Smartphones, Inquiry, and Falconry: The Role of Technology in Supporting Science Education

(Note: This post is an approximation of the welcome speech I gave as part of the Supporting Science Inquiry With Technology Conference, a partnership between Learning Forward VA, VASCD, VAST, VSTE, and VSUP offered in Albemarle County, Virginia on July 24, 2014. Check out the accompanying presentation created with Haiku Deck.)

In considering how to get the ball rolling during a conference focused on supporting science inquiry using technology, this question came to mind: What is technology’s role in science education?

Technology in science education

I recently heard a stand-up bit by a comedian named Pete Holmes about having Google in your pocket that encapsulates exactly where I think we as educators often misstep. While I recognize that I’m painting with a broad brush, I would contend that we have a propensity to use technology as a highway to the internet, which we then use as a place to get answers:

To borrow from Holmes’ bit, use of technology in this way means “there’s no time for wonder or mystery…the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” I don’t know about you, but a sense of curiosity and wonder is pretty high on my list of humanity’s most valuable traits, so I’m not too keen on letting it get trampled on if I don’t have to.

So I guess it stands to reason that my personal stance is to eschew technology’s role as “the sole provider of immediate answers.” If that’s not technology’s role in science education, than what is? I think that in order to answer this question fully, we have to start from the other end of the conversation. Instead of starting with the tools, let’s start with the purpose: what do we believe about science education and what it should look like?

Inquiry in science education

I’m a big proponent of inquiry as a central tenet of an ideal science education, so I refer back to one of my favorite definitions of inquiry (which happens to have been written by Dr. Randy Bell, my advisor while at UVA’s Curry School of Education):

“At its heart, inquiry is an active learning process in which students answer research questions through data analysis.”

There’s something about this definition that is so simple and yet so powerful that I refer back to it often when centering myself on what to look for in science education. Our students need to be active learners. Our students need to ask research questions. Our students need to analyze data to answer those questions. So simple, and yet so many implications.

There’s a story about Dr. Bell that years later I recognize as having a huge impact on me as an educator, and also seems to apply to this conversation about the role of technology in science education.

You see, Dr. Bell had a pet hawk, and I always thought that was pretty strange.

While Dr. Bell had comprehensive experience in working in all of the sciences, he tended to have a “critter-focused” lens, pointing out a variety of facets of life science around us. This was especially true with hawks. On each of the trips that our cohort group would take across central Virginia, he would point out every one of the animals that was flying the skies: “Look- a red-tailed hawk!” he would exclaim as we chuckled and shrugged. As a physics education major, “critters” were not exactly one of my passions, so it was only years later that I began to appreciate what I learned as a result of his interest.

I found out later that Dr. Bell was a card-carrying falconer, which meant (or so I thought) that he kept hawks that he captured as “pets” at his house. This I thought was a little far afield, taking the whole “science guy” identity to an unnecessary new level. Basically, I just thought a hawk was one strange pet to keep.

Upwards of a decade later, I got the chance to have a longer conversation with Dr. Bell about the concept of being a falconer. For him, being a falconer wasn’t about keeping the animal as a pet, nor was it about having a cool “science guy” hobby.

Being a falconer is about serving the needs of these hawks to help them survive.

Falconry as a metaphor for education

Falconers, he explained, capture younger birds of prey in the late summer / early fall who have not yet learned how to hunt. During the colder winter months, the falconer keeps the bird safe from the elements, while also helping it develop its hunting skills. When falconers take these birds out into the wild, they’re not necessarily doing it “just for kicks”, or because it’s a cool thing to do. They bring the birds out in order to rustle up prey that the bird can eat.

During trips into the wild, the falconer’s job is to find places where “food” for these birds might be living- in piles of leaves, brush, or anywhere else where small animals might lay in hiding. The falconer “flushes out the game” by moving some of the brush that hides the prey. Once the prey emerges from its hiding spot, the falcon spots it, catches it, and eats it.

Over the course of the fall and winter, the falconer and falcon repeat these trips together, helping the bird develop its strength as well as its hunting skills. As the bird builds its capacity for self-sufficiency, it then learns to live independent of the falconer, and eventually flies back out into the wild. Ultimately, without the falconer’s assistance, the hawk would not have survived the winter.

Once I finally understood the role of the falconer, Dr. Bell’s interest in the animal finally made sense. It wasn’t being a “science guy” that made him into a falconer- it was being an educator. This image of the falconer flushing out game for the hawk learning to fly reminds me of the role of the teacher in science education, with one key exception. It’s not game we as science educators are flushing out: it’s understanding.

Our job is to try to identify what it is that obscures understanding for our learners. With our questions, we poke and prod at the barriers and obstacles until one of those questions is able to force understanding out from its hiding place. Consequently, the learner eyes the understanding, catches it, and swallows it whole. Over the course of our relationship together, the student starts to learn how to uncover that understanding for themselves. In their metaphorical spring, they fly away, now skilled enough and strong enough to hunt for understanding on their own.

This approach to teaching and learning surrounds me. It’s central to the tutorial process within the AVID system for learning, within which I have found myself as a tutor trainer. It’s central to the process of instructional coaching, within which I have found myself as a model designer. And as it relates to this context, it’s central to inquiry-based learning in science instruction, within which I have found myself as a division leader. When I think about the metaphor through that lens, it looks to me as if Dr. Bell has been a falconer in many more ways than in the literal sense.

Technology in science education…redux

So how does this story help to answer the original question: What is technology’s role in science education?

If science education is, at its heart, an active learning process where students answer research questions through data analysis, then technology needs to serve as a tool to help in all aspects of that process- not just in the providence of answers, but also in development of wonder. Technology needs to help our students to ask better questions. Technology needs to help our students plan and conduct investigations. Technology needs to help our students evaluate and communicate information. And of course, technology needs to help our students construct explanations.

To borrow the falconry metaphor, these tools need to help our students become better hunters, and not do all of the hunting for them. Otherwise, they will not be equipped to survive those metaphorical winter months on their own.

Crossing the Chasm of Change

Organizational change from both sides of the chasmIt’s been in various stages of development from anywhere between the past several months and several years, and I think it’s finally in a place to publish officially here on the blog.

The image above employs a variation of Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (referenced previously in Indiana Jones and the Early Adopter’s Dilemma), exploring how five different types of people within a group approach change (signified here and in many other org change models as “Crossing The Chasm”).

Note: I have purposely changed the names of these “adopter categories” from those I’ve seen in references to Rogers’ work, who uses the terms Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards.  For a variety of reasons, I prefer the titles of The Daredevils, The Early Adopters, The Pragmatists, The Skeptics, and The Cynics. More on that later.

There will be plenty of time for expounding on various components of this post over the days and weeks to come. For now:

  • What do you like about this model? What would you change?
  • How do your own experiences match up to this model?
  • How do you envision using this way of thinking in considering change within your own organization?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

#leadershipday14: A Leader’s Guide to Dan Pink’s Drive

A Leader's Guide to Dan Pink's DriveEach year, edtech leader and blogger Scott McLeod celebrates the “birthday” of his blog with a call to educational leaders to join as a PLN and share their ideas around leadership. Today (Friday, August 15, 2014) is the eighth-such celebration, known on twitter as #leadershipday14. (Learn more about on his blog at Dangerously Irrelevant.)

Here’s my addition to the fray: an image that I’ve wanted to draw for upwards of a year about how educational leaders can promote teachers’ internal motivations based on the principles of Dan Pink’s Drive.

I may write more about this later, but for now I’ll let the picture speak for itself. Thanks to Scott for inspiring us all to share our learning!

Indiana Jones and the Early Adopter’s Dilemma

Change dilemmaRisk-taking, envelope-pushing innovators get a lot of the publicity these days when it comes to the front lines of 21st-century education, and for great reason.

Innovators deal in What’s New, and What’s New pops.

What’s New flashes. What’s New gleams. What’s New splashes onto the scene. What’s New is the future. The future that once seemed so far away, and now is so close you can literally reach out and touch it. And What’s New- especially right now in K-12 education- is out-of-this-world fascinating in the opportunities it provides for student learning experiences.

In the face of this continuously evolving landscape, the innovator’s dilemma (not to be confused with Clay Christensen’s work of the same name) is clear: keep moving to What’s New, or start building on What’s Now. And since innovation by definition has to keep on moving (like a shark that needs to keep swimming in order to breathe), those drawn to innovating will tend to keep moving, too.

Upon the introduction of a disruptive innovation, Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma (summarized in this sketchnote video) reveals that those who once led the field have a decision to make as well: Adapt or die. Shift practices or fizzle out. Since those who have experienced success seek to keep being successful, they may not recognize the paradox that a change in implementation practices may be required in order to achieve the same outcomes. The tension between changing practice and maintaining success leads to paralysis, and past achievement leads to present stasis.

How do leaders help to inspire this change in practice?

From an organizational perspective, I have recently grown interested less in the concept of competing organizations as described in Christensen’s work, and more in Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (one of the referenced works in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point), which deals in how communities grow and learn based on the ways that its individuals approach change. And while the Innovator’s Dilemma is certainly interesting within that context, I’m more drawn to the dilemma of the Early Adopter.

Who is this Early Adopter? The Early Adopter is often seen as a leader, though is not always first to change. They are described in a variety of sources as having a high degree of “opinion leadership” in the community, which I suppose is due to their boundary-spanning role as both “first follower” of the Innovator and “trusted translator” to the majority. This video clip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade serves as the context for what I see as the pivotal stakeholder group in the process of organizational change.

http://vimeo.com/35901438

Below is a shot-by-shot walk-through of this clip to tell the story of the Early Adopter:

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.19.44 PM

On his quest to find the Holy Grail (literally), the Early Adopter comes to a chasm in the path.

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.18.54 PMPuzzled, he pauses to review his options, his resources, and his motivations for moving forward.
Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.19.20 PMArmed with a map of the Innovator’s past, he knows the chasm can been crossed successfully before. Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.20.58 PMWhat motivates his quest? Not only sating his sense of adventure, but also saving someone close to him.
Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.22.10 PMThe Early Adopter recognizes that his first step is a leap of faith, trusting in the Innovator’s success. Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.23.03 PMDrawing his breath, he extends his foot over the chasm to take that first step…
Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.23.39 PM…and realizes there was a path all along, one he could not see from his previous perspective. Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.25.11 PMWalking with trepidation at first, he soon speeds up as new perspective makes the connection more clear.
Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.25.44 PMEventually, the Early Adopter becomes the newest adventurer to cross the path. At this point, he faces the Dilemma’s second stage: Continue to sprint ahead in the Innovator’s footsteps? Or find a way to help clarify the path for future travelers? http___makeagif.com__media_1-23-2014_janSc5(Not pictured in the video): In the face of both personal success and situational distress, the Early Adopter takes a moment to mark the path for whoever comes next. This decision distinguishes him from those who first ran ahead.

So then, what is the Early Adopter’s Dilemma? The Early Adopter’s two-stage dilemma starts with one key decision: in the face of the What’s New, do I choose stasis or change? Do I take a leap of faith, trusting in what I’ve seen of the Innovators’ successes and challenges? Or do I stick with what has worked for me up to (and perhaps including) now? More often than not, these individuals will see the benefits of successful changes as outweighing the costs, and will move forward with the innovator’s quickly scribbled map as their guide.

The second stage of the Early Adopter’s dilemma emerges once they experience What’s New. This second stage is wrapped around the exact same decision of stasis or change, though in a more others-focused context: Do I keep sprinting ahead? Or do I stop just long enough to make it easier for those who follow to know what to look for (and what to avoid)? Thankfully, the Early Adopters have a desire to stop and throw that handful of sand on the previously invisible path. Otherwise, the rest of us would be lost.

But what does this mean for change leaders? Some teammates and I have been processing this concept together, and in our conversations have identified a variety of ways we engage those we see as Early Adopters. If you’re somehow charged with leading organizational change, here’s an idea of some ways to use this framework for leadership in a practical way:

  • Find your Innovators and watch they do. They will most certainly show you What’s New. Let them do their thing and take the risks that identify the What’s New that is of interest to you in your situation.
  • Find your Early Adopters and listen. Share a proposed change, and ask them to talk through the costs and benefits they see. They will likely see the benefits of successful changes as outweighing the costs, and will articulate those benefits in a way that will help to clarify the Why of the change to What’s New.
  • Share the Why that you heard from the Early Adopters. The perspective shared by this trusted group will help identify exactly what would make What’s New intriguing and accessible to the majority.

Change leaders, follow your Early Adopters. Their perspective will help guide your team across the chasm of the unknown, but only if you take a moment of pause to find them and listen.

Discordant Metronomes & Connected Educators

Learning in order to lead learning again, this time by exploring a really freaky phenomenon.

I recently ran across a fascinating video (aptly tagged in the category This Is Awesome) of 32 discordant metronomes achieving synchrony in just under 4 minutes. Check it out:

Is that not incredible? My favorite part is the one hold-out on the bottom right, most visible around the 2:07 mark. Eventually, even that single outlier comes into phase with the rest of the group.

The key to this transformation (as highlighted in the referenced article) is the surface on which the metronomes rest. The board as a foundation appears quite rigid and static- though if that were the case, the metronomes would remain out of phase with each other. A closer look reveals that the board in this example is flexible, free to move with the rhythm of the system. As each metronome swings from side to side, the board acts as an “energetic intermediary” that facilitates transfer across the system. It is only because of the flexible surface of connection that this alignment of individuals can occur.

What Is It That Brings Us Together?

Most of the posts containing this video have explored the science behind it. While EXTREMELY tempting, that’s already been done, so I’ll refrain. (For those curious, check out this video by physicist Adam Micolich, this post from CBS News, and this article by professor Jim Panteleone of the University of Alaska-Anchorage.)

I was drawn instead to the role of interconnectedness in bringing about organizational change. Watching this video makes me wonder, what are the various ways that groups of individuals are connected such that they can reinforce each others’ patterns of behavior? For school leaders: if these metronomes represent our teachers, what are the “energetic intermediaries” that help them move together as one?

So far, I’ve come up with three that stand out to me:

Mission: Educators are first and foremost passionate about helping kids learn. All nuance aside, developing quality learning experiences for all students is the common bond that connects us all within the profession. When we as individuals allow ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our practices through the mirror of this core belief, those practices that do not align with this mission become more apparent (and are more likely to change). Those acting in isolation of this mission could swing on indefinitely without a reconnection to this common purpose.

Social Networks: Educators are also human, which means that we are social creatures. As we connect with others through a variety of social networks, we are more likely to align to those around us. These networks (whether built through online social media tools like twitter and Pinterest or via in-person connections across a hallway or building) allow individuals to engage in the cyclic process of sharing their own practices and learning from others. By staying connected, we become more aligned, and behave more like one system.

Leadership: This phenomenon encapsulates how I view the role of school leader as being first and foremost a connector. The school leader connects the individuals within a team, school, or district in support of their efforts, much like the floor in this video example both supports and connects these individual pendulums. Some takeaways for me:

  • The system began as a discordant group of individuals, as disconnected parts of a system often do.
  • A rigid, unresponsive figurehead allows individuals to continue in chaotic discordance, much like the static table would have done for the pendulums. This inflexibility limits the power of the leader’s connection.
  • In contrast, a leader who listens to the individuals within the system, reflects shared elements of those individuals’ practices and behaviors, and moves in reinforcing harmony in accordance with those practices can be the true connector that to help otherwise isolated individuals to learn from each other.
  • This kind of responsive connection slowly but surely brings about system-wide alignment, so long as we have the patience, flexibility, and perseverance to allow it to emerge.

This video ultimately reminds me of NBA coach Phil Jackson and his view of leadership (from his fantastic book, Sacred Hoops):

The wise leader is of service: receptive, yielding, following. The group member’s vibration dominates and leads, while the leader follows. But soon it is the member’s consciousness which is transformed. It is the job of the leader to be aware of the group member’s process; it is the need of the group member to be received and paid attention to. Both get what they need, if the leader has the wisdom to serve and follow.

School leaders: Where do you see yourself in this example? Where do you see your school or district? In what ways do you transfer energy from individual to individual throughout the system, and in what ways do you prevent that transfer? What does it looks like when your group members’ vibrations dominate and lead while you follow, and how might that process lead to successful alignment?

Please share your successes and challenges in the comments. We just happen to be on the verge of Connected Educators Month, a time that the US Department of Education has identified for us to celebrate “online communities of practice and networks in education.” Your story might just be that one nudge of reinforcing energy that will help those of us connected together through the “energetic intermediary” of the blogosphere to grow together as more successful leaders in the future.

Navigating the Neural Superhighway

I recently had a guest post published on Edutopia’s Brain-Based Learning blog, inspired by some reflection on practices that were impacting my own learning at the time of writing. A short excerpt:

As students learn something new, electric or chemical signals move from neuron to neuron, traversing a route between locations in the brain. Like a tourist turning on unfamiliar city streets, these signals cross synapses to form a path that eventually connects the source to its destination. While identifying a route is slow going at first, students’ brains eventually make these connections, and learning begins.

Even after establishing a route, a student’s development of an optimal pathway takes time. Aside from leading them along the same path over and over again, how can we speed up our students’ navigation of neural pathways? What follows is a proposal for three actions that I believe can have a huge effect on accelerating student learning.

What I learned most from researching while writing: what the brain is actually does while we’re sleeping. It’s fascinating.

What’s funny is, the opposite is true.

My story: I tend to write late at night, often during bouts of sleeplessness. I found that when I had something particular I was trying to understand, I would read / write / draw / think about it deeply (usually at some ungodly hour). Once things started to get ‘jumbled,’ I would go to sleep, setting an alarm to awaken me within 30-90 minutes. I noticed that when I awoke, everything was clear. Everything made sense. So I would write. And write. And write. Until I got stuck again. Once arriving to that “stuck” place, I would take another nap. And the cycle continued, until either I was finished writing or the sun came up, whichever came first. After doing a little research, I now understand is that while sleeping, my brain was clearing out / breaking down the less-used pathways, while the stronger network connecting my most recent thoughts remained strong.

This and so much more, all from trying to learn about my own learning. Hope you enjoy the rest of the post!

Row, Row, Row Your Boats

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This week, teachers and staff in my school division took a breath from the daily grind for Making Connections, the annual home-grown professional development conference where we come together to learn with and from each other. As this news story highlights, a quarter of our district’s teachers put together over 200 unique learning opportunities where our community of learners could continue to grow.

The conference itself could not come at a better time of year. While the graph below refers specifically to a beginning teacher’s well-chronicled experience during her first year on the job, in many ways it reflects each of us as educators on our yearly journey.

Phases

The end of October has signaled the end of the 1st quarter, the end of the first laps on the long race that is our school year. Like many distance swimmers, we likely put a lot of energy into those first laps. As well as things have turned out up to now, there are still three times as many laps left to go. Where will we get the energy to finish the race?

I am reminded of a quote from a colleague I overheard several years ago, and think about every year at this time:

I used to hate the idea of countywide conference days as they approached. I always felt like I had so much I needed to do instead. But once I got there, I would see my friends from other schools and connect with them about things I was trying to figure out. By the end, I always had a great time: It gave me a chance to breathe.

The fact is, if the graph above holds true, many educators may be drowning (figuratively speaking) as the quarter comes to a close. Times like Making Connections become an opportunity to row your folks ashore. These development opportunities and similarly large chunks of time and resources are “rescue boats” that a school district can row out into the surf, getting close enough so that those who are struggling to stay afloat can grab hold. Of course, there is only so much room around the boat’s edge for people to grasp – the only way that we can all make it to safety is to connect to each other while those closest to the boat hold tight.

I appreciated the opportunity to make connections today. I thank those who were willing to reach out with the stories of their learning, and I look forward to many more reconnections over the next laps of the race. I am especially thankful to be part of a school division who recognizes the importance of rowing out the boats, right on time.