Learning to Learn

I’ve been recently reading about early American history, especially the revolutionary period, and have especially appreciated authors including Joseph J. Ellis (The Founding Brothers, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, and His Excellency George Washington), and David McCullough (John Adams and 1776). One of the things that struck me was how dependent the founding brothers (fathers) were on books to learn new things. I know this is not a new idea, but in light of our challenge in schools in general, and science education specifically, one wonders how to instill the love of learning in our students. Science education prides itself on developing approaches to learning that incorporate student inquiry as the centerpiece. Yet, inquiry is not the dominant method of teaching used our middle and high schools. So, how can we help student with the notion of “learning to learn?” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as two examples, read to learn how to do things (build a house, become an attorney), and learn about new philosphies that were being published in England and on the Continent. They were laying the ground work for a new nation, and they had to forge ahead, without the aid of a “playbook” or “guide,” but with their strong beliefs in their abilities, and their courage that they were doing the right thing. How can we grasp this attitude, and create environments for students in which they pursue with passion something (anything) that is vitality important to them, and their community?

Inquiry: Learning to Open the Mind

One of my favorite columns appears in Newsweek Magazine entitled The Last Word by Anna Quindlen. In a recent piece (May 30, 2005), “Life of the Closed Mind,” Qundlen is concerned that in recent years (after 9/11), America has become a country that sets its young people the terrible example of closed minds. What is needed, according to Quindlen, is to create more uncomfortable experiences in schools and colleges, such as “exploring new ideas, encountering people with different values, learning a new discipline’s way of thinking and having someone point out a flaw in one’s argument.” In teaching, the way to help people develop an open mind is through intellectual inquiry. As she points out, inquiry is: “Learning to ask: ‘Is that true? Maybe there’s something to what she just said. Let me think about it. That’s interesting. Maybe I should change my mind. I changed my mind.'” Teaching that follows this path is artful and courageous. What do you think?

Evolution Stickers Become Extinct From Science Textbooks in Georgia

In today’s Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it was reported that the Cobb County School District (one of the largest districts in Georgia) was in the process of removing stickers from more than 34,000 science textbooks that included the topic of evolutionary theory. The stickers were placed in the books some two years ago by the school board, and stated: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” The adhesive remover “un-du” was used along with a putty knife to remove the stickers! The stickers got on the books because of the efforts of a group of parents (claiming to be creationists) who pressured the school board by presenting a petition signed by several thousand residents of Cobb County. A small group of parents sued the district; in January 2005, a federal judge ruled that the stickers were an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and ordered them removed. Amazingly, the school board has appealed the ruling. On a positive note, students were hired to remove the stickers, and are being paid $10 per hour. Total tab for the district: $25,000. Quite an episode in the evolution-creationist debate on the teaching of evolution in the public schools. For more information on the issue, you might visit The Panda’s Thumb, which is one of the Blogs that I’ve included on the Blogroll.

Using the Web to Transform Learning Possibilities

Fifteen years ago, a team of educators from Georgia took 6 Macintosh SE 20 computers, modems, and printers to the then Soviet Union, and then proceeded to install one computer, modem and printer in five different schools we were collaborating with (2 in Moscow and 3 in St. Petersburg). We connected each computer to a telecommunications system using the school’s phone line and modem. The World Wide Web as we know it today, had not been in use, so we only had email as our means of communication, but given the fact there were very few computers in the Soviet Union’s schools, this was a remarkable event. The five schools in the USSR were linked by a network known as the Global Thinking Project with five schools in the USA (four in Georgia, and one in Pennsylvania). Students collaborated on a series of environmental projects in which they conducted local research projects and then used the Network to share their findings with their partner and collaborating schools. Today we have the Web, laptops, and wireless environments. We also have 15 years of research on the problems and benefits of using these technologies to promote learning. The Web has transformed the way we do business, and the way we communicate with each other; it can transform the way we learn, and the way we impact learning in schools. For example, the Virtual High School enables students at any participating school take courses online. Online curriculum projects have been implemented and field tested over the past ten years including GLOBE, CIESE Collaborative Projects, Hands On Universe, to name just a few. The Web has great potential. What do you think?

The Case of iBooks in Cobb County Schools

This is the county in Georgia where I reside. I followed the story in the local newspaper on the Cobb County School District’s decision to provide Apple i-Books for all teachers, and students in grades 6 -12, beginning with an experiemental phase beginning next school year in four of the district’s high schools. It created an outrageous stir, especially with the editors of the Marietta Daily Journal. Not only did the paper print many negative letters to the editor (as expected), but the editorials were biased against the implementation of the program in the schools. Fortunately, the district’s superintendent held firm under intense criticism, and the first phase of the program, known as the “Power to Learn” will soon be underway. In my opinion, this is a couageous undertaking in light of our experiences with technology in schools. Putting iBooks in the hands of every student is a powerful idea, but will require a shift in the way teaching takes place, day-to-day. For example, the iBooks, with the district’s move to create a wireless environment, will enable teachers to link their students with students in other parts of the world in a variety of projects. One example of this is the work of I*EARN, which enables teachers and students to collaborate on a variety of projects in writing, language, science, geography, history and culture, to name a few. We’ll discuss other aspects computers in schools at this site. This gets us started.