Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Keyboard or Pen wasn’t the Question

It isn’t often I tackle “prevailing wisdom,” but this is one of those moments. While Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer certainly created a catchy title, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard, they omitted an extremely important fact–that note taking is an art to be taught and practiced. Maggy McGloin, writing in the HarvardBusiness Review, is perpetuating the omission, and, since the Harvard Business Review carries a certain cachet, I’m prepared to begin my journey. Thanks to Alfie Kohn for giving me the courage to speak. I was a huge fan and ardent practitioner of assigning homework to middle school students. After reading and thinking about Kohn’s work, I no longer assign nightly homework, opting instead to allow my students time to pursue their own hobbies and interests. But, I digress.

Mueller and Oppenheimer discovered that students who take notes on laptops often engage in mindless transcription. I have no doubt this is true. Learning to take notes requires practice and frequent reminders from instructors, teachers, and coaches. Educators already know we need to teach how to highlight material in texts. Left to their own devices, younger students develop the habit of highlighting anything they don’t know. They often try using different colors of highlighters for different pieces of information. Students tell me they use blue for new vocabulary, yellow for new facts, pink for new dates, etc. While their texts are quite colorful at the end, students don’t really absorb material and have no clue how to use the highlighted passages to study for quizzes or tests. Sports coaches give near constant feedback to athletes beginning in middle school. High school and college coaches continue this practice. How many high school teachers or college professors review individual student notes prior to midterms or unit exams?

Note taking sheet
Learning to take notes requires the same focus and attention as learning to highlight text. Teachers use strategies such as the New AmericanLecture, Cornell Notes, and a host of others to help students learn how to take notes effectively. I find that I have to continually remind students to use organizers when taking notes. In middle school, I often give students organizers that have three bullets in each of four boxes. Students are instructed not to exceed three bullets.  Other times, I will use up to five bullets. The point is that students need note taking parameters. Left to their own devices, I agree with Mueller and Oppenheimer, students will mindlessly transcribe.

Part of my curriculum involves students taking notes while viewing videos. In order to reduce the temptation to transcribe the video, I send the students a link to a video transcript. They immediately understand they do not need to retype the transcript. It is available to them anytime they need it. Teaching note taking requires the same skills as teaching any other concept. Students need an introduction, opportunity to practice, and some form of feedback loop.

The question Mueller, Oppenheimer, and McGloin should have asked their college students is what note taking method they used and why they chose it. When I ask seventh graders this question, many reply they have no organized method, they just write bullets. I teach at least three methods of taking notes in my class. We begin with Cornell, outline, and mind mapping (mapping.)  I review which methods helped students and by the end of the year, I ask them to choose the method they have found the most helpful.
Students do not automatically remember these methods from year to year or class to class or even unit to unit within the same class. The temptation to revert to a new bullet for every note and mindlessly transcribe is often too great to resist. The reason note taking methods, even just longhand, work is that students have to mentally analyze and evaluate information prior to writing/typing it. Every teacher from middle school to university needs to instruct and remind students how to take useful notes.

Taking notes on a laptop is far more useful than longhand if taught and practiced correctly. Laptop notes can be annotated, tagged, re-used, shared with study groups, and, when cited correctly, become the basis for research articles, class papers, and essays. Electronic notes also encourage reorganizing, further research, etc., that both enhance and extend learning. Part of my teaching note taking methods involves students coming to class with at least three questions generated from their notes. These become the basis for a quick review/discussion. Muller’s and Oppenheimer’s study do not indicate any follow up other than a quiz.

Longhand notes might work well in the short term, either for a unit or a single class. Electronic notes will last longer and be far more useful provided students are taught/reminded that there has to be a method to their note taking. Mindless transcription is not a method, just as mindless text highlighting is not actively reading. Students should be explicitly coached how to take notes and encouraged to use the methods they have learned.  Pam Mueller agrees and, in a follow up interview, concludes, “Ultimately, the take-home message is that people should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy.”  The question isn’t pixel or pen. It is which note taking method will help me learn and retain this material?

Image sources:
Keyboard & Pen
Nifty Notes
What's so Simple about Note-Taking
Keyboard toolbox

Saturday, December 27, 2014

How to Define and Measure Student Success

Recently, my students completed the oral presentations we call FAME, Feudal Asia, Medieval Europe.  This year, the presentation method of choice was video. It would be simplistic to conclude students chose video because they are part of the YouTube/Instagram generation.  Video is how they learn best.  But, I suspect there are two more complex factors at work, also.  Video production allows students to present without memorizing/planning remarks.  All they have to do is learn the specific scene each time and they are good to go.  Or, they create an RSA animation style video that involves a voiceover.  No one can see they are reading their remarks.  Video allows students to move beyond the classroom and school.  The entire city becomes their set.  This year students filmed at the Lan Su Chinese Garden, Fanno Creek, and Downtown Portland, just to name a few places I recognized from their videos.

As the project took shape I began to ponder success.  Students who had horrible material management skills were suddenly showing up with the appropriate costumes and props.  Time management issues disappeared as kids turned in essays on time.  I began thinking about how success really needed to be measured individually and not always culminate with some type of performance.  Additionally, children who adore gaming were creating review games using Kahoot!

My school, as are most, is filled with performances of all kinds.  We have drama performances, music performances, kids lead assemblies, language students perform poetry for their peers, etc.  We all compliment our colleagues after a performance concludes.  Yet, what if the success actually occurs prior to the performance?  The child who may only have one line demonstrates success by helping others learn their lines.  Yet, because they only speak once, their impact on the whole activity goes unnoticed by all but the most discerning adults.  A child, for example, who has never created a video executes a terrible video, yet they should receive accolades because they took the risk and created a video complete with shooting script, plot, variety of camera angles, costumes, and other complexities.  Their first video will win no prizes, it will go virtually unrecognized by anyone except their parents, yet it represents a huge achievement for the child. 

The success experienced by the beginner matches the achievement of the more able child, yet, the more able child is perhaps held to the same standard.  As the project facilitator, one of my tasks is to determine how to appropriately challenge the more able student so that their success represents as much growth as the beginner.  Now, my PE colleagues have this figured out.  During a fitness unit, students are tested at the beginning and end of the unit.  Most children show improvement as times drop or repetitions increase.  Oh, sure, I could give a pre-test and post-test, but this type of teaching rarely measures the skills necessary to find success in a project.  I am also not talking about differentiation, the current education buzzword to allow for learning differences/abilities in schools.  Measuring success is much more.  What if the child is never performance ready?  What if the work is never shared publicly?  Is it possible the process itself defines success?  Is it possible to celebrate process?  If so, what does that look?  Comments welcome!  Let’s continue the discussion. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Note–taking Revisited

A recent article from the Atlantic is sure to reignite the debate about taking notes by hand or using electronic aids such as laptops, tablets, or phones.  While the article is certainly an engaging and enjoyable read, the research behind the article is not only suspect, it simply ignores the whole body of knowledge around note–taking and learning styles.

Note–taking needs to be taught just as reading, writing, and scientific investigation need to be taught.  Telling students to take notes is probably worse than not saying anything because at least if a lecturer says nothing, the students might remember something interesting from the talk.

In Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study, there is no mention of how students were instructed to take notes.  Teachers already know students try to take verbatim notes, even when hand-writing them.  Laptops by themselves aren’t distracting.  Checking email, having the device beep, chirp, and notify users of everything from dental appointments to when their next class begins is certainly distracting.  I teach middle school, so students don’t usually take notes while viewing Game of Thrones at the same time.  Taking notes without reviewing the material afterwards has already been proven useless in countless studies dating back to at least the mid-nineties.  Whether electronic or hand written, students need to interact with their notes.  They need to rearrange the information into outlines, mind maps, or highlight one side of an argument in red, the other in blue.

The good folks who run high school and college learning/tutoring centers have a whole body of research devoted to this topic.  Consider the guidelines at the University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning or the Note–Taking in the 21st Century Tips for Instructors and Students from Texas Tech University.

Many, if not most, teachers are facile with writing notes and, if older than 25, probably developed some type of handwritten note taking system.  Today’s students learn differently, organize information differently, and store information differently than their teachers did as youngsters.  How many teachers teach note–taking differently?  Inspiration!, one of the early mind-mapping applications seems to have come and gone, yet the idea of teaching kids to clump information has been proven to be far more effective for later recall/studying than bullet points or just writing random thoughts.  Schools using Google Apps for Education have access to mind-mapping add-ons, yet most students are still trying to take electronic notes using only typing skills in empty Google Docs.  Since teachers have little skill using modern note-taking tools such as Notability or Evernote, they are unable to teach these tools to students.

Thanks to advanced brain research, teachers are aware of differently intelligences and different learning styles.  That knowledge should inform how note–taking is taught.  For example, students could focus on a presentation that filled a board with information, take a picture of the board with their phone, then, when given 5 minutes to share with a classmate the implications of the presentation, could summarize and insert the photo into Google, Word, Evernote, etc. for easy access while reviewing the material.

Mueller and Oppenheimer proved that note–taking needs to be taught.  Perhaps the Atlantic article will help focus the spotlight on teaching students not just how to take notes, but how to organize, categorize, and utilize those notes combined the accompanying pictures, diagrams, and color-highlighted text to more effectively learn and access new material.

Works Cited 
Boye, Allison. "NOTE-TAKING IN THE 21st CENTURY: TIPS FOR INSTRUCTORS AND STUDENTS." Texas Tech University Teaching Resources. Texas Tech University, n.d. Web. 4 May 2014. <>. 
"Effective Handouts: Using PowerPoint to Guide Study and Encourage Active Preparation." Effective Handouts: Using PowerPoint to Guide Study and Encourage Active Preparation. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2014. <>. 
Meyer, Robinson. "To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 May 2014. Web. 04 May 2014. <>. 

MindMeister-iPad. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2014. <>. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Today we learned about the Civil War

Part of the Revolutions! unit involves students planning and teaching an activity related to the time period 1600-1920.  Today, three boys treated us to a lesson on Civil War weapons.  Reenactors of the world would be proud.  After a brief deck explaining a bit about weaponry including a rather graphic reenactment of Lincoln's assassination, the boys led the class on a field trip.  At each stop, they had set up a display of rifles or pistols or cannons.  Then, we were led to the Fir Grove where the boys had set up a target, had brought nerf weapons from home and baked mock apple pie for us to enjoy.  It was a glorious way to spend a sunny morning.  Enjoy the pics!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Year of Change

According to Google, it has been nearly I year since I last posted.  What a year it has been.  In that year, I have tweeted over 400 times.  For so many reasons, I prefer Twitter right now.  There have been a few things rattling around in my brain, and, as Will Richardson probably said once, "Just write it."  I know realize I have a lot to write about, so, look for a few posts closely spaced in the next month or so.  I'll begin with my attempt to move to an all-electronic classroom.

This past summer, I was talking with a friend, and I pulled my phone out of my pocket and asked the question, "What if all the information one needed were accessible from this device?"  My friend and I started laughing.  All the information one needs IS accessible from my phone.  Then I began thinking about how my teaching needed to change.  I informed my division head I would be reserving a cart of laptops for my World Cultures class every period, every day.  Next, I discussed with my ultra-talented IT Director the idea of allowing kids to personalize laptops by assigning them to particular students.  We agreed that since most information would be kept in the Googlesphere, it was easier, from a management standpoint, to keep laptops generic.  Given the middle school proclivity towards ownership, I assigned laptops anyway to discourage kids from using laptops as social bait (I call Orange Papa!)

And, so began the year.  If a word comes up in discussion that kids don't know, somebody looks it up almost before I can ask what the word means.  No more passing out papers, documents are shared with classes either when I create them or just prior to the beginning of class.  No child has ever shown up and asked for another paper or has had to dig through a notebook looking for the elusive assignment.  Completed projects and project pieces have been shared with me.  I comment on them and email students that they should check the comments.  The change was seamless and appropriate.

Ah, I hear you cry.  There must be a dark side.  Of course there is.  I teach seventh graders.  Google's fabulous chat feature, so useful for adults, is candy for seventh graders.  It is very hard for kids to type questions into chat while simultaneously listening to a discussion.  If any reader has successfully integrated chat into their teaching, please let me know.  I'd love to hear the stories.  Students also struggle with naming conventions.  Students who turn paper in with a proper MLA heading share online documents with only generic names, making it difficult for me to track their work.  Next year I will insist on a shared folder with the student's name in which all work is shared.  That will help my work flow, and, I suspect organize life bit more for students.

The highlight of the year so far was FAME, Feudal Asia/Medieval Europe.  Electronic research was accomplished using EasyBib.  Kids navigated notecards and work has never been so properly cited.  The presentations themselves were not overly slide heavy. Most students know that paper posters, models, acting, etc are far more effective than watching slide presentations.  Students took notes on laptops the first two days.  The group that presented on day 3, having realized what a distraction that was agreed among themselves to upload and share all of their research and notes.  It was a paradigm shift.  Students focused on the presentations themselves, not on trying to take notes; knowing that all the information they were taking in was already uploaded and could be accessed from anywhere.  For the FAME Final Fling (Test is so anxiety inducing,) I used a Google Form scored by Flubaroo, allowed full and open access to the Internet, and allowed kids to organize their notes anyway they wanted.  An enterprising young student created a 65 person study group and invited his class to contribute.  While most students took the idea seriously, there were a few social issues that arose, and we eventually suggested the student make his document view only.  Next year, I will probably suggest smaller study groups and may even assign them.

At the halfway point in the year, I am excited to continue the paperless experiment, am still having fun teaching, and think I may even begin blogging more regularly.  Thanks for being patient and allowing me to enjoy a posting pause.  Next on the horizon?  Preparing a Puppet Pals tutorial!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Tools Work! 23 Google Doc Collaborators

Oh, my, I had no idea it had been so long since I posted.  I guess it's true.  If one doesn't have anything to say.....but, I do now.  Read on, gentle reader....

Catlin Gabel students attended Diversity Day presentations last week.  These seminars, sessions, and presentations were put on by faculty, parents, and students from three local schools.  Middle and Upper School students attended together.  This was my first experience with grades 6-12 in the same room at the same time.  I had proposed looking at different types of calendars.  But what to actually DO?  I didn't want to just talk at students for 50 minutes, I wanted them to be part of the seminar.  Three students stepped forward to help me organize activities.  They became the sounding board and together we planned to have students create a wiki and a Google doc.  I decided to experiment with Haiku, our new LMS.  After setting up the class, I created a wiki project, and enrolled the students in the class.  It will went very smoothly.  Next step was to email the Upper School students asking them to bring their laptops.  Middle Schoolers would use laptops from our mobile carts.  All was set.

After a brief introduction to calendars, I showed students the Haiku page that had links to Wikipedia and the Google Doc I wanted them to complete.  I allowed them to copy and paste interesting facts from Wikipedia, but also asked them to consider linking video, images, and other cool sites about calendars to our class wiki.  I was amazed that it all worked!  I left the blank Google Spreadsheet open on the big screen and watched in amazement as 23 students worked to fill in the document at the same time.  Here's a link:

The wiki took a little longer.....but it worked, too.  In less than 50 minutes, we had created a place for folks who enjoy calendars to collect information.  Here is the link:

Simply amazing!  And yes, one kid chose to focus on stardates...nice.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Snap! Logo creation

Over the last year, I've needed four new logos for units or projects. The good folks at LogoSnap have graciously allowed me to use their really cool tools to create mind-blowing logos. In short, any non-artistic person can use LogoSnap. Artists could too, and then really go to town with their imagination. Creation involves choosing a shape, adding text, then prettifying the logo with color, scale, rotation, etc. Then, download the creation and use it. A wise curriculum guru once told me that units with logos helped kids focus on a unit. They could navigate websites because they recognized the logo and knew they were in the right spot. Seemed simple enough. Each of the units now has its own identity guessed it.....logo. Creation was a snap. Logosnap.