefits of doing so versus non-digital means. So to demonstrate some “economy” of words myself, let me move on to my source for this week’s topic.
“Gaming the past”
(Volko Ruhnke’s Vietnam simulation, Fire in the Lake)
Jeremiah McCall is a high school history teacher and author of the book, Gaming the Past. His blog of the same name (https://gamingthepast.net/) covers the theory and practice of digital gaming in the classroom. He posts notes on presentations he’s given on the subject of digital historical simulations, posts essays on how to create historical simulations (using “Twine”), he includes lesson plans and rubrics for assignments he’s given – including assignments where students write their own historical simulations, provides an extensive bibliography, provides numerous links to outside articles on the topic of historical simulations, and includes links to many historical-based games and simulations (several of these don’t work and many of the simulations must be purchased, but it’s still helpful). He even has some content on old-fashioned table-top games and simulations. It is a veritable cornucopia of information and resources for the digitally inclined history teacher. His historical project using Twine is particularly relevant for ISTE 6. ISTE 6 is all about being a “creative communicator.” With his Twine project, McCall challenges his students to create their own historical digital game. Twine is an open source, non-linear, story-telling game generator (https://twinery.org/). But McCall isn’t just having his students re-tell an existing story, he wants them to make “meaningful choices” as well. He explains,
A clear choice between clear alternatives (that can be evaluated to some extent) must be presented
The choice must have a noticeable and ideally logical effect on the game world.” (McCall, 2016)
With this exercise, McCall is taking the role of gaming in the classroom and elevating it in two ways. First, McCall has the students not only create their own story through gaming, but he also has them create their own historically-based world in which that story is set. This implementation of creativity is very much in line with ISTE 6. It’s also in line with the thinking of one of the all-time great game designers, Reiner Knizia, who said in a recent interview that, “I totally agree that designing games is an art, not a science. Over the years, I have learned that having a fixed method of how to design games reflects a scientific approach, but does not help the creation of outstanding and innovative art: if you always start at the same spot, trample along the same path, you should not be surprised to always end up in the same corner” (Yu, 2011). McCall’s students are creating their own path. Secondly, the meaningful choices component itself is what more and more games are striving for. Full time CIA analyst and part-time game designer Volko Ruhnke was interviewed about his most recent COIN game (COunter-INsurgency) and touched on the impact of meaningful choices in historical games:
“Elegant as the COIN Series is, I ask Ruhnke if his goals are a stretch. What’s going to happen when one of the uninitiated sits down and realizes his options don’t include shuffling resources to trade goods in the Mediterranean, but rather terrorism, assassination and extortion? ‘You’re bound to launch some highly consequential thinking,’ he says. ‘Not only about what should and shouldn’t be fun, and why it is, but about the world you live in.’” (Albert 2014)
Ruhnke calls it “consequential thinking,” but the idea is essentially the same. In fact, Ruhnke’s ideas may go a bit farther as they are not only significant for getting a particular end-result in a game, but in making us question the world we live in. This is historical gaming at its finest. This is what it CAN be, when done right.
the board vs. the (computer) byte
The last part of my question deals with the advantages of computer gaming/simulations versus their cardboard and wood counterparts (unintentional pun). I didn’t really find much on this, but I feel I can speak from some experience as if have done both in the classroom. I have a few initial observations:
A well-developed and well-executed simulation can succeed in either format. A good lesson is a good lesson regardless.
Some students will learn better in one format that the other. Some love the tactile nature of board games while others live for the computer. It’s not better or worse in this regard, it’s just different.
Creating physical games AND computer games both have the same advantages regarding creativity and storytelling. The basic principles apply regardless of if it’s done on computer or by hand.
But computer games DO have some potential advantages:
Time: Depending on your technology setup, computer games are usually much quicker to set-up and take down (see comparison on top). Additionally, number-crunching, dice-rolling, card-drawing, score-keeping, etc. are all handled much faster by a machine than a person.
Space: Computer games will usually have a smaller “footprint.” If you need to keep several boards set up in your room, the space disappears quickly, let alone chances for board-bumping and/or intentional cheating.
Fair is fair: Students may question a rule or a result if a person is implementing it, but if a computer does it, it’s usually taken at face-value.
At the end of the day, space and time are two huge factors that constantly seem to be working against teachers – especially when we’re working on a large project like this. Digital simulations and games give us a hand up in those key areas, as well as a few other benefits, that make them superior in some ways to board games. That being said, the benefits seem to be very similar across the board (pun only slightly intended).
Just as video games have not replaced board games for strictly entertainment purposes, I don’t think digital games will necessarily replace physical games in the history classroom. They do offer some unique benefits, however, and given that many teachers may not incorporate any games or simulations in their classrooms right now anyway, I think there is fertile ground for this endeavor. The potential benefits of time and space may make digital simulations the classroom more attractive to a new generation of teachers already familiar with the basic technology. The benefits are clear. The technology exists, and now it’s up to us to implement it. Jeremiah McCall is leading the way in this regard and I am both encouraged by what he has done and I am optimistic for the future.
Albert, Jason (2014, January 10). “In the world of role-playing war games, Volko Ruhnke has become a hero.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/in-the-world-of-role-playing-war-games-volko-ruhnke-has-become-a-hero/2014/01/10/a56ac8d6-48be-11e3-bf0c-cebf37c6f484_story.html?utm_term=.cc5c6ba6a709
ISTE (2016). “ISTE Standards for Students 2016.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/for-students-2016
McCall, (2016, October 18). “Meaningful Choices(Twine Developer Diary).” Gaming the Past. Retrieved from https://gamingthepast.net/2017/02/12/meaningful-choicestwine-developer-diary/
Robin, B. R. (2008). “Digital storytelling: A powerful technology tool for the 21st century classroom.” Theory into Practice, 47(3), 220–228.
Yu, Dale (2011, Apri 12). “The Art of Desing: Interviews to game designers #6 – Reiner Knizia.” OpinionatedGamers.com. Retrieved from https://opinionatedgamers.com/2011/04/12/the-art-of-design-interviews-to-game-designers-6-%E2%80%93-reiner-knizia/
“Students formulate problem definitions suited for technology-assisted methods such as data analysis, abstract models and algorithmic thinking in exploring and finding solutions.” ISTE Standard 5, indicator 5a (2016)
“This kind of thinking [computational thinking] will part of the skill set of not only other scientists, but of everyone else…computational thinking is tomorrow’s reality.” Jeanette M. Wing, “Computational Thinking” (2006)
“1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” The Three Laws of Robotics. Isaac Asimov, I Robot (1950)
I would like to bookend my thoughts on ISTE standard 5 this week by using one of my all-time favorite science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov. In 1950, when robots were still the stuff of science fictions and computers took up an entire room and had an internal memory of 1000 words, Asimov imagined walking, talking, almost-sentient robots who served mankind. The genius of his story-telling was not in making talking, thinking robots – there have been countless, forgettable sci-fi stories about robots, but in the algorithm he had integrated into all of his fictitious automatons: the Three Laws of Robotics. These were the fail-safe mechanism in the universe he created, and they were also the basis for all of the stories in I, Robot. In a way, I, Robot is a book about computational thinking.
Computational thinking (CT) is useful for solving real-world problems and it trains the mind to think in a very specific way – a practical, logical, and beneficial way. In fact, I think the world would be better off if more of us used CT on a regular basis to solve problems in our lives. And the ISTE is with me on this. Their fifth standard for students is “Computational Thinking” and it advocates for “Students [to] develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods to develop and test solutions” (ISTE). Brilliant. Upon further reading, I came across indicator 5a, which states its intention to help, “Students formulate problem definitions suited for technology-assisted methods such as data analysis, abstract models and algorithmic thinking in exploring and finding solutions.” This intrigued me, especially the first part. What is this saying about the questions we should be encouraging our students to ask? The expanded explanation in the ISTE site states that “formulate problem definitions,” means students should “Create and articulate a precise and thorough description of a problem designed to facilitate its solution, including conditions and constraints that must be taken into account.” The heart of my question for this standard revolves around this process. Are we to encourage our students to frame their questions around a particular way of thinking? One that is “precise” and leads to a “solution”? In some ways, these goals sound contradictory to the “authentic” problems laden with “ambiguity” and “open-endedness” valued in ISTE standard 4. Framing the question is important. How the question is framed – how it’s conceived – can often determine the outcome. If we are going to buy-in to a specific way of thinking and a specific way of framing the questions we ask, we should be aware of exactly what we are doing. My question seeks to reconcile the two approaches mentioned in the standards and to find out more on how to apply CT specifically to my field of history.
A partial answer was located in one of the readings for the week, Barr, Harrison, and Conery’s piece on “Computational Thinking: A Digital Age Skill for Everyone” (2011). In this article, which advocates for teaching CT in K-12, they identify a number of “dispositions or attitudes that are essential dimensions of CT.” Among these are “tolerance for ambiguity” and “the ability to deal with open-ended problems.” How these manifest themselves in the in process of computational thinking is not clear. In fact, they really say nothing about it, other than it’s an attitude. In searching the article further, I came across the name of a woman who is at the center of the CT movement, Dr. Jeannette M. Wing. The Barr article mentions one of her works on CT as “seminal” and so I decided to go straight to the source to find out more.
Dr. Wing’s article argues for the importance and inevitability of CT. She also explains what it is and what it isn’t. She writes, “it is conceptualizing, not computer programming…It is fundamental, not rote skill…It is a way humans, not computers, think…It complements and combines mathematical and engineering thinking…It is ideas, not artifacts,” and, “it is for everyone, everywhere” (Wing, 2006). The third statement struck me as relevant for my point and I examined further. Dr. Wing states that CT is a way humans solve problems, but not trying to get humans to think like computers. She writes, “Computers are dull and boring; humans are clever and imaginative. Equipped with computing devices, we use our cleverness to tackle problems we would not dare take on before the age of computing.” I understand her point that we need to be creative and use computers as tools to further our creative endeavors, but it’s difficult to discern how that fits with CT. Her first point about CT being conceptualizing, not programming is helpful in this regard since she points out that “Thinking like a computer scientist means more than being able to program a computer. It requires thinking at multiple levels of abstraction.” I can only surmise that that’s where the answer lies: in our ability to think abstractly. It would allow for ambiguity and it would allow for open-ended questions and answers. I’m still not sure how it fits with the formulaic part of CT or what it means for devising questions along the lines of CT. In fact, on this latter issue, Dr. Wing wants us so invested in CT so heavily that we don’t even realize we do it. She writes with regard to her last point that, “Computational thinking will be a reality when it is so integral to human endeavors it disappears as an explicit philosophy.” So essentially we should do it and not even think about it. That seems like an awfully big ask.
With regard to CT and history, the answer is even less clear. The Barr article gives an example that uses it to some degree, but it’s much more of a compare and contrast exercise (which uses some degree of CT) than it is a specific example of the use of CT. Dr. Wing has another article from 2010 where she mentions “computational social science” but does not elaborate on what that course looks like (Wing, 2010). She also references an as-yet unpublished manuscript she’s writing called, “Demystifying Computational Thinking for Non-Computer Scientists” and issues a call to other computer scientists, “Our immediate task ahead is to better explain to non-computer scientists what we mean by computational thinking and the benefits of being able to think computationally.” Yes, this is what I need. I think there is work to be done here. While I think I understand the process, in some ways it’s still fairly mystical to me – in its approach to asking questions, in its totality, and in its application to the social sciences.
Humans are difficult, by nature, to think about computationally. When studying history, we study behaviors and actions and stories over hundreds or thousands of years. Humans do not function like computers. We do not always act logically. Love, hate, fear, confidence, selfishness, and altruism (just to name a few) are all contradictory parts of our nature and have played various roles in the history of human-kind. How can CT account for that? One of my favorite topics to teach my students is “prisoner’s dilemma.” It essentially where a person acting selfishly gets the least-beneficial outcome for themselves AND the person they are competing against (see video below). Why would a person choose a sub-optimal outcome for both themselves AND another person when a more optimal outcome is available to them? Oddly, it IS logical. And yet, if we are only concerned with the best outcome – solving the problem with the intent to get the optimal result, we would be choosing the “wrong” path. History is full of sub-optimal outcomes that defy rationality. People act for their own reasons at a given time, but they don’t know the results in advance. As historians, we look back with 20-20 vision. We know what’s coming (for the group being studied) and we try to understand why things happened as they did. It’s the ultimate exercise in open-ended questions. I don’t know, as of yet, how CT helps with that. I don’t know how it helps my students with that. I guess I’ll wait for the demystification article.
I started this post by saying I’d bookend it with Isaac Asimov and so I shall. I said that I, Robot is, in a way, about computational thinking, and it is. But in some ways, it’s a book about the problems with such an approach. Each chapter involves some sort of conflict with or alteration of the Three Laws of Robotics. The robots in these stories are bound (“hard wired,” if you will) to that basic algorithm and Asimov has a great deal of fun pointing out the potential problems when something must operate strictly using a set pattern of behavior. It is the humans who must come up with the creative solutions to the problems created by their own inventions. I still remember reading as child the second chapter of the book about the Speedy the robot. Speedy was casually ordered to get some selenium from a pool on Mercury but failed to return. When they found Speedy, he was running in circles and acting as if drunk. The problem was that Speedy was an expensive, experimental robot, so the 3d Law about self-preservation was strengthened. He couldn’t complete his task because of some dangerous gas near the pool which would probably destroy him (3rd law strengthened), but he also could not ignore the order he was given (2nd law, weekly ordered). The ensuing conflict had him stuck in a loop which was only broken when one of the scientists on Mercury deliberately put himself in harm’s way and Speedy’s application of the First Law kicked in and he saved the human. I think CT too may have it’s limits. Of course, admittedly, I don’t entirely grasp all aspects of it, but I will keep asking questions – even when it’s supposed to be so internalized we don’t even think about it. I’m sure there’s a creative solution.
Incidentally, the year after Asimov published I, Robot, he published another book called, Foundation. It was the story of a mathematician who used advanced mathematics (CT?) and history to formulate a completely accurate predictive model of the future. Combining math and history gave him the key to knowing the future. It was called “psychohistory.” Maybe that’s next.
Asimov, Isaac (1950). I, Robot. London: Folio Society
Barr, D., Harrison, J., & Conery, L. (2011). “Computational thinking: A digital age skill for everyone.” Learning & Leading with Technology, 38(6), 20-23.
ISTE (2016). “ISTE Standards for Students 2016.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/for-students-2016
Wing, Jeannette M. (2006). “Computational Thinking.” Viewpoint, Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science. Retrieved from https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~15110-s13/Wing06-ct.pdf
Wing, Jeannette M. (2010). “Computational Thinking: What and Why?” Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science. Retrieved from http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~CompThink/resources/TheLinkWing.pdf
Teaching is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, we have to help our students understand content, but on the other, we have to help our students become better thinkers. Sometimes, these goals seem contradictory. The quote above was a frustrated response I got from a student in my AP US History class a few years ago. We were going over a multiple choice quiz and she had a question on a particular answer. As we started to go over the question, I asked the students to think about what the question was really asking – to imagine it in their own words. I then started going through the possible answers and asked the students why each particular answer could or could not be correct. This thoughtful and deliberative process was more than this particular student could bear. She just wanted to know the right answer. It actually doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request, does it? Yet her frustration gives voice to the tension we teachers deal with as we try to get through content but also try to teach students to think about critical questions and to ask, “why?”
As teachers we are of two minds and we walk in two worlds: that which we know and that which we don’t. Our students walk in the same two worlds and, like it is for some teachers, it can be frustrating, confusing, and/or embarrassing to not know something. I remember one time when our school was going to implement a new student-led program that was, in my opinion, particularly vague and imprecise. I mentioned some of my concerns about the seeming lack of direction to a colleague and friend of mine and she just smiled and said, “well, I guess we’ll just have to learn to live in the mystery for a while.” While I may not have known exactly what she meant by that at the time, the one thing I was certain of was that I would not enjoy “living in the mystery.” And I probably didn’t, but I’ve gotten better at it since then. We have to teach this willingness to exist in a state of not-knowing, of ambiguity, to our students and teach them to be OK with it. We are all searching for answers, working towards solutions, but, as in life, the answers will not be immediately apparent.
We want to know, but we have to be OK with not knowing. Jamie Holmes addresses this tension in his book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. Linda Flanagan quotes Holmes as saying, “Our minds crave closure, but when we latch onto it prematurely we miss beautiful and important moments along the way” (Flanagan). We have to be careful not to miss these opportunities – even if our students may not see or appreciate them at the time, or if they cause us some embarrassment by forcing us to confess we may not know something ourselves. We also have to be Ok with the idea that not all questions have answers – or at least answers we can anticipate. Open-ended questions are often the beginning of some of the most productive learning exercises, even if we don’t know the answer going in. This is all part of ISTE student standard #4, indicator 4d, which looks for “Students [to] exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.” (ISTE). It’s important. Technology is changing our conception of education at an unprecedented pace. The mere retention of information is becoming less and less relevant as the ability to think and apply information is taking precedence. One ISTE article agues that, “Students can no longer be content with finding the right answer because the questions are constantly changing…Students need to observe how they learn because the Innovation Age demands lifelong learning and finding solutions to unmet needs. They need to be able to research new or related topics that emerge during the fluid innovation process” (ISTE Connects). We must prepare students to succeed in this environment.
My questions for this topic revolved around how to best go about teaching our students to deal with ambiguity and open-ended questions. So much in our field as educators seems to revolve around “getting the right answer,” it feels like we spend precious little time dealing with how to think and what to ask; and even when we do, it is often met by resistance – sometimes from our academically strongest students. Linda Flanagan’s article on KQED’s thinking and learning webpage, “Mind/Shift” provides some help. https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/10/21/how-to-spark-curiosity-in-children-by-embracing-uncertainty/ Flanagan discusses the aforementioned book by Holmes and highlights the benefits of ambiguity in education. She also explains how to create a positive climate that accounts for uncertainty. Flanagan provides several suggestions for the classroom. From addressing the emotional impact of uncertainty, to assigning projects that provoke uncertainty (ie. open-ended questions), to adopting a non-authoritarian teaching style, to emphasizing current topics of debate in a particular field, to inviting guest speakers, to demonstrating the often-times non-linear and sometimes messy process of discovery, Flanagan’s suggestions are practical and useful. She even ends her article with an example of how nurturing an inquisitive mind comfortable with uncertainty at an early age can yield positive results down the road. In all, this is a helpful application of ISTE standard #4. It is good for those of us who think we have to have all the answers as well as our students who crave them. This piece is a testament to the power of not knowing. Hopefully we can all get a little more comfortable “living in the mystery” as we make our way through the Innovation Age.
Flanagan, Linda (2015). “How to Spark Curiosity in Children Through Embracing Uncertainty.” KQED’s Mind/Shift. Retrieved from https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/10/21/how-to-spark-curiosity-in-children-by-embracing-uncertainty/
Holmes, Jamie (2015). Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. New York, New York: Crown Publishing
ISTE (2016). “ISTE Standards for Students 2016.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/for-students-2016
ISTE Connects (2016). “Here’s How You Teach Innovative Thinking.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=651
For this module’s question we were assigned to look at ISTE Student Standard #3, “Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.” It was in this context that I was drawn to this idea of “curation” and how it applies to student learning and technology. As I delved further into the standard, I came across ISTE indicator 3c, which states, “Students curate information from digital resources using a variety of tools and methods to create collections of artifacts that demonstrate meaningful connections or conclusions.” There it was again: “curate.” Within the standard, the ISTE defines “curate” as, “to gather, collect, and categorize resources into themes in ways that are coherent shareable.” It was in this context that I chose to pursue my line of inquiry along the lines of how we, as teachers, can best help our students learn to curate in the digital world- especially as it relates to demonstrating “meaningful connections or conclusions.”
I see this skill as essential to my secondary social studies students as the primary difficulty they have in doing digital research is not a dearth of information, but rather, far too much of it – and much of it without any context or immediate way to determine it’s validity. Students are overwhelmed with information and need to learn the skills to manage this deluge of data. Curation is a critical skill for today’s student. Indeed, searching the internet for information is much like drinking from the proverbial fire hydrant. How can we help our students get better at this? How can WE get better at this?
I thought back to last quarter and Howard Rheingold’s chapter on “Crap Detection” in Net Smart. In it, he outlines not only methods for detecting the aforementioned “crap,” but he also outlines a way to navigate the maelstrom of information on the internet. He calls this system, “Infotension,” and it, “combines a mind-set with a tool set” (Rheingold p. 96). From his perspective we must combine brainpowered attention skills (the focus of another section in his book) and computer-centered tools like RSS feeds, dashboards, news radars, and positioning tabs to manage and sift through all of the information on internet. Rheingold contends that it is our responsibility to manage the information on the internet and determine for ourselves which is the most accurate and most useful. He even goes so far as to cite Shirky’s argument when he writes, “there is no such thing as information overload, there is only filter failure.” (Rheingold p. 105). Given this contention, teaching our students the process of curation becomes all the more important.
So I got out my wrench, cranked off the cap, opened wide, and began to drink from the onslaught of information on the web about “curation.” Not surprisingly, there were many links related to “content curation,” (it seems to be a rather large issue for everyone with a web presence), but not necessarily that many related specifically to education. I came across a promissing blog post by George Fox professor John Spencer http://www.spencerauthor.com/2015/09/what-is-content-curation-why-does-it.html/. In his post on curation, he deals with the archaic origins of the word “curator” (linked to being a “spirit guide” or “one responsible for the care of souls”) and sees it as a natural connection to what we as teachers do. He also gives a thumbnail sketch of what curation looks like by describing 5 parts of the curation process: searching content, consuming content, managing content, adding commentary, and displaying the content. These are all very helpful for understanding the origin and process of curation, but it still left me searching for specific tools to help my students.
After some searching, I ended up at a blog post by Saga Briggs, another resident of the Pacific Northwest who I found via an entry from an Australian Open Colleges resource website, “InformED”:
I figured I was in the right place when I saw the fire hydrant image that I borrowed for the top of this page. But more importantly, Briggs lays out a fabulous resource for content curation instruction. She begins with the philosophical. As she begins, Briggs discusses the role of curation in PLN’s. I was also pleased to see a reference as to how curation fit in Blooms taxonomy of educational objectives as well as how it also fit within Guilford’s analysis of the primary parameters of creative thinking. I think we often underestimate the creative aspect of curation given that curation is often not a totally original exercise, but in today’s mash-up culture this concept may be gaining more currency. Creation is also one of the four components of curation (along with purpose, sharing, and contribution) that Briggs highlights in her section on defining the word. From definition, Briggs launches into a lengthy list of specific techniques and habits we can instill in our students to make them effective curators themselves. This list is immensely practical and thoughtfully constructed. I see it as a valuable first step in the process of curation education. Briggs ends with another lengthy list, this one dedicated to specific resources that provide the necessary tools for content curation and sharing. Some are free, some are nominally free, some are education-centered, others are not, but all are worth a look. I’ve stared going through the list and I’m compiling a list of specific tools I think will work well with my students.
This blog squarely addresses ISTE 3 – specifically indicator 3c, which was the basis of my question. This resource is all about curation – the philosophy, the definition, the techniques to teach, and a healthy list of resources to accomplish the task. It elaborates on the standards and gives tips and tools for actually doing it. I think the “meaningful connections and conclusions” part come with the process. It’s not an end goal in-and-of-itself. Students make the connections and conclusions as they curate. What ends up in their dashboards or in their feeds has already been filtered by them. It’s our job now to teach them how to do that so they may be thoughtful, intentional curators of their own digital domain; so they can take a more reasonable drink from the fire hydrant that is the web.
Briggs, Saga (2016, July 27) Teaching Content Curation and 20 Resources to Help You Do It. Retrieved from: http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/content-curation-20-resources/
ISTE (2016). ISTE Standards for Students 2016. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/for-students-2016
Rheingold, Howard (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
Spencer, John (2015, September 2). What is Content Curation? Why does it Matter to Teachers? Retrieved from: http://www.spencerauthor.com/2015/09/what-is-content-curation-why-does-it.html/
“Students leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences.” – ISTE Student Standard #1
Given the topic this week and the triggering event question being asked – dealing with how students can leverage technology to take an active role in learning, I asked a follow-up question dealing specifically with indicator 1d. The indicator states: “Students understand the fundamental concepts of technology operations, demonstrate the ability to choose, use and troubleshoot current technologies and are able to transfer their knowledge to explore emerging technologies.” (http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/for-students-2016). My question, which builds on this, was if there were any best practices in the technology field to help students either troubleshoot existing technologies or transfer their knowledge of fundamental concepts regarding technology to emerging technologies?
This topic relates generally to my field as a history and government teacher, but more specifically, as an aspiring digital education leader, I am very much interested in existing pedagogies vis-à-vis technology education. There can be little doubt that this approach to student-driven technology education is path education is on. But even in the more directly applicable sense, every teacher has several student in each class who are the “tech guys” (or girls). We know who they are and we often utilize their help in getting other students up to speed, helping subs in our absence, or maybe even showing us around the latest software app. So I find this standard regarding the formalization of these phenomena to be incredibly pertinent.
With regard to the indicator itself, the ISTE defined the relevant terms within the text. The key terms are defined as follows:
Fundamental concepts – “basic knowledge of how to use devices and software applications”
Troubleshoot – “Able to solve technical problems, for example, restart a device, install software updates, transfer work from one device to another and troubleshoot when audio/video won’t play”
Transfer – “Apply prior knowledge and technical experiences to figure out how new technologies or applications work”
Emerging technologies – “New digital tools and technologies that have the ability to enhance the learning process”
The issue of “emerging technologies” was also addressed in one of our readings for this week from The Peabody Journal of Education. James A. Mecklenburger’s 1986 article on emerging technologies provides a valuable insight into the issue of technology and education despite being written over 30 years ago! The issues about how to integrate emerging technologies have changed little despite the fact that we are no longer talking about VHS tapes or Amiga 2000 computers. Mecklenburger points out that the “necessity” of sitting in a classroom learning directly from a teacher is increasingly an “option” and that the old model now has to compete for “customers” in a rapidly evolving marketplace (p. 184). Instead, Mecklenburger envisions a “classroom of the mind shared by students and teachers located far from each other but linked electronically.” (p. 185) What must have seemed like science-fiction in 1986 is now reality and it brings me back to my question regarding the best way to help students function in this new reality to “choose, use, troubleshoot” and “transfer” what they have learned.
In looking for answers to my question, I came across a blog by the Madison Consolidated Schools digital leadership class. http://blogs.techsmith.com/for-educators/adapting-to-technology-in-the-21st-century/ This impressive cohort exemplified the ISTE indicator regarding student empowerment and has excelled specifically at my chosen issue regarding students and emerging technology. Operating in a k-12, one-to-one school setting, this twice-weekly elective class recorded numerous accomplishments in its brief 4-year history. They received a state Creating and eLearning grant, created a digital curriculum for elementary students, implemented a learning management system, made videos about digital citizenship (like this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KmKFzR_eIM), hosted a student-led conference on digital identity, and received an SETDA Student Voices Award.
So how did this small group of 13 students do it? They obviously met the standard and fulfilled the indicator beautifully. Looking at their blog, several key elements for their success stand out:
Commitment to Technological Infrastructure. All students k-12 had devices. This demonstrates a commitment on the part of the school to get technology in the hands of its students. It is interesting to note that the creation of the curriculum came AFTER the hardware component, but suspect this is not an unusual dilemma. In any case, the students had the resources to make technology an integral part of their learning experience.
Commitment to Experimentation. In addition to the hardware needs of the students, Madison Consolidated Schools was committed to being flexible in their pursuit of their educational goals. They offered an extra-curricular class in technology, they allocated two faculty to teach a class of 13 students, they allowed students to generate curriculum, they set aside “eLearning days” (still not sure exactly what these are or how often they occurred), and in essence, they allowed students to change the system of their school. That’s no small concession.
Commitment of Personnel. The course was team-taught by 2 teachers: Melanie Torline and Jennifer Watson. They taught this class outside of normal school hours and they deserve much of the credit here for facilitating learning. Based on the evidence presented in the blog (all of which was created by the students themselves), these two women empowered their students – the very issue at the heart of this standard. They encouraged them to create content, to experiment, to make a difference, to (in the words of the indicator) choose, use, troubleshoot, and transfer – their knowledge to facilitate the learning of others.
Commitment of Students. Of course none of this would be possible without the students. It was their hard work. In addition to the fact that this was essentially an extra-curricular class that met outside of normal school hours, it is notable that they were “expected to complete most assignments on our own time and virtually.” They were using technology to teach technology. They were also pioneers. And just like their teachers and the school board who gave them the chance, they were paving their own way. They were empowered and they used that opportunity to achieve great things. They made a difference at their school; they made it a better place and helped others learn. In short, they show us what is possible in ISTE standard 1.
So as I look back at my question regarding how, specifically, to enable students to achieve the standard set out in ISTE standard #1, I think the example from the Madison Consolidated Schools Digital Education program is instructive. And for me, the big lesson is commitment; commitment to the technology and the principle of empowerment. The school, the teachers, and the students all had to buy-in to it. I am a big believer in this. In fact, there are many facets from my academic classes that utilize the same principle: get people to buy-in. When I think of this idea – of the school, teachers, and students all taking a chance on this program and going all in, I’m reminded of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now (not a promising start to an analogy, I’ll admit). In it, there’s a famous scene where as patrol boat is goes up the river and things get more and more surreal, Willard reminds himself, “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely…right. Unless you’re going all the way.” Maybe that’s the problem for many of us. We don’t want to get out of the boat. We know the boat. It’s where we feel we belong. It’s safe in the boat. But for many, our boat is strange waters. The landscape is changing and is hardly recognizable. Staying in the boat and trying to make changes is a half-measure. We can try to go half-way, to accommodate, but the reality is, we have to get out of the boat. Embracing the technology and empowering the students to use it – that’s the first step to getting out of the boat.
ISTE (2016). ISTE Standards for Students 2016. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/for-students-2016
Mecklenburger, James, A. (1986). “Emerging” Technologies for Education. Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 64, No. 1, pp. 183-187
Watson, Jordyn. (2015, January 29). Adapting to Technology in the 21st Century. Retrieved from http://blogs.techsmith.com/for-educators/adapting-to-technology-in-the-21st-century/