Application triage to enable differentiated learning

Doug Johnson of the Blue Skunk Blog had an interesting post the other day about how to choose from the zillions of software and web 2.0 choices bombarding us every day. He called it – Application Triage.

His criteria:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Ubiquity
  3. Reliability
  4. Usability
  5. Affordability

In a comment, I suggested adding “Extensibility” – the idea that applications selected for students should have ways to accommodate more expert use, without compromising the simplicity and usability criteria. Doug asked if I could provide examples, saying, “I’ve personally always like what I call “tinker toy” software that lets me build instead of just use things that are already built. And a lot of kids do too. Not so sure about adults!

Unfortunately, there used to be more examples in widespread use in schools. Logo, HyperStudio and HyperCard were great applications that provided this “no floor, no ceiling” experience.

Good examples: hardware – cameras, computers, even ipods have hidden features that most people don’t know and don’t care about. You can click the button and get a nice picture or hear a song, but if you want to, there are settings and options that allow greater creativity and artistry. When you are ready, the hardware accommodates your new interest.

I think the key phrases here are: if you want to, and when you are ready

Tools with programming – There are a few programming languages very appropriate for students that offer easy entry and quick ways to do presentations and multimedia projects, but also allow for user control of objects (if you want to, when you are ready…)

For example, why teach PowerPoint when Flash is just as easy to learn, yet can be programmed AND do animations? I hear people say that PowerPoint is a good place to start, but it’s often the end as well. What a shame. For a student who has the potential to develop more expertise, PowerPoint is a limiting technology, not an enabling one.

Sure, use PowerPoint when needed, but it’s hardly worth teaching students endless lessons and activities to improve their PowerPoint use. Move along here, there’s nothing to see.

Or – Why not teach kids HTML instead of making them learn some “easy” editor. Most student web pages use 3 or 4 basic HTML tags. It’s hardly rocket science. I know, I know I can hear the groans from teachers everywhere.

But HTML (if you want to, when you are ready…) is the basic building block of every website from to your own school site.

It’s an unfortunate fact that many issues surrounding teaching technology reflect adult fears, not student ability or needs.

We talk about differentiated instruction, but that concept shouldn’t stop at the instructional door. Everything we put in kids’ hands should have the ability to offer differentiated and leveled experiences for kids when they want to, when they are ready


Speak Up 2006 – listening to student (and parent and teacher) voice

Speak Up Day logoThe Speak Up 2006 survey gave 232,781 students, 21,272 teachers and 15,317 parents the opportunity to speak out about their views on technology, education, and the impact on their lives. All the survey data is online at the Speak Up site, including useful podcasts and slideshows you can share with others.

One of the most interesting sections of this year’s survey reveled student interest in math and science.

  • Students want to learn science and math through real world problem solving, visiting places where science is in action, talking to professionals in those fields and using technology in many ways.
  • While 86% of students in K-2 are interested in specific careers in science and/or math, starting in grade 3 that interest starts to decrease. In grades 3-12 over 1/3 of students say that they are not interested in any careers in science, math, technology or engineering.

It’s not surprising that students are not connecting real-world problem solving and authentic science with the test-focused curriculum in their schools.

Students ARE interested in doing hard work–but interesting, engaging work, just like real scientists, engineers and mathematicians do. We are doing students a disservice by not listening to their voices, and not giving them a glimpse at the jobs that matter in this century.

Constructivist teaching – virtually

Here’s a video of a music teacher in Newfoundland who teaches students across the miles.

From a teaching point of view, there are many noteworthy things in this video that are applicable to any subject, whether virtual or not.

  1. The teacher’s personal passion for the subject.
  2. The teacher’s focus on connecting the student’s existing interests and experiences to the class material.
  3. The teacher’s interest in finding tools that allow students to construct final products that are meaningful to the student and that can be shared with others.

The fact that this teacher uses a particular blog tool or sound editor is not as important as the fact that he makes these choices to leverage the students ability to produce something beyond the blog and beyond the mere output of a sound file.

Blogging is not a magic tool. Just the mere act of blogging is not constructive, it’s just another way to write. There are blogs being assigned to students today that are the virtual equivalent of the 5 paragraph essay–unauthentic and completely lacking value in the real world.

Creating a constructivist learning experience still takes a teacher who can create a learning environment, virtual or not, that pushes students to see themselves as capable of producing something of value to themselves and to others, and then facillitates them doing just that.

Thanks to Kelly Christopherson who posted this (and where it’s from) on his blog on Classroom 2.0.

Game-making with students – resources & rationale from Australia

Australia has long been a stronghold of digital game-making and programming as an academic subject. Why Australia? My friend Tony Forster says this, “I’m wary of stereotypes but we do have a national stereotype of making do with improvised junkyard creations, that fits with taking game freeware and repurposing it. We seem to lean more to constructivism than the US. The US leans particularly towards instruction in the current pendulum swing.”

From my own travels, I hear quite a bit of interest in U.S. schools about game design and robotics. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back! So, we can look to Australia for a peek into the community and resources that sustain this terrific educational activity. Warning! This is a long post!

“The computer is a medium of human expression and if it has not yet had its Shakespeares, its Michelangelos or its Einsteins, it will. …. We have scarcely begun to grasp its human and social implications.”
Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking By Seymour Papert

A Peek into the Australian GameMaker Community

GameMaker is one of a number of educationally-appropriate engines available for game development. Three Australians: Bill Kerr, Margaret Meijers and Tony Forster independently discovered Gamemaker and its potential as a learning tool for school students. Through their efforts, a number of Australian Schools have discovered Gamemaker and built a strong community that supports their own efforts and welcomes new participants.

Bill Kerr teaches secondary school students at Woodville High School, Margaret Meijers teaches at Newtown High School and has developed material for the Tasmanian Education Department, and Tony Forster, a parent, runs the Haileybury Computer Club.

Here are their websites:

  • Schoolgamemaker – Programming Games at School Tony Forster’s website has sample student work, useful snippets of code, and a collection of quotes and articles supporting game design in school.
  • Bill Kerr’s Website Articles and free GameMaker educational resources
  • ICT Mindtools Extensive website by Margaret Meijers with links, tutorials, resources for teachers and video demos. “The title ‘ICT Mindtools’ is designed to bring a focus on uses of ICT where students are required to use higher order thinking skills to become producers, rather than just consumers, of ICT products.”

There are teachers all around the world using game design and programming as an educational activity, but I think the Australian community is particularly strong, and a great example of just a few like-minded people finding each other across space and time to build community and share resources.

Pedagogical base supporting game design as an educational activity (most of this supplied by Tony)

Game design and programming is firmly based in constructivist learning theory – that children learn best when they are active agents in their learning and are given authentic and relevant tasks.

Game programming was advanced by Seymour Papert of MIT and is the originator of Logo which later was commercialized as Microworlds. MIT was also involved in the programming of Lego Mindstorms. The justification for teaching Logo to young children was that programming a computer is a powerful experience where a child can “…learn to do things that no child could do before, to do things at a complexity that was not previously accessible to children.” (Papert)

Seymour Papert Collected Works. Seymour Papert is the father of educational computing, and often talks about children making games as part of his vision that students use computers as constructive materials in every aspect of education. A good article to start with is Looking at Technology Through School-colored Spectacles.

There is research which supports the value of game programming as an educationally valuable activity for children of all ages.


  • The Game Maker’s Apprentice: Game Development for Beginners
    by Jacob Habgood & Mark Overmars (Amazon link)
  • Minds in Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children’s Learning (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1995) (Amazon link) (Questia link)

Last but not least – learn with your students and join with others

Don’t suppose that you need to learn a game engine perfectly before you introduce it to students. The experience of learning together is valuable. There are people worldwide who will help.

“there is such a thing as becoming a good learner and therefore … teachers should do a lot of learning in the presence of the children and in collaboration with them.”
Seymour Papert

WOW – Way Out West

On Saturday I ironically traveled east to attend Way Out West in Glendale, Arizona. I promised to put up my session presentation so that everyone didn’t have to furiously take notes as the URLs flew by. Sorry about the speed – 45 minutes is such a short time when you are talking about Web 2.0!

I exported my Keynote slideshow to a PDF file. There are a number of advantages to that – it’s portable and simple – everyone can open PDFs. The links are still clickable. The disadvantage, of course, is that any videos simply show up as a picture. So here’s a previous post that includes the link to the RSS in Plain English video and why this is such a great example for students to make their own help guides. Anyway, if anyone would like this in the original Keynote format, just email me. (It’s my first name, Sylvia at

Web 2.0 with StudentsSlideshow in PDF format

PS If this is your first visit here, welcome! There is an easy way to subscribe to this blog over in the right column, click any of the subscribe buttons, or click the Subscribe by email link to get new posts in your inbox.

PPS Earlier blog posts that connect to the presentation on Saturday:

Hooked on instruction

Classroom photo - stock.xchngPicture this – a classroom buzzing with activity, with students actively engaged in meaningful projects that challenge their minds. The volume is high and there’s a lot of movement, but it’s obvious that this is not chaos – something interesting is going on. The teacher walks through the room, dipping into student conversations, keeping things on track, and offering suggestions and comments.

Down the hall, a teacher stands in front of the class, talking and writing on the whiteboard. The students are quiet and attentive, taking notes, and sometimes raising their hands to ask questions.

I would guess that many, if not all teachers aspire to more classroom #1 and less #2. So what keeps teachers from teaching this way all the time?

Here’s one reason you may not have thought of – there is an immediate payoff for instruction. Every teacher wants to “see” children learn, to see that lightbulb light up, to hear a student say something smart. When you tell someone something, and they can immediately repeat it back, it feels good. You’ve accomplished something.

If I tell you that the Romans had the most advanced civilization in the ancient world, when you get that quiz question right, I feel good about my abilities as a teacher. It’s the fastest path to validation for the teacher and the student. A+ for both of us!

Students get addicted to instruction just like teachers. “What do I do? How many pages? How many words?” My 8th grade history teacher used to say, “You cook a turkey until it’s done.” Now that was scary stuff.

The payoff for teaching without relying heavily on instruction is different. The teacher has to wait longer and it’s not always as clear. Sometimes it looks messy along the way. But teachers who teach this way will tell you it’s a much bigger and better payoff for themselves and their students.

You can call it constructivist, guide-on-the-side (vs. sage-on-the-stage), project-based, Classroom 2.0, or progressive. When we wonder why it doesn’t happen more often, think about the payoff. Are you willing to wait?


RSS in plain English – Ideas for student-made help videos

Here’s a great video about RSS (Real Simple Syndication). RSS is the heart of how blogs work, and how you can easily get great content to come to you instead of searching the Internet for it.

If YouTube is blocked at your school – you can find the video here at the CommonCraft website.

Sure, you can show this video to students (or teachers) to explain how RSS works. But this is a terrific example of a video students can make themselves. Student-made help videos can be a vital resource to teach both students and teachers about how to use the technology your school already has.

You could set up a podcast (vodcast) library, put them on school or district portals, or burn them to DVDs and hand them out to teachers.

Things to point out about this video:

1. It’s short. There is a reason movie trailers are 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 minutes long. If someone can tell the story of Star Wars in 2.5 minutes, your students can explain a concept in the same amount of time. Challenge students to edit, then edit again.

2. It’s low tech. This looks like sheets of paper taped to a whiteboard.

3. Audio is separate from video. Sometimes the audio part of making a video is the hardest part. This type of video can shot, edited, and completed with a voice-over.

4. It’s about your technology. A student-made help video will show exactly how YOUR technology works at YOUR school, not a generic example.

Finally, teaching is learning. Want students to learn more about blogging, podcasting, using the active whiteboard or other technologies? Making a video help guide will help them learn more as they figure out how to explain it to someone else.

GenYES teachers can find additional resources about student-made help guides (both video and printed) in the GenYES Curriculum Guide (Unit 10.)

Game design as an educational activity

Thinking about game design as an educational activity for students? It’s a great one! The act of designing and creating a game requires critical thinking, planning, expressing your thoughts for an audience, mastery of programming, text, visual and human interface literacy….. I could go on and on.

Virtual pet gameThere tends to be a huge gap in schools betweeen introductory courses in computer applications and AP computer science or IT certification courses. Game design is the perfect way to fill that gap with cross-curricular, constructivist projects that are of high interest to a wide variety of students.

There are many educators using game design in their classrooms. One I happen to know personally is Bill Kerr in Australia. Bill runs a blog where he discusses his use of games and game engines with his students.

Game Engines – Game engines vary a lot in complexity, so it really depends how deep you want to get into scripting and programming.

  • MicroWorlds EX Robotics (commercial) – A new multimedia version of Logo (see below). Great for games. Numerous projects and ideas for students.
  • MicroWorlds Jr. (commercial) – Logo for pre-readers (Pk-2). Yes, they can! Comes with resources and projects for students.
  • Scratch (free) – iconic open source language
  • NetLogo (free) – math oriented Logo
  • StarLogo TNG (free) – allows exploration of massively parallel processing, which may indeed be the way the world really works
  • Squeak (open source) – the result of 30 years of Alan Kay’s R&D
  • Agentsheets (commercial) – uses a spreadsheet metaphor as the data structure
  • Toontalk (commercial – PC only) – you have to see this for yourself
  • Game Maker (open source commercial – PC only) – drag and drop actions with a language for customizing game action. Offers reduced site licenses for schools, course materials and student guides.
  • Stagecast Creator (commercial PC/Linux) – point and click interface

Logo – This language is the real deal for K-12 students. It allows students to come in contact with powerful ideas in the process of making something. Logo was designed so that the act of programming becomes a conversation with the machine, increasing student understanding and awareness in the process. Logo is also the perfect language for robots, so any would-be warehouse warriors should check this out. Many teacher resources, articles, project ideas and links to Logo organizations can be found at Gary Stager’s website.

Consumer Game Engines – Want to understand more about game design and consumer game engines? Try this website. It’s intended for people who want to break into the video or PC game business, but there are some good resources on game engines, modding, and lots of links (check out lesson #56). – Student Voice, Student Action

Some of you Generation YES teachers will remember Adam Fletcher, who was lead customer support last year (before Megan came on board.)

Adam has been hard at work on his non-profit organization, SoundOut. SoundOut provides tools, training, and resources to promote student voice in school to realize the powerful and purposeful possibilities of meaningful student involvement.

Adam’s latest article, Making Student Involvement Meaningful, can be found on the SoundOut website. In it, he writes:

Lots of people have thought about why students have changed so much. Media infiltration, commercialism and technology usage have all been cited as sources that have changed the experience of learning in today’s schools. However, as educators search for answers, the drivers who fuel these changes have largely been ignored: students themselves. Rather than working with students to help understand and negotiate why, how, when, where and what they learn, educators, administrators and school leaders have largely changed schools for students, and done change to students, without their ideas, concerns or actions in mind.

Adam goes on to explain how educators can create the necessary conditions for student voice to flourish, how to evaluate it, and make it meaningful.

If you are interested in student voice, be sure to explore the rest of the SoundOut site. It’s packed with ideas, free resources, and useful research.

One Laptop Per Child

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is an global education project that is working to make it possible for developing countries to purchase laptops for their children. OLPC was founded by Nicholas Negroponte with a core of Media Lab veterans, and is based on the pioneering work of Seymour Papert, the father of educational computing and constructionism, who has spent his life putting the power of computational technology into children’s hands.OLPC in NigeriaVery recently, beta laptops were delivered to children in Nigeria. This would seem to be a cause for celebration, however there has been much skepticism about the plan. It’s too complicated to go into all the arguments for and against this plan, but two of them are of particular interest to us here at Generation YES.

One objection seems to be centered around the personality of Mr. Negroponte. He’s been called “pushy” “overbearing” “self-aggrandizing” and much worse. This sounds really familiar to us. I’ve heard many of these things said about Dennis Harper and others who have a passionate belief that it is their responsibility to change the world for the better. It takes a big personality to dream up big changes, challenge the status quo, and make them happen.

The second objection is that the OLPC implementation plan is based on “magic” – that handing out laptops to children will fail because there is no implementation plan. This is of course ridiculous and silly name calling. People may not like the plan–it’s clearly revolutionary because it focuses on children, not the adults. Read more here.

The alternative plans often touted typically involve first teaching teachers how to use the laptop, giving them carefully scripted lessons to teach the children, developing educational software for them, and then carefully phasing in laptop use by actual children. (Sound familiar?)

I was recently asked to do a guest blog on the OLPC News website (not affiliated with the OLPC project.) OLPC News tries to be an “independent source for news, information, commentary, and discussion” of the OLPC project. Although it skews towards skepticism, they do try to be fair overall. They asked me to share some insight on how our Generation YES experience might shed some light on the OLPC project. I did so in this guest blog post on their site.

I realized it would be a somewhat hostile audience, but it’s worth it to get the message out that Dr. Papert’s pioneering work and belief in “Kid Power” is not magic. Generation YES schools are testaments to that.

I hope I made some good points and don’t get hammered too hard in the comments!